Umanda: When I first came into your lab, I wasn't always set on research. I did a Bachelor of Science at UQ and then transitioned into an honours year. And I still wasn't set but I knew what I wanted out of a career and one of the main things was intellectual liberty, the opportunity to chase my curiosity and answer questions and really dig deep into a specific area.
I also wanted flexible work hours and the opportunity to manage my own schedule. So, when I started working in Tim's lab, I really saw that research ticked those boxes. Those were the reasons why I kick started a PhD, because to be successful in science and academia, you really need a PhD.
What is your favourite thing about being a PhD supervisor?
Tim: There's lots of things that's great about being a supervisor. I think the biggest one is igniting passion in students. The second thing would be guiding them through the challenges of designing a research program and carrying it out. And then the third one, probably the most fun, is getting to celebrate the success with the students.
How is your PhD different from your undergraduate studies?
Umanda: That's a really good question. Because honestly, I love doing a PhD more than I ever loved doing my undergrad. So in undergrad, you have your set lectures, course profiles, exams and assignments and it was I found it very rigid. Whereas transitioning into a PhD, in my field of expertise, which is neuroscience, we can just choose what we want to learn and when we want to learn it and follow through on that, which is really exciting.
Tim: At your own pace.
Umanda: At your own pace, yes, but the thing is with that independence comes the fact that you need to manage your time. You need to develop your perseverance, resilience and self-motivation.
Tim: Lots of skills beyond just the academic.
Umanda: You're not relying on exams and assignments to keep you on track. You're really relying on yourself to push yourself.
Why are you passionate about research?
Tim: I'm passionate about my research because well, first of all, innate curiosity, I've always been super curious about how things work. And the choice of research, we study the brain, which is the last frontier. So I think I'm super passionate about diving into something that's really, really hard to understand. And following it through to the completion and understanding how things work.
Why did you choose to do your PhD at UQ?
Umanda: There's a couple of reasons. The first was I was born in Sri Lanka, but immigrated with my parents to Brisbane about 18 years ago. And one of the things really important to me when deciding where to do a PhD was to be around family because I felt it was really important to have that support system while doing a PhD.
I also knew that I wanted to do molecular neuroscience. And so staying in Brisbane and combining molecular neuroscience, QBI is the best place to work at. So that's why I decided to do my PhD at UQ.
What's the best advice you would give to someone who is considering doing their PhD at UQ?
Tim: I think the biggest thing a person could do if they're looking to do a PhD at UQ is to reach out to a prospective supervisor and do your homework. So find out what people are working on and then actually make contact with those people to engage them in a discussion about what you're interested in and what your expectations are, what theirs are. That's the best thing a student could do.
How do you think your PhD will benefit you professionally and personally?
Umanda: Professionally, a PhD can open lots of doors. So you have the capacity for research in academia. But by working with a group of people, you also have this ability to mentor people and work alongside in a great team. What that develops is skills of teaching and collaboration. So you can take that avenue too, but Australian PhDs also focus on a lot of techniques. So you can use those technique profile to go into industry – professionally, it opens up a huge amount of doors.
Tim: Beyond just critical thinking, there's actually a lot of usable skills.
Umanda: Yeah. And personally, I think this is probably what's best about PhD, and you learn so much about yourself. You're investing four years of your time into a specific topic. And it is relentless so you have to enjoy it for sure.
Who do you think should do a PhD?
Tim: There's certain characteristics that make a great PhD student and I call them the trifecta. One is to be outgoing. It's very important in academia to be able to communicate well with others and network. The second one is to be super resilient, and have a never give up attitude. And then the third one, I think probably the most important one, is to be able to think laterally.
Sometimes it's not a straight line in research, it's many dots that don't look like they're connected. So if you're able to see things from different angles and think laterally – those are pretty important skills and they can be acquired, of course.
Umanda: I definitely think they can be acquired because inherently I'm a very, very shy person. And really, for me to develop that outgoing skill, and collaboration is huge in science, you need to be able to talk to not only your peers, but also people who are senior to you and learn from them and really be able to take direction.
The important thing is to actually put yourself out there don't be afraid to tackle on new opportunities, sign up, don’t wait for every box to be ticked.
How did you come up with your PhD topic?
Umanda: When I emailed you directly asking if you had a job in your lab, you actually had a project set. When I came in, as a research assistant, Tim gave me the project. And I really used that as a starting point to build up my techniques in the lab like the basic skills and also to kind of get a feel into what Tim's lab was really doing. So the knowledge side of things, but then, when I transitioned into a PhD, the dynamic changed because then I was able to really direct where my research could go.
Tim was heavy on giving me advice and a little bit of direction, but ultimately, me choosing where the story of my project goes. So it’s a combination of supervisor and student.
What made you decide to be my supervisor?
Tim: I tell you the one of the first things that caught my attention was your CV, and your willingness to get outside of Brisbane and travel around. And that told me that you were unafraid to try new things. The second one was probably your concerted effort to seek out experience as an undergrad, that was really important. You actually went and actively sought out experiences that were going to help you. So that's why I chose you as a student.
What scholarship have you been awarded and how did you find out about it?
Umanda: I was very lucky to receive the Westpac Future Leaders scholarship, and I actually found out about it by working in your lab because you have two previous future leaders scholars as well. I wasn't convinced on applying actually, you really pushed me to apply.
I'm very grateful for it because it's been a life changing experience. I expected it to be a very corporate scholarship, but it's not. It's all about personal development. Being one of 17 future leaders across Australia, I feel like I have friends everywhere in all these different fields.
Tim: It's provided you a network.
What was your own PhD topic?
Tim: My own PhD topic was a long time ago now. When I was a student, we were studying a kind of a similar theme of how experience changes the brain in the long run, over the lifetime. But we were specifically interested in two critical periods. So early life experience, experience during adolescence, and how that had the capacity to rewire the brain.
How did you pitch your topic?
Umanda: I didn't actually pitch a PhD project because when I joined Tim's lab as a research assistant he already had a project going and so I was given the project and was able to develop it over these years.
Tim: We discussed it a bit. Worked out the details together.
Umanda: Where we overlapped and what our interests were and we will really follow through that and still following through on it. I think it's ever-changing.
Do you find the fact that we don't know everything about our research area exciting or intimidating?
Tim: Super exciting. It keeps me up at night. It keeps me motivated to keep pushing forward into uncharted territory. That feeling that uneasiness of not knowing where we're going? It's kind of fun. It's almost like a treasure hunt.
How would you explain your PhD topic to someone outside of research?
Umanda: We in the lab focus on neuroplasticity. And that is really studying how the brain learns in response to experiences and for us that’s fearful experiences. Being a part of this lab means developing the techniques to look at what happens in the brain.
The other side is using those techniques to then manipulate specific genes in a specific time and place in the brain. And why that's beneficial is that we really need this kind of fundamental science to be able to develop therapies in the future for situations such as like PTSD or phobias.