Meet the new Science Scholars director

06 December 2018
Dr Rhys Jones, Department of Statistics
Dr Rhys Jones

Dr Rhys Jones of the Department of Statistics has been named director of the innovative Science Scholars programme at the University of Auckland.

The competitive programme picks out bright and well-rounded students for an accelerated programme of development as they pursue either a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Advanced Science. Students receive one-on-one mentoring throughout their degree, as well as lectures and research opportunities that aren’t usually available to undergraduates.

Rhys, a Professional Teaching Fellow who joined the department last year, is delighted to be heading the Science Scholars programme, which started in 2015. Founded by Professors Cather Simpson Richard Easter and David Williams, and under the guidance of Science Scholars co-ordinator Dr Nicolette Rattenbury, the programme has been extremely successful. There are 125 students in the programme at present, with about 50 new recruits annually.

Activities are hands-on. Most weeks there is a guest presenter, who may be from within the faculty, a visiting academic or someone from the wider community. Their role is less to lecture than to spark interesting discussions. In their second year, students develop a research question they would like to investigate, in conjunction with an academic member of staff. In the third year, students work on answering their question. Feedback has been positive.

One of the current scholars is Alysha Johnson, who has just finished her BSc in Earth Science and Geography. In 2019 she will pursue an honours in earth science and continue the geology research project she started in Science Scholars.

The programme, she says, was “of incomparable value to me and one of the highlights of my degree.” It gave her a head-start in learning about how research works and making connections with other students and academics. The activities also sharpened her thinking: “The programme forces you to debate and refine your ideas with other students, which assisted in giving me critical skills required in science.”

The work at times put her outside her comfort zone, but with good results: Alysha produced work which was “above what I thought I could achieve and I am incredibly proud of what I produced”.

Applicants can be school-leavers or undergraduate science students, and the course isn’t necessarily seeking those with the highest grades. Students are chosen based on a holistic view of their potential to succeed as scientists. 

One of the key components of the application is a personal response essay. This year, the question for school-leavers was, “Scientific explorations, big and small, can provoke strong emotional responses: describe a scientific hypothesis, study, or result that has really excited or unsettled you.”  

To anyone who is thinking of applying, Rhys is emphatic: “Go for it! This is an amazing opportunity to learn from passionate and dedicated world-leading science educators and researchers.” He says that the scholars also become firm friends as they work together.

Alysha echoes his words: “For any student who is even slightly interested in research, I encourage them to give it a go.”

The course also brings benefits to lecturers, says Dr Cate Macinnes-Ng, a senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences.

In a 2016 interview in Tall Poppies magazine, she said, “Teaching large undergraduate classes can be a bit impersonal because there are so many students, they can get lost in the crowd. But in the Science Scholars Class, we get to know the students better. Breaking down the barriers and making connection is very fun! The students are super-motivated and really enjoy learning. This is a very rewarding experience for me.”

Read the in-depth feature on Science Scholars in Tall Poppies magazine here.