DPhil Diaries #3

It has become almost a cliché to say that everyone’s PhD journey is different. Well, mine is no different. I mean, mine is different, obviously…from other people’s PhDs, but the same, oh you get what I mean!

One important milestone during a PhD is when you complete all your data collection and can focus on analysing and writing up your research. When the pandemic first reared its ugly head, I thought for sure that it would delay my data collection process significantly. After all, my research involves participants with cerebral small vessel disease, who are almost always in the highest risk category as far as COVID-19 is concerned.

Last year, our lab had to stop seeing research participants for almost 6 months. In fact, it was almost 9 months until we started feeling more confident about bringing in participants for research assessments. As much as data collection is important to us, we also have a moral duty to protect our participants from harm. Coming for a research visit is not the same as attending an actual appointment in clinic; one is voluntary, the other is necessary. We tried switching to online assessments but whereas it was mostly fine for younger research participants, things were not so straightforward when it came to people with neurological conditions.

Despite all that, by some miraculous route, I now find myself very close to finishing my data collection alhamdulillah. I’m hoping to wrap it all up by the end of October before it gets really cold but we’ll see how it goes. One potential problem is this year’s flu season—I call it fresher’s flu—making people sick and more likely to cancel their research visits.

Speaking of freshers, the end of September inevitably means an influx of people into central Oxford. Yes, I’m talking about the arrival of undergrads! Being a collegiate university has its advantages, but one disadvantage is that almost all the colleges are located within walking distance from each other. This also means that when undergraduate students return from their incredibly long summer vacations, the Oxford city centre population increases by about 12,000 within a week! Graduates have less of an impact, partly because we (research students) don’t have long holidays like the undergraduates do, so our movements in and out of the city are less noticeable.

I think back to my own arrival 17 years ago (gosh, has it been that long?) and chuckle at how foreign everything seemed back then! Prior to coming to the UK in 2004, the furthest I’ve ever been from home was to go back to my grandparents’ house in Perlis in the northern part of Malaysia.

The picture below was taken 17 years ago on my very first day in Cambridge.

I remember walking up the Chimney i.e. the Jesus College entrance, and plonking myself on a bench in First Court, thinking what-on-earth have I gotten myself into!

And below is another picture of the Bronze Horse sculpture in First Court, taken in July this year when I went back to college with my wife and children in tow.

Alhamdulillah, life works in mysterious ways so here I am; still alive, still a student (!), still enjoying learning about the wonders of the brain.

Running As Therapy

Yesterday, as I was cycling to the mosque for Friday prayers, a young man sitting in the passenger seat of a van suddenly shouted “BOOOOO!” right in my ear as the van overtook me. I was startled but thankfully nothing else happened. Our eyes met briefly and I could see the look of amusement in his face; clearly he finds it funny and doesn’t appreciate the fact that his immature behaviour potentially puts other people at risk of injury.

My first instinct is to chase after the van. Alas, I am no Pocket Rocketman and within seconds the van had disappeared into the distance. I know the risk of getting into arguments with strangers, but honestly, I wasn’t actually looking for a fight. What I really wanted to ask him was a simple question: Why?

Why, when so many other people can behave like civilised members of society, why is it that you can’t?

Why can’t you reign in your childish behaviour for a second and stop yourself from shouting at strangers?

Seriously, why?

I was still fuming when I reached the mosque. During the Friday ‘khutbah‘ (sermon) however, something the Imam said caught my attention. He was talking about how we sometimes harbour ill feelings towards others, especially those who mistreat us. Is it wrong to do so? What if we never acted upon those ill feelings and simply kept them in our hearts? No harm done, right?


The first victim of hatred is always our own selves. Hatred damages our hearts and prevents it from attaining peace. More often than not, the person who is the target of our ill feelings isn’t even aware of them; that young man in the van from yesterday presumably went on to enjoy the rest of his day, oblivious to the impact his idiotic act had on me.

That is why it is important to just let go of these ill feelings and just forgive others.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I went out for a run this morning to try and gather my thoughts. It wasn’t particularly cold, but the landscape was so foggy I couldn’t even see across the field. Very few people were around as it was still early. I put on a podcast and started running, pausing every now and then to marvel at interesting things like how thick the spider webs were!

Alhamdulillah, I am immensely grateful for moments like these. Increasingly, I find running to be very therapeutic, allowing me to recharge my energy, recalibrate my outlook, and appreciate the beauty of my surroundings.

Below are some pictures I took earlier. Thank you for reading. Take care, and have a nice weekend!

Dark Path

Whenever we take a picture, our natural tendency is to brighten things up, thus allowing us to see what is going on more clearly.

Sometimes, however, it helps to reduce the exposure slightly to achieve a different result. I took this picture while wandering about the town of Bowness-on-Windermere in what is known as the Lake District here in the United Kingdom.

It was getting dark, we were looking for a place to have dinner, but decided to walk down to the shore of Windermere (saying Lake Windermere would’ve been a tautology since ‘mere’ is Old English for ‘lake’ or ‘pool’) to watch the sunset.

What I especially like about this picture is that it reminds me of a particular scene in the Lord of the Rings. It’s the one in which Frodo, standing in the middle of the path while his friends were fighting over mushrooms, realises that something terrible is coming their way and tells everyone to hide. Seconds later, a Black Rider appears, sniffing the air as if trying to track something, or someone.

Thankfully, nothing terrible came our way! Instead, we had a very enjoyable dinner afterwards at a restaurant called the Lake Raj in Bowness. Shame there weren’t any mushrooms on the menu though.

Travelling Far And Wide

Forgive me for the longer-than-usual hiatus from blogging. I have been doing a healthy amount of travelling with my family—approximately 1600km in 10 days—leaving me with very little time to do anything but get everyone organised before moving on to the next location.

The Malays have a saying, ‘jauh perjalanan, luas pengalaman‘ which roughly translates to ‘the further you travel, the more experiences you will get/have’. I honestly can’t wait to write about my travels, but I feel it would be doing them an injustice to rush out half-baked posts about the various places I’ve visited. Plus, I really need to prepare for a lab meeting presentation I’m scheduled to give in mid-September.

Here’s what I’ll do instead: I’ll use the time from now to mid-September to outline the various posts I intend to write, then work on them at the end of the month after having done my presentation. How about that?

Here’s a photo preview of one of the places I’ve been to:

This picture was taken at Llynnau Cregennen (Cregennan Lake) in North Wales. I like it so much that it is now the desktop picture on my aging MacBook Pro.

I’m not an outdoor person by any stretch of the imagination, but being able to spend time in wide open spaces like these has been incredibly therapeutic especially after enduring months of lockdowns the year before. Hopefully, the world will continue its recovery from this pandemic so we can all get to visit these wonderful places around us.

Like I said, I’m super excited about sharing my travel experiences here. Let me know in the comments if you’ve also done any travelling post-lockdown. Until then, allow me to leave you with these words: jauh perjalanan, luas pengalaman.