The three of us: Faisal Hai, Ashley Ansari and Michael Stapleton

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

Michael Stapleton is an Environmental Engineer who through his PhD, is investigating the interconnection of two emerging water pollution issues- microplastics and antibiotics. Michael has two amazing academics and researchers supporting him on his journey- Professor Faisal Hai & Dr Ashley Ansari.

Meet the candidate

Michael Stapleton, PhD Candidate

PhD candidate Michael Stapleton

Michael Stapleton

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

My work addresses the interconnection of two emerging water pollution issues i.e., microplastics and antibiotics. Scientists have discovered that humans are consuming enough plastic to make a credit card every week! On the other hand, antibiotic resistance is not a problem limited to hospitals; antibiotics and antibiotic resistance in water environments have been well-documented.

Based on a few recent reports, I am investigating the role of microplastics in spreading the problem of antibiotic resistance in natural water bodies and wastewater treatment plants. I will be looking at the antibiotic adsorption capacity of microplastics under different environmental conditions, e.g. pH, salinity, and heavy metal concentration. This will hopefully give the scientific community an understanding of how microplastics behave in nature and if they have the ability to be vectors for antibiotics, and how to mitigate these interrelated problems.

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

My supervisor presented this topic to me when I was first considering doing a PhD. I am very interested in waste minimisation, so having a topic that is related to microplastics and the continuing environmental issues associated with them made sense to me. My interest in this field stemmed from my environmentally conscious family and the feeling that through research comes change. There needs to be some big changes in the ways we as a society, use and dispose of plastics and pharmaceutical compounds.

How did you find your supervisor?

My primary supervisor (Prof Faisal Hai) was luckily my undergraduate honours supervisor and the coordinator of two subjects when I was doing my Bachelor of Environmental Engineering at UOW. We worked well together on that project and I knew our relationship would work well together for a PhD research topic. My secondary supervisor (Dr Ashley Ansari) was one of my teachers in my undergraduate degree. She had only just finished her PhD in 2018 so I knew she would be easy to relate with and get more direct responses about what I need to be doing and if I am falling behind or not.  

How do you think your research can change the world?

My topic is experimental research aimed to develop a further understanding of the environmental implications of microplastics and antibiotics pollution. As this topic has not yet been researched in detail, I hope that future researchers will be able to use my research as a basis and continually develop on the ideas of prevention and mitigation that I have presented. At the least I hope my research will be used as a talking point for policies surrounding the importance of waste minimisation, in particular the necessity to steer away from unsustainable use of  plastics in all aspects of our life and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in the health sector. 

What advice would you give someone considering doing postgraduate studies?

I am still only in my early days of research but picking a topic that you are passionate about will make it feel more worthwhile. It will also make the research easier and feel less like a chore as it is something you are interested in. 

Meet the primary supervisor

Professor Faisal Hai

Professor Faisal Hai

Professor Faisal Hai

Can you explain your area of expertise?

My field of teaching and research is environmental engineering. I lead a team of passionate researchers at the Strategic Water Infrastructure Laboratory (SWIL) who work on development of climate-independent water sources. We specialise on protection of water quality from natural hazards such as bushfire and from emerging contaminants (arising from indiscriminate anthropogenic activities) such as antibiotics, microplastics or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Our work is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) such as SDG6 – ‘clean water and sanitation’ and SDG14- ‘life below water’. Additionally, the SWIL team works on a range of interdisciplinary topics in collaboration with reputed international groups as well as UOW groups, for instance, SMART infrastructure facility, Australian Institute for Innovative Materials, Sustainable Building Research Centre, Molecular Horizons, and Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute.

How did you find yourself where you are now professionally?

My life in Bangladesh, Japan and Australia has each shaped my career.

I was born and raised in Bangladesh – a riverine country. As I grew up, I witnessed how the river ecosystem was damaged in many places due to pollution and lack of water during the dry season. I have also experienced how over-extraction of groundwater exacerbated the groundwater contamination by a naturally-occurring toxic chemical – arsenic. This triggered my passion to help rehabilitate the polluted environment. My interest in water research continued to grow as I completed my Bachelor in Civil Engineering with a major in Environmental Engineering from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

A generous Japanese government scholarship took me to University of Tokyo for my postgraduate studies. Successful Japanese examples of restoration of land and water polluted during the initial stage of industrialisation encouraged me further to pursue research in the field of water treatment and reuse.

I arrived at UOW after completing a Japan Society for Promotion of Science fellowship back in 2009. Australia is a country of ‘droughts and flooding rains’. My team works on global challenges with local significance such as development of climate-independent water sources, or tackling issues of water contamination by emerging contaminants such as antibiotics, microplastics or PFAS.

What makes a great PhD candidate?

Doing a PhD is a significant commitment. While it can be extremely rewarding, the journey is not always a walk in the park. Aspiring doctoral students should understand its realities before embarking on the journey. A great PhD student is passionate about research and has the right balance of intelligence, motivation, independence, organisational skills, flexibility, collegiality and ethicality. A sense of humour also helps!

A PhD tells a ‘story’; thus they must be prepared to learn to write, and to write better. They must be willing to explore unchartered territories but show a balance of curiosity and focus. A positive outlook, resilience to bounce back from setbacks and gracefully accepting constructive criticism are critical elements of being a great PhD candidate. They must own their project and take charge of it – have fun, enjoy the journey.

Does the above list sound overwhelming? Not to worry – while some of the characteristics need to be inherent, many of the above attributes can be developed under the guidance of an effective supervisor.

How do you guide candidates on their journey?

To me supervision of PhD students is a part of succession planning and future proofing academia. A PhD candidate is a ‘colleague in training’. It is about empowering the early career researchers, managing the springboard from which they can leap into a career (keeping in mind that not everyone doing a PhD will work in academia). For example, featured in this article are early career researcher Dr Ashley Ansari and PhD student Michael Stapleton. I co-supervised Ashley’s PhD; Ashley is now an independent researcher. Ashley and I co-supervise Michael’s PhD. It is great to see the former PhD students from my lab flourishing in Australian and international universities.
PhD candidates need an approach tailored to their circumstances. I see my role as a facilitator, to remove obstacles and provide guidance as they go through the milestones. Clarity, precision and consistency of communication is important here.

Research is a highly competitive affair- shielding the students from this reality would do no favours to them. However, it is important to create an effective competitive environment hinged by a supportive system. In my team, this support does not only come from the supervisors but also from the fellow PhD students who share ideas, discuss research methods and writing and presentation approaches, and sometimes collaborate on overlapping topics, while maintaining originality of their own work. It is about growing together.

What should candidates consider when finding a supervisor?

The key is to do one’s due diligence — not to go into it blind. To begin with, find a supervisor whose research interests match your own. Check who has been prolific in your research area. Check their track record of successful supervision of PhD to completion. Look beyond the PhD —look for a supervisor who can help develop the skills one needs to progress in their career after completing their PhD.

Mutual respect and interpersonal relationships are important — find out about the research environment and join a group where a supportive environment prevails. Meet and discuss with the potential supervisor about the mutual expectations of supervision style i.e., the right balance of hands-on or hands-off supervision.

Meet the secondary supervisor

Dr Ashley Ansari

Dr Ashley Ansari

Dr Ashley Ansari

Can you explain your area of expertise?

I am an Environmental Engineer, specialising in water and wastewater treatment. Wastewater treatment is an essential service and my research focusses on improving the sustainability of the process technologies and opening up opportunities to improve water recycling and resource recovery initiatives.

In particular, I'm interested in applications of membrane desalination technologies for wastewater treatment as well as bioenergy production from the process by-products. I also explore the potential for these processes to remediate emerging contaminants from the environment, including pharmaceuticals, antibiotics and microplastics.

How did you find yourself where you are now professionally?

I began my career as an Engineer at a local water utility where I was able to gain invaluable practical experience and an understanding of the Australian water industry. I was drawn to undertaking a PhD as it gave me the opportunity to really test the limits of current practices and to delve deeper into our understanding of water contamination and remediation. I grew up near Wollongong on the coast and this definitely has inspired my passion for conserving our water environments. Now, I'm a Lecturer in Environmental Engineering and a Researcher at the Strategic Water Infrastructure Laboratory at UOW and I'm working on a number of exciting projects

What makes a great PhD candidate?

 A great PhD candidate is self-motivated, determined and persistent. Someone who is creative and inquisitive, but they ultimately need to be passionate about what they are investigating.

How do you guide candidates on their journey?

I feel it's important to get the message across that we are working as a team and my role is to advise on decision making and give continuous constructive feedback. The student is the one who is running the show and shouldn’t be afraid to take leadership of their project. I also like to gain a good understanding of the students learning/working style and focus on building their strengths.

What should candidates consider when finding a supervisor?

Candidates should find a supervisor that they mesh well with and share the same interest in the topic area. Not only should they look for someone who has the experience and insights to be able to support them, but someone who complement their skills and expertise and will help you grow.

To learn more about our researchers take a look at their profiles

Michael Stapleton

Professor Faisal Hai | Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences

Dr Ashley Ansari | School of Civil, Mining & Environmental Engineering | Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences