4 Jan 2024

Moana Theodore - getting to know the new Dunedin Study director

From Summer Times, 10:00 am on 4 January 2024

Moana Theodore (Ngāpuhi) is a name you're going to hear a lot more of.

Last year, the Otago University associate professor took the reigns as the new director of the famous Dunedin Study – researching the lives of over a thousand people born in Dunedin in 1972.

Moana chats to Anna Thomas about her life and career and shares some of her favourite books and songs.

Associate Professor Reremoana (Moana) Theodore - the director of The Dunedin Study

Associate Professor Reremoana (Moana) Theodore - the director of The Dunedin Study Photo: Supplied

Reremoana grew up in South Auckland – her father from the Bay of Islands and her mother a "proud West Coaster" – and met her longtime friend-turned-husband while studying psychology at the University of Auckland.

In the late '90s, after finishing her degree, Moana visited the South Island for the first time and eventually moved to her husband's hometown of Dunedin.

"I remember we crossed the ferry late at night and waking up in Picton and just seeing the scenery I was absolutely blown away. It was just so different from what I had seen.

"[In Dunedin] I fell in love with the beauty of the place and the warmth of the people."

Moana first worked on The Dunedin Study – regarded as the world's most detailed study of human health and development – back in 1998, interviewing the participants at 26.

In 2009, she returned to do postdoctoral research with the late Richie Poulton, the study's first director.

The participants in the study and their families have made an "incredible gift" to society by talking about their lives and how they've turned out in the hope that it will improve the lives of others, she says.

"We have study members from all walks of life coming in and some of them have had, you know, tremendously difficult lives, but they come in with the hope of sharing that information and making other people's lives better."

Many Dunedin Study participants still live in Otago and other parts of New Zealand, some live in Australia and a few have gone further afield, Moana says.

A remarkable 94% of the original intake were still participating at the age of 45 – "by far and away the highest number you would see percentage-wise in the world".

The findings of the study, which reveal the long-term impact of early childhood on a person's life, speak to the societal benefits of working with children and their families to support kids getting the best possible start, Moana says.

She's sure that the research has informed her life and also how she parents her three children. 

"As someone that works in the area, I've spent a lot of time when they were in their early childhood and throughout, thinking about the type of person they might develop into.

"As parents you try and surround them with with love and give them what you can in the hope that they'll develop into human beings that are passionate about what they do.

"For me, it's important that they give back to their community and try and make a difference as much as they possibly can with the gifts and the talents that they have."


'I AM' by Stan Walker

"It's a lovely song … obviously just such a beautiful voice but I just love the lyrics.

"He's one talented young man and it's just been amazing to watch his sort of career trajectory, really … yeah, he's a beautiful artist."


'The Dress' by Dijon

"Growing up in South Auckland we used to listen to a lot of hip-hop and R&B. I found that once I started to get interested in that type of music I would also listen to soul music as well. This was my number-one song this year."


'Golden' by Jill Scott

"Growing up I listened to R&B and soul music. I remember listening to people like Anita Baker and Ruby Turner, who I still listen to.

"I got asked recently what song I play when I need a lift or something that makes me happy and this is one of my go-to's."



There’s a Cure for This by Emma Espiner

"It's a fascinating tale about her childhood and growing up and then her going through medical school and the challenges, I guess opportunities, around health and looking after our communities. I was very fortunate to hear her also talk recently at the Dunedin Writer's Festival."


A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tūpuna by Melinda Webber and Te Kapua O'Connor

"I think one of the wonderful things about this type of book is it appeals to understanding our histories, understanding our genealogies, understanding our ancestry. It's a common thing for all humans to be interested in finding out more about where they came from and our incredible ancestors. That was one of my favourites this year as well."