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Mitch outdoors lying on ground watching a snake, with cameraman to his side

Lessons from a research student - Mitch

05/09/2022 | 7 MINS

We spoke with Dr Mitch Ladyman about his journey as a PhD candidate at UWA. From running around the bush learning how to handle snakes at a young age to inspiring National Geographic documentaries, Mitch tells us about how UWA helped him create his own path as a research student. Hear about Mitch’s journey and his advice for other PhD candidates.

How did you start your research journey?

“I’m self-taught, I started handling venomous snakes when I was quite young. At the age of 16, I was regularly catching Dugites and Tiger Snakes in the local bushland around Perth. Even at that young age, I was quite enamoured with the Western Tiger Snake, and very comfortable working with this species. I considered the fact that it was one of the deadliest snakes in the world to be more of an inconvenience than a threat. As the years progressed, I invested more of my time into working with this incredible snake and other local reptile species.

In my first year of Zoology at UWA, I was astounded to find out that Professor Don Bradshaw (Head of Department at that time) was collaborating with French scientists working on Tiger Snakes that occupy a small island off the coast of Perth: Carnac Island. Immediately, I volunteered my services. My ability to capture and manipulate these snakes was quite a valuable commodity at the time! Prof. Bradshaw, though quite astounded that a first year was so eager to volunteer, took me under his wing. I knew, from the first moment I interacted with Professor Bradshaw, that I wanted one day to contribute to the biological sciences through research of my own.”

Why did you choose to study at UWA?

“Growing up, I spent a lot of my free time running around in the bush with friends a few years older than I. They all went to UWA. At the time I was still in high school.  I would listen to their stories about their university experiences with unimaginable envy. On occasion, I visited them at the old Zoology department, which sat proud adjacent Kings Park, overlooking Matilda Bay."
I knew that UWA was the place I had to be. No other university was worth considering for me. UWA did 'real biology' and I wanted to be a part of it.

Mitch holding a snake outdoors

What’s a common misconception when it comes to being a PhD candidate?

“You are not there to change the world or create new paradigms in science. You are there to do the work sufficient to be awarded your dissertation – that is it! 
Do not let anyone lead you astray on this. Too often PhD candidates take on too much or try too hard to answer too many questions. Don’t. Set up a series of hypothesis/objectives that can be investigated fully and completely within the timeframe over which your scholarship allows. If you don’t, you will run out of funding at the critical phase - the write up. 

Another common misconception is that your PhD is just ‘another four years of university’. It’s not! It’s a job – treat it as such. Project planning, timing and budget is your responsibility. Go to work five days a week (minimum) from the moment you are awarded your PhD or you’ll find yourself burning the candle at both ends and in the middle by your third year. You might think you have nothing to do in the early days, but there is always something that can be done. Whilst I was waiting for my proposal and animal ethics to be approved, I built all my snake cages. This took weeks, but I would have lost those weeks had I sat idle and waited in anticipation of a rejection on my proposal or ethics.  
Finally, remember this: the progress of your PhD is not the responsibility of your supervisors. It is YOUR own responsibility. If your PhD is not progressing, don’t blame your supervisors. Learn to work with them and learn how to make them work with you.”

What advice would you have for those considering a higher degree by research?

“Do it because you want to do it for yourself. Do it because you want to create a legacy. 
Don’t do it because you think it may lead to a better job. 
Research requires 100% commitment and focus to one thing: your research. And this focus is required over a long period of time. It is a marathon, not a sprint. If your heart is not fully invested in it, you will not be able to keep up the momentum needed to reach the end point. 

Remember this! An unfinished project is not a project at all. It may as well have never been started. If it is not finished and published, your research is worth nothing to no-one.”

Tim and Mitch outdoors with ocean in background

What’s a key lesson you’ve learnt?

“I am capable of incredible things. When I finished high school, I did not even achieve the grades sufficient to get into university. I entered as a mature age student. My passion and desire to complete my course led to a my completing a Double Major with a Distinction average, High First Class Honours (done in France), and a PhD with Distinction.”

What advice do you have for other students or future students to get the most out of their university experience?

“Make it work for you. In my Honours year I was, apparently (as I was told at the time), the first student in the history of Biological Science to do a UWA Honours with ‘field work’ in another country. I did my field work in France but presented and defended my thesis in the UWA Zoology Department back here in Western Australia. The Research Unit at UWA helped to make phenomenal project happen. Initially, upon receiving my proposal, the PhD Proposal Review Committee was reserved about letting a student work on one of the deadliest animals in the world. Particularly for the fact that the proposal involved housing dozens of these animals on the Nedlands campus. 
However, the Research Unit at UWA together with my supervisors (Professor Bradshaw and Professor Jamie O’Shea), reasoned that the Western Tiger Snake was arguably the best species/population to be used to test the paradigm of exaptation (the counter theory to challenge Natural Selection). The committee concurred and the project went ahead. That is how science moves forward. Proactively.

Six months later there were 30 tiger snakes housed in the animal yards at the zoology department and another 30 housed in a small, temperature-controlled room in the basement of the zoology building. The PhD was awarded a Distinction and I only went to hospital once or twice (I can’t remember). Twenty years later no less than six documentaries have been made on my Carnac Tiger Snakes including a National Geographic Blue Chip One Hour Natural History documentary based entirely on my research."

I never accepted ‘no’, and I never followed the ‘flock’. I created my own path through UWA, and it was most certainly a path less travelled.

Mitch completed his PhD at UWA, and although he’s not currently in the research field, he’s still very active in the biological sciences. Now he owns and runs Animal Plant Mineral – an Environmental Impact Assessment firm that undertakes biological surveys to assess the potential for impact of mining and construction all over Australia.

Find out more about undertaking a research degree at UWA here and explore the research scholarships available for 2023, applications close 31st October 2022.

 

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