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.

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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!

My PhD Sunday plate of experiences…

In the South African township where I grew up we have a special meal on Sundays. It’s called “Seven colours”, or the Sunday plate. You will have rice, butternut, beetroot salad, a coleslaw, chakalaka, chicken or meat, French beans, spinach or cabbage…a mish-mash of foods and beautiful colours on your plate. Something you don’t see for the rest of the week, where meals are simple and consist mainly of pap (maize meal) with a side of vegetables or meat.  I thought today I would give you my seven colours of my PhD experience… It is a mish-mash of experiences/revelations I have had in this journey of PhD so far. Next year I will be in fourth year, and I thought this is an opportune time to take stock of the last three years.

1.     On a scale of one to ten…

I was speaking recently with my sister-in-law regarding her interest in doing a PhD. And it brought me back to my inaugural blog, What brings you here? I am always interested in people’s motivations for doing a PhD so I asked her about that. Turns out she is very well invested in her area of knowledge, and seems like the type of person who would actually enjoy exploring ideas more. She asked the basic question – do you think it is a good idea if I did a PhD? It was almost like, on a scale of one to ten, would you recommend a PhD? And my first instinct was, “Absolutely!” This surprised me because it wasn’t a particularly positive day in PhD land.  I still had the perspective of how this process is making me grow made me happy. It is the nature of the beast to have good and bad days because a PhD is life.

2.     15 drafts, one paper…should I give up?

Even if you have published before, your next paper can be a nightmare. I’ve changed my mind on this paper I am currently writing a number of times. It didn’t help that a conference opportunity came along and I, again, shifted my angle on it. So, a few months later (don’t worry, I have been doing other things), I think I finally have a solid draft. On the 15th try. Well I guess it doesn’t matter, because I have something I am happy with at the end of the day, no? We will see what reviewer 2 says about that. The point is, don’t give up. Just constantly improve.

3.     Technology is nice…but use your common sense

As a PhD student, you come across a plethora of tools for project management, writing, data analysis etc. I remember one time in particular discussing an analysis tool with one of the mentors in our department. There are all these neat data analysis tools out there! But these tools don’t do the thinking for you. And on top of that, the machines sometimes just don’t have enough information to give you valuable output. It is like the GPS that sent me in circles for eight minutes, to a building that was right across the street. But it was the first time in that country, I was there for a conference, and I trusted the machine more than my common sense — to the point of not believing my eyes. So sometimes trust your instincts, and always use your brain to interpret the outcomes, no matter what the sophisticated programs say.

4.     Writing retreats are the best thing money can buy.

To every supervisor out there, if you can afford it, or have the necessary connections, take your students on writing retreats. Two words for how writing retreats work: Mental space. Even if your student comes into the office every day, a writing retreat affords mental space in a way that they haven’t experienced before. I pray that they are the norm at every university in South Africa. A writing retreat is a space where you don’t worry about anything other than your writing. Someone else makes you tea, and food, and there are no errands. A week of writing can accomplish more than a month of trying to write. It’s made more enjoyable by the presence of your peers, who you meet over meals and tea, and informally discuss your experiences. Have a laugh, go back to your books. A lot of down, quiet time – in a collegial atmosphere. I have a sneaky suspicion that scholarship was always meant to be this way.

5.     When your proposal was your best work.

As it currently stands, my proposal is my best work in this entire three-year PhD process. (It will be topped by the thesis soon hopefully). But it is clear to me now why I took almost a year developing it. I read widely…I haven’t done that much reading since. My ideas were consolidated and my plan was solid. When I flail, I always go back to the proposal to ground me. In my mind, my ideas were supposed to get better with time. The proposal was supposed to be something I did just to get into the program and just to get started. But it has become my whole blueprint and my foundation. This week I am attending a writing retreat (high five emoji) and the one thing that has unlocked all of my creativity was going back to my read a section of my proposal. Taking stock of what I have managed to implement and most importantly, the rationale for my entire thesis. I am reading old papers that I haven’t read in three years. All this to say, yes to writing retreats 😉

6.     Surround yourself with inspiring people… People who think their PhD time was the best time.

Talk often to people who have gone through the PhD,  for perspective. I realize how important it is to talk to people who see their whole PhD journey as a positive experience. Because they have faced challenges as well, and can tell you about them. But they seem to focus on the good stuff. Because even when we talk about heavy issues such as mental health in academia, they have a way of showing you that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Those people tend to be solution oriented, and they motivate you to fight hard to design a positive experience for yourself. And sometimes that means shutting out contrary voices.

7.     Friendships and the PhD

This has been an interesting one. I have successfully retained my old friendships — but only those that don’t need a lot of time and constant engagement to be sustained. I have formed new friendships within the PhD environment. And you share with these people some very personal things, at least as far as they affect your work. And yet, these friendships somehow don’t work outside of the PhD environment. I guess it is the same idea as “work friends”. And these friendships have a very useful and important place in our lives. They are in the arsenal of the little things that help you go through the PhD.

Well there you have it! My seven colours of delicious PhD-esque experiences and reflections. Hope you enjoyed and it inspired you to reflect on your own experience, especially if you have been on this journey for a while.