Meet Sara, a young student researcher at USyd

I am on the Executive Group of the Australasian Council of Undergraduate Research (ACUR Council), a not-for profit member association that promotes undergraduate research opportunities and supports universities in better supporting young research talent. Apart from showcasing undergraduate research work at the Parliament House in Canberra, running colloquia for staff working with UG talent, the ACUR Council has been running an annual conference showcasing undergraduate student research. You might have seen the 10th anniversary celebration at the University of Sydney last year or seen the recent announcement about the 2023 ACUR conference to be hosted by the Swinburne University of Technology.

So naturally my ears perked up when I heard my colleague mention her daughter, who is doing an undergraduate degree, research work and who has already been publishing in renowned journals and working alongside senior scholars. I wanted to meet her.

When I meet Sara, I see a smiling face radiating keenness and ambition. Sara is in her second year of studying a Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Laws double degree at the University of Sydney, majoring in Genetics and Genomics. “I always wanted to become a scientist growing up,” Sara tells me when I ask her why she chose this program, “but I gradually became fascinated with the law as I started to learn about how justice intersects with other fields.” She did not want to have to choose between the two so she decided to do both. Here is our conversation.

Lilia: Sara, tell me about your first encounter with research, what was it like?

Sara: I remember when I was about eight, mum was doing her PhD and took me with her on campus. That was my first encounter and it was a nice memory. My family’s professions have been in research for many years so I was exposed to it for some time indirectly, but my first personal experience with research was completely separate and in a different field – I received an internship as a Youth Advisor with Dr Stephanie Partridge, at that time in the Westmead Applied Research Centre, when I was 16 years old, after attending a Careers in Health Day at Westmead Hospital with my high school. I work with the same team led by Dr Partridge now at the Engagement and Co-Design Hub in the Faculty of Medicine and Health, USYD. At the time, I remember giving advice on the creation of a survey that was to be sent out to other young people. I also remember helping draft a piece we wrote for Frontiers for Young Minds that got published a while later, that presented research on nutrition for a younger audience. As of today (14 August 2023), it has had 175,772 views and downloads from all over the world – there is something quite rewarding and satisfying about feeling that your contributions are leading to something real that can actually be useful to people.

Lilia: That’s impressive, Sara, is that what excites or fascinates you about research?

Sara:The chance to create new knowledge rather than simply consuming knowledge – it makes you feel like you are part of a community that is all interested in a common goal in some way or another rather than simply observing progress from the sidelines, without a voice to shift the conversation.

Lilia: It’s fantastic to hear that despite being early in your research journey you already feel like you are a member of the research community here and feel like your work has impact. Can you tell me more and have you experienced any challenges along the way?

Sara: I don’t think that younger researchers have quite been normalised yet, even when they work on topics that are related to young people like my research. For instance, it is difficult to secure funding to present your research at conferences. When I presented at a conference in Montreal, Canada, this year, they did not have an age or degree category on the registration form for me at all – I am 19 years old and haven’t finished my Bachelor’s degree, and the categories on the registration form went from 20 years old onwards, and Bachelor’s onwards. It is very difficult to enter the field in the first place if you do not have an academic or team who is willing to guide you and vouch for you, but I think this is beginning to change. I am lucky to be in a team that recognises the value that younger researchers can bring to the field.

Lilia: I hear you, this kind of advocacy and support is also quite important for more established scholars as well. Feeling like you belong here is essentially fuelled by the support of the community around you. What do you think doing research teaches you? What skills does it develop?

Sara: I think that research teaches perseverance above all. It can often be a long process, longer than assignments at university for instance, and it teaches you how to handle large projects over time consistently. Teamwork is also a skill that research develops, because often you write papers and work on projects alongside other co-authors, and each individual brings their own perspective and expertise. My co-authors taught me how to do systematic literature reviews using review software, so doing research in a team is a great opportunity to learn practical skills from each other.

Lilia: And perseverance and resilience are such important qualities, as we know. Employers of our graduates tell us that all the time! Is there anything research develops better than any other form of learning and teaching, do you think?

Sara: Research develops creativity better than other forms of learning and teaching in my opinion. In research you cannot rehash the thoughts of others without bringing them together in a unique perspective, or without linking it to novel data and conclusions.

Finally, when I ask her about a personal highlight, she shares that one of her papers got accepted to the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health. The Youth Reviewer said that their paper “represented a way of thinking that needs to become more widely held across the world”.

When the message you want to convey is received well by the very people you want to do research for, the hours you put into that piece pay off and it is a wonderful feeling,” says Sara.

It strikes me how well Sara is able to identify the qualities and skills that doing research develops in her. She clearly sees the value of research in her learning as she pinpoints all the attributes commonly discussed when we talk about ‘developing our students’ employability. Sara was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time (i.e. she participated in a school competition where her team won) when a research work opportunity came along, she is obviously keen and motivated and did not waste an opportunity. While I walk away rushing to a meeting, the inspiration in Sara’s eyes stays with me. Engaging in genuine research activities are doing so much for her personal and professional growth, I wonder how many other students we could be igniting if we were to present them with real hands-on research learning opportunities.

I have a feeling we’ll see more of Sara around campus and beyond. Good luck Sara!

For staff and students interested, keep an eye out on the 2023 ACUR conference to be hosted by the Swinburne University of Technology. Please share widely with staff and students. I hope to see many of you there.

Photo: courtesy of Sara, taken at a conference in Canada.

About the author

I joined the Business School in August 2018 as Academic Lead for Course Enhancement and Lecturer. I look after learning assurance, curriculum development and assessment design. I research higher and doctoral education, ECR careers, and researcher development.

Published by Dr Lilia Mantai

I joined the Business School in August 2018 as Academic Lead for Course Enhancement and Lecturer. I look after learning assurance, curriculum development and assessment design. I research higher and doctoral education, ECR careers, and researcher development.

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