Dr Noor Jarbou wears a black graduation cap and blue and red gown. She smiles at the camera. Photo: Mark Newsham

Neuroscience graduate reflects on long road to PhD

Neuroscience graduate reflects on long road to PhD

Dr Noor Jarbou focused on role of exercise in treating antenatal depression

Dr Noor Jarbou has faced countless barriers since moving to Australia a decade ago.  

A single mum, a new country, language difficulties, career obstacles, Dr Jarbou faced it all. And at times, it felt too much.   

But it is through her sheer tenacity, work ethic, and desire to never give up, for her son and herself, that Dr Jarbou is this week (Wednesday 1 November) celebrating her graduation with a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in neuroscience from the University of Wollongong (UOW).  

“This experience of studying has changed how I look at myself,” Dr Jarbou said. “I am so happy to be graduating.” 

There was a time when Dr Jarbou was unsure if she would be able to undertake her PhD.  

Born in Kuwait, in the Middle East, to a Palestinian family, Dr Jarbou was seven when the Gulf War broke out in the region in the early 1990s. Her family fled to Jordan for a safer life. 

It was here that Dr Jarbou gained her Bachelor and Master degrees, both in Medical Genetics and Molecular Science. She would go on to marry and then move to Australia in 2012. A few years later, her son was born, but after her relationship broke down, Dr Jarbou was on her own.  

It was an incredibly difficult time, but Dr Jarbou kept putting one foot in front of the other. She taught science at Amity College in Shellharbour, began volunteering for SCARF, an organisation that provides support to refugees, and did everything she could to keep her life afloat for her young son.   

“I didn’t know what I should do, or where to go, but I knew I would love to do my PhD. I was advised to do an English for Academic Purposes course, and my teacher at TAFE told me that I shouldn’t just send emails, I should try to call or meet potential supervisors so they could see how passionate I am. It would be better for me to present myself.” 

Dr Jarbou came across Professor Kelly Newell, from the School of Medical, Indigenous and Health Sciences at UOW. After their first meeting, Dr Jarbou knew she had found a potential supervisor.  

Although they had slightly different backgrounds – Professor Newell’s experience is in neuroscience – Dr Jarbou was thrilled at the opportunity to learn something new and to work with a supervisor with whom she felt comfortable.  

“From my Master’s degree, I know that communication between student and supervisor can make the relationship a success; we can achieve the goals of the PhD thesis. If I don’t have the right chemistry with the supervisor, it won’t help me or the supervisor.” 

Under Professor Newell’s supervision, Dr Jarbou pivoted to neuroscience, her background providing a strong scientific foundation upon which to build her thesis. At this point, her support team expanded to include her co-supervisors, Professor Mirella Dottori and Dr Jessica Nealon. 

Dr Jarbou’s research focused on the treatment of antenatal depression, particularly exploring the potential role of exercise.  

What she discovered is that exercise in pregnancy, using preclinical models, had the ability to significantly reduce symptoms in the postnatal period. Despite this, when surveying Australian women, regarding their perceptions and experiences of exercise in pregnancy, it appears that there is lack of advice from healthcare providers regarding the safety and benefits of exercise in pregnancy. 

Professor Newell said she was delighted to see Dr Jarbou graduate and praised her contribution to the field of neuroscience.  

“I am so happy for Noor to achieve this impressive milestone. Noor’s academic achievements throughout her PhD are testament to her incredible dedication, hard work and passion,” Professor Newell said.  

“Noor took on every challenge and opportunity that presented itself during her PhD studies, even those that pushed her outside her comfort zone. It has been a pleasure being part of Noor’s journey and seeing her develop her confidence and skills as a scientist. Noor produced an excellent PhD thesis that will contribute to progressing the field of antenatal depression research.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic provided numerous obstacles to Dr Jarbou’s study. In addition to being unable to access the lab for long periods of time, which was essential to allowing her to complete her research, Dr Jarbou also faced the stress of being a single parent, trying to keep her family fed and stay on top of bills, with the juggle of home schooling a primary school aged son.  

“I was very anxious and stressed. I just kept thinking ‘I need to be at the lab’,” she said.  

When restrictions finally lifted, Dr Jarbou was in a race to finish her PhD. She completed three major parts of her thesis in her final year and began the arduous process of writing up her research.  

“Writing my thesis was not fun for me. I found it very hard. Even though I had completed the course in writing English for academics, it is still difficult when English is not my first language,” she said.  

Throughout her degree at UOW, Dr Jarbou has also become an advocate for the power of diversity, both on campus and off. She continues to volunteer with SCARF to help newly arrived refugees in the Illawarra and regularly gives public and school talks on the importance of accepting everyone for who they are.  

A student representative and Co-Chair of the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee, Dr Jarbou is passionate about the importance of improving accessibility on campus and welcoming staff and students from all backgrounds.  

“Students come from different experiences and some people need to be approached differently to be included and welcomed.  I think I left some fingerprints on the EDI commitment about the need for international mentorship. It is not just about being smart enough to do the degree, students need help to be integrated, included, socialised and welcomed to university.” 

Dr Jarbou is passionate about the need to provide more support to single parents during the PhD journey, and said the field of research and postdoctoral positions can be hard to navigate while also juggling caring responsibilities. She said the concepts of diversity and inclusion should also encompass single parents.  

“It was difficult for me to attend conferences, even local ones, as my son’s flights and accommodation were out of my pocket,” she said. “I would like to see more support and facilities considered for single parents.”  

Dr Jarbou was joined at the graduation ceremony by her mentor, Sue Trunka, a friend who has provided her with immense support throughout her studies. “We both deserve to be there,” she said. “Sue has witnessed me from my darkest ages to this amazing bright shiny future.” 

While it has been an incredibly tough road at times, Dr Jarbou is relieved and delighted to be celebrating the conclusion of her PhD.  

“I wish that my Dad was alive as this was one of his wishes for me. I was always the A student, so I am dedicating this to him, for his soul. 

“I am grateful for the opportunity. It was never ever easy, especially being a single mum. I can’t explain how much this really changed how I look at myself.”