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'Be proactive and take responsibility'

UWI STA School of Graduate Studies and Research brings together some of the campus’s top scholars to give inspirational and practical advice on doing research and getting published

By Joel Henry

How important is research and publication to an academic career? In the words of Professor Terence Seemungal, renowned scholar and Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences at UWI St Augustine, “If you want to be a leader in your field, that’s how you do it.”

He was speaking at a special session titled “Managing Research with Work and Life's Responsibilities” that brought together deans, department heads, and other senior administrators with some of the most outstanding research and publications credentials on the campus and in the region.

The event was held to give attendees – many of them researchers and research students – an opportunity to “learn from the experiences of our panellists who are excellent researchers”, explained host Dr Chris Maharaj.

Dr Maharaj, Deputy Dean of Research and Postgraduate Student Affairs at the Faculty of Engineering, said the panellists “have built up a reputation of research that most academics aspire to”.

The session was held by The UWI St Augustine School of Graduate Studies and Research.

Publish or Perish

“Nobody will accept the excuse that you do not have enough time to do research,” Professor Edwin Ekwue, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, advised the virtual audience.

He shared his own academic journey, which included full teaching schedules and many administrative duties. Early on, he thought he did not have time for research. “I was trying to use that as an excuse,” he said. But, a career in academia, he explained, requires research and publication. It is “publish or perish”.

“You must find a way around the problem,” he said.

All of the panellists shared stories of the difficulties in research, from time constraints, limited resources, and even mishaps like loss of information and theft.

“I had to wonder is that the end or is this going to be a very rough road,” recounted Dr Talia Esnard, Head of the Department of Behavioural Sciences and accomplished scholar and author.

Dr Esnard told attendees the story of her struggles with academic work and parenting. However, she was not only able to overcome these challenges, but would eventually go on to use her own experiences as a catalyst for research and writing.

She explained, “My work is my passion. My passion becomes my practice. My practice is my basis of research.”

‘You have to love what you are doing’

Professor Christine Carrington, Head of the Department of Preclinical Sciences, and one of the most visible faces of the national response to the COVID-19, also emphasised the importance of passion as a motivator.

“When you are doing your PhD,” she said, “you have to love what you are doing and you have to be fascinated by it. I love viruses. I find them intriguing. I enjoy learning about them. I enjoy talking about them.”

Prof Carrington also spoke of the importance of collaboration, both local and off campus, with other researchers.

“It keeps you current. It keeps you engaged. It keeps you in a network of like-minded people,” she said, adding that these partnerships should be mutually beneficial and respectful.

Research partnerships was a major theme of the event, both with other scholars and students.

Professor Adesh Ramsubhag, Senior Lecturer in Microbiology and Plant Pathology in the Department of Life Sciences, told the audience that, during his time as a department head, he developed a strong research culture among the students.

“I believe that once you have a motivated and well-trained student, you have a highly productive unit," he said, “not only for generating research output, but also contributing to national development.”

Prof Ramsubhag said he has supervised many students and “does not turn away any students” in need of a supervisor.

Research heroes, supervisors, and mentors

Programme Coordinator for the BSc in Industrial Engineering Professor Kit Fai Pun spoke as well about the importance of supervisors. However, he also focussed on the student’s role in the relationship.

“Be proactive and take responsibility,” he advised researchers. “You cannot simply wait until your supervisor is ready to see you. Establish a positive, professional relationship with your supervisor.”

With hundreds of publications, Prof Pun has an awe inspiring record of scholarship. Yet, he was quick to point out that he was also a winner of the UWI/Guardian Life Premium Teaching Award. Despite the time constraints, he achieved excellence in both research and teaching. This, he said, provided “good evidence” that it can be done.

Professor Hariharan Seetharaman, a Professor of Anaesthesia and Critical Care Medicine at the Faculty of Medical Sciences, also told those in attendance that, despite the many difficulties, successful research and publication can be achieved.

Prof Seetharaman, who is UWI St Augustine’s Director of Graduate Studies and Research, said, “There are so many myths and misconceptions about the difficulties of research and publishing. I can tell you there is a knack to it. It is a skill any academic can acquire. Most research is publishable, once you get the knack.”

It was an encouraging message, one welcomed by the up and coming researchers at UWI St Augustine. And as Prof Seemungal pointed out in his presentation, despite all the practical tips for a successful research career, internal characteristics like determination and drive are essential.

“In retrospect, it was tough,” he said of his own journey, “but it didn’t feel that way at the time. If you have that interest, the energy comes.”

Practical Tips for Researchers

  • Find a good research hero/mentor
  • Form mutually beneficial collaborative research relationships
  • Join regional and international research networks
  • Encourage and work with students
  • Find a niche research area
  • Read about the experts in the field beforehand
  • Be flexible and realistic about your research environment and resources
  • Ensure publications and conferences are genuine and reputable
  • Know the university regulations pertaining to research
  • Create and follow a study plan
  • Create contingency plans
  • Keep good records of your data (and backups)
  • Don’t try to do it all alone. Have a support system
  • Keep up to date with the relevant technology
  • Recognise that being published is a skill. Get the knack