Happy December everyone! Which means it must be time for another ‘Scientist in the Spotlight’. This month’s Spotlight post has a bit of a ‘health and fitness’ feel about it (which will all become clearer as you read on!) which seems like a good fit as 2017 gets closer and closer, and the thought of making a New Year’s resolution or two starts to creep into your mind.
I’ve only been seriously committed to writing my science blog for about 6 months or so and still feel like I’m practicing my writing style, wondering what to actually write about and fighting to get all those views and followers whilst wondering if anyone other than my family is actually reading my blog posts! But a few weeks ago, I received an email from someone who wanted to start their own blog and wanted my advice :O !! Whilst I definitely feel under qualified to dish out that sort of advice, we had a chat about all things blog related and hope I gave them some inspiration, but it definitely gave me a boost to think that other people in the world are getting hold of my blog and enjoy reading it! Then I had a light bulb moment and thought there is no better person to feature on my Scientist in the Spotlight feature than someone who reads and enjoys my blog and I was very excited when she agreed to be a part of it. So let me introduce to you, Lisa J.
Lisa is a final year PhD student here at the University of Southampton. This gal, who is originally from Bristol, has been running around the lab like a crazy person for the last few weeks to try and finish her PhD but is (somehow!) also managing to train for a 24 km weighted hike across Pen-Y-Fan in January – that’s the highest peak in South Wales! Lisa is a massive lover of all things fitness and food which probably reflects in her PhD research which asks the question – ‘Are you what your mother ate?’
Tell us some more about your PhD research.
Lisa: My thesis is looking at the influence of early life vitamin D deficiency and high-fat diet on offspring skeletal muscle development, structure and function, hence the question ‘Are you what your mother ate?’ 😛 I’m basically interested in how we build strength in a low vitamin D or high fat world. I decided to take on this as a PhD as I loved my 6-month lab project during my Masters in maternal and fetal health and the University of Manchester.
What made you choose to study science?
Lisa: I actually went into my A-Levels thinking I was going to study graphic design at university (the complete opposite end of the subject spectrum!) and biology was a ‘why not’ subject. But I found a love for biology during Sixth Form whilst also realising that to get the high grades in graphic art was all about annotating and explaining my ideas and creations – obviously a true scientist at heart with the analytical skills! During A-Levels and my degree, I found it fascinating to learn about the human body and how amazing it is! I loved all the reproductive modules in my degree and that’s what lead me to my MRes and so my PhD. Being in science, I am always learning new things and that’s what keeps it exciting!
As you’re finishing your PhD, what advice do you have for any Grad School newbies?
Lisa: I have a top five tips to surviving a PhD. Number 1 – you must have a good work/life balance. I know I work hard but I also know that having ‘me’ time is incredibly important for my wellbeing. I make sure I go to crossfit every weekday evening and also plan evenings/weekends with friends. Admittedly, this is not always possible due to the animal studies I do, but if I can I will always make space for other non-work related activities. Number 2 is get a diary. First year is more chilled but by second year the more pieces of work you have to juggle due to the more studies you are part of and it gets more intense in final year, it gets overwhelming! I have a diary and write what I’m going to do each day and tick it off. It keeps me on track but also makes you feel good and productive. Number 3 has got to be caffeine! A crucial essential for the endless long 18 hour lab days (and I have had plenty!). Number 4 is a support network! PhDs are not easy and knowing where you can get support is vital. My friends in the lab have been there for me during the tough times and I also have a mentor (an academic unrelated to my PhD) and she has been a saviour in times of need. Finally, I would say confidence! Believe in yourself and the hard work that you put in. Supervisors don’t always know best believe it or not, so over time I have felt more comfortable to put my opinions across and try to lead my research project. Having the confidence to say no to your supervisor and stick by your opinions is a scary, but good thing!
What was the most valuable lesson you learnt during your PhD?
Lisa: That it’s okay to say ‘this is too much’. There were months at a time I’d be doing extremely long lab days, week after week due to important animal studies. During this time I was also expected to write my transfer thesis and train a load of students! It got to a point where it was too overwhelming, so I sought out help from the university and with my mentor and supervisors we came up with a new plan to get the work done whilst still being able to cope. That was a hard time mentally, so don’t suffer in silence if it gets too much!
So, would you say your science journey has been what you expected?
Lisa: To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect. I never actually planned to do a PhD! One day I saw the advert and though ‘oh that sounds pretty cool’ and applied. Two months later I was moving to Southampton and dissecting mouse hind limb muscles on my first day. It’s been more of an emotional rollercoaster and mentally challenging than I could have anticipated – but I have come back stronger from that. It’s been extremely rewarding and I have learnt an incredible amount – both scientifically and personally.
Who would you say are your science role models?
Lisa: I always admired my Masters supervisor. She had worked hard to set up her lab group but also knew how to enjoy life! My friend Emma at work is also a big inspiration! I’ve never met someone so dedicated and hardworking, yet ridiculously positive! Those traits are definitely good ones to be surrounded by!
Other than science, what are your main hobbies and interests?
Lisa: All things fitness really – crossfit, road cycling and a little bit of running here and there! Crossfit is my main interest though! I absolutely love it. It’s amazing for fitness and there is a great community! Crossfit is a combination of weightlifting, body weight exercises, gymnastics movements and endurance all mixed together to create some intense workouts. I love the feeling of getting stronger! I also decided to buy a road bike this year and did my first sportive (54 miles) and fell in love with it! I have a goals board in my room with all the fitness goals I want to achieve. I think it is great to having other focusses other than PhD work and for me exercise is a great way to unwind and clear the mind, especially when the lab life is so intense.
As a PhD student who wants to get more exercise into the hectic PhD life, what advice would you give?
Lisa: Hmm.. I would say if you haven’t already, find something you enjoy and try different sports/classes until you find something you love! PhDs are a lot of work and very stressful, so exercise needs to be a way to de-stress and have fun and not something you are forcing yourself to do because you feel you should. Number 2 – you must find a time that works for you! Ask yourself – when are you most productive at work? What is your PhD schedule like? I tried the 6am Crossfit classes and then struggled to function for the rest of the day. I also know I am more productive in the mornings so I generally start at 8am, do a day’s work and then head to the gym about 6pm. Then I can go home have dinner and chill out. Maybe do a little work if really needed, but I advise just chilling out 😛 Finally – be creative! Sometimes experiments can mean long days but that doesn’t necessarily mean no exercise! Admittedly when you’re in the lab for 12+ hours exercise really isn’t the first thing on your mind… but even squeezing in a short run, or doing a mini body weight circuit at home (e.g. burpees/squats/press-ups/sit-ups) is always a possibility. A little of something is better than nothing!
How do you balance lab life with your social life?
Lisa: If I can I also try to plan my lab work around socialising…. after all that is more important 😛 !! If I have plans to see friends in the evening I’ll come into work a bit earlier or make up the time later in the week. Too many PhD students spend all their time working, but I’m a believer of work hard, play harder. Social life is extremely important and having time off helps with productivity.
So, let’s talk about your new venture – your science blog.
Lisa: I’ve actually only just started my blog ‘In a Science World’ – but my plan is to post about my PhD research, how I do it, as well as useful tips and tricks all students need to get through a PhD! I also plan to include news headlines associated with my research area to help others learn. I’m so excited to see where it leads!
Scicomm is so important to me because I think it is so important to communicate the complicated scientific research to the public in an engaging and effective way and importantly, that’s easy to understand! I love the idea that I could inspire others to get involved in science. Also, many students thinking about starting a PhD want to know about what life as a PhD student is like, and when I was at that stage there was very little information around – so I like the idea of documenting my PhD experience could be of use to others!
What other scicomm related activities have you got involved with?
Lisa: I’ve done ‘Meet the Scientist’ events where I teach secondary school students about my research and why I do it. I absolutely love doing this – the questions the students have are hilarious! For example, in one session we were talking about how a high-fat diet is bad for health and I then went on to explain how the diet of the mother during pregnancy can affect her baby’s muscle strength in later life, to which one boy’s response was ‘oh no, I have no hope! My mum said she just ate loads of McDonalds!’ Kids make me laugh! I also teach undergrad students in human physiology practicals (ECG and spirometry) which I absolutely love doing!
As this must be your last week in the lab, what’s next for you?
Lisa: Go somewhere sunny! I’ve not had a break from the academic life at all, so I think the completion of my PhD and finally becoming Dr Jones (yes, I know the song!) is worthy of a little bit of travelling and absorbing some sun rays to unwind and get ready for the next chapter of my career. I’m not sure what that will be at the moment, we will see where things take me – but maybe a career in scientific/medical writing as that will combine science and be my creative outlet. Or potentially I’ll brave it and try out a postdoc!
You never know – maybe I’ll be a super strong crossfit goddess doing some scientific writing on the side!
And finally – where in the world should I visit next?
Lisa: This summer I decided to go away by myself to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands as a break before the final push in the lab. I went alone and stayed in a surfer’s hostel called Surf Riders. It was one of the best weeks of my life and I highly recommend it if you’re by yourself. I met loads of amazing people from all over the world and learnt to surf (well attempted to surf!). I’ll definitely be going back!
And that’s a wrap! Huge thank you to Lisa for getting involved in my blog and good luck with finishing the PhD and your blog. You’ve definitely inspired me to get more active around my PhD studies and I will 100% be taking a few of those tips and advice on board 🙂 Please feel free to ask any questions to Lisa or me or just get in contact – its great to gear from readers and get some feedback!
It’s also a wrap on 2016’s ‘Scientist in the Spotlight’ posts so thanks to Lisa, Sophie and Jess for kick starting what is probably my favourite blog feature! Here’s to introducing some more incredible scientists to you in 2017 🙂 🍾