Special Trials

It’s a time of rising stress levels here at FABI. Benedicta, a fellow PhD student in our research group, and I are running two big, important trials as part of our PhD’s and they need to be executed flawlessly. In the trenches – counting spores, cutting tips and inoculating trees with different strains of a plant pathogenic fungus – is where special bonds form.

Trials start off as ideas around a table with your advisors and as the months go by the trial begins to take shape, becoming something real. Scary, really! Looking back, when we spoke about inoculating 54 and 109 different strains, it seemed quite simple but the execution — as we found out yesterday and today — has been quite different.

Benedicta, supervising


Benedicta, for her diligence and hard work, became the guinea pig.  She had gathered and prepared her isolates a full week before me and so we decided to move ahead with her trial. After a few sleepless nights and a bottle or two of Amarula (the small ones) she had a design and a plan in place. It was the day before the first batch of inoculations and everything was looking good… until it wasn’t.


In all the excitement, we didn’t realize that her design – a work of art and a statistical dream – just wasn’t practical for the limited help and time we had. After a couple of head-scratching moments and the advice of our wise advisors, we managed to come up with a new design to save the trial.

Today, we successfully inoculated the first part of Benedicta’s trial; approximately 2,500 trees with 109 different fungal strains. The replicate of this trial, which should go faster, will happen on Thursday, the 29th November. I then jump into the driver seat next week and we repeat it all again for my work.

I have learnt a lot over the past couple of weeks in preparation for these trials. 1) You might think you can do it on your own (and you probably can) but make your life easier by getting help. Fortunately for us, we have an incredible team of advisors, postdocs and students who are willing to help. 2) Science is messy. You can try control everything but there will always be things out of your control, just accept it. 3) If you see someone struggling, just take the time to help and comfort them; it means the world to them. Trust me, I know. 4) No task is too big when you have an excellent team supporting you. That goes for the PhD as well.

Our two trials will run till January, next year, and we hope that the results are promising so that we can welcome 2019 with success and another step towards the end of our PhD journeys.  I hope your 2019 will be successful too!

The year is 1 BD, it has to be

As this year comes rushing to a close, there are a lot of stressed-out postgraduate students trying to squeeze every last little bit out of 2018 so that they might get their work done to try and hand in their thesis now or early next year. I am one such postgraduate. I am counting down the days!

Counting is something humans do to keep order and monitor progress. The B.C./A.D. system is a good example and is based on the traditional reckoning of the year Jesus was born. Since 1988, it has been adopted as an ISO 8601 standard, allowing all of us to keep record the past, present and future.

Marking calendars for special occasions is one thing, but creating your own designation for something really special is next level. Therefore, in my life, I have decided that 2019 will be 1 A.D., or After Doctorate, which would make 2018, 1 B.D.  Note: There is no 0 B.C. or 0 A.D because Roman numerals, which was commonly used at the time, did not have a zero number.

There is some method in my madness. This designation, like the B.C./A.D. system, marks a significant moment in my life. Life after getting my doctorate, I feel, is going to change completely. I’m told that having a PhD opens more exciting doors, even though those recent graduates are doing postdoctoral fellowships that don’t seem too different to what they were doing before. Granted, there are more freedoms in a postdoc… and the title is a hard-earned badge of honour.

From 27 B.D. till now, I have felt a little lost navigating a path that has been remarkably different to the ones my childhood friends ventured down. Many of them went to school, then University or College for three to four years, got a job afterwards and started their families. Since I was six years old, I have been on a journey that is based, almost entirely, at institutions of learning.

They say Life is the greatest teacher of all but if you have been at school for most of your life, the greatest teachers are… teachers and lecturers. They taught me where to find my compass, how to use it, and when to follow it. There is no doubt that after my PhD I’m going to learn a lot about life in the ‘real’ world but I think studying has allowed me to wade in already.

As I prepare to cross the B.D./A.D. line, to submerse myself in the world post PhD, I can’t help but feel a little nervous. I have made a commitment to finish in the next few months. I can’t make this statement and not hit my deadline. My friends and family are as excited as I am, I can’t let us all down.

A big part of my life is coming to an end. It feels like the end of a long pilgrimage but I know that it is just the beginning. With the PhD at my side, who knows what the future holds. I hope it is great. After all this, it is the start of a new era.