News & Events

Developing the career of a young researcher Posted: 04/09/2008

Singing “Ode to Joy” in a Maori meeting hall was completely unexpected for Abigail Hathway.  She was in New Zealand as a participant of a ten-day workshop, run by British Council New Zealand, in partnership with Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua.


International Networking for Young Scientists is a British Council initiative bringing together young researchers from the UK and other countries to make new contacts and promote the creative exchange of ideas through short workshops. 


The workshop in New Zealand had two strands:  Low Impact Urban Design and Development, and Sustainable Consumption. NZ and UK researchers were matched on a 1:1 basis with a programme of presentations, discussions and social events, to encourage a cross-fertilisation of ideas.  Abigail found plenty of new ideas as a researcher newly graduated with a PhD.  She has just joined the University of Sheffield as a member of the URSULA (Urban River Corridors and Sustainable Living Agendas) team. 


URSULA is a £2.5 million project drawing on expertise from multiple academic departments at the University as well as the universities of Bradford and Durham.  It is examining the redevelopment of the River Don, and seeks to adopt innovative ways of developing potential solutions to a variety of identified problems.


“Rivers are at the heart of many of our cities, but in the past they suffered from pollution and neglect,” explains David Lerner, the Project Director.  “Other problems such as flooding have become visible in recent years.  These potentially attractive and ecologically important spaces are now prime targets for redevelopment, offering opportunities to create high quality communities. “


Working together with partners Sheffield City Council and the Environment Agency, the URSULA team will provide new ideas, models and designs which will lead to improved policy and practice.  Sheffield’s own River Don will be the main case study, and the Sheffield contingent who visited New Zealand are anxious to feed the ideas generated there into the project.


"It was a great opportunity for me, a new aspect to meet other people working in the same area and to identify new hot topics and possible future projects", explained Abigail.


"We spent ten days looking at examples of development and listening to presentations and seminars.  We ended with a mountain retreat to sharpen our focus.  Here we discussed papers, debated on what we'd seen and heard, and this culminated in developing ideas for new research.  I can see great potential for the project I was involved with developing to link in with URSULA, using analogies between scales to understand the larger scale.


"The two key outcomes for me were a greater understanding of the issues of Low Impact Design on an international scale, and most importantly gaining insight into the process of defining projects and applying for funding.  I am right at the start of my research career, and it was invaluable to learn the processes needed to enable me to develop.  Making contact with people working in the same field as myself, both in the UK and NZ, was also important." 


The way in which cultural perspectives are given weight and credence in New Zealand made a big impression on Abigail.


"The ethnic beliefs of the Maori people, although often quite different to the white population, are recognised and respected in development and design", says Abigail.   She can see ways of applying this lesson in the URSULA project when working with local communities.   "Discussion is the important thing, replacing the “we want you to do this” ethic often adopted by consultants and local councils.  Cultural differences may be embraced, not overridden". 


This appreciation of social factors was an important part of the learning curve for this young researcher.  "It made me think more about other issues, rather than just concentrating on engineering and engineering solutions.  I listened to other perspectives and realised they were valuable sources of information."


A trip such as this provides an invaluable insight to the strands which go to make up the world of research.  It is not enough to know your subject.  You have to know others involved in your field to share and develop ideas.  You need to consider perspectives which may be different to your own.  You need to understand how to put together proposals and learn where to search for funding.  Abigail has learned much from her trip to New Zealand, and looks forward to putting this new store of knowledge to work. 


Just as the URSULA project will provide the tools for building sustainable and exciting development in our urban river corridors, to creating attractive places where people can live and work safely, Abigail has obtained the tools and insight to start her own exciting research career.