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Jet Packs and my research portfolio mid-semester review


The last couple of months may have been quiet on this blog, but elsewhere in my life the activity has been mind boggling. The first six months of the PhD at the University of Canberra requires candidates to complete a Graduate Certificate of Research Methods. My graduate certificate can be likened to the university securely attaching a jet pack onto my back pack and pressing the big green ‘GO’ button– propelling me into academic space. The tricky bit is navigating it safely in the direction your course convenors and your supervisor need it to go. Which brings me to the reason for today’s post, today is my research portfolio mid-semester review. Today I have to demonstrate to my supervisor that I have been achieving the Research portfolio learning outcomes and have identified generic and specific skills that I will need as I move deeper into the PhD.

So, here it goes–what have I been doing this semester? Let’s talk about software first. I have started using Evernote to be my storage of all things PhD and everything else as well. After I started to incorporate the ‘Getting Things Done’ system with Evernote I really started to fly with it. To learn the GTD program and its principles I have Dave Allen’s book on Audible and have listened to it whenever I could. A big salute to the Evernote team and Dave Allen.

A major part of the PhD is the ability to search for articles and store them safely in a reference management system. On the recommendation of a wonderful friend who has since passed away (vale Geoff), I downloaded Mendeley and started to learn how to use it as effectively as possible. I encouraged the University of Canberra to start a users group and will soon be running a Mendeley training seminar. Mendeley is not only a reference manager; it stores PDF’s which you can annotate and attach notes to. It makes collaboration a breeze and enables the effortless sharing of papers between colleagues–it also has search features that are getting stronger every day. Mendeley is synchronised to the web so you will never lose your articles–even if you smash your computer on the concrete. Yes, that has happened to me too! Mendeley was recently purchased by Elsevier, so it now has great support.

The next brilliant software discovery was Scrivener, which was shown to me during morning tea of a writing seminar at the university. Scrivener is the most amazing tool for writing; it has wonderful tools for formatting and helps organise your notes coherently. I have been learning Scrivener from the tutorials produced by the ‘Scrivener Coach’. I am also a member of a closed Facebook group called “Scrivener ninjas”–how could you not want to be a part of that? To get my words as quickly as possible onto paper, I have used a free touch typing coach and have taught myself how to type. That was suggested to be a useful skill by my supervisor, and it has already proved its value.

The last software tool I have now is SPSS. The statistics program by IBM that needs no further introduction. The last word though could be my downloading ‘R’ and starting to learn how to use that. Phew, I think that is the software covered.

Wait a minute, I haven’t mentioned anything about social media–this is one area that shows how university study has changed since I completed my engineering degree. A PhD can be quite isolating and social media is one way of communicating information about the research, connecting with peers, the public, friends who wonder what you are up to. One of the important factors of a PhD is the ability to communicate with both your peers and with the general public. I have a twitter handle, a Facebook page dedicated to the PhD called ‘kneejointphd’ and have just started up on pinterest. I will talk about that interesting new development in a later blog. Despite a lot of nonsense, there are lots of good pages on Facebook (including my own). The pages I have liked include ‘British Journal of Joint Surgery’, ‘Science Illustration’, Grammerly, ‘Keep calm and love science’, Scrivener and Mendeley. They regularly post interesting information that in many cases is immediately useful–the latest post on Grammerly describing how to identify a passive sentence using zombies comes to mind. I think Spotify is also worth mentioning here. If you love all kinds of music as much as I do, this is almost essential. I am currently compiling a new playlist for ‘PhD study’ that will be released shortly….

I will wrap it up there as this has turned into a post of epic proportions. Until next time treasure your opportunities,


Tis the season to be stoic. Dealing with loss.

Once you reach the last year of a PhD, it seems that chaos reigns! Conferences are scheduled almost simultaneously in different locations, abstracts are due while you are writing a critical thesis chapter, bacteria and viruses are waiting to turn you into ‘the host’, and all of your deadlines are racing up faster than Christmas. It is easy to feel under the pump and struggle to cope. However, long-term these challenges can be overcome.

Tragedy can also swiftly strike. In the last few weeks, my cousin lost her beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter to cystic fibrosis. I spent time with the family in the hospital and learnt from them, that one can squeeze moments of humour into the darkest time, that there is always time for hugs. The best of human nature was also demonstrated. Their local community wore purple ribbons, honouring the fight against cystic fibrosis and ran fundraising events–even strangers offered to help pay expenses.

The second challenge from last week was my sister’s latest suicide attempt and her terrifying and confronting anatomical description of it. She is fully insured but has had her treatment for depression delayed by a careless and incompetent insurer. Suicidal ideation is one of the symptoms of her disease, and because her treatment was late, her despair and hopelessness became overwhelming.

So how does one move forward? Perhaps by returning to the words of Epictetus:

“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find the good and bad? In me, in my choices.”

There is no ‘getting past pain quick scheme’ that I know of. However recently released was an insightful book called “Option B: Facing adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy”, written by Sheryl Sandberg. Unexpectedly, she found her young husband dead in a hotel gym while they were on holiday with their children in Mexico. The book covers her journey at learning to deal with loss and developing resilience.

In a timely  blog post from “This is How to Recover From Tragedy: 4 Secrets from research” Eric Barker sums up the 4 secrets that help one recover from tragedy:

  1. Do not believe it is your fault, don’t let it affect your life or hold onto the pain
  2. Ask the question: “How much worse could it have been?”
  3. Have support, someone to whom you can talk.
  4. Write about it. Apparently, this can make it better.

Thank you to Eric Barker for his post, and his book “Barking up the wrong tree” and thank you to Sheryl Sandberg for sharing her journey.

Taekwondo and my Final Doctoral Skills Portfolio Presentation

Gradg 2013 (1)

It’s 5:30am and I’m awake and deciding on what to include in my presentation today. I’m required to present a synopsis of all the work I have done over the past semester. Six months of an insane workload and high expectations–my own and my supervisors. So naturally, as often happens, my thoughts turn to Taekwondo. I started training when I was 13 years old in a very old traditional style. Needless to say I was one of very few women and one of very few children. Despite the odds that were stacked against me I was so happy to be training that I threw myself into it. I learnt the basic moves, stances, balance, arms, hip, and trunk and head positions. I was a sponge, as I knew I would need all of these basics to be able to execute the patterns you learn at each level. I had a strong vision of where I wanted to be and why I was learning all these new things. I wanted to be a black belt, but even more I wanted to be able to ‘free spar’ like some of the black belts I saw train every day. That confidence they had, with their skills and their ability to respond quickly with just the right technique at the right time. Those basic skills, the hundreds of hours of practice, all were being used in real time against a serious opponent. Yes, that is why I am thinking about Taekwondo now. The underlying story is the same as my decision to work towards my PhD.

But, I hear you say, ‘what progress have you made on your own research? You know…the research that inspired the title of this blog.’ Great question, so I’ll share what has been accomplished to date. We’ve now tested over 70 participants, from both healthy knee and knee replacement groups.  All the data that I’ve collected has been entered into our uber spread sheet, capturing all this precious information. I almost attended a total knee replacement surgery, so probably not worth mentioning other than highlighting the importance of recording information correctly in your calendar. I have completed an extensive literature search on weighted deep knee flexion (basically just deep knee bends) with total knee replacement recipients. Where to next you ask? Lots more testing to improve the power of the study, but I also believe we now have enough data to get some preliminary information about healthy knees and the biomechanics of recipients just before surgery. I’ve written a full research proposal on investigating total knee replacements after their surgery and identifying any issues that can be managed differently. So there is an extra bit of tasty research to get the teeth into. Also, I need to investigate a recent twitter feed from Dr Norman Swan from ABC radio national, about the decision to have the operation? Interesting lead there…

But back to more a general discussion, the ultimate goal of a PhD is to produce knowledge that can benefit others. To be able to confidently present your research, through journal articles and on the conference stage. There were basic/foundation skills that I needed to learn and practice. Skills which could then be combined into the time old patterns/traditions of academia, those ‘patterns’ included; to be able to recognise research problems, develop research questions, understand different methodologies and where they should be used, design research plans, perform research and collect data, analyse that data and eventually communicate those results.

I first had to identify the basic generic skills that I needed to master, a list developed from personal reflection on my weakest areas–looking for those common skills that run through the academic cycle. So here is my list to date; writing and grammar, seriously expanding my knowledge of verbs, learning how to critically read a scientific paper, properly tagging information so it is not lost once I file it, learning the difference between reliability and validity (again), learning how to perform thorough academic searches and manage databases and follow citation trails, learning how to format word documents so I could present papers in a particular style, learning how to effectively use excel and embrace the power of the spreadsheet, learning how to manage my time, put together my own ‘dictionaries’ so I could learn the dialect of different academic papers, learning how to safely store this precious information once I have it, and identify any software that would make all of this easier to manage. I had to develop project management skills and produce a plan which included all the important milestones, scholarship applications, articles submissions to journals, important conferences to attend, university milestones and all the clinical considerations in running the research. This list will grow over time as I work with my supervisor and become more experienced. It was certainly enough to get me started though.

One of the great joys of Taekwondo is putting the basics together and learning a new pattern for the next belt. An especially sweet experience when the pattern has a high level of technical difficulty and you can perform it really well. So by practicing and putting those PhD basics together, I have done five literature searches and reviews; two qualitative, two quantitative and one for my particular research on the ‘biomechanical outcomes of deep knee bends after total knee arthroscopy‘. I have developed research methodologies, both qualitatively and quantitatively, and a full research proposal titled ‘…metamorphosis from dis-abled to re-enabled after total knee replacement. A grounded theory investigation into the importance of the recovery of physical ability to the perception of self, at home and in the community’. I also developed a quantitative research question and method to determine ‘which one of three knee prostheses provides the most consistent and superior deep knee bend biomechanics’.

The joys of data collection and analysis were covered both qualitatively and quantitatively. Six months ago I had no idea what those things were let alone know how to do data analysis with them. I conducted interviews (thanks Paul and Connor), transcribed and coded the data and emerged triumphant with a theory around eating exotic food overseas (silkworm lava was discussed). I learnt about various types of variables and the many ways those variables can tell us their story via a little magical touch of statistical analysis. Assuming a few assumptions are met, data can tell us if cows are related to sheep (relationships and correlations), if we can predict the winner of the next Melbourne Cup (prediction, fitting lines and equations), and how to compare two different groups, for example the complexity of 80’s music compared to the 60’s. In technical terms I covered linear regression, hypothesis testing, the central limit theorem, t-tests, and the many facets of ANOVA.

Finally comes the communication part. Everything that has gone before is really just the prelude to communicating those results to a wider audience, including your peers. In the last semester I estimate I have written over 20,000 words, including research proposals, full journal articles reporting results for ethics considerations of qualitative researchers and another full report on the ‘study of the relationship of physical activity and the body mass index of primary and secondary school children’. I have submitted my literature review on the ‘risk of ACL injury during multi-directional jumping: a systematic review’ to the Journal of Applied Biomechanics. At this stage it seems to be quietly moving through their various processes, so stay tuned for that one.

OK, that’s all well and good but what about actually communicating with a live audience. This can be compared to free sparring with someone you have never met–someone who is perhaps the love child of Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee. There is an element of unpredictability and fear to it…anything crazy can happen. This is the moment when the basic skills and the patterns come together, creating a solid foundation that will give you the confidence to be in front of a live audience, walking with that ‘black belt walk’ that I can so ably demonstrate, and giving a fantastic presentation.

I’m going to do just that, in little over an hour…just need to get a quick power point presentation happening and we’ll be good to go…wish me luck…

Cello and scientific writing


The other day I was sitting at my desk writing something and finding it excruciatingly difficult. In a moment of distraction I turned to my cello for comfort and realised that learning how to write is a bit like learning how to play the cello.

You need to start at the beginning, the first few weeks are bewildering – learning how to read music, which fingers make which notes, how to hold the bow as a weapon of mass destruction. Then, when that bow touches the strings a whole era of pain and suffering commences. Unfortunately the cello does not automatically play in tune – making it a little traumatic for any unlucky bystanders and unfortunate family members. Payback.

So how is this similar to writing scientifically? Well you have to start at the beginning, learning the lingo of your field, ‘stringing’ words together to try to make sense of the conversation you want to be a part of. It feels uncomfortable, in the beginning it is slow and clunky, and the only person who wants to read it (or hear your playing) is your teacher or supervisor. Luckily they are paid to do it, so at least there is some reward. Slowly after practicing or writing regularly your confidence builds – tunes and meaning become more obvious and you feel more comfortable and in control.

So practise regularly, stretch yourself, try some hard pieces and let others read or hear your work.

If only I could take my own advice on this one – I am terrified of playing my cello for others and the thought of showing my supervisor my writing is equally frightening.

So learning from my experience with a large stringed instrument, just get started – understand it is not going to be Nobel prize winning in the beginning – enjoy the journey, knowing it will get better, and we will be able to master this skill.


Accepted my offer of Admission today – yah

Today I started a new phase of my life; feeling a little nervous, a combination of fear and excitement.

As soon as I emailed back the acceptance letter today,  things that I want to do started screaming for my attention. Setting up this blog, setting up a new Facebook page called ‘Knee joint PhD’ – getting my username and password for the university and being prepared to see my supervisor tomorrow.

So the starters gun has fired and the race (PhD) has begun. It is not a sprint but very similar to my beloved long course triathlons. The first stage is the swim. I need to dive in and immerse myself in the literature. Swimming is not so much about splashing around and wasting lots of energy – a fast swimmer is one who has worked on technique – able to stay calm even when it gets rough. Studying technique, I have been reading about literature searches from university websites, how to use various search engines and structure a search well – recording the results for future reference. I have the first five articles recommended by my supervisor; helping me focus on the most important work first.  I have commenced the search for  keywords – primary and secondary – and for grandfather articles by following citation trails. Now its time to jump in and practice.

Unfortunately I still only have 24 hours in a day. I still need to practice my cello – aiming to sit for my Grade 7 exam next year. I will also continue my Taekwondo and triathlon training. Oh, it is also worth mentioning that I have a busy family life with two sons and a wonderful husband.

I have found some wonderful resources for getting started: