Science communication – Guest curator and podcast launch

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Hi everyone and welcome to my latest blog post.  In this post, I will be talking about my time as a guest curator on @biotweeps on Twitter. This account is hosted by Anthony (@thonoir) and every week he hands over the reins to a new biologist who is allowed to tweet their week to a whole new group of followers.  This gives them the opportunity to explain their work to a new audience and to get some feedback from fresh faces as well. This is a brilliant concept and one which I’m sure will prove very popular in the future; after all, collaboration is key to science communication.

So, my own experience – My week started off by logging in to the new account @biotweeps; I was excited to see new people favouriting and retweeting my tweets; giving me the chance to engage with lots of new biologists.  The whole point of Twitter is to interact with other people and this gave me a great opportunity to do so. As the week progressed, I was able to ask questions to this new audience and get great feedback within the same day. It gave me a chance to explain my own research interests to new people and explain my passions (explaining what a trematode was turned out to be a highlight as you often forget that other people not in your field will not be accustomed to these terminologies and names).

There was a great sense of pride in explaining your field to other people, as I’m sure you also get tired of explaining work to the same people and those in your own field who are not surprised by the work being done. When you explain your work to someone new who hasn’t heard of your field or the work being down, it is a great feeling as it affords you the opportunity to look at your project in a new light.

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 Science communication is paramount to the success of science; we have to bridge the gap between researchers and the general public. Our research can only go so far, but if we can communicate it to a much broader audience then it has an unlimited potential. One of the most important reasons for supporting science communication is that, without it, there is too high a chance that science miscommunication will occur in its place; people getting the wrong ideas, not being educated enough on a certain topic, leads to fear of techniques (GMOs) or methodologies, and so it is our responsibility to communicate with precision and above all else, clarity, so that the public audience can understand what we do and understand that without us, the world would be much worse off.

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I am therefore going to try and bridge this gap by starting my own podcast, centred around “Science communication”.  I will be trying my best to answer questions that need to be answered; inviting guests from the scientific community to explain their work and the impact it will have on the world (the big picture) and engaging with people outside the scientific community so that we can bring together a mix of varying opinions. My podcast will be a mix of solo episodes where I will be talking briefly about a certain subject and answering questions that I have asked people on Twitter prior to recording, guest episodes where I will invite one or two people to talk briefly about their work so that we can get an idea of the work being done in various fields and episodes where I will invite people who work in industry on to the show so they can give us their views on science at an industrial scale. Hopefully this will be the start of something new and exciting that we can all benefit from and take part in.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read my latest blog post; if you have any questions or comments please leave them down below or contact me on Twitter (@drmikeographer). I will be tweeting about all things podcast related so follow me there to stay up-to-date with everything.

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PhD and Life – Looking after yourself during your PhD

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Carrying out your PhD work everyday can be exhausting, to the point where you end up becoming inherently negative towards your work.  At this point, you need to step back and assess your approach to your work, but more importantly, your approach to your life.  Ask yourself;

  1. Am I devoting enough of my time to relaxing and recharging my “batteries”?
  2. Do I engage in a relaxing hobby to take my mind completely off my PhD project?
  3. How much time do I devote to seeing friends and family during the week?
  4. Have I taken any holidays this year (and if not, why not?)

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Remember to answer honestly, as the answers will determine whether or not you are devoting too much time to your PhD or more importantly, too little time to relaxing.

When you are carrying out your PhD, you will no doubt be thinking about it often, nearly every minute of your waking day.  This shows focus and determination, dedication to doing your utmost to complete your project with the best results you can achieve; however, it can also have an impact on your emotional and physical health.  Remember, you need to allow your body to recover from early starts and late evenings. Waking up early, carrying out physical experiments and straining your eyes while working at a laptop/computer can have a serious impact on your body.  Usually, your body will give you signs that you need to relax and take yourself away from these screens and their ‘evil’ blue light and get a good nights sleep through the onset of headaches or a general lethargic feeling throughout your body. At this point, you will want to ensure you really start to look after yourself; eat well, drink water often and above all, get some good rest at night (early nights).

As well as looking after your body, your mind also needs to be cared for in the same manner. When you are working on an intense, unique project, your brain will be working overtime to overcome problems and obstacles you have to deal with daily. In the evenings, try and take your mind away from these thoughts so that you can give your hard-working grey matter a rest.  Indulge in something that completely relaxes you – perhaps a gentle walk in nature that will give you the peace of mind you are seeking, or simply engage in a hobby you are passionate about; this can range from watching your favourite TV series on Netflix to going for a climb at an indoor climbing wall (a personal favourite). You will feel the benefit when you allow yourself to really relax after a hard days work.

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Another way to relax yourself after work is to spend time with friends or family members. This gives us the opportunity to be around those we are most comfortable with and gives us a great sense of peace. Making the effort to be with others is important but I must also stress that sometimes we just need to be alone in order to fully replenish our energy.

One of the most important aspects of any work/job is holiday time; this is set in place to allow us time away from work and to relax with others.  This is critical in giving us the time needed to enjoy other aspects of our life and ensure we do not burnout. If you have not taken holidays this year, I urge you to take the time now and plan some holidays home to see your family or to plan a trip away with friends somewhere that you really want to visit!

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Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post and as always if you would like to comment on the above post or ask me a question, you can contact me down below or on Twitter (@drmikeographer).

Conferences and Networking – How to Science (outside the Lab)

Conferences are part and parcel of working in academia or studying for a PhD.  They come around maybe once or twice a year (or more depending on your field) and give you the opportunity to present your data to other scientists in the field so that you can get prompt feedback on the same day (and in person).

Once you have decided on a national/international conference that suits your work, you must apply to either present you work in the form of a poster or an oral presentation. Both have their pros and cons:

  1. A poster presentation allows you to showcase your work in an easy to read, quick format.  You will bring your poster to an allocated area where you will have it put up alongside many other posters; a specific time on a certain day (known as the ‘poster session’) which usually lasts an hour or so will give you the chance to answer any questions people have about your work in a relaxed, social environment.  While this may sound like the better format to present your data (less pressure talking one to one), you must keep in mind that there are going to be many posters at the session, and that it’s hard to get around all of them and devote time to each one within the timescale. Therefore, the more posters in a poster session, the less people there will be available to talk to you about your research.
  2. An oral presentation gives you the opportunity to stand up in front of a large audience and present your data in a strong and story-driven manner.  Giving a presentation using slides (usually MS Powerpoint) is a great skill to hone and one which will come in handy as you move further into your career.  Gaining experience presenting your work to large audiences at conferences is a core skill and one which should be practiced often. A large pro to an oral presentation is that you have the attention of the entire audience (provided you don’t lose their attention) and therefore you will have the chance to explain to them what you have been researching and the impact it can have on the field.  You will also get the chance to answer any questions that people may have about your work; this can benefit the person asking the question (perhaps they’re interested in a technique you have used) and you (they may point out potential flaws or future directions you have overlooked).

Networking – In order to collaborate and increase your contacts, you must interact with others.  There are many ways to do this, though perhaps the most popular method has been to attend conferences in your field.  By attending these events, you immediately open yourself up to unique opportunities you may not have had by only interacting with people in your own laboratory or those that visit your place of research. When you arrive at a conference, you will most likely be attending either on your own or with some people from your own research institution.  If you attend a conference on your own, you may think you are at a disadvantage, and that it will be much harder to get involved with group conversations; however, there are pros and cons for both.

Arriving in a group will allow you to meet people that are already known to your friends and colleagues easily as they can simply introduce you, however there is a downside to this; if you’re only meeting those that are already familiar with your labs work, there is nothing pushing you to go out and interact with new people, potential collaborators even. Therefore, I advise that you build up the courage to approach other people at conferences so that you can make your own connections. A great place to network is at the poster session; you can walk around at your own pace and talk to those whose work interests you, or you can talk to those whose work you are unfamiliar with; this will give you the chance to ask a lot of genuine questions and will give the other person a chance to explain their work. By doing so, you can open up to new areas and new ideas (you never know where a unique collaboration can come from).

I hope this post has given you some ideas about attending conferences and creating new contacts through networking.

Thank you for taking the time to read this; as always, please leave any questions or comments down below or reach me on Twitter (@drmikeographer)

Surviving your Viva – Getting it (Ph)Done

It has been 3+ years since you began your journey as a graduate; fresh-faced and ready for action.  From your first day to your first data set, you’ve been spurred on by the potentially life-changing results that come through hard work and persistence; it has been a rollercoaster of good days and bad days, encouraging data sets and disheartening data sets, but despite all of the ups and downs, you have come through the tunnel and are fast approaching the end of your PhD.

As you approach the final hurdles, you may start to panic (I still need more data!) but do not despair, you WILL make it through.  Keep your head down and make that final push towards the end, I promise you, it is worth it.

You will have been glued to your PC/laptop for the past number of months trying to amalgamate your mountains of data and methodologies into several coherent chapters to produce a well-written, professional-looking thesis.  This is your prized possession, it has taken 99.99% of your life energy to create, but now, as you look at it in all its entirety, you can’t help but feel intensely proud of yourself for making it through.

Once you have handed in your thesis, you will organise to have an expert in your field travel to your university to examine you in a 2-3 hr Viva.  This is the final hurdle of your journey which can evoke a whole host of mixed emotions which change in their intensity as the date gets closer and closer.

You will feel a great relief once you have handed in your thesis, while also wondering what to do with all of this free time that you suddenly have.

I will outline some tips that I hope will help you in the time you have before the big day.  I will also try and advise you on what to do/not do during the viva and also, the ever important post-viva celebrations.

Before the viva 

  1. Take a break once you have handed in your thesis.  Your body and mind will need sufficient recovery and relaxation after an intense 3+ years of hard work (at least a fortnight).  I suggest going on holiday somewhere that will completely relax your mind and body with friends/family.
  2. Before entering into your viva, where you will face an expert in your field, I suggest downloading and reading through the papers your external examiner has published. It does not have to be every single paper they have ever published but it should definitely include those that are most relevant to the work you have carried out in your thesis. By reading these papers closely, you should be able to have a fair idea about what kind of angle they will approach when asking questions about your thesis (i.e. Will their questions be more molecular-based or do they tend to focus on the bigger picture of the research?)
  3. Read around your subject – Knowledge is power; remember, the viva is a conversation between you and the external examiner.  They want to know what you have learned during your time carrying out your work.  This includes having a broad knowledge of your area and areas that are closely-related.  It pays off to know about studies in different organisms whereby perhaps they have used similar techniques as you or even different techniques in the same organism you have been studying.
  4. Make a list of mock viva questions – Writing out every conceivable question you think you may be asked will pay dividends in the long run.  If you can think of a question to ask yourself about your work, write it down, along with the most detailed answer you can think of.  By doing so, you will have made yourself think critically about your work, and by getting it down on paper you can see what you know/what you don’t know. When you have done this, you do not have to learn each answer off by heart; however I do advise learning off key questions like “What impact/broad implications will your research have on the current state of the field?” and “Briefly describe your thesis, explaining where you have made a contribution of knowledge to the field”.
  5. Have a mock viva  – Ask your supervisor to have a mock viva interview with you so that they can ask you questions about your thesis.  This will identify areas of your thesis that you are unsure about/not 100% confident answering and will therefore make you much more confident about the thesis overall when the real viva day comes around. You can also ask PhD students or Post-docs in your building to ask you questions regarding your research so that they can ask you questions you may not have thought about.  By engaging with people outside your area, they can identify fundamental points of your research that  you may have overlooked because you might have thought they were obvious.  Before your viva date, you will want to know your thesis inside and out, be able to answer any question regarding any method, result or idea that you have discussed or presented in your thesis. Ensure that you know your ‘Introduction’ chapter in great detail as this is what the examiner will most likely spend the vast majority of the viva talking about.

During your viva

  1. When you meet your external examiner for the first time, be polite and engage with them.  Be confident, you are there to defend your work that you have been doing for over 3 years; no one knows it better than you! Do not be intimidated by your examiner, they are nervous too; think of it as the greatest opportunity to discuss your work with a leading expert in your field, this is a rare occurrence and will not  come around again.
  2. Take your time when answering questions about your work; pause for a moment and really think about what is being asked.  When answering a question, make eye contact and maintain an enthusiastic expression to show you are engaging them with a positive attitude about your work. Make sure you take regular sips of water throughout your viva; you will be speaking for long periods (up to 90 minutes at a time) so you want to make sure you are well hydrated.
  3. Do not be afraid to ask an examiner to repeat or rephrase a question so that you understand what they are asking. There is no point trying to answer what you think they asked when you could simply ask them to repeat their question for your own clarity.
  4. When you engage with your examiner and begin to have conversations over certain topics, do not be afraid to ask their opinion! It is enlightening to hear experts in your field discuss their opinions on certain aspects of your work while you give your own.  As your viva goes on, you will relax into it and be able to perform much better.  Do not be disheartened at the start of your viva, as it can take 5-10 minutes to really settle into the flow of it.

After your viva

  1. Once your viva is over, you will wait outside while the examiners come to a decision about the outcome.  This is probably the most nerve-wracking time, so I suggest getting a glass of water and a biscuit to replenish your energy levels which will probably be taking a dip at this point.  If a friend is nearby or outside, engage in conversation, this will help to relax you and make the time move faster (or so you think).
  2. Once you have been given the outcome of your viva, thank the external for taking the time out of their schedule to be there today.  It will be a huge relief when it is over, go see your friends and fellow PhD students to tell them the good news.  The time in between post-viva and graduation is a strange ‘limbo’ and it probably won’t hit you that you are now a Doctor of Philosophy.  That moment will come when you walk across the stage during your graduation.

Those are my tips for the entire viva process, I hope that at least some of them will be helpful to students getting ready for their own viva.

As always, leave comments or questions either down below or find me on Twitter (@drmikeographer).

Thank you for taking the time to read this – Dr. Mike 🙂

Starting your PhD – Start as you mean to go on…

Graduation seems like only yesterday, maybe it only was yesterday! Nevertheless, the applause has now diminished to a somber “well done” from family members and peers in  your class; all those nerves and anxious thoughts about going up on stage in your prestigious gown have now somehow simmered down and your brain is beginning to reclaim its normal thought process – Congratulations, you are now ready to move on to the next chapter on your life! #phdlife.

By this point, you will have a mix of feelings; you will either be in the stage where you are still over the moon about the prospect of starting a wonderful, exciting new project you’re extremely passionate about, or you will be rather nervous at the thought of moving on to something even more difficult than the degree you just spent 3 years getting through (or both!).

The day finally comes, after a few months of rest in between (holiday somewhere exotic) when you enter your new laboratory, greeted by fresh faces offering you their support and a warm welcome.  This is the start of your new journey, geared towards preparing you for a life of intense yet rewarding research.  These are your colleagues, friends and family that will be there through the successful experiments and the not-so-successful experiments.

For the next 3+ years of your life you will take charge of your own project and be responsible for the path it takes.  By pushing yourself and strategically planning every step of the way you can ensure that you succeed despite adversity.  Do not get downhearted on days where experiments don’t work as you expected; take a break when you have a string of these bad experiments to help refresh your mind.  Sometimes taking a step back can give you a fresh perspective and allow you to have a new insight into your experimental problems.

When you first achieve good results, you will want to present them at conferences so that you can engage with the scientific community and get the invaluable feedback required to improve yourself.  While at conferences, try and network/talk to people from other laboratories and other areas of study as this will broaden your mind and encourage you to have different outlook on your own work.  Ask other people what they think of your research and if they have any unique insights which you may have missed.  Reciprocate and do the same for them; in this way, both of you will get something beneficial from the conversation.

(Remember –  there are always multiple ways to solve the same problem.)

Throughout your time doing your PhD, you will have ups and downs (this is natural); keep striving to do the absolute best you can and push yourself.  No one said a PhD was easy, but this does not mean it cannot be enjoyable (acquiring your own set of paradigm-shifting results can be strangely invigorating!).

A word of caution; before even thinking about applying for a PhD, I would ask that you be honest with yourself about whether or not you are truly passionate about the project area. If you are not, that’s OK (there are plenty of subject areas out there!) but it will only make it harder to carry out a PhD on the topic;  and this will become even more apparent during stressful times. So I encourage you to stop and think; a PhD is not to be entered into lightly, a great deal of time should be taken to consider whether or not it is the right path for you.

Finally, for all the PhD students out there currently undertaking a PhD, I wish you the very best in completing your thesis and experiments in the coming months and years.

Thank you all for taking the time to read this blog; I hope it has been helpful. Please leave any comments below or contact me on Twitter (@drmikeographer).

Science on Twitter – A most positive community

Hello!

I would like to offer a warm welcome to everyone that has come to read my first blog post.  Most of you will know me from Twitter (@drmikeographer) where I am an enthusiastic participant in most science-related topics. Before I get into the purpose of this blog, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many people on Twitter that are currently carrying out their PhD or a Postdoc position; you have all been positively brilliant in replying to questions, offering sage advice, or simply discussing science-related topics with the community.

In the past 6 months, I have found a real, engaging community of scientists and academics that not only offer their support to one another, but make it fun for students and non-students to engage with others.  By following hashtags like #phdchat (currently my most searched hashtag) and #phdlife, I have found that I can offer useful advice through my own experience to PhD students that are perhaps stuck in a rut or simply need a kind word to encourage them in a negative phase of their project (Remember! – you were once in the same situation or currently are, so you know the benefits of having someone there to offer even a kind word during an anxious phase). I have found it most uplifting, being able to discuss certain topics of science with PhD students and other members of academia.  I believe we have a responsibility to ensure that we are giving others sound advice regarding the various topics that come up on a daily basis and not to just sit back and let someone struggle on their own.

Together we are stronger; something I believe is all the more evident on Twitter. So the next time you see someone asking a particular question on Twitter, try and help them – this may be in the form of a direct reply using your own experience; but even if you think you cannot directly help them, try retweeting (RT) their question or query and attach the appropriate hashtags so that someone else in the community can reach out to that person and help them. It is therefore my pleasure to tell you that this blog will be focused around helping each other, plain and simple.  I will be asking for topics for discussion on Twitter, and depending on the response, will choose the topic appropriately.  It is imperative that we come together as a community and embrace each other’s skills and expertise.  We must use our positions in this great scientific community to share ideas, help one another and explain what we do to the public audience so that we can become more effective in our research. Thank you for reading this first blog and engaging with myself on Twitter – good luck with your own research but remember, you are not alone. Stay positive!  See you on Twitter! (@drmikeographer)