It's been a busy Christmas holiday for Lachie Scarsbrook. Taking his first trip home from the UK since leaving for the University of Oxford nearly two years ago, not only was his research about a new species of gecko published – including collaboration with iwi over Te Reo Māori scientific and common names – but he decided to extend his trip by two weeks to help out for the fourth time as a “red shirt” at Hands On at Otago.
“I told myself that 2021 was my last year of Hands On because I was moving overseas, and didn't think there was ever going to be a chance of coming back,” says Lachie, who graduated from Otago with a MSc (Dist) in Zoology and won a prestigious Clarendon Scholarship to undertake a fully-funded Doctorate in Archaeological Science at Oxford.
“Then last year didn't happen (in-person) because of COVID and I thought 'man I could definitely just jump back into it' and still be with all the same people . . . if I push my stay out by two weeks, I can come and do Hands On that one last time.”
Lachie himself was never a “blue shirt” – a Hands On student – but he saw the programme for prospective students advertised on campus and thought he'd apply to help out, and he never looked back.
“It's the people that make it – everyone that's involved with running Hands On are so down to earth, and genuinely lovely people. Working under them is just amazing.”
As a red shirt, Lachie is one of the leaders who look after a group of students, staying with them in the colleges to provide pastoral care and help them navigate the week of Otago experiences, which include “tasters” of academic subjects to get a sense for life as a student.
“It's like a whole year experience being an RA [residential assistant], jam packed into a week. It's so much fun, the programme is awesome, and you really get to see the kids super-interested and excelling in what they do.
“It's also so rewarding to watch the students transition from shy, reserved or uncertain about what they've signed up for, through to the end of the week where they're most certainly out of their shells, like dancing in front of their peers.”
The red shirts share their own experiences of university with the students, and Lachie spent one of the evenings discussing scholarships they could apply for at the end of their degrees.
“These kids are super intelligent, and they're all doing so many amazing extracurricular things. They'll be the ones applying for things like the Rhodes Scholarship in three years' time when they finish their degrees . . . I wanted to give the students the idea that because they've put all this effort in, there's actually a world of opportunities out there, it's just about knowing where to look.”
His main advice to students, which comes from his own experience, is to “keep your net as wide as you can”.
“In my first year I was a little uncertain, studying a mismatch of papers from Archaeology and History, through to Geology and Mathematics. At the time, Zoology was just a single paper, but I ended up changing my whole university degree based on how much I enjoyed it. You never know where those little random things you pick are going to take you.”
Starting at Otago in 2015, Lachie was an RA at Cumberland College in his second year and loved getting to know the students and their stories.
In his courses, he particularly enjoyed the tight-knit community feel of Geology and Zoology. “You go out on field trips and get really close to one another, both the students and lecturers, and a lot of them do genuinely care about you.”
“On top of that you've got the Dunedin student culture of a super-condensed campus, and chilled-out atmosphere. It's hands down the best place to be.”
He says he wanted to keep participating in Hands On, and also asked his publisher to extend the deadline for publication of his research to when he was back home, as a way of giving back to Otago and the people who have helped him.
“I keep saying yes to outreach opportunities because it's an important way of giving back to all of the people who helped to get me where I am. Like the first thing I did when I came back to Dunedin was to present on my DPhil research to the Zoology department, because they're the ones who fostered me throughout my whole master's.”
Lachie has another two years at Oxford and says it's been an “amazing” experience. “I'm so privileged to be able to go over and study in the UK, and to come back and share my stories. The opportunities that keep on presenting themselves are insane, and nothing like first year me would have ever expected!”
Lachie's research at Oxford focusses on improving our understanding of dog domestication through time, using ancient genomes in the world-class ancient DNA lab of Professor Greger Larson.
Kōrero by Margie Clark, Communications Adviser Development and Alumni Relations Office
You can read more about Lachie's gecko research here 16 January 2023 A new species of gecko: What's in a name and why it matters, News, University of Otago, New Zealand
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