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Hemi's Story

Hemi Cumming
Ngāti Raukawa

MAI ki Pōneke PhD Candidate
School of Chemical and Physical Sciences
Victoria University of Wellington

Hemi's Story

Signing-up for PhD study was more a necessity than a choice for Gisborne-raised PhD student Hemi Cumming. Having completed his Master's in a specialised field of Chemistry, a doctoral degree was the next necessary step in order for Hemi to achieve his career goal of conducting his own scientific research. Through his current PhD research, Hemi is attempting to synthesise a variant of a chemical compound with cancer-fighting properties, called pateamine, which occurs naturally in a Fiordland marine sponge (Mycale hentzcheli). What drew Hemi to this topic was the opportunity to "bridge the disciplinary boundaries between chemistry and biochemistry" and to "solve a problem with potential benefits".

While most people would struggle to pronounce Hemi's thesis topic, let alone understand it, this is an area in which Hemi Cumming excels. But realising his strengths in this field was not straight forward for Hemi who admits, "There are lot of negative stereotypes about Māori in education, particularly in the sciences. And while you don't want to buy into them, they sit in the back of your mind. For me, it wasn't until I received recognition for my research that I started to believe that I was good at science". That recognition came in the form of the Cuth J Wilkins Prize, awarded for the top Chemistry Master's thesis at Canterbury University in 2008.

Hemi can no longer question his abilities, yet he still experiences certain pressures associated with being Māori in a predominately non-Māori academic discipline. He describes that being Māori means there is "more pressure to do well, to avoid stereotypes as a minority, and maintain a good reputation". As such, in the scientific world, it is often Hemi himself under the microscope. These pressures, coupled with maintaining some semblance of work-life balance while managing demanding lab and study schedules have been challenges Hemi has had to learn how to overcome during his PhD journey.

Hemi credits his involvement with MAI ki Pōneke as helping him to surmount some of the challenges of being a Māori PhD student. Over and above the practical academic support offered by MAI, Hemi values the collegiality that develops within MAI, which "reinforces your sense of belonging, as you're interacting with people in the same situation who you can relate to."

When asked to give advice to those considering PhD study, Hemi suggests "If you're interested in status and money, don't do a PhD. But if you are passionate about your field and are prepared to make a lot of sacrifices, then, with a bit of awhi from MAI, you have the makings of a PhD student."