Among EIT’s youngest research professors, Rachel Forrest enthusiastically pursues her passion for academic projects.
Her latest research is particularly close to this animal lover’s heart, focusing as it does on improving the health, well-being and physical performance of owners and their dogs and cats.
The recently launched Patu Pets – the furry whānau project is being run in tandem with Patu Aotearoa, an initiative kick-started by EIT Bachelor of Recreation and Sport graduate Levi Armstrong in 2012 to promote holistic health and well-being in local communities.
Having developed a model that combines group exercise and healthy lifestyle education with Māori language and culture, Levi has expanded from a first gym opened in Hawke’s Bay to operating nationwide.
The research project being led by Rachel is exploring the attitudes of gym members towards their companion animals and associated health and welfare issues.
“While there’s lots of research work relating to agricultural animals and native species, there’s been no research done in New Zealand on what people think about their pets,” she explains.
“For example, docking dog tails, microchipping, health insurance for animals, keeping cats in at night to protect native birds – no-one has asked owners these questions.”
It’s research that squares neatly with Rachel’s own love of animals and aligns well with the research interests of EIT’s newest executive dean, Professor Natalie Waran, who mentors the project.
Living in Meeanee with her fiancé, Rachel says their menagerie of pets are “brothers and sisters” to 12-year-old son Liam.
Trevor, a Bichon Frise cross, keeps Rottweiler puppies Thunder and Storm in line. Then there’s a cat called Killer, Geoffrey the turtle, two chickens – Christmas and Dinner – and a rabbit dubbed Assassin.
“They all get on harmoniously,” she laughs in listing the pets’ names. “The dogs share their accommodation with the chickens and in fact they think they are chickens and eat their roommates’ food. They’re all part of the same tribe.”
Rachel attended Rangitikei College in Marton, and moved to Canterbury to study for a Bachelor of Science majoring in zoology. She then completed a Diploma in Laboratory Technology and progressed to a PhD in molecular genetics.
Her three-month diploma placement led to the doctorate and ongoing collaborative research with Lincoln University’s Gene-Marker Laboratory, which is aimed at improving health, welfare and productivity in animal breeding.
Moving to Hawke’s Bay in 2009 to be closer to family, she started working for EIT “on a lot of little part-time contracts”. Two years later, at the age of just 37, she was appointed Associate Professor in the School of Nursing.
“I find it a lot like Christchurch,” she says of Napier, “with hills on one side and ocean on the other. If I had to move somewhere it was a good choice.”
Also teaching science to first-year nursing students and supervising postgraduate students, Rachel finds EIT is a “very supportive” working environment.
“We do a good deal with the community and I have a lot of autonomy. We have a lot of laughs and it’s always good to have a laugh. I always try to keep science relevant and fun,” she adds with her warm smile.
The Patu Pets project is funded by an EIT internal research grant and externally by the New Zealand Companion Animal Trust.