Kinloch Science Festival, Oxbridge Summer Schools, Swiss Workshop, and ‘Behaviour 2017’

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Hey all 🙂

I’ve had an all-round positive four months involving some outreach, intensive teaching, a workshop, and presenting at my first conference!

Kinloch Science Festival

You may recall from a previous post that I had visited a wonderful primary school in Kinloch Rannoch for a smidgen of outreach. Well we were invited back for a mini-science festival and they brought another 3 local primary schools with them! It was absolutely fabulous. The teachers were so enthusiastic and well prepared (we had banners for our stations!) and the kids were a delight (if at times tiring!). We had activities including extracting DNA from strawberries, the bones of the body, animal sounds and others. Overall, it was a delight to bring some science-related activities to such a friendly and remote community and I learned very quickly how exhausting it can be looking after 8 primary school kids for 12 minutes (never mind the full classes all day!). I eagerly look forward to returning and more outreach in general!

Oxbridge Summer School

Oxbridge Academic Programs is a series of live-in, international educational programs aiming to provide high school kids with some university and life-enriching experiences. I was recruited to be this year’s molecular biology tutor at the St Andrews branch and took to this eagerly (I in fact couldn’t sleep until i’d outlined my curriculum on the day I was interviewed). The program gave some great flexibility in what I thought was the best content and how to present it and I had great support in terms of budget and human resources. I ended up planning a nice few weeks and then proceeding to throw 2/3s of the plan out of the window as I worked with my class to build something more tailored to what they wanted. Overall, we went through fundamental molecular biology, biotech, molecular models, evolution, mermaids, bioethics and many more. We had trips to museums and the aquarium. Students gave presentations on things they found interesting and everybody gave feedback and we had lab visits to both active research labs as well as teaching ones to give the students something hands-on to do. The total experience was fantastic and it was an utter privilege to be able to work with such freedom and with some very enthusiastic young scientists.

Swiss Workshop

I also attended a wonderful workshop in Arolla, Switzerland. It formed part of a doctoral training programme’s yearly training series which was opened up to other researchers around the world. This year’s theme was combining theory with experiment to develop new ideas about the future of the research field. I spent three nights in the alps including two whole days of talks and student-focused, hands-on activities. I met a great bunch of people and played some pingpong! The aims of the workshop were well satisfied as I was introduced to some theoretical approaches and results which I wasn’t even aware of. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn of different perspectives and ways of thinking. COmbining approaches, be it theory with experiment or simply different research tools and tpics in general, can be very valuable to the development of knowledge. My lab, for example, contains neuroscience/psychology majors, zoologists, chemists, molecular biologists, and behavioural ecologists and we all come together to understand similar questions. We each bring a different perspective to group meetings which is challenging but also very useful. Overall, a wonderful opportunity for which I am incredibly thankful to be able to indulge in.

Behaviour 2017

I got to present my results for the first time in four years! Woo! *mini mexican-wave in celebration of me* (it’s a Chandler Bing reference). I went to the lovely Estoril in Portugal for Behaviour ’17, an international get-together of people interested in animal behaviour from a myriad of viewpoints (including nearly all of those from the workshop!). At first, the conference was quite overwhelming due to the vast quantity of people (~1000) but after getting some sleep at hitting the ground running on the following days I got into my groove. Overall, I read ~400 posters, attended 57 talks, and met some really interesting and enthusiastic people (some of whom I was previously aware of and others which I wasn’t). When it came to my research, I gathered more interest than I expected. I think I had 8-10 detailed conversations about the findings which gave me a decent boost in my morale. Overall, a great experience and I’m eager to get out there again and give a talk next time!

Other than the above, I’ve been getting really into writing reviews and have put out a few more on the Wonky Spanner (Kong, Defenders, Wonder Woman, EdiCon, Power Rangers, Iron Fist, and Logan were mine!). My next two (yes two, I WON’T let it go four this time) months will be spent continuing to analyse my data, planning the next experiment, undergrad lab teaching, and finishing my costume for Glasgow ComicCon!

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

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Conference Application, Outreach, and Edinburgh Comic Con!

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Hi all 🙂

What a refreshing two months i’ve had; for once I’m starting to feel productive in what I do. I’m going to tell you about the conference application I’ve put together, the outreach I did in a school, and my first experience of being press at a convention!

Conference Application

I have spent 3.5 years doing this PhD with at times very little (if any) innate reward. I had a short-lived pilot experiment with no resounding findings, a bit of a break from it all, and then a high workload 2 year experiment which ended in December. Now that I’m into the data analysis phase of the experiment, I’m finally at the point where I’ll potentially find some cool and original things and start telling the story of my own tiny part of nature. I’ve had troubles with the data (odd distributions, incomplete data sets etc) but eventually, with the invaluable guidance of my supervisor, I have a good approach to the data. Powering through this last week, as the deadline fast approached, I found a few hits which fit together nicely and I put together a conference application. The conference is Behaviour 2017, an annual gathering of animal behaviour researchers from across the world. This provides the first opportunity for me to not only attend an international conference but also to do so presenting my own data. It’s all very exciting. I am also in the process of applying for funding to cover the various expenses for the trip but all in all it’s going well.

Outreach

Something I really enjoy is talking to people about nature and science but whilst I’m in experiment and data analysis mode very little of that extends beyond my immediate research project. As such, I have done very little outreach lately so when the opportunity came up I said yes without a moments hesitation. I accompanied Mhairi Stewart, the head of public engagement, and a small team to Kinloch Rannock primary school where were showed 20 children the wonders of extracting DNA from strawberries, the components of colour, and moods. All activities were hands on and very well received by students and teachers alike. The school themselves were incredibly warm and welcoming, made everything from the start very easy, and even put on a wonderful lunch for us all. Overall, a long and tiring but very rewarding day.

EdiCon 2017

A few weeks ago, I had my first experience of not only a convention but also being press at the aforementioned. A good friend of my runs the website Wonky Spanner including co-hosting one of its popular podcasts Nerd Versus World. WS serves as a platform for media reviews and content of all kind. Whether it’s games, TV, films, of conventions they have it and through their reputation have been able to visit events as press as well as interview multiple people on panels etc. I was gifted two press passes for Edinburgh Comic Con which was a wonderful experience. The passes got us in for free and gave us priority seating during panels. I had a great time overall and definitely spent too much money. My review will be up soon on WS with accompanying pics. I am now eagerly looking forward to my next convention (whether attending as press or not!).

So that’s it for now. My next two months will be spent chasing up funding sources for this conference, more data analysis and writing, and starting to consider how the next experiment can improve and expand upon the last one.

Thanks for reading

BCT 🙂

My (self-funded) PhD, Three and a Half Years In…

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Hi all 🙂

I have once again not posted for four months. This has been partly because very little has happened, partly because  I had about 6-8 weeks off of the PhD journey, and partly because I’ve been struggling a tad and not felt like I’ve had a mental energy to put this together. What I thought I’d talk about is a small wrap up of the progress, both academically and personally, of the last 3.5 years. So here goes it…

Year One: excitement and new beginnings

Year one was refreshing. New environment, new people, new start on a new journey. Moving in was fun and having already known a few people in the area (both new and old) it really helped to start getting involved. I went to all of the welcome events which were great and met colleagues both within and between departments. Overall, the autumn was a great and easy-going time. I also got down to a bit of work and started planning an experiment which we started in January. Nothing much came from this experiment other than “don’t use this model for these tests” but that in itself was fun and useful information. I also got a job soon before christmas which was great because although my partner’s income plus my savings was enough for a while it just took a load off knowing that I can start bringing it some significant income.

Come spring I gained my first university teaching experience by being plunged into the deep end of stats. That was certainly an experience given my near 0 prior knowledge of the subject. But my enjoyment of teaching far outweighed my worry about the content. I also gave my first departmental talk which was fun and I learned that practicing talks really helps you keep to time! Hehe. Post-experiment things became a bit chilled. I started learning a few lab techniques but bar that spent most of the time seeing friends and working. I was also getting on top of my health and was both the most active and lightest i’ve been in years. Approaching autumn again I managed to mess up royally and leave some rather sensitive samples out of the freezer (thus rendering them unuseable, sadly) but there are lessons to learn in everything.

Overall, year one was a blast and whilst it did end on a bit of a low it was a great experience and introduction to PhD life.

Year Two: challenges to learning and self image

Year two started as year one ended. Riding a wave of health and enthusiasm (with a bit of a  lesson of ‘pay more attention next time’) we moved into autumn. I decided to take up a load of teaching this semester to help build savings whilst gaining some fun experience. I was doing two biology modules and one psychology so suffice to say I was busy. During this time I was also working on plans for a bigger experiment which was progressing nicely without needing to commit set periods of time to it. I also got a promotion to the management team at my job so things were looking well.

Come winter things seemed less shiny. I got to the festive period to find that without realising it I had regained a significant amount of weight (my favourite jacket no long fit properly). This was quite demoralising and a big kick as I didn’t know how I could have done that without noticing. I’d had a few signs before of some challenges mentally and the rapid weight gain tipped me over (the scales, badum…) and I decided that come the new year it was time to start talking about it. I started counselling for various ‘me’ problems. This is not part of the PhD journey but it very clearly can affect it which is why I decided to include it in my blog. Whilst this was happening, I was still managerial at work, setting up an experiment, and teaching on two modules in the spring semester. It was quite a workload but I made it balance as a lot of the early stage of the experiment wasn’t very intensive.

The biggest hit of year two was my first year viva. I didn’t outright pass, due to being very under-prepared, which in itself felt like a massive fail. It hugely brought down my confidence and made me start questioning myself, my abilities, and my interests. I recovered from this with sufficient preparation and I am still here so it was perhaps a good thing. Second year continued and become less intense again after teaching ended and the experiment was set up. I had a nice holiday and then some down time.

Overall, year two was challenging but do-able and fun. I learned a lot about myself and my own limits and interests, balancing numerous responsibilities, and about really designing experiments.

Year Three: fatigue and questioning

Year three kicked off the most difficult period in my PhD so far and it continues until now (albeit for different reasons across those 18 months). I entered a period of testing in my experiment which involved 4-6 hour days 6-7 days a week for weeks at a time. The overall process took 14 months including a few breaks and by the end of it I just felt completely fed up and defeated. My drive went right down and was difficult to recover as there was little to no short-term reward. During this prolonged period I got small jobs done to do with admin, minor bits of analysis to present, and a vast quantity of the DC extended television universe. Largely, however, it was just quite draining.

Year three also brought a general sense of failing as well as questioning myself and my own intentions. It felt as if everything I tried fell short for reason or another. I don’t mean that in the scientific sense of finding the multiple ways in which things don’t work but more like I would make many small mistakes in most aspects of my life. I was messing up at work and making small errors or forgetting things during my PhD, for example. I also started, for the first time, to seriously consider if this path was right for me. I’ve always gone into my PhD as a testing phase to decide if research was for me; no matter how difficult I was finding things I have repeatedly told myself to not make a judgement until I’ve gone through the whole process, from design through experiment to storytelling. However, during year three I started to question if the “that’s interesting” step would even be worth it.

The other development of third year was realising that self-funding by evening jobs makes it very difficult to feel part of the community you are in. This is for several reasons. Firstly, a lot of social events are simply booked for when I’m working. With enough notice I can swap my shifts but usually there isn’t and thus can’t go. Secondly, with less free time comes less of a drive to use the free time for uni-related events. So even when I’m free and there are regular events it tends to be on one of only a couple of nights off when I want to do anything but that. Lastly, researching by day and working by evening truly burns the candle all over. Just a general sense of fatigue makes getting the gusto to go to events during the day a little more difficult. I don’t want that sentiment to belittle those who aren’t self funded but just to say that in my situation it has felt as if I’m so tired all of the time that I don’t have the energy mentally to commit to anything extra.

Overall, third year was tough. It was a trying year and full of personal lessons and challenges. I learned a lot more about my own limits and I’m still learning to not push them.

Year Four: rebuilding and bettering (hopefully…)

Year four started much as three ended: sluggishly. it all wound down though and I picked up some teaching which was nice. I had a really great lab bench of students which was a delight each week. After wrapping up the experiment mid-December, I took until February off of research which was nice. Since coming back to it all, I’ve started teaching again and have a game-plan for analysing some data. I’m not powering through that as quickly as I’d hoped but I am progressing which is great. I’ve also made my first application for funding to attend a conference this summer which’l be my first opportunity to present my own findings. I’m both excited and anxious which I guess is a good thing? It’ll be nice to, after four years, finally get the chance to tell my own story as well as travel and meet some great people.

I’m also planning on making better habits across the whole of my life in general. I’ve come to the gradual realisation that I don’t have a lot of the most efficient practices in my life which has probably made a lot of my struggles more difficult. I’m going to use the flexibility of this year to work on that and generally become a more adjusted and prepared person. PhD really has been challenging to all aspects of my self; intellectually, psychologically, and physically for sure but also in others I would assume. I’m in the process of relearning who I am, including my own capabilities and desires, and I’m going to make some headway on that in year four.

Overall, it’s been difficult and tiring but 3.5 years later I am still here and intend to continue this journey. My next two months will be spent continuing to acquire and then analyse data (I will hopefully know by then if I am presenting at the conference), starting to write a paper, and continuing my own personal development. Oh! And I’m going to be reviewing a convention as press which’ll be awesome!

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Explorathon, Money and Personal Challenges, and Seriously Questioning What I’m Doing

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Hey all 🙂

The last four months have been really challenging for me personally and as such a skipped one of my regular blog posts. I’ve taken part in a public engagement event, undergone some challenges, and for the first time I’ve started considering whether what I’m doing is the best thing for me.

Explorathon

Once a year, European research of all kinds floods the public stage to provide 24h of entertainment (hopefully with a dusted with a smidgen of engagement too!). This year St Andrews hosted its wing of the event for the first time and my lab had the opportunity to put something together. We decided to do a small stand on bird song! Below is a list of the things which were put on.

explorathon

Bird song is something which has fascinated people from all areas of life for a long time. Scientists, artists, poets, amongst others hear the chattering of the dawn chorus and find something wonderful and interesting in it. Top left panel: Young birds learn to sing by first listening to the song of a tutor (usually dad). After this they practice singing until what they hear is a good a match to what they learned as possible. In some birds these stages overlap whilst in others they are separate, some learn but a simple song before adulthood and some continually add to their song list across the years. Learning depends on a collection of brain regions called the ‘song system’ which is in two main branches: the front, focusing on learning the tutor’s song, and the back, responsible for producing the bird’s own song. These regions are often bigger in males than females and this is reflected in the fact that in most bird species only the males sing. Top left panel: It is thought that this is because singing is something about a male which a female can use to select a mate. Song is also used to defend territories which would bring obvious benefits to a female. Bottom right panel: The quality of a male’s song can also relate to the strength of his immune system, his parental investment, and the size and survival of his offspring thus females can gain numerous benefits from choosing a mate based on aspects of their song. More recently an idea has been suggested that when a male sings he is giving away signs about how smart he is (as shown by the cute graduation hats and scrolls with grades on them) thus a female would also potentially gain a mate who more readily learns patterns of food availability for example.

birds

Our lab used this poster as a background and talking spot for our stand as well as provided a couple of activities. The first (and coolest) is the game Bird Idol which my supervisor co-created a number of years ago. The game uses real recordings of the parts of canaries’ songs and lets the player choose which parts and in which order to play them. This is done for two males and then the songs play and the female hops towards the male they prefer based on real evidence for the preference of females for certain aspects of song. Additionally, we used a laptop to let people see their own song in the same way we record a bird’s on a sonogram (bottom left panel). Overall, it was a good day and we are developing bigger plans to take these and more activities to bigger science festivals.

Money and Personal Challenges

The end of my third year has brought some serious personal challenges (which is probably why I haven’t blogged in four months). Third year is well known to be a bit of a panic for most PhD students as it tends to be when your funding runs out so you’re balancing finishing your research, writing your thesis, and applying for jobs with the impending loss of income looming ever closer. I have colleagues who dealt with this in different, frequently unhealthy, ways. However, the one benefit of my lack of funding is that I never run out of it; I research by day and work by evening and then I’ll write by day and work by evening. At this point I’m also not near to submitting as I’ll have another experiment to run as well so these pressures aren’t as impending for me. What was impending was my partner’s loss of funding so as a household we were looking at making some changes and picking up teaching hours to compensate. That was the plan…but then we broke up. Now I’m not using this blog as an emotional output but just to outline what’s been going on and how it’s effected everything. Breaking up brought its own challenges. I wasn’t a very healthy human for about a month and most things were just more difficult. This included research which can be taxing at the best of times never mind when you’re not in it mentally. Work as well suffered. I ended up dealing with this by taking everything day by day and by reaching out to friends. You really realise that you have people who care for you when you’re struggling to get on. I’ve developed some really good and supportive friendships from that time and without them I wouldn’t be where I am now. If you’re ever in that scenario the best thing you can do is listen to your body and mind and confide in people. The other side to a break up is becoming financially independent again. I’ve been in the incredibly lucky situation of being supported by student loans and a funded partner so have not had much in the way of financial struggles (and none since being an adult), for which I am very thankful. The abrupt change and worries they bring is really taxing mentally and impacts on everything else you do. I balance the amount I work such that I get enough hours to pay my bills and have a little extra without utterly exhausting myself. The downside to PAYE is the lack of cover if you need a day of which means I’m straddling the line most of the time and worry if I’m starting to feel ill. It also means that any small slip ups such as forgetting a bill can render you without anything until next pay day. It’s a stressful and abrupt transition which I’m still getting used to. Life skills you learn by doing can be intimidating when they have big impact. This doesn’t specifically relate to my research but as I’m sure you can imagine it’s a whole-life thing so it’s part of the big picture. However, I am also very lucky for being able to do teaching within the university and use that to build up savings again. So it’s not all struggle. Plus teaching is something I’ve always wanted to do as I find it incredibly rewarding so it’s a win-win. Which brings me to the next point…

Seriously Questioning What You Are Doing

I’ve never until now seriously questioned whether what I am doing is right for me. I’ve wanted to teach ever since a year 9 science class when I was so inspired by my teacher that I wanted to do the same for others one day. When I got to university to study biology I then learned about these fascinating people who not only share stories of nature but also find the answers to some of the questions about it too. From that I thought this may be the thing for me but without having some properly experience I could never be sure. I did what I could to gain research experience during my undergraduate and decided that a PhD would provide enough full on experience to make a good judgement as to whether researching and teaching at university was for me or if I’d be better suited being a high school teacher. Until recently, no matter how difficult it has been I’ve still been in that grey zone on unsureness. I’ve always told myself that I won’t make any judgements until I’ve gone through the full motions from ideas, to data, to story-telling. So far I haven’t managed that all yet and thus until I get the full experience I wanted to make no decisions. Recently, however, I’ve just felt so tired of everything and then with personal struggles on top of it all I actually started seriously considering moving to a teaching degree. I looked up courses and bursaries and considered where I may move to. It was a weird feeling being sat in Pret genuinely thinking I was in the wrong place in my life and that I should just stop and move on. Quite upsetting and it really makes you question a lot about yourself.

Suffice to say, I’m not leaving. But coming that close to wanting to when other aspects of life get tough has made me start to seriously think about whether after my time here I’ll want to continue. A research career just isn’t for everyone and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just a challenge to my personal views about myself and makes me question the last three years of my life. It’s tiring learning to learn about the world like this. A PhD is a real test of your grit and enthusiasm and determination. If you ever find yourself in this sort of situation then take heart at knowing that it’s not just you. It happens to a lot of people and sharing your story really will help. There’s also nothing wrong with deciding that this path isn’t for you. There’s lots of be gained from a PhD that isn’t just setting you up for a career in research.

So that’s me and my recent months. All a bit gloomy really…but there’s little reason to pretend that it’s not true. The next two months are going to be spent wrapping up this experiment (at last) and then taking a break to see family and friends over christmas. I’ve got a few posts in the works too and i’ll return with a bit of an overview of hour years 1-3 have gone.

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Stats pain, presentation, and a (very) welcomed break

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Hi all 🙂

The last two months have brought some analysis of preliminary results, my second departmental presentation, and a holiday which couldn’t have been better timed.

Stats pain

If you want to go present at a conference you need something to present. In general, this means data and with data comes stats. Stats brings anxiety to many people and, whilst I thought I was making progress, I was no exception. I came up against multiple problems and some seemingly simple questions I had I couldn’t find any information online. (I should add here that yes my supervisor is great and walked me through the things I was stuck on but I really wanted to give the full picture a shot on my own first). Combined with a few very long days, some sleep deprivation, and a general sense of being fed up I had a bit of a break-down; feeling defeated, it was the data which broke the camel’s back.

A little down the line and after a rest I went through the analysis with my supervisor and found a tentative hit! I had a significant result! Whoop! Conference here I come! The result in question was an interaction between condition and the sex of the individual but the important next question was what was that interaction? To illustrate what I mean I’ll provide an example.

Imagine that you’re interested in whether being stressed affects memory. So you give a group of people a list of words to remember twice: once relaxed and once when you’re putting the pressure on. You then ask them to list all the words they remember. Now you may expect a difference based on the situation (condition) but would you expect them to differ based on their sex? A third option is that both could happen in different ways. For example, males may perform better under pressure whereas females may perform worse or any other different response you can imagine. This is called an interaction because the results depend on not only the individual factors but how they combine. Now the stats tells you that you have a significant effect of condition combined with sex, but what is that interaction? Do females get worse under pressure but males don’t change? Do males get worse and females get better? To work this out you perform post-hoc tests which identify the differences between pairs of measurements (females stressed v female relaxed, female stressed v male stressed,…). To cut a long story short, when you do this you raise the threshold at which you consider the results significant, in essence making it more difficult to find one but leaving you more sure that it’s a real finding, and in doing so my significant result disappeared. “Damn you Bonferroni!” I exclaimed at my desk.

Anyways, whilst that was a rather simple tour of my recent stats, no conference for me. I’m nowhere near finishing my experiment though so any exciting results were quite unlikely.

Presentation

Each year every PhD student in the department gives a talk about their work. My last one  wasn’t great; it was poorly timed, not very well constructed, and I wasn’t able to deal with questions well. One of the biggest lessons learned was: practice it! This time I arranged to give the talk to my lab group before for some feedback. Suffice to say, that didn’t go well. I mean, it went well regarding getting constructive feedback but I started with quite a messy presentation. But that’s why we practice! I took the feedback, simplified the slides, refined a few ideas, and added in several more slides to make points clearer. It was a good exercise and made me think harder about what are the real take home messaged for each part of the research.

Then it came to the actual presentation. I was quite nervous. I felt jittery and ended up grasping some white-tac whilst I spoke as comfort. Once I started though I felt a lot more comfortable. I went in telling myself “you are the expert in the room” and that mentality made me flip from feeling like it was a performance I was being judged on to being someone who is essentially teaching a collection of interested viewers. That settled me a lot. Overall the talk went well, I was only about a minute over, and I had very interesting questions which I was told I handled incredibly well. The only negatives I received were that my background was a little long (for someone from my lab group) and to avoid having something to fiddle with! Curse that distracting white-tac…Anyways, it was a good boost to my confidence both in my knowledge but also my presentation skills. Sadly I didn’t have any data so I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one when I can actually tell my story!

Holiday

By the time I put this out I’ll have been on holiday for a while and it could not have come soon enough! Suffice to say that the last few months have just been getting harder. I’ve felt quite defeated and deflated and that is in no small part due to the fact that I haven’t had a solid break in almost a year. I don’t have a great deal to say about this to be honest. We all need breaks and sometimes what we do make that difficult. For me it’s a combination of having to work PAYE to pay my bills and having an experiment I can’t take much time away from. But it does slowly exhaust you and I’m pretty sure that even now when I’m feeling rested that I’m still fatigued. I’m off to South Africa to see Cape Town and then going to Ulusaba for the safari. It’s going to be amazing I’m sure and if it’s anything like my holiday last year I’ll be totally relaxed by midday on day one! For now though (when I’m writing this) I’m just counting down the days until it begins.

So that’s me. The next few months will involve enjoying this holiday, resting up, and finishing the last 30% of my testing (and seeing a certain Avengers movie).

Thanks for reading ☺

BCT

Testing (testing, testing,…), a two lab meeting, and academic journey so far

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Hey all 🙂

The last two months have pretty much plowed on like the last two: testing, testing, testing, and more testing. I’m going to talk here a bit about reaching a point of fatigue in it all as well as a recent uber lab get together and my own academic journey.

Testing, testing, testing,…

Testing continues and I’m learning that it is a trying process in itself. You can’t predict exactly how long things will take and I’ve started to lose my enthusiasm at times. It’s a lot of work for little reward. Granted they come in the results and telling a (hopefully) interesting story at the end but for now it’s a lot of repetition whilst trying to not feel defeated when things aren’t progressing. I’m not going to lie: sometimes I’m really not fussed. I do the work but I don’t always feel the eagerness which drives science. The whole experience is challenging both personally and scientifically. I’m having to push myself become more persistent and resilient. Keeping the end goal in mind helps but sometimes that’s more difficult to do. Now I’m not saying that I do not want to do what I’m doing. I’m not about to drop out mid-experiment or anything like that. But I’m starting to really feel the struggles of learning to be a good researcher. I will stick to it though and I’m sure that when it’s done and after a spot of rest my enthusiasm will come back and I’ll be stronger for the next stage of my career.

A two lab lunch

Networking is a big part of most jobs and academia is no different. My supervisor has a colleague at another university whose group does very similar things to ours so we thought it’d be great to chat! So recently we had a visit from their group where we each gave a small talk on what we’re doing and had lunch in a relaxed environment. It was really good to meet people from another group with similar interests and to get their perspectives on things. One of the biggest things I’ve found is that everyone has different questions and suggestions for research and it seems largely to do with their background. Whereas a psychologist may question the processes of learning an ecologist may be more interested in the costs and benefits of it instead. Having a wide range of questions to your work challenges you to consider it from different angles and ultimately makes you more well rounded in your approach (that’s what I’m hoping anyway!).

My academic journey so far

I was listening to Spit’n’Twitches a podcast run by Dave Brodbeck, a professor of psychology at Algoma University, who studies cognition in animals when something struck me. He talks to researchers interested in animal behaviour about their work as well as their academic journey and a lot of the guests have led quite a focused path towards what they’re doing. They may have done undergraduate psychology or animal behaviour, gained research experience studying animal learning and done a PhD in the area etc. It made me think about my own route and how it’s a little different. I’ve jumped between interests and experiences quite a lot, nothing as drastic as from law to physics but still i’ve sampled a few areas of biology before settling where I am.

I studied human biology at the University of Birmingham. I started there with a broad interest but really enjoyed genetics, gained minor research experience in molecular modelling, and tried to biochemistry. (Looking back, I’m thankful that I didn’t as I wouldn’t have been able to study evolution and animal behaviour.) I then started delving seriously towards biophysics. I was interested in how we can study how molecules interact at the atomic level as well as how electrons move through proteins. I was excited,read ahead, and even visited a couple of researchers in my second year to ask about doing a PhD. At this point I should add that I also maintained modules in animal behaviour and physiology alongside the more structural end of things. Going into third year I maintained the split in my interests by studying integrated behavioural biology (genes, hormones, neurobiology, evolution) as well as structural biochemistry. I gained research experience in protein crystallography where I was almost able crystallise two proteins. By the end of this experience, however, my interest was fading. I still found the topic fascinating but not the actual hands-on aspect of crystallography. I was becoming more interested in what animals do and looked to that for my masters project. Unfortunately within my academic school the options were limited so I contacted supervisors from elsewhere. I started with to write a project with a behavioural neuroscientist in psychology looking at memory in rats. However this fell through when they ran out of space in the lab. I eventually landed a project in medicine studying a cell culture model of memory. It was exciting and full of new techniques but I decided it wasn’t the area for me.

Since 2013 I’ve been doing my research in the Mechanisms of Behaviour lab at the University of St Andrews. Here we study factors which effect an individual’s behaviour and learning using a range of models. What got me here as a specific topic I’m not 100% sure. In fact…is anybody certain as to why they chose their particular subject? I was inspired by the approach of studying behaviour by including genes and physiology by Roland Brandstaetter‘s teaching so I guess that must be part of it. Overall, it’s just utterly fascinating to see what animals do and having the opportunity to study just a tiny part of that is a real privilege.

The next two months will involve a department presentation, a very welcomed holiday, and hopefully applying to present at a couple of conferences!

Thanks for reading,

BCT 🙂