Sarah Mokhtar – Master of Design Innovation at Victoria University of Wellington

Sarah Mokhtar’s goal is to solve real world problems and to help change people’s lives for the better through design. Sarah completed an undergraduate degree in Interior Architecture before taking a design turn, completing a graduate diploma in Design Innovation and then embarking on a Master of Design Innovation in Industrial Design.

For her master’s, Sarah had to focus on just one design and that gave her the chance to work on something close to her heart.

“When I decided to do my master’s, I thought, ‘what are the biggest challenges I’ve had in my life and how could I resolve them with design?’”

When Sarah was younger, her older sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and she says while she was growing up, she struggled to fully relate to what her sister was going through. As a teenager, Sarah attended a workshop that gave her the chance to hear a simulation of the voices heard by a person with schizophrenia. The workshop helped her to better appreciate what her sister had to deal with and Sarah wanted to bring this experience to others.

“I wanted to help family members of people with schizophrenia understand what it’s like.”

For her master’s project, Sarah partnered with the organisers of the workshop she had attended to develop a downloadable app and wearable technology scarf that simulates what it’s like to hear voices.

The scarf has sensors in it which respond to the environment the wearer is in, triggering the app, which plays voices through headphones. That means people can wear the scarf while engaging in everyday activities, giving them a realistic experience of what people with schizophrenia are battling with.

Sarah wore the scarf for hours at a time and found it was not only distracting and disconcerting, but it also changed her behaviour. Talking with people, even friends, was a struggle, and she realised that while wearing the scarf, she avoided interactions and became more withdrawn.

Sarah says completing her master’s has been “life changing”. She’s not sure of her immediate career plans but is still very clear on the kind of work she wants to do.

“The type of design that I want to do in the end is design that helps change people’s lives.”

Pauline Fakalata – Master of Nursing student at The University of Auckland

Pauline Fakalata balances her work as a women’s health nurse manager with her postgraduate research into Tongan women’s health literacy and contraceptive use.

“Part-time study on top of a full-time day job is not always easy but my supervisor has kept me focused and provided clear guidance and direction.

“When I started my master’s, it was difficult to make time to study; at the end of a day’s work, the last thing on my mind was doing assignments. However, I was committed to my cause and my strategy was to allocate regular time to studying every night. Whether it was writing a paragraph or reading, committing some regular time proved helpful. I’ve accepted that I won’t be able to have much of a social life in the weekends!

“Fortunately, my two children are high-school-aged and semi-independent. My husband drove them to their various sports and hobbies while I stayed home and did my assignments.

My husband was also tasked with proofreading my assignments and providing constructive feedback on them. Family, friends, and colleagues were also supportive.

“In the first year of my master’s, I neglected my health and consumed too many snacks and ended up putting on three kilos. I joined my daughter’s gym, where I eventually became hooked on ‘power’ classes. After a few months, I lost the three kilos, had stronger muscles, and felt more energetic. I am still going to the gym but also do regular walks round the block whenever possible. Exercise provides the mental rinse I sometimes need.

“My advice to anyone taking up postgraduate study is to plan for it, be realistic about what you can and can’t do, organise your support network, and then commit to your cause. You will have no social life for a few years, but it is worth the sacrifice. I find my area of study fascinating. From a service provider perspective, the more we understand about Tongan women and their reproductive needs, the better we are able to serve this group of our population. This study could also be applied to other groups.

“Postgraduate study at the University of Auckland has also given me the opportunity to meet other nurses with research interests. Being able to share experiences and build professional relationships and networks has been hugely rewarding.”

Nola Tipa and Haydon Richards – Master of Professional Practice at Otago Polytechnic’s Capable NZ

Their careers may be in disparate fields, but mother and son Nola Tipa and Haydon Richards both embarked on the same qualification at the same time: the Master of Professional Practice at Otago Polytechnic’s Capable NZ.

The pair was drawn to Capable NZ’s assessment of prior learning (APL) process, which credits people for their learning and experience as they work towards a formal qualification.

Nola left school at the tender age of 14, but after an adult career dedicated to education, she is now the programme leader of education for Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.

“I was one of many students who didn’t adapt well to high school,” recalls Nola. “But when I had children, I didn’t want them to end up like me – to have ability but no pieces of paper to prove it. I became very involved in their education from the start.”

That journey began at a Kaitangata Playcentre, where Nola gained her first qualification in early childhood education, and continued when she gained a teaching degree and taught at her children’s primary and secondary schools.

After Nola won a scholarship to study Te Reo in Christchurch, the family relocated to the garden city. There, she became a resource teacher of learning and behaviour, a path that led to her role at Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, which she describes as “diverse, challenging, and fulfilling”.

“I decided to enrol at Capable NZ because I wanted to draw on my practical knowledge and experience of education as part of my master’s study,” she explains.

“Something I’ve really appreciated is that Capable NZ offers support of Māori by Māori,” she adds. “Aspects of culture are innate and intrinsic, so I’ve found that assistance encouraging and very helpful.”

Nola’s son Haydon Richards is enjoying a distinguished career of his own, after establishing a business consultancy shortly after completing a Bachelor of Applied Management. His specialty is business development consultancy, a service he provides to Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and ECAN, Canterbury’s regional council.

“My role is varied and project-based, and when I first started my business, I learned a great deal in a short space of time,” Haydon explains. “I was drawn to Capable NZ because it could formally recognise this depth of experience.”

The fact he could continue working – and draw on that work as part of his qualification – appealed.

“I really enjoyed the critical thinking involved in reflecting on my journey so far,” he says, “examining how I got to where I am now and where I’m heading in future.”
Haydon became Capable NZ’s first Master of Professional Practice graduate, completing his qualification with distinction. Since then, he’s already embarked on his PhD in indigenous economic development.

Nola is now in the final stages of her master’s, and is full of praise for Capable NZ.

“I’m telling people about it left, right and centre,” she laughs.

Alistair Brown – Biotechnology PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington

Alistair Brown clearly has a passion for science – he lights up when he explains his research and talks excitedly about bacteria. It’s hard to believe that Alistair wasn’t always so engaged with his studies, but he says that in his last few years of secondary school, an academic path seemed unlikely.

“I didn’t get NCEA Level 3 and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. So I spent a couple of years working a pretty average job and didn’t really enjoy it. I figured one of the easiest ways to change and grow a bit was to go to university and learn some new things.”

When Alistair first enrolled at Victoria University of Wellington, he didn’t picture himself being there for the long haul. Having grown up in the capital city, surrounded by the ocean, marine science seemed an obvious choice.

Initially, Alistair’s motivation levels at university were not so different from his time in school, but things started to change in his second year when he decided to downsize from whales to bacteria, changing his major from Marine Biology to Cell and Molecular Bioscience.

“I’m fascinated by how things work. Marine science is very much on the macro scale — animal interactions and stuff like that. I guess what really, really interested me was how animals actually work, and when you get down to that base, cellular level, how everything interacts.”

It was a third-year biotechnology course that served as a real turning point for Alistair, both academically and personally.

“It was the point where I stopped viewing university as a way to get a degree, as a way to get a piece of paper, and I started thinking what I could do with my degree.”\

It was during that course that he met Associate Professor David Ackerley, who has been instrumental in helping Alistair pursue his passion for bioscience and biotechnology. After he completed his third year, Dr Ackerley offered Alistair a summer scholarship in his laboratory and he is now Alistair’s PhD supervisor.

The focus of Alistair’s PhD is an enzyme produced by a bacterial species that makes a blue pigment. Initially, Alistair used the enzyme to try and identify new antibiotics, but he is now using it to detect glutamine levels in blood or urine, and he hopes to ultimately use the enzyme to develop tests for certain diseases.

Anil Kaushik – PhD candidate at Massey University

Anil Kaushik began his doctoral journey in his homeland India, where he’d observed a lack of conceptual understanding and motivation to study science among high school students.

The teacher trainer from Chandigarh in northern India was concerned about how few teenagers were engaged in a subject critically linked to India’s economic growth and future. The observation sparked his desire to make a difference by researching the issue and trialling new teaching strategies.

His PhD thesis, titled ‘Computer-based collaborative concept mapping: Motivating Indian secondary school students to learn science’, investigates the effectiveness of a learning intervention on secondary school science students.

Anil is now assessing the results of his innovative teaching model that combines computers, collaboration and conceptual learning, to four classes of 15 and 16-year-old students in two Chandigarh schools.

While the research is complete and the end of the project is in sight for next year, Anil has faced challenges in juggling family and finances as an international student during his four-year doctoral mission. His daugher Nutan was born just as he began his thesis, and his son Chetas was born in early 2013 when he was in India gathering his data.

Financial pressures struck when the NZ$40,000 he’d borrowed in India to pay the fees of his four-year project ran out just over halfway through due to currency devaluation in India.

He’s had to work part-time at Burger King and later as a full-time support worker for people with intellectual disabilities and rest home carer “to keep body and soul together” and support his family of four in Palmerston North. It meant his studies have taken longer than estimated.

However, his commitment to the doctoral project never wavered, in large part thanks to the ongoing support, mentoring, and encouragement from his Massey peers and supervisors, he says. His supervisors are Dr Alison Kearney, a senior lecturer at the Insitute of Education, and Dr Lone Jorgensen, retired from Massey.

Practical help through postgraduate seminars and workshops have also helped him focus when he was feeling dispirited. A dedicated academic, the doctoral study is the latest in a swag of postgraduate degrees. He has three Master’s degrees, in Physics, Education, and Applied Psychology.

“Now I’m at the point where they intersect in educational psychology and science education”.

“I’ve had many ups and downs, but I believe the effort will be worthwhile,” says Anil. He hopes his research will help raise science achievement “not only in India but anywhere in the world”.


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