The University of Wollongong (UOW) has so many high achieving PhD students, working towards solving real world problems. Behind every great PhD candidate is a great supervisor (or two). We hear from both to understand their perspective of the post graduate journey.

Dr Claudia Kielkopf completed her PhD at UOW this year. A keen interest in MND research saw her relocate to Australia from Sweden. Working from The Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) Claudia achieved a great deal while in Australia. On top of all of her fantastic research Claudia took time to speak at various events including Uni in the Brewery and she was also selected to take part in the Homeward Bound women's leadership trip to Antarctica. She now works at the Novo Nordisk Foundation, at Copenhagen University in Denmark. Her supervisor while completing her PhD was Dr Simon Brown, Senior Research Fellow within the School of Chemistry and Molecular Bioscience

Meet the supervisor: Dr Simon Brown

Dr Simon Brown WIDE
Dr Simon Brown

Can you explain your area of expertise?

I am a structural biologist, specialised the development and application of sophisticated analytical instrumentation to the investigation of bimolecular structure and function. I currently work with a team to manage a 20 million dollar cryo-electron microscopy facility at UOW.

How did you find yourself where you are now professionally?

A long round-about path! I have always followed the technology that excites me, and worked with biomedical problems to develop and apply the technology. The cryo-electron microscopy initiative at UOW has been a great chance for me to follow my passion with sophisticated analytical instrumentation.

What makes a great PhD candidate?

Critical elements are motivation, independence, organisational skills, and intelligence. For my field, fundamental training in math, statistics and chemistry is critical. Specialised skills are obtained during the candidature, but the fundamentals are necessary from undergraduate.

How do you guide candidates on their journey?

Regular meetings and gentle guidance, combined with a slow and steady release of control to encourage independence. Each candidate needs a specialised approach depending on confidence and personality. I see my role as an enabler, to remove blocks and give guidance. Regular short meetings are helpful to keep tabs on the project without being overbearing.

What should candidates consider when finding a supervisor?

A supervision style that suits the candidate is key. This can range from very hands-on to totally hands-off. A supervisor with good collaborators and research funding is also important. Having a team around the candidate to support the project gives support both scientifically and personally.

Meet the candidate/ Now PhD: Claudia Kielkopf

Dr Claudia Kielkopf WIDE
Dr Claudia Kielkopf

Can you give a description of the topic or question you are investigating?

In my PhD project under supervision of Simon Brown and Brett Garner, I work on a protein called apolipoprotein-D. We are interested in this protein because it has a protective role in Alzheimer’s disease. I study the three-dimensional structure of the protein using a variety of methods, including the new cryo-electron microscopes that are powerful enough to take images of tiny proteins. By understanding the structure of apolipoprotein-D, we hope to understand its function better.

How did you select your research topic? Where does your interest in this field stem from?

Since high school, I have liked the overlap of chemistry and biology and was most interested when we talked about biology in chemistry classes and vice versa. Imagine my delight when I learned you could study a field called biochemistry at Uni! I am fascinated by proteins, their shape and how their shape allows them to fulfil the manifold functions they have in the body. In addition, Alzheimer’s disease is a very complex disease that we still do not fully understand. Therefore, there is much to learn about the roles of various proteins in this disease.

How did you find your supervisor?

I found my PhD supervisors through my Master’s project supervisor in Sweden, Katarina Kågedal. After doing my lab project with her, I asked if she knew a lab group who worked on Alzheimer’s disease. She said “I know a fantastic group in Australia. Do you want to go to Australia?” Of course I said yes! So I came to UOW for six months for my Master thesis project and at the end, my supervisors asked me if I wanted to come back for a PhD. After experiencing the support and trust given to me by Simon and Brett and the collaborative environment at UOW, it was another yes.

How do you think your research can change the world?

My research is basic research, aiming to understand underlying principles of protein structure. One day, this knowledge may translate into an application but I’m not actively working towards a cure for Alzheimer’s disease in my PhD. But the results I obtain in my projects and the techniques I use can be helpful to other researchers working on other projects and I think this is where the impact of my research lies.

What advice would you give someone considering doing postgraduate studies?

Doing a PhD is a great opportunity to immerse in a project and learn how to do research and become more independent. Find supervisors who you work with well and if you can, work with them on a smaller project beforehand to test if you like the lab group and the environment. Equally important, find peers to support you. Because when the going gets rough, and it will, you need a good support network. Finally, go overseas or work in a different group or area! I learned so much by living in different countries and working in various groups and finding out what style of supervision suits me. I do not want to miss this experience.