As a schoolgirl, Donna Rose Addis was pretty sharp. In 1995, in her last year at Aorere College in South Auckland, she was the head girl and dux — and, on the basis of her bursary marks, New Zealand's top all-round scholar of Pacific Island descent. Next it was a BA and an MA in psychology at Auckland University. Then off to Canada for a PhD at the University of Toronto — and to the States for three years as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard.
She came back to Auckland University in 2008 to teach and do research at the School of Psychology where her focus has been on how our brains work, particularly how our minds deal with memory and imagination. Here, with Dale, Donna — now Professor Addis — talks about that, and how she came to be in this line of work.
Talofa, Donna. We’ll talk shortly about your Samoan–Pālagi whakapapa, but let’s start with your fascination with the human brain — and how you came to make that the focus of your studies and research.
Well, at Aorere College I hadn’t considered going to university until, in the fifth form I had this amazing young Samoan teacher, Anastasia Fidow, who taught me history and English for a few years. I really wanted to follow in her footsteps and become a history teacher.
None of my immediate family had gone to university but I did have a couple of cousins who’d done a bit of study. And, when I was looking for some filler subjects in the first year of my arts degree, one of them had a suggestion. She said: “Oh, you should take some psychology.
So that’s what I did. I loved history. But, also, I absolutely fell in love with psychology. Understanding how the mind works — it’s all so complex and intriguing. Really fascinating.
Psychology gelled for me quite nicely with history because I always had an interest in social history which is about what people did and why — the psychology behind how they lived. Like why there would’ve been various changes in religious structures in England in the 1600s or whatever — and what role religion played in people’s lives. Topics like that.
There was this common thread running through what I liked in history and what I liked in psychology. In particular, with psychology, I was very interested in identity. That really spoke to me because I was grappling with that myself.
That, I think, is partly because I, like many people from a mixed cultural background, didn’t look like how I felt. I didn’t look like who I was on the inside.
So, I came to university and, to everybody around me, I looked like I was just another Pālagi. My classmates assumed I was from a school on the North Shore or Epsom or something like that. Whereas, actually, I felt like I was a Samoan from South Auckland. And that made me feel very out of place to begin with.
Judging by your success at high school, there was a good reason, though, for you to feel confident and pretty much at home in that academic setting.
Yes. But there weren’t a lot of people coming to university at the same time as me from Aorere College. Only a small group of us at Aorere did bursary. That was in 1995. And when I got to the end of high school I started to really doubt myself. I’m naturally quite an anxious person, because like many people in my family, I’ve always been inclined to anxiety and depression.
So here I was, at the end of high school, still getting over the exams, which had been very stressful for me. I thought: I can’t do this. Maybe I’ll just go and work at Hunters Plaza for a while and figure out what I want to do. Maybe I’ll just take a step back.
But then I was named as New Zealand’s Top All-Round Scholar of Pacific Island descent on the basis of the bursary exams. I thought: Oh, my gosh. Obviously, I’m doing okay and maybe I can do this. I was given $5,000 to use towards my fees at university. And I thought: Wow. Somebody’s backing me. I guess I’ll give it a go.
That must’ve given you some encouragement as you set off for university.
It really did. But, although it may look like a straight path, for me, internally at least, it wasn’t. Then at uni I found it difficult to feel a part of it all, socially. I remember sitting there and offering other students my food at lunchtime — which was just a common practice for me. And they’d be like: “Oh no, we have our own food, thank you.”
So I soon realised I was in this completely different culture, even though I was still in Auckland. But the Tuākana programme at uni gave me a home. I had classes with other Māori and Pasifika students and finally met other psych students from South Auckland — there weren’t that many of us.
And I became really interested then in identity and particularly in ethnic identity. Class identity as well because I also started to realise that the more educated I became, the more my social class would change — because I’d then have a job that meant I was in a different social class than what I grew up in.
So I became interested in transitions in identity. And that took me into my master’s research on identity. I’d become fascinated with memory and the stories and experiences about our lives.
And related to that is the history and the stories we have about those who’ve come before us. That’s all tied in as well. So, for my masters, I looked at trying to understand what happens when we lose our memory, our autobiographical memory — because that impacts on our sense of who we are, our sense of identity.
That’s because, if we can’t remember what we’ve done and who we’ve been in the past, how do we know who we are now?
In that research, I worked with people with Alzheimer’s disease and found that there was a period of memories from when people are aged 15 to 25 that seemed to be really critical to our sense of identity. And, when people with dementia lost those particular memories, we saw a decline in their ability to know who they are.
That was fascinating research because we could see that memory is critical to our psychological wellbeing. It’s not just about remembering and being able to tell people about things we’ve done. It’s fundamental and core to who we are as a person.
Thanks, Donna Rose. I wonder if there’s another factor as well. And that’s the skewed perception of Māori and Pasifika people which we’ve been presented with for years through the mainstream media. Sadly, the media emphasis has, much too often, been on the negative. Has the media role been an aspect of your considerations?
I haven’t looked at that directly, but I think it plays a huge role in how people construct a sense of who they are. These are experiences that feed into you constructing your sense of identity. If you’re seeing in the media how you’re perceived by wider society, then that’s a huge part of who you are.
Identity is especially interesting because it’s multi-faceted. There are so many different strands woven together like a piece of rope. And it’s not just about your perception. It’s also about how you think others perceive you as well.
And now with social media we may be comparing ourselves to others too. People frame things on Facebook as if they’re having these perfect lives — and that can make others feel like: “Well, my life’s not like that.” It can seem that everybody on Facebook has this great life. So that creates conflicts and contrasts for some people. And some of that — those feelings of disappointment and difference — could be related to the increased mental health problems that we’re seeing.
Do you sense that our people, Māori or Pasifika, are perhaps more vulnerable to mental health issues than others are?
We are, as a result, possibly, of the ways many of our lives are playing out — and the way our societies are structured. To me that’s all related to stress and depression. If you’re poor, if you’re having struggles with housing, with feeding your children, with finding work, with working in difficult environments — then all of those things are stressful.
The children growing up in those environments also experience stress when they’re young. There’s an interaction between having a genetic predisposition to mental health issues and then experiencing stress early in life. That would be my working hypothesis at the moment.
These stresses can be socio-economic. They can be cultural. They can come from being disconnected from your family. Or from your land and your culture. And also having a cultural identity that doesn’t fit well with having to live and survive in a Pākehā world.
I guess that one implication of your observations is that we should expect mental health issues among people who’ve been marginalised with land loss and cultural loss. So that has me wondering whether your work is being factored into planning for the future of our Māori or Pasifika people. How have your Samoan cuzzies, for instance, or those leaders within Pasifika, reacted to some of your findings?
There’s been really positive reception. I’ve presented my findings a few times at Le Va, which is a non-profit organisation in Manukau that focuses on mental health issues in Pasifika communities. They’re launching a big suicide awareness and prevention programme.
And it’s been awesome to have an input into the work going on in the community in ways where our people are trying to help our people — because it does have to come from us. We have to figure out what our people need and then to try to make that happen.
Unfortunately, a lot of times, you get these external groups saying: “Here’s what you need to do.” And it doesn’t work because it might not be appropriate to have people looking at the problem through an external lens and not recognising the unique factors within Māori and Pasifika communities.
You’ve done some remarkable work, to be honest, Donna Rose. Not just here, but in far-flung places too. It’s clear now that the doubts you harboured when you were a teenager about to embark on an academic career were unfounded because you’ve been able to handle yourself in the best of company. When you look at all the work you’ve done, what aspect has given you the most satisfaction?
I think it’s been coming back to New Zealand. I don’t know where that impetus to travel, to explore, came from. Maybe it’s come from my ancestors — the idea of pushing ahead even though you’re uncertain and anxious. I think of it as voyaging. Setting out into the unknown — not knowing where you’re going or what you’ll learn.
I was distraught about setting off for Toronto, even though I knew I had to go. And it took me quite a while to settle into the new life there as a PhD student. But it was a turning point in my life. It helped me come to understand myself better. But also the amount of stuff I was exposed to just blew my mind. There was all that knowledge available from these world leaders in psychology and memory research.
Because of that, I now have ongoing collaborations with so many people all around the world. I feel like I have a family of international academics. I’ve met so many wonderful, supportive and generous people.
Also, I got to learn techniques like using MRI to track brain function. At the time I went overseas, in New Zealand there weren’t any scanners available to do research. We had a few scanners for clinical use, for patients in hospital. But we had none for research.
So, when I went away, I was a bit concerned that, if I specialised, maybe I wouldn’t be able to come back. As it turned out, when I was ready to return to New Zealand from Harvard, where I was a postdoctoral fellow, a job came up at Auckland University.
And I felt incredibly grateful to be able to come home, come home to my roots, to my family. But, also, to be able to bring back this knowledge, and to invest in our up-and-coming-academics and researchers in New Zealand. The timing was amazing.
It was great as well to reconnect with Aorere College. There’s just something about that school. It’s just an amazing hub of enthusiasm for learning and helping and supporting students to be the best that they can be. And I’ve done lots of work mentoring students and talking to them about what success is.
And what, in your view, is success?
Well, it isn’t something that others can define for you. It’s really finding what it is that you want to do and doing that to the best that you can do it. So I try to help the students to see that it’s not about what society might say is a successful career — or that this is the kind of job you should have. It’s really about finding that niche for yourself where you get that satisfaction. That’s what I’ve been able to do with neuroscience.
Now, Donna, let’s have a look at some of your family history.
Well, my mum’s father was Samoan. Jim Boyer. But he was born in Nuku’alofa, in Tonga, and he grew up there and in Suva. That’s where he met my Pālagi grandmother, Rose. At a Catholic youth group. Her family were from Australia originally, but had been in Fiji since about the 1840s.
Jim and Rose married and lived for some time in Fiji. That was at a time when interracial marriage wasn’t the done thing. And in Suva, that was where my mother, another Rose, was born.
The family came to New Zealand when mum was 10. They settled in Otāhuhu and for many years ran the Tuckshop Dairy opposite Otāhuhu College.
My mum is the youngest of five kids in her family. She left school — Marist College — at 14 and worked in factories and warehouses. She used to say that because she didn’t have the education, the best she could do was give her time and her physical labour.
Her example of working really, really hard has been the foundation for me going forward.
And, although most people call me Donna, I use Donna Rose as my publication name to acknowledge her and her mum for the faith and love and support they’ve given me.
And what about the Addis clan, your dad’s side.
They’re from England — and the name has its origins in a stonemasonry tool, the adze. That probably indicates what their line of work used to be.
Somewhere back in the late 19th century, my great-grandfather and his wife came out and settled on a sheep farm at Ongaonga, not far from Waipukurau. My dad Brent lived on the farm until he was about six, but then returned with his family to Papatoetoe. Dad’s father was an architect and he passed his graphic talents on to my father — who has passed them on to my brother Richard as well.
Dad worked as a drainlayer and I’ve always been impressed by his creativity and talent for problem solving. He was also fascinated with radios — and kept in touch with people all around the world through ham radio. And he ended up building, in his backyard out in Karaka, a radio telescope.
It was the largest radio telescope in New Zealand. There was this massive satellite dish — and he could bounce echoes off the moon. There is some real Kiwi ingenuity in the family.
When he and Mum married, they settled in Papatoetoe, but they broke up when I was about seven, so I lived with my mum and grandmother. Two Roses. Just down the road from Aorere College. Aorere and Anastasia Fidow.
Thank you for your korero, Donna. You’ve been very inspiring. And we wish you continued success with your mahi.