Highlights from a rookie researcher’s first conference.

A few weeks ago I attended the conference Progress 2013 (http://progress2013.org.au/). The first of its kind in Australia, it brought together progressive left thinkers with not-for profit organizations, unions, private industry and experts in the health and environment sector. Its aim was to talk about the issues that will define Australia’s not-for profits and social movements for the years to come. As a recent graduate, this was my first ever conference and a chance to understand how people from all over the workforce come together to share skills, nut out ideas and most importantly – network. This blog post will cover some of the major highlights from the conference and touch on some of the lessons I learnt, from the perspective of a budding young researcher.

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Highlight no 1.
To begin, one of the major highlights for me was listening to rock star academic and expert on the social determinants of health, Richard Wilkinson (http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html), speak about the importance of understanding how income inequality affects health and wellbeing. Wilkinson, author of ‘The Spirit level’ and co-founder of The Equality Trust (http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk), researches the problems of inequality in society and produces evidence-based arguments to support social movements for change. In particular, Wilkinson drew attention to the problem that health and wellbeing in high and middle income countries is worse for all when the gap between the rich and poor is greater. Data was collated to demonstrate that even in high income countries as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), population levels of health and wellbeing are influenced by income inequality. Therefore, the average wellbeing of societies is not dependent on gross national income and the rhetoric of economic growth but rather the relation between each other within society itself. This trend also occurs in child health and wellbeing, mental health, drug abuse and obesity – proving the tangible effect that inequality has in society. Some factors Wilkinson attributed as the drivers of negative health in unequal societies include status anxiety, stress, mistrust and dominance caused by a competitive consumer based economy. Wilkinson therefore advocated for a more inclusive society where value is placed on the way we relate to one another and where possible to harness positive social relations, such as friendship. Although these insights seem somewhat intuitive, I was taken aback by how relevant it is to continue to produce evidence that highlights this problem. When considering health and wellbeing, Wilkinson makes us think about the less visible effects of how we relate to one another and re-establishes the importance of family, friendship and positive social interaction to maintaining a sustainable quality of life.

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Highlight no 2.

Another highlight was the talk given by Anat Shenker-Osorio, a communications expert and researcher who authored the book ‘Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy’. Her work looks at how people understand issues, such as the economy or climate change, through the words used to narrate them. Without getting too bogged down in detail, the gist of her research suggests that you can reliably persuade or change a person’s thinking about an issue depending on the words used to describe it. For example, immigration. A study was conducted to measure how people responded to immigrants depending on whether they were framed as either a burden or a resource. The findings showed that when immigrants were talked about in a positive framing, by expressing what they bring to society and not what they lack, people’s acceptance of immigrants were overall more favourable. Shenker-Osorio argues that by literally changing the words we use to speak about an issue, we can also influence how people think about it, having repercussions for politics and policy. Something to think about when writing the next report or talking at a conference about a sticky issue. Frame it positively and you will have people receive it much more favorably.

Highlight no 3.

Arguably one of the best parts of Progress 2013 however, was the chance to mingle with those I consider some of my professional role models. As I mentioned above, this was my first ever conference, so the task of introducing yourself to those you admire is quite daunting. However, after a few awkward first conversations I learnt the following things;

  1. Go with a plan. Since time is scarce at these events and the professionals you meet talk to so many different individuals every day, working out a plan of who you want to speak to and what you want to speak to them about prior to the meeting is essential. This way, you won’t get caught in a conversation about the weather and how good the muffins are, but instead get to use your limited time to your best advantage.
  2. Don’t be scared to introduce yourself. As daunted as you might be about shaking hands with someone you find just a huge bit intimidating because of their greatness, it never hurts to just introduce yourself and say you are a huge admirer of their work. A few times I saw rock star academics on their lonesome at the coffee table, probably because everyone was too in awe to say hi.
  3. When in doubt ask questions. When you have reached your small talk capacity and feel like the conversation is drying out, ask questions of them. People love to talk about themselves and asking them questions about themselves shows that a) you have a strong interest and b) that you are engaged in what they do.

Written by Hannah Morrice
Research Assistant, Jack Brockhoff Child Health & Wellbeing Program
The University of Melbourne
e: hannah.morrice@unimelb.edu.au

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