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Talking About Research: An Update on Research Brown Bag Sessions

Not long ago, the phrase “Brown Bag” would have had the same flavour as any nondescript phrase, like “blue sky” or “tall giraffe.” Now, it means a lot more. It speaks of research and enterprise, of collaboration and growth. The phrase’s journey from obscurity to ubiquity has been as one of big challenges and small triumphs. It has changed the way research is spoken of at Strathmore University. This is the story of that journey.

It starts with one of the aims of the University, which is to become an “entrepreneurial research university.” Pursuing this vision are our researchers who, at any moment, are looking into the challenges that bedevil society, from the way adherence to guidelines by healthcare professionals affects healthcare delivery in low-income neighbourhoods, to the possibility of electrifying Africa using decentralised energy systems, and everything in between.

The activity is so frenetic that the people involved – undergraduate students, technicians, tenured professors – often forget to show what they are doing to one another. The resulting silence gives the impression that no one is doing research at Strathmore University. This has at least three undesirable consequences.

For one, people who could benefit from the products of our research do not, because they do not get to know about it. Opportunities for collaboration are also missed because no one knows what the others are doing. Finally, the university does not get to show off its true research prowess, the only way to justifiably buttress its reputation for excellence.

Research Brown Bag sessions, short events in which researchers talk about their work, were conceived as one means to address this glaring silence. They have been held in the University for several years now. However, there has always been the problem that they were not regular, due to a lack of consistency in planning. As a result, they did not effectively serve their purpose.

In late 2017, the Research Services Office decided to overhaul the programme. Of course, we were setting ourselves up for a daunting task. At that time, we were cutting our teeth organising the 2017 Research and Innovation Symposium, and were experiencing how tough it is to organise a stellar event. What would it be like to organise a series of events of consistent quality?

It did not take long for us to know. We hit the first snag with the very first session. We had scheduled it to take place on 25th October 2017. We got a venue, invited students and staff members to register for it, and booked the signature packed lunch. Then, on 18th October, it was announced that the university would close on 25th October, at 12:30 pm, for the repeat presidential election.

The problem was that we had planned to start the session at 1:15 pm, so we could not have it before the University closed. This was compounded by the fact that the presenter was to leave the country shortly after that day, so we could not postpone the session to any foreseeable date either. We had to cancel it. The effort was dead on arrival.

With the symposium just around the corner, we could not attempt another session when the university reopened. Instead, we decided to focus on revamping the programme for 2018. So we developed a new concept for the series. According to the new plan, there would be one session every month, on the Wednesday closest to the end of the month.

All sessions would take place from 1:15 pm to 1:55 pm so as not to interfere with the already busy university calendar. We kept the plan to provide packed lunch (the “Brown Bag” in the name is borrowed from the bags containing the packed lunch) so that attendees would not have to look for lunch after each session.

Once the concept was complete, we set about developing the brand of the Brown Bag. This included designing a template for invitation cards and registration forms. It also involved developing the Brown Bag workflow, that is, the series of tasks that we would have to complete before, during and after each session. Having burnt our fingers with first session, we knew first-hand what it cost not to take care of such little details.

We then drew up a list of the eligible dates and solicited for presentations by sending a university-wide email and personally contacting potential presenters in our schools and research centres. By the time the university closed for Christmas, we had presentations lined up all the way to August 2018. We closed the rest of the dates off in January 2018, leaving out only 11th December. Nobody wanted it, perhaps because it seemed too close to Christmas.

On 24th January, 19 odd individuals filed into the Seminar Room at the School of Graduate Studies for the first Research Brown Bag session under the new regime. 34 people had registered to attend. The presenter, Alex Osunga, a fourth-year student from the Faculty of Information Technology, spoke about a plastic audit framework that he (together with the Environmental Club) was developing for the university.

Since then, 577 people have attended Research Brown Bag sessions. They have heard students and lecturers and visiting scholars speak about their work in topics as varied as the performance of county governments, the traits of knowledge-creating nodes around the world and the relationships that hold together financial networks in informal settlements.

By the end of June, we had held 12 sessions, although we had originally planned to have only six in the same period. The extra sessions came under a plan we cobbled early in the year to handle special requests for sessions outside the calendar we had drawn up at the end of 2017. We called them Brown Bag X. They included two presentations by visiting professors and one by a guest from the Kenya Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Looking back on the first half of the year, it is an understatement to say that the Research Brown Bag programme has been an unqualified success. We are aware that it would not have been so had it not been for hard and coordinated work by multiple players. It is at this point, therefore, that we wish to express our gratitude to all the presenters who have made the effort, often at the pain of great pressure from us, to talk about their work to people they may not have met before.

A lot of gratitude also goes to the staff at the School of Graduate Studies and @iLab Africa for availing venues for the sessions, and allowing our guests to have lunch in them, no small feat at Strathmore University. In the same vein, the Snack Bar at the School of Tourism and Hospitality takes all the accolades for preparing sumptuous and nutritious packed lunches within very constrained budgets, and constantly improving them based on feedback from attendees.

And, finally, we wish to thank all who have attended the sessions so far. Their time and insatiable appetite for quality and improvement have been our greatest motivation to keep the programme running. Their questions and attention have challenged presenters to improve their work and share it better. And their referrals have kept more and more people coming.

In the second half of the year, we have lined up another 12 sessions. Because 11th December is still unwanted, we have decided to leave it out; the last session will be on 28th November. We have also decided to drop the Brown Bag X moniker for special sessions. From now on, all sessions will be regular, even if we have special guests. Our aim is to get at least 1000 people attending the sessions by the end of the year.

We also intend to talk a bit more about the content covered in the sessions through posts like this one (shorter, of course) on the website so that the communication gap is closed for good. This is just the beginning.

Written by Mathew Otieno, Research Services Office