Category Archives: Personal

Top 5 PhD New Year’s Resolutions

Academia can seem pretty tough-going at times.  In a field where everyone is striving to publish the most papers and get the most funding, but where most people are limited by time and opportunities, things can get a bit competitive.  So acknowledging your weaknesses just is not done, especially weaknesses connected to your work.

But in order to turn those weaknesses into strengths, you have to know where to start!  So to that end, here are some of my  New Year’s resolutions to work on over the next few months.  Obviously there are so many more things I can improve upon (eat healthily, call home more, go to the gym, break up with Facebook).  So these five are focused primarily on balancing PhD life.

1. Learn that it is okay to read

Good research requires a good knowledge of the subject, and this can only be achieved by searching the literature and reading,reading, reading!  But the problem with sitting reading papers at your desk all day is that you don’t have any solid outcome to show for it at the end of the day (apart from maybe eye strain and a headache).

I struggle with this lack of physical result, as it sometimes makes me feel like I’ve not been very productive by ‘just’ reading papers.  So something I aim to work on next year is to set aside time each week specifically for reading and updating Endnote.  To make it seem more productive, I’ll work on my note-taking skills – this will have the double benefit of making me feel like I’ve achieved something whilst also giving me some good quick-reference material for later.

2. Get at least 7hrs sleep each night

First step to getting more sleep - bean bag nap area under desk.  Win!

First step to getting more sleep – bean bag nap area under desk. Win!

Chronic sleep deprivation is not going to help you achieve anything.  Yes, you might have to pull some late-nighters to get that grant application in, or get up at ridiculous o’clock to reach your field site.  But that doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice sleep to do so.

It is okay to sleep in a bit later if you had to work late.  It is okay to be a granny and head to bed early if you’re up at day-break.  Need a power nap mid-avro?  Go for it!  If you’re up to date on sleep you will work a hell of a lot more effectively than someone holding their eyes open and forcing every sentence into Word.  I’m aiming to be a lot stricter (and realistic) with sleep patterns, especially as I tend to get migraines after missing a few sleeps in a row – which knocks me out for a lot longer than a lie-in would.

3. Publish

The must-have on every academics to-do list:  Publish more papers! There is a strong idea of “publish or perish”, and while this might be a bit dramatic it is probably true that you will have a better chance of succeeding with scholarships, job applications and grant funding if you can add up points in the ‘papers published’ box.  When I ask Post-Docs if they have any advice for an early-days PhD student, the recurring comment is to get multiple papers out during the PhD.

I just got around to publishing my honours thesis on bottlenose dolphin aggression this year, have a co-authored paper on whale acoustics in review, and still have material from my masters on grey seal behaviour which needs to be put into paper format.  So a big aim for next year is to finish that task, as well as publish something PhD-related.

4. Overcome the phone addiction

Smartphones are amazing.  I use mine for work a lot – especially during field work, it is very useful to be able to check emails on the go and arrange meetings without being tied to a desk.  But is there really a need for checking work emails every evening?  If you’re always online then you are always on duty.  Not conducive to the increase in sleep or quality time that most people would like in their lives.

A lot of the time I don’t mean to do this, but as I use my phone to tell the time I often see notifications about missed calls or unread emails and get sucked back into work mode without really realising it.  So the most obvious way around this would be to start wearing a watch more so I can give myself the opportunity to forget about the phone.  I’m also going to enforce a stricter ‘silent mode’ rule during quality time with boyfriend and mates in the evenings.  Feel free to give me in trouble if you see me violating this one, because it’s bound to happen!

5. Spend time with people outside of my university circle

It's important not to shut out friends during your PhD...

It’s important not to shut out friends during your PhD…

As much as you may love your office mates, it’s still important to step outside of the circle once in a while.  Because inevitably the conversation will at some point touch on work – be it project stress, supervisor management, paper writing, or “Did you hear about this grant?” type topics.  Sometimes it’s good to forget about work for a while!

Before I started my PhD, I spent a year volunteering on projects around Australia and two years working as a science communicator.  During this time I met lots of interesting, crazy, lovely people – most of whom I haven’t seen much, if at all, in the last six months, i.e. since the PhD began.  Granted I’ve been away assisting on field projects and travelling, but since I have no plans to leave Perth in the next few months this is the perfect time to re-affirm friendships and start catching-up!  But of course I’ll still have time for my university family 😉


Humpbacks, Hills and Hobbits – a summary of the last three months

I realised it had been a long time since my last blog post, but I’d forgotten that the last you’d heard from me was some comments about my dubious sea survival skills.  On reflection this might have been a bit ominous when followed by a three month silence, but rest assured I’m still here!  And I have so much to tell you!  Too much, in fact, for one post – so to avoid the risk of boring you, I’m going to give a brief summary now with more details to follow over the Christmas break 🙂

Early Sept – Mid Oct:  BRAHSS Project (Dongara, Western Australia)

Heading out from Dongara for another day of whale research!

Heading out from Dongara for another day of whale research!

Six weeks working as a marine mammal observer on the BRAHSS project, investigating the response of humpback whales to seismic surveys.  Although bouncing around in big swells off the coast of Western Australia was quite fun, it was really great to meet so many researchers from around Australia.  Since this project involves people from Curtin University, University of Queensland, and the University of Sydney there were plenty of new friends to be made!

Prior BRAHSS field seasons were conducted in Peregian Beach on the Sunshine Coast, so 2013 marked the first experimental period for Western Australian.  Fine-scale behavioural data were collected during control and active trials, thus detailing the responses of humpback whales to air-gun signals.  This work will be compared with data collected on the eastern Australian humpback whales, thus allowing comparison of different populations with different seismic exposure histories.

Mid Oct – Early Nov:  Doing a PhD! (Perth, Western Australia)

My desk of PhD awesomeness!

My desk of PhD awesomeness!

Nice to be home for a bit!  These few weeks gave me time to get-to-grips with my PhD and make progress with my application for candidacy.  Within the first six months of the PhD, students are required to submit a 10-page research proposal detailing their intended project.

So over these few weeks I did a LOT of reading through the scientific literature and swotting up on acoustics!  I was lucky enough to spend some time with the CMST technician Dave who gave me instruction in preparing the noise loggers, programming the recording software, and general electronics!  I also got lessons in splicing and mooring design thanks to Miles and Mal, more important skills that I’ll need for deploying my own loggers over the next few years!

This period also marked a move, as I shifted from the main physics building at Curtin University to the physics student building out the back.  Although it’s strange to be away from the staff, it does mean that I get my own big fancy schmancy desk and computer!  Woop woop!  Now to decorate it with as many dolphin pictures as possible…

Most of Nov:  SouWEST Project (Geographe Bay, Western Australia)

Blue waters and blue whales for the Geographe Bay 2013 theodolite team!

Blue waters and blue whales for the Geographe Bay 2013 theodolite team!

A sudden flurry of activity to organise the theodolite and acoustic components of the Southwest Whale Ecology Study (SouWEST) project for the 2013 field season.  I headed down to Geographe Bay with Chandra, Angela and Damien to continue our blue and humpback whale monitoring program which has now completed its fourth season!

I’m very proud to have been part of this project since 2010 when I helped Chandra with the first theodolite monitoring from our hill-top site near Dunsborough.  From here we can track the whales in real-time as they move through the area, and also record their behaviours and pod compositions.  Combined with the acoustic monitoring, boat surveys with photo-ID and community-based observations, these data give us a thorough view of how whales are using the Geographe Bay region.  This year was particularly exciting, as we deployed an array of four noise loggers – having multiple hydrophones will allow us to triangulate the positions of calling whales, and track them acoustically! It is also our first year with funding from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to support the SouWEST project.  Check out my post on the SouWEST blog to read more about our season!

Late Nov – Mid Dec:  Holidays and Conference! (New Zealand)

My SMM conference poster describing pygmy blue whale interactions with vessels in Geographe Bay

My SMM conference poster describing pygmy blue whale interactions with vessels in Geographe Bay

I’ve been dying to visit New Zealand for years, so the fact that the Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM) conference was held in Dunedin this year provided an excellent opportunity / excuse to head over!  You might remember that I had an abstract accepted back in July, meaning that I was able to present some work on the response of pygmy blue whales to vessels in Geographe Bay.  Over 1000 abstracts were accepted for presentation at the conference, and hundreds more people simply attended the proceedings, so this was an excellent chance to not only discuss this research but promote the SouWEST project!

Of course, it also gave us the chance to travel!  Phil and I flew into Auckland on the 29th November and travelled down to Dunedin for the conference by way of hot water beaches, kayak trips, Hobbiton, glow worm caves, kiwis, thermal spas, sperm whales and Hector’s dolphins!  After the conference we headed west to spend a few days exploring the wilderness of Fiordland before heading home, checking out amazing fjords by kayak and boat.

Mid Dec – Now:  Christmas!  (Perth, Western Australia)

Now we’re back in WA and have been immediately thrown into a strange mix of PhD work and Christmas festivities!  After taking the time out to travel, there is a lot of work to catch up on…  But there are also a lot of people to catch up with!  So a 7:30am breakfast meeting the first day home was quickly followed by a CMST Christmas meal with friends (and even a santa!).  Writing emails and funding applications is punctuated by present-swapping and Phil’s amazing Christmas cookies.  Planning of fieldwork is inter-mixed with planning of Christmas morning beach BBQs and dinner with friends.  It’s a strange and busy – but happy – time of the year!

So before I nip off for (another) biscuit I’ll wish you all a merry Christmas and all the best for 2014!

Survival of the Fittest – evacuations, liferafts, and getting stabbed by a “first aider”

Next month I’ll be heading off for a few weeks to assist on a research project investigating the behavioural response of humpback whales to seismic surveys.  Although we’ll be returning to shore each night, there will be a fair bit of time bouncing around on the continental shelf off Western Australia.  So, to get all my health and safety up to date, this week I’ve been attending courses in sea survival and first aid.

Sink or Swim…

On Wednesday, Angela and I were off to ERGT Australia to attend their Apply Offshore Facility Abandonment and Sea Survival Procedures (FAB) course.  This involved quite a bit of apprehension.  We had heard various horror stories from BOSIET veterans about jumping from heights into a pool and, after an unfortunate adventure a few years ago that involved me taking the shortest route down a cliff face, I wasn’t particularly keen on jumping from anywhere.  Plus the idea of floundering around in the water making pratts of ourselves infront of a bunch of tough male riggers wasn’t exactly appealing!

Never has sea survival looked so good ;)

Never has sea survival looked so good 😉

We arrived and got kitted out in our ‘work gear’, as ERGT want you to be ‘in the zone’ during your training (bonus points:  we totally rocked the orange boiler suits).  The morning was full of theory about how to evacuate an offshore facility and different strategies for survival following abandonment.  We learned about different methods for getting off the facility, from the preferred (walking off and onto a jetty) to the emergency exits (lifeboat or liferaft) to the last chance (jumping off). Johanne, the Instructor / Eye-Candy, explained different types of lifeboat and liferaft (note:  the former is an actual vessel which you’ll probably do alright in, the latter is essentially an inflatable tent) and how to deploy them.  He also explained how to put on a lifejacket, the best way to enter the water (watch the horizon, use your hand to block off your nose and mouth, straight legs), and how to adopt the HELP position to minimise rate of hypothermia once in the sea.

Easy peasy, we were thinking.  Now time to put it into practice in the pool, says Johanne.!  Uh oh…

But it was actually really good fun!  First we had a mock evacuation drill – the sirens went and we had to grab our lifejacket and hardhat, reach the muster point and enter the lifeboat.  This was then actually descended from three storeys into a small pool, which was quite a weird experience.  After that, we went to worst case scenario.  We went up to the first platform (thankfully only 1m above the pool rather than the next one at 4.5m!) and Johanne explained again how to jump in.  At this stage, all the big burly riggers who had been standing next to the edge suddenly disappeared to the back of the group, leaving me to go first!  Nice to know chivalry isn’t dead…  We tried the HELP position, practiced coordinating as a group, and did drills of saving each other from burning oil platforms (even if some of us dragged our victims towards the platform instead *cough Angela cough*).  Then we had to try getting into a deployed liferaft from the water.  Despite Johanne’s instruction of ‘one at a time’, all the riggers dashed off towards the raft together.  What happened to ladies first?!  Once we were all in the raft, we got airlifted to safety – a loop was descended from the higher platform, which we put under our arms and we got lifted up – much to the amusement of the riggers, as we dangled mid-air!

Would you know what to do?

On Thursday and Friday we attended an Apply First Aid course with St John Ambulance Australia.  This course covers a wide range of topics, including CPR, the Recovery Position, Defibrillation, Choking, Severe Bleeding, Allergic Reactions, Shock, Burns, Animal Bites, Fractures, Heat-Induced Conditions, and lots more.  Very comprehensive!  The instructors, Mike and Brooke, were fantastic with a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with the class.  Angela and I had great fun bandaging each other up and practising different first aid scenarios, even if she did get a bit over-enthusiastic…  When I was pretending to have an allergic reaction she grabbed the fake epi-pen and, with a cry of “I’ll save you Saz!”, stabbed it into my leg with enough force to leave me numb all morning!

But one of the things that surprised me on this course was the number of people doing it for the first time.  I am pretty accident-prone (see falling off cliffs above!), and have been very lucky in that I have usually had someone with some kind of first aid knowledge nearby to sort me out.  Even when this wasn’t the case, I’ve been able to self-administer first aid thanks to completing several courses before.

A defibrillator tries to 'reset' the heart's normal rhythm.  They are available in a range of public places in case of emergency - but could you use one?

A defibrillator tries to ‘reset’ the heart’s normal rhythm. They are available in a range of public places in case of emergency – but could you use one? (Image:  St Johns Ambulance Australia)

When asked why they have never done a course like this before, most people in the class said they were scared of being in an emergency situation and doing the wrong thing.  But, as the instructors pointed out, I would feel far worse seeing someone in desperate need and being unable to do anything to help them.  If someone is hurt or unconcious, they are already in a bad situation – it is highly unlikely that you could do anything to make things worse.  But by trying to help and offering first aid, you are giving them a chance.  The leading cause of death in Australia involves heart-related conditions, mostly heart attacks when breathing stops and the heart ceases to pump blood.  On average, it will take 20mins for an ambulance to arrive – but within 3-5mins, your brain will start to die from lack of oxygen.  If you can perform CPR for just quarter an hour, you significantly improve the victims chances of survival.

If you have never done this, or if it has been a while since the last one, please go do a first aid courseSt Johns Ambulance offer a wide range of courses at varying prices.  If you are a student, check what’s available through the university – I know that Curtin University and the University of Western Australia here in Perth both offer discounted courses to students.  It looks good on your CV, it’s fun to do, and if you can think of at least one person you wouldn’t want to lose, then you owe it to them to know what to do in an emergency.  Hopefully you’ll never have to do so, but if you did – what would you do?

Pursuing a Higher Degree: Why I’m so happy to be starting a PhD!

Last week I officially enrolled as a PhD student at Curtin University!  Here I will spend the next three years studying the response of dolphins to underwater noise.

For the last two years, I have been applying for PhD scholarships.  At the same time, to try and continue boosting my CV, I volunteered on various marine mammal projects.  This meant a lot of late nights, working weekends, unpaid leave from work, neglecting my boyfriend and basically quite a bit of juggling.  There were times when I felt overwhelmed and wondered if all this effort was ever going to lead anywhere.  But there were also a lot of fun times, filled with interesting discoveries, new friends, and happiness at pursuing something I loved.

Hope the buzz lasts three years!

Hope the buzz lasts three years!

The day I signed the last piece of paperwork I spent the next 24hrs bouncing around, occassionally squeeling to myself with pure happiness (yes, really!).  Now, a week later, the excitement has become a bit more manageable but I still get a buzz every time I look at my student card.  I’ve chosen a desk in the Higher Degree by Research student building.  I’m changing my email signature.  I’m keeping a colour-coded PhD notebook full of lists, thoughts and notes (much to the amusement of my more cynical colleagues, who frequently ask how long that is going to last).

So why is this such a big deal to me?  What’s so great about a PhD?  Here are the top three reasons why I decided to pursue a PhD:

1.  Curiosity

When I worked in science communication, we used to introduce science to kids by saying “Have you ever asked a question?  Wanted to know why, what or how?  Then you’re a scientist!”.  A bit basic, but fundamentally true – much of science is driven by pure curiosity and the desire to learn.  A PhD is an excellent opportunity to explore several avenues of curiosity about a specific topic, at a depth and intensity that will eventually satisfy almost everyone (probably overly so).

2.  A Love of Research

My childhood dolphin-spotting point in Banff, Scotland (click here for live webcam!)

My childhood dolphin-spotting point in Banff, Scotland (click here for live webcam!)

As a kid I used to spend my school holidays watching the dolphins in Banff Harbour (Scotland), recording sighting times, group compositions and animal behaviour.  Although I didn’t realise it, this was the start of my research career.  Since leaving full-time education, I’ve tried a range of jobs:  sales assistant, bosun on a tourism boat, tutoring, supermarket check-outs, university lecturer, setting myself on fire in the name of science communication…  But any length of time away from research is painful.  I miss learning new things, the craziness of fieldwork, the excitement of getting results.  Research just fits me.

3.  The Challenge

The other thing I miss is being challenged.  Although it’s more than likely that I’m going to regret this statement at some point over the next three years.  But the truth is, it’s only by pushing ourselves and going beyond the comfort zone that we develop.  That’s certainly what I expect a PhD to do!

But of course, this is just my opinion.  Did you have other motivations for pursuing a PhD?  Or perhaps decide against it?  Let me know!  I know that this is the honeymoon period and the real work is yet to come, but for now I’m just enjoying the moment.  At least when I hit the (inevitable) hard patches, I’ll have this list to check back on!  After all, nothing worth having ever comes easy.