Just exchanging emails with the Department of Chemistry was enough to get Enitan Ibisanmi fired up for a PhD at Otago.
“I had contacted them about their PhD programme. They were so excited about their research, it was impossible not to get caught up in this. Before I knew it I had sent off my application.”
This enthusiasm was an important sign, Enitan believes. He says the sense of being surrounded by people with energy and curiosity stayed with him through all the years he was at Otago.
Enitan recalls his PhD topic as having been pretty much handed to him. As a result, Nigerian-born, American-raised Enitan found himself far out in the Southern Ocean, collecting seawater to learn more about why ocean iron levels are so low in this part of the world, focusing especially on “iron-complexing ligands”. Less iron means less phytoplankton, which is both a food source for our diminishing fish stocks and a means for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere – so the implications of his findings are wide-reaching. “It was great fun,” he says, “apart from the seasickness!”
Perhaps because he entered the department with a reasonably defined topic, Enitan says his PhD journey was not clearly divided into the classic literature-research-writing stages. Rather he says he did bit of each, all at once. “I was collecting samples, analysing it, collecting more, writing research papers, finalising my analysis, noting new literature.”
Maintaining this variety was a productive approach, Enitan found. As well as keeping life interesting, it gave him the chance to graduate with a few publications under his belt.
“It was an area with a lot of international interest, and my supervisors encouraged me to get our results published.”
This approach to writing his thesis also gave Enitan a sense of his PhD in its entirety quite early in the process. “When I had all my chapters ready, with something written for each section, I knew it was just a matter of time until we had polished each piece until it was good enough and I could submit.
“Trust your supervisors,” Enitan adds. “They’ve been doing it much longer than you have. Above all, they want you to do well so it is to your advantage to take their suggestions into consideration.”
Enitan says he gained much from the highly collegial atmosphere in the department. “My co-supervisors had an open-door policy which I didn’t abuse, but I did find really useful. We would meet weekly, even if just for a few minutes, just to check in with each other. I never felt alone.”
Now, he says he almost wishes he had been less single-minded about his research. “There were opportunities to become involved in my colleagues’ work, and in hindsight I wish I had taken some of these chances. You should use your PhD as an opportunity to interact with excellent researchers and gain new ideas and skills. Being accepted into a PhD programme is a privilege that not everyone gets to pursue, you need to make the most of it.
“It’s an exceptional journey,” he continues. “Enjoy it, be motivated, be passionate. And with the right attitude, you will get there!”