#101 Siobhan Sullivan

This week's PhDetails is #101 with Siobhan Sullivan. Siobhan grew up in Western Australia and completed a Bachelor of Science in Geography and Conservation Biology with honours from the University of Western Australia. Her honours research focussed on the drought tolerance of Eucalyptus species from southwestern Australia. This then led onto her PhD project at UWA in collaboration with Kings Park Science, which investigates how water stress limits plant establishment, especially in disturbed landscapes. You can find Siobhan on Twitter @SullivanSiobhan!

Well let’s start off talking about completely unscientific stuff: What are your favourite band/musical artists pre 1980?
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, ABBA and Queen. 

Favourite band/musical artists post 1980?
Stella Donnelly and San Cisco. 

Favourite movie?
About Time. It’s sweet and wholesome and I love it.

Do you listen to podcasts? 
I don’t listen to as many podcasts as I did when I was deep in the data collection stage of my PhD. I would switch between serious and silly podcasts depending on my mood. My favourite podcasts were the Hook Up, All in the Mind, My Dad Wrote a Porno, Potterless, In Defense of Plants and all of the podcasts included in the Urban Broadcast Collective. I’d like to get into Dewey Decibel and Bad Feminist Film Club soon. 

Where do you study and who are your supervisors?
I study at the University of Western Australia (UWA) and Kings Park Science in Perth. I’m supervised by Erik Veneklaas (UWA), Jason Stevens (Kings Park Science) and Pieter Poot (UWA). 

What year of your PhD are you in?
I just submitted my fourth annual report, so fifth. Goodness, I thought they said time only goes fast when you’re having fun? I’ve been juggling PhD and full-time work for almost one year now, so my perception of where I am on the PhD journey is somewhat skewed. I’ll submit my thesis later this year.

Who’s giving you the money – and for how long?
The operating money for my project came from the School of Biological Sciences at UWA and the ARC Centre for Mine Site Restoration. I was supported by the Robert and Maude Gledden Postgraduate Scholarship between 2016 and 2019. After hours, I also worked casually as a gardener, student library officer and once as a wildflower (see photo)! Knowing that I had no interest in trying to persist in research after my PhD and how much I enjoyed my casual student library officer role, I took a full-time library role last year. I agonised over making that change, but it was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. 

Photo by Laura Skates
Do you have any publications?
No. Hopefully publications will come soon after I’ve finished my thesis. I think I will feel as though I finalised my work “properly” if I can publish the research from my PhD.

Did you do a masters – where was it and was it about?
I didn’t do a masters, but completed a one-year research project after my three-year undergraduate degree (known as an honours project here in Australia). My honours project (also completed at UWA) investigated how tolerant to drought eight species of Eucalyptus were and how this related to where the species were found in Western Australia.

Do you do fieldwork? What is the best fieldwork you have ever done and what made it great?
I spent two and a half years of my PhD project periodically travelling between Perth and a mine site in semi-arid Western Australia where I had established a field trial. I installed irrigation, planted nursery grown seedlings and sowed seeds before monitoring emergence, survival, growth and physiology of these plants. While I can look back in amazement at what a logistical feat that field trial was, that fieldwork did not go how I had hoped (of course) and was not enjoyable generally. The fieldwork was made all the more difficult by a hostile mine site environment and research group. I had loved fieldwork previously and really pushed for my field trial to happen, but in the end, I found my work in the Kings Park labs and UWA glasshouses more rewarding. 

How many PhDs did you apply for – what were you looking for?
I was lucky to receive a PhD scholarship after my first application and so only applied for one PhD. I loved anything to do with plant physiology, especially water relations, but had wanted to contribute to a more practical outcome than I had in my honours project. I thought that investigating the influence of drought in mine site restoration would be a good way to combine my theoretical interests with my desire for an applied science project, especially given my desire to remain in Western Australia at the time. 

What is the most bodged piece of equipment you have had to use during field/labwork – did it work?
The equipment that I used in the lab, glasshouse and field were well maintained and functional, thank goodness. But I have spent a fair amount of time stripping and soldering wires in an attempt to make working soil moisture sensors for glasshouse and field trials. And I say attempt, because sometimes it didn’t work at all.

What one piece of advice would you give to a masters student applying to PhDs now?
Really consider why you want to complete a PhD, what you want to achieve along the way and in the end. Do you want a research career? Do you really know what a research career path involves? What other jobs are available to a PhD graduate in your field? Are you able to separate your self-worth from your research and career success? Can you find a supportive and competent team to work with? 

I’d suggest speaking to as many PhD candidates and graduates as possible to get their perspectives on a PhD journey.  Hopefully, those conversations will give you a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges ahead, while also highlighting that every student has a different approach to getting the PhD done.

How often do you meet with your supervisors?
It’s changed throughout my PhD. I met with my supervisors weekly when we were developing my ideas for a project and trying to overcome initial logistical challenges. Once most things were going according to plan and I was collecting data, we met much less frequently, probably every few months. Drafting chapters has required more communication and I’m sure we will need to go back to more frequent meetings soon.

What supervisor traits are important to you?
Compassion, open-mindedness, the ability to listen and dedication to student success, not just research outcomes. 

What do you think are the worst supervisor traits?
Research is a high-pressure and hypercompetitive environment. I would say that far too many people rely on lies and bullying to navigate the academic world, which is deplorable. As is watching that behaviour go on without saying anything. 

In one sentence what is your PhD about?
How water limits plant establishment and if it is possible to condition plants to better tolerate drought. 

What has been your academic highlight of the last year?
I presented at my first conference last year. I was so nervous and stressed in the lead up to it. I hadn’t presented my work outside my school before and I was presenting data from my field trial which I considered to be a bit of a failure. On the day the presentation went well, and I received some positive feedback. I felt like I was on cloud nine for the rest of that day. While that feeling obviously couldn’t last forever, it was a much-needed reminder that there is usually more going on in my data than I expect.

Have you had an academic lowpoint of the last year – if so what happened?
Last year I was desperately trying to finish my data collection before my funding ran out in six months’ time. I felt that I had spent too much time setting up the field trial early on in my PhD, which had then delayed all my other experiments. I was jumping between pre-dawn measurements in the glasshouse, plant harvests in the glasshouse, seed germination trials in the lab and the last of my monitoring in the field. I was constantly thinking about how much there was still to do and how angry I was at how my PhD had gone. I was thinking about how I really didn’t want to be working for too long without a PhD scholarship and how pointless everything felt given that I didn’t want to stay in research. It had a massive impact on both my physical and mental health. It was a ridiculously unpleasant time and mostly self-inflicted. 

At the same time, I saw a job opening at the library I had been working at as an after-hours casual. I had really enjoyed that role, so much so I had been investigating librarian studies, but I hadn’t intended to jump ship before I finished my PhD! I applied for the job thinking that I probably wouldn’t even make interview, but I did, and was actually offered two different jobs. I took the job which excited me most, spoke with my supervisors and started in June 2019. The role was even more interesting than I had expected, and I continue to be blown away by how positive, healthy and supportive my workplace is. While it wasn’t part of my original plan, I am so much happier for having taken that chance.

Which academic idol/scientist have you met?
I met Jane Goodall a few years ago when she was visiting Kings Park. It was such an unexpected thing, but wonderful. Jane Goodall had lovely words to say about Western Australia, Kings Park and how wonderful it was to meet other female scientists. And I couldn’t agree more.  

Which academic idol/scientist would you most like to meet?
I really don’t know! If I wanted to stay in research I would probably want to hear the perspectives of a female scientist with a permanent job, but as that isn’t true, I’d prefer to talk about misogyny with anyone who identifies as a feminist.  

Who has been your academic role model/inspiration and why?
My parents. My Mum and Dad have always encouraged me to work hard on things that interest me, read widely and think critically, which is pretty good advice for life generally.

What has been your favourite conference so far – why?
I haven’t attended many conferences and have only presented my own work at one. The Ecological Society of Australia conferences are always lots of fun, they’re student focussed and usually full of friends from across Australia. But my impression is that smaller conferences like the Australian and New Zealand Society for Comparative Physiology and Biochemistry meetings are much more valuable. You receive more supportive, considered, and constructive feedback from people who you wouldn’t normally get a chance to speak to at a larger conference.

What hours do you typically work?
A couple of hours each morning before I start work and one full day on the weekend. It’s getting harder to wake up early now that it’s colder and darker in the mornings (and I’m onto trickier parts of the write-up). I’m relying more than I would like on a human alarm clock, otherwise known as my ‘morning-person’ partner. 

How do you avoid procrastinating?
Knowing how little time I had available to work on my PhD compared to if I was a full-time PhD student was very motivating for a short period of time. Now that can be quite overwhelming (and lead to procrastination), so I really have to focus on small goals which can be achieved in one week, or even a couple of hours.  

What motivates you in your day to day PhD life?
Honestly, the idea of finishing this research and moving on with my life.

What do you do when you’re not working – how do you balance it with your PhD?
I hit people with swords! Or at least I try to. I’ve been learning historical fencing or historical European martial arts (HEMA) for the last three years. 

Photo by Rebecca Campbell from Ursa Major HEMA Academy

If a genie could grant you one wish to help with your PhD what would you wish for?
More hours in the day or more motivation to use those hours for PhD work.

What would be your dream job?
Tropical beach tester! With cold beers! 
Okay a more serious answer: I’m really enjoying my current library role, so if I could combine information management with more of my science background, I’d be very happy. 

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I really don’t know. I’d love if my PhD was a distant memory and I was happy, healthy, financially stable and still surrounded by my wonderful family and friends. That would be all I need. 

One word to sum up your future in academia:

What do you want to achieve outside of academia in the coming year?
COVID-19 pending, I’d like to go on a holiday overseas. Preferably somewhere with beautiful green landscapes (like New Zealand) or warm beaches (like the Caribbean). We’ll see.

What essential tool hardware/software could you not do your PhD without?
A pressure chamber and nitrogen gas! Leaf water potential measurements forever! Other than that, my laptop, Excel and R.

Where is somewhere you would like to work in the future?
Anywhere that will give me a permanent job? I haven’t really invested time into that kind of ‘dream location’ thinking for a long time. Finding and embedding myself in a workplace that is supportive and interesting is more important to me. 

Do you have a favourite organism?
Well I really do love Eucalypts, which I’ve always studied. I think they’re magnificent. They persist across a broad range of climates and characterise so many Australia landscapes.
Other than Eucalypts, I’d have to say that mushrooms are real fun(gi). 

Are there any social interactions/meetings which have enhanced your PhD experience?
I don’t have any formal student clubs or meetings to mention, but the friendship and support of colleagues at UWA and at Kings Park Science has meant the world to me. There’s a large picnic table at Kings Park where the volunteers, students, research assistants, post-docs and senior scientists share cups of tea, lunch and Friday beers. I found that to be a really valuable and important space. I saw for the first time how research goes, the highs and the lows across all stages, and didn’t feel so alone in my own project frustrations. I made some of my dearest friends around that table and met my partner. 

If you could change one thing about your group/department structure what would it be?
My understanding of the research world is that it requires significant personal sacrifice, most concerningly in the form of your own wellbeing. I would love if this could change and people could be successful academics without sacrificing their relationships, financial stability and mental and physical health for years on end. I know that everyone is overworked and so it’s tempting to hope that more funding would solve all issues. But I think a shift in attitude is required across entire research groups, departments, universities, and the research sector as a whole. Line managers at all levels need to understand their responsibility to promote the success and wellbeing of those below them. This means supervisors who have the capacity to supervise well and see it as their job to do so. Supervisors who know where their students or staff are at, provide constructive feedback and encouragement, show empathy and fight the good fight on behalf of their colleagues if necessary.

What major question in your subject area is yet to be addressed – why is it important and why isn’t anyone addressing it? 
There are so many plant species with different strategies to survive water stress. It’s all a matter of time of course, but I think more research into how different genera and species of native plants do survive drought is really important, especially with climates shifting.