Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Linking students with international livestock research projects

By Jim Young, Russell Bush and Peter Windsor
The University of Sydney


Over the last 8 years, we have had over 50 undergraduate (BVSc and BAnVetBioSc) and graduate students (MVPHMgt and PhD) from the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney get involved in our Mekong Livestock Research Team’s international projects to work in Cambodia, Laos and/or Thailand. The University of Sydney Team has been commissioned to undertake ACIAR funded projects in both Cambodia and Laos, and have found students benefit from the experience while also providing benefits to project activities and outcomes. We have recently been advised that applications for New Colombo Plan Mobility scholarships were successful, and now prepare to assist a further 20 students visit Cambodia and Laos in 2016. We felt it might be appropriate to share some of these experiences and lessons learned, as this information is likely to be of use to project leaders and administrators who are looking to increase Australian student involvement.

Final year BVSc student Emma Roffey vaccinates a buggalo in northern Laos in 2014. Credit: University of Sydney/Jim Young

Strong in-country partnerships

Hosting students requires significant effort from the in-country project leaders. It’s important to find the benefits for in-country collaborators. For example, our Laos project leader commented that attendance of Australian students on routine field activities (such as vaccination campaigns) helped pique smallholder farmer interest and project profile. The in-country collaborators can also be involved in report topic selection, thereby having a useful student resource for project related issues that may have arisen. We also allocate funds to help cover student-hosting costs, such as transport and staff per diems when supporting student research activities. High levels of communication are also needed, to ensure expectations can be met and any problems that arise are dealt with quickly. A number of students have also been placed with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) office in Bangkok, providing students experience working with a peak body managing regional issues such as foot-and-mouth disease.

Student selection and management

Student selection is often driven by student interest, attitude and aptitude; and then ensuring students can be fairly selected for the New Colombo Plan (NCP, see below) funding and meet requirements (i.e. NCP scholarship students must be Australian Citizens). Management requires significant inputs, which include the addition to Animal and Human Ethics project protocols and completing Student Safety Protocols (i.e. what to do in the case an emergency, registering with Smart Traveler, provisions for insurance). It’s also preferable to have students travel in pairs, although this is not a hard and fast rule.

Meeting student degree requirements

Final year University of Sydney Bachelor of Veterinary Science students have to complete a series of placements during Year 5 rotations. One of these has been the ‘Public Practice’ placement, and working on livestock extension research projects in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand has offered a pathway for students to meet this requirement. A formal report is expected aimed at publication level as well as a communication assignment. The formal report topic is generally aligned to the larger research project objectives. The communication topic can be in the form of a poster, blog or other initiative. We have also had Bachelor of Animal and Veterinary Science and Bachelor of Science (Vet) honours students, whereby students can spend prolonged periods in country and undertake a more in-depth study. Higher degree research students including Masters and PhD levels have also been involved on a more long-term basis. Students from the Faculty of Veterinary Science Masters of Veterinary Public Health Management course have also been involved, bringing a unique mix of skills in the form of epidemiology, animal health economics and project management. Matching the requirements of students programs to the larger project objectives has been key in maximizing project outcomes and outputs.

BAnVetBioSc Honours student, Luisa Olmo (second from right) assists in smallholder farmer knowledge, attitude and practice surveys in Cambodia in 2015

Funding

Initially, students interested were usually asked to pay their own mobility costs. This actually worked well and meant that only students who were really interested would put their hands up. Often students would attach their placement with a holiday and see some of the huge variety of cultural and tourist offerings in the Mekong region. However, this also meant that students without the financial resources could not get easily involved. In 2013, we obtained our first AsiaBound Mobility Scholarship, and this supported 10 students travel into Laos in 2014. This was then repeated for 2015, with a further 10 students to northern Laos. This Australian Government program has been further developed and is now called the New Colombo Plan (NCP) and provides funding (usually $3,000 per student) to support mobility and language training costs to ensure students can gain experiences in South-East Asia. Our recent students have been attending language classes while in country.

Overcoming challenges

Invariably, placing students into developing countries poses a range of challenges. These can be similar to what people may expect when traveling, such as risks of food poisoning. We mitigate these risks through an informative process pre-travel. This involves encouraging students to speak to other students who have travelled and holding student information sessions where students can ask questions and project staff can pass on key information. This also includes discussions on culture diversity – what to expect and what is different from Australia. We also maintain a level of flexibility and try not view changes (sometimes last minute) as a negative aspect, rather just par-for-the-course of developing country research involvement.

Completion and feedback

Undergraduate BVSc students that are undertaking placements have to complete a placement completion survey, and supervisors complete a ‘supervisor report form’ for assessment by Faculty staff, providing a two-way feedback system. While honours students complete a formal research thesis or manuscript. Both formats have been used to summarize outcomes and results have also been built into former AsiaBound funding applications. We also seek regular informal feedback from our hosting partners. It’s important to adjust protocols to ensure expectations are met.

Overall, we have found the inclusion of students in international research projects very beneficial, with several progressing to higher degrees aligned with the larger ACIAR funded projects. A small number have also progressed their research assignments into peer-reviewed journal papers. The experience for the students is likely to provide them with a greater idea of career opportunities beyond Australia, and stimulate some to conduct further research. This has also allowed the Team to encourage exceptional students into higher degree placements, sometimes continuing on their initial research interests and activities. The NCP program has certainly helped scale up student involvement in our international research activities.

For more information about the Mekong project and contact details, please visit: www.mekonglivestock.wordpress.com

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