Q: What year are you in your PhD program?
A: I'm about a year into my PhD. I did my bachelor of science at the University of Auckland. In New Zealand, the bachelor's degree is a three year program and then you can do an honors year, which is similar to doing a master's. During the honors year we do research and coursework. If you get high enough marks during the honors year you can go straight into a PhD program.
Q: What type of research are you doing in your PhD?
A: The research I do is on outcomes of exercise based therapy for women with cardiovascular diseases. In New Zealand heart disease is the biggest killer in women, but most research has been focused on men. Doing research on women with cardiovascular diseases is difficult because there tend to be more confounding variables like hormonal changes during menopause. During our experiments, we take physiological measures like VO2 max and different measures of heart and blood vessel function. VO2 max reports on an individual's cardiovascular fitness can be used as a prognostic measure to predict health outcomes in the future.
Q: What's it like working with people?
A: I've noticed a lot of other people on social media who do research aren't usually working with human participants. I enjoy working with people, though I'm sure there can be pros and cons. Recruitment and motivation during the study can be difficult when working with people. There's also definitely an emotional aspect to working with people. We're working with people who could have had a heart attack a few weeks ago, so we have to be careful in how we talk to and approach people. I think working with people is very rewarding. In research there are positive outcomes you can get from any study, but when we work with people you can actually see and interact with individuals whose quality of life is improving through the exercise program we have them complete.
Q: What was it that got you interested in doing research?
A: I've always been interested in how the body works. I think it's interesting to learn how diseases affect the body and I'm fascinated by these basic fundamental science questions. By the third year of my undergrad when I was nearing the end of my studies I realized I still had a lot of questions and I was really only getting partial answers to my questions. So I think my interest in research has been curiosity driven. I didn't feel like I had learned enough about the things that interested me so I decided to continue my education and go into doing research. I didn't know much about research until I got involved in doing research so I kind of went into it blindly. I'm still learning a lot about how research works and there are things that still shock me, like about the financial situation in science and how much politics can be involved in science. I think overall, though, it's been kind of nice to go into research with no expectations because I have the freedom to decide what I like and what I don't like and develop my research project from there.
Q: What is your favorite part about doing research?
A: I think one of my favorite things about doing research has been developing my own research project. I had a question I wanted to answer and I've been able to come up with ways to answer my questions. There have been some challenges in coming up with a way to answer my research question, but I've also had a lot of flexibility to develop my strategy to address the questions for my project. It's been a lot of trial and error in developing my project.
Q: What would you say has been a defining experience during your PhD?
A: There have been a couple of obstacles I've had to overcome during my PhD that have taught me a lot of lessons. During our honors year, if we get an A average during our qualifying year we are guaranteed funding for three years of our PhD. I was marked pretty harshly during my honors year so I ended up with an A- average, which meant I had to find a different means of funding for my PhD. It was then that I had to decide if doing my PhD was something I wanted to continue and find funding for. I had to apply for external scholarships for the first six months of my PhD. I encountered a lot of self doubt during this time and I thought that this grade defined me and meant that I wasn't good enough to do my PhD. The biggest lesson I've learned from this is that my abilities as a research and a scientist aren't defined by one grade or one rejection. It took time to overcome the feeling that I wasn't good enough to be here and sometimes the feelings can still come back up. But the more experience you have in dealing with these feelings and also knowing that these thoughts/feelings are normal and aren't true are crucial to overcoming the idea that we're not good enough.
It's been really rewarding to use this blog platform as a place to interact with other scientists and learn about their experiences in grad school and science! Everyone I've gotten to talk to has had a different perspective and so much wisdom to offer through their stories.
I hope everyone reading has enjoyed this feature! And thank you again, Nikita for sharing your PhD experience with us!