My First Conference Talk, Slogging Through Lab Work, and Trying to Put Everything in Balance

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Hey all 🙂

For the last two months, I’ve presented at a conference but otherwise just getting on with things.

 My First Conference Talk

I finally gave my first conference talk! I went to York to attend ASAB’s easter meeting. The easter meetings are always focused on early-career researchers. They put on professional workshops for the first day and the other two are all research talks and posters. I had a great time, best conference so far. The others I’ve experienced have all been so big that it’s difficult to navigate. In particular, if you want to meet a certain person. This one was small enough that everybody was always together. I met a lot of people, got nice feedback on my presentation, and generally had a great time. There were good social plans including an animal behaviour themed pub quiz and a fancy meal out. Plus, the lunches were included in the registration. I was super nervous for my actual talk but thoroughly enjoyed delivering it. It was great to actually have the moment to talk about my piece of the world.

Slogging Through Lab Work

Lab work has been slow. A lot of ordering and waiting for things, sending samples for validation and sending them again, and generally just getting everything in line. The work has been delayed again as well due to some worrying outcomes. The first step in the current method, involves extracting material from a sample. When I’ve measured this, it has largely been undetectable. So the extraction or the detection could be off. We’re currently trying to obtain what we need to check either way but the delay is frustrating. I’m counting down the months now until I finish and I’d just like this to be done now.

Trying to Put Everything in Balance

I really enjoy doing a lot of things but sometimes they get overwhelming. There’s a lot of good to get from the things I do. I find it boring to just do one thing all the time, I enjoy the challenges, some of the things give me savings/spending money beyond what I can get out of my regular job. Everything in the last 3 weeks just converged and became quite overwhelming, however. I’ve got a lot of mental balls in the air and sometimes I just can’t keep them going. There’s compulsory (research, work), optional (amount of teaching), and personal (moving home, family worries). It straight up just sucks sometimes because at times you can’t stop any of them. But the balance is what is most difficult. The optional stuff has now died down. Semester is over so teaching options are gone and the chinese class I was taking is over. So i’ve just got research, work, family, and moving (plus all the stress an worries which come with it) to process. Am hoping that fewer things means I can make them all work better. Who knows…

So that’s me for the last two months. The next two will be spent continuing trying to finish this last stint of lab work, revising my paper, prepping to start my thesis, and starting delivering a summer school.

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

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Balancing Research, Summer Conference, and Summer School

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Hey all 🙂

The last few months have been a good busy. I’ve progressed on my research, been accepted to present at a conference, and commenced teaching on a summer school!

Research

Lately, my research has swung from full throttle to nothing and back again several times. I’ve been finding it very difficult balancing it with summer school, work, and finding ‘me’ time and at times the research has had to take a back burner. I’ve specifically been working on song recordings. I’m looking through numerous sound files for bouts of bird song, copying them into a catalogue, and then analysing them for various things which we think are important. None of this is difficult but it is repetitive so sometimes I’m on a roll and really into it and others it’s just tiring thinking about it. It’ll get done though. I’m 25% through 340 or so bouts. I just needs to get back on the wagon, even if means doing 10 or so a day in my breaks. Thankfully, the data I’m hoping to present at a conference later this year is all prepared so the current work slowing down is ok. Speaking of conferences…

Conference!

The accepted me to present at the conference in Liverpool! Quick reminder: it is the European Conference on Behavioural Biology which runs every 2 years. This year it is in Liverpool which is great in terms of time and money needed to go. I applied for a talk but unfortunately they were quite oversubscribed for them so I was given a poster slot. Still an opportunity to present my research though and have some great chats as well as meet some nice people! I have also, thankfully, been granted some travel funding to help pay for this trip too. It won’t cover all of it but the vast majority and any deficit is more than made up for by the summer school payment. Speaking of which…

Summer School

Summer school is off to a great start again this year!  I am teaching ‘molecular biology’ again and have 4 great students from a variety of backgrounds and countries. This year, I’ve learned from experience to make my program more hands-on and about doing things as opposed to content. To make that happen, i’ve drafted a balance of ‘lectures’, research lab visits, collaborations, hands-on lab experience, and student-directed sessions. Three classes in and I feel it is going well. Although, I have the continued anxiety of known that whether I think it’s going well is irrelevant as it is the enjoyment of the students which matters. It’s difficult to judge that but I’ve heard positive things from those running the program. The program has a blog which has a few awful pics of me so have a look through for a regular update 🙂

So that’s me for the last two months. The next two will involving finishing summer school, finishing the next step in my data analysis, and attending a conference!

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

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

Meeting of the Scottish Neuroscience Group, Tutoring Job, and Some Thoughts About Science

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Hi All 🙂

It’s been another slow, but this time positive, couple of months with little to report. As such I thought I’d weigh in my two cents regarding a few things about the world of science after talking about the two main things which have occurred lately: a conference and a potential tutoring job!

Meeting of the Scottish Neuroscience Group

The Scottish Neuroscience Group are a collective of researchers across institutions in Scotland who meet yearly to network and discuss the broad range of fascinating work done. This year’s meeting was held here in St Andrews and it was a no-brainer for myself to go. The program is given here. Overall the entire day was great, the usual refreshments aplenty plus some surprising pulled pork baguettes! Oh, and the talks too! Talks spanned control of movement in fly embryos through to gene signalling cascades and to measuring firing resonses in the brain when we notice something novel in our environment. There was also an extensive poster session with around 40 different presenters which provided ample chance to meet more people and learn new things. I was particularly happy at the presence of 3 people who research circadian rhythms as this is a topic i thoroughly enjoy, but is unfortunately not represented here. The final talk of the day was given by Dr Nelson Spruston of the Janelia Research Campus, a massive and very well funded research institute in America specializing in neuroscience. The message he was trying to get across in his talk was that we need to rethink the way the brain works. Models of how neurons talk to each other have for years relied upon the idea that you add up all the positive and negative inputs to a neuron, and if this breaches a certain level the cell fires. He listed quite a few examples of phenomena which cannot be explained with this simple model but unfortunately I did not take a notepad, so cannot garnish this section with examples. The take home message was that the range of neuron types varies hugely depending on how you define them (shape, location, gene expression, connections) and that there isn’t always a simple relationship between what you measure (such as shape) and function. It was very eye-opening and thought-inspiring. After his talk we spoke over wine about whether our experiences are merely the activation of the connections in the brain (and if that would be a satisfying answer). Treading neuroscience, psychology, evolution, and philosophy it was a great discussion which really captured the open enthusiasm and thought process of academia. Overall, a great day and I look forward to hopefully presenting next year!

Tutoring Job

Those of you who have followed my posts for a while will know that I self-fund my PhD via working 3-4 nights a week. Whilst I appreciate my job being there for me and permitting my studies it does leave me incredibly lethargic and out of whack sometimes as I’m not very suited to late nights. Enter a tutoring opportunity. A few weeks ago the careers centre here announced the need for a tutor on a flexible, low-hours contract to help students of all ages and levels with all the generic skills one needs in academia (and wider areas): organisation, planning, reading for comprehension, referencing, essay writing, and I would assume anything else that comes up which isn’t subject specific. For me as an aspiring teacher this is a fantastic opportunity because not only will I be able to supplement my income doing something I thoroughly enjoy but I would be able to cut back a shift at work which will allow me to get into a healthier sleeping pattern. I put together my best looking CV and supporting statement and promptly applied. A few days later and I was informed I made the interview! It’s next Thursday so I’ll be spending a significant amount of time until then getting prepared with my thoughts about teaching and experiences which I’d bring to the role!

Some Thoughts About Science

This last section is going to be a bit of my thoughts trickling straight from brain to fingertips as I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about what science and research should be like and I feel I should put some to my blog (I’m sure others will come up later). We can discuss every aspect of academia and be here for ages but for now I want to focus on three things I feel passionately about, I will no doubt return to them in the future: respect for teaching, (artificial) boundaries between disciplines, and defining yourself.

The first of these is one I feel very strongly about: teaching. To me teaching is near enough one of the greatest and most important things we do as a species. Without teaching we don’t continue. We don’t have scientists, doctors, writers, musicians or possibly any significant roles. A great teacher has the ability to completely change someone’s view of not only a subject but also themselves and their own ability whilst a poor one can do the complete opposite. Teaching puts you in a position of great power and you have the ability to change someone’s life with it. Unfortunately through my, albeit short, academic career it’s becoming more and more apparent that teaching at this level really gathers little respect or priority. There is an air of “must we” or “doing this because I have to, not because I want to” about it at an institutional level. By this I don’t mean specific departments but the actual institution of academia. Research first, then teach if you have to pay some bills. This seems like a remarkable fallacy to me as I can’t imagine where the researchers would come from without their teachers before them? Granted, you do need some semblance of research or at least theories about the world to teach but really without teaching you would only have the handful of remarkable individuals who just know things and can piece things together without prior knowledge or instruction. How we’ve landed at this point I do not know, and neither do I know how true this is across the world but all I do know is that I find the undertone of derision for teaching to be awful as well as its reflection in phrases such as “bought out of teaching”. Teaching isn’t a bill-payer, it is part of an entangled role academics have: push boundaries, tell people and help them to do so as well. Two sides, same coin. Now I’m not saying that teaching-driven academics do not exist. Far from it. I have met, been taught by, and taught with some truly inspiring, enthusiastic, and intelligent teachers who are beloved by their students and manage to make even the driest of subjects exciting and manageable. It’s just that the system is set up such that a love of teaching is just that: a love of it. There doesn’t appear to be any acknowledgement or reward for doing so other than personal enjoyment. Atop of this when individuals are forced to teach begrudging it is very obvious and detrimental to students (I can attest to this personally from my not so long ago undergraduate lectures). Overall: I hold teaching in high regard and cannot imagine how we have an educational system which doesn’t agree.

The second point I have is about how administrative boundaries artificially break up disciplines. Nature is continuous (quantum physics aside for a moment); there is no point when physics becomes chemistry, chemistry becomes biology, biology becomes psychology. All of these phenomena are continuous and intertwined, and a good appreciation of any subject requires you to have at least some understanding of others surrounding it. Even within disciplines this is true: there’s little to be gained knowing about hormones without understanding the cells they affect and how they change the behaviour of the organism, it doesn’t help to know how a cell works without the context of its surrounding cells and organs, asking why an animal does something can’t be answered by just thinking about how the behaviour benefits it but also requires you to know what events went on inside to lead to that behaviour. These are quite narrow examples from my personal field of work (biology) but this is true across the sciences which aren’t linear, they’re a network. There are people in the same department as me with backgrounds in physics studying what could be biology, physics, or psychology. There are other people working between computer sciences and psychology, others who are through and through biologists. There are also across universities people who can do very much the same thing but be in departments of neuroscience, biology, or medicine. Same tools, same question, different departments. And that’s the problem: departments. Our slicing up of nature like this creates the illusion that these topics are distinct and unrelated which couldn’t be further from the truth. Now this isn’t a university thing. Universities actually do this better than the levels before but they still maintain some semblance of distinction, especially from an undergraduate’s perspective. The point I’m trying to make is that nature doesn’t fit into buckets where one thing stops before another starts and neither do our interests. Just because I studied biology as an undergraduate doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have taken modules from psychology or geology if given the chance. But I only knew about these things by going out of my way to learn about them. I set up a cross college talk series in my masters year for this very purpose: to open staff and student eyes to topics in other schools as well as those which transcend schools. Overall, I believe the experience of students as well as the development of research could only benefit by there being far, far fewer barriers between subjects. This lends me nicely to my third thought.

Defining yourself. I’ve had this thought for a while but a recent blog post from another wordpresser discussing her hesitation to describe herself as a psychologist gave me a kick to actually discuss it. Given everything I outlined in the previous paragraph about the continuity of nature and how department names don’t seem to greatly restrict what someone does I believe it would be constructive for us to describe ourselves by the questions we want to answer not by academic titles. That way by being question-defined you carry fewer misconceptions with you and you are simply answering those questions with the tools you see fit. Whether they are from physics, computer sciences, molecular biology, or psychology. I believe this will not only ameliorate the anxiety felt in that blog post but also add to breaking down boundaries between disciplines. I should put a huge caveat here: my experiences are with science and these examples work well with science. I will never assert that non-scientific disciplines should do similar as I don’t know how closely they can mingle. I do welcome all input on the thought though.

Well that’s all from me this time. The next two months are going to be diving in the deep end of my experiment (I’m already preparing myself for how tiring this is going to be), finding out about the tutoring job, and hopefully keeping a bit of time for myself too!

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

iCog14 and generally get on with things.

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Hello all 🙂

The last two months have been pretty uneventful. I’ve had to postpone my next experiment until the new year for a number of reasons which has given me more time to focus on writing my first year report and to get involved with teaching (I will write a post on my experiences of this at the start of the new year). For now the only major thing which has happened was iCog.

 

iCog14

iCog (http://icog.group.shef.ac.uk/) was a network set up a few years ago aimed at postgraduate and early-career researchers who are addressing questions in cognition. In doing so it aims to unite, create collaborations, and generally facilitate discussion between very diverse researchers. Cognition is studied from numerous and far-reaching perspectives including psychology, neuroscience, biology, philosophy, and computer science and in light of this the idea was a brilliant one.

 

I recently attended their second annual conference (iCog14: perspectives on learning; University of Edinburgh; http://icog.group.shef.ac.uk/conferences-and-workshops/2014-conference/) and it was both fascinating and challenging. Being so diverse meant that nearly everything was unfamiliar in its approach so I had a lot to learn. We first had Alex Doumas (http://www.doumaslab.com/Home.html) discussing the results of a new computational model of learning followed by Richard Stockle-Schobel (https://lmu-munich.academia.edu/RichardSt%C3%B6ckleSchobel) introducing some philosophical limitations on how much we can infer mechanisms from observations. Then Jean-Mar Dewaele (http://www.bbk.ac.uk/linguistics/our-staff/jean-marc-dewaele) talked about how we process emotions in first versus second languages with a section focussed on swear to much amusement. The first day ended with a couple of talks on language acquisition in typically versus atypically developing children as well as topics in education psychology. Day two included Andrew Philippides (http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/23611) talking about navigation in ants; Vicente Raja Galian (http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Vicente_Raja_Galian) on learning in technologicaly-assisted environments; and Andrew Manches (http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/education/about-us/people/academic-staff?person_id=466&cw_xml=profile.php) on using gestures to understand how children learn about numbers. The conference was rounded off with Szu-Han Wang (http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/integrative-physiology/staff-profiles/1.31746) talking about mechanisms of learning at the cellular level; Jessica Diaz talking about perceptual learning; Anjuli Manrique (http://uk.linkedin.com/pub/anjuli-manrique/47/3ab/582 ) discussing how fields of anthropology need to be reorganised to include field psychology and behavioural neuroscience into the study of literacy; and Rosie Flewitt (http://www.ioe.ac.uk/staff/EYPE/85713.html) on multimodal ethnography and its role in learning.

 

I realise that was a very listy/linky bit of writing but I felt that those who are interested in following these researchers would appreciate it.

 

So that’s it really. Nothing much else to report. The next two months will be spent continuing to process some samples from my pilot experiment and completing a draft of my first year report for my supervisor (hoping it doesn’t come back covered in TOO much red ink hehe) .

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Part-Time Research Conference, Report-Writing, and Messing Up

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Hello all 🙂

The past two months have been a bit uneventful (and I’m relaxing quite thankfully!) but I have been to a great little conference, writing my first year report, and had a bit of a colossal mistake!

Part-Time Researcher Conference

Firstly the positives! I attended a one day conference/workshop aimed at part-time researchers. This was organised by Vitae and hosted by the University of Dundee. The event was a great idea as there is very little support directed at part-time students and it was a great opportunity to meet others in similar situations; there were other self-funded researchers as well as people taking a PhD on the side of their current jobs and each came with their own story. The day was based on four workshop sessions for each you chose from four options. I attended: research in context, identifying employability skills, finding time to write, and presentation skills. As a side note: finding time to write was a fantastic and often humorous presentation by Dr Daniel Soule of Grammatology (@grammatologer); he talked through a number of the main walls we throw up to stop us writing and highlighted how we are the biggest obstacle. It was very informative, amusing, and engaging and I’ve taken several tips away from his session; principally you should just write something because once it’s on paper you can edit it! The other parts of the day were a very welcomed lunch as well as two plenary sessions. The opening plenary was given by Sue Black who has spent years in and out of academia as a forensic pathologist. She took us through her life and career from a small girl until now to show how little things can point us to where we are heading (often without knowing it at the time!). She also highlighted how academia doesn’t have to be a straightforward path so it’s good to create your own journey. Ultimately she stressed that our research should be exciting, fun, and not feared; if it becomes laborious even thinking about going and running those experiments. getting out in the field or dusty in those books then it’s most likely the wrong career for us. Enjoy ourselves! The end plenary was given by Eddie Small who talked about his equally unusual through academia from an evening degree through to writing books on Scottish funerals and lecturing! Overall it was a very informative and fun experience and I look forward to the next one!

Report Writing

On the topic of writing…I’ve been truly kicking myself in to the process lately. I have finally accrued myself a significant number of notes and a, hopefully well thought out and logical, flow and argument for my introduction. I’m currently reviewing what I’ve written so far and working out where I have gaps in the evidence I’m presenting. If you’re at this point in your degree be it PhD, masters, undergraduate reports, or anywhere in fact the biggest pieces of advice I’d give you are: have an idea of structure before taking notes, that way you remain focussed on relevant information as opposed to related or interesting but which doesn’t help you answer your questions; and write a little every day (or on every 5 or 6 or so days a week), just a few more references ready or a paragraph written or a section edited is more than you had done before and means progress!

 Making a Mess

Ok. The negative. I spoiled some pretty fragile samples which I cannot get back through no fault that my own haste and lack of awareness. Suffice to say my anger and disappointment in myself were severe and I’m sure I let my supervisor down as well. However, I have learned something from this experience. From talking to others about it: these things happen. We don’t want them to happen and sometimes more than others it’s worse news but everyone messes up occasionally. Secondly: I will never do it again. Thankfully my spoiled samples came from a smaller experiment (which I’ve already said was a bit of a failure) and not my upcoming larger experiment. But still, the lesson learned here is to slow down and practice a tad more awareness.

 

The next two months are going to be more writing and starting the next experiment! Exciting times.

Thanks for reading 🙂

 BCT