Eating up

To help her people thrive, health scientist Amy Maslen-Miller first wants to give them a seat at the table.

Written by      

Geoffery Matautia

Eat more salad. Get off the couch. Why don’t you people take better care of yourselves? Amy Maslen-Miller, a Samoan health scientist, is done with the way the Western medical establishment has long talked down to her people.

It starts with the way research into indigenous health has typically been undertaken. “‘We have studied you, we looked at you, not with you.’ That really frustrates me, because it shouldn’t be done that way.”

Neither should healthcare, she says. “You can’t tell people what to eat, and what not to do. I’ve been through that diet yo-yo process myself, and I’m, like, you know that’s not going to work.”

To try to find something that will, the 30-year-old PhD candidate gets up at 4am three times a week and beats the traffic to the University of Auckland. She is part of a group piecing together the impact of a particular gene on Māori and Pasifika. Discovered in 2016 and originally called “the obesity gene”—a term Maslen-Miller and others in the group loathe—the CREBRF genetic variant is linked with a higher risk of obesity, but a lower risk of Type II diabetes.

“Part of our study is looking at what’s going on there,” Maslen-Miller says. “It might actually be a helpful gene for us.”

She is particularly fascinated by the interplay of the gene and what Samoan women eat—especially whether a traditional Samoan diet might help them live longer, healthier lives.

What is a traditional Samoan diet? Maslen-Miller says many people, Samoans included, think of dishes like keke pua’a/pork buns, sapa sui/chop suey, pani popo/coconut buns, or koko alaisa/cocoa rice. But she points out that these are largely post-colonial dishes, and that her Samoan ancestors ate a nutritious, mainly pescatarian diet: taro, banana, breadfruit, yam, coconut and fish.

In the mid-1900s, after five decades of colonial rule, a term for diabetes began to appear in Samoa: ma’i suka, which literally means sugar sickness. Diabetes is now the country’s third leading cause of death.

[Chapter Break]

BORN in New Zealand, Maslen-Miller was adopted from birth into a Palagi family. Her Samoan birth mother died when she was young. While she has stayed in touch with her birth father and siblings, it wasn’t until university that she began to reconnect with her Samoan heritage.

She’s now in the third year of her PhD, conducting talanoa, or genuinely two-way conversations—as opposed to interviews—with Samoan women about their thoughts and memories of Samoan food.

“One of the ways that the doctors say to treat Type II diabetes is to exercise and eat healthy. Well, we used to eat healthily, and our ancestors used to eat healthily,” she says. “A lot of this knowledge will have been passed down within families, so this is looking at the past to address some of the problems today.”

The talanoa have been rewarding and emotional. Maslen-Miller recalls a woman in her 60s talking about how she and her siblings would pick cocoa from their backyard, then cook the seeds for their parents’ breakfast.

Another would catch sea cucumbers for an after-school snack. That’s completely different from her own childhood, but she loves hearing about it. “Just that connection to the land—even knowing what a sea cucumber is, let alone how to catch it.”

Sometimes, learning about these other lives also makes her feel sad, and even jealous. Maslen-Miller has felt “not Samoan enough”—that her cultural knowledge is somehow falling short—an experience she says is common among her generation of New Zealand-born Samoans. “There’s a lot of shame about that.” She’s found that her research, and sharing it, helps.

The flipside is sometimes not feeling Palagi enough, or feeling like she has somehow to represent all of Samoa in her work, a space that’s majority white. She thinks some of that pressure—to elevate herself, to dress the right way, to be an advocate for Pasifika in science—is self-imposed. And as she progresses through her studies, and watches Pasifika peers drop out, that sense of responsibility is only growing. “I used to be a lot quieter, a lot more shy, but now I’ve seen so many inequalities in health and I know I can be a voice for our people in the research.”

For her master’s degree Maslen-Miller researched taro leaf blight disease, which wiped out all of Samoa’s taro crops 30 years ago. She then spent two years investigating how the blight impacts taro corms—she hopes her findings, which helped to establish how to tell a blight infection from other diseases, could help to reopen Samoa’s exports to Australia.

That work also sparked a different sort of talanoa. One day, Maslen-Miller opened her car boot and saw the hundreds of taro she was about to deliberately infect. “I thought, ‘Whoa, this is crazy.’” Instagram was relatively new, and Maslen-Miller decided to start there, posting a picture of her cargo.

It took her a while to build up to sharing her more personal stories, or glimpses of her non-science life, such as weaving kono/baskets during lockdown, or playing violin with the Auckland Symphony Orchestra. She’s nervous giving interviews like this, too, but is determined to show other young Pasifika there’s a space for them in science.

She now spends 16 hours a week building her online following. As the Samoan Scientist, she has a podcast, active accounts on TikTok, X and Facebook, and has just released a free eBook—she believes it’s the first document about traditional Samoan food to be written by a Samoan. And it’s not done yet. As she learns, and gathers more stories, she’ll add to the book.

“I want to find knowledge for the Samoan community and then just give it to them and see what they do with it,” she says. “Rather than being, like, ‘You should do this.’”

More by