OCURA and future changemakers: How undergraduate research is expanding horizons

10 May 2023

Bachelor of Psychological Science student Rebecca Williams has had a big-impact career in community services and early childhood education, and the Rockhampton student says her degree is broadening her horizons for making lives better.

The passionate people person is interested in qualitative research in developmental psychology, physical activity, and early childhood mental heath, and is juggling her studies with work as a research assistant for CQU’s Motivation of Health Behaviours (MoHB) lab.

Ahead of MoHB’s Online Conference for Undergraduate Research in Australasia (OCURA) across 30 August – 1 September 2023, Rebecca has looked at the broad social and academic impacts of fostering undergraduate research.

It is often falsely assumed that research is something that only professors or graduate students engage in (Madan, 2013). But seeing the true value of it, more and more undergraduate students are getting involved as early as their first year of study (Robinson et al., 2013). In the process, they are helping to dissect complex global problems and come up with innovative new explorations of them in the research space. CQUniverisity’s Online Conference for Undergraduate Research in Australasia (OCURA) is a strong advocate for providing opportunities for students to engage in the research process early career.

Attaining research experience early and often is greatly enriching and beneficial to students (Adebesi, 2022; Madan, 2013). Research experience allows undergraduates to better understand published works, learn to balance collaborative and individual projects, determine an area of interest, and jump start their careers as researchers (Petrella & Young, 2008). Development and maintenance of undergraduate research programs have been shown to benefit students, faculty mentors and the university.

Through exposure to research as undergraduates, many students discover their passion for research and continue on to graduate studies (Madan, 2013). Many degrees are now culminating with a capstone experience where students apply all skills that they have learned during their degree into analysing or reviewing a topic, problem or challenge in their field, and then conducting an investigation about this to come up with a solution (Lee & Loton, 2017) This is not dissimilar to more formal research that aims to establish facts and reach new conclusions, and underlines the importance of getting involved in early undergraduate research experiences (Gilmore et al., 2015). Not only does the undergraduate research experience help to form technical skills, but also participating in it has advantages that reach beyond academia. This includes building resilience and problem solving skills to tackle obstacles, the ability to work independently, bolstering oral and written communication skills, broadening critical thinking skills and how to apply these to real world problems (Lopato, 2007).

This ability to tackle real world problems is vital for the future of our planet and students can contribute to advancement and innovation in all fields through sharing and exploring their ideas in undergraduate research (Adebesi, 2022). As the world as we know it evolves and the need for research grows, new innovations to deal with existing complex (“wicked”) problems (Wagman, 2005; Green, 2016; Crowley & Head, 2017) and emerging global megatrends are needed now more than ever (Hajkowicz, 2015; Singh; 2012). We require new and creative ways to deal with issues like climate change, loss of biodiversity, poverty, food insecurity and the growing mental and physical health crisis (Walls, 2018). Additionally, currently developing global trends like the increased demand for limited natural resources, rapid urbanisation, ageing populations and digital technology advancements need forward thinking individuals with their finger on the pulse to guide us through the changes and challenges ahead (Hajkowicz, 2022). Research will play a vital role in this and getting students involved in their undergraduate years seems like a no-brainer.  Some great discoveries have been made by researchers during their student years. Fixed air now called (C02), the insulin hormone, and the anti-coagulant heparin were all discovered by students (Adebesi, 2022). Contemporarily, undergraduate students are forging the way forward in championing research in the advancement of women’s health and equity, planetary health, and the use of digital technologies (Adebesi, 2022) So it seems clear that not only do the students and their university have something to gain, but also society at large.

Many universities have specific programs or labs dedicated to fostering undergraduate research as they see the profound benefits that come from it (Ahmad et al., 2019). CQUniversity’s The Motivation of Health Behaviours (MoHB) specialises in this and is a connected network of academics and students with a shared research goal. The lab values ideas and inspirations from all sorts of sources with a spotlight on undergraduate students and fostering their potential and has brought about an innovation of its own in relation to undergraduate research (Central Queensland University, 2022). Seeing that there were little opportunities for students to present their research, The Online Conference for Undergraduate Research in Australia (OCURA) was founded in 2020 by volunteer members of the Motivation of Health Behaviours (MoHB) Lab. The online conference approach came about during the COVID-19 pandemic when cancellation of the few physical undergraduate conferences that were in operation occurred. It has continued in the years since very strongly, as it fills the need for a digital research arena. OCURA was designed to provide a showcase for undergraduate researchers with a comfortable conference experience to build skills for presenting research in a virtual space. Because it encourages participants from all undergraduate faculties/fields it allows for a diversity of topics to be explored, with a foresight for multi-disciplinary networking and collaboration opportunities.  (Online Conference for Undergraduate Research, 2022).

With support from a supervisor, undergraduate presenters can self-allocate to either an oral presentation or a poster presentation during the abstract submission process. While OCURA’s focus is to showcase student research in Australasia, OCURA also wants to provide the audience members with knowledge and inspiration to continue their research journey. It includes keynote speakers, workshops and open discussion forums to provide attendees with information and inspiration regarding the research journey and how research can make a real-world impact. The ability to make early career research connections, learn about the research process from experienced academics, and practise oral presentation skills, have been reported as reasons why many individuals attended and/or present at OCURA.

The experience has also resulted in participants feeling confident to present their research in a relaxed, non-intimidating and supportive environment where they feel comfortable in presenting their research, building peer networks, and developing skills for their future careers in research. After its first successful iteration in 2020, In 2021, OCURA was held for a second year, but this time expanded to broader Australasia – and thereby renamed to the Online Conference for Undergraduate Research in Australasia. In 2022, OCURA further expanded its reach to include presentations from pre-Confirmation of Candidature Research Higher Degree (RHD) students.

The diversity of research topics presented in 2022 demonstrated how undergraduate students are passionate about exploring current complex societal issues and looking for solutions. Research focusing on the environment and sustainability, citizen health and wellbeing, and technology were all featured. Innovative ways to look at the allocation of emergency services resources, sustainable production of Bundaberg Rum, the use of Intercultural readers, use of technology for social support, targeting youth disengagement, breaking down systemic racism and stigmatisation, and mental health of adolescents were among the many topics explored. OCURA will return bigger and better than ever in 2023 with the theme Expand Your Horizons. OCURA2023 will run from 30th August – 1st September.


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