Linda’s doctoral research investigates the effect of an enriched environment on neural structures and empathy-driven social behaviours in Autism Spectrum Disorders.

My identity as a problem solver

How would you ‘define’ yourself?   

How much time do you have 🙂 ?  Well, most of all, I see myself as a problem solver and I’m driven to find solutions.

While preparing for this interview, I had a look at your LinkedIn page, and I was really impressed with the comments there by your former colleagues and employers. One said: “It’s really incredible to see her work. She doesn’t stop until the goal is achieved and even then she just…keeps…going. And with such precision. And accuracy. Leaving no stone unturned. No option unexplored. Nothing left to chance.”

I spent many years in the corporate world; in the private as well as the public sector. The knowledge I gained there helps me tackle my current project. I am especially grateful for my experience as a project manager and the ability to look at a project and scope it, looking at what the requirements are, what has to be achieved, and how to get there.

Using previous work experience for my PhD project  

Can you think of any concrete example where your experience as a project manager benefitted your academic work?

Absolutely. While planning my PhD project I realised that, if I wanted to do everything I originally planned, I’d spend three years just in the lab collecting data… I could see that the plan didn’t take into account the time necessary for brain analysis or writing, so my ability to look at the big picture and then de-scope some of the components helped a lot. Maybe that’s also one of the advantages of being a mature student.

I should mention that a number of students mentioned that they are learning a lot from you, especially in regard to time management.  Bart also commented on your meticulous OneNote.

That’s nice to hear. Bart never told me that! One trick I use to focus on a conversation and be present is to voice-record the meeting (with the other person’s permission) rather than take notes.  It allows me to focus on the conversation at the time, and play it back later for my notes.

The challenges

Are there any challenges you have because of the stark differences between the corporate world the academia?

In the corporate world, there are also long term projects, so that’s a similarity. What’s different is that I’m used to having a team of people working fulltime on my project with me, with each person responsible for aspects of the work. That frees me up to focus on the management/production side of things. In academia, that’s different i.e. it’s mostly on me. I have a few helpers, but I have to manage the project and do the delivery work myself. So that’s definitely a challenge, but also very rewarding.

In my research, I have several work streams going on simultaneously. I’ve planned it all out, but the plan can easily get disrupted and a small delay might have a big impact, because testing needs to happen on certain days. Having it so finely tuned means any disruption is a challenge. The way around that is to factor in a bit of extra time to allow for things to crop up.

There are also no predefined work and break schedules like there are for staff. When I’m in the lab for 12 hours with only the animals for company, it’s easy to miss cues like morning tea or lunch breaks that you get when working around others.

Changing my career

I got the impression that you were very successful in your former life. So what made you start studying again?

Earlier in my career, when I was working at big agencies in NZ, I realised that I’d lost the enthusiasm for the work; every job was “just another website/web banner/execution”. In 2013, I enrolled in Psychology because I had always been fascinated by behaviour. I was driven by questions like: Why are people so different? I knew early on that I wanted to do a PhD, so I mapped out the pathway. Because I hadn’t majored in psychology (I have a Bachelor in Communication from Germany), I had to do a graduate diploma first, followed by my Honours. I was working and studying at the same time, which allowed me to “live in both worlds” and get a sense for academia.

Do you have any advice for people who are considering a similar career change?

As a mature student, you will be a lot more conscious about your choices in terms of how much time you spend on things. You have to pay to do a PhD and, if you are doing it fulltime, you are not earning, which is quite a lifestyle adjustment. I think educating yourself is always a good idea, but don’t forget to have a life as well. Balance is important. It is understandable that you devote yourself to your project, after all, it’s your baby, but I can totally see how relationships can break in this environment. So for people who are in relationships, I would advise that whatever you do, don’t ever neglect that. Because in the end, once you have your PhD, you want to make sure you also still have your partner.

Finding the meaning

I might never make the same kind of money that I used to; it’s not all about money though. The thing is, if I can give something back, if I can make a difference to one person’s life with the work I’ve been doing, that would make it all worthwhile for me.

It’s also amazing to see the rats in the enriched cages and how their personalities come out i.e. how different they are when compared to those in standard housing. While that’s just a small part of my research, it’s the part that gives me the most joy at this stage of the journey. If I need some happy time after a rough day, I just go there and spend some time with the rats.

What kind of future do you envision after your PhD ?

I would like to keep doing research, but I guess I might have to go to overseas. Maybe to the States or Germany for a postdoc. But after that, I’m hoping to come back to Wellington and do research.

Tell us more about your research interests

I am fascinated by the brain. Any behaviour–human or animal–is an expression of the underlying neural structural, but behaviour is incredibly prone to external influences. Like, for example, with the rats. If the night-light settings play up, it might impact the animal’s performance during testing that day/the next day, but it won’t change, for example, the number of dendritic spines. The set-up of the individual brain structures doesn’t change just because the animal had a “bad day”. There’s no need for interpretations when comparing physiological differences and I like that. These differences explain the behaviour, so it’s a way of getting to the bottom of it and that’s what enables scientists to bring it all together to tell one big story.