It has been almost half a year since I posted the last article in my blog and a lot has changed. Truth is, while I was away, there has not been a single day that I did not think about writing here. At the same time, I went through some overwhelming changes in my academic life which forced me to take a break from blogging.
In all honesty, I would like to begin this post by making a confession. The beginning of 2021 for me was quite rough and unsupportive. Just like how 2020 was the year of trying for many people, I too somehow could not avoid last year’s cascading effect. One day I was living my PhD dream with a constant flow of inspiration and drive for figuring things out, the next day all the doubts gathered in my mind constantly asking whether I deserve to be in this PhD program. Despite the lockdown, I spent the first year of my PhD getting on top of my research topic, writing a literature review, studying new subject like continuum mechanics 😊 (thanks to my supervisor), while longing to be in the lab again. Just as restrictions lifted, I was happily back in the lab, keeping the momentum in my experiments until I heard about the university workplace change (WPC). It was a change, a powerful document, proposing and deciding which positions in the university to be made redundant. The document also stated that my school would reduce research in mechanobiology and bioinspired materials in conjunction with the disestablishment of two level-E professors in that field - my primary supervisor was one of them.
It was understandable that COVID forced the university to restructure its employees. But how that impacted some PhD students’ candidature was to worry later. The week after I came back from my wedding, my supervisor confirmed the news to me. It was quite hard to digest for both of us – for my supervisor it was a surprise to be targeted given how she served as the Paul Trainor Chair of Biomedical Engineering who got headhunted 6 years ago to move to Australia, and for me it was the first time in my PhD it brought this giant chunk of worries that was not in my control. (Similar feeling to when you work so hard in advanced to meet a deadline earlier, but you don’t end up submitting because the internet decides to die – totally something you can’t control!). My brain suddenly faced the “flight or fight” mode as I sat in that meeting, listening, and picturing all sorts of solution that could really change the course of my PhD. My whole project and the funding came from my primary supervisor. I could move with my secondary supervisor from another school and changed my project entirely. I could nominate an academic from my school to be my primary supervisor and collaborate to keep 50% of the original project. Or I could wait until my primary supervisor finalize her deployment to another school, and nothing might change. Having too many options was harder than not having any option!
Days went by, I kept myself busy and spent even more time in the lab although the possibility of not having a primary supervisor kept haunting in the back of my head. There came days where I sat in front of the microscope or stared at my own writing draft, thinking how much of those were going to be in my thesis. What’s my research going to be? In which lab was I going to work? Who was going to pay for the reagents? Weekly meeting with my supervisory team never answered those questions, but always concluded with some reassurance that things would be okay, and that we should wait until the university finalize the WPC. The most valuable suggestion yet hard to initiate was to look at the situation as an opportunity to collaborate and learn new things - to take my PhD wherever I want!
But the closer 2020 came to an end, the more I came to learn that no one from the university is going attend to impacted students or assist in finding a replacement supervisor. “The student should be actively involved in the supervisory change process, and we are here only to assess and help execute those changes “, said the Dean of Graduate Research. Now, things got more complicated as the truth unfolded. Just before the end of year break, the head of my school (through the school’s postgrad coordinator) confirmed to me that my primary supervisor would no longer be employed by the university as of January 1st. As a student with a special scholarship (under a special program), I also had to keep a multidisciplinary supervisory team of 3 in order to keep my scholarship. Given my 2 other supervisors are from chemical engineering, the other should be someone from different school or faculty. Once I decided the new supervisory team, I also had to submit a new research proposal showing that my research was still aligned with the program and the supervisors’ capabilities. There was a lot to consider and I was not alone in this hard decision; there were students in the program who were baffled as their primary supervisors left. Someone considered moving PhD from law to arts, someone from psychology intended to move with secondary supervisor from computer science but was unable to, someone even considered quitting the PhD.
So, I spent my whole Christmas and New year’s break telling myself to decide, talking to people, also asking questions to my future self whether she would thank me or regret for whatever decision I was about to make. I spent few days in Jervis Bay with close friends and we stayed 15 minutes’ drive away from Cudmirrah beach where I got to hear and observe the life of Cicadas. The singing, ugh, it was like standing by the sonicator! But how their life started from the soil, ended by migrating towards the ocean and their bodies formed a line along the beach really fascinate me. Seagulls feed on these Cicada meats while they are also fish-watching from above. Still so many secrets in nature and so little is addressed. I knew what I wanted to do back when I was in school, I was dying to learn science and begging my mom to send me to Vienna to attend a tissue engineering program. My younger self would do anything to get to where I was now. I knew what I needed to do.
Then came January 2021, and I officially had no supervisor and enrolled temporarily in the school. My supervisor didn’t have to break the news to me again, but the world knew from her updated LinkedIn profile. I realized her uni profile and email had disappeared as she discussed about her deployment and recommended few people I should reach out to on our first meeting of the year. I gave it a try and let her help me connect to some potential supervisors, who at the end refused to accept new student and project. But I didn’t intend to pursue the same project. I wanted to learn new techniques. I wanted to take my project somewhere I can add new things. Please hear me out!
Census date had passed for the summer term, and it’s time I take control of my own destiny. It took me just one simple search using my favourite keywords, the words that (I hope!) someday would give my name in the search results - “tissue engineering unsw”. Then of course, most academics from biomedical engineering came up, but only one stood out unique; a professor from Illinois who came to Sydney in 2018 and established a large group that does range of science and engineering. His group takes cool approaches combining chemistry, materials engineering, biological interface, for both fundamentals and applied tissue engineering, and this group is where I want to be. It happened so fast within one day my email was sent, I had the chance to meet him online to explain my situation and my project. The next day he asked to meet me and my ex-primary supervisor, and we agreed to a new supervisory team. Plus, I get to keep my project with a limitless possibility of adding engineered materials!
From there, there was just series of overwhelming and exciting yet confusing processes of getting my transfer approved. Since I had to transfer faculty (from engineering to science) and school from biomedical engineering to materials science, I had to follow multistep approval processes, from submitting a bunch of reasons why I need to transfer, my new proposal, and approval from all graduate research and scholarship team, then the two faculties/school could talk to each other. My transfer was finalized in March 2021 but it took some time until I was able to relocate to new lab and office, and gain the momentum back. I have new friends, learn new things, and most importantly I am part of a rising multidisciplinary research team!
Now that's the view from my new office
So, there you go - a story about change in its most unprecedented version. Change is never easy to accept and to go through, but it is the only thing permanent that keeps us going. Change is inevitable in every PhD student project and accepting that early on makes it easier for you mentally to navigate through your PhD. Looking back, I owe this change as an experience that made me unique as a candidate, an opportunity that let me network to many other great scientists. The hardest decision is always the most rewarding. This journey certainly shapes my research experience and can guide me anywhere I want to make a mark in science.
Today, a year ago I started this blog as an escape from my literature review writing routine during the first COVID lockdown. I didn’t have any goals for what I want my blog to be in a year, I just love writing. Today, the second weekend of July just happened to be another lockdown here in Sydney But this time the lockdown feels hopeful and inspiring. With guidance from my new supervisor, I get to analyze so much data, write my thesis chapters and do all the forward-looking activities toward finishing a PhD. miss-academia.com is the new name of my blog and it is my time to write again. It doesn’t matter where this blog will go in the next years, because this blog continues to be the manifestation of ideas and inspiration throughout my research career.