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

Being Welcomed into a Different Lab, Full Speed Experimenting, and Tutoring

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Hey all 🙂

The last two months have just been getting busier and busier now. The most significant things to happen have been my supervisor being off for a while and my being accepted as an honorary member of another lab, getting on with the proper testing portion of my experiment (yay), and kicking off my new tutoring job!

Being welcomed into another lab

A couple of months ago my supervisor took some time off and I was left for the first time to really start pushing for myself. This was fine and understandable of course but the biggest thing for me was that sudden thought of “am I alone for this bit of time?” My supervisor’s style is very much one of ‘discuss ideas then go try something and come back if you’re stuck’ which is good, but they’re still always there if you’re stuck. So I had a smidgen of a worry thinking that somebody wouldn’t be there in the worst case situations. This wasn’t really an issue though, as there is a large support network within an academic community. Firstly, within the lab itself we have other researchers more experienced than myself who gave me some guidance during this time and additionally my secondary supervisor was fully aware of the situation and was attentive to how I was doing (as they always are). Finally though, and perhaps the more novel situation for me, was another lab letting me get more involved with their community. A different lab from a different school research similar topics to myself and have given me suggestions in the past and let me present at their meetings. Since then I’ve started to attend their weekly meetings as often as I can to be a part of their community. Giving back where I was given support myself. I’ve felt very included by this group and greatly appreciate the openness and time given to somebody from elsewhere. I’m finding this support and additional input to be very useful, as no matter how similar research can be people always have a different perspective or interest in what you’re doing. Plus the varying levels of expertise mean that you tend to get different sorts of insights and suggestions from each person too. Overall it’s adding to my ability and confidence as a researcher as well as my experience of research.

Full Speed Experimenting

So after quite a while of planning, setting up, and waiting for space and resources my experiment is finally going! I’m quite excited about this as after two years I’m yet to obtain much data. This has left me feeling a bit conflicted. One the one hand I feel as if I should have something to show from two years of being here but on the other hand I am part-time which means that effectively I’ve only done a year’s worth of work, so I should set my expectations a little lower for now. Either way I’m getting on with things which is great. Estimated completion date is the start of March (but as usual with science this could suddenly change at the drop of a hat) and then there’ll be all of the analysis and writing and hopefully using that to go to conferences and write papers! For the now though I’m spending 4-8 hours every day testing with the determination to get the aforementioned data. I’m sure in my next post my exhaustion will come across but hopefully some excitement due to some results too!

Tutoring!

So In my last post I mentioned a tutoring position coming up. I got the job! The role is ‘academic skills tutor’ which means that I help students with any transferable, non-subject-specific, academic skills such as time management, essay writing, exam revision and anything else you can think of. The job kicked off by my shadowing the other tutors during one-to-one and evening drop-in sessions to get a feel for what is expected, and in the last couple of weeks the training wheels have come off and I’m running on my own! I’m primarily doing an evening drop-in session at the university library. At this, students are able to freely approach with any problems they are experiencing and as long as there’s no queue forming they may get help for as long as is needed. For slightly more demanding struggles or if there are a few students waiting then they are recommended to book an hour-long one-on-one session during the day. It’s a great service and one which I think students should be making more use of. It isn’t the best advertised but I’m working with the team to work out how we can improve this. In the few weeks I’ve been working on my own I’ve seen a range of students covering a range of needs and it’s been thoroughly rewarding so far. I very much hope the service continues to be used and that hopefully in the future a position with more hours comes up!

So that’s it folks. The next two months will involve me continuing to push through this experiment, continuing the tutoring, and hopefully catching a quick break to visit the families over Christmas. See you in the New Year.

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Frustrating Delays, a Welcomed Break, and a Bit of Self-Reflection

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Hello all 🙂

The last two months have been generally pretty good albeit it quite slow. I thought this would be a good point to comment on dealing with setbacks beyond your control as well as being aware of yourself.

Frustrating Delays

As you may know, my experiment has been going very slowly so far. This is partly due to its nature (there’s a lot of time needed for things to mature before any testing can be done) and partly due to limits beyond my, and my lab’s control. We waited for 4-5 months for some equipment whilst there was miscommunication with the supplier. Eventually though it all came and this predated my experiment. Following this an accessory piece took a total of 9 months with my lab-mate bothering the suppliers weekly by phone. We were all miffed. Unfortunately, they are the primary supplier of both and the exclusive supplier of the latter. Thankfully a secondary supplier for the former was found and when we needed more it took but 3 days from order to delivery! Whoop! Winning! More recently, however, the same lab-mate has been waiting on MORE equipment, albeit it from a different supplier. I feel so sorry for them for they are a lot more pressured in terms of deadlines than I am. They have been left essentially sat twiddling their metaphorical thumbs. How this affects me is that by the nature of any working environment space and equipment are shared. I need some of the resources currently used by my lab-mate who cannot be relieved of them until the second troublesome product is sorted out. So it’s one small chain of waiting in some ways. I don’t really have any decent advice for dealing with this kind of issue other than to be patient and polite whilst standing your ground with suppliers and be thankful for the relative down time and perhaps use that to get things sorted which you won’t have time for at another day. Overall, set-backs occur and we all need to ensure that as few of them as possible are due to us.

A Welcomed Break

I had a holiday! Whoop! My partner and I went away to a resort in Turkey for two weeks and I also took three whole weeks away from the bill-payer. Never have I appreciated some down time as much as that holiday. The one thing I realised was that we don’t really notice when a break is needed until we either…break (down) or actually take one. On just my first day relaxing by the pool I felt a huge amount of tension released and in general far more relaxed. The holiday really provided a time for us to do nothing but stay relaxed and not even consider work of any kind whilst exploring the area and generally spending time together. Overall, everyone needs down time and I don’t mean the time in the week when I get to watch the films you’ve been meaning to (though this kind of personal time is important) but to actually get away mentally and unwind really benefits us all. If you’re getting to the point where you’re feeling every more down in the dumps, finding it difficult doing what you’ve been doing before, or that you’re simply not enjoying it any more then consider a holiday. No one is going to begrudged you taking some you time so even if it’s just a long weekend away walking in the hills just do it. It’s very refreshing.

A Bit of Self-Reflection

Building on take time for yourself is learning to be aware of your own needs, abilities, and desires. By this I mean that we all have different strengths, lessons to learn, perhaps misconceptions about our own abilities, as well as ways in which we work best. Think: is what you’re doing the best for you? Is it what you expected? Do you need more enforced structure or are you good at self-discipline? It’s not the easiest thing to know and I’m sure no one ever gets there entirely but it’s important to be able to at least approach this sense of self. That, I suppose, is also one reason why I maintain this blog: it allows me to look back at issues and see how I dealt with them as well as see if I’ve got better and dealing with situations. I’ll garnish this by talking about myself.

I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I say always…since I was approximately 14 I’ve wanted to be a teacher. More specifically: a science teacher. It seemed a no brainer to me as I was always so inspired by teachers, and nature in all its varieties had me in awe. I did the usual thing of going to uni and whilst there I found interest in being the person who answers someone of the questions of nature myself; i.e. to be a researcher. This all led me to where I am now. Since starting I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve been doing. Learning both intellectually and practically is great and my topic is fascinating. I also have gained experience teaching which has been amazing. And that’s exactly what makes me think: am I enjoying teaching more than research? It was also teaching which came first before but then again I haven’t really gone through the full motions of research and had a result at the end to get excited about so is it too early to judge? It’s something I need to learn about myself and my aims but I can only do that by continuing and hopefully finding an answer! Either decision is good by I do fear a sense of “what now?” if I find research isn’t for me because for a few years it’s been the only real option to me. Additionally, I’ve had issues with motivation and organisation. I’m learning about myself that without small goals/deadlines I find it difficult to get myself going and for this reason I’ve started giving myself immediate-, short-, and long-term goals so that I’m always working towards something.

A final example is a very important albeit rarely considered one: when is it best to work? I myself am a mega early-type. I fall asleep between 9 and 11 and wake up with the sun (so around 4:30am at the moment) thus for me working early in the morning is best. I’ve known this for a while. My issue at the moment is that my trips to the bill-payer are always in the evening and sometimes don’t end until gone midnight. By the time I’m home, relaxed, and ready for sleep I then do so badly as I start waking up in but a few hours. There’s not really an easy answer to this but the point is that we all need to work out when we work best and to try and fit our days into that as much as possible. Night owl? Try working from the afternoon. Morning lark? See if you can have you working day start nice and early. It’s remarkable how much of an effect sleeping and working at times unnatural to yourself can have (think jetlag!).

This is one of the longest posts I’ve made and the point I’m trying to get across is that we all need to try to be more aware of our needs and wants and different ways of being. The more we can learn about ourselves the more we can tailor our approaches to all aspects of our lives to do so as well as we possibly can. What’s the secret to doing this? No idea. But I’m sure that starting by trying to be more self-aware is the first step.

The next two months will involve actually starting the real crux on my experiment (whoop!) and continuing my personal development. Bar that, I’m just happy to be more focussed and relaxed than a few months ago.

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Viva, Experiments, and Getting Things Done

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Hey all 🙂

The last two months have been tiring with some bad news but things are picking up and I’ve got a lot to tell you about PhD examinations and ensuring you keep the ball rolling during your studies.

Viva

Well…in the style of Chandler Bing: could this have gone any worse? Yes. Yes it definitely could but it still didn’t go well and brought on some emotional difficulty at least in the short term. First of all I feel I should give you a brief description of what a viva actually is.

A viva, or to give it its full name a viva voce (meaning “with live voice” in Latin) is an oral examination of a body of work. In academia all large written works submitted for a degree (masters or PhD for example) are examined in this way. The general format in the UK is that two people (one of which an expert in the area) will read the work and take notes to question you as they see fit. After this the formal viva occurs whereby you sit down with the examiners who…examine you on it. They look to see that you understand and actually did the work, can justify the questions attacked and methods used, and that you and your work are in general up to the standards of modern research.

During a PhD most (all?) departments require students to pass some sort of first year test to ensure they are on the ball and capable of continuing to complete the PhD. This is what I had recently and which I did not do as well hoped on. After drafting my report up to the mark 2 stage I handed in and a few days later had the sit down. It started well with a light chat about the topic and what I found interesting about it. Then it progressed very quickly into probing my ability to justify why we would care about it at all and the train of thought from big picture to questions. The latter is where I fell down because whilst I had a good idea of why for the topic as a whole I was less confident and knowledgeable for those small justifications. These really are the meat of your argument for tackling your questions in the way you chose to. The viva proceeded in much this same fashion and whilst I learned a lot of peripheral things from my examiners the over-whelming result was that I could not answer the questions they were putting to me well enough.

Later that day I received the verdict: unsatisfactory; re-submit for re-examination in two months. My figurative heart fell deep. Whilst this wasn’t an actual fail it certainly felt like one. I knew no one who had not outright passed so this felt like a real downer. I felt as if I’d let myself, my partner, and my supervisor down. Suffice to say the evening was taken off for junk-food and fun TV therapy before getting back on track the following day. I made a game plan with my supervisor and I’ve been battling through that since to improve my knowledge, re-structure my report, and generally better prepare myself as I have to pass properly next time.

The whole thing was not a resounding negative however. The motivational problems I’ve felt for the last 6-8 months have certainly been given a big kick and as such I’ve been a lot more productive as of late. It was also very nice and appreciated to have a proper sit down with my secondary supervisor (one of my examiners) who before anything said that at no point did he nor the other examiner think I was incapable of doing my PhD. My enthusiasm was also praised which made me smile. So overall it was never my ability but my preparedness which was probably related to these motivational issues I’ve been feeling. If you ever get into this situation do take the time to recover from the initial beating because it is defeating. But do learn from it and take the feedback to work out why you got the result you did. Nobody wants you to fail but at the same time it is their job to ensure you are fully prepared to do the best research you can to keep up in the modern academic world.

 Experiment 1 and Being Organised

Experimental time is getting heavier now which is good. I feel a lot more productive on a day to day basis and the required structure is slowly pushing itself into the rest of my time. This is a good point to make a comment about the differences between undergraduate and PhD education. In the former your time is structured around your lectures, tutorials, and practicals etc. These form the backbone of your time and though you have to push yourself to revise and finish assignments in your own time you still have those nine o’clocks to get you going. PhD has none of that. It is all on you: your work, your time, and your will-power. I have for one reason or another let this get bad and as such my motivation and organisation have greatly diminished and a suite of problems have followed. The viva was a real kick in the behind to address these issues which is something I have started. Lesson to learn: start with structure as well as immediate-, short-, and long-term plans for yourself so that you have constant rewards for keeping on top of your workload. It’ll benefit you later when small problems can have big repercussions.

That’s it for now. The next two months will be spent getting into the real crux of this experiment, continuing with some undergraduate teaching, and working on my organisation. Oh! And that pesky re-viva! The first year report mark 3 is already in progress. I’ll also endeavor to put up some sciencey ramblings on the first of April as well.

 Thanks for reading 🙂

 BCT

Studentship Application, Experimental Delays, and Demonstrating

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Hey all 🙂

It has been a slow but important two months.

Studentship Applications

With my supervisor I have recently applied for two studentships: a fully funded PhD and a package for a lab technique.

Firstly, the fully PhD studentship. The Society for Experimental Biology offer one 4 year package per year which rotates through their themes (Cells, Plants, and Animals; www.sebiology.org/membership/studentship.html). This studentship was particularly appealing for numerous reasons. Firstly it is for 4 years where most studentships are for 3; this would allow me to do over 3 years of experiments AND take anywhere up to a whole year to write up with funding (a luxury most students do not get). Secondly the stipend (a tax free ‘maintenance’ grant paid monthly or quarterly) is at £3k above the minimum required by the British research councils which is always a nice perk! Lastly, unlike most studentships, this comes with money to spend specifically on research (known as consumables). I wrote a draft application which my supervisor polished off before sending it through the processes in the department and then submitting it. I’m still awaiting response for this but since the interviews are held on the 26th March I’m assuming I will hear soon!

Secondly, the ‘Primer Design’ package. Primer Design (www.primerdesign.co.uk/home) are a company specialising in real-time PCR. PCR stands for Polymerase Chain Reaction (www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymerase_chain_reaction). It is a technique used to create numerous copies of a piece of DNA as to allow the sample to be analysed (this is particularly useful when samples contain very small amounts of DNA for example from small tissues samples from crime scenes or biological research). This process is known as “DNA amplification”. Real-time PCR, or qPCR for “quantitative”, improves upon this technique by visualising the process and allowing the number of copies to be counted. That was a bit of a technical tangent so I will return to the main narrative. Primer Design offer award packages involving specialised hands-on training for students with projects utilising qPCR as well as discounts on their products. My supervisor applied and we won a package! So now, once I get to that point in my first experiment, I will receive the training and with my supervisor be able to get some discounted kits! I can also put the specialised training on my CV so it’s a win-win (-win?) situation!

Overall I recommend that you apply for everything potentially useful to your post-graduate studies. Even if it seems unlikely it’s worth going for and you never know how useful it could be!

Experimental Delays

My topic is trying to understand the learning abilities of animals and if there is one thing I’ve learned so far it’s that animals are unpredictable and at times very stubborn! I am currently training them on a task involving food placed in a tray with 12 wells (think of an egg-carton) with lids covering the food. The idea is that they will learn that lids mean food so if they remove the lids they get the food! Most have been progressing slowly but with great inconsistencies including randomly not understanding what they should do! A few are brilliant and one is utterly useless so overall working with animals is less than straight-forward! I’m acquiring some great skills and insight though and the big picture is very interesting so I will continue J. I also have a great lab group who are always happy to discuss options and are help out so I’m in a great position; I will get there eventually!

Just a side note at this point: if you feel that as a student you’re not supported or that you’re basically a data-churner or that you have no control of your project then you need to deal with that problem as soon as it arises. It’s far too easy to get dug into a hole and lose yourself, your motivation, and ultimately not learn how to do what your studies are training you to. Speak to the people who can help. Chances are your supervisor doesn’t realise how you’re feeling but if they are the type to not train their students well/see them as extra pairs of hands then you must sort that out by speaking to others about it. There will always be someone who can help. Remember: it’s your project so your ideas and your learning are what are important.

Demonstrating

PhD students are (usually?) given the opportunity to get involved with teaching. This rarely involves giving lectures but instead involves assisting in practical sessions, giving tutorials, and marking. This is a very good opportunity to both increase your experience of teaching and get paid for doing so. I signed up a tad late this year and first years are often not encouraged to get involved but nevertheless I am a demonstrator on a second year course in the School of Psychology & Neuroscience. I have worked on two sessions so far. The first was a poster session from the cognitive part of the module which involved students reading a published paper and designed a poster to present it. This is a great exercise for second years as pposters are a lot harder to design than you’d expected: you have to balance text overload with getting the information across, making the flow easy to following, and make it catchy and informative. The session went well and I learned a lot about designing posters myself from giving guidance to the students.

The other session type was from statistics. The students had a computer session were they worked through example questions of how to run the statistics they have learned in that week’s lectures. This was a bit of an eye opener for me as someone who is computationally novice, utterly naïve with SPSS (a statistical program), and with very little knowledge of statistics! The session went smoothly and the lecturer’s notes were very good so overall the students (and I!) managed to do well.

Overall, it has been a really good experience and I’m hoping to pick up more next year across both Psychology & Neuroscience AND Biology. I highly recommend getting involved with undergraduate teaching when you have the chance to 🙂

Overall things are going well albeit slowly. Next steps are to continue training my animals, start writing a literature review of my topic (which I will then post a slightly less dry version on here!), and generally do some chilling out when possible.

Thanks for reading 🙂