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How to succeed in research, study nutrition in New Zealand, and more with Dr Pamela Von Hurst

Curious about nutrition, research and studying in New Zealand? Check out our conversation with Massey University’s Dr. Pamela Von Hurst.
BY Skendha Singh |   16-11-2018

Dr Pamela Von Hurst

Dr. Pamela Von Hurst, Associate Professor at Massey University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition, spoke to BrainGain Magazine earlier this year. Women in science, changing track as a mature student, and learning how to learn were key points of the interaction. Edited excerpts are below:

Q: What is your opinion on women in science? Do you think that gender continues to be a barrier?
A: The big issue in nutrition science is that our research is quite expensive. And funding is difficult to get because we are competing with medical funding. That’s possibly where gender is an issue because medical funding boards and panels are predominantly led by medical men. Whether it’s gender or the medical degrees, their view of nutrition is less favourable than what we would like it to be.

Q: Does Massey University think about gender parity in STEM fields?
A: Gender parity is quite an issue at Massey; it is an issue of focus. Last year marked a landmark when gender balance in our senior leadership went from predominantly male to predominantly female. So, among 13 senior leadership members, since the beginning of 2017, there are 7 women and 6 men. There is quite a push to bring women up into the positions of seniority.

Q: What makes the Massey University a great place for research?
A: I love the flexibility at Massey. Academics are strongly encouraged to follow their passion. In terms of research, we are given good support from professional staff and assistance with funding applications, creating an environment for the research that we like to do.

I think, from students’ point of view, we have three campuses, and all are quite different. The Auckland campus, where I am located, is simply a beautiful campus considering that it is located in the middle of a relatively large city. We also have research with Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. We are really working hard to fight the continued increasing intake of sugar. There is a lot of talk about sugar tax, for instance, getting rid of sugar-sweetened beverages. It’s very much focused on a strong public outlook. The Palmerstone campus is rural, and the Wellington is a small campus, very focused on design - the school of design is very strong there. So, they all have quite different fields. 

Q: How did you find your passion and focus in research?
A: I am little bit unconventional. I always had a belief that we are what we eat, and what we do. I have never believed that you could do just whatever you want and then go to a doctor and get a pill to fix it. So, its been a philosophy of mine.

But, the first 20 years, or probably 25, of my career were in business, public relations and publishing. Finally, I was in a position where I could follow my passion, and nutrition was starting to be taught at the Massey University. I could not go to the other end of the country… So, I gave up work and ended up doing Bachelor of Science. I think I started at the age of 46. After B.Sc. Honors and then a Ph.D., I really discovered my passion for Vitamin D research. Also, for nutrition in children; I am a strong believer that if we change the direction that we are moving in now, nutritionally and in terms of overall health, we really need to start with our children - the younger the better.

Q: Do you think your work experience helped you as a mature student? Or was it a totally new experience for you?
A: I had a lot of management experience by that time. I had run two different companies, I was used to meeting deadlines, as I had been publishing national magazines for many years. I knew how to buckle down, work hard and fast to meet deadlines. So many students don’t know how to do this these days.
I knew how to make things happen. You know how not to take the system as it is, but push it a little harder. At times I wish I had started sooner because I love it, I love what I do now. Although, if I had, I wouldn’t have had the experience to prepare me for what I do now.

Q: Do you think there is a way of institutionalising learning how to learn?
A: I don’t think it is inborn. I think it is something that has to be taught. Something that I probably didn’t learn the first time around. Often the brighter students don’t learn how to learn because everything is easy until a certain point - until it is not.

But you don’t know how to study, and how to learn. What’s happening now is that students are less able to learn; I see students becoming more dependent, wanting things [served up on a plate]. I think it comes from the fact that you can Google anything, it comes up [instantly].

I don’t know enough about teaching and learning to know what the answer is, but I am hoping that some of the experts that we have here in teaching and learning [will] be able to figure that out. I have a concern that we are creating a very dependent population of students.

Q: A message you would like to share with international students?
A: We don’t have a lot of Indian students coming to study nutrition, we’d love to have more. Nutrition is such an important thing for India. It’s important for every country in the world but there are huge nutritional challenges in India. And the more education we have the better.

I see students coming to study nutrition at the postgrad level and often they are not that well prepared from their undergraduate degrees. There are very few [undergraduate] degrees that focus entirely on nutrition, so many may come with a food degree and may have 1 or 2 papers in nutrition. They don’t quite have the strength of background. So, I’d love to see more students coming for undergraduate degrees in nutrition in NZ. 



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