The two of us: Eden Barrett and Eleanor Beck

Behind every great PhD candidate is a great supervisor (or two)

The University of Wollongong (UOW) has so many high achieving PhD students, working towards solving real world problems. Behind every great PhD candidate is a great supervisor (or two). We hear from both to understand their perspective of the post graduate journey.

Eden Barrett is a PhD student (and recent National Council of Women NSW Australia Day Award) investigating how heart health benefits from a diet high in whole grains and cereal. Her supervisor Professor Eleanor Beck is discipline leader in Nutrition and Dietetics in UOW's School of Medicine, Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health.

Meet the supervisor: Professor Eleanor Beck

Can you explain your area of expertise?

I am a dietitian by background and consider my expertise in cereals/grains and dietary fibre. I am particularly interested in whole grains and their health effects. As a health professional I am particularly interested in how dietary messages are translated to improved eating behaviours in individuals, groups and populations.

How did you find yourself where you are now professionally?

After a number of years in clinical practice, I worked part time for the university as a clinical educator assisting in management of students on professional placements. I completed my PhD on beta-glucan (oat fibre) and much of my research stems from the skills I learned in my PhD and importantly the collaborations I established. I have also worked for the Dietitians Association of Australia managing the accreditation of dietetics education programs across Australia and this was brilliant experience to bring back to UOW when I started formally as an academic here in 2012.

What makes a great PhD candidate?

I think the right balance of intelligence, intuition, invention and independence. A PhD is a brilliant intellectual indulgence which we don’t get later in life once we have to work across many topics. A student, who regardless of circumstance can enjoy that, will always do well.

How do you guide candidates on their journey?

Well based on my last answer, I think my role is to remind PhD students that it is a privilege they should enjoy. I believe that having an open and honest working relationship allows students to know that they can come to their supervisor for anything. My job is just to guide them, hopefully they end up far more skilled than me in their area of practice/research. Supervision of PhD students is about mentoring and empowering the students to find their way to an end point, which is different to more junior student supervision (eg projects or honours). I have been lucky to have hard working and dedicated students who are a pleasure to work with.

What should candidates consider when finding a supervisor?

I think that interpersonal relationships are important. You don’t have to be best buddies, and that is not going to be appropriate, but at the same time, respect, enjoying animated discussions, working well with the way a supervisor mentors or critiques (occasionally) is critical. Personally, I think that in most cases, the supervisor relationship is more important than the precise project. Hopefully there are many brilliant UOW supervisors, and so potential students then have many projects to choose from.

Meet the candidate: Eden Barrett

Can you give a description of the topic or question you are investigating?

My research explores the heart health benefits of diets high in whole grains and cereal fibre. The idea is to shed light on the health value of cereal fibre, regardless of whether it is consumed as part of a high whole grain diet or otherwise. Whole grain intake and dietary fibre intake within Australia are both low. If there is scope to promote grain foods that are well accepted by Australians, and are also healthful (for example added-fibre or bran foods), this could be positive for improving the quality of Australian diets. My research also explores factors affecting choice of grain foods, including perceptions and acceptability of whole grains and added-fibre foods, to consider the most effective strategies to promote healthful grain foods.

How did you select your research topic? Where does your interest in this field stem from?

My background is in nutrition and dietetics, and I’ve always had an interest in health and nutrition. For me, my passion lies in improving health at the population level, exploring impactful ways to reduce the burden of chronic disease such as heart disease through good nutrition. The specific topic of whole grains and fibre is actually an extension of my honours work. I basically finished my honours project having just touched the surface of the topic, and I still had a lot of questions and ideas that I was keen to keep exploring through my newfound love of research. So I started a PhD to do that!.

How did you find your supervisor?

Eleanor (Prof. Beck) was my honours supervisor, as well as the discipline leader of my undergraduate course. Because she supervised me for the 12 months of my honours project on a similar topic, I was fortunate enough to know that we worked well together and that she would be the perfect supervisor on my desired PhD topic area.

How do you think your research can change the world?

Heart disease is the number one killer in Australia and globally. We know that good nutrition can help prevent this, but dietary recommendations do not necessarily translate to individual food choices. As health researchers and providers, we need to explore innovative means to encourage good nutrition in ways that also suit the needs of the population. My research will contribute to this by enhancing the evidence base linking grains and heart health, and exploring if we can promote a greater variety of grain foods that will provide heart health benefits and improve diet quality.

What advice would you give someone considering doing postgraduate studies?

For me, my PhD has been an extremely rewarding experience which has offered me so many fantastic opportunities. However, as postgraduate research is a big commitment, my advice would be to become as familiar and informed on the process as possible. Speak to people that have completed/are completing post graduate research in your field, they will be able to answer specific questions that are most relevant to you, and may also give you the best idea of potential supervisors for your desired topic area. I’d also suggest taking a read of some published theses from your field available online, to get an idea of what’s involved.