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The Emerging Researchers in Ageing, Australia At the British Society of Gerontology Conference, Brunel University, July 2010

I was delighted to be invited to present at the ERA Symposium at the 2010 British Society of Gerontology Conference at Brunel University, London.  I had been responsible for developing the Emerging Researchers in Ageing initiative in Australia for three years, from 2007 to 2010, under the convenorship of Professor Helen Bartlett, and this was a great opportunity for me to hear about other ERA initiatives in the UK and the US, and to talk about the work that we have done in Australia.

The idea of the Emerging Researchers in Ageing initiative in Australia grew out of a little group of PhD students and their supervisors who were associated with the Australasian Centre on Ageing at the University of Queensland.  That group included some names you might recognize – Jeni Warburton, Andrea Petrijwsky, Joanne Everingham, Tim Henwood, Maree Petersen, Nancye Peel, Mair Underwood – to name a few – and of course, Helen Bartlett. 

Over the course of regular meetings and discussions about doing a PhD in ageing research in Australia, it became clear that there was a general lack of a sense of research identity and connectedness to a community of researchers in the field.  To begin to address this need, this intrepid bunch of PhD students undertook to organize the first conference for Emerging Researchers in Ageing in Australia.  The conference was held at the University of Queensland in 2002, and it was a resounding success, attracting far more interest and support than expected. 

The success of this first conference encouraged the group to make it an annual event, and the ERA Conference was born.  It was held at the University of Queensland for the first four years, and then it began to travel – first to Sydney, then Adelaide, Fremantle (Perth), Melbourne, and in 2010 it will be held in Newcastle, a coastal town about an hour north of Sydney in New South Wales.  The conference usually attracts around 150 attendees, and features around 80 presentations and posters.  It is the only conference in Australia that focuses solely on the work of postgraduate students in ageing. 

In 2005, Helen Bartlett and Mair Underwood undertook a national survey of Emerging Researchers in Ageing, asking about their experiences as postgraduates in this field of research.  The outcomes of that survey were published in the Australasian Journal on Ageing in 2007.  The main results from that survey were that students wanted or needed:

  • More opportunities to network with other researchers in the field
  • More opportunities to present their work
  • More opportunities to interact with senior academics in the field
  • More information dissemination, particularly about career and funding opportunities
  • More opportunities to collaborate with other researchers in the field.

From here on, ERA undertook a development strategy based on the results of the survey. At about this time, I was tasked with developing the ERA initiative further in collaboration with Helen Bartlett.  We were fortunate that the ARC/NHMRC Research Network in Ageing Well agreed to fund a series of new activities to further support Emerging Researchers in Ageing, the ultimate aim being to build capacity in ageing research in Australia for the future.  

From about 2008, ERA began to develop its own identity as a stand-alone academic initiative providing support specifically to postgraduate students in ageing.  The conference, which had been joined to the Australian Association of Gerontology Conference for three of its 7 years, was established once again as a separate event from 2009.  The purpose of ERA was clearly defined as building capacity for future ageing research in Australia, and new initiatives were developed:

  • Two-day masterclasses were conducted in 2008 and 2009 for 30+ PhD students in ageing research who were selected from over 70 applications from around the country
  • Two exchange programme funding rounds were offered in 2008 and 2009.  Through this programme, four postgraduates in ageing were assisted to spend time working with senior academics in the field at universities other than their own, either in Australia or overseas. 
  • A newsletter was developed and distributed regularly, the purpose being to encourage postgraduates in the field to provide the content by writing about their research, and talking about their achievements.
  • A virtual seminar series was developed, with speakers from a range of policy and academic areas, and attendees at 10 or more nodes around the country.  These seminars now also include regular attendees at two nodes in New Zealand. 
  • A dedicated ERA website was developed and is now the main source of information for many postgraduate students in ageing in Australia
  • The annual conference was expanded to two days, to include ½ day of pre-conference postgraduate workshops included in the registration cost.

Finally, in 2010, the second national survey of emerging researchers in ageing was undertaken.  Full analyses have not so far been done, but the overall outcomes suggest that many of the issues that were identified in the 2005 survey as hampering the career progression of postgraduates in ageing in Australian have been addressed, and are less problematic in 2010 than they were in 2005.  Some interim outcomes of the 2010 survey are below:

  • In 2010, 85% want to continue in ageing research (75% in 2005)
  • 86% say they are likely to stay in ageing research (57% in 2005)
  • 57% in 2010 say they are satisfied with contact with other researchers in the field (60% not satisfied in 2005)
  • 51% in 2010 say that most of their contact with other researchers in ageing is through ERA (48% in 2005 said most contact through their home discipline)
  • In 2010, the three main sources of information about ageing research were identified as the ERA website (65%); ERA email bulletins (57%) and supervisor/s (49%). 

All of these outcomes are crucial to building capacity in ageing research in Australia for the future, and I feel privileged to have been able to help develop the ERA initiative from its early beginnings into its current form, and set it up for the future.

As Helen Bartlett recently announced, ERA has now received a new source of funding as part of an ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research.  This Centre is under the direction of Professor John Piggot through the University of New South Wales.  The ERA initiative is now based at Monash University, Gippsland Campus, and Helen Bartlett is still its firm champion. 

Throughout the years of my involvement in ERA, and the years that preceded that period, Helen has remained a constant supporter of the ERA initiative.  She has always understood the importance of providing a vehicle to nurture and develop the many diverse and talented researchers in the field of ageing when they are just embarking on their academic careers.  The results of Helen’s foresight will be obvious in years to come, when these young researchers continue in the field and mature into the Professors and policy makers of tomorrow.  And that, at the end of the day, is what the Emerging Researchers in Ageing initiative in Australia is all about.  Without Helen’s continued support, I doubt any of this would have been possible. 

Thank you to the BSG and the organizers of the ERA symposium for the opportunity to present at the 2010 conference.

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