Scientist Talks: Heema Vyas
Next up in our Scientist Talks video series, we chatted to Heema Vyas. Heema is a fourth-year PhD student at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute at the University of Wollongong in Australia. We spoke to Heema about her current research, her experience of managing her mental wellbeing during her PhD, and her advice for new PhD students when it comes to balancing mental health and wellbeing in the academic environment.
Hi Heema! Could you tell us where you are in your PhD journey, and what your research focuses on?
I'm a fourth-year PhD student at the University of Wollongong and I'm affiliated with the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, and also the Molecular Horizons research facility. My project looks at Group A Streptococcus biofilm formation in the context of pharyngitis, sore throats, and tonsillitis, and trying to understand why sore throats don't always respond to antibiotic treatment. I'm specifically looking at how pharyngeal cell surface glycans might be mediating the way in which Group A Strep is forming these biofilms in the throat.
A 2017 study found that mental illness had been reported to occur in one in three PhD students. Why do you think that a PhD can be so challenging for mental health?
A PhD is 3+ years’ commitment to a project, to a supervisor, and to a lab group. From my experience, your whole life indirectly becomes part of this PhD – even your family and friends get involved! When you're in the thick of your PhD there can be so much happening, for example, you can be doing experiments which don't always work. That can prompt the classic imposter syndrome where you start to worry: Am I a fraud? Did I get into this program by fluke? You start to doubt yourself.
Your project might also start to change direction. Some people experience changes in supervision. And then there's the added pressure to produce papers and be a well-rounded PhD student, making sure you're doing community engagement, etc.
On top of all of that, you have to balance your personal life with your PhD, and all these things combine to cause stress which can have a detrimental effect on your well-being. So, it’s easy to see how it can become a problem not just for individuals, but for collectives of students doing their PhD.
What’s been your experience of managing your own mental health and well-being during your PhD?
My mental health journey has been interesting. At the beginning of my PhD, I hadn't quite realised that I was going through depression, anxiety and severe stress, and it actually took for my supervisor to point out to me that maybe it was time that I got some help. Her support was very important, because sometimes when you're in the thick of it, you don't realise what’s happening. So it started there, and for the last two years, I've been getting counselling, which has really changed my mental and physical health and has helped me to process my well-being.
What tactics, techniques or tips have you picked up over the years that have worked for you and helped you look after your own mental health?
Definitely the counselling, which I feel very lucky and privileged to have access to with the assistance of our local health care system. Through that counselling, I've been given several tools to help me recognise certain patterns and triggers. I’ve found things that I can do when I'm going through the peak moments of mental health challenges.
My counsellor is always stressing the importance of self-care, which can look very different for each different individual. For me, it's silly things like having a face mask, or changing the colour of my nails, or washing my hair with a fancy shampoo! Those are the kinds of things that ground me again and make me remember that at the end of the day, outside of the lab, I am still a person and there are other things that I like to do.
Exercise is tied in closely with self-care too. Going to the gym, for me, is very important. I've recently started doing some weight training, which makes me feel strong and empowered. As we know, exercise is very beneficial for mental health and well-being. It's a good outlet for the type of anxious energy that can be associated with stress. I also like to go for walks along the beach because it's important to get fresh air when you can. When you're in a lab all day, you don't really have much access to that. And again, that's very grounding.
Your sleep routine is also very important. I get very grouchy and my mental health starts to get affected when I don't get enough sleep. So those are the little things that I do, and I would recommend those to anyone who's going through fluctuations in their mental health and well-being.
What advice would you give to new PhD students who perhaps have a history of anxiety or depression, to make sure that they look after themselves and have the support systems that they need in place?
If you feel comfortable and safe to do so, talk to your supervisor. For me, that was really important. It was my supervisor who pointed it out to me when things were not going so well. So if you can, have your supervisor involved enough that they're aware of your situation and they can help to find ways to alleviate those stresses, or even just check in on you.
Secondly, talk to your friends or whoever it is that you trust the most. If you have any close mentors or family members, just let somebody know how you’re feeling. Even just the process of talking to someone can relieve a bit of that pressure, and it's important for people to know what you’re going through so they can check in on you.
Thank you so much, Heema! How can people contact you or connect with you online if they'd like to?
I'm very present on Twitter – my handle is @HKNVee. Feel free to contact me there as I'm always happy to have a chat about mental health and well-being in academia and STEM. And of course, I love biofilms, so if you like biofilms too, definitely follow my content!
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