Sarah Morris was the People's Choice winner and third place recipient in the 2021 Three Minute Thesis competition, with her presentation, "Using advanced MRI to track myelin loss after spinal cord injury."
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
I did my BSc at the University of Cambridge and really enjoyed my studies, so I stayed for the one year MSc program. I spent a long time trying to decide on a research topic and ended up working on a project investigating factors affecting childhood development using pediatric brain MRI data. I really enjoyed the process of analysing the brain data and found the results fascinating. MRI research appealed to me for many reasons; the physics behind the medical applications is interesting and complicated, the day-to-day implementation of the theory can save lives and there are new technologies being developed daily. I am fascinated by the versatility of MRI. In only four decades many different contrast mechanisms have become available, giving an enormous range of medical applications. After such a good experience in my MSc I decided to come to UBC for a PhD in MRI research.
Why did you decide to study at UBC?
Firstly, UBC has a Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Education Programs (CAMPEP) accredited Medical Physics program, one of only a few in Canada, and that, along with a well-regarded Physics and Astronomy department, initially drew me to apply here. I corresponded with my supervisor for a few and determined that I would like to work with her and the UBC MRI research group, which is very friendly and collaborative. I also can’t deny that the opportunity to go skiing at the weekend contributed to my decision!
What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?
A PhD in Physics is a very highly regarded qualification, as is a CAMPEP-accredited graduate degree. I knew that obtaining both from UBC would open up a wide range of exciting careers post-PhD. I enjoy teaching and was excited about being a TA for undergraduate courses in the Physics department. And finally, when I visited UBC for the offer holders' weekend I found I really liked the atmosphere and people in UBC Physics.
What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?
The beach on campus! Where else can you paddle in the Pacific on your lunch break?! Also the great community of other graduate students, who very quickly became some of my best friends and were a great support network during the busy first few months in Vancouver.
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?
I love going to conferences. It’s amazing to meet the researchers you have been citing for years and get research advice from a huge community of experts.
What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?
Well, the first big challenge will be deciding which career I want! At the moment I am doing a lot of research into the three main career paths I am interested in and weighing up the pros and cons.
How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?
I think the Physics PhD program at UBC provides a wide range of transferable skills, as well as in-depth subject knowledge, which will be useful in any career. In particular, being a TA teaches confidence and communication skills, working within research groups teaches teamwork, and finishing a PhD requires resilience, self-reliance, and patience.
What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?
I learned a lot of research skills during my MSc which I use every day now. In particular, my ability to write clear scientific prose, which I developed during a range of internships and my MSc studies, has been vital in my PhD so far. My rigorous undergraduate Physics degree also was crucial in helping me pass the Physics comprehensive exam.
What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?
I started doing yoga when I came to Vancouver and I’m completely hooked; 30 mins in the morning makes my whole day calm and fun. I also love skiing, hiking, and listening to music. Since quarantine started, I have been learning to play the bass guitar and planted a small vegetable garden, though who knows how well it’ll do!
What advice do you have for new graduate students?
Don’t worry if your research seems intimidating to start with! Go to every relevant talk you can, ask lots of questions, read papers and suddenly you will be surprised about how much you know. But also, take time to enjoy your life - you only get one.