‘What it’s like supervising Honours and PhD students from home’

Keep a routine, exercise, get kittens and wear pants to Zoom meetings!

Dr Seb Dworkin

In the middle of Melbourne’s stage 4 shutdown, MyLaTrobe caught up with La Trobe’s Dr Seb Dworkin to find out what it’s like supervising PhD and Honours students from home.

Current research project: Modulating gene function in zebrafish to understand the genetic, molecular and cellular basis of embryonic development.

What research activities are you able to do at home? Writing papers, writing an NHMRC Ideas grant application, communicating with Honours and PhD students via Zoom. I have also just found out that an international conference I would have loved to attend in person (but wasn’t going to) is now going to be available fully online – free! So I’ll be able to see numerous excellent talks and perhaps also interact with collaborators and colleagues too.

Is there any research work you are unable to do? My lab work is out of the question at the moment – trying to order chemicals and reagents for our experiments is a problem too. All my lab and I can do is take the delay in experiments, push everything back and hit the ground running as soon as we’re back. We had to work through a number of issues with delays pertaining to our Honours students (and how their research projects would be affected), but we now have strategies in place at the School level that will allow them to get an excellent Honours degree. The PhD students are also affected but there is a little more flexibility in their schedule (three-year project instead of one-year project). I have an international student in the final year of her PhD who will be affected quite substantially – she will start writing her thesis with gaps around where her data will go and will collect the data when she gets back.

A conference Seb co-organised “when the world was still semi-normal at the start of 2020”.

How are you collaborating with others – and is it working? Exclusively Zoom (and emails) – working beautifully!

What you like about working at home: Travel time is greatly reduced. Greater flexibility. Probably more productive as far fewer distractions. Ability to focus greater blocks of time to a task (e.g. a section of a paper or grant) without interruptions. I can sit in my comfy camping chair in my downstairs office. Presence of kittens (what isn’t made better by kittens?!?).

What you dislike about working at home: I only ever see the same two people in person (wife and son) – luckily, I quite like them. Not being able to duck out of the office for a takeaway coffee. No access to gym classes. Difficult to pop into colleague’s office to ask a quick question. Can’t do lab work obviously.

Top tips for working at home: Keep a routine. Exercise regularly. Be productive – set clear goals (papers, grants, student updates etc. etc.) and get stuff done – this is a great opportunity to catch up on all that stuff that gets pushed aside normally. Always wear pants for Zoom meetings – you never know when you’ll need to duck out of the room for an emergency! Get kittens.

Who do you supervise and what types of projects are they working on? I currently supervise 2 Honours and 3 PhD students. They are involved in projects that aim to understand understanding the genetic basis of disease (particularly birth defects), and also the genetic susceptibilities to environmental exposure (particularly commonly ingested toxins during pregnancy, as well as agricultural insecticides). Their research involves the use of genetically modified animals (mice and zebrafish models) in order to understand the roles that certain genes play in normal human development and disease prevention.

One piece of advice for students during lockdown: I would say “do something every day that advances your project”. Read a paper. Write out a method or two. Have a Zoom meeting with your supervisor. Plan or create a figure. There’s plenty you can do to remain productive, even in the absence of lab work!

Camping trips have been switched up for family time in the backyard by the fire pit.