Ph.D., University of Western Australia

Belinda Martin: I’ve always had a huge love for all things nature

Interviewed by Nowreen Priyanka

Editor’s note: Thanks to Belinda for sharing her story about her experiences as a doctoral student at the University of Western Australia. Hopefully, this will give some insight about the graduate life in this University to the incoming/prospective students.

Belinda Martin

Belinda Martin

Ph.D. Candidate

School of Plant Biology, University of Western Australia

I started my Ph.D. research degree in the School of Plant Biology at the University of Western Australia where I am now in my second year of investigating how seagrass interact with their sediments and with the bacteria living in and around their roots.

Work. Life. Balance. It’s really hard to get that right. I think it’s OK to burn the midnight candle (or more accurately, light globe unless you have had a blackout) and work some of your weekends away for deadlines – but only if this is an occasional thing.

A little bit about me

I am originally from the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Australia (yes it’s a beautiful place to grow up). I moved to China for a year to teach English which was a life-changing experience for me (but my Mandarin is non-existent).

When I returned to Australia, I moved to Far North Queensland where I completed my undergraduate degree in Ecology from James Cook University (Cairns) in 2010. As an Ecologist in training (and anyone with an interest in nature), Cairns is a great place to study, with easy access to the beautiful Great Barrier Reef as well as Australia’s last remaining tropical rainforest ecosystem.

After completing my undergraduate degree, I decided to move to Perth, Western Australia to see what the other side of Australia was doing (besides watching the sunset over the sea). I started looking into using plants to remediate contaminated soils and received first-class honours from the University of Western Australia in 2012.

I then worked as a research project officer at the CSIRO (Australia’s federal research organization) for two years investigating plant-pathogen interactions (which meant I spent a lot of my time trying to kill plants with fungus).

At the start of 2015, I decided to go back to school and begin a Ph.D. research degree in the School of Plant Biology at the University of Western Australia where I am now in my second year of investigating how seagrass interact with their sediments and with the bacteria living in and around their roots. When I’m not filling my life with seagrass, I fill my life with bluegrass and you can occasionally catch me picking banjo in venues throughout Perth.

Why University of Western Australia

The University of Western Australia has a good reputation, being among the top 8 universities of Australia. I also completed my honours year at UWA, so I was already familiar with many researchers and laboratories within the school of Plant Biology. Additionally, my primary supervisor is considered a world leader in seagrass research.

Additionally, my primary supervisor is considered a world leader in seagrass research.

My research area: Seagrass

Much in the same way that we rely on our gut flora to help digest our food, seagrasses also rely on microbes living in, on, or near their roots (the rhizosphere) to regenerate their nutrients.

However, despite their importance in plant health and ecosystem functioning, the interaction among seagrass roots, the sediments, and the microbes they contain remains, quite literally, in the dark. Gaining a greater understanding of these relations is imperative if we are to better manage these ecosystems, particularly as seagrass habitat continues to disappear across the globe.

My research, therefore, aims to shed some light on the seagrass rhizosphere by characterizing the geochemical environment surrounding the root and how this environment shapes microbial community structure and function that is relevant to elemental cycling in the rhizosphere and ultimately to seagrass health.

 

Source of funding for research

I am a domestic student on a scholarship that is funded by the university. My project is not tied to any official funds, so most of my research funding comes from the school, bits of money that I can scrounge from other grants as well as grants that I apply for.

Teaching or research assistantship

I work as a casual demonstrator for various subjects and levels. As Australian scholarship holders, we are restricted to working no more than 8 hours a week during working hours.

What I like/dislike about Western Australia

Western Australia boasts a high diversity of seagrass species as well as beautiful coastlines, which makes it a great place to study seagrass! Within the University, I have access to field equipment (e.g. boats, 4WD, trailers) and laboratories.

On the downside, Australia is an isolated island and Western Australia is the most isolated city in Australia, which makes travel and delivery of goods and services from overseas sometimes expensive, difficult, and frustrating. But we do have Kangaroos.

My background as an undergraduate student

I completed a BSc majoring in Ecology at James Cook University, Cairns, QLD.

I have 5 supervisors!

I have 5 supervisors. Which some people think is insane. But for me, so far, it has been working great. Sure, I have to be really self-motivated and independent, and the odds of getting them in one room at the same time is comparable to a good world consensus on climate action.

But because my project is so inter-disciplinary, I need a diverse set of supervisors. All of my supervisors have a good working relationship and are really supportive of my work, which I believe is key to it all working well.

Also, finding additional collaborators (especially post-docs) has been of huge benefit.

Choose a project with adequate funding. Money might not be able to buy happiness, but it can buy analytical equipment, chemicals, field gear, air tickets, and conference passes.

Life as a graduate student

Work. Life. Balance. It’s really hard to get that right. I think it’s OK to burn the midnight candle (or more accurately, light globe unless you have had a blackout) and work some of your weekends away for deadlines – but only if this is an occasional thing.

Some people would tell you otherwise, but that’s where I personally stand on it. I actually hate reading Blogs about Ph.D. students stressing out and losing their S**t (pardon me).

I don’t think there are enough blogs about the positive aspects of graduate life. Sure my Ph.D. is really important to me, but for me, there are always bigger and more important things than my career, and keeping this in mind is what keeps me sane. The moment I have stopped having fun and instead find myself followed by a frowny dark cloud means I am doing it wrong.

How I became interested in this field

I’ve always had a huge love for all things nature and I don’t think I’m alone when I say David Attenborough was a major inspiration. He is such a dude.

My advice for students who wants to enter this field

Ask yourself why you want to do a PhD, as I think it will help you keep your motivations clear for the challenges that lie ahead. Also pick a project (or even better, design your own) that you find really interesting and try and visualise the work that would be involved.

Also, choose a project with adequate funding. Money might not be able to buy happiness, but it can buy analytical equipment, chemicals, field gear, air tickets, and conference passes.

My short-term and long-term career plans

I don’t really like the idea of long-term career plans (gasp*). For me, short term goals have actually worked out the best (much to my Mothers dismay).

I find focusing on the long-term can make you stubborn in your intent to reach it and cause you to miss out on unforeseen opportunities that crop up along the way.

So my short term goal is to finish my PhD on time and to get a good post-doc job (and some time in between sail down the coast of Central America!)

My hobbies

Hanging with my partner and my friends (outside of science) is top of my list.

Travelling. Anywhere. Europe, Indonesia, Sydney or even to the beach 5 minutes down the road.

Playing banjo. Sometimes on my porch. With my cats and my chickens.

My Favourite Books

I love Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut books. Since starting my PhD, I don’t have much time to read for pleasure. Which is sad and is something I am working on.

Please follow the following links to see my publications and research profiles:

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Belinda_Martin3