Enjoying the roller coaster – how to be a resilient student

This short guide was developed for students in the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, the Department of Paediatrics, University of Melbourne and the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne. However, it contains advice about building resilience and dealing with mental illness that will be of use to students anywhere.

Like many things in life, including roller-coasters, completing a graduate or postgraduate degree can be both enjoyable and scary. Building resilience means that you will enjoy the highs and protect yourself from over-reacting to, and speeding your recovery from, the lows. Such lows could include:

  • Exams
  • Public speaking
  • Pressure to write reports/theses/papers
  • Pressure to finish within the allotted time
  • Financial stress
  • Loneliness
  • Disagreements with supervisors
  • Issues with work/life balance

  So, how can we build up resilience? There are many different ways in which each of us can build up our resilience. These can be grouped as:

  1. Keeping fit
  2. Eating well
  3. Looking after our mind, emotions and spirit

All three are equally important and overwhelming evidence has shown that the brain and the body influence each other. In addition, there is mounting evidence that all three factors can change your genes for the better. Apart from the links in groups 1 and 2 above, this guide will focus mainly on the third component: the mind   How do I look after my mind? You can look after your mind using a number of different techniques, a few of which are outlined below. Mindfulness is the act of focusing your awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It is simple to learn and practice, and needs no specialized equipment or mantra. Many workplaces run regular mindfulness sessions and mindfulness resources can be found here. Meditation in a broad sense involves turning the mind and attention inward and focusing on a single thought, image, object or feeling. It can take a number of different forms and may or may not involve mantras. Some workplaces have prayer and meditation spaces that provides a welcoming sanctuary for silence, prayer, contemplation or meditation. Prayer: Yes, praying is another kind of mindfulness or meditation. You can contact your local religious or spiritual centre for more information. Other resources for looking after your mind can be found at Smiling Mind, Beyond Blue and Sane Australia. Recognising the lows A mental illness is a health problem that significantly affects how a person thinks, behaves and interacts with other people. Such illnesses include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders and personality disorders. They are caused by a combination of genetics, stress at home or work, and may be exacerbated by substance use, for example alcohol or drugs. Each year, a quarter of all those of student age (18-24) will experience mental illness and a third of all people in this age group will have had an episode of mental illness by the age of 25. Two-thirds of those with a mental illness do not access any treatment. Over 4 million students, or 5% of the total student population, have terminated their course due to mental illness. You are not alone. Act now. Treatment If you think you have a mental illness, there are a number of ways that can seek help   Immediate help:

  • Pick up the phone and call one of the following:
    • Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636
    • Sane Australia on 1800 18 7263
    • Samaritans on 13 52 47
    • Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14
  • Have a web-based chat or email with one of the following:

Help from those around you Talk to your supervisor, mentor or colleagues. A mentor is s useful contact to set up – ideally they are not connected with your immediate work group and can provide independent advice Speak to your GP: there are a number of Medicare-covered mental health services you can use. See also the Australian Dept. of Health web sites here and here. Seek resources from within your place of work. Locally we have the following:   University of Melbourne University of Melbourne Counselling and Psychological Services Includes a guide for students with a mental illness. Individual counselling Information and self-help resources Other universities will have similar resources. Other resources and further reading Thedesk: a free online program aimed at providing Australian tertiary students with strategies and skills for success and wellbeing during their time at university or TAFE. Information for secondary schools and tertiary students from BeyondBlue Headspace (“Is it just me?”) is the National Youth Mental Health Foundation. We help young people who are going through a tough time. Smiling Mind: is a unique web and App-based program developed by a team of psychologists with expertise in youth and adolescent therapy. Apps and websites that can complement treatment. More, helpful contacts and websites University Student Mental Health: the Australian Context – Australian Medical Students’ Association A report. Great, short article on “Professional resilience” The Thesis Whisperer blog: PhD detachment and PhD Grief and How to survive a mid-PhD crisis. With thanks to Nathalie Martinek and others who have provided information and links for this guide.

See also this great article from Cathy Sorbara: 7 Ways PhD Students And Academics Can Deal With Stress, Anxiety And Depression


Everybody Hurts – REM. Hang on.


The ten plus ten (plus a few more) commandments of how to be a successful student and scientist

*Update from June 2017: I have added a few extra ‘commandments’ from Twitter and Facebook friends at the end**

This week, three Honours students and one PhD student are starting in my lab. In the back of my mind I have always wanted to pass on my accumulated “wisdom” at the start of their research careers. I haven’t got around to it until now. Earlier this week I put the word out via Facebook and immediately got a response from an old friend that inspired me to write this. Professor Darren Griffin from the University of Kent, UK put together ten commandments for succeeding in academia.They outlined, succinctly, virtues such as persistence, imagination, strategy and just being a decent human being.

I concur and took the liberty of adding another ten – numbers 11 to 20.Many thanks to colleagues past and present including Drs Jane Loke, Nick Wong, Sara Hassan and Joe Sarsero, for their inspirations and suggestions.

11. Network, network, network

Talk to people from outside your group at the water cooler, tea room and at work functions. You will make friends, but importantly, they will be contacts who may be able to help you out some day (see Commandment 12).

12. Beg, borrow or “steal”

You never really run out of a reagent or broken piece of equipment. If you know the right people, you will be able to beg or borrow it when you need it the most. And return the favour when the boot’s on the other foot. And no, don’t steal; it just sounded like a good phrase 😉

13. Say ‘No” to plagiarism

A good idea is worth developing but good text should act as inspiration only. If you like it so much, paraphrase it. If you want to know more about plagiarism and how to check for it, see Turnitin.

14. Write early and write often

It is never too early to start writing your Honours/PhD thesis or your manuscript. Start with something simple such as Materials & Methods. Get feedback and write some more. I also strongly recommend writing the odd blog post. There is no good and bad; there is only read and widely read. Try IFLScience and The Conversation for inspiration. And even Tweeting can sharpen your writing skills.

From PhD Comics http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=333

15. Ask

Never be afraid to ask questions, whether of your supervisor, Postdoc or in a seminar. Lab heads respect and notice those who ask questions and there really aren’t any stupid questions. On the subject of seminars, try going to ones that don’t match your area of interest – you may be pleasantly surprised. If you are not, you could always play Seminar Bingo.

16. Discovering why an experiment didn’t work is almost as satisfying as getting it to work first time

Self explanatory.

17. Be honest

If you break something, always ‘fess up. You will be respected much more than if you don’t.

18. Ask not what your institute/department can do for you, ask what you can do for your institute.

Try volunteering at an institute or departmental event. If you ever go asking for funds for a project or a student group and they don’t know you from Adam, you will have less chance at success. Furthermore, volunteering is good for your health.

19. Find a good mentor apart from your supervisor

Whether a shoulder to cry on or just general advice, get yourself one of these. In fact, get 2 or 3. They can be Postdocs, lab heads, inside or outside your institute.

20. Last but not least, look after yourself

Make sure you top up regularly the three things that could save your life one day: exercise, a healthy diet and spending time being mindful (such as taking part in yoga, meditation or prayer). They all change your epigenetics for the better.

From PhD Comics: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=582

21.The Black Jack

Yes, you will hear that being a researcher is not a financially rewarding career and comes with little job security. Both of these can be true but following these commandments should help you be resilient and stay near the top of the pack.

Have a happy and healthy research career!


And a few more from Twitter buddies

  1. Your supervisor is your supervisor, not your boss – Dr Emma Beckett @synapse101
  2. Run your own race, everyone has a unique PhD experience – Dr Emma Beckett @synapse101
  3. Push the boat out as far as it will go, and always be guided by 2 Qs: Is it true, and who cares? – Clare Llewellyn‏ @Dr_C_Llewellyn
  4. Don’t rely on anyone handing you answers on a silver platter. Be curious, ask questions and seek answers beyond the ivory tower. – Nathalie Martinek‏ @Chitananda
  5. You’re LEARNING, everyone knows this, no one is judging you. Seek help as you need it. Don’t wait. – Kristal Sorby‏ @KrisDoesEcology
  6. Be self-reliant ! You’ll need to be … 😉 Belinda Weaver‏ @cloudaus
  7. Always question the ‘facts’ stated by your supervisor – Terence Pang PhD @seriouspalates
  8. ‏ Depending on the topic, read Been Goldacre’s Bad Science. Also do a timeline – Felice Jacka @FeliceJacka
  9. Get into habit of putting together a slide for each paper they read that will go into your lit review – Felice Jacka @FeliceJacka
  10. Read the article ‘A PhD is not a Nobel prize’ – Fiona J Clay (via Facebook)


Kit for kitty: how cats’ genes have changed during their domestication


Last year I co-authored why so many domesticated mammals have floppy ears for The Conversation for The Conversation. Since then, a recent paper has tracked down changes in specific genes that are associated with domestication.

As a reminder, the hypothesis was that functional and genetic differences in a specific group of cells – the neural crest – during early development, arose through domestication.

Cells in the neural crest, which forms just under the newly formed neural tube (precursor of the spinal cord), gradually migrate to the upper body where their descendent cells help to shape the brain, face, head, neck, intestine, adrenal glands and skin. Minor defects of neural crest cells, such as slower migration, were hypothesised to unite the main features of domesticated animals: tameness, smaller jaws, curly tails and floppy ears.

Current evidence points to the domestication of wild cats between 5,000 and 9,000 years ago. In the late Stone Age, when we were developing our skills in farming of plants and animals, it is likely that wild cats were attracted by food scraps we left around. They were also likely to be attracted to vermin who fed on stored grain, which you can guess, may have led to a mutually beneficial relationship between cats and us. The ancient Egyptians were so grateful to cats for controlling mice and snakes and so much in admiration of their grace and poise that they elevated them to gods.

In the recent paper, researchers compared the gene sequences of wild cats with a number of different breeds of domesticated cats and the results support the domestication hypothesis. Using stringent criteria, they found over a hundred genetic regions that differed markedly between domesticated and wild cats.

evolution of the cat

Looking through these regions, they found genes related to neural crest survival and migration, fear, reward and pigmentation. Most are active in the brain. Fittingly, the gene responsible for the white pigmentation is called KIT, which is essential for the growth and migration of pigmented cells of the skin known as melanocytes. Genetic differences in the KIT gene often result in inefficient migration and maturation of melanocytes during development, resulting in white patches over the body. This condition is known as piebaldism and is seen in humans and in horses (such as pintos), dogs, birds, pigs, cows and even some snakes. In cats, various degrees of white spotting have been produced in the last 200 years by selective breeding. The paper highlights the Birman cat (below), which has quite a high proportion of white fur.

A Birman cat. From http://www.sandswbirmancatclub.co.uk/NEWWWEBSITE/thebirmancat.html

What makes the cat sequencing paper fascinating is how the researchers linked specific genes to specific functions of tissues and organs derived from the neural crest. In addition to taking a guess at a gene’s function from the structure of the protein it produces, they looked at data from animals such as mice and frogs which have been bred in the lab to have one or both copies of a genes either defective or missing altogether (so-called “knockouts”). Comparisons have also come from human medical conditions such as piebaldism, mentioned above, that have had their genetic defects sequenced.


The cat sequencing paper also compared cats to other carnivores such as dogs and analysed the genetic differences in a similar way. They identified gene variants that are likely to provide cats with a superior sense of night vision, hearing and sensing of sex hormones, or pheromones.

What the paper did not answer was why do cats NOT have floppy ears? Maybe not all the boxes of domestication syndrome need to be ticked for each animal. Or maybe floppy ears may have been selected against because it would impair cats’ acute sense of hearing?

What all this means is that we are further along the road to understanding how cats and other animals were domesticated. The information gathered from the hundreds of cat genomes sequenced means that we will be better able to understand and treat cats when they get sick. An understanding of early mammalian development will also help us understand our own development and disease predisposition.