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  • Writer's pictureAna María Vázquez-Catoni

Meet Hanareia Ehau-Taumaunu, Plant Pathology Ph.D. Candidate

Māori and first-gen, Hanareia is a microbial ecologist breaking the mold in ag science.

Hanareia Ehau-Taumaunu is a first-generation Indigenous Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Pennsylvania State University. Hanareia works in Dr. Kevin Hockett’s lab, which has a microbial ecology focus.

In a search for more environmentally friendly and viable alternatives to chemical applications for pathogen control, Hanareia currently studies toxins that could present a new solution, known as bacteriocins. These are protein toxins that bacteria produce to inhibit other bacteria. Hanareia studies how these toxin production works in a natural system under controlled environments, whether it is in the lab, greenhouse or growth chamber. She is particularly looking at two bacterial pathogens of Pseudomonas syringae, specifically looking at how one can produce a toxin that can kill the other and how these might work in an applied system.

Fitting all the pieces together

Born and raised in New Zealand, Hanareia enjoyed science in high school and was amazed by biological and chemical mechanisms that happen all around us. Inspired by her curiosity, she was motivated enough to pursue a conjoint Science and Arts bachelor's degree in Biological Sciences, Māori Studies, and Writing Studies at The University of Auckland.

However, as a first-generation Māori student, her transition towards higher education was not as easy as she expected and at times found herself lacking confidence. Nonetheless, she was able to find a group of Indigenous peers, resulting in an academic and personal support group:

We just all stuck together. We took classes, did homework together and hung out. I found a nice group to stick with me through my undergraduate degree.

When Hanareia first started her undergraduate degrees, she was not yet involved in plant sciences. Hanareia’s enthusiasm, enjoyment, and curiosity for science left her without an exact idea of what she wanted to do:

I wanted to be a lot of different things, but I had no idea how much science there really was. There are so many different fields of science and that was my first eye-opening moment.

Hanareia became involved in plant-focused science during her summer internship at Plant and Food Research, a research institute in Auckland, New Zealand. Hanareia was assisting with the Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae outbreak, which is a bacterial canker affecting kiwifruit, a huge industry in New Zealand. She spent three summers working in the lab aiding the research on genes associated with pathogenicity and identifying how the institute could work with Māori growers to find solutions to the disease.

Hanareia recognizes this experience as what really shaped her direction towards plant pathology.

I realized that plant pathology could really open doors for me. Plant pathology isn’t as restrictive as people think. We span every type of science you can think of. We have so many different systems you can be involved in whether it is below- or above-ground or an animal. There is so much diversity within plant pathology. There are labs in plant pathology that break out of what is considered normal in plant pathology. And we need to break that (misconception). Plant Pathology is everything. If you don't have one part of something, you cannot solve anything.

Her involvement at Plant and Food motivated her to switch to classes with a plant-focus, such as plant pathology, plant science and microbiology. She was also lucky to find mentors at the university and Plant and Food Research to support her throughout her studies. However, as she was graduating from her undergraduate degree, she was unsure as to whether she would remain in academia or move into industry.

On one impactful day, Hanareia attended a panel discussion at her university on the topic of how scientists viewed themselves as agents of change in society. Many of the panelists were professors who were non-Indigenous with the title of Ph.D. The panel spoke about how science is important from policy to local communities.

During this event, Hanareia came to an important realization: 

This was the moment that I realized that if I wanted to have changed, proper structural change, on how (New Zealand) proceeds in science, how it interacts with Indigenous peoples, and to be taken seriously by non-indigenous scientists, I needed to get a Ph.D.

Merging two knowledge systems

Once Hanareia graduated, she began a Masters’ in Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland where she studied the gut microbiota and traditional feeding habits of a native insect of New Zealand commonly known as porina (Wiseana spp.). She increased her skillset by performing amplicon sequencing and microbiome data analysis. More importantly, she had the unique opportunity to include Indigenous knowledge into her project, which was an amazing exchange of knowledge for both her and her advisors.

Despite the great support she received, when looking into potential research projects, she identified a lack of willingness from faculty to support her in bringing her two knowledge systems (Indigenous and Western science) together as one of the main obstacles for her journey in academic science.

It was very hard to find mentors that were willing to insert Indigenous knowledge into a master’s program. I know that I am a lot more fortunate being in New Zealand where being Indigenous is a lot more acceptable than in other countries. (However) Many faculty were “I need you to do the science” and I was like “Well, this is my culture, from my grandparents and their grandparents so why can’t [her two worlds] come together?” and they did not have the mindset for it.

The lack of indigenous role models in the scientific community is a problem Hanareia observed when trying to address the issue of Indigenous knowledge.

I didn’t know many Indigenous academics that were in science in the first place. I had one Māori professor, one in my entire university, within my department.

Hanareia believes greater exchange and incorporation of Indigenous knowledge is needed more often to remove the stigma that surrounds it. 

I think some scientists are just finding out that this [Indigenous] knowledge is just as important as what we consider in the Western scientific knowledge system that we learned as students.

For our readers that are not familiar with the concept of Indigenous knowledge, Hanareia offered a brief explanation of it:

Indigenous knowledge is difficult to generalize because it is very diverse. Indigenous knowledge is the knowledge that has been passed down from many generations from a population that is Indigenous to their land. It's typically more focused on the relationship between us and the land and everything in our environment. It’s very holistic, and not centered around humans. Western knowledge is very centered on humans and what humans want and need. Indigenous knowledge is more focused on what the environment needs. It’s our way of interpreting the world. It has been around for millennia. We never called it ‘science’ as it was just our way of living. I call it Indigenous knowledge, there is terminology like Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), which is more accepted in some STEM circles.

After finishing her Master's degree, she really missed plant pathology. Hanareia considered pursuing a Ph.D. in New Zealand. However, she applied and received a Fulbright Scholarship to come to the United States and pursue her Ph.D. at Penn State. Before arriving in the U.S., Hanareia asked current international students in NZ about their journeys of arriving at a whole new country and thought “If they can do it, I can do it. They had come across to a new hemisphere!”

Adjusting to new circumstances

Hanareia considers her adjustment to a new country as an eye-opener. 

New Zealand is a very small country and it is very focused on itself because we are in the middle of nowhere. Coming to the US, I have been able to network with so many different people in so many different fields, beyond plant pathology. It has been an adjustment but there are a lot of positives of being here.

A commonly overlooked issue

The most recent obstacle Hanareia overcame in her time in graduate school was burnout. She explains how she physically drained herself to the point where she could not do anything. Hanareia acknowledged the problem of burnout but failed to address it early on: 

I would see people tweeting about this and all I thought was - no, that won’t happen to me, this is someone else’s problem - and so I kept working, attending conferences and being part of committees. [However], I didn’t know what to do when I realized that I had burned myself out.

Ultimately, Hanareia lost motivation to keep working and cut off interactions with friends and colleagues. Fortunately, Hanareia realized she had to change the situation if she wanted to complete her Ph.D. and goals in the US. She took time away from her studies and research to “really get back to enjoying life again”.

Now, I am fine talking about it because I realized it happened to me and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else. I was exhausted in every way possible because I realized I was doing too many things. I thought I was great at saying ‘no’. Now, I prioritize what I do now, for work, professional and personal. So far, it is working out.

Facing stigmas...

On another note, Hanareia was part of the creation of a student-founded Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Committee in her department at Penn State. The committee was started from the need to diversify and be more inclusive with the department, considering the large cohort of graduate students that are coming from diverse backgrounds. They have been discussing topics such as inclusive bias and microaggressions. 

Hanareia has faced various microaggressions during her time in academia such as “You’re only here because you are a minority” and “You are an indigenous person and you fit a category that has some type of money attached to it”.

It comes out of random, sometimes I don’t know them that well and I think that helps them have that security in saying such a comment. I get a lot of shocks when I tell people that I am Indigenous because people see me and they are like “no, this girl is not Indigenous”. I only identify as being Indigenous, I only identify as being Māori. And they are like “No, you can’t be Indigenous, you are too white”.

...and breaking misconceptions through action and awareness

Hanareia believes in the impact of diversity and the representation of minorities in science.

I think minorities help see things from different angles, and when you are working in a team, then you will add something unique to the discussion. Innovative ideas don’t come out of nowhere, they come out of collaboration. It is important to show how dynamic and diverse people are in agriculture, whether it is in the field or the lab. It’s always nice to see someone who looks like you on tv, and it’s the same in the workforce.

Hanareia is passionate about being an Indigenous scientist and meeting academics who are Indigenous here in the U.S. and how they help their people through science.

She enjoys being part of diverse student organizations and attending diversity-focused conferences. She is part of Penn State SACNAS chapter, which is helping her engage with people that have gone through similar experiences in academia and having a safe space to talk about issues and ideas. Being away from home and having to find new people has motivated her to find these groups.

My mentors in New Zealand are majority women. For example, Dr. Amanda Black is looking at the effects of Phytophtora in native forests in New Zealand. She’s the first Māori scientist I saw doing something closely related to what I do. Recently she was recognized for her research and incorporating that with Māori knowledge.

As a first-generation student, Hanareia wishes she had someone in academia within her family.

“It is still difficult because I can’t fully describe to them what I really do. Most of my learning on the processes of academia, such as applying to university and navigating studies and research was self-taught.” 

Looking forward to the next 10 years Hanareia is open to anything.

“…just as long as it’s interesting and it's helping someone. If I’m gaining some skills along the way, wherever I happen to be next, I’ll just be adding to my skill basket and fit in wherever my people need me.”

Lastly, Hanareia has some advice for young female students:

There is no correct journey to being a woman in STEM or ag science. It doesn’t matter how you got there. We are important in agriculture and STEM, and you belong. We are the future. Be passionate and follow the opportunities that come to you.

You can follow Hanareia on Twitter or contact her via email at

This interview conducted in 2019 was developed, transcribed and edited by WAGS co-founder Ana María Vazquez-Catoni.



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