Research for a Better Future

Western Sydney University Research Theme Fellows discuss their work’s impact.

Dr Kylie Budge, a creative arts researcher, Dr Lyn Tieu, a linguist, Dr Jennifer MacRitchie, a cognitive scientist, and Dr Sebastian Pfautsch, a tree physiologist, are among Western Sydney University’s best and brightest academics. Their work is helping to shape a greener, smarter, healthier, inclusive, and creative future. These researchers recently came together to share their thoughts on their work’s potential for creating impact in the world.

Future Communicators

Linguistics wasn’t at the front of Lyn Tieu’s mind when she began her university studies, but she quickly became fascinated by what the scientific study of language could reveal about society. Her work focuses on how children acquire meaning, and how they interpret a particular feature of language called linguistic inferences — the messages we sometimes don’t even realise we’re conveying through our choice of words and phrasing. 

For example, the sentence ‘girls are as good as boys at maths’ seems to be an equitable statement. But Tieu, Research Theme Fellow in Education and Work, says some studies have shown that the implicit inference that comes from the way that statement is ordered is that girls are not as naturally gifted as boys are at maths. “So if teachers are saying things that convey additional messages beyond what they’re attempting to convey, that could have an impact on how children are interpreting the content that we’re delivering,” she says. 

In seeking to understand how children interpret these linguistic inferences, Tieu is hoping her research can help “bridge that gap between our scientific understanding and children’s actual educational experiences.” 

She also believes that linguistics has much to offer in terms of moving society towards greater equality, because it recognises that all languages are equal. “Prescriptive authorities will have you believe that there is some standard version of a language that you must attain, but the danger with that is that people then use that to create prejudices, to marginalise,” she says. “In linguistics we learn that that’s not true — different languages and dialects are equally important and valid, and can offer rich insights into the mind. If linguistics could actually be taught earlier in the curriculum, not only would you get the scientific benefit of learning about scientific inquiry and hypothesis testing through linguistic studies, it could actually change attitudes.”

Future Spaces

Changing attitudes is something that Kylie Budge is working hard to do in the creative arts field; in particular, antagonism towards selfies and Instagram culture in museums.

“People like myself are arguing there is some kind of benefit to this Instagram culture because it’s a platform where people can creatively express their experience, their engagement with the space, and with the artefacts that are on display,” says Budge, Research Theme Fellow in Urban Living Futures and Society. “It’s a way to upend the power balance that has perhaps existed for too long, where museums have told people what they should think, what they should look at and how they should think about certain exhibits or space.”

“There are still a lot of people who won’t go to a museum or gallery, and feel like that’s not a place for them,” says Budge. But she argues that allowing digital expression in these traditionally non-digital spaces can open these spaces up to new audiences who might otherwise not experience them.

Another area where attitudes are changing, but not always for the better, is around the concept of maker spaces. These communal spaces with shared equipment are popping up in cities around the world – and particularly in China, where they are viewed as hothouses of creativity and innovation. There is growing awareness of the importance that these spaces have in encouraging innovation. “These are about participating, making, and contributing to society, rather than just consuming.”

“I think policy-makers and governments sometimes presume that somehow innovation occurs in an abstract vacuum,” Budge says. “Different support mechanisms and spaces need to be provided and created to allow innovation to flourish. It doesn’t just happen.”

Creativity and divergent thinking are nourished in maker spaces, but the spaces themselves need protection and support. Australia has a few maker spaces — one of the most well-known in Sydney is in light industrial estate land in Marrickville — but, many are under threat from development pressure. Budge hopes that her work will contribute towards greater understanding and appreciation of and access to these spaces in Australian cities, particularly outside metropolitan regions.

Future Creativity

Music is a familiar expression of creativity, but Dr Jennifer MacRitchie, Research Theme Fellow in Health and Wellbeing, believes it also could have significant health and wellbeing benefits, particularly in the elderly. Having studied electrical engineering and music, she was working on motion capture technology to study the movement of pianists’ fingers when she became interested in the processes by which we acquire musical skills.

“Your brain has to process symbols on a page if you’re reading music notation, decide on an action, a set of fine-motor commands that you use to manipulate the musical instrument, listen to the sound being produced, and then refine the next set of actions accordingly and you’re doing that at such minute time scales,” she says. “Playing a musical instrument is such a beneficial task for your brain, so we started wondering, why is it not something more people can have access to and benefit from.”

It has long been established that these skills have to be acquired early in life, but MacRitchie and her colleagues have recently published research results that show that the elderly are just as capable of taking up music for the first time, and there are significant benefits in doing that.

But some older people can face additional challenges in learning music; for example, having restricted movement due to stroke or arthritis, or cognitive decline experienced as part of dementia. Practical and economic concerns to accessing a musical instrument may be enough to put off potential learners. This is another area where technology is breaking down barriers; MacRitchie gives the example of new musical interfaces that can be used on an iPad.

“A lot of my research is trying to devise ways to reduce some of those cognitive and physical barriers in learning to play a musical instrument so that we’ve got more people having access to musical activities and getting the optimal benefits for their wellbeing.”

Researchers are still getting to grips with the extent of these benefits, because until now much of the work has focused on people with a lifetime of musical experience, not on those who are taking it up later in life. While there are likely to be physical and cognitive benefits, MacRitchie is also interested in the emotional and social benefits. “By doing a lot of group musical activities, you’re giving people avenues to share something together and identify as part of a group,” she says. “That helps reduce loneliness, for which older adults tend to be at risk.”

Future Cities

The elderly, immobile and very young are more vulnerable than most to the effects of heat, and that’s where Dr Sebastian Pfautsch’s research comes in. As Research Theme Fellow in Environment and Sustainability, he’s looking at how urban green infrastructure could help address the growing issue of urban heat.

Urban green infrastructure describes anything green in an urban space; from the grass, shrubs and trees along roads and in parks, to living walls and rooftop gardens. It’s increasingly recognised that urban green infrastructure plays a vital role in cooling the urban environment.

Pfautsch and colleagues deployed temperature data loggers across several western Sydney councils, and found that a street with just 10% canopy cover experienced 12 days above 40oC in summer, while a street with 30% canopy cover had fewer than half that — experiencing just five days of summer above 40 degrees. “It’s a huge difference that not only impacts the wellbeing of people living in tree-lined streets but also impacts power consumption for air conditioning in their houses,” he says. “You have add-on effects once you start increasing urban canopy, where you reduce heat and energy bills in households.”

But there are other benefits to increasing urban green infrastructure, Pfautsch says. “While green infrastructure helps make cities liveable, it also has benefits in biodiversity, liveability, public health, and even helps with reducing crime, and increasing property values,” he says.

The challenge is how, where and what to plant to best combat the urban heat island effect combined with the climate crisis that is already seeing temperatures in Australia’s major cities approach dangerous levels during summer months. But there’s only so much that urban green infrastructure can do.

“If western Sydney gets hit by a heatwave, trees won’t help cooling these very hot air masses, especially if they have no access to water that supports transpiration,” he says. “We have to look at other ways to cope with these new conditions of repeated heat waves and low rainfalls. We’re exploring how thermal benefits can be generated by different surface materials and colours used in urban design.”

Pfautsch hopes his work can help guide local and state governments towards creating more liveable cities in the face of a heating climate. “We urgently need to expand green infrastructure, but we have to be smart about it if we want maximum cooling benefits in times of rapid urbanisation and a heating climate.”


© Anna Kucer; Photo of Jennifer MacRitchie taken by Monica Pronk. © oxygen/Moment/Getty Images © yacobchuk/iStock /Getty Images Plus © Anna Kucera
Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.