Tongan scientist urges high school students to adopt positive view of STEM subjects; says commitment and resilience are key to success

A Tongan scientist has urged Tongan students to add their name to those of the few Pasifika in the field.

Dr Sangata Kaufononga, who recently became the first Tongan to obtain a PhD in Chemistry from University of Waikato, said that if students had the potential to make a career in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM), they should go for it.

And she said that watching her father working on the family plantation as  a child was what opened her eyes to science.

Dr Kaufononga said she was worried that fewer Tongan students were taking STEM subjects.

She urged the Tongan Ministry of Education to investigate what could be done to promote the interest of the students in the subject. She said few Pacific students opted for STEM subjects at school.

She asked students to have a positive mindset about the subjects.

“The normal response for these subjects is that they are difficult,” Dr Kaufononga said.

“That is not right. If you are still hanging on to this negative assumption, then there is no way you are going to be successful in STEM.

“It’s a matter of commitment, resilience, respect, honesty, humility and excellence. As a scientist, STEM subjects are the best.”

Dr Kaufononga said it was a pleasure knowing she was the first member of her extended family to obtain a doctorate.

“To God be the glory,” she said.

She said she hoped to be a role model for younger Pasifika students and their parents as well.

“Education is possible at any time,” she said.

Plantation

Dr Kaufononga said her interest in science began when she was little.

“My dad, Siketi Mailangi always spent his time in his plantations and looking after his livestock, as the main source of financial income to support us in our education and our everyday spending,” she said.

“Most of the time we helped him in the plantation and interacting with the natural resources open my eyes to realise that science surrounds us all the time, it was the driving force of my interest in the area.

“Science and mathematics were always my favourite subjects, it’s in our family gene; my younger brother is a nurse and some of my uncles and cousins are teachers in the area.”

Dr Kaufononga became a secondary school teacher in Tonga after obtaining a Diploma in Education from Tongan teacher’s college and a BSc in chemistry and mathematics from the University of the south Pacific in Fiji.

“Further education was always a priority to me as it’s the golden key to unlock future opportunities for my family,” she said.

In 2009 she lost her mother and a younger sister and brother in the MV Ashika tragedy.

Promise

“Seeing my dad struggling, I promised myself that I would explore my academic potential to the fullest so that I could help my own family, but also help my dad and my siblings as well,” she said.

“In 2010, my husband and three children aged five to two moved to Hamilton.

“I went back to the University of Waikato in the beginning of 2011 while our fourth child was three months old and started a Graduate Certificate, then a master’s degree and a doctorate, all majoring in Chemistry.”

Both she and her husband were studying. When asked how they managed their studies and supported each other while raising four children, she replied: “It’s not about how much we do but how much love we put into what we do that counts.”

“We set our studies as a short-term sacrifice for the long-term benefits of our young children and our family.

“I first went back to study while David worked night shift to support us financially and at the time, our four children were very young.

“In 2014, after my master’s degree, I got a scholarship from AgResearch Ltd to carry on my PhD. My stipend was just enough to put bread on our table, so we decided for my husband to do his master’s degree in mathematics

“It was not an easy decision, but we worked together and shared the responsibilities in looking after the kids in order to fit in with our study timetables.

“The best time for us to review our study was after putting them to bed every night and their precious faces were and still are the main inspiration of our studies.

“We were so grateful the we can survive with bread and second-hand clothes. David went back to work after graduating with his master’s degree.”

Blessing

Both she and her husband were given Tertiary Achievement in Pacfic Ako awards; her husband in 2014-15 and hers in 2012-2018.

“It was a blessing to achieve such awards and it eased some of the financial stress.”

Community

Dr Kaufononga said she was “speechless” at the level of support from the Tongan community in Hamilton.

“The community is always our second family away from home,” she said.

“The supports from them define who we are as a Pasifika in New Zealand. I am always looking forward for a community event because I get to meet other Tongans and Pacific islanders here in Hamilton.

“They always reminded of my roots and empower me to carry on with my dreams in this country.”

The main points

  • A Tongan scientist has urged Tongan students to add their name to those of the few Pasifika in the field.
  • Dr Sangata Kaufononga, who recently became the first Tongan to obtain a PhD in Chemistry, that if students had the potential to make a career in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM), they should go for it.
  • And she said that watching her father working on the family plantation as  a child was what opened her eyes to science.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here