A global pandemic is a unique challenge we are all facing together. Carra Simpson is a PhD student in the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne and a strongly committed IMNIS mentee. We invited Carra to interview and share how she has been managing and navigating this hurdle.

Carra Simpson [photo: provided by CS]

Have you had to end, pause or pivot your research during the Covid19 measures? What are some of the ways you are staying motivated and productive?

As someone at the tail end of data collection from human participants (mental health interviews and biological samples), I am lucky that I can freeze my specimens for future analysis (the bio samples, of course). We are now conducting all our mental health interviews online, which adds a little barrier for rapport building, but is nonetheless working well.

I am so thankful to the wonderful participants who can see the importance of research investigating the intersection between mental and physical health, now more than ever!

A major challenge for my research progression has been the understandable backlog of DNA sequencing at our collaborating institute, who is working hard on the front line of COVID19 research and sample processing. Fortunately, I have found ways to stay productive until I receive my data. I have started testing my analysis code and pipelines with open access data, and I hope that it will be as simple as plugging in my own when it comes. I have also written a protocol paper and finalised a review paper, which will serve as chapters in my thesis but were able to be written without having any data.

Not being at the University campus has been challenging, but I recommend everyone join and interact with a graduate student group. I also have had to adapt to the quick shift of my teaching moving online. I always remind myself that we are all going through this together, and students have been very supportive and kind. I’ve tried to embrace different technologies to make video-conference calls a little more interesting, and I recommend checking-out software and apps for collaboration.

Are you in the throes of a job hunt? What are some ways you are connecting, networking and searching for opportunities? If not, these are still good things to do – what actions are you taking?

Although I have around a year left in my PhD, I have started an excel spreadsheet documenting labs that may be a great fit for my postdoctoral experience. I update this if I see a talk, tweet, or meet someone who sparks my interest.

A few hot tips I have received as job-searching shifts entirely online (and less in conference halls) has been to monitor specific hashtags on Twitter. For those looking to continue their research in academia, #postdocs, #postdocjobs and #postdoc are good bets. #AltAc is great for opportunities outside of academia.

Are you doing any online learning or professional development? If yes, what types of skills are you keen to strengthen or develop during this time?

Yes, I have been working on my bioinformatics and programming skills the past few months. To help solidify my own knowledge, I presented an introduction to genetic sequencing and bioinformatics talk on Zoom last week to our lab. I recommend taking advantage of your online library resources to get some analysis literature in, and then start applying this practically yourself or with a guided course (Coursera, DataCamp etc).

Is there any other advice you would share with other early career STEM researchers/graduates at this time?

Any progress is good progress. Although this is a heightened example, there are going to be times where you are more or less productive. It is okay for this to be a down time.

That being said, there are always things that need doing, even if they weren’t pencilled in to happen now. How about downloading a reference managing software or platform and start documenting important literature in your area? Starting a review paper will help you understand the extant literature, but also functions as content for your introduction.

Any progress is good progress. Although this is a heightened example, there are going to be times where you are more or less productive. It is okay for this to be a down time.

Spend time planning things so you’re ready to jump back into practical work. Now is a great time to reach out and talk to others going through the same experience. Although there’s nothing like a global pandemic to highlight the differences in PhD programs, there is bound to be someone disrupted in a similar way. How are they feeling? Can you support each other or work together? It is great to bounce ideas off others, and I recommend using #AcademicTwitter and other social media platforms to feel more connected. You are not alone.

How are you staying healthy and well during this time? Please consider physical, emotional and mental health and wellness.

Being isolated in the middle of Melbourne can be tough, but I challenge anyone in a similar position to embrace their apartment building stairs! I have been walking up and down 20 flights of stairs on my way to get the groceries or take my daily walk.

I’ve been thinking deeply about how to maintain my own and my peers’ mental health during these challenging times. I’ve started stretching daily and reading fiction books for pleasure. University Mental Health Day was May 5th, so keep your eye out for other such opportunities or online engagement your University might be offering.

The University of Melbourne is offering midday mindful moments, drop in dance parties, and a social connection program to make new friends online!

Carra Simpson is a PhD student who is also completing a Graduate Certificate (Biomedical Sciences). Carra’s research seeks to bridge the arbitrary distinction between “mental” and “physical” health. Carra is investigating the gut microbiota, or the community of microorganisms in the gut, in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anxiety and depression. These conditions are highly co-morbid, and shared bacterial alterations in the gut are of increasing interest as a possible source of this co-occurrence. Carra also volunteers on the Victorian Oral Microbiome and Lifestyle Study. Her honours project informed this study, and investigated the oral microbiota, cortisol and c-reactive protein in adolescent depression and anxiety. Carra is passionate about science communication and evidence-based practice, and hopes that her research is able to inform future interventions in these burdensome conditions. She is interested in investigating the options for her career outside of academia, however currently seeks to pursue a postdoctoral research position after her PhD.