4 Aug 2017

CCS PhD student profile: Matthew Snelson

Matthew Snelson in the CCS 3MT heat
By Matt Jane

Matthew Snelson, 2017 CCS 3MT winner, is a PhD student at the Department of Diabetes in the Glycation, Nutrition and Metabolism lab where he is supervised by Associate Professor Melinda Coughlan.

Matthew completed a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and a Postgraduate Diploma of Dietetics at Curtin University, Perth. Matthew has also completed an Honours degree looking at diet and brain barrier dysfunction as well as a  Postgraduate Diploma of Biotechnology at Swinburne University.

What is your research about?

My research is exploring the effects of a processed diet on gut homeostasis and the influence that these changes have to the development of diabetic kidney disease.

How did you become interested in this area of research? How have you ended up where you are today?

When I was in year 10 we did an experiment in science class combining different chemicals to make esters and we made the smell of bananas. I found that side of science really fascinating. I became interested in food chemistry. I actually wanted to become a food technologist. I wanted to be the person who invented the next Nutrigrain. I went to university and did a Bachelor of Nutrition thinking I wanted to go into that, and during my studies became very interested and aware of the impact of food on health and particularly how food can be used to treat certain medical conditions. So I finished the bachelor degree and did a diploma in dietetics and worked for a few years as a clinical dietician.

What are your plans for when you finish your PhD?

I really like the idea of doing a postdoc in Europe. It’s one of the benefits of doing a PhD. You become very specialized and it does allow you to travel to other areas of the world and it is often highly encouraged.

Has your past as a practising dietitian helped you with your research?

I think that it helps put everything into context, which is sometimes lost being in a laboratory every day. It can be hard to think about how the things that you are doing will be implemented in the real world.

You recently were the CCS winner of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. What were the difficulties and the benefits of participating in this competition?

It’s a really great initiative to get people thinking how they can explain things. No one knows your research better than you and you want to share all of it and trying to figure out what is the most important thing from this that you want to share with others so they can take it away.

How was the process of the 3MT beneficial for your own PhD?

I think it helps you to frame your research in your head better. If you have to explain your research to someone who doesn’t know the area, it can help you to see the bigger picture. Sometimes if you’ve been stuck so long down in the minutiae of a very particular mechanism, stripping it back can be very helpful.

What have you enjoyed most about doing a PhD?

I enjoy the autonomy of my research. You do get a lot of freedom to decide what you want to pursue when you’re doing a PhD. Your agenda isn’t tightly set for you, which allows you to ask very open questions and do experiments to pursue them.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I play a bit of music, mostly guitar and singer songwriter type of stuff. I have an alter ego that performs musical comedy. I recently performed at the Melbourne Comedy Festival.

I also do a bit of science communication. There’s a really good science story telling night in Melbourne called Laborastory.

What advice do you have for others considering or just starting a PhD?

  • Know why you want to do it and where you want to go with it.
Doing it just because it’s what other people do at the end of their particular degree or doing it to have the title "Doctor" in front of your name, in my opinion, isn’t a good enough reason.  For instance, I’m doing a PhD because there’s a particular job that I want to end up in and doing a PhD is a prerequisite.
  • Make sure that the type of research is something that interests you.
It may be a cliché but make sure you choose something that you really like at the start because you’re going to end up hating it. But if you really like it at the start you’re not going to hate it as much in the end.
  • Check that you click well with your supervisor.
Shop around and meet a lot of people. You’re very valuable as a PhD student a lot of people will want to have you in their lab because it benefits them but you have to make sure that the relationship will be very beneficial for you as well.
  • Finally, don’t let a PhD consume your whole life.
Work-life balance is extremely important. Sometimes you’ll have to work really late hours and weekends for a particular experiment, but that should be the exception not the norm.

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