In 2000, researchers at AUT started tracking the health and psychosocial development of a cohort of 1400 Pacific children born at Middlemore Hospital. As they enter into adulthood, the Pacific Islands Families (PIF) study is more important than ever.
Those children and their parents are now among the best-studied Pacific people on the planet. They are also some of the most scientifically valuable, having allowed researchers to track their development within the family home and examine the ways that health, psychosocial, economic, environmental and cultural factors can influence their trajectories over time.
The PIF Study is unique and ground-breaking in epidemiology. It is the world's only prospective longitudinal study of Pacific people, where new data is collected from the same cohort members at regular intervals over the years. From six weeks old, their weight and countless other details have been carefully recorded. The results have filled more than 150 scientific research articles in national and international journals so far.
Some of the most meaningful papers have explored cultural alignment – confirming that strong cultural identity and a sense of belonging is a protective factor for Pacific youth in New Zealand, consistent with better health and more positive outcomes overall.
PIF Study Director Dr El-Shadan Tautolo says you gain enormous depth and understanding from following someone over the course of their life.
"Finishing school and entering into adulthood is a pivotal point for our cohort. Soon, they will be starting their own families, which is an exciting new phase for the study," he says.
The research team behind the PIF Study has also come of age.
As part of the AUT Pacific Health Research Centre, the PIF Study has established a strong track record, not only for winning research grants but being able to deliver.
"The study was designed to inform policy and maximise the potential of Pacific families and communities in New Zealand. Another important aspect was building Pacific research capability and capacity to the point where the study could truly become Pacific-led, as it is today," says Tautolo.
"We are helping emerging Pacific researchers to gain experience and lead their own projects – robust research that will address key issues for our Pacific people."
New Zealand is seen as a world leader in longitudinal health research. The PIF Study adds to this reputation and follows in the footsteps of two notable studies, based in Christchurch and Dunedin, that have been running since the 1970s.
AUT Pro Vice-Chancellor, Professor Max Abbott, says: "Although the South Island studies contributed a great deal, their participants bore little resemblance to New Zealanders who would be born at the start of the new millennium."
In the early-1990s, he and colleagues sought to expand research in health and development, to reduce disparities and improve the wellbeing of future generations.
"Our initial plan was to develop a large prospective cohort study that was more representative of contemporary New Zealand. While the need for a comprehensive study was compelling, the political and research environments were not conducive at the time," says Abbott.
Major funding bodies were reluctant to support a third prospective study, due in part to the large investment required over many years and corresponding reduction in funding for new research.
"Following widespread consultation, we decided to focus exclusively on Pacific children and their families. There was little data available to inform communities and organisations involved in developing policies and services to address the health of our fast-growing Pacific population," says Abbott.
"It is a tribute to a small group of colleagues and supporters that funding was ultimately secured from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and, subsequently, the Health Research Council."
The PIF Study began in the same year that AUT became a university.
In 2010, AUT South Campus was established, not far from Middlemore Hospital where the cohort members were born. Appropriately, the AUT Pacific Health Research Centre and PIF Study were among the first to relocate to the new university grounds.
Abbott says the PIF Study and South Campus are an expression of AUT's commitment to contemporary education and research that fosters prosperity and wellbeing.