23 Mar 2018

CCS PhD student profile: Daniel So

PhD student, Daniel So discusses his work
and the path he took to arrive at CCS.
By Matt Jane

Daniel So is a PhD student in the Department of Gastroenterology, supervised by Associate Professor Jane Muir. Daniel has completed a Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science at Deakin University and a Master of Nutrition and Dietetic Practice at Bond University.

What is your research focused on?

My PhD question is focused on sugarcane fibre and how it works in humans.

Firstly, we have to do some lab testing and find out what its properties are. Not a whole lot of research has been done on it, so there is a bit of work to do there. The second part is rolling it out to human trials and see how it behaves in humans. We're looking to see whether the lab tests correctly predict how the fibre will behave, or does it in fact behave a little bit differently?

We’ve already started preparing for human trials. The first study is a tolerability study. The goal is to find out how much sugarcane fibre can be consumed without a person feeling symptoms.

Sugarcane fibre is mainly insoluble, and we believe it may be useful in bulking your stool and keeping you regular. The second study builds from the first and will be aimed at finding out how it that actually bulks your stool.

What do you know thus far about your project?

Sugarcane fibre currently is mainly a waste product. It’s the fibrous remains of sugarcane after the fluids and sucrose have been extracted. Right now it's not being used for much other than livestock feed, it’s not really efficient. It is very fibrous though, so we’re hoping to incorporate it into a food product and put it to use in people's diets.

What was your lead up to your PhD.?

I had just finished studying dietetics at Bond University before deciding to do my PhD. The course itself consisted of coursework, placements and then a research project. I was pretty set on doing clinical or spots dietetics halfway through my degree but then the research project came about. The project was looking at fibre and gut bacteria, which I found that more interesting than any other part of the whole course. After finishing that, this project came up and it felt like pretty much a direct continuation of my work there.

Who are your PhD supervisors?

My primary supervisor is Associate Professor Jane Muir. She is a dietitian and also completed a Ph.D. in Biochemistry. It’s great - she’s very across everything, especially in the lab. My second supervisor is Professor Peter Gibson. I actually met Peter at a microbiome conference in Brisbane prior to coming down to Monash. One of my supervisors up there introduced me to him and that’s a big part of how I ended up back in Melbourne working on this project.

You’re six months into your project now. Have you worked out what you’re looking forward to the most over the next 3 years?

I’m mainly looking forward to human trials because rolling it out in a clinical trial will be very exciting.

The potential for combining the sugarcane fibre with other types of fibre is also on the cards. Based on our work so far, it looks like sugarcane fibre doesn’t really do much for the gut bacteria; its most effective action may be in regularity and laxation. So there’s an idea where we combine it with another fibre so it does both: improve bowel habit and beneficially affect the gut bacteria. All that’s a long way off, but the prospect of working towards that is really exciting.

Do you think your past experience in clinical work will help you through your human trials?

For sure. I’m looking forward to interacting with patients and participants again. I haven’t done any clinical work since last January so it’s exciting to have those human trials on the near horizon.

When you finish are you thinking you’ll go into clinical or stay with research?

I’ll wait and see how this PhD goes before I make any call on what my future entails. The main thing that is jumping out at me currently is to keep doing research. There’s just so much to explore. All the work I am doing right now is so different from the work I was doing at Bond University. I hadn’t been in a lab before coming to Monash, so it’s opened my eyes a fair bit.

Have you been enjoying lab work?

I’m finding lab work to be really fun. It’s incredibly different to what I’ve learned in the past. Of course, there is going to be some hiccups along the way, but that’s always the case when you’re picking up a new skill. Jane has been great and sets people up down at the lab to help me out, so I’m not going about it by myself.

Why did you choose to do your PhD, what were your thoughts coming into the project?

My favourite component of my course at Bond was research, which really surprised me, considering I had my mind set on either clinical or sports. What I found really rewarding was discovering something new. I’ve found in research you get a lot of down periods, but when you find something new, something clicks and makes sense and that’s really cool.

In your spare time, what do you like to do?

I’m really into my sports. I’ve been slack and haven’t played competitively for a while, but I have got stuck into watching it quite a fair bit. First love has to be footy.  I’m a big Hawks fan. Recently, I’ve also been getting into American sports, specifically NFL and the NBA.

Apart from sport, I enjoy catching up with mates from the gold coast when they’re in town. The brunch scene down in Melbourne is amazing and there is an abundance of great bars too.

Did you receive any good advice prior to starting your PhD? Do you have advice for others?

I actually had received quite a bit of advice prior to starting my PhD. One of the requirements for dietetics is that you have to have a mentor for your first year out of university. I paired up with a PhD student from Bond University who passed on a lot of great advice on what and what not to expect.

I think the biggest thing he told me was that you’re not going to get your hand held the way you are throughout your Master's degree. You have to be the one who drives your work: being honest with yourself, accountable for your work, and managing your hours.

I think that if you’re on the fence when deciding if you want to pursue a PhD., it’s probably better just to wait until you’re ready to go whole hog. I found setting little deadlines to pad out the day helps as well, that way your day moves with purpose.

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