I spotted this amazing challenge over on Instagram (@thescientistandhercats) and decided I would not only participate by posting pictures, but also by posting blog posts too. Both this blog (and my book blog) have been very neglected over the last few months so I am hoping this will get me back into the swing of writing!
Day 1 of #30daysofpostgrad is all about how I got to where I am now. Nearly two years into my PhD and loving the work that I am doing. My journey probably isn’t that complicated, but it just shows how you have to follow what you are interested in and be prepared to ‘fail’ before finding the correct answer.
My high school experience was pretty normal. I studied hard, got good grades and was involved in a couple co-curricular activities. I don’t know what it is like around the world (though it has changed a lot since I graduated in 2012) but in Western Australia you do a range of all the subjected until Year 11, where you choose which subject to do for your final two years and in your exams. A lot of the university courses have prerequisite subjects too, so you have to take into account that as well as which subjects will get you the best entrance score (ATAR). When I was 15 I had my eyes set on either Medicine or Engineering, so I ended up choosing:
- English Literature (I loved books and didn’t want to do the normal English which didn’t do Shakespeare).
- Maths 3A/B (This was the highest of the standard maths in YR11 and then you progress to C/D in YR12.)
- Chemistry (I adored Chemistry so much!)
- Physics (I liked all of physics apart from light/waves and electricity).
- Maths Specialist (This was an additional maths course that is the highest offered. Since I wanted to do engineering this would save me time to prerequisites at University and I also enjoyed maths.)
- Religion (It was compulsory at our Catholic school, but you could choose to do it and be assessed on it as an ATAR subject or as a non-ATAR subject and not have it contribute to your final score. I did the ATAR as I didn’t see the point in doing it without getting anything out of it for University.
I wasn’t fantastic at English Literature or Maths Specialist, but I got great scores in Chemistry, the standard Maths (doing the Specialist helped this immensely), Physics and Religion (which I ended up getting 90% in…I am good at writing what they want to hear.) Also note that I did not do any Biology courses during high school!
When it was time to get my ATAR, I needed at least 98 to get an assured pathway into postgraduate medicine (this means you can do whatever undergraduate course and then as long as you pass you have a place in the MD program) as I had already done an interview with UWA (The University of Western Australia). When my score came out as 97.85, I was pretty devastated that I didn’t get into Medicine. But with only a score needed of 80 to get into UWA, I decided to do my Bachelor of Science at UWA.
BACHELOR OF SCIENCE
I started my Bachelor of Science majoring in Engineering, with a second major in Pathology and Lab Medicine. I wanted to become a mechanical engineer and work on Formula 1 cars, looking back I think I liked the idea of this as 6 years later I don’t even have my drivers licence and hate cars! I would do the GAMSAT and apply for medicine at universities around the country as well so I had the two options.
From the very first Engineering Unit, I hated it! It was taught so badly, based around group projects with people who were not the best teammates, I was one of the few girls doing the course and it was just so boring. I hardly studied and didn’t get the best marks. I did like the university Maths units, but the core Engineering and Physics units were the literal worst. What I did like was the biology and physiology units I did as part of my second major, especially as I had not done anything like it during High School.
My hatred of Engineering and love of Biology went on for one and a half years. After a terrible first semester of second year engineering units, I decided that the night before the second semester started I would change my degree, drop engineering and only do a single major in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.
This was one of the best decisions of my life.
I loved the units, so I would study and get good marks. I had so much free space in my degree (along with the 4 units UWA makes you do that are not in your field to ‘expand’ your knowledge) that I did a German unit, an Ancient History unit, two Medieval History units and a forensics unit. I got to the end of my third and final year of my Bachelors degree with a decision to make. I did not get into Medicine (my GPA was terrible from my engineering units, but I did not in the top 8% in the GAMSAT) so what was my next move?
I had two choices (I couldn’t really get a job with the degree I had without doing a post graduate course.) I could do my Masters in Clinical Pathology which leads you into diagnostic labs or do my Honours year and get into the world of research. I would of course try to get into medicine again.
After looking at the pros and cons of the courses (and the fact that the Masters costs $30,000 compared to the $8000 of the honours) I decided to do my honours year. Then I had to find a supervisor.
Throughout this process I met with three supervisors. The first was a researcher working in mitochondrial diseases. She was nice and the project seemed OK, but I still wanted to explore my options. The second worked in stem cell engineering and the project had an engineering component in it too. We did an assignment similar to this in Undergrad but I found the supervisor to be very cold and not welcoming, and as an extremely anxious person having a supervisor who instantly felt supportive was important.
The last supervisor was working in cancer immunology and he gave two undergraduate lectures. The project sounded really interesting and he was so kind, welcoming and felt like someone who I could get along with and trust to help me through the year. It wasn’t much of a decision, but I ended up taking that honours project and in January 2016 I began my journey into research.
I am not going to write too much here as all I can say is that I loved research. My project was amazing, my supervisor was great and the whole lab environment was supportive and full of other students (both honours and PhD), research assistants and post docs that were friendly. I learnt a whole lot of skills during that year ; animal work, tissue culture and flow cytometry primarily. When it came to applying for medicine again, halfway through the year I decided that it was not for me (interacting with patients was one of the primary reasons why) and that I would stick to research. My supervisor continually hounded me to apply for my PhD in August, but I did not want to even think about the next year until I had handed in my thesis in October. As soon as that was done, I met with my Honours supervisor and two other senior scientists in the lab to discuss a potential PhD project and put in my application. I did not have much to go into the application apart from a presentation at a student conference where I won a price and was hoping that I would get a First Class which would guarantee an RTP (the scholarship provided by the Australian Government.) I did get First Class, and then I had to wait to see whether I would be funded.
It was the day that the scholarship notifications was supposed to be released and by 10pm I had not heard anything. I was constantly refreshing my emails hoping to get the email telling me that I was successful. By 11pm I was worried, but just after 11:15pm I got the notification in my inbox and was full of relief…though I don’t know why they had to torture me until late night to let me know!
I am now nearly two years into my ~4 year PhD and loving every moment of it…despite the stress, doubt and worry that I will never get it done. While I did not get too much data during my first year as it was optimisation and pilot studies, this year I got some really cool results and am just about to send the samples I have been collecting for 6 months (and had to optimise the model for 6 months before that) off to get sequenced which will provide a lot of data. The other students are great to work with and I am lucky to have a core group of supervisors (one of which is my honours supervisor as I stayed in the same lab.) I do miss having weekends as I often need to come in for my animal work. I also have my name on a paper from my honours project and in the process of writing a review (which has been two years in the making.) Currently I am keen on doing a post doc in America, but of course things might change (and America might change too.)
I feel like my story is quite simple and I was lucky to work out what I wanted to do with my life quite early (I am only just 23). But it just shows that everyone has different paths and different experiences that lead them to where they are. If I got into medicine straight away I would have never done my honours. If I didn’t do engineering I would never have realised how much I love biology and might have taken it for granted. If I didn’t meet with a range of supervisors I would never have found the project that led me to my PhD.
I am always so interested to hear other peoples stories so feel free to share in the comments or link to your own blog posts!