This week’s PhDetails is with Michelle Jonika, a second-year PhD student studying evolutionary biology in Heath Blackmon's lab at Texas A&M University. Before starting her PhD Michelle attended Texas A&M for her undergraduate degree in Forensic and Investigative Science where she published an undergraduate thesis, Genes as Markers of Sex for Forensic Entomology, with my adviser Dr. Aaron Tarone. You can find Michelle on twitter @michellejonika
My favorite bands/artists are Bad Suns, Childish Gambino, Blink 182 and Metro Station (there’s a few middle school throwbacks in there)
My favorite movies are Harry Potter and Good Will Hunting. I am also a huge fan of rom coms
Do you listen to podcasts? What are some of your favourites?
My favorite podcasts all involve murder lol (My Bachelor’s degree is in forensic science so death is interesting to me), but they are My Favorite Murder, Serial, and Monster: The Zodiac Killer
Where do you study and who is your supervisor?
I study evolutionary biology at Texas A&M University and my adviser is Heath Blackmon
What year of your PhD are you in?
I am in my second year of my PhD
Who’s giving you the money – and for how long?
My program guarantees me funding for the entirety of my degree-essentially this means that my supervisor is required to give me the amount the program states either through their own funding or by securing me a teaching assistant position
Do you have any publications?
Did you do a masters – where was it and was it about?
I went straight from my undergrad into a PhD
Do you do fieldwork or lab work? What is the best fieldwork you have ever done and what made it great?
I have opportunities to do field work and lab work in the lab I work in. I just recently went on my first fieldwork trip to southern Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas this past summer. The fieldwork we do is at night in the middle of the mountains, so I would say the most exciting thing was the serenity of being in the middle of nowhere with the quiet and being able to see the stars at night. For lab work, I would say I really enjoy the monotony of doing dozens of DNA or RNA extractions for hours. However, molecular work is sometimes very frustrating when you do a lot of work but don’t get results. Overall, I really enjoy having a balance of the two opportunities as well as computational work to give me a well-rounded experience.
How many PhDs did you apply for – what were you looking for?
When I applied for PhD programs I applied for 3 as well as a masters program. I was really looking for a broad degree in genetics so that I didn’t get a degree in something too specific and limit my opportunities to work after.
What is the most bodged piece of equipment you have had to use during field/labwork – did it work?
I haven’t really had any experiences with this yet *knock on wood*
What one piece of advice would you give to a masters student applying to PhDs now?
I would say that the professor that you are choosing to work with is more important than the science. The science may be perfect but if the professor running the lab is rude and doesn’t create a good working environment, it will not be an enjoyable PhD experience.
How often do you meet with your supervisor?
I have a regularly scheduled meeting with my supervisor once a week, but if it is an especially busy week submitting a paper, grant or getting a lot of results it may be more often than that.
What supervisor traits are important to you?
Good communication, mentorship, accessible, not overbearing, there when you need them but also allow you to be independent, can make jokes with, encouraging and appreciative
What do you think are the worst supervisor traits?
Lack of communication, overbearing, never around to discuss science with, overly negative or pessimistic, too serious
In one sentence what is your PhD about?
I investigate basic questions in evolutionary biology using genomics, bioinformatics, and machine learning approaches.
What has been your academic highlight of the last year?
I just got my first grant to do fieldwork! It feels good to be able to write up a project and for a funding agency to see potential in it. I’m really excited to get started on this side project and be out in the field collecting bugs
Have you had an academic lowpoint of the last year – if so what happened?
I wouldn’t say I have had a specific lowpoint. I will say that my motivation in grad school comes in waves. I will feel really productive for several weeks and then I will go through maybe a few days where I am in a slump and really have to push myself to get things accomplished. I try to work more when I am having those really motivated days and I take it easy on those days where I may not feel as motivated.
Which academic idol/scientist have you met?
I wouldn’t say I have got to really meet an idol. A few weeks ago, I did get to meet Sarah McAnulty, Director of Skye a Scientist. She was really cool and it was really awesome to hear about the program and how much it helps us to be better communicators of our science to the public.
Which academic idol/scientist would you most like to meet?
I would love to have met Charles Darwin while he was alive. He is truly such a great writer and communicator of his science. The way he leads you into believing and reaching the same conclusions he does is just so eloquent. I think it would be interesting to sit down and have a conversation with him about science.
Do you have a favourite paper?
Fantastic Yeasts and Where to Find Them - solely because I believe the creativity of that title is ingenious.
What has been your favourite conference so far – why?
I had the opportunity to go to the Entomological Society of America joint meeting in Vancouver, Canada last year. I think it was my favorite just because it was the first time I had been out of the country and Vancouver was such a pretty city! I took time to go up to Whistler, Canada where the Olympics was held and I got to see the beautiful snow-capped mountains just before their first heavy snow of the winter.
What hours do you typically work?
I typically come in around 10 or 11 in the morning. I will stay until around 4 or 5. I go home to eat dinner and hang out with my dog. Later in the night I will watch Netflix and code.
How do you avoid procrastinating?
I will 100% end up watching Netflix if I am sitting at home, so if I need to get work done I often go to a coffee shop to get work done.
What motivates you in your day to day PhD life?
I would say hearing encouragement from my supervisor or others regarding the work I am doing is something that motivates me. If it is an especially hard week but someone takes time to let me know that the work I am doing is seen and appreciated it motivates me to keep going.
What do you do when you’re not working – how do you balance it with your PhD?
When I am not working, I enjoy spending time with my dog and binge watching Netflix. I also enjoy golfing and spending time with my family. I always take time throughout the week to do the things I enjoy. I never want to look back on my PhD and feel like I put my life on hold for four years.
If a genie could grant you one wish to help with your PhD what would you wish for?
I wish someone could write up my results into exciting papers with great stories for me so that I could move onto my next project. I really enjoy getting data and I really do not enjoy writing up the results!
What would be your dream job?
My dream job is just to do something that I love and that I know I will enjoy coming to work every day. I came in to my PhD knowing that I wanted a job in industry and that is still my goal and I don’t think that will change. My dream job as of right now would be to get a job in a tech/biotech company and be able to do data science.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In 5 years, I hope I will be graduated and employed! I really hope that I can be employed in a job where I am happy and feel like it is a good fit. I hope that I will have all the chapters of my dissertation published and can just relax at my new job and enjoy post-graduate school life.
One word to sum up your future in academia:
Outside of academia, I am trying to create a better work life balance for myself. Sometimes it is hard when I can take my coding work home to set that aside and read a book or hang out with friends. So my goal for myself is to really take that time to take care of myself, my health, my friendships and to know that the work will still be there the next morning or after the weekend.
What essential tool hardware/software could you not do your PhD without?
Because I do a lot of bioinformatics work, I would have to say my Mac. I am always running some analysis on my computer for most hours in the day, so I don’t think it would be possible to function without it.
Who has been your academic role model/inspiration and why?
I wouldn’t say that I have a single academic role model. I usually look up to several academic faculty that I admire and I take note of the things I like and dislike. Then, with those things that I admire or enjoy about them I try to reciprocate that with my interactions with others in academia and strive to take on those good qualities that I see in those people.
Where is somewhere you would like to work in the future?
I would like to work in the tech industry as a data scientist at a big company like Google or Facebook or even for a biotech company.
Do you have a favourite organism?
My favorite animal is a panda. I have never had an opportunity to work with a panda or panda DNA, but I hope I will in the future (currently planning a panda project)
Are there any social interactions/meetings which have enhanced your PhD experience?
There isn’t any specific thing that I think has enhanced my PhD experience. It is nice that I am attending the institution I went to undergrad at so I feel very comfortable. As for my PhD though, I feel like there are a lot of little things that make it a great experience: great PI, great friends, exciting research, large group of grad students who study similar topics and areas of science.
If you could change one thing about your group/department structure what would it be?
As a student that wants to go into an industry job after I graduate, I wish that my program had more opportunities that they shared for jobs and internships outside of academia. Specifically, as I am applying for internships right now, I have spent a massive amount of time searching for these opportunities and I wish that there was more help in navigating this process.
What major question in your subject area is yet to be addressed – why is it important and why isn’t anyone addressing it?
I think in the field of evolutionary biology there are a lot of things that are not answered, it is just how interesting are the answers to those questions and will they help us to understand something that is informative and exciting. One thing that I am currently diving into is a machine learning approach in genetic data. This is a relatively new thing to the field and I am excited to apply it in a unique and hopefully rewarding way!