PhD life: on campus in Australia to online in China

It was just meant to be a normal holiday back home for Chinese New Year. Then the COVID-19 outbreak hit, leaving La Trobe graduate researchers Ruitao Jin and Sitong He a long way from campus.

With the support offered by La Trobe, though, lockdown is proving to be no barrier to achieving their goals.

Sitong is now just one year away from finishing her PhD, and Ruitao has recently managed to complete his PhD in Computational Chemistry while in lockdown.

‘When the borders closed, La Trobe was very helpful. We received many emails from La Trobe saying we know you’re stuck in China, and we’ll provide any help we can,’ says Ruitao.

‘La Trobe’s International team helped me from when I enrolled as a student through to graduation.’

Life in Australia

Ruitao and Sitong are no ordinary research partners: they’ve been a couple for eight years. So, when Ruitao made the big move to study in Australia at La Trobe, it was an easy choice for Sitong to follow.

‘I arrived one and a half years later,’ says Sitong, ‘and I thought his project was very interesting, so I chose the same lab.’

Once in Australia, the couple rented an apartment next to La Trobe’s Melbourne Campus and settled into local life.

‘It’s quite nice to live in the area. We found the campus atmosphere very friendly and open, and we just felt very comfortable,’ says Ruitao. ‘It’s also very beautiful – you can see many little ducks.’

‘Not little,’ Sitong laughs.

Support for living in Australia – and taking their research abroad

Studying overseas is a big investment, so it was a big relief when Ruitao and Sitong were both awarded scholarships that covered both tuition fees and their living costs.

‘It’s crucial for us because, as students, we don’t have any additional income,’ Ruitao says.

Another financial consideration was the highly important – and mandatory – Overseas Student Health Cover, which Ruitao says was also covered by the University.

‘Sitong is very healthy,’ he laughs, ‘but I have to visit the GP at least a few times a year. So, it’s great to be able to receive the proper medical support.’

The couple that researches together…

Sitong and Ruitao’s hard work paid off in 2019 when both were awarded the Bruce Stone Award from the La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science (LIMS), allowing them the exciting opportunity to travel to Singapore and Indonesia for an academic conference.

‘The Award covered everything – and the staff at LIMS even helped us book tickets and hotels. I just thank them very much,’ says Ruitao.

Staying supported in lockdown

Now the couple are back in China, Ruitao says the support he’s received from La Trobe has been crucial in completing his PhD – particularly the support from their supervisor, Head of the School for Molecular Science and Director of LIMS, Professor Brian Smith.

‘Brian supports us 360 degrees. He’s very kind, he’s very helpful. I couldn’t find anyone better,’ he says.

Sitong says they’re able to stay in touch with the research community at LIMS through emails and regular group meetings on Skype.

‘We have one just coming up after our chat,’ adds Ruitao.

A lack of physical campus hasn’t stopped them from accessing the University’s resources, either. Sitong and Ruitao’s research area is computational chemistry, which uses computer simulation to help solve chemical problems – meaning a laptop is their primary research tool.

And La Trobe’s VPN ensures all their study needs are just a click away.

‘So far we haven’t faced any problems that can’t be solved,’ says Ruitao.

Looking to the future

The future is looking bright for Sitong and Ruitao, who have just authored an article to be published in Nature Communications journal later this year.

Now armed with a doctorate, Ruitao has already confirmed some part-time research roles back in Melbourne. So, once border restrictions have eased, he’ll join Sitong as she heads back to La Trobe to complete her PhD.

‘I really can’t wait to go back,’ Sitong says.

Whether you’re joining us online or on campus for your studies, you can find out more about how La Trobe will support you from day one through to graduation and beyond. And be sure to check out our revitalised range of generous scholarships.

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