Local research towards global goals: The 2020 Student Sustainability Research Conference

Written by Rachel DeCordoba

As a Student Sustainability Architect working on the Leeds Sustainable Curriculum and Conference projects, the days and weeks leading up to the 2020 Student Sustainability Research Conference on 26 February were filled with logistical preparation, back-and-forth coordination with student presenters and related staff, and a posting up a healthy amount of directional signage. These preparatory activities reminded me just how many moving parts there are to make a multi-faced conference like this one succeed, and the importance of coordinated communication between everyone involved.  

This fantastic event, however, was so much more than a collection of organised posters and presentations. From matching names to faces during morning registration to observing students explain their posters to visitors in Parkinson Court, I was reminded of arguably the most important element to the entire day: human connection. As students, we spend so much of our time interacting with fellow students and professors in the same or similar disciplines within our university; this conference provided a valuable opportunity for inter-university and cross-disciplinary idea-sharing, discussion, and celebration of all the great research being done. In addition to the genuine connection and interaction between student participants, I was also struck by the amount of passion and drive students had for their research. Students were so clearly motivated by curiosity, and their dedication to finding answers clearly showed in their presentations.  

As evidenced by the wide variety of project posters donning boards in Parkinson Court, and as highlighted by a group of students from the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies in their presentation, sustainability research truly does transcend the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. Furthermore, as was emphasised in the afternoon’s closing keynote panel, this multidisciplinary approach to sustainability research continues to be crucial as we collectively address the climate crisis. The day’s projects reminded all attendees of the hyper-local resources we have, from knowledge-sharing with our academic peers to using the university campus as a living lab for new sustainable ideas. While this message may regularly circulate digitally through social media and university websites, it really makes a lasting impact when delivered in person. 

Beyond the local level, students also identified how their projects contributed to the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Students’ work contributed to each goal in a variety of ways – for example, Goal 14, Life Below Water, was addressed by projects ranging from measuring the role of herbivores in coral reefs, to ecotourism, to reducing disposable items during freshers’ fairs. Tying local research to a global collective effort put the whole day into an even greater perspective.  

What comes next? Many of the projects highlighted at the conference are ongoing, with some having garnered commitments of future volunteer support or even valuable data from conference visitors and participants. The conversations, connections, and curiosity generated at the conference will undoubtedly continue and spark new student-led research projects in the coming year and beyond. In my Architect role, I look forward to further exploring how to integrate sustainability concepts into the greater university academic curriculum across disciplines, following University of Leeds Sustainability’s goal to build sustainable knowledge and capacity across university departments. Part of this effort will involve promoting participation in the Living Lab and offering staff and students the opportunity to use the campus as a test bed to research sustainable solutions for our university and beyond.