Monday, 25 May 2015

What do you mean there are no comms? Conducting archaeological fieldwork at Lake Mungo (Caroline Spry)

A view of the Mungo lunette, looking north (Photo by Caroline Spry)
When I first started my PhD at La Trobe University, each step of my research project sounded straightforward enough.

The first part would involve fieldwork in the spectacular setting of Lake Mungo, where I would locate and record a large number of sites where stone tools were made and used. Once back in Melbourne, I would get stuck into research, number-crunching, and writing.

During my first visit to Lake Mungo, however, I quickly realised that there was a lot more to the fieldwork component than I had anticipated – particularly given the remote location where I would be working.

Lake Mungo is part of the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area (WLRWHA), which is located in semi-arid southwestern New South Wales, 90 km northeast of Mildura.

Our accommodation was comprised of shearers' quarters, which were first constructed during the early 1900s (think corrugated iron and wood).

While electricity is available, there is no mobile phone coverage, no internet, no heating or air conditioning, no shopping facilities – and occasionally no water!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Community: build networks to support your work (Jade Sleeman)

Image from
When I’m not hard at work researching or writing, there's a US sitcom that I secretly enjoy called Community.

It's about a group of unlikely characters studying in a community college, who decide to form a study group. It stars Chevy Chase, so you know it'll be good for a laugh.

The thing that makes this show so funny - apart from Chevy Chase - is that the group of students seem to have nothing in common, and yet they make each other's experience of college so much better.

One of the most difficult things I've found about studying for a higher degree by research is that it can be extremely isolating.

Being proactive about identifying your community (or communities) can be helpful in creating supportive networks, and improving your experience of what can seem like a hard slog.

Monday, 11 May 2015

An unplanned career in plants (Tim Entwisle)

This is the full text of Tim Entwisle's keynote speech at the La Trobe University Graduate Research School launch on 4 May 2015 (John Scott Meeting House, Bundoora).

The School is one of a number of initiatives led by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Keith Nugent, that responds to the research objectives outlined in the University’s Future Ready strategy.

Professor Tim Entwisle
in full speech mode
I spent about three and a half years at La Trobe University, studying the taxonomy and systematics of an alga called Vaucheria. Professor Bill Woelkerling was my PhD supervisor and Professor Alan Wardrop was the head of Botany.

Professor Wardrop’s research and rule were waning when I was there, but he had been a highly distinguished plant cell wall biologist in the 1950s. He had also left his mark as the foundation Chair then Dean in Biological Sciences, and foundation Professor of the Department of Botany. Interestingly, he was a champion of unity in biology and was unhappy in the 1960s when separate schools emerged for botany, zoology, and the like, preferring the intermeshed model very much in favour these days.

Bill Woelkerling had an equally formidable reputation as a scientist, part of Australia’s first wave of internationally important phycologists (algal specialists). He was much more self-contained than Professor Wardrop, and would have flourished in any school or department and under any disciplinary hierarchy. Bill had wallpapered his office with books, subdividing it to create more room for bookcases. His approach to work was regimented, orderly, and methodical. There was nothing left to chance. I was attracted to that at the time.

I’d done my undergraduate degree in Science, with an honours year, at the University of Melbourne, followed by a year at the Royal Botanic Gardens working as a (indoor) horticultural assistant while I decided what to do next. It only took a few months to realise that, yes, I enjoyed working in the botanic gardens – who wouldn’t? – but I needed to stretch myself intellectually first.

I wanted to discover new things and, looking back, to also create something new. Something like a thesis.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Are you working in a healthy research laboratory culture? (Sam Manna)

Photo by benandclare |
CC license:
Some people say that it’s the supervisor’s responsibility to maintain a healthy research laboratory culture.

While this may be true, it’s likely that it’s the last thing your supervisor is thinking about.

This means that maintaining a healthy research laboratory culture falls to the laboratory members. But what exactly do I mean by a “healthy research laboratory culture”?

Let me put it this way: Do you hate going into the lab in the morning? Are there people in your lab that you don’t get along with? Do you count down the hours until it’s 5pm and you can go home (not that 5pm is really a time any PhD student leaves the lab anyway!)?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these, the culture in your lab may not be very healthy, which can affect productivity.

In this post, I wanted to talk about some tips that will create a positive vibe in the lab. As a molecular biologist, my perspective on this is for biological laboratories, but I think these tips apply to any laboratory.

Spend time with your lab, outside of the lab!

It shouldn’t surprise you that developing positive relationships with the people in your lab is one of the strongest ways to create a healthy lab culture.