Higher Degree by Research Student Spotlight: Kevin Huang

29 Aug 2022

Recently, we caught up with Higher Degree by Research student Kevin Huang who is currently completing a PhD in physical activity and behavioural change interventions. Having moved to Australia as an international student, Kevin finished his undergraduate studies majoring in psychology, and has been actively involved with research on university students’ mental health with a specific focus on the psychological benefits of physical activity.

What inspired you to undertake a PhD?

My honours year supervisor was honestly my main inspiration. She was always so enthusiastic during our supervision sessions and made research enjoyable and meaningful. Before doing my Honours, I had an ignorant perception of academia which was stereotypically influenced by movies. I always pictured scientists in lab coats measuring stuff in a laboratory, which looked way beyond what I was capable of. I didn’t feel competent and academically inclined at all and thus never considered academia as a career option. This all changed when I saw the scope of the UQ Sharper Minds project, and how it impacted the mental health and wellbeing of first-year university students. I thought back to how much I struggled when I was in my first year, and how having this program would have been a tremendously helpful resource. I was then inspired to provide first-year students what was lacking from my own first-year undergraduate experience by joining the research team behind this project.

What are your key research interests?

My area of research focuses on providing university students with resources to cope with the stressors of university life, using physical activity to improve students’ mental health. This includes designing a physical activity intervention grounded in evidence-based behavioural change techniques. I also co-deliver this intervention in hopes of helping students develop or maintain physically active lifestyles, which not only benefits them physically, but emotionally and mentally as well.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

Having students engage in the interventions they learn through Sharper Minds and seeing them change for the better. I think this is the main motivating factor which keeps me going! It makes me happy when the students in our groups start to open up to each other and talk about how their level of physical activity has been affected by difficulties they face in university life. It’s heart-warming that we have created a safe space for students to engage with one another about the barriers and enablers of physical activity. Over the course of the program many of them begin updating each other on their progress. At one point we even had students participating in exercise while on the zoom call with us!

What advice would you give to someone thinking about being a PhD student?

I would probably recommend them to speak to other researchers! Have conversations about what motivates and encourages them in academia. Despite my limited experience, academia seems like a long journey and one with many setbacks and obstacles. But if you feel like you lack the competence, I think that competence can always be taught over time. However, I do believe that intrinsic motivation or conviction in pursuing academia is necessary and can’t be forced.

If you weren’t a researcher, what do you think you would be?

I would have pursued either clinical psychology or teaching. My heart goes out to working with young people and walking with them as they learn who they are as people. Most of my other less serious career options besides psychology and teaching are all connected by this motivation. Who knows, maybe I will end up as a clinical psychologist and teaching! It is quite rare for anyone to get through life without experiencing some hurdles and challenges. As much as anyone needs a doctor when they are physically unwell, we all need someone to chat with and journey with us through our emotional and mental struggles. Not that I can eradicate all pain, but more so that I could guide the few I interact with toward a more hopeful outlook.

What are your interests outside of work?

No points for guessing this one…being physically active! I spend quite a bit of my week cycling or just staring at my bike (obviously the latter doesn’t count as being physically active!). I also enjoy working out with my friends and bushwalking. If I am not outdoors, I am either making coffee, cooking, or reading.