Episode 8: The social side of Veterinary Training

Nicola Wunderlich, in her work in capacity building, is the first person to advocate for tailoring your content to your audience. In other words, Nicola calls on scientists and researchers to personalise their content to their audience, and how their audience is most likely to absorb (and use) the information.

In this episode of What’s Sociology Got To Do With It?, Nicola argues that if the local community and its norms aren’t considered, then any recommendations will simply fall on deaf ears. She argues that, as a result, folks in roles like social scientists and science communicators should be involved in projects from the beginning. To Nicola, bringing them in at the end is little help, as they could have given valuable advice in designing the project itself. Without cultural sensitivity and this fundamental connection to what the community wants and needs, the research is simply going to be dismissed; not from a place of malice, but because the reason why someone should follow the recommendation hasn’t been explained properly (if at all). Above all, Nicola calls on researchers and scientists to treat the communities and their needs and their wants as central to academic research.

If you want to contact Nicola, she can be reached at the Graham Centre or at Charles Sturt University, where her e–mail is nwunderlich@csu.edu.au. The Pacific PARAVET Training Project also has its own Facebook page.

Produced by Dr Sarina Kilham with support from Charles Sturt University and The Australian Sociological Association for Social Science Week 2020.

Transcript of Nicola Wunderlich

Wunderlich episode

[00:00:00] Nico: [00:00:00] That was a big learning step for me. To go, ‘we can’t just go ‘this is the answer, now do something about it.’ We actually have to understand why a person would want to change something or not want to change something. [00:01:00]Sarina: [00:01:00] Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast What Sociology Got To Do With It? Can we start with your name and where you’re talking to us from and what is your current role?

Nico: [00:01:13] Yes. Hi, Sarina. Um, my name is Nicola Wunderlich. And I’m currently working as a project manager. I’m talking to you from Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, at a freezing  cold frosty morning. I’m a plant pathologist. So that’s people who look at pests and diseases in plants and crops. So anything that might make our crops sick and cause crop losses.

Recently I’ve taken on a role as a project manager on an animal related project. It’s called the Pacific PARAVET Training Project. Um, and it is a capacity building project in five developing countries of the Pacific.  It is to provide training to paraveterinarians. So [00:02:00] paraveterinarians are-um, you could also call them animal health offices. These are people that are working with animals, looking at their health or their disease, um, detecting sick animals, detecting maybe outbreaks of diseases in animals. Um, these animals can be production animals or pets or wild animals. Yeah, currently I’m, um, managing a project that has just started to work in that area.

 Sarina: [00:02:26] So. Being a plant pathologist and working on an animal health project. These sound like pretty stereotypical hard science type problems. But that’s not what you’re doing as I understand it.

Nico: [00:02:43] That’s what I was doing for the plant and the agriculture side of things. So, when I started, I was a university student at  Charles Sturt Uuniversity. Actually, I was an international student from Germany and I started to enjoy agriculture and anything related to the plants and why they [00:03:00] get sick. So I decided to do postgraduate studies and that was working on initially lupins and then grape wines and looking at fungal pathogens of these two crops.  That was laboratory-based research and field-based research, so very hardcore science. Um, doing experiments, infecting plants with certain fungi and then seeing what the reaction is and how the plants interact with the fungus, which fungus makes a plant more sick than others, what did they have in common? And then the genetic aspects of the pathogens and then the plants. But I had since veered away from that, because I started to get interested in capacity building. So, helping farmers in developing countries.

And I realized from that that there’s a big disconnect between us scientists coming up with what we think are solutions and then the people who could benefit from those solutions actually applying them. That’s not always very related. And when we [00:04:00] come up with research questions, often we already know the answers, we’re just trying to prove our answers. Or we’ve come up with a possible answer and then we have to prove or disprove these answers. We don’t think about what does that mean then if we find the answer, what does it mean for the people who could maybe benefit from it or maybe have to change something. Because if you think about yourself in human aspects, what if we find out that chocolate is bad? Now we all have to stop eating chocolate. So.

Sarina: [00:04:27] That will be very hard in my household!

Nico: [00:04:29] It’s the same for anything plant or animal related, right. So, any answer that we come up with comes with consequences, and these are usually recommendations. So we recommend to farmers or people in animal production that something needs to change for what we think improve their situation with the plant situations, the owner of the plants situation, the farmer, the animal holder situation. And what they think is improvement for them is not always what we, who are trying to improve the crop health or animal health think is an improvement.

[00:05:00] Sarina: [00:04:59] So we, the scientists, we-

Nico: [00:05:01] So we the scientists. Yes. Yeah. Yeah. So I realized that not always take these things into account of what drives a person, a farmer in this case, maybe wanting to try something different, what could be the things that are stopping them from doing that? So I learned that over the years, I’ve probably been doing capacity building for, oh, probably almost ten years now. That That was a big learning step for me, to go, ‘we can’t just go ‘this is the answer, now do something about it.’ We actually have to understand  why a person would want to change something or not want to change something.

Sarina: [00:05:33] I know you’ve done lots of international work Nicola throughout Southeast Asia. Was there a particular project or case or something that really solidified this for you? That it’s not just about what the scientist thinks should happen, but it’s about that whole social context of the farmer and the person that really drives what change is going to happen.

 Nico: [00:05:58] Yes. So there’s a [00:06:00] few things. Well, there’s that story though-I don’t know who actually originally came up with it, but there’s that story about, you know, scientists sitting somewhere on an Island telling someone, ‘hey, why don’t you do this instead of this?’ And this farmer or a person is sitting there, maybe fishing, doing something that they like. And then they say, ‘but why would I do this?’ ‘Oh, because then you can earn more money from your crop and this and this will happen to you.’ And in the end it comes down to, ‘and what do I do with it?’ ‘Oh, well then you can take more holidays and go fishing.’ You know, this story is often told between people who work in developing countries.

And so the whole idea is well what are we actually telling people? We cannot tell people, ‘this is what you want,’ or ‘this is how you want your life to improve.’ They need to tell us what makes an improvement to their life or usually it’s about their families’ life or their children’s. Maybe being able to afford some schooling for their children. So all these things need to be taken into account when we make recommendations. And so it’s almost arrogrant [00:07:00] for us to step in as a scientist and say, ‘I know what’s good for you. So therefore I’m going to do this research and then I’ll tell you what to do.’ And so I really needed to remove myself from that and say, ‘no, hang on. This is why often we do science for science purposes, but then we get disappointed that it’s not applied. And so if we want to avoid that, we need to actually, when we’re coming up with research questions and  the things we want to answer with experiments, we need to really consider the consequences. If the answer is like this, what does that mean for the recommendations we make? And what does it mean for the people who are then supposed to be acting on this.

 Just a few other things. I go to my capacity building times, I often worked with science communicators. So that’s a bit different from sociologists, but again, really need to understand how people work and what their habits are and what they’re used to. And the social context that they’re in, as well as the culture habits. And so for me, a big surprise [00:08:00] was, when we were trying to figure out what are the best ways, once we have results to extend them to people, that there was such a broad range of the different countries we’re working in, but also within country; people that could read and the people that were totally illiterate. And so, um, when we worked in Myanmar, we found out that many, many farmers love listening to the radio and they said that radio was the best way to get information to them. Whereas in other places it would be, ‘oh, we always gather in this place for prayer time. So this might be where you want to put your information because it’s a strategic place.’

So those sort of things, you need to really understand what happens in a person’s everyday life and how can we reach them best and what are they happy to take on as advice from who? And even what is the hierarchy? Who would they listen to? Who would they not listen too? So those sorts of things. Something that, yeah, I think everyone needs to really consider, and we can’t just make assumptions.

Sarina: [00:08:57] That’s fantastic. Do you think that in [00:09:00] the paraveterinarian program that you’re now working on, has your thinking about the importance of the social side, informed both the design of that program and how you’re implementing it?

Nico: [00:09:14] Yes, definitely. Um, so I wasn’t part of the design program myself, but I know that the, project lead has really taken those things into account and actually consulted with me a few times on this when they were, um, applying for the funds for this. So the whole project is based on let’s just do some initial studies first trying to understand scoping studies, trying to understand the diverse audiences that we have here. We have five countries. We have Timor Leste, Papa New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu. So there’s big cultural differences within a few of them. There’s commonalities, but there’s also big differences.

Um, there’s big differences in our audiences. So we have young people and old [00:10:00] people, we have I think we just found out that in the Solomon Islands, there’s a period where the schooling was very good. So that was sort of in the 70s. And then, due to some political issues-um, I’m not quite sure about the history of the Solomon Islands, I’m looking into that. But there’s a period where people actually had no schooling at all. It wasn’t available to them. And these are the people that are working as paraveterinarians. Now, some of them, so that could be a difference of five, six years in age gap, but it could mean a huge difference to the schooling that they had available to them when they were at school age. Um, so those sort of things, um, we all need to take into account.

And so for us at the moment, this project, the three year project, was meant to have lots of travel to those five countries from project staff here in Australia, working with our stakeholders in those five countries and getting to know them; building up trust and relationships. Because of COVID-19 [00:11:00] that travel, it’s not happening. It’s postponed or may not be happening at all for the period of the project. But what we are doing now is we are getting in touch with sociologists and anthropologists. So, people that understand people and people that understand culture and how people work together and how they fit into society. Identifying people that are already in those countries so that they can be local anthropologist and local sociologists. Or maybe they are experts that are there and decided to stay and not go home during COVID. We’re just getting in touch with them now to see if they can help us because they are in the countries, can see people face to face, ’cause that’s often very important for when you’re building trust. And so, we will be working with those people. So we can maybe dial in remotely if we have to, sometimes it’s not an option at all. But we will then also learn from those people as well, because if they’ve been in the country for a long time, they’ve got a lot of [00:12:00] knowledge there about the people in the country.

Sarina: [00:12:04] And in what way are they going? Do you think that, uh, sociological, anthropological knowledge is going to help your project? Particularly if we bring it back to the core part of paravett-vetted-I can’t say this word. You’re going to have to say it for me.

Nico: [00:12:20] Paraveterinarians? Yeah. We’ll just call them, um, animal health offices.

Sarina: [00:12:23] Yep.

Nico: [00:12:24] That will help us because our project is actually developing learning materials for those animal health offices in those five countries and for us. We are used to the best in tertiary education standard, even the methods and how learning is set up. If you look at different pedagogical approaches, we know this from high school and tertiary learning here, you know, we have different ways of-maybe we get students to learn something based on a case study, so that’s an actual real example that they read about and listen to and answer questions [00:13:00] and work through. Or it could be something in the form of storytelling that works better for certain audiences. And there’s problem based learning. And then there’s just your standard sort of textbook, working through modules, answering questions.

 We need to find out, and this is with the help of our associates in those  countries, what works for each audience best? What are they used to? What is their prior learning experience. You know, if someone has never seen problem based learning and they have never done that throughout their schooling, then maybe that’s not going to work. Or some people are just used to the structured way of working through modules and maybe that’s what they need. Those are the things that we will learn and we will find out through our social science contacts in the countries. And we can then apply that.

Sarina: [00:13:47] That’s fantastic. I guess one of my final questions then is with your research, but not just this one project, overall, how would you [00:14:00] hope to change the world or perhaps hope to change ideas about social science in the areas that you work in?

Nico: [00:14:08] Yeah, I would like to see people, especially in capacity building, but that probably goes for everything else as well-if you’re working in research in agriculture, and you’re trying to come up with recommendations for the industry, it’s not that different really. I would like to see the researcher or the scientist approaching the social scientists when setting up the project, when coming up with the project ideas-not later on as an add-on. The same situation applies for science communicators. We can’t just do the research, come up with the answers and then go to communicate and say ‘and now put that in a form that you grower or your farmer can understand it.’ Because it’s too late, then it’s the same; we know for statistics, we should work with our statisticians while designing the experiment. Not design the experiments ourselves, then go to the expert with the [00:15:00] data and go, ‘please, can you help me analyze this?’ Because usually they say, ‘oh, you should’ve contacted me earlier because you should’ve done it this way, and not this way.’ And I feel the same applies to social science colleagues. We should work closer together, right from the beginning, when we’re coming up with ideas for projects.

Sarina: [00:15:20] Nicola, that’s fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us today on What’s Sociology Got To Do With It? Where can our listeners find you on social media or on your institutional website, if they want to learn more about your projects or your work?

Nico: [00:15:39] Yeah. If they  want to learn about the current project I’m managing, it’s called the Pacific PARAVET training project and probably within the next week or two, once we’ve got approval, there will be a Facebook page for that project, and there will be frequent updates on project activities. We will also share any other animal [00:16:00] health related content that is specific to the Pacific. And obviously we network with other capacity building projects and organizations. So we’ll share their posts; that’s probably the best way to find out about this project. And if anyone wants to get in touch with me personally, they can just look me up through the Graham Center. Or Charles Sturt University. So I’m a member of the Graham Center, one of the staff of the Graham Center. So they can find my details there.

Sarina: [00:16:27] Fantastic. I’ll put all those links in the show notes as well. Thank you, Nicola. Bye.

Nico: [00:16:33] See you.

Listen to more episodes