Brittney Merryweather is a force when it comes to International Co-op. Not one to shy away from opportunities abroad, she dives into each country she goes to with gusto and an open mind for learning. In Spring 2007, Brittney went to the University of Wollongong (UOW) in New South Wales, Australia, as a research assistant.
My placement at the UOW had three main components. My primary role was to aid in the cutting edge research of current students of the CTN, under the supervision of Professor Xu-Feng Huang. Secondly, I assisted in the qualitative and quantitative research of the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences and Director of the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute at the University of Wollongong, Professor Don Iverson. Finally, I was responsible for investigating a small individual side experiment branched from one of the larger projects within the Centre for Translational Neuroscience (CTN).
Since Professor Iverson’s research interests included clinical, patient, and delivery issues related to primary care medicine, and health-related behaviour change strategies for patients and physicians, my role was to:
- Assist with a variety of procedural aspects of the experiments, such as having an active participation in binding experiments, behavioural testing, injections, euthanasia, weighing and Cryostat, Beta Imager and film usage
- Search for articles and research papers related to this study using and updating the library database and the internet
- Contact educational facilities with questions regarding certain programs, obtain statistics and summarize papers relevant to the study
- Formally establish a Nurse Practitioner program in Australia which is similar to successful programs such as those in Canada
- Conduct and analyze a small side experiment that is an extension to an ongoing investigation for the discovery of an accurate model for schizophrenia
In comparison to what I have experienced in work and research environments in Canada, I found the overall attitudes of staff members at the University of Wollongong to be more laid back and relaxed. For example, when I was given assignments, they did not have strict deadlines, rather I was instructed to work at my own pace until completion. This was good to a degree, but I found that I like to have structure in my work environment, and timelines can be a motivator. This improved throughout my work term, and I later found myself with adequate amounts of work. Working at individual pace allowed staff members to designate their own working hours. Some staff started work at 8am and left at 3pm, while others didn’t come in until past noon and stayed until9pm. This aspect of the job really appealed to me as I work better later in the day than early in the morning.
All of my colleagues were exceptionally wonderful people. They were very nice and helpful, and I really enjoyed working with all of them. Although there was an expressed desire for increased social interaction (as pointed out in lab meetings by an interest in more staff parties), I found that aspect to be missing from most of the office environments. During the day, when everyone was working, the offices were dead silent with no social interactions. Although I sometimes benefited from the work-hard-in-silence atmosphere, I felt rather uncomfortable at times. Fortunately, the office I finally ended up in permanently seemed different to the others, and had increased social interactions. I became quite close friends with the coworkers in my office, and even organized the staff pot-luck lunch party at my house. By becoming close to my colleagues, I believe my efficiency improved while working in a team. I became more familiar with each member as a person, and therefore as a colleague. In addition, the social communication made the long hours in the lab more pleasant and enjoyable.
The work I did at the University of Wollongong truly amazed me. I’ve never experienced such a steep learning curve in so many aspects of my personal and educational life. Ideologically, I learnt about the “Scientific Community” and that my stereotypes about the solitude and individuality of research were wrong. I always viewed research as being a race to the finish, a competition where everyone worked on their own completely isolated, striving to discover the answers that researchers seek. However, I found that it’s more like a team effort in more ways than one. Initially, there’s the research team directly involved in a given experiment (there are usually several authors to a given paper and a hierarchy of researchers involved). In addition, everyone in research is so highly dependent on the works of others, especially those who specialize in certain areas, such as behavioural testing, or binding experiments in the brain. When submitting a paper for review, every aspect of the methodology must be justified by previous papers that have proven each step to be the most accurate for the given circumstances. However, what I witnessed during the statistical analysis of the papers made me question the validity of some of the papers that got published.
This experience has definitely opened my eyes to the possibility of a future in research. I found research to be exhilarating and a career in which I could become very passionate about. Research, being so dynamic, would be constantly changing and evolving, and consequently, I would be consistently learning. The field of psycho-neuropharmachology really interests me and I believe I would enjoy pursuing innovative research in this field. If I was to continue with research, I would want to pursue professorship. I would be inspired by the opportunity of directing my own research ideas and team, and by the possibility of discovering something scientifically significant that could alter the current path of research. I realize this path requires much hard work and dedication and can be quite stressful at times, having witnessed breakdowns, clashing codes of ethics amongst staff members and long hours, it is a rewarding experience when I gain a better understanding about the task at hand.
The training I received during my term was impressive. I received so much training that I felt competent completing tasks in the laboratory and felt knowledgeable in the areas of our research. Two mandatory Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) courses were offered at the beginning of my work term. Certifiable training courses were also offered to me as scientific laboratory requirements. These courses took place in classroom settings and were taught based on national standards to groups of new staff members and laboratory research students. These courses were effectively delivered and presented in an organized manner by an expert in the field. I gained the most valuable training from inductions given by other employees who were familiar in a given area of research being conducted in the CTN.
Although research has its benefits and can be highly intriguing, it may not be exactly what I hope to pursue in the future. I think my final decision will come after many more years of schooling and growing up, after I’ve decided what I really want to aspire to. I do believe that whatever career path I choose to pursue, I would like it to have an element of research in it, so I can continuously stay up-to-date with current scientific findings. As well, if I ultimately decided to become a teacher, I would love to be a science teacher, continuously informed with the latest discoveries and update my class to the constantly changing scientific database. I am still very young and have many options, I only wish to keep them open and explore the many other possibilities out there.
The advice I would give the next Co-op student who wishes to come to the University of Wollongong to work as a Research Assistant is to give the University plenty of notice before hand. I would recommend giving 2 semesters notice so everyone is prepared for your arrival, you will then have a set outline of responsibilities and tasks, a desk waiting for you and an opportunity to be added to the grant, so the pay for your work in the laboratory is reasonable.
I think the fact that my co-op term was in Australia enhanced my overall experiences. The ability I had to explore another country while exploring a possible career option was amazing and I hope to get the opportunity to do it again. The landscapes were breathtakingly beautiful, and the animals were amazing and different. The cultural differences were fascinating as well, and many of their sayings were hilarious. Being completely on my own also had its benefits, I think I’ve become a much more confident and independent person than I was when I left. I am very lucky to have had this opportunity, and hope one day to do another international co-op placement, preferably at a medical clinic in Africa orAsia.
And she did go on another International Co-op! Check out Brittney’s 3rd Co-op placement in India.