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Undergraduate Research in Australia

ACUR 2012 - Press Release

Research by undergraduate students  addresses important social and community issues.

Research by Emilie Wisniewski from the University of Melbourne addresses a pressing social problem: how to design a container for remote villages that collects dirty water and gets rid of impurities to make clear drinking water. Last week her paper: “Sedimentation tank design for rural communities in the hilly regions of Nepal”  won the $1000 prize for the best paper at the First Australasian Conference of Undergraduate Research.

The conference, which is a new initiative of Macquarie University is already being hailed as one of the highlights of the Australasian academic calendar.  Over 200 undergraduate students and their supervisors and supporters met last Thursday to present and hear about  research carried out  by undergraduates. Commenting on the presentations, delegates were astonished at the high quality of the research and the professional way students from universities across Australia and New Zealand presented it. This is the first time that an undergraduate research conference has been held in Australia although they are well established in the US and the UK.

Passion and enthusiasm for research shown by many of the presenters was demonstrated by the runner up, Gurion Ang from the University of Queensland. His paper “Ménage à trois: The problem with three-way interactions involving predatory wasps” explained technical issues so clearly that it generated many questions from the audience which he answered knowledgeably and with a dose of humour. Cabbage-white caterpillars are responsible for loss of crop yield in relation to cabbage-like plants. The wasps Gurion studied lay their eggs in such caterpillars, eventually killing them, so this research is important in understanding pest control.

Cory Bill from Macquarie University was third. He had a difficult job in his presentation to explain some fundamentals of English grammar to an audience of English speakers! Nevertheless, his presentation “’Her is going to bed now’: Investigating input-based explanations of why children produce non-nominative subjects” was engaging and informative and his paper, like that of the other finalists was also very well written. The best ten papers will be published in the Macquarie University Undergraduate research journal “Macquarie Matrix”.

Spoken presentations and posters at the conference covered a broad spectrum of academic subjects including some film and drama. Topics ranged from medical research to ancient history. A range of papers addressed issues of climate change, and there were a number of fascinating presentations on planets and space. Literature was also well represented. For example, Blake’s poems of Innocence and Experience were examined from an ecological perspective, and a number of social, identity and gender issues were addressed. Biology was also well represented as was psychology, law and so much more.

National Information Communication Technology Australia (NICTA) donated $500 for the best presentation in computer science/electrical engineering. This was won by first year student Ling Luo from the University of Sydney for her poster: “Cognitive Load Measurement through Muscle Actions”.  A peer review process at the conference resulted in prizes for the best poster being won by Laurie-Ann Keller of Macquarie University for her poster: ”He’s sexy and he knows it: Using harlequin bugs to investigate links between the design and presentation of iridescent signals” and the prize for the most interesting poster was won by Jessica Durham of Monash University for her poster: “Lesbian mermaids? The Vagina Monologues runs aground”.

The prizes were presented by Macquarie University’s new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Bruce Dowton. In a short address to the delegates he spoke of the work and achievements of Professor Adrian Lee who had donated the prize for the best paper, and  stressed the importance of integrating research and teaching.

Key to the success of the conference were the numerous volunteer helpers, many of whom were first year Macquarie students. Resplendent in their purple tea-shirts donated by Netspot, they set up the conference, manned the reception desks, put up the posters and, importantly, chaired and kept time in the sessions. Delegates commented that the chairing of sessions was better than that at many academic conferences!

This is clearly a significant event in the life of Australasian higher education that has 'touched a nerve'. Students’ appreciation for the conference is summed up in an email sent by of one of them: “As a first year student, I was so honoured to be given an opportunity to present my research to students and other visitors at a conference. I was also inspired by other presenters' enlightening presentations and have learnt some new information on different topics and methods of research I can apply to future research. This has been a significant highlight of my first year at university and I would like to thank you for organising and making possible this great conference.”

It is hoped this will become an annual event. Plans are already underway for a conference next year.

Professor Angela Brew

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