Voice from Malaysia – Musings of a PhD student!

A PhD program is generally a long term engagement in research and one needs a lot of enthusiasm and confidence to endure this journey and emerge successful. That too, opting for a direct PhD after an undergraduate degree needs a lot of courage and clarity in thought. If you too are thinking about pursuing a direct PhD after your bachelors degree, this interview is a must read! Here, we have with us, Lahari Murali, an Indian student doing her PhD in University of Nottingham, Malaysia campus. Read on, to know more about the life of a doctoral researcher in a multi-cultural country that is embellished by the beautiful shore lines of the South China sea!

What was the impetus for you to choose a career in STEM?

I have been interested in Science right from my childhood. Science, mathematics, and technology have never ceased to amaze me. The need for ‘wonder’ drove me towards a STEM-based career.

Can you briefly explain your current area of research in “Pharmacy” and how did you zero in on it?

My PhD in Pharmacy focused on the structural study of cannabinoid receptors using computational techniques. The topic is based on rational structure-based drug design. My then principal supervisor, Dr Stephen Doughty, told me that they were interested in cannabinoid receptors and related G protein coupled receptors(GPCRs).I was (and still am!) very interested in GPCR proteins. Along with this, the allure of reading about cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors drew me into the project. That’s how my four-year research journey started.

Could you tell us about how you searched and applied for positions abroad?  Any pointers on preparation for the competitive PhD entrance exams would be really helpful!

I went to a lot of education fairs. I also took a look at the ranking tables (like Times Higher Education and QS) and made a comprehensive list of the universities I was interested in. 

My advice for exam prep is to first decide where you want to study. Each geographical region prefers certain competitive tests over others. Having a priority list and preparing for the exams that your geographical region of interest accepts (like TOEFL vs IELTS) saves you a lot of time, stress, and money.

What made you opt for a PhD in an Asian country like Malaysia?

I opted for the Malaysian campus as opposed to the British campus of University of Nottingham mainly because Malaysia is just three and half-hours away from India by flight. I used to live in Malaysia as a young kid and I am no stranger to the country or its culture. Also, the climate here is similar to that of Chennai. A British University degree in an Asian setting whilst living in a comfortable climate close to home, pushed me to accept the offer.

Can you provide a glimpse of life in the Nottingham University campus as well as Malaysia in general?

The Nottingham campus is situated about 33 km away from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur in the little town of Semenyih. It is a beautiful, eco-friendly campus with students from more than 40 countries across the globe. The campus is lively throughout the day and has many academic and recreational facilities.

Malaysia is a multi-cultural country and Malaysian citizens are very friendly and welcoming.

What are the pros and cons of pursuing a PhD directly after an undergraduate degree?

The pros of going for a direct PhD is that you will get your doctorate when you are relatively young! Looking at the other side of the coin, if you wish to switch fields after your undergraduate degree, you can opt for a Master’s degree to make the switch, instead of going for a PhD.

Research involves many trials and tribulations. You have probably encountered times when getting the desired results were tiresome. How do you deal with the frustration that often accompanies long-term research?

Patience, perseverance, and creativity are very important when dealing with frustrating and stressful situations. I have had days where nothing worked out and days where everything turned out to be just fine. Whenever I was down, I used to talk it out to my friends and parents. I even got some of my Eureka moments during such conversations! I also found great comfort and inspiration during those times from music and literature.

Can you recall one euphoric moment and one dark moment in your scientific journey till now?

I was working on a calculation that had been bugging me for months. Despite multiple trials, nothing worked. It dawned on one fine afternoon that my calculation was off because one extra amino acid was present in my protein file. One single amino acid ruined my sleep for months! But the Eureka moment I had, made up for all the troubles.

The summer of 2017 was pretty dark for me. There were so many delays in starting an important part of my research work and I couldn’t produce any results. Nevertheless, I persevered, pulled myself together, and, slowly things started getting better.

Can you tell us some positive and negative aspects (if any) of pursuing a PhD?

The PhD journey is not just about developing your intellect but also about testing your perseverance. There will be seemingly never-ending dark days. But you will endure them. Every problem you face in this journey will provide a chance for you to flex your creativity. By the end of the journey, you would have become a seasoned researcher.

How do you think your PhD journey so far has influenced you as a person both inside and outside the lab?

My PhD journey mainly forced me to be a social person! As a PhD candidate, you want your research work to get attention… especially in a conference. The best way to advertise your work and develop your network is by communicating. My journey, therefore, has greatly helped me improve my social and communication skills. 

Did you experience cultural shock as a student migrating into a new country? Do you have any tips for students to tackle cultural shock while migrating to study in foreign countries?

Since Malaysia has many citizens who are of Indian ethnicity, I didn’t experience too much of a cultural shock. But what surprised me was how much I could connect with many of my PhD colleagues who belonged to different backgrounds. My tip to migrating students is– try appreciating the positives in the culture of the place you move to without being overly critical.

 Finally, any words of advice you would like to give to your younger self aiming to start a journey in scientific research?

There will be good days and bad days.  Don’t be hard on yourself on the bad days. Give yourself some credit on the good days. Most importantly, don’t worry too much – it will all work out in the end.

Some important pointers for pursuing a PhD in Malaysia!

            Cost of living in Malaysia

Basic expenses cost about 400-600 Malaysian ringgits per month. Rent depends on the area you live in (rooms closer to cities or posh places do cost more).

Monetary aspects for students looking forward to pursue PhD in Malaysia

Excluding room rent and any other tuition fees, about RM 800 (around INR 14, 000) should be good for food and other grocery expenses.

Some good Universities/Institutes to start a PhD in life sciences in Malaysia.

The University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus [Semenyih, Selangor], University of Monash (a branch campus of the Australian university) [Subang Jaya, Selangor], Taylor’s University [Subang Jaya, Selangor], Universiti Sains Malaysia [Georgetown, Penang], and Universiti Putra Malaysia [Seri Kembangan, Selangor]

We have come to the end of the interview. You can follow Lahari Murali at

https://www.linkedin.com/in/lahari-murali-7b8ba87b/

Lily Lake in the University of Nottingham, Malaysia campus
Chinese new year celebrations at full swing in Malaysia!
The scenic shores on Beras Basah islands, Malaysia

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