EMBL Australia PhD, a Brown Lab Perspective

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s supervisor, employer, organisation, committee or any other group or individual.

By Isabelle Capell-Hattam

Anyone can tell you that getting rejected sucks. One of the things that sucks even more is getting rejected twice. After being rejected in 2018, I had low hopes submitting my EMBL Australia PhD Course application a 2nd time- however instead of getting my scientific heart broken a second time, I got accepted and my #EMBLAPhD journey began.

The EMBL Australia PhD course is a two week residential program hosted by EMBL Australia in conjunction with a host university and is held yearly over most campuses’ mid-year breaks. In 2019 the program was generously hosted by The University of Tasmania, which meant that for two mid-winter weeks 60 PhD students from around Australia descended on Hobart to hear about some of the most exciting research currently happening in Aus.

The lecture schedule was jammed packed, with presenters flying in from around the globe (though predominately from EMBL Australia nodes), to talk about research ranging from cancer genomics and bioinformatics to research ethics and law. We finished every day mentally exhausted (though not too physically exhausted as UTas kept us well fed and well caffeinated) from the sheer intensity and scope of the science we were being faced with and it was AWESOME!

It wasn’t just lecture after lecture, the program was interspersed with fun wet labs (where we got to determine if we were non-tasters or super-tasters for a bitter compound), hands on tutorials from Dr Kate Patterson (The Garvan Institute) and Dr Mirana Ramialison (ARMI), intro to R workshops plus site visits to the Australian Antarctic Division (including a Skype session with the teams manning Australian Antartic stations over winter), IMAS and Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary (where I met my new best friend Bert).

Figure 1: My new best friend Bert (left) and I having a very intellectual conversation about the importance of afternoon naps in the lab

Additionally, all students attending the course had the opportunity to participate in a 3-minute thesis competition and a poster presentation evening, allow us to practise presenting our work in a welcoming environment (plus it was good to help us figure out what the rest of our cohort was working on).  There was even an excellent social program organised by the UTas volunteers including a Hobart wide scavenger hunt (won by yours truly) and adventures on our weekend off to Salamanca Markets and MONA.

What I am really trying to say was two of the busiest and jam-packed weeks of my adult life and that I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

Figure 2: Our winning EMBL scavenger hunt team. We ran about mid-winter Hobart after dark for 2.5 hours to collect points. The victory was sweet.

I could (and have in a 45 minute lab meeting) wax lyrically about the course’s content, give you all a blow by blow of each lecture and what I took away from it.  But the content of the course doesn’t come close to explaining what this course meant to me, and to many others.

The true value of the course is the networks I developed and the friendships I made. A PhD can be an incredibly isolating experience, for many students it is the first time in their academic careers they have faced protracted failures. It is increasingly apparent that PhDs can be dreadful for a student’s mental health and that HRD students are suffering mental illness at unanticipated rates. Forming communities of likeminded PhD compatriots is essential in helping all of us get through our degrees, and I feel very lucky to have gained an extra 60 peers to complete this PhD journey with me.  A group of us EMBL PhD 2019 students who all live in Sydney are even going out for dinner on Friday night! And I am very excited to get together with all the other EMBL Australia 2019 Participants at the EAPS conference held in Melbourne at the end of the year.

I leave you all with the 3 big takeaways from my EMBL Australia experience

  1. If at first you don’t succeed, then try and try again. I talked to at least 5 other people on the PhD course who had also been rejected the previous year- and for all of us it had really stung. But putting my hand up and applying for the 2019 course was the best decision I’ve made this year.
  2. There is an awful lot of incredibly cool science happening in Australia at the moments. Sometimes we find it hard to be exposed to others research as we all can get bogged down in our own little research niches. It was amazing to hear about the work that other labs, and other PhD students are spending their time on- even if it isn’t relevant to my work, it really got me thinking.
  3. We are all more than our PhD’s. Just because an experiment doesn’t work, or we have a disagreement with our supervisor, or someone else’s paper gets accepted before ours does our progress through out PhDs shouldn’t impact how we view ourselves.It might have taken me a bit longer than necessary to come to these conclusions, but with the help of 60 other PhD candidates it finally made sense.

There is not a single better way I could have spent these two weeks of my PhD and I would 110% recommend ALL eligible PhD candidates apply for the future EMBL Australia PhD course- you will not be disappointed!

This program would not have been possible without the generous support of EMBL Australia and UTas, so I would like to extend my thanks to all the organizers from EMBL Aus and UTas for making it happen and making 60 PhD students very (very) happy.


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