So, you are doing a Ph.D in biology?

If you’re a life science Ph.D student, you’ve had this question before. Usually followed by raised eyebrows and confused looks, which signal the second question – What will you do with that? The reasons and motivations for pursuing a Ph.D depend on the individual, but let me just try to explain what a Ph.D in biology means to me.

Firstly, it would be remiss of me to not mention that currently there is no Nobel Prize in Biology! But, as an aspiring Nobel laureate, you can take solace in the fact that in recent years the Noble Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to biologist. Studying biology today has changed drastically since the days of Darwin and Mendel. The multi-disciplinary nature of modern biology is the reason why three biologists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2015 for their work on “Mechanistic studies of DNA repair”. Naturally, this caused some uproar from the Chemistry community, but the argument was laid to rest here. Now – to you, the aspiring Ph.D biology student – I say do NOT be deterred by the “haters”  🙂 . The path you have chosen has many twists and turns, but the rewards far outweigh the immediate costs.

Now, if knowing that there is a (veeeery slim) chance that a biologist could win a Nobel Prize is not motivation enough, a recent publication by by American Society of Cell Biology highlighted where recent Biology graduates are now: not even 10% of those starting their PhD end up in tenure-track faculty positions…

Despite all the challenges and frustrations experienced by Biology PhD students, I could not see myself doing something else. I have ALWAYS loved biology, and  it was the only subject that made sense to me in school. I grew up with a medical background (with my mum being a healthcare professional) and being exposed to it made me love it.  I must admit at that point I wasn’t sure what “IT” was, and I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor. . . Please reader, do not judge me too harshly for what I am about to tell you –  Upon completion of high school, I promptly began studying for my medical degree at UCT’s medical school. Those were the WORST two weeks of my life! I simply could not see myself playing the role of Dr. . . Even when my friends and I played Dr-Patient, I always preferred being the patient (I may have been influenced by the rule that patients ALWAYS got a piece a candy after the Dr’s ‘exam’). So, you see, although Biology was in my blood, medicine was not my calling. It seems that life is not without a sense of irony: although I cannot see myself being a human doctor, I see myself being a Dr of Biology 🙂

To go back to the core of this blog – Yes, I am doing a PhD in biology and unlike my friends in other fields or accounting (a career choice I can’t understand!) I’ve NEVER have a ‘bad’ day at work. Sure, my experiments have some ‘kinks’, but I don’t have a 9-5 work schedule, and I have the freedom to answer the questions that matter most to me. My work (where, remember, you spend most of your waking hours) is VERY rewarding! I ask this of my fellow PhDs: reclaim your pride and shatter the glass ceilings. That Nobel Prize in Chemistry is now attainable! There is no reason to be riddled with anxiety when asked if you do a PhD in biology. Be proud! There are bigger question to ask yourself: what legacy will you leave? What kind of mentor do you want to be? What contributions is your work making to the field of biology?

[1] American society of cell biology infograph of status of PhD (biology) holders

#CitizenScience: Research Experiences to Inspire Passion

Was there a defining moment that led you to choose your career? How did you decide what you wanted to be when you grew up? Did inspiration precede passion, for you?

The more you learn about something, the more interested you become— a romantic marvel; don’t you agree? ‘You never know where life will lead you’ because you don’t know what you haven’t learned.

How did you get here (to browsing this blog?!)?

I chose my career path because I experienced research at a young age. I was fortunate to have the opportunity because my father is an academic and I spent many summers crossing his maize plants in an experimental research field. I feel fortunate to have had that experience. Although, I wouldn’t call it ‘inspiring’—often working in the middle of a field in near 40-degree heat in Kansas, the center of the USA (as a teenager, I should add!)— but the experience provided the recognition that research is a means to make a positive impact on the planet (and in that experience: control maize diseases!).

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Research is critical; especially agricultural research, because feeding the world is undeniably important. Even more so when faced with big challenges from global trends such as climate-change-driven droughts and the continual increase in invasive species introductions.

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What are the aspirations of youth in South Africa? Does today’s youth want to science? Do they want to help feed Africa’s growing population? Do they want to research climate change? The climate is changing and our current lifestyles are drying out. FABI just contributed 2000 liters of water to Operation Hydrate. What is this phenomenon, the “El Niño Southern Oscillation”? Do children care? Would you have cared if we weren’t experiencing a historically powerful drought? Do our children believe they can do something to make a difference?

Every research project centered on climate change will help us adapt to our changing world.

But how do we inspire youth to pursue scientific careers dedicated to solving environmental and ecological problems? Without investing resources and inspiring interest in such careers, our grandchildren will not have the same opportunities to enjoy and benefit from the earth’s natural and agricultural systems.

InspirePassion.jpg Taking from my own story: I was given the opportunity to participate in research at a young age, inspiring an interest that blossomed into a passion, ultimately bringing me to the beautiful rainbow nation, South Africa.

I want to provide similar opportunities to young learners. So with support from FABI and the University of Pretoria, we have initiated a citizen science project to engage as many youth as we can in our research.

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Citizen Science is a term for research that engages non-scientists, ranging from young learners to retirees and tourists to local professionals. In a sense, citizen science is a tool that can be used to aid research while engaging and inspiring society.


 

CapeCitSciLogoCape Citizen Science is a project to engage the public in research about plant disease in the fynbos biome of the Western Cape Province. Along with conducting research to help conserve South Africa’s biodiversity, the project will provide unique learning opportunities for South African citizens about ecological processes in the fynbos, the importance of biodiversity, the effects of invasive species, and microorganisms as the causal agents of disease. More information about our project can be found at: http://citsci.co.za.


Citizen science projects provide opportunities to participate in research, engaging the public to inspire a passion for scientific discovery.

There are many ongoing citizen science projects out there, just type #citizenscience on twitter to discover more.

Feel free to contact me for more information about our project, to schedule a presentation or a workshop. You can  reach me at joey.hulbert@fabi.up.ac.za.  I also encourage you to follow this blog for updates about the project and our methods to engage youth in science.