Nan Ma’s passion for research takes her to the United States

Nancy (Nan) Ma reflects on her time studying at the Melbourne School of Design, and what inspired her to pursue an international career in research which has led her to undertake her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States of America.

Nan Ma portrait at MSD
What degree did you study with the Melbourne School of Design?
I studied the Bachelor of Environments (major in Architecture) and then a Master of Architecture.

What was your favourite subject in the program and why?
My favourite subject was the ZEMCH Sustainable Design Workshop (ABPL90394).

I always believed that the discipline of architecture is not only about design and a subjective approach. This subject delivers engineering knowledge to architecture students who want to have an objective and scientific understanding of architecture.

What are the most valuable skills that you have learnt?
The ability to be self-sustained – learning how to learn (how to pick up new skills when I need to), balancing persistence and flexibility (when to stop trying harder and start trying different approaches), as well as framing problems and tackling them individually.

Who has inspired you during your study here?
Prof. Julie Willis and A/Prof. Masa Noguchi. They both opened doors to a wonderful world of research. I have gained professional skills and knowledge in the best possible way from them - not just technical and scientific skills, but also important soft skills like communication and teamwork for working on publications.

Taking courses from both Julie and Masa, and collaborating with them, secured my ambition to pursue further studies at a PhD level. In addition, the Master of Architecture program in general enabled me to cultivate skills such as critical thinking, analytic ability, and time management that are very helpful and can be easily transferred and integrated into all career paths and personal development.

What is your dream project or something you'd really like to work on?
I am interested in pursuing research that delves into how we can distribute the hierarchy and expression of energy in the built environment without compromising the comfort of a building’s occupants. I want to better understand how the built environment performs for the people who live or work within it.

For example, some of my recent research looks out how design can impact a person’s wellbeing, and we found that people with dementia could have a much better quality of life if their care facilities were carefully designed in terms of spatial orientation, including details such as a simple plan layout, short corridors, visual cues, visually connected spaces, direct lines of sight, depth of spaces for wayfinding and so forth.

What is your proudest piece of work so far?
I think it would be my publications, and my patent “An Ecological Recycling Energy System for the Large-Scale Grouped Building Project” granted from the State Intellectual Property Office of the People’s Republic of China. I do have a Research Gate profile if anyone would like to know more details about my publications.

What led you to pursue a PhD?
Embarking on a PhD is a big decision, but I have always enjoyed working in the academic world and wanted to take this opportunity to invest in myself. I always experience a sense of excitement when working on a project and whilst trying to resolve large-scale problems with cutting-edge research. I am fascinated by exploring the unknown and figuring out answers to add to the knowledge around specific areas. I love to take on challenges, and I know that being a good researcher is a lifelong challenge requiring years of dedication and I think I am ready for it in the long run.

Do you plan on having a career as a researcher?
I’m currently in my first year of my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania which focuses on coursework only. I will work as a research assistant and teaching assistant when I am in my second year, and I’m still currently a research assistant at the University of Melbourne working remotely! After my PhD, I hope to find a faculty position as an academic after graduation to continue my passion for research and writing.

Is there any advice you have for students currently starting out with their studies?
Engage, engage and engage!
Students are focused on the grade and the degree. It is not necessary to always stick to the books. Shake yourself out of this and decide to be involved in all aspects of student life. Building connections with people and expanding contact networks are crucial assets that students are supposed to start working on while still at university.