Tag: emotions

Language and Leadership

Throughout my life as a female human, I’ve been counselled to be less emotive. It’s been suggested I moderate my tone, show less emotion, and generally never act like I care that much. The reasoning was that people would take me more seriously, I would seem more professional, and I would get listened to more.

I have a vibrant, occasionally overbearing, personality. I’m a demanding presence in a room, and one of my favourite skills is I can make people feel things. This is achieved  partly through honesty and partly through an emotive and empathetic nature.

I don’t have temper tantrums or meltdowns. I’m just comfortable using emotive language and expressing passion.

Being counselled not to do so rubs me the wrong way for a few reasons.

It suggests that emotionality precludes logical thought or facts

Often the advice comes after I’ve monologued a bit on an issue I’m passionate about. Now let’s be clear: I take care to back up what I say with statistics and logical chains. If I drop a few words like ‘abhorrent’ or have a cadence to my voice that indicates passionate feelings, that doesn’t immediately negate my statistics – they’re still true.

If I say something like “when you ignore queer people they don’t like it and might feel disenfranchised” that’s true regardless of whether I sound like I care (or indeed, flag the fact that am personally affected by it).

The idea that emotions and logic are necessarily mutually exclusive is historic and should be confined to  history. It can also be lowkey sexist. Typically women are seen as being “more emotional” – for worse or for worse or for worse – and advice to minimize emotions is likely to be disproportionately given to women.

Barack Obama crying
More emotions please. They make a difference.

It suggests that we shouldn’t be passionate

I am a passionate person. I’m passionate about my research, about equality, about eventually being ruler of the world because currently the people in charge are hecking it up big time. That passion drives much of what I do.

If someone sounds passionate when they talk, that’s not a bad thing.

Being emotive is how I get things done

A key part of leadership is empathy. As a leader, I ensure that things happen and people are happy by being empathetic, reading situations, and bringing people along for the ride. A lot of people are on the empathetic leadership bus, and it’s a good time.

By shutting down the expression of emotions or labeling them as unprofessional, you prevent the development and growth of empathy and other emotive skills of people in the interaction, and punish those who already have those skills.

It delegitimizes anger

Often when a marginalized group is angry it’s because they’ve tried being nice and you’ve ignored them. Asking why someone is angry is much more productive than criticizing the decision to express it.


I’m not saying I’ll always be this passionate. I genuinely don’t think I can promise that.

My emotions are a key part of how I express myself and navigate working relationships – and they facilitate that. I’ve gotten incredibly positive feedback about my emotionality; I’m not inclined to listen to outdated ideas of what a leader “should” sound like, or that an advocate should present statistics and ideas dispassionately.

I’m going to keep feeling, and I’m going to keep sounding like it.

Priorities, the PhD Way

I often get asked how to balance a lot of commitments, especially when studying. I suppose I seem capable on some level. Personally, I don’t think I am that good at balancing a lot of things – normally I just ignore how busy I am and hope it all works out.

That doesn’t work long-term – sure, I busted honours year with a ludicrous amount of commitments, but that was never going to work for my PhD. This year I finally made a list of commitments and prioritized them.

Writing a list is one of those things like goal-setting – my dad told me it would make my life a lot easier, and he is probably right. I have never consciously set goals, but if you have trouble envisioning how to get where you want to go, it is a good thing and you should do it. Don’t be like me, be better than me.

The pyramid below is (to my mind) a manageable amount, but I know that not everyone suffers from my total lack of a social life.

pyramid of commitments ranging from PhD to Free Debate
“Ma’am, do you think you do too much?” “I plead the fifth.” “Ma’am, we’re in Australia.”

The important thing to note here is that in the interest of aesthetics, I put one card underneath the PhD card – the “self-care” card.

I’ve learned that self-care can never fall below any other commitments. If you fail at self-care, you will start to fail at everything else.

Sometimes I forget this, and forget to eat, or don’t give myself space or time. I’m trying to get back into yoga (using Yoga with Adriene) to help regularly clear the cobwebs out. It’s important to remember that while undergrad might be a sprint, the rest of life is a marathon, and we need to make sure to take breaks and drink enough water.

I’ve also signed up for Adopt a Grad Student, a wonderful enterprise started by Jess Shanahan (@Enceladosaurus), a disabled astrophysics grad student in the US. The idea is that being a grad student is suffering; you work long hours, have regular stress, and are underpaid. You deserve a Fairy GradParent. It’s wonderful, and I hope other grad students get on board – if you’re in NZ, YouShop is a good way to help get around the “million dollars plus your soul” international shipping fees.


screen capture of a purchase showing item costing $0.01 and shipping costing #23.45
This is why I have trust issues.


Looking back at my list of priorities is a good way to reset the whirring to-do list in my head and remember what’s important – health, relationships, and currently, study. It’s also good to remember that this focus on my studies isn’t going to last forever and one day I won’t have Thesis Fear because I will have Thesis Satisfaction.

No matter what you’re doing, remember to take care of you.

Depression as an Overachiever

Disclaimer: I don’t want to say that my experiences are universal, and neither do I want to suggest that any experiences of depression are illegitimate. We all have our own struggles, whether you’re an academic overachiever like me or talented in other ways. One of those struggles is depression.

Depression is a mental illness that can make it hard to do things, stop you from enjoying yourself, or make you feel tired all the time. One of the warning signs is doing fewer activities, or doing worse at school or work. This can make discussion, and depression, difficult to navigate when you’re an overachiever like me.

I saw my first psychiatrist when I was 15. The first line of the report she gave me on leaving stated that I was “a very intelligent young woman”. It went on for a page and a half, finally stating there was nothing wrong with me – I was just being a teenager. It’s part of that intelligence (appropriate adjectives: brutal, painful, aggressive) that has made depression so difficult.

In my final year of high school, I competed in the International Biology Olympiad, worked part-time, was in five music groups, practiced piano and flute, swam regularly, and did five scholarship exams. I wasn’t withdrawing, or not being involved, or doing badly at school. About the only hallmark of depression I showed was a stubbornly low mood. I was still depressed.

In my honours year I attended national and international debating tournaments, spoke at a poetry conference in the USA, taught for the university, taught for charity, helped found the Science Community of Otago, spent time with friends – I did well, I was brilliant, I was still depressed.

I felt guilty for being depressed and being unable to fix it myself. Whenever I achieved something I believed if anyone found out about my depression, they would take it away somehow. And (this is my favourite part) I was terrified of going onto medication in case it stopped me being smart.

Depression isn’t something that can be whisked away by listing your achievements. I can’t get out a book of newspaper clippings and use that as a shield to make my brain be better. What I can do, what I have done is get medication that brings me up enough to function. It doesn’t stop me from having depressive episodes, but it’s enough that I don’t lowkey want to die constantly.

Medication doesn’t work for everyone, but my second go at it (and five psychiatrists, two psychologists, and three counselors later) did work. I’m not doing more, or more awake, or nicer at all – I just have the ability to be happy again.

This hashtag was a great thing 10/10 would recommend.

There’s a belief that intelligent people are often depressed. I was told it a lot. Ignoring for a moment the fact that higher-educated “intelligent” people often have a higher socio-economic status so are better placed to get official diagnoses, it’s a bad thing to say even if it is true.

Connecting mental illness and intelligence can transform itself into perverse beliefs in the depressed mind – like the idea that without hating myself I wouldn’t be as motivated or intelligent. That’s obviously not correct. But it’s important to remember that the depressed mind twists things very readily.

I know I do well. I know I am good; good at science, writing, speaking, running events, and generally being a fantastic knowledgeable gorgeous all-rounder. But none of that changes the fact that I have depression. Being good has made talking to mental health professionals difficult, as my work doesn’t suffer and I don’t stop doing things. Being good has made accepting that I’m not good at depression difficult.

Recently I got called one of 20 Young Australians on the Cusp of Greatness. It’s amazing, I’m incredibly flattered and excited to be listed alongside other amazing people. I’m still depressed. I’m still a suicide survivor. I’ve still struggled with self-harm since I was 14.

Being good doesn’t change any of that. But I’m finally in a place where none of that changes my ability to be good – and maybe quite soon, great.

If you might have depression, or have been struggling with your mental health, check out Beyond Blue or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.


Higher Degrees are Broken

I’m in the middle of my PhD. About two months ago, I cried inconsolably for two hours because I felt I wasn’t good enough. I would never finish my degree, disappoint everyone around me, and bring shame on my family.

Many of my friends are currently pursuing or have recently completed higher degrees. Some have quit PhDs because of mental illness, taken months or years off, developed insomnia or night terrors, and almost all of us have had a meltdown. Most have depression, anxiety, or some combination of the two. Many are medicated.  We’re one failed experiment or bad meeting away from a total nervous breakdown.

All of this is expected and accepted as part of a higher degree.

It was reassuring to tell people I had my first PhD meltdown and hear that it was due about now. Isolation is terrible. But we need to take a step back and realize that if this is typical, accepted, and part of the process, there is a systemic problem.

There is a lot of discussion about what a higher degree is, what it should be, and how to educate for future jobs. The academic and training discussion is an important one to have. So too is the fact that mental illness shouldn’t be an accepted part of a higher degree.

There was a great interview on The Atlantic with William Deresiewicz, who wrote a book about Ivy League schools, elitism, and depression. A lot of the discussion surrounding high achievers can be seamlessly transferred to higher degree students because unsurprisingly, the kind of people that choose to go back to school for a pittance for three to seven years tend to be high achievers.

Basically there are two types of graduate students: the ones who powered through and the ones who got a real job. Neither is cut out for a higher degree.

Powered Through

If you powered through, you probably got straight As, or a few papers out, or did something else pretty great. You might be doing a PhD because you don’t know what else to do (bad idea, get out!), but more likely you genuinely love your work and your topic. You’ve always pushed yourself – a couple of all nighters each year, at least – but it’s always paid off. And besides, with the regular affirmation that comes in the form of being published, or getting another A, or just coming out of an exam knowing you tried your hardest, you know you’re doing okay.

Enter the higher degree. Suddenly you don’t have regular affirmation you’re on the right track. There’s no metric to measure you against your cohort because you don’t have a cohort. You might have just moved countries. You might not speak the language well. You’re good at sprinting, you’re good at semesters. You have no idea how to run a marathon, but you’re terrified of disappointing people around you, so you push yourself until you crash, recover, rinse, repeat. The end isn’t in sight. There might as well not be an end. This is terrifying.

Got a Real Job

You worked for a few years, maybe in research, maybe in industry. You’re self-directed, you’ve got some savings, and you’re ready to knuckle down and get this done. You’re better set up than people who powered through, you spent some time looking over projects, and you know you want to do this.

And now, money is tight, and things aren’t working, and you second-guess your decision. You haven’t written an essay in a while, much less a thesis, and a lot of other people are a lot younger than you. You might be juggling a family with your work and you can’t tell if you’re working too hard or too little. Your relatives, and some of your friends, are probably being a bit critical about your life choices. Some days you agree with them.

So where does this leave us?

It leaves the grad student in a pretty dire position, as they have to be in control of their research, but also the incredible mental toll that research is going to take. They not only need to work hard, but figure out – often for the first time – when ‘too hard’ is. And they need to learn how to ask for help, how to ask for time off, the difference between feeling a bit lazy and being depressed, all of which is a lot to ask of someone who has probably moved countries to do this.

I did the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) ANU offered this year called “How to Survive your PhD“. I’ve “managed” my depression for almost my entire life, so a lot of the suggestions, tips, and classes covered knowledge I had. But I knew a lot of the thousands-strong cohort were getting significant value from it. Thesis Whisperer (the blog of the organiser, Dr Inger Mewburn) also has many good posts on similar topics.

But is it good enough to expect graduate students to heal themselves? Is it sufficient to simply provide resources when 47% of PhD students and 37% of masters students suffer from depression? By putting the onus onto the individual student, we ignore the unifying feature – that higher degrees have this effect on people.

Unless we recognize that higher degrees are broken, there is very little we can do to help graduate students. It is an incredible waste of talent, time, energy, and money, to allow brilliant researchers to sink into the pits of despair, to have breakdowns and to not to anything preventative about it.

I don’t know what to do. But I know nothing will change if we keep ignoring the fact that these degrees risk destroying the brightest minds out there. Higher degrees are broken. Let’s start talking about how to fix them.


Junket 2015 : 200 youth leaders in Australia (including yours truly) get whisked away to the QT Canberra to solve problems. Ideally, they’ll solve the biggest problems facing Australia today. It’s invite-only; you could only “buy” your way in with ideas.

I cried when I got the email inviting me out of the blue (sent to the WISE inbox), nearly tried to convince the current WISE president that the email was actually meant for her, and looked at the email about fifty times over the next two days to ensure it was real. I carefully didn’t mention that I’m a New Zealander.

I’ve seen enough startups that claim they will solve the world (or even just fill a niche) be impractical and overly optimistic and frankly grating with their buzzwords. I wasn’t super hopeful that hashtag junket was going to be any different – even when I signed up to the conference-specific app it seemed like everyone was more enthusiastic/less moderately jaded than me. I felt it was going to be an impractical love-fest full of people saying words like “disruptive”, “agile” and “lean”, but food was provided, and free food will get me just about anywhere.

a bowl full of donuts with a greeting card welcoming Ms Frentz to the QT Canberra
An example of the free food with which I can be bribed places

I cannot explain to you exactly how different it was.

It was a love-fest, sure – everyone was always excited to see you and keen to talk to you about who you are and what you’re doing. But it was practical. It was grounded. On the second day we had five hour-long sessions, with 11 options for each one, and every single one asked for practical action points at the end.

A lot of the sessions had people working in the field of interest, from arts to the sciences to education to indigenous issues to medicine; the list goes on. This meant that people took action points back to their work and can start putting ideas in place as early as this week. But it gets better than that.

Every person there was doing good things. It was an experience reminiscent of the International Biology Olympiad to me – I’d found my people. These were hyper-intelligent polymath overachievers with a social conscience the size of a bus. The core of Junket was the fact that people who wouldn’t have otherwise met were brought together to discuss things that mattered to us. I met other people who care about women in STEM, who think the social norm that is university is kind of bullshit, a volunteer for the Missing Persons Advocacy Network, queer activists, mental health activists, engineers, scientists, dancers, artists, all full of energy and passion.

I not only pitched about women in STEM at the opening night, but ran a session and pitched about a women in STEM students network in an actual elevator. I’ve got about three pages of my own notes as well as the write-up Junkee is going to supply to start taking action on. Everyone had really good ideas and I’m looking forward to putting them in action. Watch this space, I guess, but not too closely – I still need to recover.

Dark room with project screen featuring the word "Junket"
Scene from the opening night at Junket

While I’d love to focus on the content of the sessions or discuss the disconnect between corporate sponsors and social justice that is apparently a Big Deal but 100% doesn’t seem incongruous to me, that would bust this blog post out to thousands of words. Junkee.com will be writing articles on it over the next few weeks.

What surprised me the most about Junket, what mattered the most about Junket, was that I felt comfortable to be fully honest about myself and my experiences. In my daily life there’s a lot of things I don’t share, neglect to mention, avoid discussing – even with you, public forum of the Internet. I try to fit in and in doing so become a version of myself. I did not do this at Junket; there was no need.

At Junket I was open and honest. I was challenged and inspired. I was reinvigorated and changed and it was fantastic.

picture of every attendee at junket arranged in rows with a spotlight on them holding yellow flags saying
Final family photo at  #junket 2015 – photo shamelessly stolen from Jess Scully (curator of Junket 2015 and probably now my personal hero)

Why I Study Genetics: Age 22

I’m not under any illusions that the reason I do what I do will change as I get older and the way I interact with the world alters.

Right now, the reason I study genetics is simplicity.

I am in the field of clinical genetics, which means I ams dedicated to knowing and learning about different diseases. The ones I’m looking at right now are awful, genetic disorders that strike suddenly and kill young, diseases that we can’t really predict (“clinical heterogeneity”) or easily find the cause for (“genetic heterogeneity”).

Reading all about liver failure and nerve death and sudden respiratory failure, it eases my heart a bit to be able to think that the key to all of that will be found in an impersonal sequence of letters. That underpinning all this sadness and all these unfortunate families is something simple.

People are messy. Cells are messy. A lot of the time, genetics is messy. But when you come down to it, it’s just sequences of letters, and things that go wrong are really just typos, and typos can be fixed.

I study genetics because it calms me to know the world is simple on some level. Simple things are easy to make better.