What We Do

Guest Post: PhD hacks

This post was written by PhD candidates Hannah Carle (RSB) and Lauren Bezzina (RSPhys). It was originally published at

Doing a PhD is bloody hard. The academic challenge is immense, but so is the personal one. 

2019 survey by Nature showed that more than a third of PhD students seek help for anxiety or depression, but the incidence of poor mental health is likely close to double this number. Poor mental health is difficult and it impacts research productivity and our engagement as students.

But to get the best set of advice together, I have teamed up this month with a fellow PhD student Lauren Bezzina, who has spent four years getting the balance right. Below are 8 tips and tricks we have curated together to help other PhD students operate at the top of their game. 

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Silica School 2021

Kelly-Anne Lawler & Riteshma Devi are PhD Students at RSES and are attending this years online Silica School.

Silicon is the second most abundant element in the earths crust (after oxygen) and is found in rocks, soils and biota. We (Riteshma and Kelly) work with diatoms and radiolarians (microscopic siliceous plankton) in our PhD studies, and wanted to learn more about silica – so we are participating in a four-week online Silica School “Silica: from stardust to the living world”.

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Teaching during my PhD

Yamila Cajal is a PhD candidate in the Experimental Petrology group at the Research School of Earth Science (RSES), ANU. Her current research investigates the geochemistry of the Platinum Group Elements (PGE) applied to the prediction of copper-gold fertility in mountain belts.

The first time I had the chance to apply for a tutor position at university, I was halfway through my undergraduate degree at the Universidad de Concepcion (Chile). At that point, I had no idea what it was going to be like, or if I was going to like it or not, but I decided to give it a try. I am very grateful for this experience because it made me discover my passion for teaching and after that, I continued working as a tutor every time I had the opportunity. Even after graduating, when I was working in mining, I did not lose any opportunity to participate in outreach activities with the community, bringing rocks to local schools and talking to the students about what geology was.

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MeriSTEM: On the hunt for your favourite demonstration, location or display of science

Hello! This post is being written by your friendly video producing colleague from J8, Alisha Duncan. If you haven’t met me yet I’m the one who’s often seen traipsing around campus with a backpack and tripod, looking for my next victim presenter to film. I’m producing short educational videos for year 11 and 12 students, based on the work here at ANU. The videos will be used in a flipped classroom setting, so students can have more class time to experiment and get their hands dirty.

The first half of the Earth and Environmental Science videos have already been released to the meriSTEM community and they’re getting rave reviews, with comments like:

‘Brilliant module’
‘I learnt so much!’, and my personal favourite…
‘I like how this module challenges the curriculum descriptor’.

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RSES Recommends: Books, Part 2

Many people will spend their August under ‘stay at home’ orders due to Covid-19, and many more are choosing to spend more time at home than they usually would, just as a precaution. Time at home, especially in the cold winter weather, is often spent reading books – so for those of you looking for new reading material, here are some new book recommendations!

The following books were brought to my attention by RSES colleagues after our first On Circulation book recommendation post.

By Kelly-Anne Lawler.

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Bullet journalling your PhD

Tharika Liyanage (she/her) is a PhD candidate in the Paleobiogeochemistry group at RSES. She’s super curious about the early evolution of life and searches for fossilised molecules in ancient sediments to learn about microbial life in the distant past. In her spare time, you’ll find her at Questacon working as a science communicator or in her kitchen trying to figure out the best chocolate chip cookie recipe. You can find her on Twitter @thaliyanage.

During my PhD, I had to write regular reports to keep track of project progress. I struggled to write the first couple because when I flicked back through my lab book and calendar, I felt like I had done so little each day and achieved nothing over several months! In reality, I had been doing lots of little incremental things but I didn’t have a record of it. So that’s when I came across the Bullet Journal method.

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Time to Get #SoMe help navigating online academic life?

In pre-Covid times, building an online academic presence was becoming more important by the year. Blogging and social media are great (and usually free) ways to gain exposure for yourself, your research output, or hopefully both. Sharing your research online has become even more important now that travelling domestically and internationally for conferences, lab visits and field work (all great networking opportunities) is difficult, if not impossible.

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From Soup to Slime – Evolution and Revolution

Caleb Bishop is a PhD candidate in the Biogeochemistry group at the Research School of Earth Sciences. His research interests include Precambrian biomarkers, isotope geochemistry and Neoproterozoic paleoenvironments.

Read Part 1 of Caleb’s contribution to On Circulation – Reminiscences of a soupy beginning.

When you look into your family photo album, alright Grandpa might look a little pudgy around the corners, but he can hardly be mistaken for an oversized amoeba. However, science tells us that is precisely what he is (several orders, and perhaps several membranes, removed)! So why the change? What caused the primordial soup to give up its bathtub? And how come my dear Grandma is currently serving me a slice of chocolate cake, and not an oversized Prochlorococcus? Early eukaryotes had quite a job reclaiming the oceans from the well-established bacterial world, but with a bit of help from a freak climatic catastrophe they instated a new world order entirely. This is the story of their glory; a victory that augmented our history, and made you a possibility.

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Reminiscences of a soupy beginning

Caleb Bishop is a PhD candidate in the Biogeochemistry group at the Research School of Earth Sciences. His research interests include Precambrian biomarkers, isotope geochemistry and Neoproterozoic paleoenvironments.

Eukaryotic organisms have a deep evolutionary history, expressed, in part, through morphological and molecular fossils. Early eukaryotes faced a dichotomy of obstacles that challenged their survival, however with a bit of help from a freak climatic catastrophe, they overcame these obstacles to present us with the world we recognise today full of incredible biodiversity in flora and fauna. We owe much to those tenacious early few microbes. This is a light-hearted overview of what we know of their opening chapters so far, the very beginnings of complex life.

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Science on film: The Wave

Kelly-Anne Lawler is a PhD candidate studying Southern Ocean palaeoclimate. So far, her only experience of Norway has been a bank holiday long weekend spent in Oslo.

The Wave is a Norwegian disaster film, set in the beautiful Geiranger Fjord. The hero of the day is Kristian the geologist – need I say more on an Earth Science blog!

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Getting the most out of a virtual-conference

Shubham Agrawal is a PhD candidate in the Seismology & Mathematical Geophysics group. You can read more about Shubham’s research on his personal website.

2020 taught us numerous new things and exposed us to uncharted waters. No one could have guessed the 600% increase in the zoom stock prices, or the meteoric rise in sourdough baking, or that it is in fact possible to communicate science without leaving a significant carbon footprint.

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An Amazing Race to begin a PhD at the outbreak of the Pandemic

Stacey Servito Martin is a second year PhD student in the Seismology and Mathematical Geophysics group at RSES. You can find Stacey on LinkedIn.

It’s unusually windy today”, my supervisor remarked as a choppy Lake Burley Griffin came into view from between the trees on Parkes Way. He was driving me from the airport on 20th March 2020 to my quarantine facilities at Ursula Hall in Acton. The gusty conditions also meant that the plane I was on moments before, a nearly empty Qantas QF812, made a turbulent descent into Canberra. I remember thinking, “You made it this far, this tin can better not go down now…..”. Every uneasy flyer will commiserate. But that afternoon the relief I felt far exceeded anything I normally associated with the thump of the landing gear on the tarmac. This time around the relief came from a sense of knowing that my life was going to be okay. I had made it into Australia (for the first time ever) with just hours to spare.

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Antarctic mega icebergs

Kelly-Anne Lawler is a PhD student at the Research School of Earth Science studying Southern Ocean palaeoclimate.

From the large iceberg that made the news as it neared South Georgia island, to the RV Polarstern sailing between iceberg A-74 and the Brunt Ice Shelf, large icebergs calved from the Antarctic ice shelf are of great interest to scientists and non-scientists alike.

The U.S. National Ice Center (USNIC) monitors snow and ice in the Arctic, Antarctic, Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions. Since 1978 it has been  naming, tracking, and documenting large Antarctic icebergs. Icebergs with an area greater than 20 square nautical miles, or that are at least 10 nautical miles on their longest axis, are of interest to the USNIC and are named according to their origin and the order in which they calved from the ice shelf.

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QEMSCAN – helpful tool to find out more information about rocks

Monika Misztela is a PhD candidate in the Experimental Petrology group at RSES. She is currently involved in a project about the Platinum Group Element geochemistry and fertility of magma systems.

Quantitative Evaluation of Minerals by Scanning Electron Microscopy (QEMSCAN) is a relatively new method that analyses rock minerals. It combines energy dispersive X-Ray spectroscopy (EDX) and back-scattered electron brightness (BSE) to capture analysed samples’ geochemistry at each point at the predefined grid scan pattern. It provides many interesting pieces of information, such as:

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RSES recommends Science podcasts


Normally, I rarely listen to podcasts.  It would only be based on recommendations when I want to hear opinions on specific topics or if I need entertainment on solo road trips. My podcasts knowledge is not broad, but here I am writing a post on my podcast recommendations…

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Iceland – geological wonderland

Monika Misztela is a PhD candidate in the Experimental Petrology group at RSES. She is currently involved in a project about the Platinum Group Element geochemistry and fertility of magma systems.

Iceland is a small country in the North Atlantic Ocean with a population of about 365 000 people and over twice as many sheep. The country of fire and ice, trolls, whales, puffins, wild horses, mushrooms, northern lights, waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, lava flows, geysers and plate tectonics. For me, Iceland is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. I had a chance to spend there three weeks, soon after the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in 2010. As an undergrad student, this trip taught me more in 3 weeks than general geology course in the whole year. Having such a big impact on me, I would like to share some of the trip’s highlights with you.

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Science on television: The Head

Kelly-Anne Lawler is a PhD candidate in the palaeoenvironments group at RSES. She loves everything Southern Ocean and Antarctic, and enjoys a good murder mystery novel…

If you like Antarctica, murder mysteries, and bingeable television shows then The Head might be right up your alley!

The series begins when the summer crew of a Danish Antarctic base arrive to find a quiet, empty station. The ten overwinterers (the team of people who conduct research and take care of the base during the dark Austral winter) have disappeared. Communications are down, vehicles are missing, and, at first, there is no sign of life. A series of flashbacks reveal the events in the weeks leading up to the summer crew’s arrival… but with conflicting accounts of what happened, who are we to believe?

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On the search for 21st century resources: critical metals in the Proterozoic Mount Isa Inlier

Ross Chandler is a PhD student in the Experimental Petrology and Geochemistry Group at RSES. His research is focussed on critical metal deposits where he studies the formation of, and exploration for peralkaline volcanic- and IOCG-hosted rare earth element deposits.

Critical metals are defined as metals considered vital to the economic well-being of the world’s major and emerging economies. These metals are becoming increasingly important in the development of modern and green technologies in which they play a vital role due to their unique physical and chemical properties. The rare earth elements (lanthanides + Sc + Y) are an example of a critical metal, being ubiquitous with the technologies of modern life. In particular, the rare-earth elements neodymium, dysprosium and praseodymium play a crucial role in the transition to a low carbon future. Their addition to magnets increases magnetic efficiency and maximum operating temperatures and as such they are indispensable to renewable power generation in wind turbines, and in motors for zero-emission electric vehicles. An interesting aspect of a large number of critical metals is that they have only recently become useful to modern day technology and were previously unsought, or even discarded when they occurred alongside traditional commodities. REE are an example of this, often ending up in the tailings or waste stockpiles of mines that were targeting other commodities.

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