Combating Dry Eye and Teaching Jui Jitsu

By Dr Lisa Nivison-Smith

Meet Dr Emma Gibson – optometrist, researcher, science communicator and Jiu Jitsu instructor

Originally hailing from Wales, Emma wanted a new challenge away from her daily life as an optometrist and so travelled halfway across the world to embark on a PhD elucidating the role of female hormones in dry eye disease. Beyond being able to better help her female patients through her PhD research, Emma has spent the last few years helping other female PhD students as the women officer on the UNSW Post Graduate Council and even teaching women self-defence classes. She is now a UNSW Women Science Champion and excited to communicate science and provide honest insight and support to those embarking on their own PhD journeys.

1. Tell me a little about yourself. How did you end up at studying a PhD at UNSW?

I’m an Optometrist from Wales. I was very happy with my job but wanted a new challenge. Through a colleague in the UK I was introduced to my supervisors at UNSW. I initially committed to a Master’s programme, due to the transition from Wales to Sydney. After a few months, I was enjoying researching and living in Australia so much that I transferred my project to a PhD. 

2. Your PhD research looked at the effect of oestrogen on dry eye disease. What made you chose this area of research?

I always had a keen interest in the front of the eye, spending a lot of time looking at it whilst I was practicing as an optometrist in Wales. I have also suffered from dry eye for many years so I had an inherent in this area*. So many of my patients reported symptoms of dry eye so I wanted to invest my time in something that was relevant to my patients when I returned to clinic after completing my PhD. When this project was discussed as an option it just clicked into place with what I was passionate about.

* dry eye is where there is an inadequate film of tears over the eye to provide lubrication; this is important for comfort, health and clear vision

“I wanted to invest my time in something that was relevant to my patients” – Dr Emma Gibson on her decision to investigate dry eye disease

3. And has your PhD helped you with your patients?

Yes! When I now see my female patients, I am able to educate them on what dry eye disease is and the increased risk associated with menopause. I am able to spend the time to discuss what they can do to alleviate it and avoid the symptoms, as well as who to see if problems persist. It is great being able to answer their questions and reassure them that many of the symptoms they experience with their eyes, such as the need for reading glasses is a normal part of aging, or as I like to call it, “refining”.

4. Besides helping educate women about dry eye disease, your PhD gave you other opportunities to help women. Can you tell me about them?

I became involved in the Post Graduate Council at UNSW in 2016 and held positions of International Officer, Vice-President and in 2018 I was Women’s Officer. During these roles I was invited to participate in discussions with university boards including Equity and Diversity. These gave me opportunities to work with inspirational women leaders within the university and to advocate for women across the university. I ran a women’s self-defence course at the university, with my Jiu-jitsu instructor. The women learnt valuable skills and felt empowered. Empowering women is something I feel very strongly about and something I make a focus within the weekly jiu-jitsu classes I teach at the Woolloomooloo PCYC. They are a safe, friendly place to learn life skills and meet a wonderful group of women.

5. Now that you have finished your PhD, what advice would you give others doing or considering a PhD?

  • Don’t be so hard on yourself, you are only human so set yourself realistic goals.
  • Take time for yourself to exercise/ meditate/ see family and friends/ enjoy life.
  • Imposter syndrome is real and happens to all of us, you will spend a lot of time not knowing what you’re doing, this is a normal part of the process.
  • It’s ok to not be ok. Talk to people about how you’re feeling. Don’t isolate yourself. Depression is so common in PhD students, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

6. Why did you join the UNSW Women Science Champions program?

I had been the women’s officer for the Post Graduate Council whilst doing my PhD and wanted to stay involved in the university and help women in science. I thought this was a great program for engagement in the community and it has been an amazing experience to meet the other champions and develop my skills at communicating science to the public.

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What is Psychology?

By Dr Poppy Watson

When I tell people that I work as a researcher in the School of Psychology they tend to be quite baffled. “Does that mean that you treat patients?” they often ask. I have to tell them that I am not at all qualified to treat patients (even though I have a PhD in Psychology). Psychology is such a broad science, it really is not surprising that there is so much confusion out there.

The Australian Psychological Society defines Psychology as “both a science and a profession, devoted to understanding how people think, feel, behave and learn”. Depending on whether you are interested in the science or the professional side of things will determine the career path you take.

A clinical Psychologist treats patients: Becoming a professional, registered clinical psychologist generally requires a Psychology undergraduate degree, followed by either more specialised educational courses (e.g. a clinical Masters programme) or supervised on-the-job training. Clinical Psychologists see patients and might specialize in certain areas such as child psychology or sports psychology.

Academic Psychologists do research: If you are interested in a career in psychological research then you do the same Psychology undergraduate degree as clinicians but then generally go on to do a PhD, followed by post doctorate research jobs – always on the lookout for an elusive tenure track (permanent) position at a University or research facility. Some people take their expertise to go work in industry e.g., companies or government agencies who want to use evidence from psychological research to change behaviour/inform marketing practices etc.


Undergraduate degrees in Psychology are very broad – often encompassing everything from brain and behaviour (what we know about how animal and human brains function to drive observable behaviour), perception and cognition (attention, visual systems, decision-making, memory, language), childhood development (development of self and reasoning), social psychology (how groups behave/interact), psychopathology (mental illness, addiction), forensic psychology (decision-making in the context of the law) and the basics of research (good experimental design, statistics). Different universities will focus more on different areas depending on the specialties of the academics who are teaching. Related specialties such as neuroscience (study of the brain and nervous system) will often fall under the department of Psychology but will sometimes be a separate department/degree.

During a PhD you generally become skilled in carrying out research, focused on specific research questions that relate to one or more of these topics above. You might develop more lab-based skills (particularly if you go into neuroscience) or you might gain experience with neuroimaging techniques such as MRI scanning and electroencephalography (EEG). You might study how different cognitive systems (attention, memory) are affected in disorders such as schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s or, as I did, study how learning about reward influences the everyday choices that we make. Although the potential topics are infinite, most research projects are a series of experiments that generally have the same structure– reading literature, outlining hypotheses, thinking of a good experimental design (using the right paradigm, testing the right populations, ensuring the appropriate control groups), programming the experiments (e.g. you might need to present certain images on screen while you record eye gaze location), testing participants (human or animal), analysing the data (using simple statistical models or complex computational modelling) and then (hopefully) writing up the experiment for publication. As you move beyond your PhD towards becoming a full Professor (well, maybe eventually) you still do these things only now you are able to develop a wider program of research, mentoring younger researchers in your team who work on different, but related, research projects.

Some people are surprised that Psychology is a Science – perhaps because popular media would suggest that we are sitting around dreaming up fad diets, writing tips on how to win friends and influence people or having pointless philosophical debates. As the science of Psychology matures and technology becomes more sophisticated, we are recruiting physicists, mathematicians, computer programmers and biomedical scientists to help us in our endeavour to understand the human brain and behaviour.


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