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Postgraduate research student stories

The Open University's (OU) dynamic international community of more than 900 postgraduate research students collaborate with the University’s leading academics and diverse partners on cutting-edge research. From our Milton Keynes campus, locations throughout the UK and our 18 international Affiliated Research Centres, their work shapes policy and practice, drives innovation and change lives for the better around the globe. Here, we tell their stories.

The level of research is world-class and outstanding. To be here and to be part of that is phenomenal.

Five PhD students discuss what it’s like doing a research degree at the OU: their first impressions, the supportive community they’ve joined and why they would recommend the OU to others.

More postgraduate perspectives

Fighting to improve the lives of Bangladesh’s most vulnerable children

PhD graduate Jiniya Afroze, from The Open University’s School of Education, Youth and Sport, discusses her research on the lives of children from the Bihari ethnic minority group in Bangladesh. She explains how exploring the poverty, structural violence, and vulnerabilities these young people face inspired her to pursue a career with the aid organisations that improve their lives.

I studied the lives of children in a Bihari camp which is home to more than 4,000 members of an ethnic minority group who are displaced from their homeland during the partition of India and Pakistan in the 1940s and again during the independence of Bangladesh in the 1970s.

In my research I found how poverty and structural vulnerabilities such as the group not having Bangladeshi citizenship until 2008 impacted children’s lives. How these many forms of discrimination are played out in terms of everyday violence in the community and how symbolic and structural forms of violence intersect with a more physical and corporal violence that children are subjected to in the home, at school and at the workplace.

This research matters because the complexities and layers to children’s lives don’t always come out in popular conversation and it’s important not to generalise children’s experiences. For example, while there are justifiable causes to end child labour around the world, the reality for children in these groups is that they must work to survive. Education is essential but we must consider how to make this appropriate to families who rely on children’s income and cannot afford for their children to finish school.

I first learned about The Open University through the university’s English in action programme to improve English learning in Bangladesh. I learned more about and was intrigued by the OU and its faculties’ reputation for childhood studies which few universities focus on. Doing my PhD at the OU was a liberating experience. I found the OU community uniquely vibrant, very intimate and we had a collegiate, scholarly community. I also had the chance to work as a research assistant to an Amnesty International funded research project, exploring children’s understanding of their rights which led to the publication of an Amnesty International book with Angelina Jolie, encouraging young people to learn about their rights and to speak out against injustice.

I came back to Bangladesh the day after my viva and immediately started to look for roles that combined my research experience and background in international development. I found the perfect position with the child relief agency Terre des Hommes as country co-ordinator for CLARISSA in Bangladesh. CLARISSA is a multi-country consortium partnership programme led by the IDS (Institute of Development Studies). It aims to generate innovative solutions for children to avoid hazardous, exploitative labour in Bangladesh and Nepal.

How do wearable technologies impact young people with diabetes?

Open University Business School Department of Strategy and Marketing PhD Student, Simona Radu, discusses her work, inspired by her own son’s experience, to understand and improve the lives of young people who rely on wearable technologies to manage their type 1 diabetes.

Wearable diabetes technology is almost constantly attached to the body and supports the management of type one diabetes through blood glucose monitoring and insulin delivery. I’m interested in how adolescents integrate this technology within their lives and how value emerges from their experience in terms of how it makes their life better off or worse off. I wanted to be part of a supportive community and research a subject close to my heart. My interest in this topic stems from my son being diagnosed with type one diabetes four years ago and from my drive to understand human experience. I am passionate about promoting the voice of adolescents in research. It’s vital to raise awareness of type one diabetes and understand how this technology makes an invisible condition visible. Having completed my undergraduate degree in Psychology with The Open University, I appreciated the flexibility it gave me to manage studying around my life and the exciting opportunities to continue my studies into a research career. Without a clear understanding of how adolescents integrate the technology within their lives, healthcare provides might bypass opportunities to personalise service offerings and improve the lives of those affected.

Can we create sustainable alternatives to plastic from food waste?

PhD student Katy Woodason, from the OU’s School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences, shares her ambition to tackle both plastic pollution and food waste with an innovative solution – making new biodegradable packaging from organic waste.

Hi, I’m Katy Woodason, I’m originally from Reading. I’m a first year PhD student from the School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences at The Open University. My research focuses on finding alternatives to traditional plastic food packaging and I’m investigating turning organic waste products such as food into biopolymers to create a new biodegradable packaging. This packaging is also going to have an active function, so it’s going to include some antimicrobial and antioxidants that are going to help keep food fresher for longer.

Every year, millions of tonnes of plastic are thrown away, littering our cities, countryside and our oceans, harming wildlife and leeching chemicals into our natural world. At the same time, a third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted and this food accounts for 70% of our freshwater usage and around 30% of our overall greenhouse gas emissions per year. I want to find a way to reuse food waste to eliminate single use packaging and also to reduce food waste. This will help to feed more of the global population and hopefully reduce our overall environmental impact.

Being a postgraduate researcher at The Open University has been somewhat unusual as I started during the coronavirus pandemic. However, it’s clear that everyone is so nice and the community is so good here, very collaborative and very helpful even if I’ve only met people online. So, I’m really looking forward to meeting everyone in person.

Why we should plant more trees in urban areas

PhD student Kate Hand from the School of Earth, Environment and Ecosystem Science discusses her urban forestry research and work with the Forest of Marston Vale to plant and measure trees to celebrate postgraduate research students by planting trees.

I’m Kate Hand, I’m from Aberdeenshire in Scotland and I’m in my third year of a PhD at The Open University, in the School of Earth, Environment and Ecosystem Science, and I’m researching urban forestry. My research is all about the trees in our towns and cities, so looking at if we can find ways to better measure these trees, to better understand the benefits they provide us with – those benefits are things like air pollution removal, cooling our air and combating climate change. So, what motivates me to do this research is the majority of the world’s population now live in urban areas and where we live has a huge effect on our day to day life, and I think there’s a massive potential for trees - to use trees to improve our urban areas which not only benefits the environment, but also makes our towns and cities happier and healthier places for us to live our lives in. So I really hope to be involved with the Marston Vale Trust to help track these trees and measure how they’re growing. As a postgraduate researcher at The Open University, I feel it’s a really supportive and friendly environment. It’s a really great place to collaborate and engage with different people and get different ideas going.

How planting macadamia trees could transform Malawi

PhD student Emmanuel Junior Zuza from the School of Earth, Environment and Ecosystem Science talks about his work with the Neno Macadamia Trust, planting macadamia trees to improve food security and generate new income sources for Malawian farmers.

I’m Emmanuel Junior Zuza and I’m from Malawi, which is a nation located in Southern Africa. Currently, I’m in my third year, researching on climate change and crop production at The Open University’s School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences. My research looks at the relationship between climate change and macadamia tree growth and yields amongst smallholder farmers. This research is very important to Malawi because 90% of the food consumed in the country is maize based. However, macadamia offers an alternative to the cereal based diets, so it can be used as part of food security, but also with the negative market returns from tobacco, macadamia has been identified as an alternative to tobacco for income generation. I am currently working hand-in-hand with the Neno Macadamia Trust and The Open University to try and identify suitable areas to grow or plant the trees for this initiative but I’ll also be involved in analysing the soil samples to try and understand the amount of carbon in the soils and also the benefits which these trees will have to the smallholder farmers.

How robots can improve our lives

PhD student Agnese Chiatti from the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute (KMi) talks about building visually intelligent Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems, and Hans, the health and safety robot inspector. She shares her perspective on the OU postgraduate experience as a woman in STEM and her passion for using technology to improve people’s lives.

My name is Agnese Chiatti, I come from Italy and I’m a second year PhD student in The Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute. My research is about building AI systems and programs that are more visually intelligent. I focus specifically on robotic applications, so in that context, we’re trying to develop robots that can better make sense of their environment. We’re building HanS, the health and safety robot inspector and the idea is to have this robot patrolling the lab and the workplace and spot any dangerous situations that might arise. It can be a cable dangling in the middle of a corridor or an emergency exit that hasn’t been correctly labelled. The PhD has given me a great opportunity to borrow lessons and methods from different disciplines and also a great deal of flexibility to always experiment with something new. Also, I’m really passionate about using technology to improve people’s lives. There are already cases in this pandemic where robots have been used, for example in hospitals to create a less intimidating interface for patients to interact with nurses and NHS staff, but there are many other cases where robots can be of service to people and that’s what really drives me forward. I’m a woman in STEM and I also come from a different cultural group and still I felt really engaged and welcome since the very beginning. Another thing I really appreciate is the importance that the OU places around wellbeing and achieving a really good work-life balance. The Open University is certainly the best place to start this type of journey.

How to harness the power of the sun to clean drinking water

PhD student Lois Damptey from the OU’s School of Engineering and Innovation explains how she is harnessing the power of the sun to help people access clean drinking water in Ghana.

I’m Lois Afua Okyerewaa Damptey from Ghana, West Africa. I’m a second year PhD student at The Open University in the School of Engineering and Innovation, and I’m funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund. So, my research project focuses on modifying the surfaces of materials to be able to absorb and degrade chemical organic compounds that are present in water bodies, that you cannot see with your eyes, using the power of the sun. So, these materials are low cost and environmentally friendly and they are able to absorb the highest part of the sun which is the visible light. The long-timing part of the work is creating solar-powered water filtration systems for all, mainly looking at developing countries, using Ghana as a case study. Each year, millions of children under the age of five die out of water-born related diseases, such as cholera and dysentery and I’ve had my first-hand experience of lack of accessibility to clean water. So, I think the main impact of this work is trying to save a life and save children who are our future leaders in the long run. I think researching in the OU has been a very awesome experience. I’ve had the opportunity to be able to meet new people and also be able to learn new things. I’ve also had the freedom to be able to use state of the art technology and its equipment and easy accessibility to leading academics to be able to help to direct your research focus and most of the events they’ve organised as well has helped build me professionally and academically. I would like to use this opportunity to thank my supervisor, Professor Satheesh Krishnamurthy and our interdisciplinary group that helped me to address global challenges in partnership with industries and The Open University and also creating that fun-loving and relaxing environment to make research in The Open University feel like home.

Telling migrants’ stories

Recent PhD graduate Marco Distino, from the OU’s Business School, explains his work to challenge the ideological discourses which often dominate the headlines about migration by telling the human stories of migrants and the people who support them.

I’m Marco Distinto. I’m from Italy but I’m based in the UK. I did my PhD at The Open University Business School and I concluded in October 2020. My research was about the experiences of the refugees arrived in Italy after the crisis of 2015 and the daily life inside the reception centres, and the relationship between migrants and social workers inside these centres. The issue of migrants’ experience is important for me because firstly, though a privileged one, I’m a migrant myself, and then being from the south of Italy, I personally witnessed the arrival of the refugees in the country. I realised that often migrants’ experience are overshadowed by ideological discourses and episodes of racism. So with my research, I wanted to tell people about the stories of migrants but also about the social workers because I think that their lives are meaningful and we really can learn from them. These reception centres are often poorly supported, and this carries the risk of shifting the burden of integration on to the migrants. It was the first time for me being in a foreign university, but I’ve always felt at home because The Open University is really open, it’s open to people and it’s open to ideas. It is a university that really values academic freedom, and it provides you with a good environment where you can share your ideas and you can share your work.

Uniting a passion for music and literature through research

Part-time PhD student, Natalie Burton from the OU’s Music Department, explains her research on early 20th-century English song cycles, individual songs designed to be performed in sequence, which brings together her passion for music and literature. She talks about balancing study with her portfolio career as a professional clarinettist, pianist, singer, performer, and teacher.

My name is Natalie Burton. I’m from Poole in Dorset, I’m a PhD student based in the School of Music and I’m now in my 5th year of part-time study. My research is interdisciplinary in that it straddles both music and literature, where they come together and meet in song. Specifically, my work explores the ways in which poetry and music come together in English song cycles of the early 20th Century. So, I look at the works of composers such as Gerald Finzi, Vaughan Williams, John Ireland. The song cycle is a musical genre, really a collection of songs that are individual but come together to form a complete musical work. They’re designed to be performed in sequence. Most often, song cycles are written for a solo singer with a piano accompaniment, but actually there are very many different kinds of song cycle. Though my background is essentially in music, I’m a clarinettist, a pianist and a singer and I have a long history of working as a performer and a teacher within musical fields, but I also have a long-standing love of literature and this work has enabled me to bring both of those interests together. Like many musicians, I have what you might consider to be a portfolio career, some of my work is as a performer, some of it is as a teacher, working both academically and instrumentally. But studying at the OU has given me the flexibility to fit all of those varied commitments around my studies. Although the reach of The Open University is obviously very wide, international, vast, one of the things I’ve always felt as a student is that I’ve been very closely looked after on an individual level. So, whether that’s been through the interaction with my supervisors or as a member of the music department, there’s been a strong sense of local community, even in such a big organisation.

Do companies ‘spend more to spill more’?

OU Business School PhD graduate Nicola Croxton discusses her research on Corporate Social Responsibility and whether irresponsible companies spend more than others to enhance their reputation. She also talks about why she left a career to return to study and her plans for the future.

I’m Nicola Croxton and I’m from Ireland and I’ve just recently completed my PhD at The Open University Business School. My thesis was based in Strategic Management.

So my research is focused in the area of non-market strategy and it looks at how firms use their corporate social responsibility and corporate activity as a means to improve their overall performance. So, more specifically, my research looks at how firms can act irresponsibly and whether or not these actions can impact on their financial performance. My research found that firms may feel a negative impact in the short term but this tends to fade then over time. And interestingly, my research highlights that firms who have a history of doing socially irresponsible things, they tend to spend more on CSR and lobbying governments and this essentially is to show that if they’re doing good, then they are avoiding bad or perhaps they give more to spill more.

So I used to work as an event manager at a convention centre in the United States and they had an extensive CSR programme and a commitment to sustainability. So I witnessed here first-hand how organisations can use their CSR to behave more strategically and that improves their performance and overall efficiency. My interest grew further then when I did my Masters in International Management at the University of Bath. So not long after I finished my masters, I looked at doing a PhD and I came across the one advertised in the OU. And the project that I applied for had a lot of similarities to my masters thesis and it seemed like a really good fit. So after my first interview, I met my supervisors and we just had a really good rapport and so I knew then that this is what I wanted to do.

I didn’t really know much about the OU beyond it being committed to distance learning. So I asked around and I got some advice and some information from friends of mine that are working in academia, and they had really good things to say about the OU, that it had an excellent research profile, so I decided to pursue my PhD.

I would say think really careful about it, it’s a really big decision to make, it’s a huge commitment and it will take up a lot of your time, but I really enjoyed my PhD programme so I’d say if you’re interested enough and you love your research topic and you’re passionate about it, then go for it. I know for me, coming from a previous career that it’s a big change in lifestyle. You go from working in a job that you really enjoy, with a good salary and then you’re going to move along to living on a research stipend and that can be a big change but it is worth it.

So my plan is I want to stay in academia, I’m looking right now to publish papers, with the help of my supervisors, that have been developed from my doctoral thesis and I’m looking to pursue full time roles within academia.