ECU Research Week – Discover the Stars Behind the Research

September 6, 2016
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By Kitty Turpin
Photo: ngc2070_A: The Tarantula Nebula. Courtesy of the Our Solar Siblings project

Research Week is an annual week-long celebration of research at ECU. As the Graduate Research School’s (GRS) biggest event, the week shines a light on the research that is taking place at ECU across all three ECU campuses – much of which the wider university community have no idea about. During the week, the GRS presents workshops, showcases and information sessions for those interested in either starting a research degree, getting involved in research at ECU, and/or generally finding out what’s going on.

I met with several people who are involved in Research at ECU: Marziya Mohammedali, the co-coordinator of Research Week; Dr Sally Knowles, who is co-ordinating A Place by the HeA/R/Th; Dr Cecily Scutt, who’s bringing The Monster Party to you; and Zal Kanga-Parabia, an undergrad photomedia student who has found himself in the thick of Research Week. They gave me a little taster for what they’re working on and showcasing at Research Week.

A Place By The HeA/R/Th

Photo by Zal Kanga-Parabia

What is A Place by the HeA/R/Th?

SK: It comes from this beautiful cultural history I’m reading about the deepest sense: touch. In medieval times in the colder regions of Europe, the hearth was not only a place of warmth (and survival), but also a place of social inclusion and bonding that drew the household together. The fire’s warmth became human warmth as those in its aura talked and ate and worked together. The metaphor for us is that we’re bringing together the arts and health researchers – Artists, Researchers, Teachers to create a warm and inclusive environment to work together rather than in silos. Disciplinary silos are, for example, when arts and health do their own thing and don’t communicate with each other. What’s going on in communities, government and universities is a dismantling of these silos. The arts-based practices that we will be showcasing in our projects are eclectic – we are hoping that a whole new skill set can start to address some of our most entrenched social issues, like the rise of dementia and the dangers of sexting.

Where did this connection between arts and health originate?

SK: The integration of the Arts in health care first became popular over 50 years ago when poster art was used to share health information with the public, especially in the Second World War for example depicted in those “Eat more rice and vegetables” posters, and similar in early marketing projects on injury prevention.

Why is research into arts and health important?

SK: In the early onset days of dementia and Alzheimer’s, I learnt recently of case studies of people in early stage of frontotemporal dementia who develop new visual art or musical talents. They might start painting and discover that they’re really gifted when they’ve never touched a paintbrush in their life – it’s extraordinary that they could have this sudden talent blooming during the early stages of their illness. Apparently, in Alzheimer’s Dementia, creative skills can remain even in the severe stage.

Preserved memory is another aspect we’re exploring as there is a preserved ability to sing/play music. For example, it’s found that we have a soundtrack of music preserved in our minds from our late teens and early twenties. We’re establishing an adult identity at this age, and it often is a very joyous time for people because they are developing an independent identity and having a lot of fun. In some nursing homes they’re giving elderly people iPods so that they can play the soundtrack from their twenties. When I was younger it was punk music, so I’ll be sitting in my nursing home playing the Sex Pistols and The Clash, driving people mad with anti-establishment lyrics and hard-edged melodies! There’s this understanding that music and all the other arts have potential to provide a lot of emotional pleasure for people, to reduce or relieve depression, anxiety and agitation. Even people who have been in a non-verbal state will listen to music from their twenties and they may produce spontaneous speech – there have been some really powerful discoveries in this area. Music and song are just one of the arts looked at in this ORI Collaboration Enhancement Scheme project.

The Arts Health Institute, based in the Eastern States, are employing artists from actors, musicians, clowns, to art therapists, to bring creativity to care work with the elderly in aged care facilities. So it’s also creating employment for people with arts-based backgrounds.

Who’s involved in this project other than yourself?

SK: We have quite a few researchers at ECU working on Arts Health projects, including Dr Aureliana Di Rollo, who teaches Italian to the opera singers at WAAPA, and Dr Céline Doucet, who teaches French at ECU. They are working on a pilot project using song to support language skills in bilingual persons with dementia.

Dr Dianne Hawke and Associate Professor Stuart Medley, working with Professor Donna Cross from the Telethon Kids Institute, are developing an app to help adolescent children stop and reflect before posting images. Dianne Hawke is in the health area and has teamed up with Stuart Medley, who is in design, to use his visual aptitudes to help design the app. They have been working with children to develop the concept, features and name for the app. Before you upload to these social media sites the app poses a question that will get you to pause. We live in an impulse society, which unfortunately means that the reflective phase that we need before we send messages that could impose damaging consequences isn’t there.

Also Dr Luke Hopper and Andries Weidemann are working with motion capture to aid the health and performance of dance students at WAAPA.

What can people expect from your event?

SK: There’ll be snapshots of these projects, a description of some of their research design features and also a discussion about the pilot project on bilingualism, music and memory that is being developed for a few Italian nursing homes around WA. We might also provide some social bonding experiences as we gather around the hearth.

The Monster Party

What is the Monster Party about?

CS: The Monster Party is about the idea that when we sit down to write we have thoughts that make us stop writing. Some of the thoughts you can have that make you stop writing can be negative, for example “this is no good, this isn’t original enough, I haven’t read enough, this is politically incorrect, this is embarrassing,” but you can also have thoughts that seem a lot more seductive like “this would be so much better if I went online and found 5 new references” or “why don’t I go on the ABS site and get all these stats that’ll help me.” Negative thoughts that shame you into stopping writing, or seductive thoughts that get you to do something other than writing, are what we call the “internal censor” or the “shitty committee”, and are all writing monsters. With the Monster Party, my idea is to help personify these thoughts. What’s useful about seeing them as a monster is that you recognise what’s happening, the process whereby you have happily started to work and something has stopped you.

What you do is give it a name, and draw a picture of it or perceive it and you try to get some distance from it. This is called cognitive defusion: where you distance yourself from a particular thought. I call it storytelling. The next time you have that thought you’re going to notice it. For example, one of my monsters is “Thundering Professor Perfect.” Now, when I start to write he’ll shout “You can’t write that it’s not perfect, you can’t go on till you’ve fixed that sentence, until you’ve totally fixed everything.” By giving him a name and a face, the next time I’m writing I can visualise him as Thundering Professor Perfect.

In the workshop I get people to name and visualise these monsters and introduce their monster to someone else. Then we have a thing called the monster box. The idea of the monster box is that when you have these thoughts, you put this monster inside the monster box. It’s almost like a meditation practice, and it sounds really silly, but it works.

This is the first time the Monster Party has run at Research Week. I’ll be running the workshop by myself and it’ll be an hour long. It’s not a therapy group, so people don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do.

Is the Monster Party Workshop relevant to undergraduate students?

CS: The Monster Party is for any sort of creative block, so anyone who writes or has any kind of arts practice will benefit from this. I usually talk about this for academics trying to do academic writing, but it can really be anybody. The Monster Party can be very helpful.

How did you invent this?

CS: I had very bad writer’s block and I learnt a bunch of techniques that were more about drafting like free writing and free falling. I do a bit of creative writing as well, so the idea of storytelling about what’s going wrong or coming up with an image, metaphor or personification of what’s going wrong is something that occurred to me fairly naturally. Other people have talked about the inner critic and the inner censor: I didn’t create those terms. In this workshop however, people will talk about their own monsters as they see fit. Everyone’s monsters are different, and I found mine through looking at my own struggles with beginning to write, but looking at those struggles as a storyteller led me to using characters.

From Undergrad to Research

Exhibition OSS – ZalKP: installing the ‘Journey Out Into The Universe’ Exhibition. Courtesy of Zal Kanga-Parabia.

Zal, you’re an undergrad student, what are you contributing to research week?

ZKP: Basically my role is visualising research and each year we come up with a theme and a way we’re going to market the whole of Research Week to get both staff and students, and the general community involved. Marziya does most of that side of things, but my role is to look at a main exhibition, and photographing and curating that exhibition. This year’s exhibition is called “Journey Out into The Universe” and it’s showcasing the work of David McKinnon, who is in education with a physics background, on a project called “Our Solar Siblings”. They are in collaboration with the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT.net) telescopes around the world which are used to take photographs of the universe – different parts of our universe for example inside our own Milky Way and going out 1300 light years away to 300 million light years away. We have 19 photographs from that distance. We’re going to show those images and a little bit about what they’ve found, but also about how these images can be used for research. They offer the information they find to teachers to create their syllabus for Year 10 students. They’re offering this for free to all teachers around Australia but also the papers are free for researchers to use as well.

How did you get into Research Week and working with researchers as an Undergrad student?

ZKP: I was Marziya’s student in first year and there was an opportunity which she recommended me for. I went for a small interview at PICA with Sharon Smart from GRS and she spoke to me about her ideas – she wanted to create an exhibition showcasing the researchers last year, which became the Faces of ECU Research: a portrait of an ECU researcher and a story of what they do. She explained this idea to me, and I brought my ideas to the table as well. I’ve been working with the Graduate Research School since.

What’s the most rewarding thing so far from working with researchers?

ZKP: I think research is incredible. It’s so inspiring, daily, to be involved in a community of people who want to find out more about their chosen field. Also to be working in a community of people to further their knowledge and find things that have really never been found before – new knowledge that no one’s thought about. Every time I photograph someone or work with someone or even just have a five-minute conversation, I learn something new. The things I learn are probably not just new to me but really something new to anyone. That’s the most rewarding thing – having conversations with people and learning about myself, what I can do to make my life better, but also forwarding that information to other people through my job and through my conversations and photography.

Why is research important?

MM: We’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what we know. I’ll use a metaphor I use with my design students: we look at knowledge as 3 areas: you know what you know, you know what you don’t know, but the majority of it you don’t know what you don’t know and research helps us get into that big chunk of what we’re not even aware of, what we don’t know yet, and try to find out more. It can improve our quality of life and it’s just generally exciting to find out new…stuff. That’s a technical term for it: new stuff. It’s important to keep advancing our knowledge in that way.

SK: It is also so important for the students that come to our universities to have that inspiration through research-informed teaching from researchers who are working at the cutting-edge of their fields. The impulse society is driving higher education along a fairly negative path where students are handed something they ‘want’ rather than the university education helping them discover something that they never imagined they needed to know before they embarked on their studies. In the impulse university we’re adopting a very instrumentalist notion of education and rewarding impulsive action, rather than questioning whether what we desire is desirable for our own lives and our lives with others on a vulnerable planet. So our cutting-edge researchers are part of that bigger picture of the possibility to open people’s minds through what they’re contributing to the public good. To be able to inspire others is another important dimension of research.

How does one get into researching at ECU?

MM: There are different pathways to getting into a research degree for example the honours pathway, and that’s a smaller research project taken during a year of full time study that could lead to a PHD if you perform at quite a high level. You could also do a Masters by Research. But even within the undergraduate degrees there is a tendency to involve students in small scale research projects for example the Visualising Research Initiative has research staff and students working with design students in their undergrad or masters – it opens the door for them and shows them what research is all about. It stimulates that interest. We’ve had people who have been involved in visualising research, doing their own masters and PHDs.

ZKB: And now that the “door has been opened” for me, I’m looking to going into research after my undergraduate studies.

Research Week is on from 19 – 23 September. Be sure to pick up a copy of the Research Week program on campus and register to events here.

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