Passionate about helping people, Mahonri Owen is drawing on both STEM skills and Māori knowledge to develop a brain-controlled prosthetic hand.
Mahonri Owen says he didn’t get the greatest grades in high school, but he always knew he wanted a career that would help people. His favourite subjects were maths and physics (“I wasn’t very good at them, but I did enjoy them!”), so he signed up to do a Bachelor’s degree (honours) in mechanical engineering at the University of Waikato.
During his undergraduate years, Mahonri spent two years as a missionary with his church in South Africa, which further cemented his desire to make a difference. Returning home to New Zealand to finish his last year of uni, Mahonri came across a project for a brain-controlled prosthetic hand, which seemed like the perfect opportunity, so he jumped in.
“Over the next few months I wrestled with how hard the project actually was,” says Mahonri. But he finished his undergraduate degree, continuing with the project at Waikato for his Master’s and then a PhD. The technology, he explains, “is literally Star Wars and Terminator-type stuff”.
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“We’re taking electrical signals from the brain and once we figure out what they mean, we then use them to control mechanical devices – like a prosthetic hand,” he says.
Recognising your own value
Mahonri says his Māori heritage has played an important role in his career. Māori and Pacific Islander people make up just two per cent of New Zealand’s STEM workforce, which means Mahonri hasn’t always felt like he belonged.
“I was confused about how my value could be seen,” he says. “It wasn’t until even a few years ago I realised that it’s alright for me to be a Māori doctor in engineering and that
I should feel comfortable here.”
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Mahonri explains that a lot of his work is based on the Māori health concept of Te whare tapa whā – balancing the four dimensions of wellbeing: physical, spiritual, family and mental. “When someone loses their hand or limb, initially it’s absolutely a physical disability – they are shocked and traumatised from the loss of something they have had their whole life. But the impact is also social, mental, spiritual – it’s not a problem you can solve just by giving them an artificial hand and saying ‘here, take this’,” Mahonri points out.
As a doctoral researcher at Waikato University, Mahonri has now also directed his passion to do good towards supporting other young Māori people to pursue a career in STEM, through the Pūhoro STEM Academy, which has a mission to ‘advance Māori leadership and capability’ in STEM. “We’ve got 800 Maori kids in our program that were just like me, who we can now give opportunities to,” he says. “I believe they’re our next leaders.”
Mahonri’s study and career path
- Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) (Honours), University of Waikato
- Masters of Engineering (Brain Controlled Prosthetics) (Honours), University of Waikato
- PhD Engineering (Mechatronics, Robotics and Automation Engineering), University of Waikato
- Doctoral Researcher, University of Waikato
This article originally appears in Careers with STEM: Tech 2020.
Author: Gemma Chilton
Gemma has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney and spent a semester studying environmental journalism in Denmark. She has been writing about science and engineering for over a decade.