Meet our new DVCESE, Professor Sarah Maddison


Published 25 July 2023


We had the pleasure of catching up with Professor Sarah Maddison to learn what she thought about her first month in Sydney and at UNSW, what she valued when she was a student, how being an astrophysicist influences her work as a DVC, and more! Watch the video and view the transcript below.


Your first month at UNSW in three words?

"Three words for my first month here.... Exciting, sunny and a whirlwind! 

The sun has not stopped shining since I've been here, it's amazing. It did actually rain on the weekend but that was the first time in six weeks or something. It's been really exciting to change, do something different, meet new people, be in a new environment, and hear about what's going on. Really exciting things but a whirlwind of information that I'm slowly navigating through."


So far, what aspects of UNSW have surprised you the most?

"I've been pretty surprised by how lively the campus has been. There's been lots of students around. You know, people are obviously still working from home, students are doing jobs and studying and doing all sorts of bits and pieces, but the campus has been amazingly lively. There's lots of cafes, there's lots of activities going on, there's always something to see and do, which has been fantastic."


What aspects have impressed you?

"I think it's been great that UNSW acknowledges the areas where it needs to put in a little bit more effort to improve the situation for both students and staff, that's been really great. And also understanding that investment needs to be made in those areas, especially in this pretty difficult time, it's been great to see.

So, some of those areas include our IT systems, everybody likes to complain about that, (which is fine), but I have seen real activity happening there, and a lot of investment is going into that space, which is fantastic. Similarly, with some areas of the Built Environment, Student Accommodation, for example. So, not shying away from the challenges that we've got and really embracing what needs to happen, but most critically, being prepared to invest in those areas, which is fantastic to see."


How does being an astrophysicist influence your work as a DVC?

"It's a great question, I've never actually thought of that before! But in thinking of it, I thought well, 'what does astrophysics or what has astrophysics trained me to do? How do I think as an astrophysicist?'

It teaches you how to think really big! Obviously the universe is a big universe, it’s a big complex place, and you need to understand the big picture. But understanding the detail and how things are actually done, the nitty-gritty, is critically important.

So just like a university, and indeed humans, there's that big picture and the small detail that interconnect with each other in a really critical and important way. So in my previous role, but also in coming to a new organisation, I want to know first what's the big picture and what is the whole landscape looking like, and then do a bit of a deep dive into all of the components of that. And also then, you think about like in astrophysics, the interdependencies and how these things interact with each other.

So, that way of thinking I suppose I have found very helpful in a leadership role and looking after teaching, how we all teach, how we interconnect, what students actually want, as well as the broader student experience.

The other side, of course, is data. Data is absolutely critical and the way that we present data in astronomy is really important, and same with a big organisation. What data are we actually showing, what does the data tell us and what data do I want to show to tell a particular story about the student experience at a particular moment in time."


What did you most value when you were a student at a university?

"When I first arrived at university, one of the most exciting things was access to a computer! I actually hadn't used a computer at high school, so that was just fantastic. As my years at university evolved, so did computers. So getting SGIs with fancy graphics cards and things like that, those things were very exciting.

So, if I think of that in a current context, it's about having access to the latest and greatest and providing that to our students. Obviously, lifelong friendships that you forged and kept have been incredibly influential, really important and special about university. It makes you also think again, in the current context, of how do we actually connect students up and how do we offer a range of experiences for them to find their find their people.

Obviously you remember that fantastic teacher that you had, in whichever topic, in whatever subject, that really resonates with you and reminds you (or reminds me!) when I was a teacher, what was it that that teacher did that was so interesting, and really caught my attention and how can I now emulate that.

I suppose the other thing that university taught me, if I think about it at the end of all of those studies, it taught me how to learn. It taught me how to find information and how to get what I wanted, be self-sufficient and have agency to go and find what I need.

You know, thinking about the student today, I don't think any of those needs have really changed that much. Students want to have a great teacher, they want to find friends for life when they go to university, and they want the support, activities and engagement that they want, when they want it. So, how we provide just in time support and engagement activities throughout the student life cycle, remains a challenge but absolutely an opportunity for us - knowing that will have a huge impact on our students."


What would you like to learn more about in the coming weeks?

"There's another new DVC here, and he told me he's been visiting all of the faculties and seeing all of the research labs and research spaces. I haven't seen any of that yet, so I'm looking forward to seeing that at some stage. Across my division, I've met some of the leaders but haven't actually really met the teams very much, as yet. It would be great to meet with more of the team members within Education and Student Experience, to really understand what it is that they're doing.

I've got a high-level picture of all of the activities that are going on, (which is a lot!), and I suppose I'd like to learn a lot more about what it is that everybody's doing. If I pick one thing, I'll be bombarded by that and leave something else out... so maybe I'll just say, the division more broadly!"


Getting to know you... Favourite snack?

"Favourite snacks probably depend on the time of day. I have lots of willpower at the start of the day, which completely evaporates by the end of the day. So, sweet and sugary comes on hard at the end of the day, and sort of saltier or fruits come on earlier in the day."


Favourite recent read?

"Favourite recent novel was The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. Fantastic book, really enjoyed that!"


Favourite pastime? 

"Favourite pastimes would depend on the time of the day or the day of the week. I do like to do quite a bit of sporty stuff, get the adrenaline going, and it also puts me in a very positive mood. So, I like to go for a run if I can, very hilly where I live in Coogee, so that's getting a little bit tricky.

Kayaking is a much calmer but active sport, that tranquillity on the water is fantastic, but I also do much calmer things, like reading books, listening to music, I do a bit of drawing as well. And I do take a photo a day, which is a way to get out of my head and look at the environment around me, but also it's quite amazing to collect this diary of something that you did every day for four years - it's quite a nice thing to keep."


And finally... Sydney or Melbourne? 😉 

"I have to admit, I've absolutely fallen in love with Sydney. I live by the ocean, and to be able to have a wild ocean in a major big capital city is incredible. In Melbourne, I lived by the creeks, which was also fantastic, very calm with the creek, gum trees and birds and things like that. So, very different, much calmer there. Here, it's wild and lots of action, which is actually a nice change, I have to say!"



This interview was conducted on Monday 17 July by Dorota Wierzbica

Videography: Anh Nguyen & Roxie Vuong

Post production: Roxie Vuong


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