An ANU nuclear physics academic is hoping his recent trip to the University of Yangon in Myanmar is just the start of a meaningful collaboration that will see ANU help to grow Myanmar's research capacity in physics and engineering.
The ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering's Dr Alan John (AJ) Mitchell has just spent two weeks in Myanmar where he delivered a series of lectures to first-year PhD students and physics faculty at several different institutions, including Yangon University.
During the second week of his trip, he supervised laboratory-based work where he helped develop experiments used to train students. While he was there he was also asked to be an external referee for three PhD examinations.
Dr Mitchell's trip to Myanmar was funded through the Global Partnerships for Development program, an academic visitor program supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is coordinated by the ANU Myanmar Research Centre.
"The thing that drew me to applying for the grant was the opportunity to step into South East Asia. I grew up in Northern Ireland, did my PhD in England, and worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the US before moving to Australia, so I've travelled a lot around developed nations," he said.
"This was the first real opportunity that had been presented to me to visit this region; especially considering the history of Myanmar and restricted access to foreigners over the years."
He was really interested in experiencing the culture and getting a taste for academic life in Myanmar, he said.
"One of the surprising aspects of the trip was the hospitality offered by my hosts. They really went out of their way to make me feel like part of the physics 'family'."
Dr Mitchell said while the country had started to open up, many practices were still old-fashioned at the university level, including the hierarchical chain of command within research schools where the Head of Department held a lot of responsibility.
"Where I see academics at ANU (myself included) as having a lot of freedom to pursue their own interests, the academic staff there follow a much more formal structure of guidance and instruction from the Head of Department."
There were also limits in what could be offered to students in the teaching space.
"While the students in my class were bright, and very enthusiastic, they were limited by the opportunities available in terms of funding and technology," he said.
"Electricity supply is not a given in Yangon, and on a few occasions I had to improvise my teaching to work around power outages.
"Lack of text books is an issue as well, so they've said the notes and lecture slides I've left with them will go a long way to improving their teaching in nuclear physics."
"Access to consumables that we take for granted at ANU, such as liquid nitrogen to operate their germanium-based radiation detector, is also a major problem for academics there", said Dr Mitchell.
"So my focus was to increase their capacity for performing computer-based laboratory work, and optimising experiments they can do with other detector systems that work at room temperature."
Dr Mitchell says it's hoped the Head of Yangon's Physics Department will visit ANU in August, where both universities can work together on planning for longer term collaboration.
He also had some advice for academics considering teaching in Myanmar.
"I would certainly encourage other academics to get involved in opportunities like this. It was a really fantastic experience for me.
"Being immersed in the Myanmar culture was an enriching experience that will help me with my future teaching and outreach endeavours at ANU.
"I also feel a great sense of accomplishment as well. I believe I have made a difference in a university that is performing well relative to the opportunities afforded to them, but also has the potential for growth."