Conan Mercer Applied Scientist

My Ph.D Journey - Rome Wasn't Built in a Day

23 Apr 2021 - Conan Mercer

I had the great fortune as a young boy to fall upon a series of treasures. I did not have the perspective that I do now, so at the time I perhaps did not notice these diamonds for their worth, but in retrospect I see that they were spectacular gifts bestowed upon me.

The first gift was exploration. Set in Cornwall, on England’s rugged southwestern tip, I had to my very self a wonderful environment to explore. I have fond memories of cycling through the old mining landscape, stopping at very deep holes in the ground, covered scantly in metal bars with large gaps between them. The task was to find the biggest available rock and drop it through the bars and count how many seconds it took to connect with the bottom of the mine shaft. These moments where rudimentary verification of Newton's law of universal gravitation. They were also a source of great entertainment.

Photograph of the Cornish mining landscape

My outdoor pursuits were many and varied, but my indoor adventures were just as commonplace.

It was the late 1990's, and the technology boom was in full swing. The speculative markets surrounding the dot-com bubble where unknown to me, but their offspring, computers for the home and primitive Internet connections to the world were not.

Lego MindStorms was gifted to me one Christmas, and what fun I had. Hours spent building robots, assembling electrical circuits, and programming the RCX (the Lego Mindstorms proprietary microcontroller). The programming was achieved by using drag and drop blocks, in software, to describe how the robots should move.
These little projects fascinated me. I spent hours totally emersed building these contraptions. It was an exciting time and provides me with much nostalgia to this day.

It was opportunities like these in my youth that lead me to pursue further education in the STEM field. To be perfectly honest, I would have been very happy in any STEM arena, but I focused on Science.

I began my Ph.D in November 2014, at The National University of Ireland Galway.
It is quite typical to have a lot of stakeholders in your Ph.D project. Supervisors, collaborators, and colleagues. These people are very important to the success of your project, but the most important fact to remember is that it is your project. No one is going to finish it for you, nobody will stoke the fire in your belly to wake up every morning and continue to put one foot in front of the other. Enthusiasm naturally goes up and down throughout life, but while in the midst of a Ph.D, the peaks and troughs can become further apart, so much so that the highest ascent seems like it can never end, likewise the deepest trench seems at times like it is impossible to scoop yourself out of.

It helps to start out ascending the mountain, at least then when the inevitable fall from grace occurs you have the prior knowledge that it will not always be this way. This is why I would recommend strongly to find your feet in the first year (a Ph.D typically takes about 5 years to complete). Feel around your research area and see what strikes you. If you think you have a great idea, something you really care about it, grab it by the horns and don't let go (providing there is some evidence that this idea has merit).

It is my view that if you are true to yourself, are genuinely interested in your research project and have strong ownership in its direction, you will have a wonderful time.

One of my projects looked at Prostate Cancer and was testing the hypothesis that patient blood could be used to detect the disease long before it became a terminal fate. It was a large transatlantic project, with many great scientists involved. The photograph below is from one aspect of this project. I went out on my own and came up with an idea to fully automate this very complex and time consuming experiment.

The concept of automation in this way for this project was my idea, at the surprise perhaps to some of the projects stakeholders. Because I was passionate about this avenue, I poured my energy into it. This piece of research ended up being one of my best published papers. I have no doubt that self determination and genuine interest in this project lead me to eventually successfully publish it. The paper is published here.

It is not lost on me that aspects of this project were inspired by my boyhood experiences. Dropping rocks down mine shafts (going outside the recommended guidelines) and playing with robots.

At all times strive to keep at the front of your mind that you will some day finish your research project. You will move on to other great projects in your life. Cherish the wonderful opportunities that a doctoral program provides, for this is a moment in time and will not exist forever.