The Doctor Cameron Shearer Session
If you don’t know what a carbon nanotube is, well, Dr Cameron Shearer has got you covered. In this Session, he explains to Steph and Tamara how he wanted to use the technology to create a water particle filter, what happened next, and how he felt 2.5 years into his PhD; about writing conference presentations to a very short deadline; and he talks about his opportunity to go on the children’s television science show, “Scope” to talk about his research.
To me, the life of a PhD student is repetitive frustrating, challenging, and rewarding. I think I need to add a caveat on the rewarding part in that it’s unfair that effort in doesn’t always mean reward out. It’s rewarding, but not when you expect it, or you can’t expect it to be rewarding. It has to be rewarding in its own way. …. Things that are difficult, when you finish them, its more rewarding when they were difficult. If something is easy, there’s no real feeling of reward there
Listen to the Interview with Doctor Cameron Shearer
Q&A with Doctor Cameron Shearer…
What is the title of your PhD: Fabrication and applications of carbon nanotube/ silicon nanostructures.
Where did you complete your PhD: Flinders University
What year did you graduate: 2012
What undergraduate degree/s have you completed: Bachelor of Science in Nanotechnology
Any honours or masters: 1 year Honours Research in Nanotechnology (2007)
What is your job title, today: Research Fellow, Department of Chemistry at University of Adelaide*
*Cameron has changed roles since we recorded the podcast, and this is where you will find him these days…*
Interview with Dr Cameron Shearer
Steph: Dr Cameron Shearer graduated from Flinders University School of Physical Sciences in 2012, following. The completion of his thesis entitled “Fabrication and applications of carbon nanotube/silicon nanostructures“. Since then, he has attracted more than $2 million in grant funding for his work. In 2018, he was awarded the Young Tall Poppy of the Year Award, a campaign that recognizes the achievements of Australian scientists. He is an active science communicator and is often found discussing all things science on the podcast, “Publish Perish or Podcast“. So welcome Cameron.
Cameron: Oh, thanks Steph
Tamara: Cameron, let’s start by talking about what your role is now and where you are and what your day looks like.
Cameron: Okay. I’m, what’s called a Researcher in Business Fellow at the University of South Australia. I’m working there in the, what are we called? The Academic unit of Health and Clinical Sciences. I think we just changed. I’m working with an industry partner there called Membrane Systems Australia, and I am helping them develop a process for the remediation of wastewater and particularly a toxic contaminant that’s growing more and more in the world. It was a used a lot in firefighting liquids.
Steph: Okay. That something we should be worrying about in South Australian water?
Cameron: Well, so there are areas where the level of this material did I say before PFOS perfluorinated alcohol substances is there areas where it is greater than the EPA drinking water limit.
Tamara: It was up around Newcastle or the Williamson Airbase area. Wasn’t it?
Cameron: The areas around air bases are particularly badly contaminated. We do have an air base in South Australia and, it’s on the record that there is contamination, around the groundwater there as well. That water isn’t used for drinking at all in South Australia.
Steph: It’s definitely something that needs to be investigated.
Tamara: What does your day look like then?
Cameron: Well, so I’m doing, in the morning, I’ll come in and I’ll try and do chemical experiments. I have an idea of basically what I want to do each week. I try and tick a few of those experiments off. A lot of the experiments. I do have 24 hour waiting times between each step. While I have the waiting time then I would do something like analysis or literature review of what to do next. A lot of my literature review includes reading government reports, which are very long and it takes a long time to really understand what’s new behind it all. Beyond that, I also try and do other academic type pursuits, like write papers or, I don’t know, I’m not giving any lectures at the moment, but, something towards that end goal.
Steph: So pretty purely a research role. Do you supervise any students?
Cameron: Not in this current role? No. It’s a new research project to the university when I moved there about eight months ago. There’s not many people working on it. There’s another person also working on water, but not on my particular water contaminant.
Steph: Then you can really focus. We’ll go back. Let’s go back in time. We’re going back to high school era just to get, understand how you got where you are now. So did your parents go to university?
Cameron: My mother didn’t go to university and when I was growing up and going through high school and university, I was of the opinion that my father did not go to university.
Steph: And there was some discord about that.
Cameron: I don’t think I ever told him that he never went to university, but I now realized that not only did he go to university, but I have memories of going to university with him because when I was like very early memories are going to the library at the university with him, I don’t know what university you went to, but he was a plumber. At one point he transitioned to teach plumbing at TAFE. To do that, he needed some kind of university degree in teaching. He did a diploma or something like that in teaching. That was when I was a child. Other than that, not many people in my family had gone to university.
Steph: So was going to university, something that was assumed that you would do, or is it you went against the grain to go to university?
Cameron: I think that, for me, it was actually assumed that I would do, I generally did pretty well at school and then it just, I don’t think I really showed any real interest in anything other than sports. I just had to continue doing education, I guess.
Steph: So it was something, or you always assumed, or did your parents encourage you in that direction as well?
Cameron: I think they’ve always let me really choose things for myself. I don’t feel like I was encouraged to, or not to go to university. They obviously supported me, so I didn’t, they paid for me to go to university. I didn’t incur the debt, so that’s a pretty good support. Very lucky. Yeah.
Tamara: When did you know that you wanted to go to uni? Did you did it was just a natural transition, right?
Cameron: It was cool. Yeah. I don’t think there was ever a moment where I just thought about it. I think it just happened. I’m doing year 12. At one point you’re asked to fill in things you want to do at university. At that point I thought, okay, well I better write down what courses I want to apply for. It kind of just went organically like that. I knew what subjects I liked. I liked chemistry and physics. I didn’t do the harder math subject. That kind of limited which courses I could do that included physics. I was actually down to one that where the prerequisites were chemistry and physics and not math. That’s why I did a Bachelor of Science in Nanotechnology at Flinders University.
Tamara: So, your year 12 choices really dictated where you went afterwards.
Cameron: Yeah, it did. Yeah. Yes. Anywhere else to do something that involved physics I would have had to have done math, I probably should have realized that before I chose my year 12 subjects, but I, I had not looked yet.
Tamara: Did you go to university straight from school?
Cameron: Yeah. Straight away. Yeah.
Tamara: What was, Oh, so you said your undergraduate degree, Bachelor of Science in Nanotechnology. I’m jumping ahead. You went through, is it three or four years? Was it honours?
Cameron: So, yeah, so this was a three-year degree. Basically it was just a Bachelor of Science with an inbuilt assumed honours, which was a research project, which should probably the only time I really did anything nanotechnology like. So, yeah, so four years in a row.
Tamara: And then did you do masters?
Cameron: No. From the honours, I went straight into the PhD. The way it was basically, depending upon the score you got for your honours mark, you could be offered a scholarship to do the PhD. I happened to get the score that on the very last day of honours, I found out the score I got and because of that score, I knew I was going to be offered a PhD scholarship. Yeah.
Tamara: You didn’t have to apply.
Cameron: Oh, so I had applied for the PhD scholarship as well. Yeah, so on the day I finished honours say late November, whatever year, that was 2007, I think, I then knew I was, I had a PhD scholarship waiting for me. In that kind of intervening period between late November and the next year I had the choice of finding work or looking at the options of finding work or just taking a long holiday because I knew I had a PhD coming up. I did not look at any other options.
Tamara: Yeah. What did you do? You just took that time.
Cameron: Yeah. I had a nice long holiday. Yeah. I had it on, I saw, I wrote home. It’s strange how, as an undergraduate student, I always felt like I didn’t have enough free time to myself, but looking back now, it’s amazing, A-Mazing how much free time I had.
Tamara: Four-month long breaks.
Cameron: I, yeah, I might’ve wasted a bit of that time. Yeah.
Tamara: Hindsight is 2020 vision. Right. So, when you decided that you were going to do your PhD or when you got your scholarship, was it, did you tack onto somebody’s grant or did you get to have full reign over your choices for study?
Cameron: So it was on a grant. So, three academics at Flinders. I didn’t change universities for the PhD or even research groups, but three academics there had won an Australian Research Council grant, a few hundred thousand dollars to work on a particular research project. I was asked to work on that project. That’s pretty much what I did from the start, or I didn’t mind that happening because I wasn’t particularly ambitious at the time. I didn’t really have an idea of exactly what I wanted to do. If I had to say anything, I would say I would have wanted to work more in renewable energy, which is what I, I’m not doing that right now, but I did do in the past, but I didn’t know how to start because no one at Flinders was working on renewable energy at the time. I didn’t know if I just look someone up and I asked them, can I come do my PhD with you? I assumed they would laugh at me and say, no, but I mean, I now know that they probably would very strongly consider it, particularly if I had a PhD scholarship myself.
Steph: You went on with a project that your supervisors had defined. Did you get any freedom within that?
Cameron: I did have some freedom, in that I was all the, while I was working on a number of side projects and some of them were suggested by one of the academics. I had three academics, but they were each in a different research group. They kind of had their own angle. I kind of had a side project going on in each of the research groups. At the same time, I was still expected to work on this project that they’d won, which was to make a water filter. Not just any type of water filter. It was a water filter, using carbon nanotubes. From the title of the thesis, which are tiny cylinders of carbon, so small that, only water could fit down the middle of the cylinder. So,
Steph: Oh, so any particles in the water would be filtered out.
Cameron: Any particles in the water would be. Filtered out, even salt is too big to go through. It would be not only a, like a, a filtration, but also it could be a desalination. At that time 2…, I keep getting my years wrong, 2008-ish desalination was a very big thing. That was when the desalination plant was being built in Adelaide. We had our lowest water levels ever, I believe.
Steph: A lot of concerns about where our drinking water was going to come from.
Cameron: Yes. Yeah. My, the project idea, and there were some theory behind it and some very highly publicized articles who had shown proof of concept, was to make a filter using these carbon nanotubes and each of the three academics had a specialty that would kind of, if they all came together seamlessly, it would make a nice water filter. It was a very good grant. I can see why it was awarded.
Tamara: Did I, did it work?
Cameron: No. So no, it didn’t work.
Tamara: And that’s a result worth publishing as well, folks. You have to publish those failures as well. Yeah.
Cameron: I had, everything is going well for two and a half years. I basically got to the point where I assembled the water filter. I had the carbon nanotubes kind of aligned, the gaps between the carbon nanotubes were filled in, and that was sitting on a, a porous surface to support them. Even with everything kind of going exactly to plan the membrane that I was making was so weak that it would break under the weight of water.
Steph: Oh. And that’s rather fundamental problem.
Cameron: Yes. Yeah. If the weight of water breaks the membrane, it’s not a very good water filter.
Steph: Yeah. How long did you actually spend on your project? So that was at the two-and-a-half-year mark.
Cameron: I don’t know how good my memory is, but I believe it’s about two and a half years in. I had probably been spending six months at that very last step where basically I would do the same experiment every day. I would do the same experiment every day. And it would be a very long day. By the end of the day, I see my membrane break.
Steph: Okay. That sounds like the most demoralizing thing in the world.
Cameron: Yeah. I was very demoralized. It became, so I kind of felt like I’d had enough work done for a thesis except I was two and a half years in, and the scholarship goes for three years or three and a half years in if you can argue for an extension in, at that university. I was sure that my supervisors wouldn’t let me give up at two and a half years in, maybe in hindsight, if I really asked for it, they might’ve agreed to it. After six months of trial and error, I had no ideas of what I had. I had no idea what to do next. They didn’t really have an idea themselves of what to do next because by that stage, I was the expert on this project. They weren’t, they couldn’t really give me advice anymore. And so I was really stuck. It kinda got worse when, some parts of the project that have been working well that the two years stopped working because we changed supplier for one of the items that I used.
Cameron: So, yeah, so it kind of became a point where I just wanted to like, almost just sit in my room for that last six months, wait until three years are up. I say, Hey guys, I’d like to keep doing this, but my three years are up. I should start writing my thesis. I had some very lazy weeks, months in there. At one point I requested a meeting and I said, look, I don’t want to do this anymore, but I’ll do this other thing instead. I had those side projects going along and I thought if I just focus on this one for a little while, I could maybe get some papers out of that. At the same time, then my thesis wouldn’t be about making the water filter like the grant was, but it would just be about making a series of carbon energy-based devices.
Cameron: The water filter instead of being the whole thesis was a chapter. The side projects I had going on became a chapter each.
Tamara: Was the aim of the grant to result in a product that would’ve made the university money, or is that where they wanted you to kind of keep pushing forward? Or was it really about the knowledge.
Cameron: It was the knowledge. This particular grant scheme is more fundamental chemistry based. I don’t know how they worded it to the grant scheme, conveynor, but I imagine they could have used all of my side projects as evidence of what they’d done within that other project, because I was still using the carbon nanotubes, which were the main component of the grant.
Steph: A lot went wrong or you faced a lot of challenges. Yeah. How did you keep going?
Tamara: How old were you when you were doing a PhD?
Cameron: Oh, so I was young, so I was seventeen plus four.
Cameron: So I was 21 at the beginning. I know I had my PhD by 25. I think I kind of have an ability to forget about things and not think about them.
Steph: So, that was hard, but it’s in the past now? Yes.
Cameron: Or it’s. I won’t think about that now. I’ll think about that when it really matters. Which is good in when things are bad, I can kind of keep going, but it also means that I have a terrible record at the moment with say conference talks or other deadlines where I don’t begin my conference talk until the day before the conference talk at. I was at a conference this year where I hadn’t done my talk, but I also didn’t realize which day I was on. I was sure that I was on Thursday and then I was staying in Brisbane with a friend and we were going through the timetable for what to look at tomorrow, being the Monday. And he said, Oh, Dr. Cameron: Shearer. And I’m like, ha, very funny. He goes, no really one o’clock tomorrow afternoon.
Steph: Oh, I see. That’s the point I keel over and die you’re right.
Cameron: I had a, just a few hours to do the talk and it was half done already from a previous talk. So, I think that’s, I mean, honestly, that’s really the way that I got through things. I didn’t have any mature way or any logical way apart from the fact that I could really just forget about it or ignore it, which is probably the less healthy way to, forgetting about and ignoring it’s pretty similar,
Tamara: It also, it gives you that ability to just keep marching on and like you say, come back to it when you have to, which is when you’re going to have to write it up and then you can reflect and you’ve had time and space so that you can reflect on it probably to give it a bit more of a positive light than that, or, Oh, it was a failure. Yeah.
Cameron: I had the side projects coming on and they were always went to plan, which I mean, in hindsight is very lucky, but that helped as well with the fact that I was still getting some positive results when I was working on other projects.
Steph: Thinking about what was the most exciting part of your PhD journey? It wasn’t the PhD itself. It was the side products.
Cameron: They probably were the most exciting things to work on. By far, the most exciting thing for me was, the first paper was the most exciting thing. I don’t know if you think, but I think of like, at that time I thought of papers as like a version of immortality. This is, my name is on something that will last forever. I think this is my legacy. In those days, papers were still published on paper. I don’t know how often.
Tamara: Yes. Yeah. The digital version. Yeah.
Cameron: Yeah. The other things were the times when I could tell someone that I was the first person to do this, even if it was very specific, so, and other people often didn’t care at all, but yeah, I don’t care if other people didn’t care. I was happy.
Tamara: Yeah. How would you describe the life of a PhD student, which is gonna be different for everybody. I just thinking that you were, if you were 21, when you were doing it, I turned 40 while I was doing my PhD. It was a very different experience for me. So, for you, what is the life of a PhD student and also based on your experience as a supervisor? I suppose.
Cameron: To me, the life of a PhD student is repetitive, frustrating, challenging, and rewarding. I think I need to add a caveat on the rewarding part in that it’s unfair that effort in doesn’t always mean reward out. It’s rewarding, but not when you expect it, or you can’t expect it to be rewarding. It kind of has to be rewarding in its own way. Much in the way that things that are difficult when you finish them, it’s more rewarding when they were difficult. If something is easy, there’s no real feeling of reward there. Yeah.
Tamara: Yeah, yeah. I totally get that. Is that almost sense of satisfaction of completing something of completing something rather than necessarily the results being explosive, but, we got through it. Yeah. You did it!
Cameron: An element of challenge in things, I mean people add challenges to everything. Computer games aren’t fun if there’s no challenge, if it’s just run, like, hold your hand down on the right-hand button so that you go all the way to the end. There’s no fun there. There’s gotta be some obstacles along the way.
Steph: Would you do it again?
Cameron: So I would, I think I would do some things differently, but I would do a PhD again, I believe. I wasn’t very ambitious, and I think this probably comes back to how to being young. I didn’t really have a, a life goal or a one year five-year plan and things like that I do think about now, as I think I already said it, that I would have chosen to change universities, changed research groups to pursue, someone or a group that are working at the highest echelon of the topic I was interested in the issue that I wasn’t particularly interested in any topic, at that stage, but that’s what I would do if I go back differently. Going back to from year 12 going into university, I think that I would’ve considered more the job applications post or the job opportunities post study. As I said, I was just interested in chemistry and physics. So that’s what I went and studied. And I think that’s good as well. Yeah. I didn’t consider at all the job applications. My grandmother would always ask me, so what does a nano-technologist do? And I know that my answer was never sufficient because she would ask me every single time. I would always just talk it down to her being old and not listening. I think it’s because I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t explain what it was, and I still don’t really know what it was because it’s kind of just a name for a degree. I think if I went back, I’d probably do something more engineering focused, then science focused, basically because… Oh, the other thing I would have, sorry, I’ll go back again. Yeah. The other thing that’s important to think of is that say careers in science, tend to be more global. Opportunities are worldwide, but opportunities locally are very small. And so, going into the PhD, I probably thought that I was happy to be a global person and live in another country because I’d never really moved away from home before. Whereas if I say did an engineering degree, there are global options, but there are many more local options. Knowing what I know now that I’ve chosen to remain in the city that I grew up in, it would be easier for me to have a, say an engineering degree background, but having said that I’ve never been unemployed. So the science degree is working so far.
Tamara: It’s doing its job. Did you have a good relationship with your supervisors?
Cameron: Yeah, so I did, I like all of them. One of my main supervisor, I still am in regular contact with, and they are my best source of advice on big decisions. I realized recently that I only really contacting him when I’m in, when I have trouble or something like that. It’s very good when I realize I have an opportunity to contact him. That’s not me in trouble, but to say something good is going on or something like that. So yeah, so we had regular meetings. They would always attend and they would always be on time. I hate when people are late. And, they were basically let me run the meeting. I would say what I had done, I would say what I plan to do next. They would mostly just say, sounds good. And that’s all I needed. Other students, other students need more. That’s what I’m finding is a as a supervisor, but that’s all I wanted.
Tamara: Something to keep you accountable. Isn’t it? It’s like, you’ve got these deadlines and you’ve got a meeting and you need to go and say, I’ve done it tick, and yeah, yeah. I think I was probably a little more like that I didn’t need. My supervisors, two of them who have been here offered a lot more and it was great. In hindsight it was really very good for me to get that as well. What I thought all I needed was that tick-a-box.
Cameron: Yes. Yeah. Mini deadlines are, very helpful. Particularly one of the parts of the PhD is, time management, small deadlines, like regular meetings. Yep.
Tamara: Yes. Oh yeah. Yeah. Tutoring, undergraduates. I wish we had a little more time management.
Steph: After that, once you completed your research, how did you convey your outcomes to the world? Like you had to satisfy a grant committee. How was your research project important to the wider world? Were you able to translate it into something?
Cameron: It was always through research articles was the only real way that we transferred our knowledge. So I published a handful of papers. I also had the opportunity to go on the children’s television science show ‘Scope’, once during my PhD. I was also interviewed by The Advertiser at one time as well. But other than that, there wasn’t a,
Steph: It’s quite different audiences.
Tamara: Totally. Yeah. Having to put your really niche knowledge to an audience of how old is an audience for that show for Scope 10, I think, yeah. Explain it to a 10-year-old. It makes you have to think about it in different ways and make it accessible? Yeah.
Cameron: Yeah. The good thing with the Scope, I don’t know if anyone else had explained it, but I had an interview with their science writer and then they wrote the script. Yeah, they translated my science words to a 10-year-old. That, yeah, that made it a lot easier for me.
Steph: Your experience with The Advertiser, did they translate it well or did they lose the point of what you were trying to tell them?
Cameron: I think that they made it all make sense. The Scope thing and The Advertiser, or the local newspaper, were both on the water filter. That had a pretty clear, that has a nice story to it. I haven’t even mentioned my side project because they are much less easy to explain their relevance to anything – they involve carbon nano tubes.
Tamara: How did you get from your PhD into your academic career?
Cameron: So from the PhD I applied for… Alright so we are told that once when you do a PhD, you go overseas and do a postdoc and then you come back and local universities will really want to offer you a lecturing position. So, I did step one, I applied for many jobs. I think I applied for 37, I think, postdoc jobs, only looking overseas. Originally was only looking in English speaking countries, but I had to expand out. I ended up being offered and I accepted a job at the University of Muenster in Central West Germany, I was there for two years. I applied for a research fellowship, to come back to Australia. I really enjoyed my time in Germany. I became a better person while I was over there. I became a better scientist while I was over there, not quite as important. Living in an apartment for a while, kind of really made me miss the Australian lifestyle like I didn’t imagine I would.
Tamara: How did you go with language? The language was there much of a language barrier? I mean, mostly they speak English, but…
Cameron: But yeah. Most of the time it wasn’t too hard. I went to a language school at night while I was there. The times where it was hard, and one of the reason why… so I went across with my girlfriend now, wife as well. Things like tax is only in German. We had, a superintendent in the building that we lived in only spoke German. He would knock on the door at 7:30 in the morning and he would say something to us. I might recognize that he says water or heating or something like that. Mostly I would just say, I noticed that it’s him. And I said, okay, come on. It’s weird. We’re in our pyjamas. Come into our apartment, I don’t know what you are here for.
Cameron: Like, so that’s a little thing it’s funny when it happens once, but when it happens 5 times. It just built to the point where we thought, look, we’re either had to stay here, learn German and become German, or let’s just come back to Australia again. I applied for a research fellowship to come to Australia and my, supervisor for my PhD said, yeah, apply for that. If you don’t get it, I’ll offer you a one-year position. I didn’t get the research fellowship, but I took up the one-year position back at Flinders University again, that was working on the Collins Class Submarines, some part of the batteries there. While I was there, the supervisor got another grant this time for working on solar cells, which was kind of this interest in renewable energy. So, that ended up being a two-and-a-half-year postdoc. At the end of that, he, my supervisor announced that he was leaving to go to the University of Queensland. At the same time, he suggested to me, you’ve been at Flinders too long, go work somewhere else at the same time as he was leaving. I got a fellowship to work at the University of Adelaide for a year where I did a very similar project to what I had done in Germany, which was renewable energy again. I was there for a year and a half, and then that contract was coming to an end. It didn’t look like it had any other options, but I was, contacted out of the blue by a University of South Australia, a group there, who were talking with an industry partner, Membrane Systems Australia who wanted help on this, water remediation project. We had a meeting and they said, I want you to do this. I took it away. I looked back and said, I can’t do that. I’m not going to do that. We had another meeting and said, I won’t do what you wanted me to do, but instead I’ll do this other thing. And they said, okay. I got this now one year Researcher in Business Fellowship, partly sponsored by the industry partner in the government, doing something that was my idea in the first place, which is a really good to be working on my own bad idea than someone else’s bad idea.
Steph: You’ve managed to get you hit the trifecta. You’ve gone to all of the Universities in South Australia.
Cameron: I have all of the IDs, I have all of the email addresses.
Steph: The projects were somewhat related, but you’ve clearly moved a bit on your topics. How has the research skills from your PhD been transferred to your roles that you’ve had post PhD?
Cameron: A lot of it was based on very careful analysis of surfaces. What atoms are present at a surface? What is that atom bonding to at a surface. That is the same thing that I’ve done at every single job. That is what I’ve even taken to this industry related job. I just didn’t tell them that’s what I was looking at when I explained it to them. That’s the main thing that’s really followed it on other than that is project management skills. And it’s also the idea that it’s not so much what you know, but how well you convey it. And also, who you talk to. I have got the one job out of the blue, the, or the one job that I applied for the one in Germany where I didn’t know the person, other than that, it’s been either, Hey, apply for this, or I want you to come do this.
Cameron: So, another reason to leave Flinders University was everyone there knew me. You would, I could do, if a job came up in the future, they might offer it to me or they know where I am. I need to have the other people in South Australia know what I can do. That’s, another reason why I’ve consciously tried to move on.
Tamara: So would you be here (well, I don’t think you could, but I am going to ask it anyway), do you think you could be where you are today without your PhD?
Cameron: Well, so technically, no, I wouldn’t be eligible for the fellowship that I have right now without a PhD. Yeah. The answer is probably no, but yeah, working in renewable energy or, environmental science is kind of what I’ve been pushing towards more recently, is something that I could be working on without the PhD, whether I would have found myself there or not, I don’t know. I don’t know. I always say that my backup job is real estate agent, but I don’t know why. I don’t wanna be one of them. No offence to real estate agents.
Tamara: I wanted to be a florist. My backup career is like, my fallback is I would go and do floristry, cause I just want to hang out with flowers.
Steph: Oh, I always wanted to open a second-hand bookshop, which might be the only job that’s more insecure than academia.
Cameron: Well, not if you own the bookshop, the job is secure, but the money is not.
Steph: I could always bring in, sell cupcakes as well. Considering you have clearly decided to stay in academia, what sacrifices have you had to make or compromises you’ve had to make in your PhD or in your subsequent roles to pursue that career pathway? Or am I making assumptions? Were there sacrifices to make.
Cameron: The people who I’ve seen actually achieve an academic career in my field of chemistry, have gone overseas. So I have not yet made it in an academic career. I have, I had a one-year contract. I know I’ll have a four-year contract after this. So, I think that the sacrifice I really made is I’ve chosen to risk my academic career for my lifestyle that I’ve chosen. I would otherwise, I would say I’ve sacrificed, leaving my family and friends behind, but I’ve chosen not to sacrifice that. The main sacrifice has really I’ve chosen job insecurity versus living in Adelaide. But luckily my wife has job security. At least one of us should have a job. Even if I have to become an unsuccessful real estate agent. Which I will be unsuccessful….
Tamara: I will be unsuccessful. I don’t know, you’re doing a pretty good job selling the science. So, how do you think that the universities can go about better promoting the research and the work that goes on within their walls?
Cameron: That’s a good question. I think that really, no one knows what actually happens within the university.
Steph: It is a very mysterious ivory tower idea.
Cameron: Yeah. I think it really, firstly, it comes down to having better websites for each of the academic groups. At one stage I was in like a early career researchers group and I had a suggestion that, so within the department I was in, every year, we had a symposium where lots of people were expected to talk. I said, why don’t we ask the supervisors to do three minute thesis every year on their research. That would be recorded and could be put on their, website. So that all the way, if anyone ever wanted to know actually what they do right now, or would they done in last year, they would have that three minutes summary up there all the time. I go to a lot of people’s research websites and they are not up to date or if they are up to date, their real audience is potential collaborators.
Cameron: There are audiences in the public. Yeah.
Steph: Yeah. They’re looking to attract grant. People.
Cameron: There are a lot of events going on, that the public can attend. So, there’s Night of Science. There’s Science in the Pub, Pint of Science, things like this, which are very good, but I don’t know if the public is really interested at the same time. There are two groups of people we need to get better taught at the public. But the public at the same time, needs to show some interest. I don’t know about the middle, but yeah, I don’t know about the middle, but there is a point where we’ve got touch. I don’t know, I don’t really know the first step for either group of what to do.
Tamara: That’s interesting. Because the science and the pub thing really are about attracting scientists to the pub to talk their science and with guest speakers who are scientists doing their science. I don’t, and while it’s meant to be accessible, I think that even then it’s, if science is off people’s radars, they’re not gonna come and things like Science Week and Inspiring SA are doing what they can to try and create more. Yeah. It’s an interesting thing. But I think that, yeah, you’re right. I think that both parties need to come to the party.
Cameron: Yeah. I mean, anyone in the public wants to write to me and let me know what they want me to tell them. Yeah, I’ll do it.
Steph: You are accessible. I think that’s an important thing to say is that academics want to share lots of academics want to share.
Tamara: Oh, yeah, we are finding that everyone is keen to share and are very generous with their time. That’s interesting. So, what is a PhD?
Cameron: Alright, so I know the textbook answer is a, PhD is a collection of works which are meant to contain new knowledge. What it is people read a lot of things in a particular area. They decide what can I do that’s new. They try and do it and see if it works or not. I think that’s a PhD.
Tamara: So, what was it to you? Was it exactly that?
Cameron: I don’t know if I was really concerned about new knowledge in my PhD. Maybe I was interested in doing things that were new, but I mean mostly, the PhD was really about my own curiosity, and kind of testing my own ability to do things, but that’s kind of doing something new. So yeah.
Steph: Given the number of people who are completing, PhDs each year and we put the numbers, right.
Tamara: I think it was about 11,000 a year, in Australia across all fields.
Steph: Yeah. That’s not an insane amount. For people who are contemplating a PhD, what would you say to them?
Cameron: Well, I, so I think that the more educated our population is the better. If someone is seriously considering doing a PhD, then, I don’t want anyone to feel that they shouldn’t do it because of what anyone says. I think everyone should always do what do, what you want. There’s always the consideration of why are you doing the PhD and what do you want to do next? I’m pretty big at the moment on one- and five-year plans. Have a think about your one- and five-year plan and how the PhD fits into that. The other thing is to think about who you’re doing the PhD with. I can’t stress enough to; you really want to be doing the PhD with the best person in the field you’re interested in. Because as a PhD student is the time that you are, you actually have the most value to people because you cost the less,
Steph: They can employ you for peanuts. Yep.
Tamara: But there is also a certain element of having to get on well with your, you can have the best in the field and you may not get on with them at all, which can make it a bit awkward.
Cameron: Yes. Yeah. So, yeah. My comment, I, I don’t really think about that because I don’t, haven’t seen many examples of that happening. It doesn’t really come into my brain how important it is for that, supervisor, student interaction. It just doesn’t come to my head, but I do know that it’s very important and some people in particular need to think more than about it.
Tamara: Oh, and so what about kids that are leaving school? So you knew what you wanted to do, but there’s kids and there’s a great deal of pressure for them to make decisions. What about what for those kids if they were asking you what they should do.
Cameron: Yep. I was, I mean, I wonder how many people (I’d like you to do a poll), how many people are suggesting to do exactly what they did, because people I think have a bias towards telling you to do what I did. I’m going to tell everyone to do what I did and follow the subjects you’re interested in. Perhaps at the stage of choosing, the degree that you’re doing is to be aware of what it actually means. I did the Bachelor of Science in Nanotechnology. What it means is I did a Bachelor of Science. It doesn’t really mean nanotechnology. That doesn’t become a thing. Whereas if you do a bachelor of what’s it called, is it Bachelor of Science in Physiotherapy? At the end of it, you become a physiotherapist. I became a scientist. I didn’t become a nano technologist. I mean, I didn’t have many people who went to university before me.
Cameron: I didn’t really have role models. I didn’t know my father went to university and now I probably did.
Tamara: Vague memories….
Cameron: And so I didn’t understand the university talk and these university things. So I, yeah.
Tamara: Go in, ask questions, and find that out.
Tamara: Follow your passions, really, I suppose.
Cameron: Yeah, that’s right. That’s really what I’m getting at. Yeah.
Tamara: Do you know where your thesis is today. Could you go on, could you go and put your hands on your thesis if we said where’s your thesis?
Cameron: Oh, so I think so I have printed a couple of copies, four copies, I think so I’m sure one is on my bookshelf for my parents’ place.
Tamara: Have they read it?
Cameron: No. I’m sure everyone’s told you this, but the most read part of thesis is the acknowledgment for my honours thesis, I misspelled my co supervisor’s name and I’m sure that’s the only part of thesis he ever read as well. I learned at that stage, how important the acknowledgements are.
Tamara: It’s your Oscar moment though?
Cameron: Yeah, I think my acknowledgements must be pretty good. One at my parent’s place, I had one in my office at University of Adelaide. I don’t have an office, I have an open space, cubicle at UniSA. So, I think it’s still in that office unless they’ve moved it somewhere. I should go find that.
Steph: We do ask and we get some very strange answers. And have you ever done this reflection before, like thought back on the journey that you’ve had?
Cameron: So yes, I have. I am a co-host of “Publish, perish or podcast”, and I know you’ve had Andy on and I doubt that he mentioned that I exist. He calls it his podcast and he never, ever, never, ever mentions me to anyone who says it’s his podcast. As part of that podcast, we, kind of, we mostly make it fun, but we have a serious topic each week. A lot of it has been based on reflections of ourselves and advice to PhD students. So, yeah, I have time to answer that question. Yep. Yep.
Tamara: Finally, what have you heard any myths that you just think, that’s rubbish that are related to academia or the PhD that you really want to say, this is not true?
Cameron: Yep. Okay. The biggest myth and I fall for this as well, is that even though I have a PhD, I’m not an expert in anything except for my very niche area of research. I probably come across as I have an air of superiority on so many more topics than I actually have expertise in. I play cricket for example, and all the teammates, if there’s ever an argument going on and I’m one side of the argument, people say, trust him, he’s a Doctor. And I will never, ever correct anyone.
Steph: Yes, I am very wise.
Cameron: I am very wise, and I’m probably not the kind of doctor you think I am.
Steph: Don’t say you’re a doctor too loudly on a plane.
Tamara: Okay. So, I think that’s us, and…
Steph: Thank you so much for answering our questions today. It’s been very, interesting, and very funny, actually…
Cameron: Oh, you’re welcome. I had a good time and I look forward to listening to the whole series.