21 April, 2023
Principal Investigator Associate Professor Natalie Plank recalls walking into the offices of then Deputy Director Shaun Hendy and Centre Manager Margaret Brown back in 2010 and pitching the idea for a MacDiarmid Institute student-led organisation to support training for and connections between students.
“I remember popping into the MacDiarmid offices on Level 4 and suggesting to Shaun and Margaret that I thought we needed to do something to support students to upskill and to get together.”
Natalie, who became the inaugural chair of the new MacDiarmid Emerging Scientists Association (MESA), says that back in 2010 students and postdocs often didn't really know what the Institute was, and many felt little engagement or connectivity to others around the country. She says her idea had come about in part because of her experience in the
‘Grad School UK’ during her time studying in Edinburgh. She says the Grad Programme had connected students from throughout the UK and supported them to gain more ‘soft skills’ in a fun way.
She plays down her role in the establishment of MESA.
“No idea exists in a vacuum. I’d loved the feelings of connectedness I’d had as a PhD student in the UK, being part of a bigger institute and bigger physics department. I wanted to emulate a similar sense of linkages and connectedness here.”
As the conversation developed, she gathered around her a group who would go on to become the first MESA committee, including Franck Natali, Keoni Mahelona, Elf Eldrige, Shrividya Ravi and Ben Mallet (all from Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) or Industrial Research Limited (IRL)) along with Andrew Gross and Ojas Mahapatra from Canterbury, and Cosmin Laslau from University of Auckland (UoA).
“We wanted something geared towards students, so we took over the student and postdoc part of the annual symposium that year, and organised good speakers on topics that we as students needed to hear about. We had a budget, and we ran a Raman workshop led by Joe (Trodahl). And Cosmin organised the first bootcamp, just outside of Auckland.”
The highlights for Natalie are the connections between students and with researchers, the way the culture has shifted, and the opportunities opening up through the bootcamps and other events.
“I could see students gain confidence from workshops, particularly the workshop on dealing with failure. And I joined (then MBIE Partnerships Manager) Kjesten Wiig and (alumnus and start-up CEO) Andrew Preston and other speakers at a more recent bootcamp where the conversation was about future pathways and opportunities for materials science graduates in industry and government and elsewhere.”
Current MESA co-chair Shikeale Harris, who is a third year PhD student at Massey University, says that from what she sees, Natalie’s original vision for MESA has come to pass.
We’re one family, one team.Associate Professor Natalie Plank 2010 inaugural Chair of MacDiarmid Emerging Scientists Association (MESA)
“100% MESA still aligns with what Natalie planned. Without MESA there’d be no opportunities to make friends with researchers in similar fields.”
She says being a researcher in a specialised field can feel isolating.
“It’s not necessarily the case that the three students you happen to be sharing a lab with are working on the same research as you. So being able to, through MESA, develop a shared experience with others doing the same experiments – with all the good, the bad and the ugly – is beneficial for mental health, for building bonds and networking.”
She says this period of time in young researchers’ lives may well be the hardest they’ve endured to date due to constant failure and the constant unknowns for years on end.
“So getting opportunities to reach out and be heard and knowing we’re not all alone is so important in my opinion.
“The workshops offer students the chance to step out of their research for a bit, do something they’re interested in, in a relaxed environment without financial obligations. By providing low obligation and free workshops, bootcamps and
other events to a busy and often stressed group of people who can take newly learnt skills, MESA helps us all grow in our own time and with the support of our peers.”
Fellow co-chair Dr Azy Hashemi, a postdoc at the University of Canterbury, recalls giving a student talk and receiving a prize at the 2014 Symposium.
“It was really affirming to me at the time to know my work mattered to the rest of the MacDiarmid Institute. As a student – this can be daunting – you sometimes wonder – does anyone else care?”
She regrets not having been more active in MESA while a student.
“I felt I didn’t have spare time, but I wish I had done more of the workshops and meetups.”
Now that she’s co-chair and able to make decisions that can influence and provide opportunities for students, she sees the MESA led events as having real impact for students.
“MESA is a one stop go-to place for skills building.”
Shikeale says that students like to participate in different ways and that it’s great to have the budget to involve as many people as possible and to support MESA members in all their diversity.
“For some, it’s networking. For others it’s the workshops. We understand that everyone is different, no two MESA members are the same, so we strongly believe that providing a range of opportunities is important to allow maximum involvement throughout the year. We’re so grateful that MESA has been given this opportunity by ways of financial and other support from the MacDiarmid Institute to do so.
“The people in MESA are a really interdisciplinary cohort of interesting people who come from very different backgrounds, with very different life and research experiences, and who will all go off on their own paths down a myriad of career pathways. Through MESA we can all share experiences (the good, the bad and the ugly) and know we’re not alone in this journey.”
She says the MESA process is organic and continually changing.
“The recent initiative to give third year students access to the MacDiarmid LinkedIn alumni page will be beneficial to students looking for connections and job opportunities as they head towards graduation, as will opening the alumni newsletter to any student who wants to sign up, to get a feel for the opportunities that will arise closer to their hand in period.”
Azy says that there’s an ongoing need to educate Investigators that ALL affiliated students are MacDiarmid Institute students and able to be part of MESA, especially when the MacDiarmid Institute investigator is the co-supervisor.
“This is an ongoing process.” Natalie agrees.
“One of the fundamental understandings was that ALL students associated with a MacDiarmid Institute Investigator would be part of MESA, part of the Institute.
“We’re one family, one team.”