At the end of this week, Canadians will be commemorating National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (NDTR) and Orange Shirt Day to honour the survivors of Canadian residential schools, their families, and their communities.
I had a very timely conversation with Dr Ocean Mercier, an Associate Professor at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. During our conversation, we spoke at length about the profound value of indigenising science, history, and language curricula as an act of reconciliation and decolonisation. Dr Mercier asks, 'How do we make [classrooms] that are more open, that are not so adversarial, places that [Indigenous students] can feel at home?' She proposes, 'The key to unlock that is recognising the similarities and the parallels in our knowledge traditions and how they can only enhance each other if we can find ways—and there are multitude of ways—that can give students a sense of ancestral connection to knowledges.'
As I don my orange shirt this Friday in remembrance of the thousands of survivors of Canadian residential schools, I will also be reminded of my conversation with Dr Mercier—titled Reconciliation—and the words of Justice Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: 'Education is the key to reconciliation.'
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Dr Ocean Mercier: Having a sense of serving something bigger than just the person who's offering the paycheque, whether that something bigger is the God that I believe in, or the community that I'm a part of and love and trust, or the project that so many of us are involved in around decolonising the spaces that we're in... it just helps to have your eyes fixed on something that can lift you out of those moments that can be hurtful or at the very least awkward.
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Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we'll be chatting with Dr Ocean Mercier, an Associate Professor at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington in Aotearoa New Zealand. She previously completed her undergraduate and graduate studies at Te Herenga Waka, earning her BSc in Physics and Maths and her PhD in Physics. She leads and contributes to a plethora of projects, so many I can't list them all today, but many of them do highlight Mātauranga Māori, interdisciplinary knowledge from the Māori people that can be applied to various fields, including but not limited to STEM. I'm so excited, over the moon really, to chat with Dr Mercier today about her ongoing work and how she coalesces Mātauranga Māori with Western science, but let's start from the very beginning—Dr Mercier, what's your story?
OM: Oh, first of all, it's just such a pleasure to be here with you today, Asma, and to chat about something that's so very dear to my heart and my core.
AB: It's a delight to have you!
OM: In our traditions, I would introduce myself this way: Ko Hikurangi te maunga, Ko Waiapu te awa. Ko Ngāti Porou te iwi, ko Ocean Mercier te tangata, which means My mountain is Mount Hikurangi. My river is the Waiapu River. My people are Ngāti Porou. And I am Ocean.
I have this connection—through an ancestral connection—to the landscapes of the Ngāti Porou people, which is on the east coast, or Te Tai Rawhiti as we say, of Aotearoa New Zealand, but I was born and raised in Wellington, which is the capital city, and I fell in love with the university here, Te Herenga Waka, very early on. I think I was maybe in my second year of secondary school. In fact, it was earlier than that! My first lecture that I ever attended was alongside my dad who was studying law at Victoria University. Mum was at philosophy group, so dad took me to his lecture as a two-year-old, playing with the doors of the lecture theater, and the lecturer at the time was Sir Geoffrey Palmer who's a widely respected legal academic, but also politician here in New Zealand.
From a very young age, I was under the spell of academia, as well as having these connections to my Māori people through my mum. I wanted to go to university from an early age and started to get excited about what I might do there from the age of 14 as a secondary school student. One of my inspirations for going into the sciences was a science teacher called Mr Joseph Fernandez—we just knew him as Mr Fernandez back then—and he had come to New Zealand from Sri Lanka, and he brought a really strong science tradition with him and a real passion for physics, so he set up a physics club for us in seventh form (Year 13/Grade 12) who were still doing physics. We would meet at lunchtimes and do fun physics things with Mr Fernandez and, coming from Sri Lanka, he brought a strong tradition of women in science along with him. This was Wellington Girls' College, where I went to secondary school. At that time, I mean, this is the early nineties, there wasn't the sorts of stigmas that our mums and our aunties and our grandmothers had around women in the sciences, but at the same time, there weren't that many role models. There weren't that many people who'd gone ahead of us. There were a few dribbles in the pipeline. There might have been someone 10 years earlier who'd gone through and done some amazing things, so we took our inspiration from people who were a bit closer to us, perhaps our peers, our teachers, such as Mr Fernandez.
Moving onto university, I took encouragement from my good friend, Pauline Harris, who went on to become an astrophysicist.
AB: Yeah, I know her!
OM: You know her? Oh, wow!
AB: Small world! <Laugh> Yeah, she's the head of, I think, an organisation in New Zealand, right?
OM: She is, yeah! She was the founder of SMART, the Society for Māori Astronomical Research and Traditions.
AB: Yes! I've heard of her. Wow!
OM: And she's amazing! She's also the Co-Director Māori of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. She and I went to university together! We met up in our second year, and we were really unusual because we plugged through, finished our Bachelor's degrees in physics and maths, and then continued on into postgrad. In our honour’s year, we were in a reasonably-sized class for that particular department and that university of ten students, two of whom were Māori. That was pretty unheard of because the representation of Māori in the STEM subjects... There's not many students coming through. It's something that we've battled for a long, long time. There seems to be a growing cohort now of Māori and Pacific peoples coming through in the biological sciences, which is really awesome to see, but still a bit of a wasteland when it comes to physics.
AB: Which is odd because the idea of physics is intimately intertwined with Māori principles and knowledge, especially given how they navigated to Aotearoa, correct? I think that's something that you've actually discussed on another platform, [though] I can't recall where. What do you think is hindering Māori students from finding their way into these types of fields, like physics?
OM: Yeah, that's absolutely spot on, what you've just said. We have these traditions in our own knowledges, in our ancestral practices and traditions, such as navigation. I think it's Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr [who] is one of the key people in the movement around traditional Pacific voyaging and revitalising those navigation and voyaging practices that originally brought the ancestors of the Māori people to Aotearoa, this amazing prowess and observation, and theorising from those observations of where land might be. But these amazing navigation and charting techniques were largely oral or sort of built into muscle memory and told stories. So, yeah, there's absolutely a really strong tradition there in our history, but there's this real disconnect between what our people get presented when they come into a science classroom, when they come into a university to learn physics. It's completely—or traditionally, anyway—it's been completely absent from the curriculum, any acknowledgement of the physics and maths concepts, as you say, that are present within our traditional knowledges. I think that's really what drives me: a desire to give more visibility to that kind knowledge and to set it alongside science so that we can have a productive and a fascinating conversation about the similarities, the differences, the ways that the two knowledge systems can collaborate, but also the ways that they can enthuse and inspire and give homes, I guess, to our people.
As someone who went through and did my PhD in Physics, and then did a couple of years of teaching in physics, I often felt odd <chuckle> walking into the classroom as the teacher of the class. I mean, it didn't help that I was quite young at the time, not much older than some of the students who were in the class, if I was older. People would be like, 'Who is that? And what is she doing at the front of the class?' People having to kind of do this mental work for themselves: 'Oh, it's a Māori, it's a woman. She's young. And yet she's standing at the front of the class teaching me physics, and I'm a white male. We've got all these traditions within the sciences. I can't reconcile that for myself, so I will challenge this person and make sure they really do know their stuff.' I did get a little bit of that in the classroom, but thinking about those other Māori and Pacific peoples coming into these classrooms, how do we make places that are more open, that are not so adversarial, places that they can feel at home? To me, it feels like that's the key to unlock that: recognising the similarities and the parallels in our knowledge traditions and how they can only enhance each other if we can find ways—and there are multitude of ways—that we can give students a sense of ancestral connection to knowledges—
AB: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.
OM: —whether that's their own traditions or connecting across to other traditions, then science becomes something that's not alien. It's not something that belongs to another culture and not to my culture, but it belongs to all of us. We can stand firm in that knowledge and feel confident in these places, because that's really it: it's just this lack of confidence and not feeling at home in the disciplines. That's really what drives me and that's behind much of the work that I do.
AB: As you were describing the pushback from some of the students in your classroom, challenging you and your knowledge base, it made me think about whether or not there's [support or] pushback if you're presenting the validity and the value of Mātauranga Māori to exist alongside, compliment, and perhaps even bolster a lot of what's been spoken about in Western science. Is there pushback in that space at the moment?
OM: Yeah, so if I say a little bit maybe about the policies that are beginning to encourage people to engage with Mātauranga Māori within the sciences, within the disciplines at the universities, there is, for instance, for a number of years now the Assistant Vice Chancellor Māori at my university has offered funding for people who would like to engage in these projects, who would like for their research or their teaching to better account for—or give space to—Mātauranga Māori, Māori histories, Māori narratives generally, in relation to what they're teaching in the classroom.
There are lots of simple ways that you do this without requiring funding. We Māori may have oral traditions, but we are also writers and many hundreds of years of writing in our traditions as well; just citing Māori authors is is a good start, or reading them and citing them is a nice easy place to begin.
Others are pushing the boat out a bit more. They're having conversations around decolonising, and first of all, making the space more safe for the entry of Mātauranga Māori, and then actually talking about indigenising the curriculum. Those two things we're recognising from some awkward experiences that they need to go together; we know that spaces are never neutral, but at least it's clearing some weeds, so that other plants and growths can flourish or at least take root and bring some diversity the space of the classroom, the research project, the community project, or whatever it happens to be.
So, these conversations that we're having, I would say, are very fledgling still, and the situations where we're meaningfully bringing Mātauranga Māori alongside science are still quite rare. Sometimes it's actually the students who drive that kind of work <chuckle>.
AB: Oh, wow!
OM: Yeah! The students are asking questions around, 'Why isn't my professor Māori?' or 'Why isn't my professor Pacific?' And if not that, 'Why are you not engaging with Māori and Pacific peoples, their knowledges, their published knowledges?' The students in the society that they're working within are often the ones who are asking questions that trigger changes, so these two things can sometimes just meet in the middle to tip the balance for a lecturer, for instance, who might have policy and might have some support to try and do more of this, or enable more of the Mātauranga/Western knowledge conversation.
AB: Are there any sort of governmental supports in place at the moment, or perhaps proposed to be implemented in the near future, that would support this kind of work? It's very exciting to hear that the students are asking these questions and demanding for more; I'm wondering if there's also some top-down help to bring light to these issues.
OM: Yes, and I would say that there are a lot of top-down initiatives that we're quickly having to come to grips with. For instance, there has been, in the last couple of years, a mandate for schools to be teaching a revision of the history curriculum for secondary schools in New Zealand that now requires much more New Zealand history, some core events in New Zealand history and the New Zealand land wars to be taught, some history about Polynesian arrival, settlement, the evolution of Māori culture in these islands, those sorts of things. I think it's next year that they'll start to be embedded in curricula. So, teachers are coming to grips with some new material and looking for support, and the Ministry for Education is providing support for these sorts of initiatives.
This is a project that lots of university academics are helping with, including one of my Māori colleagues, Arini Loader, and also Professor Joanna Kidman are really some key players in this area. It's really exciting to see that work. On the Mātauranga and science conversation in fact, it triggered some backlash last year: the suggestion that Mātauranga Māori should be taught alongside the sciences in schools. Now that's a more difficult [conversation]; the conversation's difficult, but also the planning on how you do that well in order to do justice to knowledge systems. We've got some pressing challenges in the near future around what we're teaching in schools, and the universities will have to catch up with that work because we'll be receiving students in three years’ time who've been through this curriculum and who come much more ready to engage in a plurality of knowledges, in diverse ways of knowing, than our universities are prepared for, I think. So, most of the efforts are happening in the research science and innovation sector, where we've got a policy called Vision Mātauranga, which incentivises research projects to work alongside Māori communities.
AB: I've always appreciated how much the Māori voice, the Pacific Islander voice has been incorporated into the fabric of Aotearoa, which is not [always] the case in Canada. As you now know and as my listeners know, I'm based in Canada, and there have been moments where I've wondered why we haven't done that, because as much as people say,'We have standardised curricula and this is how it's always been,' that doesn't mean that's the way it has to be. I would like to share a quote of yours actually, that I saw recently that I thought was quite powerful, and I was wondering if that would be okay and if you would mind elaborating on it, related to this topic. Would that be alright?
OM: Yeah, absolutely.
AB: I was watching, I think it was on the Te Herenga Waka YouTube page, a beautiful video—whoever did it, kudos to them. It's called 'Solutions in Indigenous Science'. Within this video, you say, 'As a scientist, you can't go into a place and treat it as an empty space, as if there's no history, there's no culture, that nobody's been there before, and for instance, take a leaf and do experiments on that leaf, because everything in the environment has some history, some relationship that ties it to particular peoples. Without an understanding of that social context of science that we're within, we're doomed to repeat some of the mistakes of the past, in terms of science continuing, in a sense, to be handmaiden of colonisation.'
I heard that and I was <snaps audibly> snapping my fingers because it's so beautifully worded. It's so powerful and quite heavy, and there's a lot to break down there, but could you elaborate on that sentiment? You highlight quite a few different ideas with respect to decolonisation, which you were talking about before, but I'm gonna let you take this wherever you want to.
OM: Yeah, thanks for that! I'd forgotten about that particular quote, but I know the video that you mean. That was a beautiful conversation with some of our videographers at the university around decolonization, as you said.
One of the things that myself and colleagues like Georgina Stewart—who's a philosopher and has written a lot of amazing material on this conversation between science and Mātauranga Māori—talk about the assumed neutrality or the assumed objectivity of spaces, and the idea popped out at us during the debate, the backlash about the Mātauranga alongside science and the secondary science curriculum that blew up last year. This idea that science is neutral, acultural, apolitical, that it occupies this untouched, completely neutral space. Because that idea keeps popping up, I'm interested in just unpacking and exploring that, and whoever will listen to just lightly challenge it and to ask people to think about that assumption and think about it different ways, and for those who are in those kinds of conversations, to give them some other ideas and other language around that assumed neutrality: it's that 'invisibility of whiteness' conversation as well that affects us all, and this is completely removed from the sciences now. Anyone who is of colour, who is non-white is impacted by this belief, the self-belief of neutrality. Because that's so prevalent in the sciences, we ask ourselves the question, 'Well, what do we do about that? How is that impacting on science practice? And what are the particular practices that we can question, maybe push back on a little bit?' This idea that a scientist can see themselves as, 'Oh, I'm just, you know, picking some leaves for analysis. This doesn't belong to anybody. I can divorce it of any of it culture that's imbued upon it, or any sort of spirituality that people see within it, because I occupy a place of neutrality and objectivity, and I'm above all of that.' <Chuckle> So, we just wanted to use that example as a way to question that mindset.
AB: Mm-Hmm, <affirmative>, it's a beautiful, beautiful quote, and I thank you for elaborating on it. I found myself thinking about how it actually applies to my own field of expertise, neuroscience. As you know, a decent proportion of neuroscience experiments do use animals to help us answer our research questions, and I'd often battled with the detachment that I at times felt when working with these very sentient beings.
OM: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.
AB: So, I think that this is a great opportunity to remind ourselves, all of us, to think about this: that we're not neutral, and we're not truly objective, and we do need to recognise how much we have used sentient beings in our environment for our benefit and for the benefit of our work and our research.
I do want to switch gears ever so slightly, just because a lot of my listeners are not based in New Zealand or in Australia, really on your end of the globe as much <chuckle>, so I was wondering if you would be able to speak to some of the general experiences of the academic environment in New Zealand. I imagine you've heard about, you know, the work-life imbalance that exists in a lot of labs in the US, for instance, or being severely underpaid <chuckle> when it comes to being an undergrad or a graduate trainee, or even a postdoc trainee, to be completely honest. Is it a little different in Aotearoa? Is it better? What are the pros and cons there in case people are thinking about making a big move for the next stages of their career?
OM: <Laugh> Hey, our borders are opening, so we need people here! So, if people are considering a move, then absolutely consider it, but it's no picnic here, I would say, especially in comparison to Australia, our near neighbours. I make that comparison even though it's not a global comparison and possibly not so meaningful for your listeners, but even just that gap there highlights how far shy the salaries generally in New Zealand are compared to our nearest country neighbour. And look, we're a small nation. Our investment in research science and technology is very low compared to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average. It's something that our politicians, the ministries have been lobbying for a long time. [There's] shifts in that, but very incremental. There's not ever been a real flush of investment that I'm aware of into the sector, so one of the things that is happening for us at the moment is a review, with a view to a bit of overhaul of the research science and innovation sector investment, and how that is dished out between government departments or Crown Research Institutes. A typical scientist or researcher in a Crown Research Institute is expected to bid for funding to support their research, and that possibly seems quite innocuous in and of itself, but because the there's so little funding sloshing around in our system, a lot of effort is expended upon this kind work of bidding for projects and not getting them.
I would say that there are strong flowing on effects to early career researchers and even postgraduate students, and Māori and Pacific peoples who are in those sorts of roles—early career researchers or postgraduate students—do also suffer the additional burden of cultural trickle down, or I guess the cultural responsibilities, for instance, responding to the Vision Mātauranga policy that I mentioned earlier is a burden that is disproportionately felt by Māori particularly, but also Pacific, researchers.
There's some fantastic work over the last few years that's been done by early career researchers, Tara McAllister, who's Māori, and Sereana Naepi, who's Pasifika, supervised by Dan Hikuroa and Joanna Kidman, who are Māori academics, who are keenly aware of the issues of burnout that seem just around the corner for many of us. Where there's these big opportunities, that's also created a lot of demand on the few staff that we have to school people up, to raise people's cultural capability, to help in the decolonising projects.
The demands on researchers generally are strong. We've got a term here that was coined by one of the directors at the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment: aronga takirua. Your aro is your focus or what you're looking at and takirua means 'split into two'. So, aronga takirua is a concept that describes the sort of cultural double labor that is being exacted of particularly Māori, I would say, but also Pasifika academics, researchers, scientists, and even students in this space as the whole sector and everybody in it sort of grapples with the need to find ways to enact Vision Mātauranga policy, to do better by communities. It's a good motivator, but it has these really difficult flow-on effects of high workload and a complicated kind of workload as well. It's not just double the time in the lab, but it's really complex relationship-building, you know, helping people to uncover their own racism, and you know, it's really difficult stuff like that.
AB: Yeah, it sounds quite similar to what a lot of minoritised individuals feel in their respective labs in the US, Canada, and the UK. It's unfair work. It's often incredibly unpaid and disregarded as non-work.
AB: But it's such a burden because you don't get to just leave that on the wet-lab bench when you leave the lab, because it is a part of you, right? When someone is making comments or needs to be educated about their own racism, you can't just be like, 'Well, okay, I've had the conversation. I can switch off my brain and I don't have to give it anymore thought.' Very rarely is that the case, so it's a burden that also follows you home. And I look forward to the day it's no longer like that. I'm not sure it'll be in my lifetime, but I can always hope and pray.
AB: I'm wondering if you have any last words of advice that you wish you'd either heard very early on in your trajectory to associate professor, or something that you've even thought to tell some of your students now as they walk into the classroom about absolutely anything? This can be about some of the topics that we talked about today, or it can be completely unrelated. Any words of wisdom that you'd like to share, Dr Mercier?
OM: Yeah, sure! Thank you for this wonderful opportunity. Having a sense of serving something bigger than just the person who's offering the paycheque, whether that something bigger is the God that I believe in, or the community that I'm a part of and love and trust, or the project that so many of us are involved in around decolonising the spaces that we're in. It just helps to have your eyes fixed on something that can lift you out of those moments that can be hurtful or at the very least awkward.
Humour goes a long way to defusing a lot of that, and just getting alongside people and making sure there are people alongside you, someone that recognises and understands what you're going through and can have a laugh about it.
AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.
OM: Then, I guess, this sense of something bigger helps to put into context those microaggressions or other sorts of attacks on our work. They can shrink in relation to the better good that we serve.
For myself personally, I get a lot of satisfaction, personal satisfaction, out of working hard, and just really giving my all to whatever it is I'm working on at the time. Whatever you take personal satisfaction in, just make sure that never disappears from your life <chuckle>. So, whether it's working hard, or it's music. Whatever it might be, keep hold of that. Not very profound, sorry, but <laugh>
AB: No, I feel like this entire conversation was full of all these gems that I'll be hurriedly writing down. I don't know if you could hear me actually writing down a lot of the things that you were saying!
OM: <joyous> Oh!
AB: There were things that either I've thought about and it was beautiful to hear back, but also you just have a way with words, saying things in such a profound way that you carry those words with you and you're like, 'Wow, that's something,' and you have to digest it, so thank you. Thank you for your words of wisdom at the very end, but also for this entire conversation. It's been wonderful to be able to speak with you today and thank you for sharing your story.
OM: Thank you so much. Kia ora!
AB: Kia ora! <Chuckle>
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