Category Archives: PhD Life

PhD Christmas: Vaguely a Holiday

Whilst working extremely hard on my PhD this morning (ahem), I stumbled across this PhD Comic by the amazing Jorge Cham:

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
http://www.phdcomics.com

Never be in doubt – you are ALWAYS supposed to be working…

But my supervisors are away overseas on Christmas break“, you may think.

This changes nothing. Apart from your sleep patterns by staying up to weird hours trying to match supervisor emails from a different time zone.

Well, at least it’s temporary,” you console yourself.  “Once I’ve finished my PhD it will be different!

Au contraire, mon ami innocent…

A PhD Christmas Story

Last Christmas marked the final 4 months of my partner’s PhD.  So we spent the festive season as all final-stage PhD students should – by working from home and pretending that this was a “treat”, because at least it meant we weren’t in the office.  It actually worked out quite well; I chugged through a LOT of manual acoustic analysis whilst he got some writing done.  And it was nice to spend the days together.  Even if they were days filled with sitting at our laptops in silence, at least we were doing so together!

We took two days off – 25th Dec and 1st Jan.  These days also coincided with our only two trips to the beach in the height of austral summer, despite living 10 minute drive from several lovely beach spots.  But it was all good – only temporary, right?

Life (and Holidays) After the PhD?

Well, now it’s Christmas time again and a pretty familiar scene is playing out.  Except this time it is me entering the PhD-Twilight-Months whilst Phil has moved onto the fabled, glorious lands of a Post-Doc.  But apart from this role-reversal and upgrade, the overall story seems to be pretty similar.  We’re still spending the summer days indoors, glued to laptops, desperately trying to catch-up on work before the universities re-open in January.

And we’re not alone.  Our later-PhD and post-doc level friends are all in the same boat.  Quietly excited to be working from home and enjoying all the little perks this brings:  your own space; no angry-typing from your office mate; option to play Glee songs out loud (and even sing along) without fear of disturbance or judgement; extra sleep as you dodge the morning commute; no meetings or work calls; ability to work in pyjamas and snack on xmas treats…

From what I’ve seen, this doesn’t seem to change much between PhD and post-doc.  Maybe at a higher-up level you eventually reach a stage where public holidays also translate to academic holidays, but it seems doubtful.  You always hear “With great power comes great responsibility” – no one mentions this also means a greater number of working hours.  But at this stage, it’s become so much the norm it is hard to imagine anything different!

Instead, the main frustration comes from people excitedly asking “So what are you guys doing over the holidays?“.  This, of course, is met with a blank expression and the solid reply “Working…” (duh implied).  It’s particularly annoying when this comes from people in the earlier (naiver) stages of their PhD (how can they justify time off?!  Don’t they realise that there is so much to do?!), who receive the same response.  But at least you can enjoy adding a slight hint of condescension, and jazz up the “duh” tone with a twist of “why – aren’t you?”.  And so the unhealthy cycle of PhD guilt continues, expanding to include new generations.  Can’t have Christmas without family!

Not all Bad

The weird thing is that there is a kind of peace to this working-holiday.  It’s nice knowing that most of the people who add to your To-Do list (undergrads, teaching staff, admin, anyone with a ‘real job’) have mysteriously disappeared for 2-3 weeks.  The only deadlines to meet during this lull period are your own – no one else wants anything of you.  Obviously supervisors will have an expectation of progress, but they will also be distracted by family commitments that we (as international orphans) do not have here.  You feel like you’ve won back a little bit of time, so you have to make the most of it by catching up on all the things that are running you dry the rest of the year.

The weirdest thing of all is that I’ve been looking forward to it for months.

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Why statistics is not “just maths”

Stats are comingEarlier today, a colleague and I were talking about a paper that we’re working on regarding fish acoustics.  He was asking if I would have time to do some statistical modelling of presence in regard to several environmental variables, and I hinted that I am a bit time-poor at the moment.  While we were discussing who else in the department could help with the statistics, I rattled off a fellow PhD student’s name.

What, them?  But they doesn’t know how to do programming!” said my physics-, engineering-, maths-background colleague in dismay.

But it’s not programming as you think of it,” I replied.  “It’s statistics.

*sarcastic look*

What’s the difference?” he asked.

Well, the answer is that there is a pretty big difference…

Theory vs. Applied

When I was at secondary school, in our final year we had the choice of choosing Advanced Mathematics or Applied Mathematics (aka statistics).

The Advanced Mathematics course taught you how to “select and apply complex mathematical techniques in a variety of mathematical situations”.  This included units such as algebra, calculus, geometry, and equations.

The Applied Mathematics (Statistics) course taught how to “make sense of inherent natural variation in a wide variety of contexts through the collection, analysis and interpretation of data”.  This included units such as hypothesis testing, data analysis, data modelling, and statistical inference.

So basically, one course gave you a year of studying complex, in-depth equations and formulas whilst the other course gave you a year of mathematical problem-solving.  By that time I had already been accepted into studying Zoology, so was strongly encouraged to take this opportunity to get familiar with statistics.  The justification was that it would give me a head-start before I started using statistics in my research later on.

one-does-not-simply-pass-statisticsOf course, the fact that I spectacularly failed the course has nothing to do with anything.  Although in fairness, we started with a class of 30 and were swiftly whittled down to a class of 3 when the other students realised what a true form of hell statistics really are.  Many of them transferred to the Advanced Maths class instead, because they thought it was easier.  And despite my overall grade, it did in fact give me a head-start when I started studying statistics at a university level since most students had never touched the subject before.

As an added bonus, it means I can now also honestly say that you don’t need to pass Maths in high school to succeed in science.  However, this does make me rather unpopular with parents at University Open Days, and as a result I’m generally discouraged from attending…

Fear of statistics – or fear of maths?

Most biologists recoil in horror at the mere thought of statistics. Some less-kind scientists suggest that this is why biologists are studying biology and not a ‘hard’ science like physics.  However, the truth is that most physicists would recoil in horror from the idea of statistics too – if only they had to use them.  But their work is often better captured by the mathematical formulae and equations that fall into the ‘Advanced Mathematics’ camp, rather than modelling natural variation, so the opportunity to dabble in stats never arises.  Instead, mathematical knowledge feeds into computer programming to run loops, calculus, algebraic equations, and a whole number of other mysterious things.

When you create statistical models, yes there is still an element of programming to it.  But the underlying logic is quite different.  Statistics may fall under the umbrella of mathematics, but they have quite different applications.  For example, if I was to write a program that would could calculate different acoustic measurements from a bunch of recordings, this would be quite different to writing some code to compare those resulting measurements.  A fine line, but a line nonetheless.

Each year, I help teach a course on Quantitative Biology – which is basically statistics in disguise.  I help guide undergraduate biology students through their first steps in statistics and introduce them to a simple software program which will do most of the basic stuff for them in a couple of clicks.  Each year there are a few students who complain that they’re no good at maths, that they’ll never understand this, that they don’t see the point.  Yet by the end of term they’re analysing and clicking away without hesitation, and (in the words of one student) “finally understanding the results sections of papers”.  The key is removing the fear of statistics instigated originally by a fear of maths.

“Put your money where your mouth is”

Over the past few months, I have been working towards completing my first PhD paper.  This has focused on describing the soundscape of a section of the Swan River, and among other things involved modelling the occurrence of different sound sources across different temporal scales.  As a result, after a long sabbatical whilst in pursuit of fieldwork skills / scholarships / rent money, I was thrown in the deep-end of statistics.

p-valueAt first I avoided it; there were plenty of other things to do, and to be honest the thought terrified me.  After all, I failed this at school!  My Undergraduate and Masters classes were okay, but not particularly pleasant!  Can’t I just pay someone to do this?!  But, after completing every other possible task, I took a deep breath, opened our collection of Alain Zuur books, and plunged back in.

And whilst I wouldn’t say that I loved it, there was some enjoyment.  I liked investigating my data, confirming relationships, and finding significant results.  There were a few temper tantrums, but hell did I learn a lot.  So for now, I’d say that statistics and I have a cautiously optimistic relationship.

Conclusion

Hey girlSo in summary, mathematics is classroom theory whilst statistics is real-world applied data.  To be good at statistics, you don’t actually have to be particularly good at maths.  What you do need to be good at is problem-solving, applying logic, manipulating information, and pulling biological meaning from numbers.

In fact, I would even go so far as to say there is a significant difference between mathematics and statistics!

[Note – In statistics circles, this joke is hilarious.  Admittedly in normal circles, it may fall somewhat flat.  Hopefully my undergrads get it…]

And if nothing else, at least studying statistics has opened up a whole new world of internet memes!

Heteroscedacity

Famous Last Words

FameLab Australia Final

MC Robyn Williams revs up the crowd at the FameLab Australia Final 2015 (Photo: OK White Lane)

My last post spoke of my experience competing in the WA State Heat of FameLab.  Although I was delighted to be voted the Peoples Choice by audience vote, unfortunately only the winner and runner-up of each state heat progress to the National Final.

Or so I thought…

But a couple of weeks after the State Heat, I received a phonecall from FameLab Australia organiser Chris Hodge, inviting me back to present again as the British Council Wildcard entrant.  So I made it to the Final by a fluke!

Sussing out the Competition

The FameLab Australia Final involved entrants from New South Wales, Victoria, ACT, Queensland and Western Australia.  A mix of PhD students, post-docs, and scientists-with-real-jobs we covered a range of subjects from coughing guinea pigs to spider behaviour, gut bacteria to brain function, biofuel to artificial intelligence.  A mysterious group of people at the best of times, especially when most of us had never met before!

I had the chance to suss out one of the competitors, David Farmer, on a radio interview with ABC Melbourne presenter Lindy Burns.  Ironically, when discussing the Australian competition, the station had managed to select two Scottish people to interview.  So this combined with dolphins, lasers and squishy brains made for some great banter in a pretty unique interview!

With competitors like that, it was obviously going to be some stiff competition…

Love and Science

Media trainer Malcolm Love (far left) with some of the FameLab Australia 2015 finalists

Media trainer Malcolm Love (far left) with some of the FameLab Australia 2015 finalists (Photo:  OK White Lane)

The lead-up to the National Final included two days of media training with science communication guru Malcolm Love.  Chief Trainer of FameLab International, Malcolm was originally a freelance journalist in South America before working for the BBC as a producer on features and documentaries for over 20 years.  He is now a specialist in the public engagement of science, giving lectures on the subject at the University of West England and providing training for a range of science-stakeholders, as well as hosting his own weekly radio show “Love and Science“.  So this guy knows what he’s talking about.

In the training, we covered a variety of topics including body language, story-telling and interview tips.  But one of the best things about it was interacting with people who love science communication.  Many scientists still hold onto a fear of presenting to the public, and worry about “dumbing down” their research or coming across as boring.  But all the participants were obviously people who were passionate about their research, and it is hard not to get swept up in that kind of enthusiasm!  So it was an awesome two days of being a science geek with other science geeks and discussing how to turn other people into science geeks too!

The Final

Nothing like a bad dolphin joke to kick-start your presentation...  (Photo:  OK White Lane)

Nothing like a bad dolphin joke to kick-start your presentation… (Photo: OK White Lane)

A sell-out event with over 200 people in attendance, the final was a bit more nerve-wracking than the state heat.  But I always tell presenters that you just have to try changing the nervous energy into excited energy, so when I stepped up to the spotlight I tried to remember my own advice.  Unfortunately, I still felt my performance lacked the right mix of enthusiasm – even as I was speaking, I knew it sounded over-rehersed.  So although the crowd laughed in the right spots and seemed keen, I knew it wouldn’t be a winning presentation.  But that’s okay – there will be others!

Science is a serious business - need to work on that intense expression!  (Photo:  Ok White Lane)

Science is a serious business – need to work on that intense expression! (Photo: Ok White Lane)

The overall winner of FameLab Australia 2015 was Dr Sandip Kamath, with Dr David Farmer coming a close second.  Sandip is studying shellfish allergies at James Cook University, and spoke of his ambition to help people overcome these reactions – with the help of Mr Pinchy the lobster, his side-kick slash prop.  David moved away from squishy brains and lasers to give a fascinating description of his research at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience, investigating the cough reflex and brainstem function.  To see photos from the night, check out the British Council Flickr Page.

And, of course, we all had fun celebrating at the FameLab after-party!  The official function was in the WA Maritime Museum, with some speeches and lots of well-wishers…  But the scientists and British Council crew headed out into Fremantle to celebrate afterwards!  After all, we’re twelve of the top young science communicators in the country!

So now, as Sandip flies to the UK to compete in the FameLab International Final at the Cheltenham Science Festival, for the rest of us it is back down to Earth.  I’m back in a world of fieldwork, marking student assignments, and desperately trying to finish the first scientific paper of my PhD.  I can see all my new sci comm pals talking about the same reality bump on Twitter.  But to be honest, getting back to research is quite exciting enough… for now!

Intro to Underwater Acoustics: Two dolphins walk into a bar…

One of the things many scientists find challenging is how to explain their research in an interesting manner.

It’s one thing preparing your research for academic publications – there is a recognised structure to follow, certain items to always include, and feedback from co-authors and reviewers to improve your writing.  But presenting that same information to the general public is a whole other ball game.  How do you keep a class of undergraduates interested for a whole 2hr lecture on underwater acoustics?  How do you encourage community volunteers to develop scientific thinking skills?  How do you explain your research to media personnel in a way that makes it exciting and worth sharing?

These are problems that I find really interesting.  Obviously traditional science communication (academic publications and presenting at scientific conferences) is important.  But I’ve spoken before of the importance of also becoming a virtual scientist, and learning new science communication techniques to promote your research.  So I was pretty chuffed last week to find myself at a day-long workshop on “Science Communication and Presentation Skills” as part of FameLab Australia.

Bringing Science into the Spotlight

Taking the Stage at FameLab Australia WA Competition

Taking the Stage at FameLab Australia WA Competition to discuss underwater acoustics

FameLab is one of the world’s leading science communication competitions.  It aims to get people “talking science” by mentoring young scientists and engineers to turn them into awesome communicators.  Similar to the 3-Minute-Thesis Competition (3MT), speakers are given only 3mins to explain their area of research – no powerpoint, no labcoats, no jargon!  Organised by the British Council, there are over 45 countries participating in the event, having their own national finals to determine their competitors for the final FameLab International Competition in the UK.

I was encouraged by Curtin University to enter, so went along last Thursday to the workshop, which culminated in the WA State Finals that evening.  The workshop was held by three local science communicators – Emma Donnelly (Science Outreach Coordinator; Curtin University), Sarah Lau (Communication Managed; ChemCentre), and Renae Sayers (Theatre and Events Coordinator; Scitech).  We spent an amazing day bouncing around between flaming hands, personal brands, communication platforms, and vocal toolboxes.  It was like a step back into my former Science Presenter life…  If I could find a way to incorporate explosions, liquid nitrogen, and / or flaming limbs into my dolphin presentations, I would be complete!

Like Taking a Keyboard from a Baby

For my talk, I really wanted to get people thinking about underwater soundscapes.  To do this, I wanted to use an example that people could relate to – and since I knew my audience would majorly consist of young to middle-aged adults, I figured comparing the underwater environment to a bar would be a pretty nifty metaphor! Almost everyone in the audience had probably experienced the masking effects of background noise in a pub at some point, so it nicely familiarised the problem faced by dolphins.

How do a keyboard and a martini glass explain underwater noise?

How do a keyboard and a martini glass explain underwater noise?

But how to illustrate this on stage?  FameLab requires the use of a prop, which I struggled with for a while.  I got a friend to record some bar sounds from his weekend exploits, but playing them on stage quickly became a logistical pain.  The rules didn’t allow me to use the FameLab sound system, and bringing my own wasn’t feasible.

But a brainwave on the treadmill (I often problem-solve whilst walking) reminded me of the last time I was babysitting.  Owen wandered over to the electric keyboard, switched it on, and pressed the ‘random filler’ option to churn out some beats before dancing around in circles for ten minutes.

Random cheesy filler music would make a great bar-sounds alternative – loud enough to make the point, whilst being tacky enough to be funny.  Win!

Two Dolphins Walk into a Bar…

The resultant talk wasn’t filmed as part of FameLab, but Phil managed to catch the talk on his phone.  The volume is a bit low, but still gives a pretty good video of my performance!

"Tursiops Wins Again!" - Lyn Beazley presents me as the FameLab WA People's Choice winner

“Tursiops Wins Again!” – Lyn Beazley presents me as the FameLab WA People’s Choice winner

I was delighted to be awarded People’s Choice by audience vote, but unfortunately I didn’t make it through to the Australian Finals.  The judges consoled me afterwards by saying that it was my lack of results rather than my performance which hindered my progression to the next round, and strongly encouraged me to come back next year.  Although, as a friend kindly pointed out, it means I got the votes of 200 audience members as opposed to 3 judges!

Regardless, I still enjoyed the whole experience!  I always enjoy the chance to talk about dolphins and get people excited in science!  And it was a wonderful opportunity to meet some fellow science enthusiasts whilst flexing my science communication skills.  Plus applause isn’t something you get often in research, so that was pretty appreciated!

A massive congrats go to Amber Beavis (WA Museum) and David Gozzard (UWA) who were the winner and runner-up for the WA competition.  I can’t wait to see you guys at the Australian final down at Fremantle in May!

Any More Talks?

But looking at the birthday card I got from the department this week, perhaps I should be focusing more on my research for a while – I appear to be getting a bit of a reputation 😛

Sarah's Birthday Card 2015

Finding Inspiration

I love what I do.  But sometimes inspiration is hard.

Another long day in the field without seeing dolphins.  Another never-ending report that stubbornly clings to draft form.  Another day of battling off emails from supervisors wanting results, students needing help, randoms requiring your time, and family / friends wondering why they haven’t heard from you for weeks.  It can wear down even the most dedicated of scientists.

This has been particularly hard for me over the last couple of months.  My Grandad passed away in January, and for the first time I’ve been faced with a “writers block”, finding it hard to draft blog posts, work on manuscripts, or prepare talks.  Ironically, he placed great emphasis on writing and public-speaking skills, and would no doubt of had some words of wisdom on the topic of writers block.  But it has been hard to focus through the grief and guilt – is it worth chasing dreams when they take you so far from your family?

Even more ironically, it was during this period that I was asked to give the occasional address at the Curtin University Science Students Awards ceremony.  For some unknown reason I said yes (saying “no” has been a long-running issue, which I’m unsuccessfully working on).  So I was then confronted with the task of writing a motivational speech when I was feeling the least motivated I’ve ever been.

Old Favourites

Luckily, I had some old favourites to turn to.  I am a creature of habit. When I am unwell, I read Terry Pratchett – I escape from my world to a world of magic.  When I worry about the purpose of my research, I read Gerald Durrell – his beautiful descriptions of all the places and creatures he encountered feed my imagination, and his passion for conserving them motivates me.  When I am stressed, I save it up for the weekly phone call home to my Mum – a remnant of our late-night cup of tea chat sessions from whenever I am home.  And when I am angry at the world I go to the gym and run – I used to save it for martial arts, but too expensive in Perth.

So perhaps it is not surprising that all these things contributed in some way to giving me the motivation for a motivational speech. I agonised over it for weeks, starting and re-starting, discarding drafts, knowing it was not sincere and not quite right. They wanted me to speak for 6 – 10mins on my work-life balance, my tips for success, and what adventures I’ve had along the way.  The first was obviously nonsense – if I wanted a 9 – 5 job with good pay and weekends off, I wouldn’t be a scientist.  Tips for success was a tricky issue.  I don’t feel particularly successful, and like all PhD students I have a strong sense of Imposter Syndrome – if anything I am generally the one in need of tips for success.  The last part was easiest.  My Master’s supervisor Paddy used to groan whenever I entered his office, bracing himself for whatever tale of mis-adventure had befallen me in the field that week.  But perhaps mis-adventures weren’t best for a motivational speech…

But the week before the ceremony, I was thumbing through a collection of Gerald Durrell stories and found a perfect quote which summed up my approach to life decisions.  Typically, after spending so long worrying about it, I then wrote the speech in about 20mins.  The fact that this was on the weekend further illustrates my lack of a typical work-life balance.

  • Take Chances

There is one particular idea from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld that stays with me:  “Million-to-one chances happen nine times out of ten”.  The fact that no matter how low the probability, how much the odds are against you, there is still a chance that this might work.  So don’t be afraid to take a chance.  And have faith in the strength of the narrative.

  • Make a Mix of Logical and Illogical Choices

The Gerald Durrell quote that caught my attention was:  “I have rarely, if ever, achieved anything I wanted by tackling it in a logical fashion … now I am speechless at my audacity“.  I never planned to be a scientist; I didn’t dream of being a marine biologist as a child.  Through a mix of seemingly random events that centred on my naturalist nature, I found myself on this path.  I’ve bounced from one decision to another with sometimes worryingly little thought, but a vague belief that things will work out for the best.

  • Do What You Love

I’ve done my share of newspaper rounds, check-out tills, and shelf-stacking type jobs, and I’m pretty happy where I am.  My Mum always says “You either do the work you love, or work to afford the things you love“.  I’d rather be enjoying my work throughout the year with a few bad weeks than be hating my job throughout the year and saving up for a few good weeks of holiday.  Everyone is different, but for me I choose to do what I love (even when I sometimes feel it doesn’t love me back).

  • Strive for Excellence

Our local gym has inspirational quotes scattered around the walls.  Whilst I was suffering through a set of lunges one day, this one caught my eye:  “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit“.  The gym attributed this to Shaquille O’Neal, who Google tells me is a retired basketball player and rapper.  But Google also tells me that the original sayer of this phrase was Aristotle.  Which is concerning for the gym but a win for me because it makes me sound a bit smarter in my speech, whilst also giving encouragement to students to look beyond what they are wining today and start thinking about what they can do tomorrow.

The Final Speech

If you are interested in reading the final product, you can download my motivational speech by clicking here.  I think it went well – there were good questions and follow-up conversations at the drinks and nibbles afterwards, even though I had to refer to my notes more often than I would have liked.

But I think the person most motivated by my motivational speech was me.  Explaining your life story and personal philosophy to a large room of people gives you a new perspective on what you do.  It reminds you of all the things you have achieved, are still to complete, and why you are doing them.  So I hope the students and their families had fun hearing about my adventures.  And I also hope that Grandad was watching from a corner of the room, enjoying hearing once more about his grand-daughter’s adventures, just like he used to.

Is it a plane? A duck? A police car? No, it’s a fish…

For the last few weeks I have been working on the first chapter of my PhD describing the underwater soundscape of the Swan River.  Overall, this has been a really good way of becoming more familiar with identifying underwater sounds.  By far the most baffling of which have come from fish.

Hard-core headphones are becoming my default fashion accessory at the moment...

All about that bass: Hard-core headphones are becoming my default fashion accessory at the moment…

It turns out that many fish species produce a whole variety of ridiculous sounds, including quacks, knocks, grunts, sirens, trumpets and even Rolf Harris impersonations (sounds like his infamous wobble-board).  These sounds are all produced in different ways:  some are made using sonic muscles located on or near the swim bladder; others sounds are the result of the fish rubbing together or striking its skeletal components; and sometimes even changes in swim speed or direction can result in noise production.

But, like many animal sounds, the purpose of many fish noises is still to be determined.  Sound production might be intentional, in the form of vocalisations or calls, in which case noises are most likely signals to other animals (e.g. to attract mates, warn off competitors, co-ordinate with conspecifics, or raise the alarm about predators).  However, sounds can also be produced unintentionally as the result of feeding or swimming.  And when your subjects are mostly occurring in the cold, dark oceanic depths it can be pretty tricky to figure out the behavioural context of recorded sounds!

The majority of sounds produced by fishes are of low frequency, typically less than 1000 Hz.  By themselves they can be pretty hard to pull out of a large dataset, thus requiring a systematic search through potentially months of data.  But a really cool characteristic of some fishes is that they call in choruses.  This is when multiple (dozens or even hundreds) of individual fish within the same area produce the same call.

These choruses occur all over the Australian continental shelf, in both tropical and temperate waters and were first discovered in the late 1960s.  Many show significant seasonal trends in chorus levels and differences between years, potentially indicating that chorus activity reflects secondary productivity (see “Continental shelf fish choruses in Australian Waters” by Robert McCauley and Douglas Cato).  Others are reliably produced at specific times of year, and are believed to be associated with reproduction (see “Fish choruses from the Kimberley, seasonal and lunar links as determined by long term sea noise monitoring” by Robert McCauley), although the nature and intensity of some reproductive choruses can change in association with physical and environmental cues (see “An investigation into active and passive acoustic techniques to study aggregating fish species” by Miles Parsons).  Thus, these calls can play significant roles in the life function of many species.

Great to know that, in all these long hours you spend sitting at the computer, you are probably listening to fish sex!

Easy Christmas Crafts for Kids (and PhD Students)

My university closed for the Christmas break last Friday.  As everyone knows, this means nothing for PhD students.  Generally you are too busy to easily justify taking a few weeks off.  And even if you do convince yourself to have some down time over the holidays, you will still risk being hit with PhD Lifestyle Guilt.

This feels so wrong!

This feels so wrong!

Plus sometimes it’s just hard to get in the Christmas spirit.  As a Northern Hemispherean, I find an Australian Christmas hard to adjust to.  Every little fragment of my DNA is screaming that it should be cold, dark, and snowy – i.e. perfect weather to wrap-up in woolly jumpers, drink hot (possibly alcoholic) beverages, and eat plenty of mince pies to ensure survival through the winter.  So to be confronted with these same urges whilst sweltering through a 40° Celsius, sun-filled afternoon is pretty confusing.

An additional problem is the PhD budget.  Although we live pretty comfortably, there isn’t a whole lot of extra cash floating around at the best of times, especially not to be spent on decorations which only make an appearance once a year.

This will be our third Christmas Down Under, so we have accumulated a few festive knick-knacks.  But not enough!  Until now…

This weekend I spent some time Googling “Christmas Crafts for Kids” (because I’m aware of my own craft skill level).  I found some pretty cool sites (such as Kid Spot Christmas), and thought I’d give it a whirl!  The result is that I’ve now spent most of the morning improving my multi-tasking abilities by combining uni work with simple crafts.

Multi-tasking acoustic research with cutting paper snowflakes!

Multi-tasking acoustic research with cutting paper snowflakes!

For instance, I’m currently going through hundreds of acoustic files from the Swan River to see what I can hear (for the record, a LOT of snapping shrimp).  This means that my ears are busy, my hands are idle, and my brain is floating somewhere in the middle.  So whilst listening to my recordings this morning, I also started cutting out dozens of paper snowflakes.  At $2 for 180 small sheets of coloured paper, it’s a bargain and a time-saver!  These will eventually get strung up all over the house.  I also spent some time faffing around with glitter, but this came to a halt when I sneezed suddenly and managed to inhale a large amount of it.  Like I said, I know my craft skill level.

So teamed with a few yards of discounted tinsel, our pint-sized Christmas tree, and a few (surprisingly neatly wrapped) presents, it’s starting to feel pretty festive in here!  Especially if you turn on the air-conditioning and your imagination.

This is all greeted with a certain amount of suspicion from Phil (he still hasn’t forgotten our first festive season together, when I decorated the house with miles of tinsel then insisted on leaving it up until April).  But thankfully nowadays he only gives a single heart-felt sigh of resignation before assisting me with whatever new project has popped into my head.

I can’t wait until he comes home tonight and sees the house 🙂

Discovering Conservation

Discover Conservation_Sarah InterviewA couple of weeks ago I had a very fun interview with James Borrell, a conservation biologist with a passion for science communication.  Apart from studying the genetics of trees, James is also the founder of Discover Conservation – a website which aims to tell the stories of field scientists and, by doing so, inspire an appreciation for conservation in people around the world.

My interview with Discover Conservation discussed my PhD research on bottlenose and snubfin dolphins in Western Australia, but also touched on my “science story” and how I got where I am today.  It finishes off with some of my advice for young conservationists, particularly those currently trying to find work experience.

Interested in more information?  Read the full article here!

And the winner of the 3-Minute-Thesis competition is…

3MT Trans-Tasman Competition 2014 Sarah Marley and Rosanna Stevens

3MT Trans-Tasman 2014 Sarah Marley and Rosanna Stevens

…  Sarah Marley from Curtin University

When I heard those words, my heart stopped.  I did the “shocked-actress-wins-award” face.  I hugged my friends sitting on either side.  I repeatedly gasped “oh my goodness“.  I may have even made a rather embarrassing Oscar-worthy acceptance speech.  Now over a week later and I am still riding the high 🙂

View the talk below:

Now let’s back up a bit.

The 3-Minute-Thesis (3MT) competition was developed by the University of Queensland back in 2008.  It was intended to be an exercise in communication for graduate students, giving them just three minutes to explain their PhD to a generalist audience.  Since then, the competition has expanded to universities around the world.

I’ve known about this competition for a couple of years now, after seeing various friends compete to present their own PhD at other universities.  I couldn’t wait to become a student myself and give it a go!  So when Curtin University emailed around to announce that registration was open for the 2014 competition I immediately sat down, wrote my talk in 20mins, and started practicing!

The Curtin heats were a couple of months ago, where I surprised myself by not only making it through to the Curtin Final top ten but also by winning my heat.  “A great start,” I thought.  “Now back to fieldwork!” as I prepared for the second trip up to the Kimberleys.  A few weeks later, I made the special one-night-only trip back from Broome to Perth for the Curtin Final, and won both the Final and the People’s Choice award!  Certainly justified the trip down!

All the competitors from the 3MT Trans-Tasman 2014 competition at UWA

All the competitors from the 3MT Trans-Tasman 2014 competition at UWA

But the Trans-Tasman Competition was the hardest yet.  I was competing with winners, so you can imagine that the standard of talks was extremely high!  Most amazing of all was the team spirit – everyone was so nice to each other!  After every presentation, the speaker would return to the “green room” amid cheers and high fives from their opposition 🙂  It was a great vibe!

Then it was time to give my talk…

Not a stutter in sight!  Quite different to a couple of years ago...

Not a stutter in sight! Quite different to 4 yrs ago…

As I stepped on stage, I felt such a buzz.  I love the work that I do, and the opportunity to talk about it always gets me excited!  Quite a far cry from four years ago, when I could barely give a short talk to a group of friends without blushing and stuttering my way through the presentation.  So I felt a certain glow of accomplishment at having enjoyed something that just a few years would have terrified me!

From a happy glow to radiating surprise, I was ecstatic to be chosen as winner of the 3MT – but the whole experience was a delight!  From the thrill of presenting to the team spirit backstage to the happiness of making new friends, the whole 3MT journey has been a blast.  If you ever have the opportunity to take part I would thoroughly encourage you to do so!  Even if you’re not confident of your presenting skills, just ask yourself – when will you get a better opportunity to try?

But work on your potential acceptance speech beforehand, and practice your photo face:

Me laughing manically as I receive my giant novelty cheque from sponsor James Mercer.  Sorry James...

Me laughing manically as I receive my giant novelty cheque from sponsor James Mercer. Sorry James…

Now all that is left is for me to thank my partner, my friends, my family, my university, the organisers, the sponsors, the judges, the competitors, the audience, the backstage staff, my high school science teacher, my pets…

Fashion in the Field

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest scientist of all…

This week I was re-reading some old Women’s Health magazines (being a student I’m too poor to buy new ones so use the oldies for fitness motivation!). I came across an article called “(Don’t) Take a Good Look at Yourself“, which was about the trend of mirror fasting. This got me thinking about the effect fieldwork can have on your appearance…

Mirror Fasting
Bloggers in the US started the craze of mirror fasting a few years ago. The idea was that by avoiding your reflection for a set period of time (generally a month), you will start to realise how much time and attention you waste worrying about your appearance. And hopefully by the end of the period, you will have weaned yourself off the need for constant visual consultation, and thus be devoting more time to other things such as relationships, career, etc.

Generally people find this pretty tough, especially with regards to hair-dressing and make-up application, combined with the fear of looking like a crazy homeless person without realising. Which is admittedly pretty concerning when you’re on your way to a big work meeting or presentation. Once on a work trip, a girlfriend and I stayed in a motel for a couple of days which didn’t have a single mirror in the unit. Each morning I would find her pressed against the side of the truck, applying her make-up in the side mirrors.

Dressing Like a Biologist

Dressing like a biologist in 2004...

From dressing like a biologist in 2004…

Several years ago, my sister told me I dressed like a biologist. I looked down at my red hoodie, baggy jeans and sneakers, and thought “Huh, I guess so!”. Fashion sense wasn’t a part of my teenage self, and it only occasionally makes an appearance even now, generally prompted by third-party advice.  Although this is partly aided by the fact we only have an above-counter bathroom mirror and a small square mirror in our house, meaning it is impossible to get a full-ensemble view without balancing on the bed and moving furniture around.

... to dressing like a biologist in 2014!

… to dressing like a biologist in 2014!

Particularly during fieldwork, comfort and practicality are my key clothing choices.  So it’s not unusual to find me rocking up to uni in between theodolite shifts rugged up in holey baggy jeans and a hoodie, with the latest addition to this ensemble is my big cosy ski jacket.  Not especially sexy, but means I don’t have to worry about wear and tear (mostly because it’s already happened…).

Looking around our office, you can usually see the distinction between desk- and field-based scientists. Pretty skirts, nice boots and proper shirts vs. fleeces, walking shoes and multiple layers. There are always a few ambiguous characters – but generally if people look surprised when you dress smart, you’re probably edging into the latter category!

Fashion Evolution

Whenever I have volunteers new to the experience of fieldwork, it’s always interesting to see how their clothing choices change over the field season.  Particularly in the summer, some of the new vollies start out pretty keen in short-shorts and strappy tops.  But after a few days of realising that it can be pretty cold early morning and that by afternoon the Australian sun is taking it’s toll, fashion choices began to edge towards knee-length pants and t-shirts.  As soon as it started edging into winter, I was busting out my scarf, ski jacket and fingerless-gloves – much to the amusement of many volunteers!  Now it’s woolly hats all round on the hill and arguments over who gets to use the one pair of gloves.

Some students are academics in the making

Some students are academics in the making

So where does this go in the long run?  I guess every university has a band of socks-and-sandals professors, but I think my career has a long way to go before that becomes a legitimate option (at this stage, even I know that’s not cool).   Last week we bought a full-length mirror, the first we’ve owned since 2011 – so perhaps a brief phase of appearance-conscious behaviour will follow!  But in the end, I’ll probably always come back to dressing like a biologist.

Well, if the (sun-smart, collar-clipped field) hat fits…