PhD candidates to celebrate end of long road

PhD candidates to celebrate end of long road

This Friday over 70 PhD candidates will graduate from RMIT. Ahead of the big day, we caught up with two candidates and their supervisors.

It was a shared passion for human rights which enabled PhD candidate Gabriella Karakas and her supervisor, Dr Sharlene Nipperess, to enjoy a successful working relationship. And despite the challenges of COVID lockdown Gabriella’s thesis, which focuses on investigating attitudes and barriers toward mental health services among underrepresented migrant communities, is now complete.

For student Fearghus McSweeney, it was the support and good humour of his supervisors, Emeritus Professor John Buckeridge and Professor Jeff Shimeta, during long COVID lockdowns which he valued most. Fearghus’ thesis focuses on plant evolution in Victoria, he explains how his love of plants “stems” from his mother (an avid horticulturist) who always has secateurs on hand to take cuttings.

Both Gabriella and Fearghus took four years to complete their PhD’s. Read more about their areas of research and PhD journeys below.

Gabriella Karakas - PhD Candidate

Can you tell us about your thesis?

My thesis investigates the attitudes and barriers towards mental health services among underrepresented migrant cohorts. The idea for the thesis came during my time as a phone counsellor working with people with anxiety disorders. Being of Croatian descent, I was aware of demographic and cultural factors that made that population vulnerable to lowered mental health, as it was mainly made up of forced migrants and older adults. Although these are rather large and established communities in Australia, I noticed that there was a severe lack of available research data relating to how they engage with mental health services, which allowed potential inequities in services provision to go unaddressed. My research aims to bridge this gap, and provide practical, structural and systematic recommendations for mental health service improvements.


What were some of the challenges along the way?

The onset of the pandemic brought with it distinct challenges, many stemming from social-distancing and work-from-home measures. This experience taught me the importance of agility and made way for new opportunities – such as co-convening RMIT’s first online student-led conference, the Intertext Symposium.

What is something that you've enjoyed about the relationship with your supervisor?

I have been fortunate to have been guided by four remarkable supervisors, all of whom have provided me with the most thorough, insightful and complementary tutelage that an ‘apprentice’ researcher could ask for. Dr Sharlene Nipperess has been a constant in this journey – from the inception of the project to its completion. Sharlene is a passionate advocate and champion of human rights, and her confidence in me, her inspiring dedication to the discipline and her encouragement have been instrumental in my candidature.

Dr Sharlene Nipperess - PhD Supervisor

I first met Gaby in 2018 when she commenced her PhD candidature in the School of Global Urban and Social Studies. From the commencement of her candidature to her successful completion, Gaby impressed me with her motivation, organisation, diligence and passion for her research topic and it was a delight to support her to develop the knowledge, skills and confidence required to conduct a significant research project from beginning to end. Supervising PhD students is an enormous privilege and I thoroughly enjoyed working with Gaby and the rest of the supervisory team – Val Colic-Peisker, and Julian Lee and Glenda Mejia upon Val’s retirement – over the period of Gaby’s candidature.

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Why are PhD students important for RMIT?

PhD students, through their original research, contribute to knowledge development in relation to key social issues in contemporary society and seek to address injustice at all levels. Gaby’s research addresses an important gap in our understanding of Croatian and Bosnian migrants’ experiences of mental health services in Australia. A higher degree by research provides a foundation for future research – and in time PhD graduates will contribute to future students’ research journeys through their own supervision practices.

Fearghus McSweeney - PhD Candidate

Can you tell us about your thesis? 

My thesis is called “Early Land Plants of Victoria: New Taxa, Taxonomic Revisions and insights into Plant Evolution”. I have always had a passing interest in palaeontology. But a passion developed for this field when I did diplomas in Environmental Science and Geology at University College Cork in Ireland. I had a lecturer (Dr Ed Jarvis) that discussed deep time with immense passion and brought that enthusiasm out on field trips as well - it was infectious. My love of plants “stems” from my mother – she is an avid horticulturist and almost always has a secateurs on her for taking cuttings! During my degree in Environmental Science at RMIT – I became aware Professor Buckeridge, a palaeontologist. Thankfully, he has the same enthusiasm as Dr Jarvis and encouraged my interest.


What were some of the challenges along the way?

There were a number of challenges – but the primary one was not being able to take specimens from the heaps of debris at Limestone Road, Yea – as the local council passed this decision on access to the federal government. Unfortunately, it would have cost $5k to get a response – which was way beyond my means and I would not pay it on principle even if I had it. So the focus of the PhD changed to broadly cover fossil plants of Victoria rather than just Limestone Road.

What is something that you've enjoyed about the relationship with your supervisor?

My supervisors (emeritus Professor John Buckeridge and Professor Jeff Shimeta) have both been supportive and I appreciated it most when I was somewhat unwell and during the long lockdowns where I had no communication with anybody else. It was a difficult and often lonely time and they kept me sane with their humour.

Emeritus Professor John Buckeridge and Professor Jeff Shimeta - PhD Supervisors

Dr Jeff Shimeta and John Buckeridge Emeritus Professor John Buckeridge & Professor Jeff Shimeta

Can you reflect on your experience supervising Fearghus for his PhD?

During his formative years in Cork, Ireland, Fearghus developed a passion for the natural environment. But it was only after he came to Australia and had a family, that his interest in nature, especially palaeobotany, was ignited. As a mature student, he embarked on a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at RMIT, in which he included palaeontology. This led to authorship of the book “Fossils of the Urban Sanctuary”, which was published in 2017. Fearghus has not disappointed us. His enthusiasm, his dedication and his depth of knowledge have resulted in an exemplary series of articles that more than cover what is expected of a quality doctorate. It has been both a pleasure and an honour to supervise him.

Why are PhD students important for RMIT? 

PhD students often bring fresh enthusiasm, curiosity, and new ideas to established research groups at the university. They can energise and challenge our research programs and our academics. They can be the stimulus for research programs to venture in new directions. Fearghus is an excellent example of a PhD student bringing these benefits to research at RMIT. 

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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.