Date released
16 June 2023

Dr Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni hesitated when she was first approached to apply for the Meryl Williams Fellowship – a leadership and management program to support female agricultural researchers in the

As manager for the Plants & Postharvest Technologies Division at the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa (SROS), she already had a full plate, leading several projects aimed at improving food security and people’s health.

Plus, she was sceptical about whether leadership could be taught. ‘I was wondering, “how are people going to teach me to be a leader?”,’ remembered Dr Molimau-Samasoni. ‘I thought being a leader was just something that you learnt along the way, as you experienced it.’

Today, as she approaches the end of the fellowship program, she is pleased to stand corrected. Dr Molimau-Samasoni said the insights she has gained through workshops and the people she has met, have helped to make her a better leader, improving work relationships and outputs.

‘In fact, I wish I had the opportunity to do a program like this a lot earlier in my career. It showed me some wonderful things that have enabled me to be a much more effective leader in my organisation.’

Bringing women together

As the major breadwinner in her family and one of 4 women occupying 6 management positions at SROS (where 48% of scientists are female),
Dr Molimau-Samasoni and her organisation are bucking convention.

Despite these advances, Dr Molimau-Samasoni said being a female leader in the Pacific region can still feel ‘very isolating’.

And this is where the fellowship has provided great value. ‘You tend to think that you’re in this leadership space by yourself, but this program has brought like-minded women together to inspire each other and also support each other when things become challenging, which is really important,’ explained Dr Molimau-Samasoni.

Meeting in-person for workshops in Australia as part of the fellowship helped cement those ties.

For Dr Molimau-Samasoni, learning about different types of leadership personality traits – including her own – was particularly eye-opening. By learning how to align her leadership style with the individual needs of her team, whether it be providing close supervision or staying at arm’s length, she can help them to thrive, she said, and ultimately achieve better results for the community.

a woman gesturing talking in a group

Professional development

Dr Molimau-Samasoni moved her original work in drug discovery to agricultural research when an ACIAR-supported research opportunity arose at SROS, and she is very passionate about the applied nature of her work.

Her projects include expanding crop production windows and reducing losses post-harvest through refined food handling systems, with the larger aims of increasing nutrition and improving people’s livelihoods and wellbeing.

‘Noncommunicable diseases related to obesity are a real problem here in the Pacific, so we’re trying to approach that from a nutrition perspective, by expanding the fruit availability window so that consumers have a longer period of time where they’re able to access local citrus fruit for better health outcomes,’ said Dr Molimau-Samasoni.

‘We also have projects diversifying the types of produce that our farmers have access to so that they’re able to supply more food here in the Pacific.’

In research jointly funded by ACIAR and Canada’s International Development Research Centre, Dr Molimau-Samasoni is also leading a project to limit losses along horticultural supply chains in Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga.

She said a work placement at ACIAR as part of her fellowship has strengthened her relationship with Australia. And the benefits flow both ways.

For example, she showcased her organisation and her abilities as a leader, while also providing insights for ACIAR on Pacific government research priorities – advancing prospects for future collaboration.

Value of mentoring

Growing up in a Samoan family full of influential women, Dr Molimau-Samasoni said she had a blind spot around many of the gender-based difficulties faced by her peers.

The fellowship, she said, has helped her to understand the experience of other women in the Indo-Pacific region – and key in this has been her ‘larger than life’ mentor, Dr Fetaomi Tapu-Qiliho.

‘She opened up my eyes in terms of the challenges that less fortunate women are going through,’ she said. ‘At the same time, she’s been really fantastic in encouraging me around my own leadership challenges, including finding my voice in meetings dominated by men.’ 

The Meryl Williams Fellowship

Funded by ACIAR and named after the eminent Australian fisheries and aquaculture agricultural research leader, the Meryl Williams Fellowship was developed specifically for emerging female leaders in the Indo-Pacific region to overcome barriers to their participation and advancement in agricultural research.

Established in 2020, the fellowship has brought together 41 women from 15 countries. It pairs them with a local mentor and involves intensive leadership workshops. Participation extends over 15 months during which fellows developed personalised professional development plans, often involving regional collaboration. The program is delivered in partnership with the University of New England.

Dr Molimau-Samasoni discussing leadership ideas at the first intensive workshop of Cohort 2’s MWF program in Armidale, Australia. Photo: University of New England.

More information: Meryl Williams Fellowship