Photo: New director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, Associate Professor Cilla Wehi (R) with new deputy director Dr Mike O’Sullivan (L).

1 July 2021

The next phase of Te Pūnaha Matatini begins today, as Associate Professor Cilla Wehi takes over as our new director.

Cilla has bold aims to build upon the transdisciplinary community that was created under the leadership of founding director Professor Shaun Hendy. “It’s done really well up until now and I think we want to build on that,” she says.

“Our aim is to reimagine what research looks like, and provide a platform to make intellectual leaps that are important here in Aotearoa New Zealand, but also globally.”

Te Pūnaha Matatini is a transdisciplinary Centre of Research Excellence in complex systems that brings together researchers throughout Aotearoa New Zealand.

New deputy director Dr Mike O’Sullivan agrees that “Te Pūnaha Matatini has built a really great community. The value of that community wasn’t well understood until COVID-19 hit, and then its value became quickly apparent at an international level.”

Shaun’s tenure as inaugural director culminated with Te Pūnaha Matatini receiving the 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Prize for our work developing a series of mathematical models, analysing data and communicating the results to inform the New Zealand Government’s world-leading response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The success of this work very publicly validated the emphasis that Te Pūnaha Matatini has placed on values, expertise and communication since our establishment in 2015.

Cilla says that she wants to build upon this foundation to continue to contribute to positive societal change. “We’ve got data analytics to create new knowledge for transformative change and we’ve got a vision of the kind of society that we would like to be part of in the future.”

Researchers in Te Pūnaha Matatini’s community often work in the gaps between disciplines, which is where Cilla says the most exciting ideas often emerge.

“Te Pūnaha Matatini has intellectual curiosity, and we’ve got a suite of tools that can be used to address some of the big challenges that New Zealand faces globally, so we really can push out boundaries.”

Mike is excited about supporting Cilla in her leadership role. “Cilla has clear ideas about the things she wants to do,” says Mike. “But she’s good at listening as well.”

“And she’s not afraid to agitate a little bit.”


Photo: Te Pūnaha Matatini Kaumātua Associate Professor Tom Roa.

Another fundamental source of support for Cilla in this leadership role is the wisdom and guidance of Te Pūnaha Matatini Kaumātua, Associate Professor Tom Roa.

“I’ve known Tom a long time,” says Cilla. “He’s the most fantastic person to discuss ideas with because he has really deep insight, and brings a wealth of knowledge from Māori contexts that has relevance and can really help us to see the best path forward.”

Tom shared a kōrero from his iwi Ngatī Maniapoto that underpins Te Pūnaha Matatini’s approach. When the kawau (shag or cormorant) flock for flight, they form an arrow shape, which allows them to collectively punch through headwinds. As leaders tire, those behind them move up to the front.

Cilla explains that “if you align yourselves as a group then you can punch through these difficult problems in a way that you could never do as one person alone. But also, when the leading birds get tired they step back and others come forward. So we’re growing people to step up. This is a group effort, and we are in it together.”

One of the key purposes of Te Pūnaha Matatini is to develop new researchers.

Cilla explains that “it’s become really clear over the last few years how important it is to do not only collaborative research but ethical research. There’s a much stronger focus now on working in partnership with our communities, and on our responsibility to communicate evidence. So we want to train researchers who are collaborative and ethical, and are great at both working with data and working with people.”

“It’s about contributing to future research, but also the future of Aotearoa New Zealand.”

“Complexity is at our heart,” concludes Cilla. “We build community across disciplines to solve complex problems.”