A glimpse into the world of research

October 2012

 

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Education Review looks at research in its many guises.

The Master’s researcher: Brendon Walters

To say that Brendon Walters is a busy guy would be an understatement. Since graduating with a Bachelor of Design (Product) from Otago Polytechnic in 2003, the design enthusiast has not stopped chasing his career dreams.

Brendon, who works as a day-time tradesman, is studying a Master’s of Design Enterprise and currently undertaking placement at successful Dunedin gas fire manufacturer, Escea, working on product-design ideas.

“I started in the Master’s knowing that I would be concentrating on industry placement as the main component of my course; I assumed research would be a part of this to be successful in the industry, which is why I secured placement with Escea, because without learning and research, you generally miss the mark in product design,” says Brendon.

“I’ve always been someone who likes to create and understand things. Product design appealed to me more than the likes of communication and graphic design because the designs have human interaction and have to ‘work’, as well as being pleasing to the eye. Making functionality of items align with aesthetics is always an interesting challenge.”

Clearly passionate about the design industry, Brendon would like to continue researching and working in this field, which he hopes will land him a job as a full-time designer.

The PhD researcher: Agnes Siew Ling Tey

I am currently doing my PhD in Human Nutrition at the University of Otago. My thesis topic is to investigate the dose-response effects of hazelnut consumption on cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as body weight, blood cholesterol, vitamin E, and markers of inflammation. I am also examining how consumers’ liking for different doses of hazelnuts changes overtime. This is very important as consumers’ liking for nuts has a direct influence on their compliance with the public health message, which is to consume 30g of nuts five times per week.

I have always been fascinated by how diet influences health. Most people find it hard to comply with complex dietary guidelines, such as lowering their saturated fat and cholesterol intakes while increasing their monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat intakes. Thus, my research aims to determine whether the simple inclusion of nuts, which meets all the criteria above, could improve health outcomes.

I chose to do my PhD at Otago University because it has the most prestigious Human Nutrition Department in the southern hemisphere. The academic staff are world leaders in their chosen research areas. Most importantly, I thoroughly enjoy working with the nut team, my supervisors at University of Otago (Drs Rachel Brown, Alex Chisholm), and CSIRO, Australia (Dr Conor Delahunty). They are very down-to-earth, encouraging, and knowledgeable. The support I have received from the department is nothing less than outstanding. A great initiative of the department is our PhD peer support group. This group has the full backing of the department and creates a positive environment for postgraduate students to flourish.

I think the ‘coolest’ part of my postgraduate studies is that I have the freedom to design my own research and analyse outcome measurements of great interest to me. My supervisors have always ensured that I have sufficient funding and the right equipment to get the job done. My supervisors have encouraged me to publish my research, which to date has resulted in four publications in high-impact journals. Further to this, I have been asked to write position papers for health professionals, nut growers, and the general public. I believe it is vital so that our research findings are beneficial at the societal level, and for this to occur, they must be disseminated widely and appropriately.

One particular highlight for me is that I have obtained several travel grants to present my research findings at six international conferences during my postgraduate studies. This has allowed me to combine the dissemination of my study findings with my passion for international travel.

My postgraduate experience to date has been hugely positive. The hours of work that are required to complete a high-quality PhD is, at times, overwhelming. However, because of my passion for this research area, the enjoyment of working with my supervisors, and the support I have received on my journey to date, I do not feel this as a challenge.

My future plan is to work in the food industry or research organisations/non-governmental organisations such as the World Health Organisation or United Nations, where I can apply my nutritional knowledge to help others to improve their health. My goal is to combine both my nutrition and sensory science expertise to develop quality nutritious foods that taste good so that public will consume them over the long term.

The lecturer researcher: Donella Cobb

I am currently working as a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Waikato, and I am completing a PhD through The University of Auckland.

A volunteer opportunity in the tiny central African country of Rwanda a number of years ago started my ongoing involvement in assisting with the development of education in this nation. I had no idea back then that these experiences would later be birthed into the focus of my PhD research.

My background as a teacher and assistant principal initially took me to Rwanda to volunteer on a project to develop national teacher-training material and to provide in-service teacher training as the country transitioned to using English as their national language of instruction. More recently, I have been involved in the writing of university education courses in teacher education alongside continued teacher training at pre-service and in-service level.

While the nation is still recovering from the devastating effect of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has made remarkable progress to redevelop its education system in a relatively short space of time. It has seen considerable growth in enrolment figures and has made significant adjustments to the structure of the education system to reduce inequalities and achieve gender parity. Despite this, it has one of the highest school dropout rates in the world, with only one in two children completing primary school. The quality of education in Rwanda has been addressed as one of the factors contributing to this high dropout rate, and in particular, the quality of teaching has been of particular concern. The Rwandan government has advocated a number of measures to improve the quality of teaching, with the implementation of learner-centred approaches being one of them.

From my own experience of training teachers to implement learner-centred methods, it has been evident that this transition has been extremely difficult for teachers. It is for this reason that my research aims to understand teachers’ experiences of implementing learner-centred approaches into the classroom context. It is hoped that the findings from this study will inform the development of future teacher training programmes (both pre-service and in-service) in Rwanda.

I am still very much in the early stages of my research, having recently returned from Rwanda to organise a lot of ‘ground work’ prior to applying for Rwandan ethics approval. I am anticipating that I will return to Rwanda to start collecting my data midway through next year. Working in a different cultural context adds another layer of complexity to the PhD journey. The need to organise different ethics requirements, visas, and translators, alongside working within the requirements and regulations of government affiliations, can add additional challenges to the process. Everything takes just that little bit longer, so you need to be quite flexible and extremely patient. At the same time, the richness of the experience alongside the privilege of being able to understand the viewpoints and perspectives of teachers from a different cultural context is well worth the extra effort.

The senior research fellow: Dr Mark Vickers, Liggins Institute

I am currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Liggins Institute, The University of Auckland. My current research focus is on the effects of altered maternal nutrition e.g. maternal obesity, on the health and wellbeing of offspring, including risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes.

My career path could not be considered ‘normal’ but is an example, I think, of how application of basic acquired skills can be successfully applied across any research domain. As a high school student, I did the ‘artsy’ path of history-geography, with very little in the way of biology, chemistry, or related subjects. This led to a degree in geography at The University of Auckland. With a BSc in Geography in hand, although a fascinating subject, postgraduate job opportunities were limited. However, despite no relevant experience, I was fortunate enough to be offered work as a research technician in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Auckland. From here, my interest in basic medical research began.

After a few years as a research technician in New Zealand and in Germany, I had the enthusiasm to follow this research at an academic level. I subsequently completed an MSc (with first class honours) in medical science (examining the role of growth factors in male fertility), and later, a PhD in paediatrics, where I investigated the role of maternal undernutrition on obesity and metabolic disorders in offspring. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by great mentors, including our current Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, and even after publishing over 65 papers, my enthusiasm for the research has not waned but rather increases with each new piece of research undertaken – another piece of the puzzle added.

I now lead my own research group comprised of students, post-doctoral fellows, and research technicians. I enjoy all aspects of this work bar one: funding. With public good funding around 10 per cent of submitted applications, world class science can still go unfunded and straight “A” rankings do not necessarily guarantee success. Further, one does not undertake a career in science on the basis of salary and fiscal rewards, but to me, the other rewards outweigh this, including contribution to science and society, making a mark on the international stage and training the next generation of New Zealand scientists. New Zealand researchers have a knack for thinking outside the box and leading internationally innovative science. It is a career opportunity I have not once regretted.

Collaborative researchers: Gert Hatting, Lead Researcher at Wintec’s Advanced Sustainability Village

The Advanced Sustainability Village is part of a new sustainability research programme led by Wintec and involving a number of industry, government, and tertiary institution partners.

The village is aimed to help find ways to build more sustainable and energy-efficient homes, find better ways for the normal household to live sustainably, and evaluate new technologies. Its goal is to advance sustainable living in domestic situations in New Zealand and to provide real world solutions to current and potential eco issues.

The project is a collaborative effort between industry, a number of Wintec schools and centres, the Government’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA), Wel Networks, international contributors, and University of Waikato students.

The village was established two years ago when five houses were purpose-built on Wintec’s Rotokauri campus in the north of Hamilton. As well as providing sustainable research data for the project, the houses are lived in by students, so the data being provided is real.

Each house is covered by a range of sensors, measuring parameters such as temperature, humidity, light, water, and power use. The current sensor set covers all the rooms, lounge, kitchen, and bathrooms of the house, as well as some external environmental parameters. The system is flexible enough to add any sensors that may be required for any research to be done at the village, such as air quality sensors.

The village also enables researchers to do research on sustainability issues on other sites. Work on the extensive sensor network has enabled Wintec researchers to gain knowledge and participate in larger community-based projects.

The sustainability research programme offers a range in research topics requiring a multi-disciplinary approach, involving many of Wintec’s schools and centres as it investigates issues pertaining to energy, health and wellbeing, landscape and gardening, and the built environment.

The sustainable research programme focuses on servicing industry, social, and community requirements, and Wintec is keen to collaborate with others on this research.

The emerging scientist: Dr Damien Fleetwood, AgResearch

I am an ‘emerging’ scientist, having graduated with my PhD in 2008. I performed my PhD research at AgResearch in Palmerston North after an MSc at Otago and a few years teaching in Japan. I’ve been working with AgResearch ever since, although I am now based at The University of Auckland in a split position.

My research focuses on fungi and their interactions with other organisms. The fungi are a fascinating kingdom of life, but due to their microscopic size, they remain under the radar for most of us. They shouldn’t! Fungi are the most important plant diseases and decomposers (think of all those rotting logs in the forest), they are used in fermentation of alcohol and production of other industrial chemicals and antibiotics, and they can produce beautiful fruiting bodies (mushrooms). What I find most fascinating are the mutually beneficial interactions between many fungi and plants.

I am lucky to work within a very successful team at AgResearch that commercialises fungi called endophytes that live inside grasses, and which produce chemicals that are toxic to insects. It is due to these fungi that we are able to grow grass so well here – without them, our pastures would be devastated by insect pests (so spare a thought for the helpful fungi living in the grass next time you’re looking at a lush green field!).

What I love about my work is that I get to spend my working hours learning about life and how it works and using that knowledge to benefit society by reducing pesticide use and increasing agricultural productivity. The other thing I love is that science is, by its nature, a collegial undertaking, and I’ve been lucky to work with some incredible mentors and colleagues.

My future? With a family to support, it is time to get a job with more security than lurching from one hard-to-get grant to another. Whether I can achieve that within the chronically starved New Zealand science system remains to be seen, but I’m hopeful.