x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Summer programme spurs young researchers

Students give up two weeks of their summer to learn about life as a reasearcher.

DUBAI // Twenty of Zayed University's best-performing students have completed a two-week training programme to entice them into the world of research.

The students, from disciplines ranging from health to education and international affairs, gave up two weeks of their summer holidays to take part in the course, which dealt with topics ranging from ethics to survey-writing.

The programme was run by the Office of Research at Zayed University. Dr Justin Thomas, a teacher at the summer research institute, said it was a great opportunity for the students to mix with others from different disciplines.

"The students develop greatly in terms of their group facilitation, interpersonal and oral communication skills," he said.

"These softer skills are also invaluable for graduate life and beyond. We want well-rounded individuals with creative research ideas and the knowledge and technical skills to pursue their ideas."

Each student has drafted a research proposal, ranging from gang culture in the UAE to the perceptions of art as a career, which they will take back to their tutors in the autumn and submit a month before they graduate.

The students will not get credits for their efforts, but Dr Maher Khelifa, who chairs the programme, said it was still an invaluable opportunity for the participants.

"Scholars know that through this programme they will gain a competitive advantage and be prepared for research careers and graduate school," he said.

"Some students progress faster than others and we already have three scholars from the first cohort [last year] who were able to present their research project at international conferences and one of the scholars has obtained Sheikh Hamdan's Award for her research work."

Maitha Al Marri, 19, is studying upper primary preparatory education. Her thesis proposal was on the lack of male Emirati teachers. "I've always been interested in issues relating to education here," she said.

One of those is bilingual learning. "The UAE's goal is to have people that are fully bilingual but I don't see that being achieved," she said.

Her passion is teaching and she aims to take that to university level. But to do that she will need a PhD.

"The programme has clarified my goals," she said. "I wasn't too sure about research and didn't think I'd learn that much but it's been really useful."

Fatma Al Jawder is studying international affairs and is also interested in bilingualism.

Her research proposal reviewed the possible effect of learning a second language on a person's first language, from losing vocabulary to widening one's perspectives.

"We've been shown only a little research at university, on a narrower scale. Now, we could conduct our own research with all the skills of which we were ignorant before," said the 20-year-old student.

Mahaba Al Saleh, 18, is a health science student, focusing on nutrition. Warned that a career in nutrition would require strong research skills, especially beyond bachelor's level, she thought the programme would be essential for her progression.

"I'll be better equipped when I go back in October," she said. "There was so much I didn't know. The research on our course was only about reading databases. I'd like to see more of this incorporated into the teaching. Learning to research is so important."

Her research proposal evaluated the relationship between stress and food consumption in Zayed University students, looking at whether, for example, it may cause them to binge, turn to junk food or encourage eating disorders.

On Tuesday, the Abu Dhabi Education Council laid out its objectives to increase the emirate's research output. This would include the federal institutions, Zayed University, UAE University and even the Higher Colleges of Technology.

By 2019 they aim to have four dedicated research centres and 14 endowed chairs in target sectors such as energy, health care and aerospace, as well as grants to fund research in a broad range of fields.

"This is exactly why the programme was created," said Dr Khelifa. "It emanated from Zayed University's desire to align itself with the country's strategic goal to build a knowledge-based economy.

"The scholars get trained in how to generate sound scientific knowledge about various aspects that are important to the advancement of their country. "They learn to value and to promote the importance of accessing existing sources of knowledge and conducting scientific research in order to expand the Emirati research and knowledge base."