It’s that wonderful time of the year…

It is Christmas time. Someone said a PhD student is not hard to shop for – just give them “time, patience, and steady job prospects”. And I like that very much. It is also that time of the year where we write Christmas cards to our family, friends and colleagues. “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year…” In lieu of my last blog here, I am writing a thank you note / Christmas letter to everyone remotely related to my PhD experience, including my future self.

My family

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With my youngest, he better not ask for co-authorship.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Your presence this year has reminded me that this journey is not mine alone, that other people have a stake in it too. I have loved simplifying my thesis in one sentence, literally explaining to a 6 year-old. Studying when you are around has trained me to be disciplined with my time; to focus on doing the meaningful stuff and taking the necessary breaks. Taking a break in the day to cook for us, and taking walks with you has been all the therapy I need. You are an important part of my identity, one that threatened to be consumed wholly by “being a PhD student”.

 

My parents/brothers and sisters (including in-laws)

Thank you for caring about my self-determination, and asking often, “how is school going?”, and “when do you finish?” Yes, as PhD students we often don’t like hearing these questions; so thank you for understanding and accepting the short and simple answers of  “it’s going” and “soon”. I really appreciate your big dreams for me; how you think I will be able to get any job I want as soon as I complete this degree. I am often too tired to discuss the reality, and I would rather have the positive affirmations.  You are a big part of my positive outlook on my future.

My supervisors

Thank you for being reliable, consistent and open about your own challenges and the nature of academia. Seeing you balance your own work and still giving me prompt and constructive feedback on my project is inspiring to me. I hardly have enough time for the PhD — and it is all I do — so I don’t know how you do all you do. I feel confident that in the next year we can build on the positive and productive momentum we have created, in order for me to submit my thesis. I will need what you have always provided in the past, which is your experience, wisdom and knowledge. I have learned so much from you in the past three years that I will keep with me when I become a supervisor too.

My PhD friends and colleagues

Thank you for the laughs and the inside jokes this year. Thank you for all the personal stories you have told me, and for making me comfortable to tell mine. It has been amazing the number of stories we could tell each other over lunch or dinner between intense, isolated work sessions. I was happy to be your springboard for ideas as you were mine. Thanks for nodding enthusiastically as I ranted on and on about my project and giving advice the best way you could J Thank you for reciprocally taking my advice as well, even going as far as calling it “great advice, thank you!” 🙂 We make each other feel and do better.

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Some PhD colleagues and friends at a recent writing retreat.

 

My school and funding body

Thank you for the financial and other support that enables me to dedicate all my time to this PhD. We complain it is not enough but even CEOs of Fortune 500 companies think they deserve more. And those guys get a lot; they categorically don’t deserve more. I digress. Thank you for always lending an ear to the ways in which students could feel more supported, and creating tools to ensure that it happens. Thank you for the analysis software licences, the retreats, the conferences, the journal clubs, the support for extra coursework you name it. Thank you for showing your compassion to starving students on campus – through the food donation drive and feeding schemes for the general student body. And thank you for being full of approachable world-class professors/lecturers who are willing to talk to you about your project and listen to your challenges even though they are not even your supervisors. Thank you to the university at large for the library resources I can access off campus and the librarians who are always online, ready to chat!

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With some PhD colleagues, supervisors, policymakers and funders at a recent conference

 

 

Government and the bodies that be

Thank you for your recognition of research as an essential part of the development of South Africa. Thank you for your subsequent endeavours to support students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Thank you for all efforts to make sure that you meet the demand for higher education in this country given the unique needs of this nation and the lack of resources we contend with. Thank you for any effort to ensure that resources are therefore not wasted but invested in the diverse and brilliant minds of this nation, from kindergarten to tenure. Thank you for any effort (now and/or future) to lend an ear to students and experts on how to positively transform higher education in South Africa to be an empowering space for students, their families and society in general.

The Universe

Thank you for the positive vibez… ha ha.

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Source: Unsplash

 

 

My future self

I have ended this year on a positive note, which is surprising because it has probably been the most challenging of my adult life.  This blog post has been an exercise in zeroing in on the positives all around me.  It is an exercise of self-preservation that is necessary to keep a balanced perspective on things. It’s easy for the brain to latch onto negative things and let those propel us to action or worse: inaction.  In contrast, the positive gifts all around us can provide the leverage to act in positive ways and do what is beneficial for ourselves and others. 2019 will be hard, with the anxiety to finish and to plan the next steps. Use anything positive around you, no matter how small, to cope. And just like that the year will be over and you will be writing a letter to your 2020 self.

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!