New Year Musings

Hello everyone!

I have been a bit lapse in writing regularly on this blog, and now is the time to start making amends.

A bit of an update for you: I have moved into my third year of my PhD (where did the time go..?), and now I only have 2 years left until I submit! Well actually 1 year, 8 months, and 19 days, but who needs that much specificity in their life… Anway, I have spent the last (almost) 2 years living in Australia, and working at the University of Adelaide, but in 2 and half months I will be moving back to my birthland – the UK to undertake the last year and a half of my PhD at the University of Nottingham. Because I am a joint PhD student, I spend roughly equal amounts of time at two universities, and as a result, I get a jointly awarded PhD at the end of it. Plus a tonne of international experience. Win-win.

So now it’s dawning on me that I need to turn on the engines after a relaxed Christmas break, knuckle down and do the work. But before I do that, I want to share how I’d like to develop this blog over the next year. When I first started, this blog was a platform to share cool, new and exciting things that are going on in the research world. And I’d still like to carry on with that. Now in addition to that, I want to share more stories about women in Science, and particularly about the roles they play in Soil and Plant Science (fields close to my heart). I also want to talk more about the types of jobs available for a PhD student, like me, like you, like whoever. People say the only options for a scientist (who wants to stay in science) are academia or industry. But I say, let’s prove them wrong.

So cheers to a new year and cheers to more blogging! And to top off my musings, here is a picture of me chilling on holiday, with no thoughts of science swirling through my head.




Diving in Gili Trawangan (O.Cousins)



Feature image: farmers planting rice on Christmas Day (O.Cousins)



Communication – the art of science

I’m back! It’s been an interesting few months, but work is ever so slowly ticking away, but it’s now nearly Christmas so I can start winding down.

Last month, I decided to test my video-making skills and make a 3-minute video detailing my PhD research. I submitted it to my school as part of our Research Day video competition. The synopsis is that wheat is an important source of food, but climate change is impacting rainfall, which in turn affects the solubility of nitrogen and efficiency of its uptake. Both water and nitrogen are important for healthy plant growth, so the goal is to find a way in which we can maximise yields despite the unpredictability of rainfall and lower nitrogen application rates.

Unfortunately, it didn’t win, but I learnt a lot in the whole process. Like don’t leave it until the last week to make it. Or stay up late. You will end up making mistakes and having to re-do it… Oh the joys.

That aside, definitely keen to continue making videos alongside my blog! If you have any ideas, give me a shout. I love hearing from fellow scientists and also the non-scientists among you.

I’ll leave you with some inspirational quotes:

We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained. ~ Marie Curie

Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. ~ Rosalind Franklin

Science and art belong to the whole world, and before them vanish the barriers of nationality. ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Enjoy! 🙂


Community, technology, sustainability

Three important words. Community. Technology. Sustainability. In this day and age it is absolutely crucial that our scientific advances become more sustainable if we are to maintain and grow our agriculture communities and develop better technology for feeding and taking care of the world.


Last week I attended the AC21 International Graduate School 2017 at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Around 45 students attended the week-long summer school, with Indonesia, South Africa, Australia, Americas, Europe, Thailand, Japan and China represented. The title of the summer school was ‘Community and indigenous-based technology for sustainable development towards resilient society’. This topic was given to us in a variety of different ways, through lectures, workshops, community service, internship and excursions. It was highlighted that universities need to become a bridge between the work they do (whether it is science or humanities) and the surrounding communities. By doing this, it creates an awareness in the students towards problems faced by their surrounding communities. In turn it can create a healthy relationship between university and community and aid in developing research-based community service.

The two lectures that stuck with me the most were presented by lecturers from UGM. Dr. Murtiningrum not only highlighted the importance of soil in agriculture, but how water plays a role in soil physics and behaviour. She got us to think about how the area of arable soil available in Indonesia affects how the people farm. She got us into groups of 7, and told us stand on a piece of newspaper; at first, only one person was allowed on the newspaper, then 3, then all 7 group members. She made us think strategically in how to maximise space yet still fit all of our group on that newspaper sheet. This is how the Indonesian farmers must think, they must be strategic in their farming practices, otherwise they cannot maximise crop yields or economic yield.

Prof. Irfan Dwidya Prijambada gave a very energetic seminar on community empowerment for sustainable technology transfer. He is a key helper in developing community service projects between communities and undergraduate students from UGM. He talked about projects he has helped to set up through UGM. Community service is compulsory for final year students. These students spend a few months usually in a local village getting to know the community. Whilst there, they share their knowledge to help set up a project that will benefit the community; in return they learn a lot more from their village hosts – interpersonal skills, life skills, communication skills, cultural skills. I saw firsthand some of the work Prof. Prijambada has done with local communities and villages to create sustainable farming practices and economic ventures. We visited a local cacao plantation, where they grow and graft their own cacao trees, harvest the pods and process them. Once processed, they get turned into delectable chocolate!


In addition to seminars, we visited UGM’s own agriculture school, and had a tour around the facilities. It has everything from livestock, to tropical fruit and veg crops, to biogas production to composting factory. It was encouraging to see how passionate the people were about the environment and recycling.



We also participated in making traditional herbal medicine. Jamu is traditional Indonesian medicine, made from different herbs and spices to treat an assortment of illnesses or to improve vitality. We visited Merapi Farma Herbal where they turned jamu-making into a successful business. With the help of some of the workers, we made crystallised ginger. It was really tasty and did not taste like medicine at all!


The week-long program reiterated how fast our world is changing, and how important it is to for communities to be able to keep up with these changes. Visiting the different communities showed me that people can be very resilient and adaptable to changing climates, both environmental, and socio-economical. This resilience is key to developing technologies that will improve community sustainability; in turn, the sustainable development of a community will improve its resilience.

It was fascinating to meet so many people from so many different countries and cultures, many of whom came from totally different backgrounds to me. This program gave me the opportunity to mingle and interact with people across disciplines. And I can’t stress how important that is. Sometimes we get so tied down and stressed by focusing on one small aspect of the global picture, that we forget what our bigger picture is. Occasionally we need to come up for air, we need to get out of our bubble or comfort zone once in awhile and venture into the world of ‘that’s-not-my-field’. Who knows what knowledge we can gain by talking to people from another discipline. Who knows what collaborations are possible. You just have to get out there.

AC21 IGS 2017, it’s been a pleasure.



Community ❤


Feature image: 2017 AC21 grad students. All images unless otherwise stated taken by O.Cousins. 

Year 1 to Year 2: hop, skip and a jump

So before I knew it the time had come for me to dust off my presentation skills and present my research to my seniors and peers. Awesome if you relish in designing powerpoint slides and presenting them, but me? Not so keen on the whole standing in front of 30 odd people…

Nevertheless, I did it, and I can happily say that I can progress with my PhD! Hello next 3 years, we’re going to get very well acquainted.

So although I am not even halfway through my research, this year has taught me a lot and I thought this could be useful for those just starting, or about to progress from probation period to full candidature. First things first…

  • Communicate

The cool thing about my project is that it’s a jointly awarded program between two different universities. So for me actually one of the biggest challenges has been communicating between everyone, across different timezones despite busy schedules. Thankfully, my supervisors have all been good at dealing with answering my random, badly-worded questions at whatever hour, as well as taking the time to skype when the question can’t be answered in an email.

  • Communicate some more. Learn to brief your supervisors about your work – not wait for them to ask you (if they’re really busy they may forget).

When you start collecting results from your experiment, it’s up to you to schedule meetings with supervisors to discuss your results and experiment. Generally in the first few weeks of your candidature, supervisors are a little more ‘hands-on’ in explaining literature, experiments, equipment, but once you’ve started to piece together your experimental design and started executing it, then the roles reverse. It’s not like undergrad where you’re guided every step of the way. This time you have to take some initiative. Sounds a little daunting, but actually it forces you to be creative with your time and your ideas. It’s now your turn to tell them what you’ve been doing. Don’t be afraid to not understand everything you see, they may not understand everything either. By bringing your ideas and theories to the table, you don’t have to try to understand everything before you decide to have that monthly supervisory meeting.


Excited with my first experiment set-up (O.Cousins)

  • Don’t panic

Easier said than done, I know. I’ve been there. And I am only in my first year. But everyone goes through ups and downs. It’s about finding strategies that help you manage that stress. Doing a joint PhD means I get the best of what both universities offer me in terms of research facilities, equipment, and knowledgeable academics. However, it can also mean I get the worst of both – and that is admin. Not that the people who work in admin are stupid but if you are ever considering a joint PhD or co-tutelle program, just remember that you may have to send a few of the same emails reminding admin from both institutes where you are currently studying and that no, you will only be examined by one institute at a time. And yes, sometimes you will have to sign documents even though you are pretty sure you signed the exact same form a month before. Just laugh, grab a pen and keep signing those forms. The paperwork will subside.

In addition, because a joint PhD between my 2 universities was new, I found it funny that most people (both admin and supervisors) didn’t have a clue about how this joint PhD was going to play out. The theory behind it is excellent, and I can’t recommend it enough. However, when it comes to reviewing the student’s progress, questions were raised on multiple occasions: ‘But who reviews me?’ ‘Does I have to repeat my review seminar twice?’ ‘How long do I stay at each institute?’ ‘How does funding work?’ … you get the picture. This meant it was both a learning curve for me and for everyone else involved in my exciting new project. in the end, all that really matters is your research. Focus on what brought you to do a PhD in the first place, and the admin can follow on behind you.


First time analysing my experiment plants (O.Cousins)

  • Blogging

For me, this is where I can unwind. I get ideas from everyday situations, places I’ve visited, or the news. I currently manage 3 blogs (because one is never enough), but my most updated one is Meristem Journeys. The essence of it is to convey cool interesting facts about science in a way that everyone can understand, from professors in the field to the inquisitive child. So it gives me a chance to learn science communication skills. On the other hand Dare To Adventure and The Literary Road are different, more travel-based or fictional. They provide another outlet for me to be creative. This time I don’t have to stick to a theme, I write where my fancy takes me. It’s my ‘me-time’.

  • And last but not least, go forth and explore!

Whether you’re in a new city or not, take the time to go on excursions – from afternoon trips to extended weekends. Find interesting, quirky things in the city and beyond. Some of my best memories come from exploring Sydney or a roadtrip to Ayers Rock (Uluru). These breaks gave me time to recuperate from intense harvesting weeks, and I felt better about coming back and knuckling down to data analysis. Even if you are in a familiar city, I’m certain there are new things to be found – make it a fun challenge. Or pick up a new hobby; set yourself a goal that’s fun and completely non-work related. Someone once suggested that I take part in ironing competitions…there are some good hobbies out there! Whatever it is, your brain will thank you.

I may be 1 year wiser but there’s plenty more learning to come. And that’s exciting. If you don’t want to work hard, be criticised and are scared of an experiment failing on you every now and then, a PhD is not for you. But if you enjoy discovering things, communicating with a wide range of audiences, like a challenge, and can learn to find cool things in the midst of trying times, welcome to the world of PhDs.



Featured image: A card I once received, which has a lot of meaning (O.Cousins). 

How do I know I’m doing enough work?

You’ve started your PhD, reading papers, writing your literature review, reading papers, designing your first experiment, oh and did I mention reading more papers.

You’ve amassed a pile of journal articles, scientific papers and book chapters either piling high on your desk and the floor around you, or metaphorically piling around you, a.k.a. on your computer. So probably safe to say you’re doing enough reading.

How do you pluck out that all-too golden information and enter that into your all-too empty word document? It all seems so relevant.

Write a sentence. Any sentence.

Doesn’t have to be a good one. It doesn’t even have to make sense. It can be as broad as ‘plants are cool, we need plants’. Obviously you’re never going to submit a paper with that introduction, but it gets the writing juices flowing, it makes you think – why are plants cool, why do we need plants…etc. Whatever your story or argument, set it out in one simple sentence and go from there.

Lives are already complicated enough without the added of flouncy words and highly convoluted sentences.



Life in the PhD lane

Starting a PhD is one of the most daunting things I have ever done. When I first heard that I had got the offer, I had a mix of emotions, ranging from excitement to worry. I have just started, and I want to look at the ways in which we can manipulate the microbiology of the soil in order to improve plant responses to drought and nutrient stresses. It is something I am really interested in, and it has so much potential in this current agricultural climate.

After my first 4 weeks, there are a couple of things I learnt – an amalgamation of other people’s advice.

  1. Don’t stress about things you don’t even know yet. You won’t know a lot of things, and that’s perfectly fine. As long as your willing to acknowledge that you don’t know everything, and that you want to learn, then you are in a very good position to do well.
  2. Talk to your supervisor. They have a lot of answers to a lot of the questions you have. Plus, how else will they know how you are doing if you don’t communicate. They’re not here to molly-coddle you; they’re there to guide you to progress into a fully fledged scientist.
  3. Take lots of tea breaks. Vital. Especially at the start when all you seem to be doing is reading scientific papers and note taking. Having a chat with other students helps you to remember you’re not the only one doing this. It’s. Perfectly. Normal.

I have to constantly remind myself that my supervisors would not have chosen me to carry out this project if they didn’t see something in me. If they didn’t think I was capable of using my brain to come up with something exciting and innovative.

If, in the end, my PhD teaches me nothing but perseverance and responsibility, then it will still be worth 4 years of my life.

Start small, dream big. After all, we all have something worth to say and contribute to this world.