The three of us: Kelly Newell, Katrina Green and Helen Clunas

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

PhD candidate Helen Clunas is investigating the involvement of the endocannabinoid system in depression under the watchful eye of Supervisors Dr Katrina Green and Associate Professor Kelly Newell from the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health.

Meet the candidate

Helen Clunas

Helen Clunas

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

I am looking at the involvement of the endocannabinoid system in depression. This system is responsible for the modulation of neurotransmission at excitatory and inhibitory synapses, and is present in brain regions responsible for cognition, motivation, emotion and pain. There is some evidence that it is an imbalance in this system that leads to depressive symptoms and that a novel cure might be found in manipulating one or more of the components of this system. My project is examining the difference in the endocannabinoid system in a cohort consisting of individuals with and without a history of depression. We are also examining novel plant-based compounds that may alter the function of this system and determine if they provide antidepressant-like effects.

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

I have known for some time that I wanted to work in the mental health field and I enjoy science, so research seemed like a good way to incorporate both. My interest in neuroscience and mental health was very broad when I came to UOW. I loved the study I had completed in my masters and felt like a kid in a candy store - I wanted to learn everything, solve everything, and try all the scientific techniques. I was only able to articulate that I wanted to focus on bridging the gap in our knowledge of how the brain operates and improve outcomes for those with mental illness. I chose my supervisors first and then with their help designed a project that allowed me to work with them both and learn many new techniques. In the end, it aligned nicely with previous research I had been involved in looking at another system involved in depression.

How did you find your supervisor?

Having studied my masters at another university, but knowing I wanted to study at UOW I set about cold emailing available supervisors that worked in the medical health research and neuroscience field. I met with some and those that couldn’t take on more students provided me with other recommendations. It was through those recommendations that I met Dr Green and A/Prof Newell. I felt an immediate rapport with both and admired the work they were doing. I couldn’t choose and, perhaps a little greedily, asked if I could work with them both. Each had project ideas that they willingly modified to suit what I was hoping to achieve in a PhD and would allow me to learn from two leaders in the Australian biological psychology field.

How do you think your research can change the world?

Poor mental health is one of the largest health burdens throughout the world and the treatment options for individuals can be limited and sometimes ineffective. Clinicians need new drugs that provide immediate and complete symptom relief without serious side-effects. This research will contribute to the body of knowledge about how depression works within the brain, hopefully leading to ideas for those novel drugs.

What advice would you give someone considering doing postgraduate studies?

Choose a supervisor that you can enjoy working with and design a project around the techniques you want to learn. Make sure you have a social life with other PhD students as they will be some of your biggest supporters and champions throughout this time. Finally, remember what a privilege it is to be curious about something and have the time, support and resources to seek to understand it better.

Meet the supervisors

Dr Katrina Green and Associate Professor Kelly Newell


Dr Katrina Green and Associate Professor Kelly Newell

Can you explain your area of expertise?

Kelly: My research program is dedicated to investigating the underlying neurobiology and treatment of mental illnesses, particularly depression, with a focus on understanding differences in specific subgroups of people. I use pharmacological, neurochemical and neuropathological approaches and I work closely with human brain banks in Australia and USA to facilitate this research. Through this research it is hoped that we can identify new treatment targets that will be more effective, particularly for those who are resistant to currently available treatment approaches. I have a particular interest in understanding the changes that occur in the brain in depression during pregnancy and exploring effective approaches to treatment in this population.

Katrina: I am fortunate to lead a vibrant lab group in the field of neuropharmacology, investigating new approaches to treating mental illness. I have a particular interest in the potential of natural compounds as medicines, including plants (cannabis, herbs, berries, fruits), fungi – even venomous lizard saliva, to treat cognitive impairment that is an important feature of a number of mental illnesses (such as  depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and dementia). My approach spans lab-based work, pre-clinical/cellular modelling and clinical trials. I seek to understand how new treatments work in the brain and body, which can help us to understand more about how the illness occurs in the first place.

How did you find yourself where you are now professionally?

Kelly: I completed a PhD in Neuroscience, researching the neurochemical changes that occur in schizophrenia. While completing my PhD I had the opportunity to teach undergraduate neuroscience students – this was a huge step outside my comfort zone – but I discovered I had a real passion for this. This led me to my position as a teaching and research focused academic where I have been for the past 14 years. I have been very fortunate to work with some excellent colleagues and mentor some outstanding research students over this time.

Katrina: Following the green lights. I really enjoyed my time as an honours student so continued on to a PhD. Research is answering questions that have never been answered before – working at the forefront of human knowledge, and I became really inspired in this space. The sole goal after my PhD was to become an academic, and I am so grateful that my goal came to fruition. Research-wise, I am interested in biology and neuroscience (the complexity of the human brain never ceases to amaze me), and I enjoy figuring out how things work. Combine this with a desire to help people and a love of plants and nature – and here we are! I also love the idea of researching a substance such as cannabis, which has been an illegal illicit drug for many years, and finding that elements of the plant can actually have benefits in helping a variety of people with a number of different illnesses – which is contrary to what we believed for many years. There is still so much we don’t know about mental health, and plants can contain many hundreds of unexplored compounds, so there is potential for discovery and real-world impacts to improve people’s lives with this type of research.

What makes a great PhD candidate?

Kelly: Passion for their topic is really important. A great PhD candidate is someone that has a genuine interest in what it is they are researching. They ask a lot of questions, always asking why or how and then sets out to find their answers.  Someone that is self-motivated, organised and not afraid to ask for help. You cannot do a PhD alone. You need the support of your supervisor, but also in many instances your PhD colleagues who often contribute so much to your own PhD journey and you to theirs. A great PhD candidate is also resilient – which we are all very familiar with thanks to COVID! The PhD journey is rarely without its challenges and setbacks. While it is ok to feel disappointed when these challenges arise, the ability to refocus and move forward is essential during the PhD journey.

Katrina: I have had the privilege of mentoring some amazingly talented PhD, masters and honours students who are genuinely wonderful people. There is no doubt that behind all scientific discovery is a dedicated, clever and hard-working team. A great candidate is someone who is inquisitive and has a genuine desire to learn. They are hard-working, self-driven and dynamic – the PhD journey is often a windy road but good students don’t give up easily. Roadblocks are common in research and despite the best plans and well-researched aims, hypotheses may not come to fruition, experiments may fail, applications for funding/publications/conference presentations/scholarships etc may be rejected, but a good student can pick themselves up and keep trying. I think it is also important to surround yourself with good people and have been fortunate to work with genuine people in my team; friendly collaboration from each student helps drive success and happiness of the whole group.

How do you guide candidates on their journey?

Kelly: Each PhD candidate is different. They have different backgrounds, different needs and different drivers for doing a PhD. I think understanding those things is important. I work closely with my PhD students to ensure the research questions they are asking in their PhD are not only novel but one that they connect with; I find it is important for students to feel a sense of ownership of their PhD project. I encourage and support my students to write and present their work from the start of their PhD. Confidence can be an issue as a PhD student (and as an academic!), so trying to build that confidence from early in a PhD is so important. I support my students to publish throughout their PhD to give them the boost they need to apply for awards and scholarships. Also facilitating connections with other labs and other research teams helps build their confidence and their wider network. Supervising PhD candidates and watching them develop as a researcher and seeing all of their successes really is the highlight of my job as an academic.

Katrina: I’m not sure there is a one-size fits all approach, everyone comes into my group with different levels of knowledge and experiences. But a PhD is absolutely a journey –it is rewarding to see students develop into professional scientists who are inspiring, confident and knowledgeable in their particular area of research over the course of their PhD. From helping them prepare for their first major presentation in the early days, to their PhD final talk - I feel that I have done my job well when my student eventually becomes more of an expert in their project than I am, and I’m grateful to be able to observe this transition.

What should candidates consider when finding a supervisor?

Kelly: When finding a supervisor I think it is important to find someone that you feel comfortable with. You and your supervisor will be working closely together for the next 3-4 years at least, so you need to be able to develop a relationship where you feel safe to ask all your questions and openly communicate about your PhD. A supervisor who celebrates your successes, no matter how small, and  champions you, but also helps you re-focus and regain your excitement for your PhD when things don’t go according to plan. 

Katrina: Firstly, find an area of research that you can become passionate about – a PhD can sometimes turn into a bit of a lifestyle rather than education so do something you love and believe in. Secondly, work with people who can build you up – people who are genuine and inspiring that you can learn from, outcome driven but who know the importance of fun and balance.