New Research Director for NZ's largest longitudinal study

New Research Director for NZ's largest longitudinal study
February 21, 2022

Growing Up in New Zealand is pleased and proud to introduce its new Research Director: Dr Sarah-Jane Paine.

Growing Up in New Zealand’s new Research Director comes to the study with a passion for the health and wellbeing of mothers and children; an ambition to translate research findings into real world impact; and a determination to improve the lives of tamariki Māori and whānau.

Dr Sarah-Jane Paine (Tūhoe), formerly the Director of the Tomaiora Research Group based at the University of Auckland’s Te Kupenga Hauora Māori, is proud to lead this country’s largest longitudinal study.

Growing Up in New Zealand is a taonga and is in a unique position to provide valuable insights into the lives of children and families in modern-day Aotearoa New Zealand which can be translated into policy and service delivery to improve lives of our young people.  That’s an exciting thing to be a part of,” she says.

Dr Paine says the information gathered by the study has never been more important.

“We are living through an extraordinary period in a global pandemic which has affected all of our lives.   Growing Up gives us the opportunity to explore the impacts of Covid-19 for our young people at a crucial stage in their development and to use this information to help mitigate any long-term effects on their health, wellbeing and education. ”

Dr Paine trained as reproductive biologist at the University of Otago and has spent much of her career investigating ethnic inequities in health and wellbeing, including for  mothers and children.

Her desire to use her expertise in research and science to drive real world change for mums and babies stems from a heartbreaking personal experience.

As she was preparing to study at university, Dr Paine’s sister had a fall while pregnant and gave birth to baby boy prematurely at 22 weeks.  

“My nephew was in Waikato Hospital fighting for his life, and my sister was trying to navigate a health system that was not designed to meet the needs of her or our whānau.    He was seriously ill, could fit in the palm of a hand and weighed less than a pack of butter.  On the advice of my Dad and my University supervisor, I took that personal experience as a launching pad to explore a broader research question about the impact of events in pregnancy on the health and wellbeing of offspring,” she says.

Dr Paine says ever since her personal experience and interests, and that of her family and her broader community, have influenced her research and she’s determined to see science and research make a difference in the real world.

“I started off my research career in a lab-based project looking at how mothers’ wellbeing affects their children’s wellbeing and now I’ve come full-circle to lead a longitudinal research project looking at exactly that question.”

Dr Paine grew up in Wairoa, the youngest of five children.  It was a large Māori community where doing kapa haka and speaking te reo were the norm.  

Her mother and father were strong proponents of the importance and value of education and her  Māori mother instilled in her the need to know her whakapapa.

“One of my first memories is of learning my pepeha.  I didn’t grow up speaking te reo, but my mum was really determined to ensure that no matter where I ended up I would know where I was from and the places that were important to my hapū and iwi.

“This personal experience has relevance for my role at Growing Up where we’re trying to learn more about children’s growing sense of their own identity; how this develops over time; and how support for different identities can allow children to thrive and flourish,” she says.

Dr Paine says her Māori culture is deeply important to her and has become an increasingly crucial part of her research career over time.

She has been involved in several research projects looking at the difference in health outcomes for Māori and non-Māori.  One of her first projects, headed by renowned Māori public health academic, Professor Papaarangi Reid (Te Rarawa) and sleep scientist Emeritus Professor Philippa Gander, explored insomnia and used a Kaupapa Māori research approach.

“That was a huge turning point for me.  As an aspiring young scientist, It was a relief to be embedded in a project that used a Kaupapa Māori approach and it really gave me a new focus and direction to generate evidence that would improve the lives of whānau Māori.” she says.

Dr Paine then worked with Prof. Leigh Signal to to develop a longitudinal study looking at how changes in women’s sleep patterns in pregnancy and postpartum impacted their mental health.

She says she has been extremely fortunate to have learnt from and collaborated with a number of exceptional Māori and non-Māori women academics who have helped her advance her career.

She’s excited and inspired by the next phase of that career with Growing Up in New Zealand.  

Dr Paine says every single one of the 6,000 families involved in Growing Up in New Zealand has a vital part to play in a study which can truly make a difference for current and future generations.

“I am so grateful to the participants in this study who have trusted us and been gracious enough to invite us into their homes and lives.  It’s a truly generous act of aroha that has helped to generate an abundance of research and evidence about children in modern New Zealand,” she says.

“I am particularly passionate for Growing Up in New Zealand to accurately reflect and represent Māori communities and to deliver excellent research that addresses the needs of whānau Māori and results in policy change that will benefit Māori communities. There’s a huge body of evidence to show that that changes that benefit Māori whānau ultimately benefit all families, so I’m confident this approach will lead to positive change for all children and families in Aotearoa New Zealand,” she says.  

Growing Up in New Zealand is currently out in the field collecting information from the study’s 12-year-olds and their families online and Dr Paine says she’s excited to work with participants as they move into adolescence.

“I see our young people, our rangatahi, playing a much larger role in research design in the future. They will transform the way we collect information and what we collect.  I don’t imagine the next data collection we carry out with these young people when they are teenagers will look anything like our current collection and I’m excited to see what comes next.”

Dr Paine is married to oncologist Laird Cameron and has three children, aged 12, 10 and 8.  Her family is important to her and when she’s not working she’s a resident “uber driver” for her children; cheering them on from the sidelines at sports and cultural events; and doing her best to make sure they are happy and healthy.  In between, she occasionally gets the chance to indulge her love of good coffee.