Click here for the career profiles of a number of our alumni.
Dr Gemma Solomon
The journey to a PhD at The University of Sydney
Unlike many graduate students in chemistry at the University of Sydney I did not start my studies here. I completed my BSc majoring in chemical physics at the University of Western Australia and came to the University of Sydney for an honours project. I chose to come to here because of the range of projects available and because I found the School of Chemistry to be very helpful and supportive in making my move possible.
I enjoyed my honours year immensely and could see the possibility of continuing was an exciting one, however, I found the decision to stay and do a PhD one of the hardest ones I have ever had to make. Thankfully, today I feel confident I made the right choice.
My PhD experience
My PhD work was in single molecule electronics, an area experiencing explosive growth in recent times. This made it an exciting field to work in, but also a very challenging one. Professor Jeffrey Reimers and Emeritus Professor Noel Hush were exceptional in the advice and assistance they gave me over the course of my PhD, providing an open and supportive research environment for me to learn what it really was to do research.
During my PhD, we initiated collaborations with researchers in Denmark, Germany and Italy and each year I spent three to six months visiting these collaborators and attending international conferences in Europe and America. The opportunities for travel during a PhD program are great, in no small part due to the availability of funds through various scholarships and assistance schemes at both
a school and university level. The opportunity
to present work at international meetings, to speak with the "big names" in the field, to meet other young scientists and see how science was done in a number of universities got me well and truly hooked on the exciting world of research. Paradoxically, the isolated nature of Australia means that there are not the barriers to long-distance travel that exist for students in America and Europe. The perspective I gained from this travel made it clear to me that I wanted to continue to work in scientific research and experience what other institutions had to offer.
Life after a PhD
After my time in Sydney, I moved to the U.S. as a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University, near Chicago. I now worked for Professor Mark Ratner, one of the pioneers of molecular electronics and it was a fantastic experience. Northwestern University was an incredibly stimulating place to work, with world-leaders in a whole range of areas of nanoscience. I learnt a huge amount from my time there and also met some great friends and collaborators.
I am now working as an Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. There are great opportunities for young researchers starting their careers in Denmark (and Europe generally) with a range of “Starting Grants” worth A$1-2m, which provides a fantastic boost when building a research group. There are also exciting opportunities for collaboration across Europe through large projects and networks that bring researchers together. I am thoroughly enjoying life in Denmark, have managed to learn Danish (although I still teach in English), and am happy for all the adventures that a career in research has made possible.
Dr Mat Hall
I knew by half-way through my year-in-industry (between second and third year undergrad) that I wanted to get into research, and I knew half way through my honours year with Trevor Hambley that I wanted to stay on and do a PhD. It’s the best decision I ever made.
My PhD was embedded in the field of metals in medicine, and while at its core was my true love: coordination chemistry, it was very cross-disciplinary in nature. We worked on platinum-based cancer drugs (related to the drug cisplatin), trying to design new drugs and understand their mechanism of action. In the course of my PhD, I used a wide range of techniques as diverse as drug design, synthesis, spectroscopy, crystallography, cytotoxicity assays and other cell biological techniques. Indeed, it was the ability to cross between inorganic chemistry and cancer cell biology that so excited me. As part of my PhD, I travelled to conferences in Florence, Heidelberg, New York and Mexico City, spent 6 months in a lab in Oxford, and made extensive use of synchrotrons in Tsukuba (Japan) and Chicago. There are few Chemistry departments in the world that can offer such an amazing and enriching experience – a combination of world experts, world-class research facilities, and exposure to experts in the field through conferences and visiting lecturers.
What made Science so much fun was how open and social the school was; you can knock on the door of anyone in the building for advice or with an idea, and students and faculty can be found together regularly in local pubs and restaurants. I miss that more than anything.
After submitting my PhD, I spent two months at Syracuse University (NY) in 2004 on an Australian Academy of Sciences Fellowship working on drug assays before taking up an American Australian Association Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (Baltimore, MD) using yeast genetics to understand metal ion homeostasis of manganese in 2005. At the end of the fellowship, I decided I wanted to stay on in America, and this has taken me to the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda working on the mechanisms of cancer drug resistance, and back to bioinorganic chemistry, developing drugs that target resistant cells.
I’ve learnt in America that there are advantages to a Sydney PhD. It can be earned relatively quickly, the faculty and research equipment are world class, and Sydney graduates are more independent than their overseas equivalents (a rare commodity), and capable of collaborating effectively and adapting to work between several disciplines.
If anyone asked me whether they should do a PhD, and whether they should do it at Sydney, it would be an emphatic yes to both.