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He was among more than 320 people to graduate from Otago University at a Dunedin Town Hall ceremony at 3pm on Saturday and also became the first Maori student to gain a PhD in physiotherapy from the university.
Dr Bell, who has lived in or near Kaitaia, Northland, over the past 10 years, said his whanau (tribal family) was proud he had completed the PhD.
"But to me it’s more of a relief than anything," he said.
There had been many times, particularly over the past year, when he had "doubted myself, contemplated letting it go and thought I’d never get there".
His research had identified the limitations of the traditional "biomedical model" of obesity, and "the poor efficacy of this mechanistic public health approach for Maori with obesity".
"The reductionist model of diet and exercise, or calorie counting as a mitigation strategy for obesity, is simply not sufficient."
Obesity was a "much broader and complex issue" and would require a "broad-based approach" to " make any headway into its rising prevalence".
"We are too small a country economically to get it wrong with our health dollar spend, and if we are to reduce some of the many health inequities that exist, then we need to be smarter with how we are spending our health dollars.
"Our research has provided a platform whereby Maori have added their own voice to the obesity narrative," he said.
Associate Prof Steve Tumilty, of the Otago physiotherapy school, said Dr Bell’s thesis topic — "Huarahi Hauora: Identifying a pathway forward to wellness with Tangata Whenua" — had been "ground-breaking" in its approach to conducting research with indigenous populations.
Dr Bell said establishing collaborative research partnerships between the community in Te Tai Tokerau and the university had not been "an easy process", but showed how both indigenous and non-indigenous world views "can walk together, side by side in scholarship".
And the collaborative research platform had helped identify some of the potential "drivers for obesity in their communities", he said.