Where there’s smoke, there’s fire: Meet Suki

By Octavia Soegyono

Sukanya (Suki) Jaiswal is pursuing a PhD in Optometry at University of New South Wales (UNSW). She completed her Bachelor of Optometry/Bachelor of Science in 2013 and has worked as a clinical optometrist since in both Sydney and Canberra. She completed her Masters of Optometry in 2020 from UNSW. Her desire to improve patient care and understand the environmental threats to eye health motivated her to pursue her PhD. She is one of our amazing UNSW Women in Science and Maths Champions from the 2021 cohort.

Why did she pick optometry?

Suki believes that vision is the most important sense out of the five senses. As such, she wants to ensure that people maintain good vision for all their life and adopt healthy practices to ensure this. She is especially passionate about helping children overcome their vision problems. One of the factors that continues to motivate her in optometry is that here work makes a significant impact in the lives of her patients, hence she feels it is a rewarding career.

Patient success stories that make her proud

While Suki loves her research, remembering the patients she’s helped – the stories of patients where she has felt she has made a difference – is the icing on the cake for clinical care. She recounted a story from her first few weeks of clinical practice, as a newly graduated optometrist. Her patient, a non-verbal four-year old boy, came in with poor vision that she was able to improve with glasses she prescribed. At the follow-up appointment some weeks later, he was a chatterbox and the consult ran over time because he kept talking! His parents were in tears at this remarkable improvement. This was the moment she realised how important and rewarding her role was in making a difference in the lives of her patients.

Why does she think optometry is exciting?

The field of optometry is constantly evolving, there are new and emerging technologies both in the clinical and research spheres. There is so much to the eye, and these new technologies have enabled understandings and examination at a cellular level in the eye. It has become possible to view the retina and blood vessels using a non-invasive camera. The innovations in technology have huge potential to change the lives of people who have eye disorders. She believes that the technology involved in routine eye examinations currently enable earlier diagnoses of diseases and interventions thus preventing irreversible vision loss. For the future, she hopes that in her lifetime, there will be progress on the ‘bionic eye’ which would transform the lives of individuals with genetic eye diseases. It is clear that research in optometry has many important implications for advancing patient care.

Suki conducting an eye examination on a patient.

Her current research

She is currently researching the relationship between bushfire smoke and eye problems with a focus on individuals who endured smoke exposure during the Australian bushfire season (Black Summer). She is interested in understanding how eye infections and eye irritations are caused by bushfire smoke, what optometrists are doing to manage such issues in their patients, and can these methods be improved. A key question she hopes to answer with her research is ‘What happens with repeated exposure to bushfire smoke?’ Fire fighters have chronic and long-term exposure to bushfire smoke so her research aims to understand the impact of smoke on their eye health and the mechanisms that underlie these problems (e.g. inflammation, immune cell activity).

What makes her research unique?

Global warming and climate change undoubtedly influence bushfire occurrence and severity in Australia and around the world. Understanding the impact of climate change on public health, including eye care, is imperative. She believes that we need to anticipate the impact of bushfires on eye health to prepare eye care professionals to manage eye problems caused by smoke exposure. Unfortunately, this area has not been explored well in research thus far, hence there is a lot of work still left to do.

A typical day in the life of an optometry PhD

Suki began by identifying that no two days are the same (she notes this to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of research). Most days, the first thing she does is look over her emails and plans out the most important tasks for the day based on deadlines. There may also be meetings, talking to supervisors, cooking, or generally just getting out and about. Importantly she makes sure to take breaks every 1-2 hours from digital screens, as she recognises this important habit is necessary for good vision and eye health!

Interests outside of the lab

At present, Suki has been enjoying completing her Painting-by-Numbers project. She describes it like therapy – it uses all of your concentration, you can relax, and can spend 15 minutes on it or 4 hours on it, depending on the mood. Unlike research which is neverending, she finds satisfaction in being able to complete sections of her painting. It has been a slow and methodical project but she loves it!

Suki’s completed Paint-by-Numbers project.

Words of wisdom for young women interested in STEM

Suki says ‘You have to be passionate, the underlying topic has to interest you, intrigue you – you have to want to know more about it’. She advises that if there are many things that you want to know – find something that can combine your interests together and formulate a research career based on those interests. Researching at a PhD-level is broad, you can really get into the basics of something. At the same time, it is hard work. Research in STEM is not for everyone and it is not everything either. If it is your field, you will know it; and you will not feel like you are working – you will feel like you are solving a problem.

That said, Suki says ‘If you are unsure about what you are passionate about, give yourself time, start somewhere, try to make decisions based on what you are passionate about and you might be wrong, so be open to change. You can find passion – you are not necessarily born with it’.

Suki (second from left) with her PhD supervisor A/Prof Blanka Blanka Golebiowski (second from right) and two other PhD candidates from the School of Optometry and Vision Science.

Follow Suki on twitter to keep up-to-date on all the amazing science and outreach she does!

Adolescent mental health x digital intervention: Meet Savannah

By Charuni Pathmeswaran

Savannah Minihan is a Scientia PhD researcher exploring adolescent mental health and the development of novel digital prevention interventions. Savannah is an accomplished UNSW Woman in Maths and Science Champion and is keen to make an impactful change in the mental health space.

Can you briefly explain your current research?

My research broadly explores the cognitive, emotional, and social processes that influence mental health across the lifespan (particularly adolescent mental health). We use findings from this research to design novel mental health interventions. At the moment, we are developing a gamified cognitive training app, which we hope to get young people’s feedback on very soon.

What drew you to this field?

Psychology is such a diverse field. Working within psychology might involve working in a clinical practice environment, or it might involve working in a research team and conducting translational research to inform treatment practices, or even working within industry or government. I love that psychology can take me down diverse pathways and that it is a meaningful space to be in where I could make a difference.

What excites you most about your work?

I love the data analysis stage of my research. When you’ve gathered all your data from a research experiment and are finally able to look at your data and see what it is telling you. It’s quite exciting to see the results of your work and find something out for the first time. I also really love the translational aspects of my work – when you can see the direct impacts that it is having on other people. I find this really fulfilling.

What do you find most challenging about the work you do and how do you tackle it?

While data analysis is exciting, it can also be very challenging, especially when you are learning complicated analysis procedures that you have not encountered before. This can be quite overwhelming. However, I have come to realize that one of the reasons why I am doing a PhD is to learn new things – I am not expected to know everything, rather I can learn from others. So I am slowly getting better at asking for help!

What does a typical day look like for you?

At the moment it is a lot of desk-based work. This means reading the latest research articles, planning out an experiment, programming an experiment, collecting data, analyzing data, or writing up a manuscript. It depends on what stage of a project I am at; however, I usually have a couple of different projects on the go at once, so I find it helpful for motivation and engagement to be able to switch between different tasks.

What are your interests outside of science?

I really love traveling. I lived in the U.K. for a couple of years, between completing my undergraduate and starting my PhD. I was incredibly lucky to be able to visit many incredible places throughout Europe, experiencing so many different cultures and meeting lots of wonderful people along the way.  I also love reading and going to the gym.

A snap from Savannah’s 2-year research stint at the University of Oxford. The Radcliffe Camera – one of Oxford’s most distinctive sights, and a working library!

Words of advice for young women interested in pursuing a career in STEM?

Don’t let fear stand in your way. You can do whatever you set your mind to, you just have to start somewhere and give it a try. If an opportunity looks scary, take it up anyway because you never know what’s on the other side.  

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

I am proud of myself for not letting fear get in my way. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I knew I wasn’t ready to go straight into a post-graduate degree. An opportunity arose for me to work as a research assistant at the University of Oxford for two years. The thought of moving overseas by myself for what seemed to be such a long time was really scary. But this decision turned out to be one of my best yet!

What would you like to see change in the future for women in STEM?

I would like there to be fewer gendered preconceptions about particular roles. I would like young women to feel that they can pursue any career that they are interested in, and not to be persuaded otherwise because a particular field is overly male-dominated.

To find out more about Savannah’s research, follow her on Twitter.