After more than two decades of involvement with research, Cheryl Davies still sees herself as an ‘emerging’ researcher. “I’m still on a learning journey and as a researcher that journey never really ends,” she says.
Cheryl is the manager of Tu Kotahi Māori Asthma Trust and a senior Māori researcher with the University of Otago. Her journey in respiratory research began many years ago. “I was asthmatic myself and two of my children had asthma. I was part of a community education group that really wanted to better understand and manage our asthma. We could also see the inequities in New Zealand health and wanted to understand why more Māori children were hospitalised with asthma,” she explains.
Her group was involved in research for the Māori Asthma Review carried out in the early 1990s. A key finding from the review was that more Māori asthma services were needed providing services by Māori for Māori. “Our journey at Tu Kotahi began thanks to that review,” she says. “I saw that we needed to have evidence of what was happening in our communities for change to happen and that piqued my interest in research,” she says.
Since then, Cheryl has been involved in research projects covering a range of respiratory conditions: asthma, bronchiolitis and COPD, as well as wider issues affecting respiratory health like the impact of healthy homes on health and other issues. Her current areas of research include whānau experiences with chronic pain and an international study into indigenous play spaces.
The greatest rewards of her research career have been seeing the positive, practical outcomes of her work. The Pukapuka Hauora Asthma study revealed important insights on how whānau managed tamariki with asthma, with those findings guiding how Māori health workers worked with whānau. Early research on the benefits of insulation and heating contributed to establishment of the Warmer Kiwi Homes programme, and subsidised programmes for heat pumps in homes.
Another career high has been seeing a shift into how research is conducted with Māori. “When we first started, there was a huge mistrust of researchers from Māori communities, and that was primarily because they would come and ask their questions, but often there was no follow-up to discuss the findings,” she explains. “Unlike most external researchers, we have a long-term relationship with our community, and we want the research to be mana-enhancing. It is really important to us that any findings are disseminated to the community in an easy-to-understand way, and that there is trust and credibility.”
Over recent years, she has seen external researchers embrace mātauranga Māori and the growth of organisations, like Tu Kotahi, in undertaking their own research. “We realised quite early on that we couldn’t just focus on asthma, respiratory and housing, we needed a whānau ora approach that takes a broad view of whānau needs. We are not just working with individuals, but with the whole whānau.”
Cheryl is hopeful that the recent establishment of Te Aka Whai Ora, the Māori Health Authority will lead to more Māori asthma services and the opportunity for more whānau ora research. She hopes to establish a kaupapa Māori research unit at the trust’s base at Kokiri Marae in Lower Hutt and continue to build the Māori health and research workforce.