Rebecca Gelding is currently completing her PhD at Macquarie University in Sydney. She is a part-time student, and full-time mum to two young children. She has always been fascinated by both music and the brain, and still thinks it’s pretty amazing that she gets to study both. Here, she tells us about unusual journey towards her PhD, her work and how being a mum has helped her be a better scientist. Come say hi to Rebecca on her Soapbox, August 20th 1pm – 4pm in Brisbane, where she will be talking about “Changing the song on your internal jukebox: using MEG to investigate manipulating music in your mind”
SS: Rebecca, how did you get to your current position?
RG: My journey has been anything but typical. I went off to university, wanting to study maths, music and the brain. Came out with an honours degree in Mathematics, but then thought I should get a “real” job. So worked in finance for 8 years – but missed the thrill and challenge of learning. Joined the local university gym, and found out that students get half-price membership! So literally looked through the course handbook to see if there was anything that sparked my interest (since my work would pay for “professional development”).
Ended up enrolling in Master of Education part-time, focussing on adult workplace learning. Half way through, I became a mum, and so finished off the last few subjects whilst looking after my toddler and baby and changed focus to how parenting impacts emotional regulation in kids. (Helpful stuff when you are entering the terrible twos!) Realised that I really did thrive on research, and after a few people suggested it, decided to pursue a PhD – perhaps it was time to re-ignite my old dream!
I still remember lying in bed the night after my first meeting with my (then potential) supervisor from Cognitive Science, and thinking – I’m really going to get to do this. I’m going to get to study music and the brain. I was giddier than a child on Christmas Eve!
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
RG: One inspiration was my senior high school physics teacher (Mrs Thompson). She was always really strict and stern (yes, I admit, I was a little scared going into her class). And on the very first lesson she singled me out, along with the 3 other girls in the class and asked us to stay behind after the lesson. I was feeling really nervous, but as soon as the 10 or so boys left the room her whole persona changed and she gave us a hugely encouraging little “Women in Science” pep talk about how we shouldn’t be intimidated by the boys and we should keep going in our study of science.
Nowadays it’s my family that inspires me. I know my kids are watching and learning from me, so I want to be the best scientist I can be. They are seeing my curiosity, dedication, hard work, commitment, passion. My hope is that by seeing me pursuing my dreams, it gives them the courage to do the same – whatever those dreams may be.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
RG: A lot of my work lately has been analysing the brain activity from my participants as they have had to complete a task where they imagine steps up and down the scale as directed by a random arrow on a screen. Sometimes I can get bogged down in the analysis steps, but every now and then I think – whoa, this is actually someone’s brain that has generated this, and seeing patterns emerge from the data is so thrilling.
Equally thrilling for me is the chance to communicate these findings to others – be it in scientific journals, online magazine articles, blog posts or even standing on a Soapbox!
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
RG: I read about it and felt equal parts of thrill and terror at the thought of sharing my science on a Soapbox in such a public way. I thought “I could never do that”, but the feeling lingered for a day or two and the idea just kept coming back to me “What have you got to lose?” I knew it was the type of thing that I would love to do – and the type of event that I would love to attend with my kids – so I applied.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?
RG: Is Excited-Nervous a word?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
RG: I’d love to see more flexibility and diversity in the scientific culture. I study part-time and it is working tremendously well for me. I’m enjoying being both a mum as well as a cognitive scientist. But with such pressure on publications and productivity, I’m not sure how this can be maintained long-term if I want to have a career in science. I don’t fit the usual mould of a scientist, perhaps even a women in science, but I know the skills I learnt in industry, as well as in parenting, make me a well-rounded flexible researcher – so I want to champion other PhD mums and see our scientific culture start to recognise and celebrate such diversity.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
RG: A PhD is the perfect time to give various aspects of academia a “go” to see what you enjoy. So teach or lecture if you can; write science communication articles; join committees and societies; put your hand up for as many opportunities you can (even if they scare you). Of course your thesis and research need to me your main priority, but getting that degree on its own won’t prepare you for a career in academia. And particularly for the female PhD student: don’t be intimidated by the boys.