Seminar series and Masters of Research

Over the last semester, together with Matthew Bulbert, I have organised the lunchtime seminar series for the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University.


L-R: Matthew Bulbert, Julia Cooke, Anne Ehlich, Paul Ehrlich, Leigh Staas, Lesley Hughes. Photo: Abigail Cabrelli

We have really enjoyed inviting and/or co-ordinating the visits and getting to know Dr Steven Hamblin, Dr Richard Frankham, Prof. Paul Ehrlich, Prof. Jenny Graves, Dr Brendan Choat, Prof. Peter ReichProf. Ute Roessner, Dr Duncan Irschick, Prof. Steven Chown, Dr Jen Taylor, Prof Bernie Degnan, Dr Adam Stow and Dr Ian Blair.

In conjunction with the seminar series, we co-convene Research Frontiers in Biology (BIOL700), for a Masters of Research Programme.  Expanding knowledge, identifying and understanding key findings and, effectively communicating scientific concepts are essential skills for scientists.   In the new Masters unit BIOL700, students develop these skills through a series of tasks centred on the lunch-time seminar series. Each week, students practice identifying and understanding key information about a new topic, often outside their field of interest. They attend the seminar and then run a discussion group with the speaker. Effective communication skills are then developed by presenting the take-home messages from the talk in a blog post aimed at 1st year students using minimal jargon and an engaging style. These weekly tasks provide regular practice with our feedback and peer-assessment activities contributing to student skill development.

Have a look at some of the great student blogs from semester 1:

At the end of the semester we assessed these skills through student preparation of a working group proposal. The assessment guidelines were based on real criteria from the ARC-NZ Vegetation Function Network and the American National Evolutionary Synthesis Centre (NESCent) Working Group Scheme.  As both schemes place an emphasis on including students and early-career researchers, the Masters students could directly relate to the assessment by being a prospective member of the group. Proposals had to be cross-disciplinary, thereby testing student skills in identifying key findings in fields outside the students’ primary interest. The proposals were written for a non-specialist reviewer, testing the ability of a student to communicate concepts and plans in an effective manner. The participating students were inspired by a new approach to research through the working group concept and the idea of combining the researchers whose work they have followed. The working group proposal is a novel assessment.  The proposals are relatively short, but require significant thought to develop an outstanding question, identify potential participants and outline potential methods.

Discussion with individual students and extensive comments on drafts were valued by students, who used these to focus their ideas. For students with a clear idea of their future research direction this assessment provided an opportunity to really develop an idea and prepare a proposal that they could potentially use in the future. For students who were less sure, inspiration was provided by the diversity of topics and methods presented in the seminar series. Either way, students extended their knowledge, which encouraged new ideas and research directions, as well as developing important skills in understanding key findings and communication in science.