The two of us: Sarath Perera and Jason David

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.

Jason David is a PhD candidate investigating technical issues related to the integration of large-scale renewable energy generators into the electricity network. His supervisor Professor Sarath Perera is from the School of Electrical, Computer and Telecommunications Engineering within the faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences and is also the Technical Director of the Australian Power Quality and Reliability Centre

Meet the supervisor: Professor Sarath Perera

Can you explain your area of expertise?

In a broad sense I am an electrical engineer, but my specialist area is electrical power engineering, specifically power quality. In simple terms power quality describes the purity of electricity. This quality could be affected by what we connect to the grid and also external incidents, such as power pole accidents and atmospheric events such as lightning.

Poor power quality impacts on the equipment we connect to the grid in the way of premature failure or malfunction, leading to the significant economic consequences, for both individual domestic consumers and also large scale industrial users. So, power quality is a network wide issue of concern and of course it must be differentiated from reliability or availability of electricity. 

How did you find yourself where you are now professionally?

Engineering has fascinated  me from my early childhood in Sri Lanka, mainly influenced by my father who was a sculptor. Although this was his main profession, he was able to do other things such as drawing plans of houses and building civil structures, carpentry and masonry and as a child I was intrigued with what he was able to do and aspired to follow his diverse path. I loved mathematics and physics at school and chemistry too. I thought about becoming a doctor but was deterred by the fact that I needed to remember so many things, such as the names of all the bones in a human body. So I selected engineering instead.

At the University, I was at a loss. I could have specialised in Civil, Mechanical or Electrical engineering streams, and wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to take. Perhaps it was a matter of random selection that I chose electrical engineering, and from the day I started studying electrical engineering I really enjoyed it. I was fascinated by what I was learning, and the decision to specialise in electrical power engineering was a little easier, a little further down the line.

After graduation I was selected to join the academic staff as I excelled in my final year study program. I was thrilled to become an academic and subsequently was successful in getting a Colombo Plan scholarship to do my postgraduate studies in Australia.

I was initially at University of New South Wales but after completing my Masters degree, I transferred to UOW in 1979, as I really liked the feel of the small city and available options of PhD supervisors. After my PhD studies I returned home to Sri Lanka, but  subsequently I was appointed as a lecturer in the School of Electrical, Computer and Telecommunications Engineering at UOW in 1989, so I returned to Australia.

I have worked in the area of electrical machines which was also my area of research in my PhD but with the setting up of the Australian Power Quality and Reliability Centre in 1996 I moved into the subject area of power quality. I have always loved teaching and imparting knowledge on others. I have been blessed by many talented undergraduate students who are now in the industry and many PhD students, mainly from Sri Lanka, who are like ambassadors to the country they come from.

What makes a great PhD candidate?

A great PhD student is someone who is passionate about research and who is willing to explore unchartered territories. They are intelligent beings who must be willing to learn new things and be creative in their thinking. They must be willing step to step outside the square and learn related things and embark on doing things outside of their studies. They must be brave to express themselves during discussions and be a colleague and a friend and sometimes a teacher to their own supervisor. They should enjoy their work and find fun within it.

How do you guide candidates on their journey?

I do not hold hands but I show where they are and where they need to get to. Finding the path of reaching the end point is their work, but I sometimes have to pull them back and reorient them if they are going in wrong direction. Sometimes it is tough for a supervisor to gauge, but with my experience I am able to sense if they are heading in the wrong, and am able to help reorient them. With my desire to work on industry relevant problems, the starting point of research is fairly well defined and sometimes the end points are only loosely known but a bright student can get there, with a little professional support and guidance.

What should candidates consider when finding a supervisor?

A great supervisor is one who is passionate about research and be willing to give their candidates the freedom to think and explore their own ideas. A great supervisor is approachable, who treats you with dignity and respect, not as a servant, or a source of support for their own findings only. A great supervisor is someone who thinks of doing research on things which bring tangible outcomes. A great supervisor is one who rejoices with you on achievements and be willing to listen with passion when things are bad or good. A great supervisor is someone who thinks of the student beyond the candidacy and be a colleague, friend and mentor. They are someone who can be trusted.

Meet the candidate: Jason David

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

The project I am working on is addressing specific technical issues related to the integration of large-scale renewable energy generators into the electricity network. Connection of such installations impact the quality of power for the wider network (and its connected customers) and this impact must be pragmatically managed by the network operator, this project addresses issues associated with the current management methodologies.

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

My interest originally stemmed from a number of engaging conversations I had with some of the academics within the Australian Power Quality & Reliability Centre (APQRC). Prior to that I hadn’t had much exposure to the field of power systems and power quality. I was fascinated by the level of knowledge and passion Sarath and his colleagues had for the area of research. I quickly developed a passion and excitement of my own for the field and have since enveloped myself into the project.

How did you find your supervisor?

After my undergraduate degree was completed I began working with the APQRC of which Sarath is the technical director. Many times Sarath would assist by reviewing my technical work. Through this engagement, I feel we developed a very good working relationship and I found it very easy to work with him. It seemed a natural progression to choose Sarath as my supervisor.

How do you think your research can change the world?

Alleviating some of the technical challenges large-scale renewable energy generators currently face would increase both the technical and economic viability of such installations. Making it easier to connect these generators could lead to a significant reduction in the reliance on coal and gas fired power plants. Australia has a large amount of renewable energy connected and planned to connect in the future. If we can solve the issues locally, the lessons learnt can propagate globally.

What advice would you give someone considering doing postgraduate studies?

It is not (nor should it be) easy, however, if you find the right mix of; a topic that you are passionate and excited about and a supervisor that is knowledgeable and eager to teach and interact, the experience will be an enjoyable one that is worth the hard work.