Meet Hannah Savage, an Australian PhD Student researching threat and safety in the human brain!

How did you get to where you are now?

I was always the kid who wanted to poke things and take them apart to know how they worked or what would happen. This innate curiosity and inquisitiveness lead me to become passionate about science in high school, where I studied Chemistry and Physics in year 11 and 12. I wanted to study Biology too but decided to leave room for me to have some more arts-based subjects in my timetable too!

I actually wanted to study medicine at university, but since I didn’t get a high enough score on the undergraduate admissions test; my back-up plan of biomedical research kicked in. It’s funny how things turn out, because when I reflect on this now, it’s clear that I am actually pretty good at the critical thinking and hands on side of biomedicine. Appreciating that I had these skills, and understanding how I could harness these skills into a career was a life changing moment.  From this I pursued a number of ‘real’ lab-based courses, where I did a small research project in an established research laboratory – this gave me a glimpse of what my future could look like and I loved it! The fourth year of my university degree was an honours year, which was basically like having a full-time job in research; working 5 days a week in a laboratory on your own project. At the time, I was fascinated by the immune system and neuroscience, with my project based in the field of multiple sclerosis. I had an amazing (female) supervisor who let me lead the project. I proposed a new research plan, that incorporated new techniques and was incredibly lucky that she fully supported my ideas. At the end of the honours year and the conclusion of my degree, I knew that I was passionate about pursuing a career in research.

I didn’t want to rush into a PhD without knowing what topic to study, so I applied for research assistant jobs… with no success. They say it’s all about networking and who you know; I never believed this until someone who I had worked with during honours, approached me to work on a new epilepsy-related project; I finally had a part time job! It was a fascinating project that allowed me to work in both a hospital and research environment. I learnt heaps of new skills both on the administration and clinical side of research. During this time, I got in contact with researchers whose work I found interesting, to look into PhD opportunities.

Moving out of home was also something that I wanted to do around this time, and so I moved to Melbourne to do begin a PhD! This was a leap out of my comfort zone, but I was lucky that the student group within my new research centre were extremely welcoming, so much so that the new city quickly felt like home. The research I’m doing for my PhD focuses on how our brain is able to process threat and safety signals, particularly when they switch around. I’ve done a study to see how this works for most of us, and the next study is going to see whether this process is disrupted in people with an anxiety disorder. We are investigating this because there is reason to believe that anxiety makes us less able to respond appropriately to the switching of threat and safety – so stay tuned to see what I find!

Practicing presenting my research; the 3MT competition – Taken by a supportive colleague

If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?

Be open to having your ideas challenged – whether that’s your idea about what you want to do as a career and how you’re going to get there, your ideas of what a scientist or researcher can be, and what that career involves, be open to being wrong and challenging your comfort zone.

Get involved. Doing the lab-based courses was one of the most influential parts of my studies so far, so dive head first and volunteer for an internship, reach out for a research project. Similarly, getting involved in the scientific community more broadly has made my experience much more enjoyable – join the clubs and societies, go to the study groups and share your enthusiasm and knowledge with others (who could even become your future colleagues!).

Ask questions. It’s the name of the game in research – we’re all searching for answers. Ask people in the field what their experience has been, what their career path looked like (trust me there are some winding routes out there). No question is a silly question you’re just doing research!

You are going to fail. I don’t know a single person in research (even the famous ones!) who hasn’t failed at least one thing they’ve attempted. Whether it’s scholarship or grant applications, running an experiment, or misinterpreting your findings – failure happens to everyone. The most important thing is that you can get back up, brush yourself off and keep going. Don’t beat yourself up about it, think critically about where you went wrong (if you did) and move on to finding a solution or new plan of action. To survive in research, you have to be resilient.

If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?

If I wasn’t studying anxiety, then I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut! I loved physics in high school and the idea of space is fascinating!

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

I love doing more arts/creative things in my ‘spare time’. Sewing is a skill that I’ve been working on for a while. I like the challenge of trying to sew a new pattern – I even make clothes I can wear to work! I did loads of musical things growing up, I played instruments and sung in choirs, and while I don’t do that now I still find music so important – I love going to see artists or bands live and watching musicals and orchestras play.

Do you come from an academic family and how do they regard your career choice?

Both of my parents were teachers when I was growing up, so I was always surrounded ‘teaching’ and they were encouraging of my many questions as a child! My mum started her PhD soon before I did, and completed her PhD in education/social science when I was in my second year of my PhD. She beat me in becoming Dr Savage – but I’m so proud of her! They have always supported me to do the things I enjoy. I think they can tell how much I love what I do, and how happy I am – I practice most of my presentations with them over skype!

Dr Savage – Taken by me on her graduation day.

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

All the time! Imposter syndrome is very real. Sometimes you read a paper and it blows your mind, and you wonder if you will ever be able to write so eloquently, design such a great experiment or think of such great theories. There’s no point stressing or wondering now, only time will tell. To help move past these feelings, I’ve found it’s really important to acknowledge and celebrate the small things – every single poster presentation, when someone comes to you for advice, writing a paragraph you think sounds great – that show that you do know what you’re doing and are on the way to be even better!

Contact information (if you want people to be able to email you, etc.)

You can find me on twitter (@MsHannahSavage; or contact me via my STEM Women profile (

Please get in touch – ask those questions!