Some notes on the transcription…

I wanted to provide a transcript of The PhD Life Raft podcast episodes to make the material more accessible.

I have used an automated transcription service to produce this document. These, as we all know, are not 100% accurate. Please excuse the odd typos and grammatical mis-translations. I hope that you will find the documentation of this conversation useful.    

You can find the full interview here: https://thephdliferaft.libsyn.com/

Emma  

Amazing, amazing. And today we’re going to talk particularly about your journey and your journey as an autistic person through the PhD and the kind of the the particular delights of that, as well as in particular challenges of that. But before we get into that detail, can you just give us a sense of sort of bigger picture of your journey coming into the PhD and how it’s how it’s been through the PhD? Yeah,

Piangfan  

so I think we have to start a bit early on in my life. So I’m from Thailand. I was a pretty much a student who really enjoyed sides and also finding out that my father has a rare genetic disease. When I was 14. So that’s kind of pivoted by interest into medicine and genetics quite significantly. So after I finished my studies in Thailand, I got a scholarship to study in Norway. A Sixth Form College there called Red Cross Nordic United World College. The school does the IB program. So one of the copies of the IB program was actually doing the extended essay is pretty much like a first year college essay for university students. Which you look into quite a deep, extensive research of something and a subject I chose post biology. And I think that was my first taste of actually getting into research. But before that, I have done a bit of our internships, bits and bobs while I was in Thailand. And I realized that I think research is for me. And after I graduated from university in Norway, I have received a full ride scholarship to Clark University in United States and I decided to major in biology and pretty much like foster my interest from there on with when it comes to medicine and learning how, you know, the science works. Yes. And I had an opportunity to intern at University of Massachusetts Medical School, and I was one of the first time I actually had a chance to do a bit of research related cancer. During that time, also I found out that I hated organic chemistry. So, instead of being pre med, I decided to okay with my studies toward was general biology and ecology is that so at the time my research focus was very well rounded, but I was like medical school that has gone to a poof if I don’t really like organic chemistry, remembering all the chemical structures and everything. And having to wake up at 8am to have my first class and have my exams. That’s how cog works when it comes to organic chemistry, so I dropped the class and decided to be a general biologist instead. With that said, I also managed to get internship at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, or the National History Museum, actually, it was one of our projects was actually to do with bioinformatics. So I kind of learned for the first time that you could do multiple things interdisciplinary, that allows you to take your biology knowledge with computer science. And mathematics together. So that led me to do a master’s degree in Thailand in bioinformatics and systems biology, because I felt like I still have a lot to learn on the medical side. So I decided to come to study in the UK to a degree in Joe mesin. A wish I was very lucky to be funded by one of the millionaires in Thailand who have I was teaching that kid like, as private tuition. I really pray much over my degree to that during my time doing working on genomics. I really found my love for networks. What do I mean by networks? Networks is pretty much a representation of connections between things. You can talk about this in terms of social networks, or biological networks and in this case, my work was on cancer. So true. This my work with Dr. Roland Arnold. We bash to publish a few things during my time at University of Birmingham and I started applying to all kinds of schools for PhD because I do right there and then that I really enjoy research, I don’t think are very good people. And I feel like I want to help others more than one person at a time. Because doing research or medicine, instead of helping one person specifically, you get to help millions you find great discoveries. But for me, it’s more than that. It’s more to answer the questions I was curious about. So that’s kind of why I decided to apply for a PhD and from that on I was very, very fortunate to receive the sparks of fellowship at Queen’s University, Belfast, a which is a European Union horizon 2020 Fellowship for my PhD project and now there was a lot of things that happened during that time, like during my PhD, that I now switch projects and about to graduate. But to be frank, I would say I wouldn’t want my journey to go anywhere. It’s a bit of twists and turns. But for my experience of interning at different institutions, going to different schools, meeting people, it has really helped me to come out of my shell and become the person I am today.

Emma  

Oh my goodness, what story what a story and I love I love that we’re celebrating the twists and turns because that is people coming on to this podcast. So many people, most people say well, my PhD didn’t take it to a usual path. And what’s gorgeous about the PhD is there isn’t a usual path and you find your own gorgeous messy way through. And I love what came through really strongly in your story. It was this sense of you talked about fostering my interests and this sense of your passion and your commitment, and your curiosity really shines through and finding out what you don’t like your hatred of organic chemistry is clear about finding out what you don’t like is can be just as useful kind of in terms of leading you to the kind of the gold and the sense of you. As you say being in different places having different fellowships, being in connections, making connections with different people that what a gorgeous, gorgeous and rich story. Amazing. So, in all of that. What we’re going to focus in now then is that the kind of the particular I say the particular delights, the particular challenges that you faced on that journey, as an autistic person. So is there anything particular that you wanted to talk about here?

Piangfan  

Yeah, I think we’ve got to have to first start with the stereotypes of ableism in general, I Oh, yes. I love Oh, let me move on. Oh, sorry. This is not going to be a good start. Is it? So being different? Going up in Thailand has always been something that was not delightful at all. When I was doing my master’s degree in Thailand, coming up on stage. It was a full cultural shock because where was it a state’s I was pretty much well supported by the disability service. I have all kinds of support and help every single way. And when I came to Thailand, it’s pretty much like you’re on your own. You’re pretty much like you’re gonna have to struggle to you’re where most people would think that your mannerisms and the way you think and the way you act is quite rude. I mean, I can understand why because the culture is very different. Because a lot of people find it very difficult at least, like my culture, to be open and honest and very blunt and a which I am and I can be quite rude to a certain stamp being like as as a very blunt and that didn’t really sit well for a lot of elders, professors and stuff. I mean, I’m that kid who if the professor decide, like to be late lager, the 50 beds I’ll just walk out while other kids in my class would still be sitting there waiting for the teachers to come. I bought one of those, I just don’t see the point. So so that was perceived pretty rude and also because the thing is, people with disabilities in general don’t really get opportunities in life. So like it was quite much of a muchness that I have to fight my way through to prove myself every day that I belong here. I can do this, like people question all the time, even like PhD paddles. In other countries outside the UK, say to be directly Are you sure that with autism, you could do a PhD? Are you sure you’re gonna be able to cope and stuff like that? This was quite a reputable institution. Okay. Girl that asked me bluntly like that. I’m like, wow. Like, I felt like I was having an easy to stay. It’s really for the because of the rights and protections I got from being disabled. Like, it’s just like shocking. So my whole life I’ve been having to battle with the idea of like, Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Am I am I doing enough? Like, I mean, One fun fact about me is that first I’m the first time autistic person to ever receive you funding for my PhD second, I’m the first disabled person from Thailand to ever be invited to the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. And that kind of like that’s the level you have to go to, to be able to be kind of seen. Or also it was quite mesmerizing for a lot of people. And that’s kind of how I became with this disability advocate myself back home. But let’s try to get back to our VHDX a little bit. So when it comes to the challenges my PhD I would say like, the biggest challenge is my relationship with my first supervisor, right? Because we kind of butt heads and he doesn’t understand me. I don’t understand him. The communications that goes on was not that great. And so after like, we tried to push because throughout my entire life, I have always had to push the boundaries or what people can set for me to be to be somewhere most. I pretty much like, have to learn that it’s time to speak up. For the situation and ask for shades of supervision. I think that was the lowest point of my PhD. I felt like I kind of failed relationship in a way because I really want to succeed. But then when there’s so many doubts on the table, about my like, ability as a student, despite all my publications, if you go on to his call my name, you can see like, I had my first publication after my undergraduate degree, and I have conference papers, and other publications under my name, but when people hear a word that about insticc They just like, Are you sure about this? You know what I mean? So like, it was quite hard, but thankfully, like, you know, the university was very supportive of the changes of vision. Good and I got the best supervisors I have now who one of them was by Master’s advisor from University of Birmingham, join with two other service advisors at Queen’s, who are super understanding of Hebrew of autism. Because they themselves have family members who are autistic. So that really helps. But it’s also because like, we just get along very well and the communication styles work. So I think that’s a highlight of it, but also one very big big part of it is this supervision team. Really let me be myself, like be myself in a way like they do they understand that the way I work is slightly different from a lot of people, I get my work done when like a sloth I on deadline usually do my best. But I also need to have other things in my life as well. wasn’t just my PhD. Yes. And what of that is archery?

Emma  

Yes, Tarik. I know about this. Tell tell people about this because you make it sound like a kind of side hustle, but it’s a massive thing. So say a little bit about that.

Piangfan  

Yeah. So where do I start? So after she ate my supervision, I felt like and that was, oh, by the way, the shape of supervision happened in the middle of a pandemic, like the pandemic was the biggest struggle that I could ever felt. With my PhD. It was so hard like it was the toughest thing you ever went through. But that also was piled up because we found out I have a undiagnosed long term illness during the pandemic, like we thought it was Canceler like at that time, it was it was so scary, but we managed as a family to get through the whole thing. And so after I started to recover from the illness, we felt like it was a good idea for me to find an activity to keep me active and get my muscle tone back to be able to be more physically active, because at the time I could barely walk, that’s how bad the illness was. So we thought what sports best I try out taekwondo again. It was something I did when I was younger. But apparently I didn’t vibe with the instructor. So I saw people doing archery, and it’s winter sport I always wanted to do I did it in Norway for like a few sashes because why school have an archery range on campus, but I try to sign up for it but it never happened was not for me at the time. But then I was like, Oh my God, that looks so cool. I want to do it again. So I went to my first beginners course. And it got hooked right away. Like I was in love of it to me I touched about it was like calling me like a sorting hatch say, Yeah, this is your sport. And so I’ve been doing archery for two years. This is my third year of sorry, in October 2021. I’ve been traveling around the UK of doing competitions on public transport. I can’t drive right away. But thanks to the student rail card. It become a lot cheaper and a bit of sponsorship for family. Places crash I’ve been to approximately almost 50 competitions in two years. Last season of outdoors. I got two national titles. One of them is the archery GB national display championships. I also got a gold medal from the Grand National Archery meeting, and I have 30 medals and was invited to the royal talks relate society, which is one of the oldest clubs in the country. I’m nationally ranked at 155 in the UK for ladies recurve and also I have been offered to swatch the shapes of one from Merlin archery, which is the largest and the best archery shop in the UK and also holy bowstrings a wish I decided to accept the offer of a Merlin so I’m now officially sponsored by Merlin archery. And to be frank like I have doing all of this while doing my PhD trading, working trying to get everything together send everything on time and just you know be physically active.

Emma  

I love it. I also insane we love Merlin’s. I don’t know Merlin’s but there are other archery things available. I feel like I need to do a BVC moment. But this is so Oh you are so awesome in terms of of being an achiever an all rounder achiever and so this the artery, which was this sense of some rehabilitation is now a great passion and something that again that you are achieving at such a high level in and I want to just come back and recognize some of those themes that are coming through for you in terms of your desire for excellence in everything that you’re doing. But also the sense of of what might you might have to deal with along the way and this sense of ableism that that exists in academia, sadly. And that plays out more generally. And there’s a bigger conversation we need to have about that. And I know there’s been some brilliant conferences recently around that. But you were talking about the everyday fight you said I have to fight every day. And those particular challenges that have come up with and you were reflecting particularly on this relationship with the supervisor and honoring your I want to honor your courage in speaking up and saying something needs to change. This is something that happens for many PhD researchers and recognizing that this is not right for me and something needs to change. And also this sense of you’re working in the way that suits you and finding a team that serves you and works in the way that you work. You clearly have. And I think lots of people working with disabilities and extra challenges, have a great insight into their own situation and know what they need and being given permission to ask for what they need is a great gift, isn’t it? Yes,

Piangfan  

definitely. Because I think the biggest part for me is growing up because nobody, like I was told like if you want somebody you gotta have to go get it. Because I grew up having to be quite self reliant, because my father passed away was 14, as well. During that period, we were tired I told you about knowing about his illness. It also kind of made me grow up so quickly. I didn’t have time to even cry on the day the other funeral because my mother was very sad and I pretty much had to pick up all the pieces. I think, at that time, despite it being a traumatic event because I was the one who found my father. They have to rebuild all the core of the ambulance and get all things sorted as a 14 year old. I think being autistic really helped because I pretty much blocked out everything that was happening and just get out of it. I was not had to give away anything. I was just getting on to it. And I’ve kind of learned very quickly that you know, when you’re when you’re stuck somewhere when things are getting hard the only person who can get or like start the ball rolling of getting unstuck or to fight a challenge starts with you. You got to have some fight in you to get there. Since I was very young,

Emma  

have some fights and I love this sense of you backing yourself and being on your own team and gorgeousness. And your story speaks that all the way through. Yeah,

Piangfan  

but it was not easy though. I had to get a lot of help from therapists things and I have no shame that I have to see a therapist for like, I think it might likely be my whole life because it’s I find it quite a point to be able to talk to somebody that understands you but also allow you to you know work through things. Yes in a more in a safe environment.

Emma  

Always a call out for a therapist. I am. As you know, I am a therapist, and I think it’s I think it’s a great gift. Great gift. And I’m aware of time and I there’s so much that we’ve touched on here and there’s so much more that we could talk about I know. But I wonder if you have some thoughts to leave us with I asked people for a top tip which of course is ridiculous, but whether you have some things that for people to take away that you would you would offer? Yeah,

Piangfan  

I definitely do. First of all, like I think remember that whatever your experiences experiencing, you’re not alone. There are other PhD students who might experience something similar to you. There might be several times things are quite difficult to see that you are experiencing. I think it’s quite important to like seek, seek out for help and support. There’s a lot of great of services or at least a queen’s for students with disabilities like this way services. Like there’s a bunch of charities as well like mines that you could contact at like places like grounded ground is like a initiative in the West Midlands where they do workshops, and also fun things to help people with mental health and have a drop in room. It’s like pretty cool that you could just go talk to somebody when you need help. The next tip I would say if wherever you are person, you have a life and it’s okay to live it despite you having a lot of PhD work. I know it’s a very popular opinion for professors and you know a lot of people who would be like, I need to go on hardmode or my PhD for five years. And like I need to finish as fast as I can. But yeah remember a time goes by when you’re doing a PhD. One of the things I found out for my friends I talk about every reflections or a PhD is that they feel like they missed out so much in life and so many opportunities, but with good time management, with finding your passion on the side I think you can minimal minimalize the loss you feel while you’re doing a PhD. And the last thing I would say is just try your best to make the most out your experience. And when the experience is not great, like you know when you don’t get on your visor. When things are just not working. Start seeing the red flags. start feeling sad every time you have a meeting. Or then you might have to start asking yourself that. Is this worth it? Do you think you want to change your supervision? Can you stop yourself permission to be okay of asking for change? To be frank it took me like a good seven months before I realized after so many people telling me Angela, can you please with the love of God go ask my shaman for beers. I was like, No, I’m gonna fight this. But here’s the thing. There’s some fights that’s not worth winning, and especially when it’s fights that actually is causing a detrimental effect on your mental health. So if a change of supervision will make your life better if asking for you know, time off, would actually be better if asking for your emails or to be said to you after midnight for example, will make you feel less stressed when you wake up in the morning and see emails for your supervisors. As it’s okay. Be honest. Just remember it is what at the end of the day is your journey. Whatever you do have it is good luck and you got this.

Emma  

Oh my goodness, we need to in our pockets right we need to I just your positivity and and I know this is hard one positivity is not just Pollyanna is it that you have the all that you have all the challenges that you have faced, and that you still are saying make the most of the experience. Minimize your losses, maximize what’s out there, which is certainly your story is a testament to that and such good advice to to listen to your instincts, isn’t it if things are really churning you up to kind of tune into that and take action. And hopefully people will take courage from your story and kind of go yep, I know if I change if I change that supervisor or if I change that way of working things might really improve for me. Oh, changfeng Thank you so much.

Piangfan  

Yeah, the roll at all.

Emma  

You are truly amazing. And I wish you all the very best going forward with your archery Of course, and but also in this country, kind of final phases and hopefully, maybe even by the time this podcast comes out you will have submitted and be well on your way to being a doctor.

Piangfan  

Yeah, definitely. I do all the good luck I could get this straight. I hope I have time this episode comes out I will already have submitted I don’t have a date for my viva. And seriously though I really hope that who knows one day you guys might hear my name apart from being a doctor, being an Olympian in a few years time.

Emma  

You know what I’ve got no doubt about that. I really don’t. It seems like what you set your mind to UK. And I think you don’t need luck. You got it. You’ve got it. But we are sending you all the good wishes and cheering you on. And thank you so much for for taking this time to be with us.

Piangfan  

No problem.

Emma  

Thank you. And thank you all for listening