PhD Diaries: A PhD is never boring!

Since starting my PhD back in October 2015, I’ve had quite the whirlwind experience! This post is my way of reflecting on the past two years of my studies, as well as thinking about the future. So, here are a few of the things that have happened to me since I began on this PhD adventure:

  • Spent three months working in a chronobiology (clock biology) and sleep lab in Zurich, Switzerland.

This was a really challenging time for me moving to a new country and lab, but I loved the lab group, loved living in Switzerland and having the opportunity to travel around. My travel highlights were the departmental skiing trip, visiting Lucerne/Bern/Beckenried and getting to visit Milan with a friend. During my time in Switzerland I was working in cell culture, so I was in the lab most days during those few months – cells can be very demanding! I had to squeeze in some travelling… one time I remember going into the lab late on Good Friday to feed the cells, hopping on an early morning bus to Milan on the Saturday, getting back on the Easter Sunday and going into the lab at 10PM to feed my cells again! whew!

More about my time in Switzerland can be found on the old blog here and here

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Me and a friend from the lab group on the department skiing trip, Flims Laax, Switzerland
  • Took part in a sleep and clock biology summer school at the University of Oxford

This course was exhausting (so much information!), but it was an amazing experience learning clock biology from professors leading the field of chronobiology, getting to meet other clock PhD students from around the world and exploring the city of Oxford. Plus it was the first time I got to present my research, in the form of a poster!

More information about the summer school can be found on my old blog.

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My first poster presentation at the Chronobiology and Sleep Summer School, University of Oxford (2016)
  • Presented my research at an international conference in ornithology

The highlight of my PhD so far was definitely this conference in Turku, Finland, where I got to give my first oral presentation on my research. I had a great time with friends from my lab group, but also made new friends from around Europe who also work on birds! I honestly can’t wait for the next European Ornithological Union meeting in Cluj, Romania, but I have to wait for another two years… I am now part of the “Fledgelings Council” group for early career bird researchers, so hopefully we can have a meeting before Cluj 2019!

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  • Fractured my ankle and had two operations to fix it

So my PhD hasn’t all been smooth running! I have spent the best part of this year recovering from falling off of a bouldering wall, and my ankle injury meant that I couldn’t do any of my fieldwork this year during the great tit breeding season. I was very very lucky in that one of my supervisors found some funding to hire a field assistant for me so that my project could go ahead as planned. Still, it was really tough going, mostly because I spent a large amount of time indoors, and I obviously had to plan fieldwork and organise equipment and people so that my experiments could be carried out! Looking back though, I definitely wouldn’t change anything!

Posts about my accident and recovery can be found on the old blog here, here and here.

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When this photo was taken, I hadn’t been outside my flat in two weeks… and I could just about crutch to here which was 2 minutes normal walk away! aaand then i was tired so had to go home and sleep lol

Other things that have happened include: showing kids how ornithologists tag wild birds with ID rings during a demonstration at a science festival, becoming the second author on a scientific publication on fish genetics, delivering field workshops to undergraduate students, acting as teaching assistant for an undergraduate zoology anatomy class, being assessed on my ability to pick up a chicken (for Home Office licencing) and of course, watching wild baby birds grow up during the field season.

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During the ringing demonstration at MoSSFest Science Festival (2017)

Now, just when I thought my PhD couldn’t get any more crazy, two more things have happened to me this month which will change everything…

  1. My main supervisor told me she is moving away, to take up a position at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. This is an amazing opportunity for her and I am very happy she is taking it! As for me, it is a little uncertain right now as to what will happen, but it looks like I will be (mostly) moving too, spending part of my time here in Glasgow and part of my time in Groningen. This means I would end up having a dual PhD, with a “Dr” certificate awarded from both institutions (and two theses/vivas…). Sadly, I won’t end up as Dr Dr Womack, though…
  2. I have just discovered that my DNA samples collected from my experiments during the field season this year are basically, um, useless for what we wanted to do with them. All 300 of them. Whoops. Hopefully, it is a solvable issue, as we also collected another blood sample in a different medium called RNAlater to be able to measure gene activity and I may be able to extract DNA from this. I will be trialling this labwork next and praying that it works out… yelp. Wish me luck.

I could never have imagined when I started my PhD that it would be so much of a rollercoaster experience! There really aren’t many jobs out there where you feel constantly challenged or pushed out of your comfort zone. Every experience is different and contains highs and lows, but one thing is for sure: a PhD is never boring!

 

 

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PhD Diaries: The Halfway Point

There comes a time in every PhD student’s life when realisation hits that the number of months spent studying for the PhD so far roughly equal the number of months to go until the final deadline. That is, you’re at the halfway point, and there’s still so very much to get done before that final binding of the PhD. It feels a little bit like finding yourself standing at the bottom of a huge mountain called the Thesis. But don’t worry, you came equipped with a polar fleece, walking sticks and a fully insulated sleeping bag. The Thesis is climbable. Not quite an Everest, but more of a Ben Nevis.

Of course, it is daunting to know that the deadline is starting to become not something in the far future but something in the kinda-sorta-near future. This is where I am at right now. Although I’m obviously a little scared, I am also hugely excited to be heading in the direction that I am with my project. I feel like the loose strands of my research are slowly but surely coming together over time to form a whole project. Like a reverse Big Bang, or something.

Right now, I’m working in the lab alongside another PhD student with our samples (bird blood) collected from the 2016 and 2017 field seasons. I am really enjoying getting stuck into lab work, extracting DNA and running PCRs. There is something very satisfying about gradually working through samples day by day! I am hoping to be done with the first part of lab work by Christmas, but we shall see how it goes. Looking forward to having some good data so that I can start tackling the first chapter of my thesis.

Wish me luck!

– Robyn

Follow my PhD updates on Instagram: @pixie.zoologist