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Chris Puli'uvea

Tongan-born doctoral candidate Chris Puli’uvea.

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Tongan scientist wins Cranwell Medal for supporting Pacific communities through Covid-19

The New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) awards respected Tongan immunologist.

Tongan-born doctoral candidate Chris Puli’uvea has been awarded the Cranwell Medal for 2023 for excellence in science communication to Pacific communities.

The award, presented on behalf of New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS), acknowledges Puli’uvea’s outstanding service as an immunologist in science communications through Covid-19.

A regular guest on PMN Tonga, Puli’uvea became a trusted voice, with many elders heeding his advice – his ability to translate complex health messages into Lea Faka-Tonga and into clear terms in English helped to save lives during the pandemic.

The medal is shared with virologist Dr Natalie Netzler (Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāti Hāuā) awarded for her impressive communication to tangata whenua during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We got nominated for the Cranwell,” said Puli’uvea. “But I thought, no way are we going to get through this, these guys are top dogs! When we were told … [I thought] do they have the right person?”

The academics paired up almost three years ago after requests from communities desperate for information.

“People needed translation, not just language but also terminology, they didn’t understand what was being said at press conferences. GPs wanted a tailored explanation of the terms being used.”

The duo faced a myriad challenges – Puli’uvea making special mention of his wife and son for understanding his responsibility to serve the community, in sacrificing time with his own.

Dr Netzler endured online abuse which Puli’uvea believes was because of her gender.

“It was tough, I can’t think of anything else because I never got that. It got to the point where we felt like, none of us signed up for this… but we knew if we were not going to do it, who would?”

Looking ahead in his new role as Auckland University of Technology immunologist lecturer, Puliu’vea is in the last phases of finishing his PhD – his research investigates the unique variation of Māori and Pacific genes, and how these impact the immune system. He credits the Pacific community for taking action during the pandemic.

“Sometimes the media portray the Pacific Island people – like they don’t care, they don’t engage.

“Actually, our people reached out asking for information, asking for help … they do care about other people, they do care about our communities.”

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