My PhD is done! What a journey it has been

Now that I have finished my PhD, I have had time to reflect on my science career so far and the journey that I’ve had. I often hear stories of scientists being driven into their profession from early childhood, however, this wasn’t the case for me, I never found my passion until I got to University. Sure, I was broadly interested in science and maths at school but I had no clear direction and no real idea of where I wanted my life to go. The pressure to choose my life profession at such a young age was difficult, what if I messed it up? What if I got it wrong? In the end I opted for a broad science degree in the hope that experiencing a variety of disciplines would draw me toward one or the other. I did have one common driving factor, I wanted my work to be meaningful. I wanted to look back on my life at the age of 70 and know that I had done something that I could be proud of, that I had helped the world be a better place in some way. With this in mind, I started looking into a career in medical research. Biochemistry was my favourite subject; I was fascinated with how the body works and the problem-solving nature this medical research entails. There was still a nagging presence within me to be outdoors, however, so I maintained a handful of subjects related to environment science.

It is weird that one moment in your life can change your whole trajectory, this happened to me in the form of a documentary. I can’t even remember what the documentary was but it discussed the process of bioluminescence in undersea creatures. This completely grabbed my attention; I was enthralled with the idea that there is so much undiscovered within our oceans and that complex biochemicals processes that arise naturally can achieve so much. This helped me discover my passion for oceans and marine life, from here, I heard about a project looking at seaweed farming for agricultural purposes (Venus Shell Systems) and this inspired me to look at the biochemical processes within marine plants. I inquired at my university if there was anyone in this field and a week later I found myself in a room with my current PhD supervisor discussing projects for a 6-week work experience stint. This is where it all began. 

I swiftly changed my third-year subjects to include only those related to environmental science, putting me in a more competitive position for the study tour the University was offering. This tour explored Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam to learn about wildlife trafficking, water management and South East Asian culture. You could say the opportunity to travel in this tour is what pushed me fully into environmental science, however, I have no regrets, as this trip changed my life. I got to experience a culture that was entirely different to my own, the frustrations I felt about the way we, as humans, are treating our natural world was flipped upside down. It is easy for me, being a white women growing up in a place of privilege, getting an education and always having a roof over my head and food on the table. For others who are not so fortunate, the notion of environmental protection comes second to survival. If killing an endangered tiger and selling the fur buys food for your family for a year, would you do it? I would. Before this adventure I was angry that endangered animals were being slaughtered and forests were being cut down, but after this tour I realised it is not that simple. I cannot be angry at these people for doing what they need to do to survive. It is the social demand that drives this behaviour and it results from people in places of privilege. I realised protecting the environment starts with removing the reliance on it by supporting people depending on these resources. This was a hard but important life lesson to learn and would not have been possible without my science degree.

An injured Gibbon at an animal rehabilitation centre in CambodiaUndergraduate Study Tour

After my undergraduate degree I moved straight into an Honours degree which took me to the shores of White Island, New Zealand. This island is a perfect natural environment to study the impacts of ocean acidification due to the natural CO2 vents found under water. I was able to venture out to these vents’ multiple times over an 8-week period, diving beneath this magnificent volcano to explore how future carbon dioxide emission and subsequent ocean acidification will impact marine life. Once again, I had an experience that taught me so much, especially how difficult field-based science can be. Throughout my honours degree I was fortunate to work part time with my current PhD supervisor which meant I got to conduct frequent field trips to the Coorong South Australia, I have already touched on the importance of this site in my previous blog. From here, I then started a PhD and it has been a ride ever since. I was able to travel to Singapore, America, Perth, Canberra and Sydney to attend conferences and workshops. I made lifelong friends along the way, keeping in touch even though they live halfway around the world. I dealt with the global pandemic whilst finishing my PhD and in the end not only produced a piece of work that I was extremely proud of, but also learnt so much about myself. I discovered a resilience and mental toughness that I didn’t know I possessed. I realised a PhD does not test how smart you are, it tests your resilience. The ability to pick yourself up over and over again despite experiments failing, paper rejections and not getting the result you wanted is a testament to the passion for science and the desire to make change. That is what I learnt from this journey and from the friends I completed my PhD with, whom gave me the strength to keep going and through this we built lifelong friendships.

Working in the Coorong South Australia
Field work on a hovercraft ride in The Coorong, South Australia
Honors work New Zealand
Honours work White Island, New Zealand
Overseas friendships
PhD friendships
Honours friendships

My scientific journey has been extraordinary I have got to experience some amazing places and contribute to the world in a way that I never thought I could. I am proud of how far I have come and excited about what the future holds for me. 

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