Students power on through restrictions

Burent PhD student, Ashleigh Stewart (right) has been remained in close contact with supervisors and colleagues on Slack and Zoom.

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For Burnet PhD students Thorey Jonsdottir and Ashleigh Stewart, maintaining connection with supervisors and peers has been a priority since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Though they work in vastly different parts of the Institute, both women have been pleased with the level of support they’ve received from staff and students alike.

Thorey’s PhD is looking at protein export by the Plasmodium translocon of exported proteins (PTEX) during the asexual blood-stage of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum, working closely with Professor Brendan Crabb AC, Dr Paul Gilson and Dr Hayley Bullen from the Institute’s Malaria Virulence and Drug Discovery Group.

She also completed her honours year at Burnet and enjoyed that experience so much she wanted to stay on.

“I guess it was my positive experience from honours that brought me back to do a PhD,” she said.

Students allowed to go into labs for essential work

Thorey Jonsdottir

Image: Burnet PhD student, Thorey Jonsdottir

Throughout Stage 3 restrictions, Thorey was able to work in the lab, albeit a little less than normal, alongside Dr Gilson.

Her bi-weekly lab and supervisor meetings continued as normal. Since Stage 4 restrictions began, they’ve moved online. Thorey has also worked hard to maintain her social connections with other Burnet students.

“The contact with my supervisors has been by via Zoom and email. I’ve felt supported during this time by them, but also by my fellow students who are going through the same stressful times.”

“We have a Zoom catch-up every weekend to talk and sometimes play Scattergories or Pictionary,” she said.

She’s just acquired a government permit, which means she can go into the lab to feed her parasites three times a week during Stage 4 lockdown – a crucial step in keeping her PhD, due to be finished this year, on track. The eventual result, she hopes, is that her work will help uncover new anti-malaria drugs.

“We need new drugs for malaria because of drug resistance, so we’re really racing against the time here. It’s very urgent,” Thorey said.

Public health students feel supported while working remotely

Ashleigh, who is working as a Research Assistant while she studies for her PhD, is part of the Alcohol and Other Drugs and Justice Health groups.

Like Thorey, she said one of the highlights of her time at the Institute has been the strong student network.

“There’s a really nice culture at the Burnet and it’s quite nice being able to be around so many other PhD students and honours students and master’s students.

“It’s not this individual sort of thing that you’re doing where you just feel a bit lonely and by yourself,” Ashleigh said.

Since COVID-19 lockdowns began in March, she’s been predominantly working and studying from home. Her communication with her supervisors, Professor Mark Stoové and Professor Paul Dietze, is now done via Zoom and Slack.

“I’ve maintained regular fortnightly supervisory meetings. I have a weekly pomodoro writing session with a small group to commit to some protected writing time, and other weekly and fortnightly catch up sessions, which have been great. I am big on Slack. I’ve found the Slack workspaces really helpful in connecting with people,” she said.

The biggest bonus of being at Burnet, she said, is the number of people doing ground-breaking work in their chosen fields.

“There’s so much support here in the Institute. You’re really connected to data analysts and statisticians and qualitative researchers.

“Whatever your niche topic is, and what you’re working with, there’s someone else in the Institute who has some expertise that can add to what you’re doing. And they’re so happy to help,” she said.

Both Thorey and Ashleigh say events such as an institute-wide online trivia night, and weekly singalongs and art classes over Zoom have been great ways to break up the week and stay connected through restrictions.

Preparing for @BurnetInstitute Art group session 2, homework: draw a curious drawing of a germ or little monster… well I study #malaria sooo

Say hi to my merozoite teenage monster dude pic.twitter.com/iCcVd1ipJQ

– Thorey Jonsdottir (@ThoreyJonsdott1) July 26, 2020

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