Isolation (Nicholas Anthony)

Photo by Erlend Ekseth |
“I work with lasers.”

These four simple words regularly save me when some poor individual gets stuck talking to me at a party and makes the mistake of asking what I do.

I’ve tried to give the real answer, that I’m a PhD researcher developing a new technique that uses focused laser light to image materials and biological samples to high spatial resolution.

But who really wants to hear about that when you could imagine I'm on par with supervillains from James Bond movies?!

To my dismay, working with lasers isn’t as glamorous as the movies would have you believe.

It’s true that I get to 'shoot lasers' at things, but it rarely ends in sparks and explosions. Instead, I spend hours at a time in a room with no windows, black walls, no lights, often alone and frequently struggling to understand some of the finer points of whatever it is I’m trying to do at the time.

So, why am I telling you about my life as a PhD candidate in a small dark room?

Because my case is a pretty useful analogy for the way many PhD researchers feel when they embark on a big research project for the first time: isolated.

It can be hard being a graduate researcher and isolation is a very real part of research. Isolation might come from struggling with a concept or theory, working long hours to meet a deadline, or even missing out on events because of work. It comes in many shapes and sizes, and everyone experiences it differently. It is important we acknowledge that isolation as a researcher is real and we should share strategies to overcome it.

For some people, it’s simple to do this. They spend time with family and friends, gossip over lunch, or find a hobby that has nothing to do with their thesis topic. All of these can help you feel less isolated. For example, I overcome my figurative and literal dark room of isolation by stepping outside to have coffee with friends who have nothing to do with my field. However, I’ve also discovered that it's helpful to share your research achievements, roadblocks, and coffee time with your colleagues.

In 2013, a group of graduate researchers - myself included - founded the La Trobe Physics Society with the hope of fostering a sense of community among candidates and researchers. We held professional development events, research seminars, and social activities (like dumpling lunches and video game competitions). We’ve run a lecture series, held astronomy nights and - towards the end of 2015 - an Intellectual Climate Fund (ICF)-supported careers night in collaboration with the University of Melbourne, Monash University and the Australian Institute of Physics. We didn’t realise it at the time - it just seemed like a bit of fun - but the society has done a lot for the physics community at La Trobe.

What started out as a graduate researcher initiative, now includes undergraduates, early career researchers and academic staff. I may spend hours at a time in my small dark room but the light at the end of the doorway (pun intended) is that I'm part of a community that understands and cares about what I do.

What’s especially great is that related societies and clubs are everywhere! Not only is the Physics Society improving our own University's climate but we’ve also started to work with other societies to expand our community.

Last November, we co-hosted an ICF-funded graduate research symposium with the Chemistry Krew and BioGen Society to contribute to the intellectual climate in La Trobe's Institute for Molecular Sciences (LIMS).

It’s amazing what simply being around other people who are experiencing situations similar to yours, and sharing your accomplishments and setbacks can do for your mental wellbeing - and your research!

If you’re feeling isolated, reach out. Trust me, it can make a world of difference.


Nicholas Anthony completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) and a Master of Nanotechnology at La Trobe University.

He is currently completing a PhD in physics within the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Sciences (LIMS) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Advanced Molecular Imaging. 

His research is focused on the development and use of a new technique that uses focused laser light to image materials and biological samples to high spatial resolution. This research has applications in live cell imaging, stress/strain measurements and the investigation of bio-mechanics.


Roger McEwan said…
Well done! I know they tried (and failed) to get something like that started where I was and it would make a world of difference to the culture across schools and the whole university.