By KATE McILHONE.
The University of Auckland Young New Zealander of the Year Award encourages and rewards youth leadership and innovative ideas. The title will be awarded to a community-oriented individual between the ages of 15 and 30, who is striving to improve themselves as well as contribute to New Zealand’s future.
Dr. Malvindar Singh-Bains is a neuroscientist based at the University of Auckland Centre for Brain Research. She is most well known for her work in promoting brain health and awareness of neurodegenerative diseases.
In 2010, Malvindar was awarded the University of Auckland Doctoral Scholarship to complete her PhD at the Centre for Brain research, specifically focusing on Huntington’s disease. Just three years later she established the Huntington’s Disease Youth Organisation of New Zealand, a charity devoted to supporting NZ youth effected by Huntington’s Disease.
Malvindar is driven by the fact that, despite there being so much information about these diseases, there is still no cure. “Different parts of the body we can live without… but once you lose an aspect of your brain… you often find you lose a part of yourself.”
While the gene for Huntington’s is not present in Malvindar’s family, she does know what it’s like to have a family member affected by brain disease. Her maternal grandmother’s experience with severe dementia serves as a driving force for her research. “You realise that it is a real condition that affects real people and real families.”
Malvindar says that New Zealand has so much potential for innovative research, but because we are a smaller nation, these ideas can’t always be funded. Research conferences allow scientists such as Malvindar to present their research overseas, which can lead to important collaborations.
In August 2014, Malvindar was one of the youngest speakers to present at the Hereditary Disease Foundation Conference in Boston. “That was a really amazing experience simply because all of the people I was presenting to were people who had dedicated their entire lives to researching Huntington’s disease.”
While this has been the highlight of Malvindar’s career thus far, she says that speaking to Kiwi youth about brain health is an equally rewarding experience.
Malvindar has played a crucial role in encouraging youth to recognise the importance of “looking after your brain”. Here are her four main tips to maintaining a healthy brain:
- Eat healthy food and exercise regularly. If you eat lots of high fat and high sugar food you are putting your brain under lots of stress which can affect your concentration and thinking.
- Wear a helmet when doing sports such as rugby or skateboarding. If you get a knock to the head, get it checked out.
- Turn off the TV and get thinking. Brain training exercises such as sudoku, reading and interactive gaming can help push back the onset of brain diseases later in life.
- Stay away from addictive substances which alter the chemical balances in your brain.
On her nomination, Malvindar commented “I’m not used to all this, I’m just a normal New Zealander who does my thing. I don’t really think about acclaim. I’m just quite overwhelmed by all of this.”
Aged 15, Matt Strawbridge is the youngest nominee this year. He founded his website Dyslexia Potential two years ago, aged only 13. Having struggled with dyslexia from a young age, Matt used his experiences to establish a website that shares step-by-step guides and learning resources designed to help dyslexic youth. “I’d always wanted to help other dyslexic kids and then everything fell into place from there.”
More recently, Matt set up another website called TutorBook. This website allows dyslexic students to book Skype sessions with tutors who are in the education sector, or are studying at university level.
When Matt’s English tutor moved away for university, he continued tutoring with her over Skype. “I found it to almost be better than doing it in person,” says Matt. “After we were doing that for a while, I thought ‘well, why don’t I just offer this to everyone else?'”.
Matt, who uses TutorBook for his own studies, likes that the majority of the tutors are of university age and have recently sat NCEA exams themselves. “They understand the struggle and respect the fact that you have to balance everything.”
In the near future, Matt would like to expand his projects to include helping non-dyslexic students. “Obviously I will still run some dyslexic-specific events, but after seeing what a massive impact I can have on a smaller group of people, I’ve thought ‘well, why not step it up a bit?'”.
He is currently developing a new website that will host resources and events that will benefit “everyone and anyone.”
Having developed his own skills and coping strategies for learning, Matt uses his experiences to help those who may be struggling at school. He has run several workshops in Auckland and Wellington where he shares his tips with fellow dyslexic students.
“What I do is tell them all the good sides of dyslexia.” He says that people tend to focus on the negative aspects, not realising that dyslexics often have a higher-than-average IQ and are very creative.
“First of all, you have to take out of the equation that you’re not stupid, it’s just that you have to do things a bit differently.” In his workshops, Matt encourages kids to hone in on their “dyslexic superpowers,” and find fun ways of learning.
Through his work, Matt has been able to attend several Global Youth Leadership Summits and meet many notable people, including Richard Branson, Les Brown and Rod Drury. Over the summer holidays, Matt interned at Drury’s company Xero, and hopes to work with him again in the future.
Matt says his greatest achievement so far has been “having the courage to start it all. It’s really hard to tell people that you want to start something [especially] in the first few months when nothing was really happening and it looked like a bit of a failure.”
Matt’s advice to other Kiwi kids with an idea is to just give it a shot. “If you don’t do it, then you’ll never know what will happen. You’ll at least learn something by failing.”
Wellington-based Guy Ryan is the founder and Chief executive of Inspiring Stories Trust, an organisation that provides important opportunities to young Kiwi entrepreneurs. Leading an expanding operations team in Auckland and Wellington, Guy runs workshops for Kiwi youth. He is driven by the desire to see Kiwi entrepreneurship expanded to its fullest potential.
“Imagine if every young New Zealander unleashed their potential to change the world. What would it take to make that happen?”
Nearly 5,000 young Kiwis have been directly involved in the Trust’s many partnerships, programmes and workshops. Over the last four years, Guy has spoken in both local and international capacities to over 10,000 people. His notable speaking engagements include opening TEDx Wellington in 2014 with his talk A Vision for New Zealand.
Guy’s other speaking achievements include being the youngest graduation speaker in history for AUT University’s Business & Law School Graduation Ceremony.
Unfortunately, due to his busy schedule Guy, was unavailable for comment on his nomination. To find out more about Guy and his projects, check out www.inspiringstories.org.nz.
Each year the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards recognises extraordinary New Zealanders for their important contributions to the nation and their own communities. The winner of each of the six categories receives a $5,000 cheque and a trophy recognising their achievements. The winners will be announced on Wednesday 25th February at the Gala Awards Presentation Dinner in Auckland.