How to make the most out of your PhD

Hunter Jamison 5th April 2019

This interview is part of our 'Day in the Life' series. Here, we explore scientists' research-related joys and challenges. Today, we are speaking to Daisy Shu, postdoc at Schepens Eye Research Institute, Department of Ophthalmology, Harvard Medical School.

(Q) Tell us a bit about yourself and your research background.

I’m from Sydney Australia. I did my PhD at the University of Sydney looking at how cataracts form and how they can be blocked. I studied this from a molecular biology perspective, looking at how growth factors can influence the behaviour of cells in our lenses which can significantly impact the transparency of the lens. Essentially, a cataract is a clouding of that lens and we were trying to understand why the lens goes cloudy, especially when we get older. Maintaining that transparency was the basis of my research. I just wrapped up my PhD literally two months ago and then I flew to Boston to start my postdoc at Harvard. Now I’m looking at a different tissue but still in the eye. I’m looking at the retina and trying to understand how the cells of the retina can degenerate as we get older - specifically focusing on growth factor signalling pathways. I’m currently transitioning between tying up my PhD and sorting out my postdoc life.

(Q) Did you get into this type of research because you had a personal experience, a good class, or a mentor?

My background, which I didn’t mention, is actually in optometry. So that’s why I love looking at eye diseases and the eye. When I graduated from optometry school I worked for two years as an optometrist in clinics and I got to see a lot of patients, and obviously lots of different types of diseases. And I definitely was always curious about why they formed from a biological perspective - how do the cells transform into some sort of aberrant cell type and are there more effective ways we can be treating these diseases?

"I had my first taste of lab research in my 4th year summer of optometry school."

(Q) Was there a point that you realized that you didn’t want to work with patients or in optometry? At what point did you decide the mechanisms of eye disease is what you really want to study?

Optometry school was a total five years for us at the University of New South Wales. I had my first taste of lab research in my 4th year summer of optometry school. We have this thing called a summer research project. So instead of going on holidays, I went to the lab for six weeks and I got my first taste of research with the person who is still my mentor and the person who inspired me to pursue PhD, Professor Michelle Madigan. Michelle is someone who is very, very, very passionate about research. She was the first person to make me wear gloves and get my hands dirty in making & mixing things - and, you know, looking at cells under the microscope. I’d never done any wet lab stuff before then because if I did research in the optometry context it was always a clinical type of research.

After the end of the six week program Madigan said, “you’re a great researcher, you should really think about doing a PhD when you graduate.” When I graduated that was something I was always thinking about. But, I knew that I also needed to hone in on my clinical skills and actually experience back-to-back patient seeing in clinics. So that’s why I did two years worth of clinical before I felt ready to move to PhD research.

(Q) Would you like to continue with laboratory research or would you want to return to clinical research?

I actually really enjoy research. I also enjoy clinic, but I feel like I get more kick out of discovering new things. And so just being at the bench and doing experiments is a little bit more exciting now, but I definitely think it’s important for me to mix it up a little bit. I think in the future I see myself doing 70% research and 30% clinic-based research, because I still really like it. What I love about clinic is that it grounds me, because it reminds me that I’m doing this for people - like actual patients - whereas when I’m at the bench, it’s not that clear why I’m doing it. I’m kind of just doing all these experiments and the end result is not going to contribute to humankind until many centuries later, probably. So it’s really nice to just see patients and have affirmation regarding what I’m doing.

(Q) Is it fair to say it’s nice to see patients because of the social impact you feel? Does it counteract how isolating and daunting lab work sometimes is?

Yes, I completely agree. When I am at the bench, the one thing I’ve learnt over the years is that things won’t work and that’s okay. And obviously you do get disheartened from time to time. We’ve actually had a pretty rough week with some contaminated cells and our -80 freezer that stopped working. All the terrible things in a lab you can imagine happened, and it’s times like these where you question what you’re doing. It can be hard to pick yourself up and say, “it’s a new day and I can deal with all these problems and keep going and do the experiment again.” So yes, clinic is really nice because - especially in optometry - I feel like I can spend about 30 minutes with the patient and really help to resolve their problem, or at least move very close towards it. There’s always going to be some sort of end recommendation to give or some treatment to suggest towards resolving things. Within just one consultation I can solve someone’s problem, which is pretty amazing. Whereas in research, it’s going to take like a year or two before you ever resolve anything.

"The one thing I've learnt over the years is that things won't work and that's okay."

(Q) Lab woes, like the ones you mentioned, must require resilience. Beyond allocating time to the clinic, how do you manage things and keep on top of your personal well-being?

That’s a dream - the ultimate work-life balance. I actually heard something really interesting: instead of work-life balance, one of my friends was saying it should be work-life integration, because you can’t really separate the two. They’re kind of intertwined. Especially if you’re passionate about what you do, it’s going to feed into your life and vice versa. But for me, I must say that my PhD was a lot more fun than my days going through my undergraduate degree. You’d think that I’d be more stressed, but I actually had more time to do fun things, which is ridiculous. And the best thing about the PhD is that you get to travel a lot to conferences. I visited so many countries that I would never have dreamed of visiting. And also the people you meet in your travels makes it a lot more fun. Even though it’s still work when you’re doing a conference, I always find it really fun and I usually make a holiday out of it.

In terms of having an outlet, I think my goal is just having a way of calming myself down. If I need time to just breathe and think clearly and not be all messed up in my head constantly thinking about my research, I’ll take the time. So that’s my outlet: to destress. And everything else is sort of just hanging out with friends or going to the gym. I don’t have that many very specific hobbies. I know a lot of people have very specific things like knitting or surfing and things.

(Q) At Labstep, we believe software can be very beneficial in helping people manage data in a collaborative setting and bridge the communication divide that might occur if you’re not on top of your data management. How would you envision the role of an ELN in a good collaborative research environment?

I think it’s super beneficial! The lab book that you have is very personal to you. It’s written and it’s in your own handwriting with your own shorthand. Also, it can’t leave the lab, so if you’re collaborating with people overseas, it’s very hard to share that information with them. So that’s when the online system is really handy. The ELN is actually the way to go moving forwards, because essentially you can just share information instantly & real-time because everyone has access to the one ELN that’s being shared. I think it’s actually exactly what we should be using for collaborations, especially interstate and international collaborations. It’s just so much easier to share data protocols and make sure everyone’s on the same page. I guess the other benefit is that you can see that there’s accountability of who’s doing what. It’s actually a really innovative system to try to help researchers collaborate.

(Q) What’s the best way for people to get in touch with you?

You can get in touch with me via Twitter or Instagram - my handle is @eyedaisyshu. I also have a website:

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