Last week, NYU Sydney instructor Dr. Andy West was invited to be a judge of the National Finals 2017 Australian Leadership and Excellence Awards (ALEAs), Australia’s peak awards ceremony recognizing and celebrating Australia’s most outstanding leaders. This is organized by the Institute of Managers and Leaders, which was previously the Australian Institute of Management. In addition to teaching at NYU Sydney, Andy is the Executive Dean at UBSS, an MBA Business School. He also lectures in the Department of Marketing at the University of Technology Sydney. He provides consulting services to the finance, professional services, ICT, higher education, and health industries. His research has focused on e-business adaption, marketing high technology, and marketing strategy. His recent research is into the early career success of marketing graduates, with a focus on the success factors of workplace integrated learning from simulation to industry collaboration projects with internships.
Throughout a study abroad experience, students are challenged to look within. Upon arrival, their maturity and independence is tested. This occurs from the moment they are introduced into their new environment. They are pushed to navigate unexpected cultural differences, adapt to a different culture, and problem solve when necessary. This experience teaches students essential life skills which can later be transferred into their professional life.
With this in mind, NYU Wasserman Center for Career Development and NYU Global Programs recently teamed up to host NYU Global Career Week. This week long event was filled with career development seminars and was hosted virtually and in-person. This event encouraged students to start thinking about how they can leverage their study away experience in their next internship or full-time position.
This past March, NYU Sydney hosted Allison Pirpich, Manager of Global Career Development, to led NYU Global Career Week on-campus. During this week, Allison hosted in-person seminars on a global job search, an U.S. job search, and Virtual Interviewing. Allison also hosted a lecture called, “Telling your Global Story,” to the academic internship course that showed students how to identify their skills and translate it to future, professional positions. These seminars showed students how their global experience can be translated to the experience section of their resume, examples in their cover letter, and answers to an interview question. Students learned the key to this process is making their study away experience relevant to the job description and needs of the employer.
In addition to these seminars, Allison met with students in one-on-one coaching appointments. Students brought in a wide-range of questions from, “I have no idea what I want to do after I graduate. How will I decide?” to “How do I search for my next NY internship from Sydney?” These conversations gave students the opportunity to learn what resources were available and how to create a strategy for their next career-related goal. These meetings continued after NYU Global Career Week with virtual coaching appointments and drop-in hours.
This event was accompanied by a Wasserman Global Peer, a student leader who was versed in resume creation, cover letter advice and knowledge of career development resources. This leader led a Resume & Cover Letter Workshop and was an in-person touch point for students throughout the entire semester.
Students often study abroad with the idea of living and working abroad in the future. NYU Global Career Week showed students how to make the case that their experience abroad makes them a valued and competitive candidate. It is important to prepare students with the confidence to demonstrate applicable traits in post-graduation job applications and in the real world.
NYU Sydney Professor Petronella Vaarzon-Morel, who teaches Anthropology of Indigenous Australia and Indigenous Australian Art, recently gave a presentation at the Federal Court of Australia as part of a tribute to the contribution of anthropologists to the development of Australian native title law over the last 25 years. Her presentation was on gendered relations to the land and native title business. She also gave a keynote at the annual ANU Centre for Native Title Anthropology Conference in Perth which this year focused on emerging strategic issues in native title anthropology. The Centre for Native Title Anthropology aims to enhance the practice of native title anthropology in Australia through a series of innovative programs and workshops. The annual conference is a significant event.
By Marcus Neeld, Assistant Director, Student Life, NYU Sydney
Late last year, NYU Sydney faculty met with visitor Monroe France, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs & Diversity Initiatives. The meeting was the keystone event of Monroe’s invaluable trip to the Sydney campus, augmenting what had already been a jam-packed week of professional development experiences for administrative staff and informal engagements with students.
Monroe provided staff with some base tools in order to identify microaggressions along with strategies to practice allyship.
Town Hall meeting spurs broader dialogue on diversity
Concerns raised during a 2015 Town Hall event acted as a catalyst for NYU Sydney’s administrative team to apply for CMEP’s Global Diversity and Professional Development Grant. Eager to learn more about the experiences of minority students within the NYU community, the team lodged a request to learn more about ways to support students of colour and how social movements are affecting change on college campuses throughout the United States.
Faculty relished the opportunity to engage with Monroe, requesting the seminar focus on the efforts NYU is making to address matters of diversity, equity and inclusion. This request was made to discuss and formulate ways in which local instructors can enhance cultural competency and further support NYU’s institutional mission.
The training Monroe designed encapsulated themes of social identity, social justice and privilege. These topics were contextualised by a corresponding screening of portions from last year’s listening event. The clips shown of featured students provided a succinct focus on core topics central to the meeting, acting as an icebreaker for local faculty and staff to reflect on these important themes. As the meeting progressed it organically moved towards a discussion of individual teaching experiences and plans for future semesters.
The teaching staff were in consensus that future classes should act as an open, safe environment for students to discuss their salient social identity and preferred gender pronouns, a suggestion that Monroe recommended also be integrated into early semester introductions.
Social spheres and identities are malleable and non-uniform
Arguably the most compelling insight into matters of diversity and inclusion was offered by former NYU-Sydney student Ishani Dugar. The speech, which was performed during one of President Hamilton’s inauguration sessions, revealed misconceptions of universal communities. Ishani discussed original intentions to continue activism while in Sydney only to find that the local LGBTQ community was, although connected in solidarity, focusing on addressing different issues. The message served as a reminder of the nuances that exist between marginalised groups across the globe.
Marginalisation through multiple lenses
More broadly, the week’s training helped elucidate which groups feel marginalised at an institutional level. Familiar with local systemic oppression within an Australian context faculty were less attuned to the American experience. Monroe discussed student activism at NYU and progressive discourse as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement.
As the NYU-Sydney team prepare for future semesters, Monroe’s visit has provided a solid contextual framework to work within. Faculty will be encouraged to select reading materials that help students further interrogate social identity from an Australian perspective. With better understanding of the lenses visiting students employ to understand these issues through, the NYU-Sydney team will endeavour to create supportive environments and further opportunities for the examination of social identities from a global perspective.
This is a post from NYU Abu Dhabi. Although January Term originated with NYU Abu Dhabi, now other students in NYU’s global network, notably those from NYU Shanghai, have the opportunity to experience a January Term.
Education at NYU Abu Dhabi is not just about learning facts from textbooks and passing multiple choice exams. It’s an immersive experience for NYUAD students, who, each January Term choose hands-on classes in cities from Al Ain to Buenos Aires that challenge their perceptions of the past and enrich their visions of the future.
There are dozens of courses offered in J-Term that get students out of the classroom to learn about the world as it was before, and experience the world as it really is today, like Jazz or the Financial Crisis taught in New York City, Emirati Arabic in Al Ain, Museum History in Berlin, and these seven examples that span the globe. Note: course descriptions have been edited.
Oasis Coast and Mountain
Faculty: Steven C. Caton and Donald M. Scott
Course location: UAE and Oman
A course that challenges students’ perceptions of Arabian landscapes as being mainly desert by showing them three distinct habitat zones: desert oasis, maritime ports, and mountain farms all within 250 kilometers of each other across the UAE and Oman.
Students learn through observational site visits, direct encounters and interactions with local peoples and places through walking tours, interviews, photography and sketching.
Imagining the Renaissance City
Faculty: Jane Tylus
Course location: NYU Florence
Northern and central Italy’s bustling towns inspired many of today’s modern cities and also pioneered recognizably modern artistic, cultural, and engineering practices. Florence was a powerhouse of culture and industry and Siena the ‘Wall Street of Europe’ with the skyline to match.
Students spend three weeks getting to know these towns intimately. Explore downtown Florence, Siena, and the Tuscan countryside. Walk from the town of Fiesole (with its Etruscan ruins and Roman theater), to Monte Ceceri (from whose summit a student of Leonardo da Vinci’s tried to fly; good start, sad ending). Visit seats of government and Renaissance orphanages, climb towers for bird’s-eye views, prowl a crypt recently excavated under Siena’s cathedral, visit churches on hills overlooking Florence and the cells of monks, and walk the trail of the stonecutters to see where Michelangelo found his stone.
Faculty: John Burt
Course location: Sydney
Over 80 percent of the Australian population lives within 100 kilometers of a coast and virtually all major Australian cities occur on coastlines. As a result, Australia’s coastal environments have been substantially modified to suit human needs.
Using Sydney’s terrestrial, marine, and built environments as a natural laboratory for field research, students collect environmental data throughout the city and use geographic information systems (GIS) to examine the spatial patterns of human impacts to Sydney’s environment and compare their results with patterns observed in other coastal cities.
Faculty: Professor Michael Beckerman
Course location: Prague
Prague should have been destroyed during the Second World War, like other major cities in Europe, but somehow it wasn’t. Its remarkable survival allows us to explore Central European history and culture in the context of a completely preserved inner urban core dating back to the Middle Ages.
Class time includes walking tours around Prague, trips to museums, castles, theaters, classical concerts including Mozart’s Magic Flute and Janacek’s From the House of the Dead, and several excursions outside the city to the Eastern Province of Moravia, birthplace of Mahler and Freud, and to the UNESCO Heritage site of Cesky Krumlov.
Democracy and its Critics
Faculty: Philip Mitsis
Course location: Abu Dhabi / Athens
An examination of one of history’s most radical and influential democracies, ancient Athens.
Students assume historical roles in key decision-making institutions and debate questions about democratic procedures, the extension of voting rights, religion and free speech, foreign policy, etc., often in the very locations where these ancient debates occurred.
The Idea of the Portrait
Faculty: Shamoon Zamir
Course location: London
The course draws upon the rich resources of London’s museums and galleries to examine a wide range of portraits and self-portraits in painting and photography from different periods of history and from different cultures.
Students visit The National Gallery, British Museum, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the Queen’s Collection, the Courtauld Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Faculty: Arlene Davila
Course location: Buenos Aires
Latin America has been undergoing rapid urbanization and is increasingly recognized as a continent made up of “countries of cities,” yet the dominant Latin American image has been on indigenous or traditional communities, which are always imagined as rural and authentic, rather than modern and urbanized.
Buenos Aires provides an urban laboratory to explore culture in urban development, urban tourism, and the marketing and internationalization of tango. Guided tours and guest speakers enrich students’ appreciation of contemporary Buenos Aires.
Original post by Andy Gregory, NYUAD Public Affairs, available here.
Fran Molloy is an experienced Australian freelance journalist, editor and educator whose work is regularly published in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, ABC Health and Science Online, G Magazine, Medical Observer and many other Australian and international outlets. Such international outlets include the South China Morning Post, UK Overseas, Whole Life Times in the US and South Africa’s Business Day. Her writing specialties include environment, science, health and technology and she is also a part-time academic who has taught journalism over the last decade at several Australian universities: University of Technology, Sydney; University of NSW and Southern Cross University, Lismore. She teaches a course on Environmental Journalism at NYU Sydney.
Peer and Self-Assessment in Environmental Journalism in Sydney
Assessment is, of course, a critical part of academic learning. It can also be a thorny one: I’m sure I am not alone in wondering if I’m using the best methods to assess those critical learning outcomes I expect for my class.
At the NYU Sydney global campus, I’ve found our regular Faculty meetings not just a great source of shared knowledge but also a cross-disciplinary delight.
The size of NYU’s global campuses may be viewed by some as a drawback; but I have consistently found Sydney’s compact campus a big advantage, exposing all of us to a great range of pedagogies and systems.
Here, chemistry lecturers share their teaching methods with anthropologists, media studies and psychology teachers swap notes on student engagement and finance and drama professors discuss ways to manage grade expectations.
After talking about peer assessment with an NYU Sydney economics tutor and historian, and about computer-based assessment with a biology professor, last semester I introduced a new assessment method for an existing assessment task.
In the Environmental Journalism course at NYU Sydney, students must present to their classmates a round-up of the past weeks’ environment news and then, must analyse one news article in-depth, involving the class in a critique of their chosen piece. The assessment continues throughout the semester and I find it helps students recognise and evaluate various aspects of journalistic writing.
This is a clearly-defined assessment task, with outcomes that are transparent and immediately apparent to the whole class.
For this reason, I’ve found that this task very well-suited to peer and self-assessment.
To grade each presentation, I used a Google Form, with a clear rubric embedded, which I generate for each presenter. At the start of each class, I email the appropriate form to each student (including the presenter). Immediately following the presentation, students assess the presenter – most complete the form via their smartphone. They grade four aspects of the news roundup (succinct summary, context and publication details given, overall quality) and four aspects of the media analysis (appropriate story selection, summarising story quality, discussion and critical analysis).
Students use a 5‐point Likert scale, which McAlpine (2006) found a useful method for peer assessment of a presentation. Google Forms feeds their responses into a Google Sheets document, and it’s easy to then derive an average mark (which includes the student’s own self-assessment).
Gielen et al (2011) noted that peer assessment can encourage the active participation of students in the classroom. That was certainly an effect I noticed.
I believe that the knowledge that they would shortly assess their fellow student heightened students’ attention spans; they were invested in the delivery of the presentation because they would be partly responsible for its outcome.
Searby and Ewers (1997) and Somervell (1993) also posit that shifting responsibility for assessment from the teacher to the student can lead to a greater democracy within the classroom.
Small classes and a more relaxed Australian academic culture do mean that classrooms here tend to the informal, so I am not sure if that’s an effect I can easily judge.
But for me, there has been another interesting outcome: students who perform an assessment task which will be peer-reviewed adhere far more closely to assessment criteria than they do for other tasks that are not peer-reviewed.
I also found that there was remarkable consensus in the grade that students awarded presenters. Perhaps in itself, this consensus indicates a more democratic classroom environment.
And finally – now that the assessment responsibility can be shared, I find that my own enjoyment of my students’ presentations has increased substantially.
Gielen, Sarah et al. “Goals Of Peer Assessment And Their Associated Quality Concepts”. Studies in Higher Education 36.6 (2011): 719-735. DOI: 10.1080/03075071003759037
MacAlpine, J. M. K. “Improving And Encouraging Peer Assessment Of Student Presentations”. CAEH 24.1 (1999): 15-25. Web.
Searby, Mike and Tim Ewers. “An Evaluation Of The Use Of Peer Assessment In Higher Education: A Case Study In The School Of Music, Kingston University”. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 22.4 (1997): 371-383. Web.
Somervell, Hugh. “Issues In Assessment, Enterprise And Higher Education: The Case For Self‐Peer And Collaborative Assessment”. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 18.3 (1993): 221-233. Web.
NYU Sydney Instructor Jane Elkington, who teaches global public health in a class called Environmental Health in Global World, describes a guest lecture by a visiting faculty member from NY, the renowned food studies advocate Marion Nestle. Her description highlights how meaningful collaborations can be between global and NY faculty:
I usually ask students at the end of the semester how their view of environmental health has changed since our first class. The most frequent responses are that it is more complex, more political and more linked with the world’s ‘big’ issues than they first thought. Indeed, every big topic in our world today – climate change, globalization, big business, poverty, corruption…. does have an enormous impact on our environment and thus on global health. Change the environment and you change health risks – it works for and against good health.
We spend a fair bit of our time in Environmental Health in a Global World (EHGW) talking about the negative influences of the environment on our health, as well as what we can do to create environments that are healthy and that promote healthy behaviour.
My own introduction to the complex and often political nature of environmental health, was early in my career when I was working for the New South Wales Department of Health. We were investigating the prevention of scald injuries in children and found that our own Australian Standard for home hot water delivery temperature, required a minimum storage temperature of 60oC. At this temperature it takes just a few seconds to deliver a third degree burn. Following the lead of 29 states in the US (in the early 1990s) we set about to change the Australian Standard to 50oC. This seemed like a straightforward, effective, sustainable and evidence-based approach. However, we had fierce opposition: “You will increase the risk of Legionnaires disease”, “Child safety is a matter of supervision”, “Households will run out of hot water”. These objections were not coming from infectious disease experts, or concerned citizens – but the major energy companies. We discovered that around 30% of an Australian home’s electricity bill was due to their hot water system – the higher the temperature, the higher the bill. There it was – the threat to profits! This was totally confirmed when the marketing manager of our largest electricity supplier said to me “You don’t know what you are doing to a billion dollar industry!” This was my introduction to “big business” and environmental health – often in conflict.
So, when I was asked early in the semester if I was interested in the possibility of a visiting NYU faculty member, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health Marion Nestle, a world renowned nutritionist and advocate, talking to my class about her latest battles in ‘taking on the food and soda giants’, the answer was, ‘Absolutely!’. We already had a scheduled class on food and the environment – so how lucky were we to hear about that from Professor Nestle while she was on sabbatical in Sydney!
Professor Nestle was in town at the University of Sydney extending her research into conflicts of interest between the food industry and sponsorship of food and nutrition research. Her book “Soda Politics: Tackling the Soda Giants (and winning)” published last year, exposed the tactics of Coca-Cola and Pepsi to create their markets among children, minorities and low-income countries. The book exposes the practice of soft drink companies sponsoring health research that deliberately seeks to conclude that obesity can best be addressed through exercise, not calorie intake reduction – to deflect the growing focus on the negative impact of sugar. Her goal in this area has been to get Coca Cola and other ‘soda giants’ to admit that they are a big part of the problem – and now they have done that.
The students in EHGW and I were treated to a lecture by “the world’s second most powerful foodie” as dubbed by Forbes Magazine. We heard about public health and advocacy, and the power of handing the evidence over to consumers. We learned that this can help turn the tide in battles against companies who are concerned only with their own financial interests. Professor Nestle also helped the students consider the impact of climate change on food security, as well as the threats to food safety which is a by-product of almost every “natural” disaster. The discussion paved the way beautifully for lectures later in the semester about tobacco, asbestos, firearms, lead, and climate change – all issues on which “big business” has worked hard to deny the evidence of the need for change. Professor Nestle showed that when you meet resistance you know you are pushing the right buttons, you are actually poised to make a difference – so it can be quite energizing. She indicated that she totally admired Australia taking on the tobacco industry (and winning) with our world’s first tobacco plain packaging legislation. What a great endorsement that was for the assignment students were about to undertake: to consult with stakeholders in our tobacco plain packaging and report back to the class.
If any of my EHGW students find their way into a career in public health, I’m sure that Professor Nestle’s presentation (a tiny sneak peek into a career laced with courage, conviction and success) would have shown them that some battles are worth fighting.
Professor Simmonds is the Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology Sydney, as well as the Book Review editor of Law and History. She is an inter-disciplinary scholar whose work on the relationship between emotion, imperialism and law in the Pacific has been published in a range of international and domestic journals. She is also the author of Wild Man: The True Story of a Police Killing, Mental Illness and the Law (Affirm Press, 2015).
Professor Simmonds’s current research project, entitled “Hatching, Matching and Despatching”, focuses on the legal regulation of intimacy in the Australasian colonies from 1788-1901.
Professor Simmonds recently published a piece in Australia about the Nauru detention centre. The piece is available here and also reprinted below. Conversations about the refugee crisis and immigration are taking place across NYU’s global network this year.
Why we need a reminder about Australia’s imperialist history with Nauru
How do you imagine Nauru? A desolate wasteland that Australia populates with persecuted people? A small Pacific island filled with large, lazy Islanders? An open prison that props up the borders of our own closed paradise? Like all islands, we tend to imagine Nauru as a kind of terra nullius, an empty land, without history, suspended in splendid isolation from the world but eternally open to the will of larger nations.
It benefits us to think of Nauru as a mean-spirited atoll hovering outside of time and space, because it saves us from having to confront some dark historical truths.
Nauru did not simply wake up one morning and decide that it wanted to harbour our concentration camps. And nor did Australian politicians run a finger over the skin of a spinning globe until it stopped on Nauru. Our histories are entwined. Nauru is a product of European and Australian imperialism.
What we forget in the asylum-seeker debate is that the history of offshore processing is but another chapter in a history of empire. We fail to question the ‘Pacific’ in the ‘Pacific Solution’.
Australia chose Nauru because we have a tradition of ignoring its sovereignty. After World War One Nauru was one of many countries considered by the League of Nations not “able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world”. It was thus transferred to Australia and Britain as a Class C ‘mandate’, to be administered by Australia as “an integral part of that territory”, which meant giving our government the right to impose upon it almost full control.
During this time we exploited its resources and decimated its land, which partly explains Nauru’s decision to accept the camps today: they’re now one of the most indebted countries in the world.
You’d be forgiven for being unaware of Australia’s history of imperialist aggression in the Pacific. Bleatingly subservient to our English or American cultural overlords, we have ignored our own region’s history. But when High Court decisions are handed down declaring Australia’s sovereign right to send back asylum seekers to Nauru (in short to assert our sovereignty by undermining their sovereignty) we would do well to know that there is nothing new or shocking in this decision. It’s an extension of a shameful past.
Australia was not the first to colonise Nauru. In the famous ‘scramble’ for Africa and the Pacific in 1884-5, Germany, Spain and Great Britain fought over the islands of the Northern and Western Pacific. Nauru became a German protectorate in 1886 (along with other countries like PNG and Samoa). Of course, no Pacific Islander was consulted about being stripped of their sovereignty.
Australia was unimpressed. Ever since we declared Tahiti to be within our jurisdiction in the early 1800s, we had long considered the Pacific to be part of our ‘sphere of influence’. By the late nineteenth century we were raiding Vanuatu and the Solomons for slave labour, lopping sandalwood trees in Fiji, pressuring Britain to annex Vanuatu and Fiji, and attempting, as an editorial in The Age said in 1914, “to…[lay down] the foundations of a solid Australian sub-empire in the Pacific Ocean.”
Nauru caught our attention in 1899 when an Australian entrepreneur found rich phosphate deposits (a sought-after fertiliser ingredient) formed out of, yes, ancient bird droppings. By 1912 we had drawn up plans to seize Nauru (as well as New Guinea and Samoa) and in 1914 we invaded Nauru, claiming it as an Australian possession. In 1919 Billy Hughes pushed for a full annexation by Australia of former German Pacific islands – particularly New Guinea and Nauru – at the Versailles negotiations; but settled for a mandate status.
Part of the reason we won Nauru, according to Greg Fry, was because of our experience in “managing” Aboriginal Australians. Australia finally granted Nauru independence in 1968, after a post-World War II UN trusteeship and brief period of Japanese occupation. But by this time the island was all but destroyed.
Australia oversaw the strip-mining of over 80 per cent of Nauru’s land, leaving itunpassable and unfarmable; a lunar nightmare of white stone pinnacles.
By independence, the country was so ravaged that Australia declared Nauru ‘uninhabitable’ and offered to resettle the population on Fraser Island and, later, Curtis Island in Queensland. (Possibly apocryphally, a plane-load of Nauruans were said to have done a reconnaissance of the proposed islands but decided that they preferred their own blasted island to the racist Queenslanders).
The trade was also economically catastrophic: the conservative Economist has called the terms of our monopoly “outrageous”. And with Nauruan landowners paid just half a penny for every ton of phosphate extracted you can see why. In 1993, Australia paid Nauru $72 million in an out-of-court settlement at the International Court of Justice for the environmental devastation caused by mining.
Australian imperialism also sanctioned the colonisation of Nauru’s political institutions, which left Nauruans at independence with little institutional memory or political knowledge. As Epeli Hau’ofa has argued, “unlike other colonial regions of the world, our political independence… was largely imposed on us. It also came in packages that tied us firmly to the West.”
To this day white Australians continue to fill major roles in the Nauruan judiciary and bureaucracy; the Australian High Court is the highest court of appeal for Nauru and aid packages have always been tied to preferential trade agreements that benefit Australia. Of course, the most recent violations of Nauru’s sovereignty come in the form of ‘regional processing centres’, where you’ll find an Australian government office decorated with an Australian coat of arms, inhabited by uniformed Australian staff.
This is not to suggest that Nauru is innocent. It’s clearly been plagued by corruption, lavish expenditure and economic mismanagement. But to suggest that these failings can be divorced from the catastrophe of colonisation would be absurd. Almost as absurd as thinking that Australia simply decided out of the blue to relegate our gulags to Nauru, and that they serendipitously accepted.
If Australian borders are ‘strong’ as Turnbull reminds us, then it is only because for over a century we have regarded Nauru’s borders as weak or non-existent. We don’t just protect our sovereignty, we extend it through the informal colonisation of our neighbours.
Islands are always going to be either a paradise or a prison, and in its narcissistic quest to be great, Australia has created a gulag. This is the forgotten horror of the ‘Pacific’ behind our hellish ‘Pacific Solution’.
Dr Alecia Simmonds is the author of Wild Man (Affirm Press), a researcher in law at UTS and a lecturer in Pacific history at NYU-Sydney.
My name is Kevan Chu, and I am a Biochemistry major in the College of Arts and Sciences. I studied abroad at NYU Sydney in the Spring of 2015, and took Principles of Biology II with Dr. Sean Blamires as a major elective and veterinary school prerequisite. Additionally, I had the pleasure of working in his lab at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), which not only helped develop my research and laboratory skills and techniques, but also broadened my horizons of Australian culture and wildlife.
Q. How did you first get involved in research on spiders?
It is actually quite complicated. Earlier in my career I worked on turtles and lizards, and crabs. My Masters project at Northern Territory University in Darwin was on nesting sea turtles. I then started a Ph.D. project on River Turtles at the University of Sydney. A year in, however, it was evident that, for reasons out of my control, it wasn’t going to be possible to do the project I wanted to do. I needed a project that I could do in a short space of time (as I’d wasted a year already). I noticed there was a large population of St Andrew’s cross spiders (Argiope keyserlingi) living on the University of Sydney campus. I therefore decided to do a project on their ecology on the University campus. One of the things I tested was how their web architecture varies when they feed on different types of insects. It was this that I examined more closely in my first postdoc at Tunghai University in Taiwan. I then started focusing more and more on variations in silk properties, leading to my research now concentrating very heavily on silk.
Q. What instruments are involved in your research?
Probably the coolest aspect of researching silk is the range of instruments you can use (additional to notebooks, rulers, computers, etc.) to measure silk mechanical properties, micro structures and so on. I use a motorized spooling machine to draw silk from live spiders. I also use highly sensitive tensile testing machines to determine silk mechanical properties. I am now using Atomic Force Microscopy to look at silk surface structure and mechanics at micro-scales. I am developing projects that use Nuclear Magnetic Resonance to examine the structures of silk proteins. I have ongoing projects with the Australian and Taiwanese Synchrotron Centres in which I use synchrotron (particle accelerator) derived x-rays to examine silk crystal structures. I intend to do spider silk genomic studies, too. In my work on spider body and silk coloration I use instruments such as a spectrophotometer to measure the intensity of light of different wavelengths emitted off objects.
Q. While I was assisting in your research, your lab used spiders of genera Nephila and Argiope. What is the reason behind this, and are there any other genera that you have worked with?
These genera, Nephila and Argiope, are commonly used in spider silk and web research because they: (1) are large bodied orb weavers so store a lot of silk that can reasonably easily be extracted, (2) keep well in the lab for a long time on standard diets, and (3) are often abundant on or near University campuses, at least they are in Sydney. These qualities make them good “model” organisms for research. If I am investigating how silk generally responds to diet or some another treatment I’ll use these genera. I have, however, used a variety of other spider genera in my research. To compare the silks of different orb weavers in Taiwan I also used members of the genera Cyrtophora, Leucauge and Cyclosa. A similar study in Australia also used Araneus, Eriophora and Phonognatha. I have used Latrodectus (widow spiders and redbacks) for various experiments and genetic analyses. I used a species of Parawixia for pesticide experiments in Uruguay. I have started projects comparing the silks of a range of spiders that don’t build webs, such as Dolomedes (fishing spiders) and Heteropoda (Huntsmen), web building and non-web building wolf spiders from Uruguay (genus Pavacosa, Agloctenus and Lycosa), and the Tasmania cave spider, Hickmania troglodytes.
Q. Have you come across anything unexpected or surprising in the course of your spider silk research?
Whenever I think I understand something it often turns out that I don’t. For example, I thought that the ratio of the two proteins expressed in spider silk varies with spider diet and this alone explains why silk properties vary with diet. It turns out, however, to be a lot more complex, and spiders seem to spin different types of silks on different diets regardless of the proteins expressed. Rather than being a form of disappointment, however, it’s these kinds of surprises that keep me keenly interested in the subject.
Q. Your research has taken you to other countries, such as Taiwan and the United States. Would you say your research has expanded your worldview? Is your work performed abroad similar to what you have done in Australia?
The answer to the first question is yes, definitely. When you work day-in-day-out in a foreign country, catching local transport, using local shops, etc., you realize that people the world over don’t differ much despite differences in geography, customs, language, and so on. You come to understand that society works best, and people are happiest, when things are fair. I don’t understand greed or discrimination at all.
The answer to the second question is also yes. There are, of course, some logistical and cultural differences that often mean going about things slightly differently, but the great thing about science, as opposed to other disciplines, is that it is unequivocally universal. There is one way of doing science the world over and it is independent from any beliefs, desires or prejudices. This is the reason it is so effective.
Q. We discussed that many aspects of Biology and Ecology can be taken for granted, but the importance of studying these subjects exists nonetheless. Can you elaborate on this?
Motivating students to understand and want to learn about Biology and Ecology is the big challenge for biology/science teachers, especially considering big cities and computers, television and social media are detaching us from nature. An important thing to stress is that humans do not function outside of working ecosystems. Even though we live in cities, we are still a part of nature. If we destroy ecosystems, we will die out like any other animal would, and some have done. I also think the innovations that will drive economies of the future will come from studying biological functions. An example might be buildings based on the thermoregulatory efficiency of termite mounds, or super performance materials based on the functional performance of spider silk.
Q. How can spider silk research be applied to other fields, such as materials science?
This question relates to the point made about studying nature to drive innovation. Spider silk is thought to be nature’s toughest fiber. Advances in silk cloning and electro spinning technologies could lead to spider silk-like materials being used commercially. These might include developing high performance ropes, bullet proof vests, bridge supports and cables. The electrostatic properties and anti-microbial properties of silk are being investigated, and these might find uses in robotics or surgery. I also think that studying spider silk protein and genetic structures will tell us a lot about and spider silk and web evolution and about evolution in general. It also seems that spider webs and silks have important interactions with insects in nature. The community dynamics of this would be interesting to investigate.
Q. What do you find most rewarding about your area of study?
Three of the most rewarding things I have already mentioned: the cool instruments you get to use, the opportunity to travel to different places, and studying something that will (at least should) drive future innovations, and future economies if harnessed and managed. I’d add to that the collaborations that I’ve established. I have met and worked with many great people from a range of professional and cultural backgrounds. I’ve found this very professionally and personally satisfying.
A bit more about Professor Blamires:
Dr. Sean J. Blamires (Ph.D., University of Sydney) is a DECRA Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of New South Wales and a National Science Council Fellow at Tunghai University, Taiwan. His major research interest is the evolution, plasticity and biomechanics of extended phenotypes. He uses spider webs and silks as models to understand how prey types, nutrients, and climatic variables induce variations at nano- to macro-scales. He has collaborative research links with the University of Akron, USA, and the National Synchrotron Radiation Research Centre, Taiwan, among others. He has published over 30 scientific papers in a range of journals, includingCurrent Biology, Biomacromolecules, Journal of the Royal Society Interface, and the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Each semester, shortly after landing in Australia, NYU Sydney students retreat to a lesser-known corner of greater Sydney for a field trip. Most recently, these overnight excursions have been to idyllic Milson Island, on the Hawkesbury River.
“We stepped off the boat,” recalls student Lori Gao. “We walked up a steep, hilly path and split into cabins named after Australian birds. After settling into our lodges, we assembled on a large sunny field for a group introduction, and split into groups to perform various activities throughout the next two days. We built rafts, played cricket, shot bow and arrows.”
Field trips are an integral part of a semester at NYU Sydney, and Milson Island in particular is good fun. There are campfires and marshmallows, guitars and ghost stories. But there’s more than that.
“The Milson Island retreat was indeed one mentally and personally, allowing time to unwind, contemplate, connect, and culminate experiences,” wrote student Diptesh Tailor in a paper after his visit in spring 2015. In particular, Diptesh was impressed by the “tranquility and calm vibrancy of the environment.”
The start-of-semester retreat has two main aims. One is for NYU staff and newly-arrived students to get to know one another. It’s a bonding exercise. A second aim is for students to get a true taste of the Australian landscape: the curious wildlife; the grand sandstone; the sweeping waterways. The retreats forge connections in the great outdoors, among the kangaroos and kookaburras. They blend community and nature.
For many students, it is the wildness of the Australian landscape that leaves a lasting impression. As student Robert Leger wrote in a paper submitted for the Global Orientations course, “An impressive amount of this country has been left largely untouched and unaffected by civilization. One instance of this pristine environment was evident in the surroundings of Milson Island. Although the island itself is developed – to an extent – its surroundings, the forests and estuary encompassing the small island, appear as though they are lands that have never been trod on.”
During each semester, NYU Sydney students are offered an array of field trips. Some, such as the surfing trip to the northern beaches, are for all students. Others are for students of particular courses. For Global Media, for instance, students visit ABC TV to be in the studio audience for a live broadcast of the panel show Q&A.
“I couldn’t get enough of Q&A,” wrote student Kate Rowey after her visit. “I left with a much better understanding of Australian politics, not just conceptually but how Australians discuss their politics. I took a leap and decided to request to be in the live audience for the following week’s Q&A. To my excitement, not only was I invited back but I sat front and center.”
“The field trips are special,” says Professor Jennifer Hamilton. “It is rare to get field trips in undergraduate programs because the classes are so big. The size of the classes here in Sydney enable us to offer a range of learning experiences.”
During field trips to Earlwood Farm, Professor Hamilton has taught Eco-Criticism students about experimental, eco-friendly farming she and others are practising right in the heart of suburban Sydney. Hamilton loves it when students hold her chickens. “Do you live in a hippy commune?” one student asked. No, she answered – even though she had to admit hers is hardly an ordinary house in the ‘burbs.
Meanwhile, as an anthropology professor, Petronella Vaarzon-Morel is especially fond of field trips. “Participant observation is a hallmark of the anthropological method,” she says.
With students of Anthropology of Indigenous Australia, Professor Vaarzon-Morel has visited the Kur-ring-gai Chase National Park to see Aboriginal rock art sites.
“Learning about rock art from a photographic image is simply not as informative – nor exciting – as being culturally immersed in the environment in which the rock art was produced,” Vaarzon-Morel says. “In Kur-ring-gai Chase National Park students were able to walk around rock art designs depicting whales, dolphins and other animals, and with the smell of salt water and wind in their hair, experience the import of the site in a visceral way.”
On-site, the students were taught by Matt Poll, an Indigenous expert with immense knowledge of archeological sites. On these and other anthropology field trips, students are always particularly keen to learn about bush medicine and bush tucker.
The effects of the field trips can be profound. For some, the visit to Milson Island has prompted a philosophical redrafting of the relationship of human beings and nature. This insight is reached, in part, thanks to the dramatic contrast between the Aussie wilderness and Washington Square. If Milson Island is largely about community and nature, it encourages many students to reconsider their conceptions of both.
Milson Island led Diptesh Tailor to imagine green cities, which would be peopled by “proactive, globally-oriented citizens who challenge conventional boundaries and share their creative and intellectual insights.”
As he wrote after the retreat, “I hope to continue to develop my perspective on nature … and the prospects for the civilisations which will pioneer the evolving relationship with nature and self.”