Productivity, achieving goals, overcoming obstacles and handling rejection.

Those four concepts in the title of this blog are talked about and experienced regularly in academia and during a PhD. Sometimes these skills are assumed of PhD students, sometimes they’re learnt along the way. But these are some of the most important skills that are not easily taught that you need to complete a PhD whilst maintaining good mental/physical/emotional health. For this reason, I applied for a funding opportunity which requires that you give a workshop to fellow post-grad students and early career researchers at my centre – the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at UNSW. I was very lucky to be granted to the funding and my workshop took the vague concepts of productivity, achieving goals and staying motivated and put them into practice in a clear and sustainable way. I now want to share what I taught, and what others contributed and shared about their work or study processes in that workshop. I hope that it helps you if you are struggling, even if it’s just one tip that seems like it will be beneficial, and if you’re already super productive and motivated, I hope it encourages you (and I’d love to hear what works for you in the comments section too!).

Here’s the workshop, broken down into six sections:

Part 1 – Introducing Productivity

I set the workshop up by defining productivity and how it is more about achieving goals and ticking off tasks in a “timely manner” rather than overworking or working all week.

I also always like to remind people that when it comes to producitivity or success that discipline and consistency always trump motivation! If you only work when you feel motivated you may barely get anything done, but if you keep chipping away at tasks and goals, day-by-day, eventually you will get them done and create healthy work habits along the way.

We saw that two big hindrances to being productive and getting work done were procrastination (filling our time with things that are uncessary such as social media, twitter, doing chores while we’re working from home) and “workcrastination” – this made-up word describes all the easy tasks at work such as checking emails, marking undergrad work, doing admin etc. that you have to do, but shouldn’t fill ALL of your time with.

I then suggested that there were 3 steps to overcoming procrastination and workcrastination and achieving a productive work process:

  1. Removing distractions – turn of phone, emails, partition your chores in another room or schedule them later.
  2. Goal setting (see part 2 of this post).
  3. Time management (see part 3 of this post).

I also suggested two fantastic books by author Professor Cal Newport – Digital Minimalism and Deep Work.

Part 2 – Goal setting

I shared with the workshop that the best way to set goals is to work backwards – start with a big picture and then work your way up to shorter time frames to the present:

That first concept of a personal vision or mission statement is just a brief paragraph or list of things you want to do, achieve, or stick to across your career.

Then, it’s helpful to map out your whole PhD (or few years, or project/grant length) for example, my PhD plan:

Finally, write a six-month plan every six months, come back to it regularly and tick off what you’ve achieved. We do this as a lab, my supervisory Angela Moles has been doing this for years! It’s a fun lunchtime six-month planning session where we eat delicious food, chat about what we’ve achieved and what we plan to achieve. For example:

Part 3 – Time management

To go from this big mission statements/plans/goals it is important that we manage our week-to-week and daily processes and work schedules. I do this by mapping out my week and planning my time on a Sunday afternoon before the week has become. I follow three simple steps:

  1. Time – I fill my calender with non-negotiable meetings, events, presentations etc.
  2. Tasks – I write down all the tasks I need to work on or finish that week (I love using the app “Todoist” for this)
  3. Tasks to Time – I allot time for all the tasks that I need to do, making sure I prioritise the important ones, such as writing, before the easy/trivial tasks.

Once I have that plan, I try and stick to it (but allow a little bit of flexibility because life happens!) and I find I achieve way more, I feel less guilty and I have a better work-life balance.

Part 4 – Overcoming obstacles

I then discusses overcoming obstacles, they will always happen in a PhD and more generally in any career. I shared my own personal obstacles, like the glasshouse lighting on fire with my plants in them (thankfully they didn’t die!) AND a drying oven catching on fire when my samples were in it (sadly, I lost them).

This was a real message I recieved about my plants when I had JUST left on fieldwork

We talked about overcoming self-esteem and worrying less about others, focusing on achieving our own goals and improving our own productivity and trying to overcome imposter syndrome.

Participants then shared their personal obstacles in the field, the lab, in life and how they overcame them. We concluded that it’s so important to be adaptable and resilient in all sitatuations and always have a back up plan!

Part 5 – Writing as a case study for productivity

I then focused in on writing and the processes of writing and how we could be productive and achieve goals in our writing. I started by sharing four fantastic books for science writing, particularly as they help with the behaviours and process of writing (not just the style and task of writing) – Turbocharge Your Writing by Maria Gardiner and Hugh Kearns, How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia, Writing Science by Joshua Schimel and my personal favourite The Scientist’s Guide to Writing by Stephen B. Heard.

I gave everyone three tips for writing productively and then discussed them further

  1. Read with an eye to write
  2. Reflect and improve on how you write
  3. Just WRITE!

1. Read with an eye to write

Always be reading journal articles, newspapers, blogs, books but make sure you’re not going down weird rabbit holes and not taking any information in, take notes as you go, not just on the content but also on the writing style- what was successful about the paper, what was unsucessful?

2. Reflect and improve on how you write

Think about your habits and the psychology of your writing, are you writing in short bouts? Is that working? Do you take lots of breaks to check your phone when you can’t think of what to write or do you get some fresh air to think deeply? Are you rewarding yourself along the way? Does that work?

Always encourage behavioural self-awareness. Rather than worrying about what other people are writing, publishing or achieving, work on improving your writing and your productivity. Have a “writing diary” where you wrote how you felt, what worked and what didn’t work whilst you were writing. Write with a friend for accountability and see what habits you get rid of when you are writing with someone else.

Finally, have a writing “word audit” where you break your pieces of writing down into chunks that are manageable and achievable and tick them off as you go. This will allow you to see where you are and how far you have to go, it will also be super helpful when you are doing your six-month plans or mapping out your weekly tasks. Here’s an example template I use for my writing word audits:

3. Just WRITE!

Seems easier said than done…

I discussed five big problems that get in the way of “just writing” and writing productively:

  1. Avoidance – we tend to avoid writing, it can be difficult and time consuming. However, it is so important that we fill in time for writing in our time management (see above). Schedule writing time for an achievable task or chunk of writing, stick to it and you will find you are creating excellent writing habits. Some people also avoid writing because they “don’t have enough time” but there is evidence to suggest that “snack writing” or short (30-90min) chunks of writing are just as productive as long “binge writing” time.
  2. Distraction – it is so easy to be distracted by messages, social media, chores at home (if you’re WFH). Once you have scheduled a specific writing time slot (no matter how long or short), close your emails, ask your co-workers for a communal “quiet-time”, turn off your phone notifications, put on a playlife that helps with concentration and just WRITE!
  3. Feeling stuck – it can be hard to keep writing a difficult paper when we don’t know what to write next or where to start. To overcome feeling stuck it is so important to break your work down into manageable chunks (just like in the word audit above). Set clear goals with achievable shorter term results. E.g. “this week, all I have to do is write two paragraphs on plant physical defenses”. It’s as simple as that!
  4. Perfectionism – when I started in research the year before my PhD I was the WORST offender of always trying to perfect every sentence as I wrote. I would write a sentence, edit it reference it perfectly and then move to the next one. This was a terrible idea. My paragraphs were poorly structured and all those perfect sentences that took SO long to write would be deleted by my supervisor because they weren’t relevant or missed the mark. I think the best way to start writing is to do a bad first draft or as the author Anne Lamott puts it – a “shitty first draft“. Utilise the deep thinking, intelligent, creative side of your brain to write a first draft paragraph or section that is free-flowing, ideas centered and not perfect. Come back to it later for editing! You’ll find some of your best writing and ideas come out in those free-flowing moments.
  5. Fear of criticism – It is very easy to be worried and hindered to write when you are afraid of criticism, especially for early career researchers. Don’t worry about criticism! Tell your supervisor/mentor that it is a first, rough draft and let them iron out the structural or big-picture issues. Then send them a more edited version and you’ll find there’s a lot less editing needed. Also, never take criticism personally, if it is personal, there is a problem in the supervisor-student relationship that needs to be addressed. But manuscript editing is not personal, its about your work! Use it to improve your writing rather than letting it make you feel bad about yourself.

Part 6 – Handling rejection

We finished the workshop discussing rejection – an inevitable part of a PhD, academia and other careers too.

I encouraged everyone to “control what you can control and worry less about what you can’t control” – you can control how many manuscripts you write and how well they are written so work hard at that, but you cannot control peer reviewers opinions (wouldn’t that be nice!) so worry less about what is out of your hands and focus on what you can work on.

I also established five steps for dealing with rejection, adapted from this excellent post.

  1. Don’t panic – rejection can be really hard at first, but don’t panic, it’s usually not life-changing or career ending. Also, don’t take it personally (and if the grant/paper/job application process was not anonymous and if the reviews or feedback were personal, there is a problem that should be reported).
  2. Don’t do anything big straight away – don’t make any big decisions, sometimes it’s best ot take a few days away from the rejection, if you have time, let acceptance come and then process the rejection later.
  3. Remember you are in good company – everyone gets rejected, look at other peoples “CV of failures” and share your failures too!
  4. Reflect on the rejection – take time to reflect objectively on the rejection. Work out if there were common points that both reviewers/panel members saw in the paper/grant/job application and how you can improve them. Strategise a plan for what’s next: can you resubmit with minor edits (which journal or job next) or should you step back and take a new approach?
  5. Take care of yourself – our studies and our jobs/careers are cut-throat and come with a lot of rejection. We need to look after ourselves. Our careers are marathons, not 100m sprints and we want to make it through them without compromising our health! Socialise, exercise, hug your dog, do things that you love that may not be science, work out your coping strategies.

That was all of the information that we covered, it was a fantastic workshop and I am so grateful to the people that came and participated!

Thanks also to my wonderful university centre – the E&ERC, particularly the post-grad committee and Jess McConkey who financially and administratively made this workshop happen!

Doing a PhD in isolation

As you may know, or have experienced, doing a PhD can be a hard slog. It involves long hours, juggling multiple tasks and dwindling motivation as the years fly past. Now, throw in a global pandemic and you have the perfect storm.

Full disclosure, I am in a really lucky position during the Covid-19 isolation and shutdowns. I have finished all fieldwork for my PhD (I was just doing some fieldwork here and there for other fun projects, but nothing essential to my PhD), I have collected all my data, so I don’t need any time in a lab or glasshouse AND I am very privileged to live in a nice home with my husband, with no children. This makes it a lot easier to find a quiet space and time to write and work deeply. So, I recognise and I want to acknowledge that there are fellow PhD students out there doing it way tougher than I am!

I wanted to share a bit about my personal experience during this time and a few helpful tips and resources that I’ve found and benefitted from during isolation. Some of these ideas may be super obvious, and others may be new! But hopefully, this blog is of some benefit to you too, whether you’re a PhD student, early career academic or just working from home generally.

My experience

At the start of working from home and isolation, I was extremely unmotivated. Before isolation, I was getting into a great rhythm at work in the office. My desk was sandwiched between three wonderful and hard-working lab friends – ClaireAlex and Zoe and we all subconsciously worked quite well together with just the right amount of time for concentration and focus as well as collaboration on harder problems and essential trips to the coffee cart (taking the long route through the more plant-filled part of campus, of course). Working from home threw that rhythm out a little bit and I started getting easily distracted by the dirty dishes in the sink, the clothes that needed washing and other little things. The worries of a global pandemic and wondering what would happen to our country, my family and my friends didn’t help my focus either.

Then as things in Australia seemed to become a little less bleak (cases were going down, a lot of patients were recovering, the public was mostly doing the right thing) I worked really hard to be more disciplined and try and get into better habits and rhythms. I wanted to share 6 brief tips that worked for me whilst I’ve been writing the chapters of my thesis.

My tips

1. Try and wake up at the same time each day.

It doesn’t matter if it’s early or late, try and get into a good habit of going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. My husband and I have found a great schedule together where we typically wake up at 7.30am, take the dog for a walk, grab a coffee to support our local cafes and then get into work around 8/8.30am. We never had this blissful morning time together as I was commuting into uni so it’s been a really lovely way to start the day.

Whether you wake up and do some exercise or yoga or just brew a tea/coffee and sit on your couch, try and make a little routine out of that. You’ll feel as though you’ve started the day accomplished and every little bit counts.

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Our morning walk companion, Pepper, and our morning walk view. Very lucky!

2. Write often and write when you can.

Schedule writing time, but also allow flexibility and seize writing time when you can. This tip may go against a lot of advice that suggests to schedule writing at certain times of the day and stick to that and never write outside those hours. I’ve found that this doesn’t always work for me. Meetings on zoom have been moved and changed and at different times of the day, I have obligations that I can’t cancel and this changes week-to-week. I try to write each morning before I do any other work, but when things come up, I try not to let that phase me. Be open to writing when you have a decent chunk of time at any point in the day. That could be morning, afternoon or even in the evening if you function at that time.

Be disciplined in your writing. Motivation will not get you through writing a thesis (believe me, I know!). Don’t rely on feeling “excited” or “motivated” to write. Be disciplined and push yourself a bit further to write even when you don’t feel like writing. Set small goals and break your writing down into chunks and give yourself deadlines for each section of writing.

3. Create a working space

If you can and you have the space available, create a working space that is separate from your living space with a clear division. I have a home office that my husband and I have shared during lockdown. We try and hide out in there and we’ve become really intentional about working in that space. We then close the door when we’re finished working so that the rest of our house feels like a place to relax and unwind.

Even if it’s a small desk in your room, try to make it feel separate from your bed or couch and pack things up at the end of the day so that you can unwind, this will re-energise your mind for the next day.

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Our “office” that we set up for isolation – normally we’d just have the one desk but we both needed somewhere to work at home. My husband’s desk is on the right wall and mine is against the window (I fought for the view of our garden haha!)

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My desk

4. Stay in touch with friends, family and co-workers

Don’t suffer alone. Even though you may not be able to see people in person as much as you used to, stay in contact with people. There are so many great platforms to catch up.

In my lab, we normally have one formal meeting every two weeks, but in isolation/work-from-home restrictions we decided to make it one every week (with an informal online lab drinks on some Fridays too!). This was a great way of seeing co-workers and just checking in with the group. My centre, the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at UNSW, kept our morning tea catch-ups and we now have them on zoom, every Tuesday and Thursday for anyone who needs a quick 30min chat! The post-grad student committee also ran a fun, virtual trivia night and it was a blast.

Outside of work, I’ve been more intentional in messaging my friends, skyping family that I haven’t been able to see in person and trying to stay socially connected for my mental health and to help others that may be struggling. Emotional wellbeing is so important!

5. Don’t compare your journey in isolation to other people’s journeys

I found this tip so hard myself. I heard of other people getting heaps of work done or papers submitted to journals in isolation. Everyone has a different journey and you can’t compare yourself to what other people are doing, it will only make you miserable. Work hard, for yourself, set your own personal standards high but don’t base them off others’ standards.

6. Stay balanced

A lot of people have a bit more time on their hands during isolation (parents with kids at home from school: I am sorry! I know you’re probably run off your feet).

Maybe you’re commuting less (I’m saving at least 2 hours a day on commuting) or spending less time teaching or in face-to-face meetings. Use this extra time to exercise each day (see below some resources of free exercise classes), get out and walk around your neighbourhood, continue your hobbies or invest in one you’ve never had time for, make nutritious home-cooked dinners that may take a little longer than grabbing take-out on the way home from work (like we all did so often!).

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My “staying balanced” hobby was this macrame project I copied off a YouTube tutorial. Each evening, after I’d finished working, I’d work on a section. A few weeks later and I’d created my own artwork! I’m not usually creative so I am slightly proud of myself on this one!

My super helpful resources for all things working from home!

Mental Health Resources

Whilst I’ve been *very slowly* writing this blog (apologies, I’m trying to squeeze it in during the evenings after I’ve gotten through trying to write my thesis chapters!) the world seems to have been changing, fast. Not only has coronavirus impacted us all, horrific injustices have been brought to light, in regards to racism, globally and the fact that the COVID-19 restrictions have possibly undone a lot of the gender equality work for women in workplaces and particularly women in academia.

I’ve spoken to many people and fellow PhD candidates, and it’s hard to stay focused and mentally balanced when it seems like the world is falling apart. Although I am ill-equipped to fully discuss these issues, I want to recognise them, and encourage you to check out all the fantastic resources that are available regarding these issues. I also want to suggest some places you can turn if you are struggling with your mental health during this time (please note these are just a few Australian resources, but there are many more out there and also more in other countries):

  • Head to Health – online resources for Australians and where to get help regarding mental health
  • Lifeline- free call for crisis support or a conversation when you’re struggling
  • Beyond Blue – free call to speak to a mental health professional
  • You can also speak to your GP and if you are referred to a mental health professional the Australian Government will subsidise a decent amount of the costs of your appointments with a psychologist or social worker

Fantastic apps for organisation for work and study

  • Evernote is what I use daily as a note-taker/organiser. I write at the start of the week or the night before all the work events I have (mostly zoom meetings now) and then set my daily aims. At the end of the day, I write what I achieved as “results” and leave the points I didn’t do in “outstanding”. The next day I come back, and without these notes, I probably couldn’t remember what I was up to or what I was doing. Also, rather than sitting around trying to figure out what to do each day I have clear, written goals that I can get straight into, the moment I open my computer.
  • To-doist is a great way to break your tasks down into smaller goals and tick them off as you go, so satisfying.
  • If you’re a mac person: I love the Papers or it’s legacy application Papers3 for organising, reading and filing journal articles (this application is not available on windows).

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How I use Evernote each day.

Apps for supervision-style teaching

  • I’m not really doing much coursework teaching at the moment but I am co-supervising a student and helping other undergrads in the lab. I usually hop on zoom to supervise or explain concepts. I’ve also found that screen sharing a whiteboard from Miro on zoom, has been invaluable for explaining tricky concepts or drawing example graphs/results.

Resources for Australian Domestic Students’ PhD income

  • Erika Roper, a PhD student from Perth, WA has pulled together great info about domestic students gaining financial support from Centrelink. If your PhD scholarship has run out/is about to run out or you are struggling financially – check out her blog to see if you may be eligible to get financial assistance from the Aus Government, especially while you aren’t earning an income!

Great music playlists that I love listening to in the background

Great resources for home office ergonomics

  • Check out this helpful article by ABC Health & Wellbeing about working from home and setting up your desk, computer, chair, etc.

A few free online exercise classes (some are only free during COVID-19) because what PhD student doesn’t love free stuff?!

Taking on an international conference… alone!

Thanks to a great scheme at my university (UNSW) I was able to get some funding in 2019 to fly over to Belfast, Northern Ireland, and attend my first international conference- the British Ecological Society’s annual conference for 2019. UNSW has a scheme where every PhD candidate is allocated a generous sum of money to travel to one international conference. I cannot explain how invaluable this was for my PhD and my career and how great my experience at #BES2019 was!

After a long couple of flights from Sydney to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to London (a night in London to catch up on sleep and check out the Natural History Museum!) and then London to Belfast, I arrived at my hotel and attempted to get a good nights sleep through all the nerves for the first day of the conference.

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The Conference

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Day 1

On day one I had selected to go to an optional early careers day for PhD students and post-doctoral researchers. They had an amazing line-up of speakers which started with Professor Jane Memmott who is taking over as the British Ecological Society’s president in 2020. She gave us the story of her career and her family’s journey through academia with her, she left us with some fantastic tips that I will remember for a long time. Here are her 8 tips:

  1. You can’t do it all (or at least not at the same time) – don’t beat yourself up for not keeping up with others
  2. Be true to yourself – create a “mission statement” of what you want from your career/life and stick to your desires and dreams
  3. You will need coping strategies for rejection – let yourself sulk and then move on!
  4. There isn’t a single route to a permanent job
  5. Be a good colleague and supervisor
  6. Read outside your field – and don’t be afraid to change fields
  7. Take decent holidays (I totally agree!)
  8. Quality is more important than quantity in terms of outputs

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Professor Jane Memmott talking about her “vision statement” she wrote many years ago and sticks closely to!

Then we heard A.Prof Rob Salguero-Gomez talk about publishing (an important skill and tool in research) and about securing funding. Rob reminded us that it is important to have a mourning period when our papers are rejected but it’s also important to remember that reviews are not about ourselves personally, but about our work, we must take them on board but not to heart and move on with criticism; using it to our advantage.

We also had a great talk by two people from the BES inclusivity and diversity team who spoke about how to manage others well. This definitely isn’t talked about enough in academia! A lot of relationships, whether it be supervision, mentorship, peer-to-peer support etc. are not spelled out or defined clearly and this can have bad consequences for peoples’ careers and workplace mental/emotional health. It was a great way to discuss how best to talk to and work with people that are both mentoring/supervising us, and people we are mentoring/supervising.

Finally we heard from an awesome “mid-career” researcher – Dr. Iain Stott who was a great example of someone who had sat in our exact place a few years ago, worked hard, and took amazing opportunities to get to his spot in his career.

By far, the best part about the early careers day was meeting new PhD students and post-docs from all around the world. I met an awesome group of ecologists from Trinity College Dublin, I also met some great PhD students from UK and European universities that I can call long-distance friends! It was really cool to connect with other students that have the same dreams and the same struggles and issues I have, all around the globe.

Day 2

The second day (and the first day of the main program of the conference) began with a fantastic plenary from Prof. Jonathon Chase all about synthesis in biology. Jonathon’s talk really raised the issue of scale, and how difficult it is to “compare apples to oranges” across studies in biology and particularly in meta-analyses (comparing results from multiple studies from different places in one analysis).

There were some other awesome talks by people like Dr. Aveliina Helm from the University of Tartu who studies restoration in Estonia. She quantifies the actual effects of land use change on plants – looking at certain aspects such as extinction debt or time lags in land use change on plants. She even mentioned one case of restoration where uniformed biologists had planted trees in concrete thinking it was important to have forested vegetation, her team had to remove the trees from the concrete (a huge feat!) to allow the vegetation to return to it’s closer and more realistic type: a grassland.

During the evening I went along to the macro-ecology SIG (special interest group) social night. We played some hilarious games and I got to meet awesome ecologists whose names I’d been reading on papers for years! Once again, everyone was so welcoming.

Day 3

A.Prof Ester Ngumbi kicked off day three of the conference with another inspiring plenary. She is a researcher from the US who has worked all over- from Africa where she grew up, to Europe and the US. She is now advocating for the importance of good science communication through news articles, social media and more!

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There were also some other super interesting talks in the symposia and break out sessions, like Professor Charles Davis from the Harvard Herbarium who spoke about new research to look at phenological and flowering changes in plants through time using millions of herbarium collection sheets (look out for some of my upcoming research into Sydney flowering time changes using herbarium specimens that builds on some of this work).

Day 4

The final day of the conference was jam packed with more great talks like Maude Baudraz from Trinity College Dublin who spoke about her population dynamics reserach into Plantago lanceolata all across Europe!

I finally gave my presentation on this last day and it went really well. Everyone asked really interesting questions and my research was really well received.

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Richard Bardgett ended the long, but fantastic conference with his plenary as his hands his president of the society title to Jane Memmott! One super interesting fact that I learnt from his talk was that Cleopatra loved EARTHWORMS! She declared them to be sacred and recognised how important they were for soils! Who knew an Egyptian queen was one of the earliest soil scientists.

Some cool things I noticed at BES

This is a well planned conference, and it has to be, with over 1200 delegates and 12 sessions that all run at the same time, followed by hundreds of posters and with many meals and social activities all running throughout the meeting. However, BES seems to be a society that goes above and beyond for its members. Prior to the opening conference drinks, they had a smaller group drinks for anyone who was new at the conference, this was great for me to meet even more people and feel like I had other people to talk to even though I didn’t know anyone before I came tot he conference.

They also understand that everyone has different needs and personalities and included a separate “conference drinks” session for people that wanted a smaller, more intimate and less socially intense experience and this was targeted especially to people who may have social anxiety. They even had a quiet room which was really accessible for people who just needed a break from all the talking/networking/conference buzz.

I felt immediately accepted and welcomed at #BES2019. I had so many amazing chances to network with awesome researchers in my field, both later career academics and peers doing PhD’s like me! It may have been a huge conference, but there were so many kind people willing to meet me and introduce me to others. The research was exciting and the organisational aspects of the conference were fantastic. I hope to be back soon!

Holidays!

My husband Mitch joined me in Belfast towards the end of the conference and we both took some leave over Christmas/New Years to travel around Ireland, Scotland, England, Finland, The Czech Republic and Denmark! We had the most amazing time in all those countries and had a wonderful break. Here’s a few fun holiday snaps!

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Presentations

In the few years of doing my PhD I have had many opportunities to present my research, both to the scientific community and to the public. I’ve presented at conferences, at university, in schools and even in the 3 minute thesis competition. I have won a few awards that I am so grateful for and I’ve had a blast talking about my science to many different people. I’ve even had a three minute spot on ABC radio which was extremely exciting for me!

BUT…..

I actually have pretty bad presentation and public speaking anxiety. In the week or so leading up to any presentation (whether big or small) I probably won’t sleep or I’ll only get a few hours and it usually involves a lot of tossing and turning. Sometimes, just thinking about presenting can make my stomach churn. So I wanted to share my experience with you; my preparation and how to get over presentation hurdles because I’ve been through it too! Giving a good presentation isn’t always easy and even though we personally know our own research well, it can be difficult communicating our passion and our research to other audiences.

My tips:

1. Prepare a lot

This may be the reason why I have done well in presenting in the past. Whilst I’m in front of an audience dying inside, my many hours of practice and preparation beforehand have helped me feel secure enough to stand in front of the crowd and know I’ve done my best.

I spend a significant amount of time and give myself a decent leeway (at least a few weeks) before I give a presentation.

Start by writing the key parts that you want to convey in your presentation, then create a transcript or general overview of what you will say. Create your power-point after you have created the general structure of the speech, use it as a tool to supplement what you’re saying, not as a crux to speak from.

Finally, practice, practice, practice. Say it to your lab mates, say it to your supervisor/mentor, say it to your partner, friends, even your dog. I can guarantee my dog Pepper is a budding plant ecologist – she has listened to me practice hundreds of times, haha.

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My crazy pooch Pepper (she’s a pug x cavalier) who listens very intently to all of my talks

Before any big presentation my lab (The Big Ecology Lab) will all get together, we’ll share delicious food and listen to each other present. We give kind, constructive feedback and help each other with our presentations. This is such an awesome way to practice and has helped me refine many presentations over the years.

2. Know your audience

Are you presenting to a room full of experts in your field? Are you presenting to faculty, which have some background knowledge but aren’t specific to your field? Are you presenting to school children?

It is so important to structure your talk to your audience. Take out your scientific jargon and language unless you are certain that every single person in your audience will know the meaning of the terms you are using.

If you are presenting to an audience that are not necessarily researchers or people in your field, boil down your research and take time to explain key concepts in a way that people will understand. This doesn’t mean you should “dumb it down”, even primary school aged children are brilliant enough to understand some of the big concepts that we explore.

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Presenting my research at the Ecological Society of Australia/New Zealand’s combined conference. This audience really knows and loves ecology so I can expand on detailed concepts. BUT there is still a diverse range of scientists that may not know everything about plants specifically, so it is important for me to strike a balance between assuming what the audience knows, and over-explaining concepts that many people would already understand. That’s where my supervisor and others’ opinions comes in handy!

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And now I’m presenting my research to a group of awesome year 12 students at Barker College. These students are amazingly intelligent and they can understand the research that I’m doing (often I get the most interesting, and curly questions from high school students!). BUT in this style of presentation I make sure to cut out all ecological jargon and any acronyms that they wouldn’t know, as well as stepping them through more difficult concepts at an easier pace.

3. Tell your story

People are more interested in following a story than hearing a boring step by step presentation. Set up your talk to follow a clear story line. For example, you could start with the background of your study or field of knowledge, then explain what is missing and how you are filling that hole. Then, you can take your listeners on a journey through what you did and the results you found whilst talking about why these novel ideas are important to them and important to society more broadly.

4. Use the presentation space well

A common mistake that presenters make is to choose to stand behind a lectern or microphone stand. If there is an option for a roaming microphone or a lapel microphone, take it! Come out from behind the stand and use the space. You don’t have to walk around a lot, however, standing in a confident position in front of your audience will make them want to look at you and listen to you.

Another helpful “space” hint is to always check out the space prior to your presentation. Stand on the stage or in front of the chairs and visualise yourself giving the presentation. This will take a away a lot of nervousness when you enter the space for your actual presentation. You’ve already stood there, you already know what it feels like.

And what I think you shouldn’t do:

1. Don’t undersell yourself or your research

I recently heard a talk where the presenter repeatedly used the words “these results sort of show this…” and “these results are okay but…”. It left me feeling really defeated and unimpressed by their research. Yes, you definitely need to be accurate in a presentation and no, you don’t have to act over-the-top. However, your presentation is the time to sell and pitch your research. Tell your audience exactly where the gap exists that your research has filled. Inform them of the novelty of your research and excite them with the results that you find. Hopefully, you enjoy where you work or what you are researching and it interests and intrigues you; let the audience see your passion for what you’re talking about.

2. Try not to have a presentation that follows the structure of a scientific paper

A few presentations I see follow the time-old structure of “Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion”. Unfortunately, I am yet to see this presentation structure be done well or in an interesting way. Let your research follow a story (see point 3 of tips above), maybe you have multiple hypotheses, break the research down into those hypotheses or “questions” and step through the methods, results and discussion for those sections, rather than lumping all your hypotheses together in the methods and then coming back to them later. This way, if someone tunes out or comes back into your talk mid-way through, you can still grab their attention and your talk will still make sense to them.

3. Don’t fill your power-point slides with heaps of text and multiple images/figures

For some reason, this is a big mistake that many people still fall into the trap of. The most important part of your presentation is what you are saying so you want people to listen to you, not to be distracted by complicated figures, or too much text on a page. Stick to slides that supplement your presentation, not slides that form the basis of your presentation. Here is a good site that I have found for power-point design, it is great at explaining how to make each slide more concise for your audience.

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A hilarious “bad slide” example – are your eyes hurting too?! Source: https://www.spe.org/en/authors/resources/prepare-presentation/

If you have any other questions feel free to contact me here!

My time spent with Sydney wildflowers

A particular aim for one of the chapters of my PhD is to answer the question: Are plants flowering in Sydney earlier than they did in the past, due to warming air temperatures? The fieldwork that I get to undertake for this chapter is really cool! It involves weekly observations of flowering time across 40 plant species in the Sydney region. It has been a retreat away from my desk each week spent out in the bush looking at amazing flowers.

I want to post the collection of wildflower photos that I took in the Sydney region for two reasons. Firstly, they are beautiful and form an integral part of my PhD in working out whether our plants are responding to climate change. Secondly, there are more than 4 million people living in Sydney and green spaces and natural areas in our city are declining. I’m hoping this blog is way to connect more people to the native flowers around them and perhaps spend more time out in national parks or natural areas looking out for our native wildflowers too.

All photos are taken in Ku-ring-gai National Park, Lane Cove National Park and Wallumatta Nature Reserve from July 2017-January 2018. All photos have been taken on my iPhone so please excuse the poor quality at times! These photos are by no means an extensive list of all the species in Sydney, just a few that caught my eye at the time.

July

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Grevillea speciosa, known as Red Spider Flower, only found in NSW

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Epacris pulchella – “pulchella” is Latin for “little beautiful” and these wildflowers sure are!

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Philotheca salsolifolia subsp. salsolifolia

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Woollsia pungens – a stunning winter flower that makes a meadow in the America Bay Track in Ku-ring-gai NP

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A horrible plant to do fieldwork with, the spiky Acacia ulicifolia (Prickly Moses)

August

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Boronia ledifolia

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Dillwynia retorta

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Another wattle- Acacia suaveolens

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Zieria laevigata

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This wattle – Acacia terminalis subsp. terminalis – blooms so spectacularly along Kitty’s Creek Trail in Lane Cove NP in July, it’s a sea of yellow tufts

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Pultenaea stipularis

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Epacris microphylla (with a sneaky red Darwinia glaucophylla in the background)

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Conospermum longifolium

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You may know the common flannel flower (Actinotus helianthi) but this is it’s cousin plant, Actinotus minor, each flower is only about 1 cm in diameter.

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Bossiaea scolopendria

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My favourite Sydney wildflower- Boronia serrulata (Sydney Rose)

September

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I like to call this species “fuzzy buns” and I’m hoping that this common name might spread haha – Grevillea buxifolia.

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Patersonia sericea

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One of my target species- Acacia binervia (coastal myall) in full bloom

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Gompholobium grandiflorum

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Eriostemon australasius

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A big patch of Sydney rock orchid (Dendrobium speciosum)

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Pink spider flower (Grevillea sericea)

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Leucopogon ericoides

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A spotted sun orchid – Thelymitra ixioides

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This hilariously named “love creeper” (Comesperma volubile) grows in a range of habitats in Sydney, from wet to dry, forest to coast.

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Isopogon anethifolius, also known as “narrow leafed drumsticks”

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Pultenaea flexilis – the graceful bush pea

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An amazing gem in the bush – Telopea speciossisima

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Tiny pink flowers on Kunzea capitata.

October

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Bauera ruboides

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These flowers on wedding bush – Ricinocarpos pinifolius – are mostly male flowers, you can tell by their yellow mass of stamens. For every 6 male flowers this shrub tends to only have one female flower

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Viminaria juncaceae

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This native tea tree, Leptospermum trinervium, smells fantastic when you crush it’s leaves- try it some time in the bush!

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Platylobium formosum subsp. formosum

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Epacris longiflora (Fuschia heath)

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The flowers on Callicoma serratifolia are like little fireworks exploding.

November

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A flower on Xyris juncea which is a swamp dwelling plant.

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Bright yellow flowers on Tristania neriifolia (Water Gum) which endemic to the Sydney region. It’s found on creek banks or wet rocky banks

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A field of flannel flowers (Actinotus helianthi) in the  morning sun

December

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I snuck this guy in (Persoonia chamaepitys) the Mountain Geebung, even though it wasn’t growing in any of my coastal Sydney fieldsites, I went on a trip to the Blue Mountains and found a little population of this ground dwelling beauty

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Fringe lilies – Thysanotus tuberosus – it is always exciting to see these flowers because a) they have amazing natural fringing on their petals and b) each flower only opens for a single day.

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Stylidium productum

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This photo is a bit blurry but I was so excited and got into the Christmas spirit when I saw this Blandfordia nobilis (Christmas Bells) in December

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Tetratheca ericifolia

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Lambertia formosa (mountain devil) whose nectar is a source of food used by Indigenous communities

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Angophora hispida – a stunning gum tree much shorter in height than the usual eucalypts that you see.

January

I spotted a spotted orchid – Dipodium variegatum

A sweet little Pseuderanthemum variabile (Pastel Flower)

Hibbertia bracteata

Possibly Pultenaea tuberculata (but if you think it’s not, let me know!)

A Goodenia sp. (not sure which one?)

Happy Botanising!

Running a large experiment

It took months of planning, a season of fieldwork and a full year of glasshouse work to finish the first large scale experiment I have ever completed and the first experiment for my PhD thesis.

It was huge. I collected tens of thousands of seeds (and you can read about the fun part of collecting these seeds here), weighed and measured all of these seeds and then germinated hundreds of them on little agar dishes.

Once the seeds had germinated, I then transferred the tiny plants into pots of soil. This took ages. I had to mix thousands of litres of soil, pot thousands of pots and sow thousands of tiny plants. Massive shoutout to my volunteers at this stage.

I had created a powerful green army and spent most days of my #PhDlife tending to my plant children in the UNSW glasshouse.

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My green army

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#crazyplantlady

Whilst all the plants were growing, each month I had to run around randomising all of the plants. I would move each plant individually around on the benches based on random lists I had created in order to control for different light exposures, temperature changes when benches were close to or far from the air conditioning and also any slight differences in sprinklers and the watering levels at each part of the bench. Again, it took myself and a team of volunteers many hours each month to keep up this process!

Some of my awesome volunteers
Some of my awesome volunteers!

After six months of letting the plants grow I then measured 15 different plant traits on each plant (15 traits x 2500 plants = too many traits). This included measuring the height of the plants, the leaf area and leaf weight of the plants, how woody the stems of the plants were and I was also able to measure the photosynthetic rate of the plants using cool machines called Licor-6400’s.

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Using the Licor-6400 machines to measure photosynthesis in the plant leaves

It all had to come to an end, I harvested (cut down and dried out) all of the thousands of plants and weighed their stems, leaves and their roots. It was sad to kill all of the plants I had tended to for so long, but it felt so good to see the light at the end of the tunnel as the experiment was coming to an end.

By November 2018, I had finally finished! I celebrated with a long Gin and Tonic (the usual drink of choice in my plant ecology lab) and now I’m sifting through tonnes of data which is exciting but difficult and I’m also beginning to pull some manuscripts together from this experiment.

Maybe you’re a researcher or thinking of starting a PhD. So I thought I’d share some hints and tips I learnt from running a long term experiment with my readers:

  1. Create your team. I had a huge team of undergraduate volunteers, paid research assistants and my husband who was kindly pressured into helping his crazy/exhausted PhD student of a wife. This was the only way that I was able to complete the experiment in an adequate time frame rather than it taking the next ten years of my life. I had a good roster with these volunteers/staff and made sure not to push them past their limits. They also learnt a lot and have a cool project to add to their resumes.
  2. Organise. I had spreadsheets of the plants, a thorough lab book of observations and daily notes, checklists of measurements I had made and goals to complete and this all really helped me to stay on top of such a large scale experiment. Each day I knew exactly what I had already done and exactly what needed to be done. Not only did this help me stay organised, it also kept my spirits high as I broke each section of work down into smaller, manageable chunks. It always feels good ticking off achievements on a list!
  3. Be kind to yourself. I worked like a crazy person on this experiment and it became very physically and mentally draining (see this  blog post for how I was feeling haha). I wanted to get my experiment done super fast and sometimes created unrealistic expectations for myself. It was good to step back some days and remind myself that I was doing fine, I had plenty of time and to worry less about everything being perfect all the time.
  4. Do big experiments during your honours or PhD. Many academics have told me how lucky I was to be doing such a fun and massive project. It was true! Once your postgraduate life ends, there isn’t a lot of time left to run big projects that you can call your own. Take these big opportunities, stretch yourself, and you may just come out with a really awesome data set that shows a lot about what’s going on in the world, and environment around us!

[Attempting to] Beat the Second year PhD blues

As I approach the middle of the second year of my PhD I can finally understand what fellow post-grad students around me have been talking about all this time- the dreaded “second year PhD blues” have hit.

I have debated whether or not to blog about this idea/my feelings for a little while. However, I’ve decided to get out of my comfort zone and to write a short post as a release for my own frustrations and hopefully a reminder to other PhD students that these feelings can come up and you shouldn’t feel like you are a failure.

The first year of my PhD was filled with the excitement of planning my projects and researching ideas. It also followed with some incredible fieldtrips all around Australia, you can see this on my blog post’s here and here (I love what I get to call work!). Then it all got really hectic at the start of my second year where tasks just seem to pile up so high that it was hard to know where to start. I weighed, measured and germinated thousands of seeds and planted over 2000 seedlings all while trying to juggle planning for my next projects as well as staying up to date with the literature and trying to write/publish a few manuscripts. I was exhausted from all the seedling planting and being on campus ridiculous hours every week (it’s a 1hr30min commute from home). I also had a manuscript get rejected with some pretty harsh comments. I got to the point where I was doubting my research, projects and abilities and didn’t really know if I was even supposed to be doing a PhD. All of this, I can assure, is the norm for PhD students and in the science sphere. I see my fellow lab members and faculty members putting in the hard yards for the science they love, even though it’s not always easy.

Thankfully, my amazing husband convinced me to take a holiday to Europe that we had planned at the exact right time and I had a really refreshing few weeks away which has given me just enough energy to power through measuring around 15 plant traits on over 2000 plants as well as tackling the comments on my rejected manuscript. I don’t regret going on holiday at all. It gave me a strict timeframe to work in before I left and I ended up smashing a few targets I’d set as I was working up to it. It also gave me some great perspective of how much bigger life is than my PhD and how important relationships, friendships and your personal health can be. On top of all that, I also got to visit an old lab friend and see her university and research in Estonia, very cool!

Here’s some holiday photos of the amazing places in Europe I visited:

 

And it wouldn’t be a blog by me if there wasn’t some pretty plant pictures, so here’s some cool European plants:

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Moving towards the end of my second year and facing the realities of deciding what to do after my PhD (I can’t put off the real world any longer!) I am attempting to stay sustained by the positive energy of my amazing travels and reminding myself of my love for science and particularly plants even when things seem difficult! I also have an awesome supervisor who is pretty much always available to answer my questions and very supportive of our lab. This has helped a lot, and I think it is such an important factor to consider when deciding where to do your PhD or whom to pick as a supervisor.

Maybe you’re a post-grad student and you’ve experienced a similar feeling. The stats have shown that depression is much higher in post-graduate students than the general public (Evans, et al. 2018) and mental health can deteriorate quickly. Don’t go through it alone, talk to your friends, family, lab mates, supervisor etc. Take your weekends to recharge physically and mentally, prioritise things you enjoy, spend time with loved ones. And don’t be afraid to take a small holiday if you have time, it may actually mean your focus and productivity are improved!

 

Tasmania

Tasmania was the final destination on the long list of fieldwork for my PhD (see my previous post about all my other fieldwork fun here). I had the time of my life in Tassie and wanted to share my travels with you! Here’s what I got up to:

Day 1

Let’s fly, Jetstar!

After a flight with too many screaming toddlers but a good book (Plant Conservation: Why It Matters and How It Works, By Timothy Walker), I arrived in the picturesque city of Hobart. I arrived in the late afternoon so I had time for a quick stroll along the harbour-side, gelato in a floating cafe, take away dumplings, a grocery shop and then bed.

Hobart is awesome, it feels like city that’s still connected and intertwined with the natural environment. It sits so perfectly nestled in the surrounding mountains that are still covered in their native vegetation. There’s also a lot of native bird life around the city and some of the species I saw included the green Rosella (Platycercus caledonicus), Dusky Robins (Melanodryas vittata), Yellow wattlebirds (Anthochaera paradoxa) and loads of water birds too!

Day 2

Bruny Island

Today I had two species to collect on Bruny Island which south-east of Hobart. I took the Bruny Island car ferry over and spent the day collecting seeds and doing a bit of sightseeing on the island.

I collected seeds from Melaleuca gibbosa (pictured on the left) and Allocasuarina monilifera (pictured on the right). Both were easy to find on the island and I was able to get a bunch of seeds. Melaleuca gibbosa is a sweet little shrub that produces purple floral heads. Allocasuarina monilifera is a typical casuarina plant but grows shorter than most, only to around 2m tall.

After I’d collected the seeds I got to see “The Neck” lookout which is a vantage point to see the whole sand strip that connects the northern part of the island with the southern part. I then went along to Adventure Bay for a quick coffee stop and a stroll along the beach before heading up to see the iconic Bruny Island lighthouse. The view of the cliffs from the lighthouse was breathtaking. At the end I snuck in some cheese tasting and a sneaky post-fieldwork G&T at the Bruny Island Distillery before catching the ferry back to Hobart.

Day 3

Wine and berries

A group of friends happened to be in Tasmania at the same time as me. They were travelling around in a camper van and we got the chance to meet up in Launceston. It was so good to see them and we spent the day moseying across the country side in the Tamar Valley region, tasting wine and picking delicious berries. We cruised across to the East Coast and I snuck a free nights sleep squished into their van in the National Park at Bay of Fires.

We watched the sunset over the amazing coastline whilst eating cheese and sipping on all the wine we’d bought that day.

Day 4

Launceston

After watching the sun rise over the water from the van window, we had a slow breakfast and morning walk along the beach. I then waved goodbye as they headed further south along the East Coast and back for their flight the next day.

I saw a bit of the town of Launceston and spent the afternoon in Cataract Gorge which is just on the outside of town. It is such a beautiful natural wonder that is open to the public for swimming and bushwalks! I took a mandatory tourist ride on the chairlift and witnessed the spectacular view from above.

Day 5

Cradle Mountain

Today was bigger than I had planned… I’d spent the previous night in a lovely lodge 20min from Cradle Mountain so I woke to birdsong and Pademelons rustling just outside my door. I let myself sleep in, sip on coffee on my balcony in the trees, taking my time as I had planned on heading to Cradle Mountain to just do a shorter walk (due to my feet having problems lately).

I got to Dove Lake and looked up at the mountain and was immediately in awe of the natural beauty. To top it off, I got to the top of Marion’s lookout (the short walk I thought I was only going to do) and just thought “Why not?!” and then climbed all the way to the summit of the mountain!

The walk and climb was intense and at some points, frightening, but the view at the summit was well worth it. I can finally tick off the Cradle Mountain walk from my bucket list.

However, it wouldn’t be blog on my page without a few photos of the diverse wildflowers on Cradle Mountain, here are just a few (click through the slideshow for more images).

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Day 6

North-west coast

I spent day six driving with extremely sore legs (thanks, Cradle Mountain) up to Stanley, a town on the very North-western corner of Tasmania. It is a beautiful town with crystal clear blue beaches and a cool geological landform called The Nut. It is a shear sided bluff that is what is left of an old volcano plug. Again, I took the tourist chairlift to the top of the bluff (I also probably couldn’t have climbed the hill once again due to stiff and sore legs!) and walked around to all the lookouts. It is a stunning 360 degree view of the Tasmanian coast and Bass Strait from the top! A small town that is out of the way, but totally worth it for a Tasmania road trip.

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The view from “The Nut” looking over the northern coast of Tassie

I then drove back across to Devonport, saw a bit of the towns Wynyard, Burnie and Penguin. I saw loads of clear blue beaches and lighthouses. I even snuck in a bit of PhD writing in the evening.

But the cherry on top of this day was watching the sunset at Lilico Conservation Reserve and then spending the evening watching Fairy Penguins from a viewing platform. The chicks came out of their nests just before it went dark and then the adult parents come up the beach, take a minute to preen and stretch their wings, before being chased around for food by their chicks. It was a such a magical experience and was made even better by the fantastic National Parks Volunteers who are there, for free, helping you see the penguins and explaining facts about their behaviour and habitat. Go Tassie National Parks!

Day 7

Binalong Bay

I drove from Devonport to Launceston for a quick coffee at Sweet Brew and a stroll through the shops. Then I headed east and spent an afternoon in the sun at Binalong Bay. The water is crystal clear blue and the sand is white, it felt like a different world!

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Binalong Bay

Day 8

East Coast

I had more fieldwork to do in the morning on Day 8 near Little Swanport. I was collecting  Eucalyptus obliqua seeds from Bulters Ridge Nature Reserve. This is a brown top stringybark eucalypt that is found all along the east coast of Australia and is used for hardwood timber. Interestingly it was the first Eucalyptus species found by Captain Cook and sent back to England by a botanist, and he found it right here in Tasmania! Even though this species can grow to more than 50m in height, luckily, I found a few trees with branches hanging just low enough for me to grab some seeds (I didn’t have my seed pole with me as I flew from Sydney).

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Another lovely fieldsite #PhDlife

Then I got to spend the afternoon relaxing by the beach and doing a bit of work in my hostel.

Day 9 – my birthday!

Freycinet National Park and MONA

To spoil myself for my birthday, I decided to do Freycinet National Park and wineglass bay at sunrise, hoping to get an amazing view and not be amongst all the crowds. I raced up the hill at 5am in the dark for the sunrise at 6am. It was one of the best birthday experiences I’ve had; spending time admiring the beautiful view and watching the mist clear over the valley whilst the sun rose over the water.

To finish off my birthday, I drove back to Hobart and hopped on the crazy MONA ROMA ferry and rode a sheep across to The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). I had a fantastic day, strolling through the gallery at my own pace (I highly recommend going to art galleries on your own) taking in all of the art. MONA is not only a magnificent curation of a diverse range of art, the architecture of the building and the level of interaction of all the different sections and pieces make it a great experience. They also have a cool device that has audio and text about all the art works instead of signs on the walls. I am not very art knowledgeable, nor creative, but I honestly had a great day and it is definitely my favourite art gallery (minus the Louvre haha).

Day 10

A bit more fieldwork and Mount Wellington

I had to collect my final species, Acacia dealbata, from Dee Lagoon about 2 hr north-west of Hobart. I spent the most of this morning driving up and getting a whole heap of these seeds, the trees were dripping with them!

I then headed back down to Hobart, and took a trip up to the iconic Mount Wellington. The view from up here is incredible. In the evening I finished packing (with an extra few kilos from the wine and champagne I’d bought in the Tamar Valley, yay!).

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The view from Mount Wellington

Day 11

Salamanca markets, Hobart Botanic Gardens and finally home

My final day was bittersweet, I was excited to go home to my husband and puppy, but so sad to be leaving such a beautiful state. I think by this point I’d had fallen deeply in love with Tasmania!

To start the day I had a coffee at Jackman & McRoss – the best coffee in Hobart, it is a must do if you’re in town. I then braved the manic Salamanca markets on the waterfront. They were huge and there was loads of cool art, food, jewellery and more!

My favourite travel habit in every country, state and city I visit is to spend a few hours perusing the botanic gardens. So I finished the trip with a few hours in Hobart Botanic Gardens. Here is a few photos of the beautiful flora they have on display!

 

If you haven’t already, hopefully now you’re inspired to go to Tasmania too!

Oh, the places you’ll go! (when you do a PhD in ecology)

5 months, 5 states/territories, 4434km of flights, 9695km of driving and many hours of bush-bashing to collect a total of more than 50,000 seeds from 38 native species….

…. and I’m done!

I have finally finished field work for the first few chapters of my PhD! It has been a tiring but amazing adventure and I am so thankful for all the wonderful places I’ve got to see along the way. Here’s just some of the exciting experiences I got to undertake and cool native species I got to see along the way:

Coffs Harbour

My hectic fieldwork season kicked off in October with a short trip to Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie. I dragged my wonderful uni friend Meena along for the ride and we had a lot of fun collecting seeds and smoothing out the initial bumps of fieldwork, such as remembering to bring a ruler and hand-lens and that the Toyota Hilux driver door needs to be exited from for the head-lights to turn off once you stop the ignition (*minor panic attack*).

Northern, inland NSW

I then embarked on a huge 8 day journey on my own up to Bourke, through the Pilliga Forest, then along towards Dumaresq Valley (bordering on Queensland) and across to the Northern NSW coast and then back down again to Sydney (*phew*). It was truly a life-changing experience. I got to see some of the most breathtaking natural sights in NSW including sunsets in the desert, huge canyons and loads of native species I had never seen before.

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Back of Bourke- the red soils are magic!

South Australia

This week in SA was such an adventure! I drove through 40 degree heat waves, pouring rain, hail and even had to dodge kangaroos and emus on the roads. To collect my native seeds I went to a very helpful native nursery in Port Lincoln that had some seeds I needed. I then drove all the way along the Eyre peninsula to Streaky Bay, then Ceduna, to Fowlers bay and then back to Adelaide. I saw salt lakes, long piers, huge mines, loads of new native species and a lot of vast areas of nothingness.

The only down side of my trip was my flight delay which meant that instead of getting home at 7pm my flight landed so late that I got home at midnight. That was tiring. Cheers Tiger air.

Riverina region, Southern NSW

For a shorter trip, my lovely uni friend Claudia joined me for a few days down near Wagga Wagga in NSW. We had a bunch of fun collecting seeds from beautiful natives, eating too much chocolate and we even found an escaped dog on the highway that we took to the vet. Turns out his owner forgot to close the gate, she was very thankful!

ACT and Victoria

I did a week long trip down through the ACT and into Victoria. By this point in my fieldwork I was pretty tired but still had a lot of fun travelling through beautiful places. I collected a bunch of species around Canberra in the natural areas and national parks surrounding the city. I then drove North and collected a Eucalyptus species near the snowy mountains, it was such a gorgeous drive! Then I headed down to Cann River in the South-east corner of Victoria before I went over to the Yarra Valley. I had to have a quick stop at the Yarra valley chocolate factory for free chocolate samples!!!

Finally I headed up to Bendigo National Park which was stunning but also scary when a pack of kangaroos came whizzing past me in the middle of the bush.

Tasmania

This was the first time I’d ever been to Tasmania before, and I was so excited to explore this beautiful state. I collected all my seeds but also had a few extra days to explore and even spent my birthday there. I’m going to write another blog about my travels there because there’s way too many pretty pictures and cool things to tell you about! Stay tuned…

Few short day trips here and there

There were also a few times where I got to take short day trips just out of Sydney to places like the Blue Mountains, Wollemi National Park and Yalwal State Forest.

Things I’ve learnt about myself from fieldwork:

  1. I have the ability to do physically and mentally draining things way out of my comfort zone – no matter what other people say/think
  2. I may have slight road rage – only when people go 30km under the speed limit on a one lane highway
  3. I love plants and ecology – well I already knew this one, but immersing myself in a huge amount of ecological fieldwork made me love it more!

Some final thank you’s

  1. My wonderful fieldwork volunteers who pulled seeds off branches, out of pods and off the ground. And for their lovely company on long drives
  2. The Australian Botanic Garden and Australian National Botanic Garden for supplying seeds, permits and training for seed collection
  3. Mole River Native Nursery and Eyre Native Seeds for supplying seeds from target species in the exact locations I needed them!
  4. My trusty heat pack to soothe the shoulders after driving and my neck after staring up at tall trees
  5. Mitch, my husband, and Pepper, my little puppy, who are almost as excited as I am when I get to come home and who regularly FaceTime me when I’m in a faraway motel at night.

 

Now time to germinate these seeds, get them growing in the glasshouse and get some results! Have our native species changed significantly in their traits, over the past few decades? I can’t wait to find out!

 


Thank you for reading all the way down to this point. To end, I want to finish with a a small part of a favourite book of mine which is always in my head as I set off on fieldwork adventures.


Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any
you’ll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you’ll head straight out of town.

It’s opener there
in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.

And then things start to happen,
don’t worry. Don’t stew.
Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.

OH!
THE PLACES YOU’LL GO!

~ A section from ‘Oh, the places you’ll go’ by Dr. Suess

Kioloa and the importance of undergraduate fieldtrips

In September, I volunteered on a third year field course for five days. The trip was at Kioloa Coastal Field station and was a plant ecology course where students would come up with their own hypotheses and then collect data around the field station to then analyse and write a report on the results. My supervisor, Angela Moles and one other academic, Stephen Bonser, run the course and I helped out as a sort of a pseudo-tutor.

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The campus was such a beautiful spot on a property adjacent to Kioloa beach and the National Park

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Not a bad spot to watch the sunset

We had an absolutely awesome time away. The students were completely capable so they only required a bit of help here and there on their project design, plant identification and statistics. I mostly just hung out, took pretty photos of plants and *attempted* to get a bit of PhD work done (it ended up being a lot less than I planned haha).

I wanted to write a blog post about the fieldtrip, and how important it is for undergraduate students to go on fieldtrips in science.

First, the fieldtrip:

We’d spend most of the days helping the students sampling in the field. They were looking at a very interesting range of projects including dune facilitation of a spinifex grass, invasive species on beach paths, the restriction of canopy height by the height of a species lowest branch (what a cool concept!) and habitat edge effects on invasive species.

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The edge effects group sampling on the edge of the grass habitat and the Casuarina forest

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The tree height group measuring Eucalypt species in the forest

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The spinifex group identifying plants on Kioloa beach

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The invasive species group sampling quadrats just off the beach path at Kioloa beach

After a hard day sampling, the students would come back and we’d all have a delicious dinner and wine at the field station (let me tell you this was a very luxurious field station!). Each night there would be an informal seminar and I gave an honours presentation on the first night about my research and why an honours year in science (pretty much the Australian version of a Masters by research) is so awesome.

After dinner and the seminar we’d go down and lie on the sand looking at the milky way, before dipping our toes into the bioluminescent algae in the ocean. That was amazing. We also did one night of spotlighting and saw loads of frogs and a sooty owl!

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A tiny little frog we found spotlighting

In our spare time we read books, did puzzles, went for bush walks and flew a kite.

Second, the plants:

There’s loads of awesome plants around Kioloa, as it is still spring here, there were lots of flowers to photograph. Here’s just a few:

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Acacia longifolia – a common wattle that grows along the coast, you’ll find it along the dunes a lot on most NSW beaches

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Hooray for an orchid- Caladenia carnea

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Small, fluffy flowers on a Mabel’s Wattle – Acacia mabellae

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Arctotheca populifolia – a non-native beach species originally from South Africa. This guy is very familiar in our lab as a few members have been using it to look at invasive species for a few years; there’s thousands of them potted in our glasshouse

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Atriplex cinerea, the native, grey salt bush which grows on sand dunes

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Sweet pittosporum (Pittosporum undulatum)

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It may look sweet and pretty, but this invasive, Cakile edentula 
(American sea-rocket) has nasty impacts on our coastal plants

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Fruit growing on a native geebung, Persoonia linearis.

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Prostanthera violaceae (violet mint bush) in full purple swing for spring

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I love the big yellow flowers on this climbing native plant – Hibbertia scandens

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A sweet little green spider hiding in an Arum lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) which is an invasive flowering species originally from South Africa

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A pretty little grass head blowing in the field

And finally, the importance of field trips:

In my undergraduate degree, I didn’t do many field trips. There were only a few offered and they were quite expensive and usually over the summer break. Looking back, I wish I’d done more and gained more experience in ecological fieldwork because science is different in the “real-world” to undergraduate lectures, exams and assignments and I think field trips are a much better reflection of the industry.

Field trips are invaluable, students learn hugely practical skills that you cannot pick up through lectures, tests or textbooks. Science is so much more than rote learning and just being able to get out into the field, get organised and collect data is a big skill. As universities move more towards online teaching and learning, I hope we don’t lose the practical components of science courses, especially the field work.

Field courses are also a great way to meet new people and make friends. They break down any barriers between the lecturers and students and the students can relate to their professors in a less daunting way. This is so important for students that may decide to stay on for postgraduate or honours courses. The students were able to ask me questions and get to know Angela and Steve better and I think a few of them may end up in our lab next year!

All in all, it was a fantastic few days, if you’re an undergrad science student, do ALL of the field courses. If you’re a science alumni, enjoy reminiscing on the field course memories of your own. If you’re neither, I hope you enjoyed the pretty pictures of plants as always!