Supporting Pasifika success

With the help of a Health Research Council of New Zealand grant, researcher Dr Zaramasina Clark will be joining Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Biological Sciences where she will mentor young Māori and Pasifika students and take part in cutting-edge fertility research.

Dr Clark has received the Pacific Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Health Research Council, giving her nearly $400,000 over three years to support her research.

Dr Clark completed her PhD at Victoria University of Wellington in 2018, studying various aspects of reproductive biology under the supervision of Dr Janet Pitman. She is returning after nearly two years as a postdoctoral visiting research scientist at Michigan State University.

Dr Clark plans to mentor Māori and Pasifika students transitioning from undergraduate to postgraduate study in the School of Biological Sciences, continuing a commitment to mentoring that she started as a student.

“When I was studying at Victoria University of Wellington I experienced first-hand the importance of positive mentorship, first as a mentee and later as a mentor with Te Rōpū Āwhina, supporting Māori and Pasifika students in the sciences,” Dr Clark says.

She also plans to take part in existing outreach programmes. “I want to engage with prospective students at a younger age and show them that tertiary education is achievable for them.”

Dr Clark’s research work will involve studying a chromosomal condition called aneuploidy.

“Half the embryos generated in IVF clinics are aneuploid, which means they have an abnormal number of chromosomes,” Dr Clark says. “This leads to a significant rate of early pregnancy loss and low IVF success rates.”

Aneuploid embryos are particularly common in older women, and with the worldwide delay in women starting families, she says the rate of aneuploid embryos will only increase, making successful pregnancies  harder to achieve.

Another issue with aneuploid embryos is that they are very hard to test for, with Dr Clark referring to current testing methods as invasive, expensive, and time-consuming. This leads to  poor uptake by patients and poor implantation of aneuploid embryos during IVF, which causes a high rate of failed pregnancies.

“There is an urgent need for a non-invasive test that accurately and rapidly detects aneuploidy in embryos while eliminating the risks associated with current tests,” Dr Clark says.

She hopes that her research into aneuploid embryos will eventually lead to such a test. She will be researching how specific RNAs are linked to chromosome number and proving that these RNA can be accurately identified through testing.

“We plan to develop a non-invasive, rapid, and accurate test for aneuploidy,” Dr Clark says. “Fertility clinics will be able to use this test to ensure that embryos are healthy and have a good chance of survival before they are implanted. This will make conceiving easier for the one in five couples that must seek fertility treatments to have babies and will particularly help women of advanced age who are more likely to have aneuploid embryos that lead to non-viable pregnancies.”

Dr Clark’s research grant is designed to support the health of New Zealand’s Pasifika community, and Dr Clark says this test will have particular benefits for Pasifika women trying to conceive.

“Pasifika women are often seen as ‘hyper-fertile’, so the assumption is that it will always be easy for them to conceive,” Dr Clark says. “However, Pasifika women face the same fertility struggles as other women, so this perception leads to stigma and silent suffering as they try to conceive. This research will make conception easier and help relieve some of the stress caused by failure to conceive.”

Dr Clark and fellow School of Biological Sciences researcher Dr Pitman, who is leading the overall research Dr Clark’s work is part of, are also interested in understanding Pacific Island perspectives on their research goals.

“We want to exchange knowledge with the community, and we plan to open up discussion around infertility and reproductive health-related issues with Pacific Island communities,” Dr Clark says.