No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Story by Hamish Howard

Faculty of Science, 2018


At sixteen years of age Helen Woolner was a student at Porirua College, six months pregnant and planning to leave college. She had no desire to continue her education, with the exception of possibly pursuing a passion for art via correspondence school. Her school principal, Susanne Jungerson, suggested that she attend He Huarahi Tamariki: School for Teenage Parents.

He Huarahi Tamariki (A Chance for Children) offers second-chance education for parents unable to continue their formal education as a result of pregnancy or the birth of a child. Helen was not interested.

A case was put to her: great teachers, potential achievement, and a free lunch—every day. She agreed to visit the school before making a decision. It was the free lunch that got her.

A Second Chance at Education

When Helen Woolner first attended He Huarahi Tamariki, the school was located in the premises of a disused bar, the Cannons Creek Top Tavern, with childcare being provided at another site nearby. At the time, the school was the only institution in the country to offer a realistic path for teenage parents to continue with their education. Despite this, the school struggled for both recognition and funding, owing its existence to a large number of caring individuals.

Helen attended He Huarahi Tamariki from 2000 to 2004, giving birth to her son in July of 2000 and her daughter in December of 2001. During this time, she had to make compromises; English and maths exams were passed before continuing in the study of art. She also had to overcome challenges—having two children sick with chickenpox and then one with suspected mumps, all in the same year—and she gained new interests, ambitions, and goals.

Helen left He Huarahi Tamariki in 2004 having passed School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate, and Bursary examinations in a range of subjects (the equivalent of NCEA Levels 1, 2, and 3). The success of students such as Helen helped the school achieve the recognition and funding that it deserved and in 2003 it was able to move into a new purpose-built facility in the Wellington suburb of Linden.

In 2005 Helen began studying towards a Bachelor of Science at Victoria University of Wellington. Despite all of her educational achievements to date, her fondest memory is of walking to meet her sister, having just been accepted into university. She was euphoric and singing along, out loud.

“I didn’t know it at the time but that free lunch was a ticket to a second chance at education” Helen later announced in a speech.

Victoria University of Wellington

In 2009 Helen graduated from Victoria with a BSc in Chemistry. She then went on to complete a Master of Science in Chemistry, for which she was awarded First-Class Honours, graduating in 2012. Her thesis was titled The Isolation and Structure Elucidation of Secondary Metabolites from Tongan Marine Invertebrates. In this work, she isolated chemical compounds from various marine organisms (sea cucumbers and sponges) and researched their potential pharmaceutical application in the treatment of various ailments such as breast cancer.

She went on to complete a PhD in Chemistry, graduating in December 2017. Her thesis, New Halogenated Secondary Metabolites from Red Algae of the South Pacific, built upon her previous research but focused on the purification and identification of halogenated natural products; organic molecules that bear at least one of the inorganic chemical elements, fluorine, chlorine, bromine or iodine. Helen was asked to be the graduate speaker at her graduation and accepted the role, having turned it down at her previous graduation due to a fear of public speaking. In the speech, she advised her audience to be “mindful of things dressed up as a free lunch because it might just be a PhD in disguise”.

Pacific Chemistry

Helen’s story does not end there. Prior to graduation, she was awarded approximately $350,000 in funding through the Health Research Council’s Pacific Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship programme. This will fund a three-year research programme at Victoria’s Chemical Genetics Laboratory, under the supervision of Dr Rob Keyzers and Dr Andrew Munkacsi. Helen’s research will explore the chemical and biological properties of traditional plant-based medicines from New Zealand, Samoa, and the Cook Islands.

Hear Dr Woolner

  • Helen Woolner - Graduate Speaker December 2017


Kelburn, Wellington 6012, New Zealand