The scientist who spent three years in Year 10

Palatasa Havea was Tonga's first food science PhD.

Palatasa Havea was Tonga's first food science PhD.

Palatasa (Tasa) Havea likes to call everybody 'Boss', which is surprising when you consider his own experience and achievements.

The senior research scientist at the Fonterra Research and Development Centre (FRDC) is believed to be Tonga's first food science PhD, has advised the New Zealand government on multiple policy issues involving the Pacific Islands, and is a prominent church and community leader. And for good measure, he's played a key role in pioneering the use of whey protein in a variety of products that are returning hundreds of millions of dollars to the New Zealand economy.

That's an inspiring achievement for a guy who took three years to get through Year 10 (fourth form) and only learnt to read properly in his last year of high school.

He might have struggled with education early on, but he was always a quick learner with science on Vava'u, the northern Tongan island he grew up on.

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"We learned science pretty much because we didn't have any tools or equipment to do things, but you learn it by actually living it," says Tasa. "As a young kid my interest in science was more in the relationship with nature because I was doing a lot of fishing and looking after animals on the farms."

He would have been happy doing that for the rest of his life, with a little bit of boxing thrown in as well, but his father understood the power of knowledge.

"My dad never liked me doing the boxing. He kept on saying 'Boy, you go to school'."

He did, but every day Tasa felt like the punching bag taking the pounding from a series of sharp combinations – a poor school environment and the struggle with reading and writing.

It was a difficult experience he would draw on later in life to help others.

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"I didn't like school, was tossing up whether to leave when I was younger, at 14-15," he says.

"I failed everything. In the islands at the time we had New Zealand School Certificate that we had to sit. I never passed that. It took me three years to do the year before that – the fourth form."

Something had to change so Tasa decided to move south, to the main island of Tongatapu, to attend one of the country's best schools.

But first he had the tricky task of convincing the principal that he deserved to be there. "They accepted me because I told the principal I had passed my School Certificate and he put me in Form 6 ... because of me being a nice-looking guy, looking innocent, he let me in."

The change in environment and support of better teachers flicked a switch for Tasa.

"This school was so good because they helped me and they made me believe in myself.

"I became top in maths, top in biology. I got prizes for many things in that year and that's when I discovered I liked education. The teachers were better, the environment was better and because you are around good students you can't help but try your best. So I learnt to read properly. I could never read before then. I learned in Form 6."

He got to further that education in New Zealand four years later, when the company he joined after school, the Tonga Commodities Board, which was responsible for marketing local farmers' produce, sent the young islander to Massey University in Palmerston North to work on a food technology degree.

"I learnt a great deal," he says, "because in Tonga you see chocolate, ice cream and corned beef and other things and we never knew how they were made. To actually experience seeing all that, gaining understanding of how they are made and the discipline behind it was so fascinating."

Tasa took that knowledge back to Tonga but the company closed two years later and he was again at a crossroads. He considered teaching or maybe starting his own business, but instead he decided he needed to know more about food science and headed back to Massey on a New Zealand Government scholarship.

He completed his Masters degree, with first-class honours, in food technology and was offered a PhD role at the Dairy Board, researching whey protein functionality.

"I was the only Tongan with a food technology PhD," he says. "By now there are probably three or four more, but I was the first one."

He also worked at the whey protein plant at the Edgecumbe dairy factory as a research and development officer before joining the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute in 1999 which, a couple of years later, became FRDC with the mergers that formed Fonterra.

The man who has been something of an education pioneer in the Pacific Islands has had a similar impact in New Zealand's dairy science community.

Scientists around the world had long struggled with how to add whey protein – an outstanding source of nutrition – to consumer products. Too much of it and the product would be difficult to manufacture and eat.

Tasa took a leading role in vital research to find a process that would make the whey functional in manufacturing while maintaining its nutritional value. "We led the world in that and I did a lot of the extra research myself over many years."

Commercialisation of the process has been a highlight of his career. It means Fonterra is able to put whey protein into yoghurts, beverages and snack foods without compromising its nutritional value. That has led to a number of patents.

His important work doesn't stop there. His impact has been just as significant outside the dairy industry. For 13 years he advised the Ministry for Pacific Peoples on policies to help island communities in New Zealand.

"We [Pacific Islanders] don't always do very well in our education and the Ministry of Education has used me a lot as an example of someone who was really bad at school to help the kids, to see the potential to do well."

He has passed on that knowledge in many speeches to schools, conferences and communities around the country and also helps young strugglers through his church.

"We set up programmes to help kids with the literacy and numeracy. I think I know how they do well and how they do badly and how to turn them around to become good kids. I try to use my own  experience."

That experience may include heading back to Tonga one day, once his three children have headed off to university and their own careers.

"Maybe run a little business, retire pretty much, go fishing every day." And reflect on an inspiring career that has delivered so much for the people of the Pacific and the dairy industry in New Zealand. 

 - Stuff

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