Case Study: Mirjam Hazenbosch
“Good luck with doing your PhD in Oxford,” said one of my former teachers to me as I was leaving my university. “Doing a PhD can be like riding a roller coaster but just hang on in there. It will be worth it,” she added. I had just graduated from University College Utrecht where I had studied biology, chemistry and psychology and I was about to start the Interdisciplinary Bioscience DTP programme at the University of Oxford. So far doing a PhD has indeed been like riding a roller coaster: you go up and down, sometimes slow and sometimes fast, and there are periods where you feel on top of everything and periods you feel hopelessly out of control. However, the Interdisciplinary Bioscience DTP programme has provided me with excellent guidance to keep me on track and to enjoy the ride.
During the first Term we were offered a variety of courses to build our core knowledge. I took courses in programming, statistics and mathematics. I am still using the skills I learned on a day-to-day basis while preparing my experiments or analysing my data. I also used this time to talk to Professors in different Departments about possible research projects.
After Christmas it was time to get out of the classroom and into the lab. The goal was to complete two 3 months projects so that we could make an informed decision about what project we would like to work on for our PhD.
During this time my ride started to accelerate: after three days in the lab, I was on a plane to Papua New Guinea. For my first project I worked with Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science. My project focussed on how smallholder farming can be combined with forest conservation in Papua New Guinea. I investigated possible factors (such as the size of an agricultural field, its crop diversity and its surroundings) on the level of herbivory and predation within a field. In practice this meant running around with a butterfly net to catch insects and setting out tuna baits to attract ants. Meanwhile I learned a lot about doing fieldwork, handling datasheets and writing up a paper.
For my second project I decided to actually spend time in a lab. I worked with Dr. Tonya Lander from the Department of Plant Sciences on a project which aimed to improve the yield of beans in an environmentally- and farmer friendly way. We investigated how soil management influences plant characteristics, yield quantity and nutritional quality in garden peas and lentils. I grew many plants in the Department’s greenhouses and spent a lot of time in the lab counting and analysing the plants and beans I had grown, while learning about soil management practices and statistical analyses.
Then the time had come to choose which roller coaster I wanted to ride. I decided to continue my work with Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland in Papua New Guinea and to keep on investigating how smallholder farming in Papua New Guinea can be made more sustainable. Having worked in the Department of Plant Sciences allowed me to keep on getting input and advice from relevant people in that Department, something that has proved to be very useful. I am now busy managing my own experimental gardens in Papua New Guinea in which I test what soil management practices (such as using compost or animal manure) can increase agricultural production. This involves collecting 57 kilos of banana peels, planting sweetpotato and digging soil. In addition, I conduct interviews with local farmers to better understand current agricultural practices and land use, and barriers for farmers to take up new agricultural techniques.
Apart from my day-to-day work in the lab in Oxford and my gardens in Papua New Guinea I am involved in outreach activities. I write blogs about my research for duurzamestudent.nl (a Dutch online magazine about sustainability) and my lab’s website. I am also involved in ConservationOptimism, a movement which aims to show that amongst all the stories of loss and degradation in conservation there are also inspiring stories of regeneration and positive change. Our mission is to tell and share these positive stories so we can learn from them, replicate them and work towards a more sustainable future for the world. The Interdisciplinary Bioscience DTP programme also offers me the opportunity to do an internship, which I will use to venture outside the realms of academia.
All in all, my PhD has felt like riding a roller coaster. However, the continuous support of the Interdisciplinary Bioscience DTP programme - both academically and financially - has helped me to hang on in there and to make the best of myself and my PhD.