Thursday, 21 November 2013

So, what do you do? Working on a science 'elevator pitch'

Despite the fact that I regularly write about science on this blog, I find communicating science quite a challenge and I often go away from a situation wishing that I had done a better job of answering that most crucial of questions:

"So, what do you do?"

The question can come from a variety of sources, ranging right from the hot-shot visiting Professor to an interested (or just polite) friend or acquaintance in the pub. In fact it could be almost any situation, anywhere, anytime, and you have to be ready. If you are anything like me, you will have already come across people who switch off immediately from you the moment you start explaining that you are a scientist, and what you do. On the other hand, I've had some really great conversations with people where I've felt they really got into what I was saying and I've come away with my perceptions changed a little bit too.

It's my general opinion that not an awful lot of useful conversations happen in lifts, but this science communication challenge is just like the 'elevator pitch' that I have heard mentioned quite a few times, usually as a means to improve one's communication skills. This is a 30-second to 2-minute pitch to get across the important aspects of yourself or your work (or any thing or concept for that matter). One of the skills I suppose is to get to the point by cutting through the jargon and specialized language (which on one hand empowers scientists to express themselves to one another) to reveal the true motivation beneath. I heard a rumour that there is a Pro-Vice-Chancellor out there somewhere who likes to ask a similar thing as an interview question to prospective job candidates: "How would you explain what you do to my mother over tea and biscuits?"

Typical lift conversation.
I'd argue that in most circumstances if you've been asked "what do you do?" your initial answer needs to be done well inside thirty seconds. By some reckonings that is half a side of paper in response to a four word question. In my mind the key is to have layers and then come back with more details if the person is interested.

So I've come up with this Twitter elevator pitch which fits into ten tweets. I'll tweet it from @scienceontoast around the time I post this up. The aim here is that, like with the interested acquaintance in the pub, a good way to build your pitch is to start simple and then give more information as it becomes relevant, i.e. not answer the "what to you do?" question with a fifty minute lecture. I hope that this pitch would make sense if you only read the first tweet, the first three, or all ten. And of course, we all know that science is a long story really, but even the longest stories have to start somewhere.

Mike Weir's 10 tweet science pitch:

1. I'm a scientist at the University of Sheffield. I work on plastics. I study what happens when we mix other materials into plastics. 

2. We make composites by putting additives into plastics. The composites' properties are (we hope) improved over those of the pure material.

3. Our aim is to make plastic composites that are stronger, conduct electricity, feel different to the touch, amongst many other things. 

4. Some industrial companies are interested in our composites since they may be able to make new and interesting products out of them. 

5. There is much science dedicated to understanding the behaviour of plastics and polymers (a more general term that includes plastics). 

6. My job uses radiation (x-rays and neutrons) to look inside materials and see their structure; to see how the molecules fits together.

7. For a polymer composite, we might ask: are the additives all clumped together or are they dispersed evenly throughout the material? 

8. What shape and size are the additives ('fillers')? What shape and size are the polymer molecules? Are they affected by the additives?

9. To make polymer composites industrially we need to understand how they behave, how they melt and freeze, and how they flow.

10. We hope that by understanding the structures we create, we can tailor them better to suit particular purposes. 

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Post-doctoral patience

My first post doc contract was in a scientific facility out in Australia (ANSTO), and I took that job on for just over two years before moving back to the UK for my adventure in publishing. I was acutely aware while working at ANSTO that life in a facility was not the same thing as life in a university. Difficult to put into a nutshell, but a facility focuses on its technical capabilities and has to maintain a user programme. On the other hand a university arguably focuses more on its individual research projects, bids to extend its personnel and technical prowess in areas that benefit its research, and of course (well, far more likely than a facility) has a teaching programme, which usually means the presence of a vibrant community of undergraduates. So basic definitions done, blah blah, I had yet to work as a post doc in a university, and sample the opportunities and experiences that might offer, and so when the opportunity came knocking I was keen to try it out. Back to Sheffield I came.

As some of you may know all too well, the life of the university post doc is fraught with a longstanding problem - it seems to be increasingly difficult for post docs to follow on from their temporary research contracts, tied to a particular project, and find that ever-elusive permanent academic position. Many, and perhaps including me when my current project comes to an end, will find themselves adrift, project completed, but without a new project to go to or another, more senior, or more permanent position, to look forward too. The more cynical amongst us might interpret this to mean, "thanks Private PostDoc, you've done a good job on that project and completed it as set out. You're sacked."

In the 'good old days' the post doc was seen as a stepping stone to an academic position but it would seem that is increasingly not the case. I say this, but people have been telling me this story ever since my short research career began in 2006, (seven years ago at the time of writing), and so it's difficult to really say with my current lack of knowledge exactly when those good old days used to be.

The main impetus behind this post however is to encourage patience, foresight and positivity. When I was coming out of my publishing adventure and back into academia, one thing that struck me in the job market (albeit in a fairly economically depressed part of the Midlands and at a time of limited confidence) was that for someone with my qualifications, a post doctoral research project really was a rather good job. Trust me, I've looked, and you can't apply for very many jobs that are as interesting, rewarding and with so much potential 'off the shelf'. That's not to say these opportunities aren't out there, but I suspect you might need to work your way up to them, or even possess some other professional qualifications etc. So what I'm saying is, a post doc is a bloody good job. There, I said it.

A sage piece of advice I was once given when I was umming and ah-ing about whether to pursue academia or not was given to me by a young lecturer. He said, "go into academia by all means, but whatever you do, go in with your eyes open". I really took this advice on board, and although it remains early days for me I will do my best to follow it. For example, to be a lecturer is to work hard. Very hard. To become responsible for your own research funding, to supervise students, to work together with others in widely varying fields, to perform admin tasks. What I'm trying to say is, the permanent academic position is not the promised land. It's just an opportunity – usually a very well-deserved opportunity - to continue to strive in exactly the same way you have done as a post doc. So it's a position to be sought after, even striven after, but not necessarily to be envied or coveted. 

Another aspect of the 'eyes open' advice is to take your time. So what if you have to work as a post doc for a long time? Well, it could be difficult in terms of your personal situation, houses, mortgages, partners, relocation etc. You might find yourself unable to keep living in the same place due to lack of opportunities for you there, having a disruptive effect on your life. Well OK, we all know this now. We need to be aware of the rules of the game in which we are playing. We might not like it, but until we can change it, we must attempt to live with it too, succeed in it, and then change it from within.

We are all responsible for our own personal development, in partnership with our employers, and so we should make sure we understand what it is that we need to do in order to grow and progress. Likewise it is the job of our employers to keep us properly informed of opportunities, schemes, funding, fellowships and jobs to apply for once our funding term is coming to an end. We are then also responsible for finding stuff out. We need to challenge our employers (nicely!! we are their employees) and make sure they clarify our situations.

Positivity and patience are key. The main way 'up and out' of the post doc life is to succeed in research, become independent, and publish lots of papers. Like it or not we are going to be measured by the quality and quantity of the research that we produce. (Spend less time writing blog posts!) I'm not necessarily saying that I'm going to succeed in this grand scheme or that I know how. I don't, but I do know it is going to be hard and I'm going to try and enjoy it, and, if I don't enjoy it, I should probably go and do something else. It's definitely worth asking the question of your human resources department and your boss when your post doc is coming to an end: what happens now? 

All I know is, if you've embarked on a research career and you've got this far, you're quite a long way along the rainbow. Keep going to the end, and you may just find a pot of gold.

A pot of gold.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Being a fresher - part two.

This is part two of a two part post. Part one is here

A couple of weeks ago I started this post with a bit of reflection on my journey to Nottingham as a first year undergraduate way back in 2002.

After I wrote that post, I had an unexpected job to do that made me feel as though my physics career had come around full circle, as life in general seems to have the ability to do, and almost always more than once. The big boss was away and I had to cover his first year physics tutorials. Hmm, I suppose I'd better look at the questions then, I thought. Wouldn't want to look silly, would I?

1. A ball is thrown vertically into the air and reaches a maximum height of 12 metres. What speed has it reached when it is 0.5 m from the ground, on the way down?

Hints. You are on planet Earth. Neglect air resistance.

(OK, not one of the real questions. The questions' identities have been changed to protect the innocent.)

I was immediately transported back to the very first week of physics at Nottingham where problem sheets were handed out each Monday morning, to be handed in complete by 9am the following Monday. 'There are a lot of questions', I remember saying to my tutor. 'People are saying the homework is taking them about ten hours', I gasped.

'Yes, ten hours sounds about right', said he, to my utter horror.

Ten hours! I had checked my timetable and seen that I had about 20 contact hours (lectures, labs) or thereabouts each week, and was thinking, bingo: plenty of time for guitar playing, eating, general self-indulgent introspection, and facial hair experimentation. But seriously, my main conclusion was that this whole 'uni' thing was going to be fairly easy, each 'spare' hour would be spent with the aforementioned diversions, and my general off-the-wall enthusiasm and devil-may-care approach to physics problem solving would see me through, lecture courses would simply flow into my brain via osmosis; the mere fact that I owned a text book or two would make the difference, and they would be etching my name on the Class Champion Trophy months, nay, years ahead of graduation.

But oh how desperately wrong I was. My first year undergraduate physics course had clearly been designed to sort the intellectual wheat from the chaff, and I was in the process of being severely beaten on the threshing floor of science.

My friends and I would normally get round to looking at the question sheets at about 3pm on Sunday afternoon. We would get some of them done, morale would go up. We would get stuck, morale would go down. We would come to the realisation that we would need to give up before the questions were done, then came acceptance, and then, if time, came the Pub.

The simple fact was that getting the homework done was only part of the problem. At that stage of my life, just getting to the department for 9am to hand the darned things in was quite a significant challenge. This could have been due to having been in the Pub, but there was something deeper. I just didn't have what it took to turn up at given places, at given times. It was remarkably frustrating to live through yet I never seemed able to take positive action about it (set... and obey... an alarm... near the time you need to get up...)

It's wrong. Stick a line through it.

Anyway, the solutions to the problems would be posted up behind glass in wooden-framed notice boards, the physicsy contraband, which one was of course expected to study diligently, learning from one's mistakes and generally growing as a person. I did used to go and look, and I healed and grew as a result. I was often wowed by the beauty and simplicity of the answers. I was also often shocked by the complexity of what I was expected to have done.

Anyway, anyway, the first year physics tutorials. Well the students were bloody bright and a credit to themselves. I don't think I was that good when I was in their shoes. I hope they weren't living through some of the (metaphorical) tooth-grinding, low-confidence, lack of self-motivation that I was when I was their age (thought if they were lucky they were producing the kind of mindblowingly original facial hair designs and general cultural wizardry that I was). I suppose what I'm getting at is that when you are 18-19 years old, you are busy being just that. You are at the start of your cultural and intellectual prime, yet you are in a foreign city (usually), doing really hard work, being challenged and stimulated in ways and on magnitudes that you haven't experienced before. Hats off to the brainy buggers.

What did they think of me though? It was quite weird. I'm clearly a bit younger than your average Prof, so therefore a bit cooler and more down with the kids. Right? Put them at their ease, have a few chuckles. Yes? Well, they could probably tell I wasn't as experienced as a Prof. (i.e. I am not a Prof at all. MPW), that one thing is for sure. I may do them discredit here, but I somehow doubt it crossed their minds to think of me as just a version of them, a mirror 11 years into their future, that my very being there with them meant that I sat where they sat once, albeit in a different city, cause it really doesn't feel that long ago, not long at all, since I was piling those things into the back of my Dad's car.

This is part two of a two part post. Part one is here

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Being a fresher - part one.

This is part one of a two part post. Part two is here

I look out of my ivory tower and I see the students milling like tiny ants far below in the concourse of The University of Sheffield and I know that time has come again: as a new academic year dawns, the fabled fresh autumn air blows in with its breath of hope, germs, and anticipation.

The shifting currents of air accompany a profound and irreversible change in the lives of many thousands of students coming to study at university for the first time. The freshers that have made it to Sheffield have already embarked upon one of the most incredible journeys this old life has to offer, hungry for achievement and academic glory, but above all else, sandwiches, as the new 12 o'clock queue at John's Van proves.

A word on procrastination. I had planned to write a post marking 10 years since I was a fresher myself - the days of heady optimism in a blustery autumn in Nottingham. Well, I started writing that about a year ago, but all sorts of work and devilry got in the way in the intervening time. So here we are again, 10, nay, 11 years since I was first a fresher. Here are a few thoughts on what it meant to me - though I wish I could remember better.

I packed select contents of my bedroom into the boot of my Dad's car, without much forethought or any sort of 'box' system, a sort of loose pile of objects, and we made the approximately 1 hour trip up the M1 motorway to Nottingham. There's a big gap in my memory (I had a comprehensive education, there are all these comprehensive gaps...), and although I'm sure we did something nice in the intervening time, before too long anyway my Dad was making the right turn onto the Derby Road with a yawning chasm of space and a silence around him in the car - how he must have felt at that moment, I do not know, or maybe he just put on some music. But anyway, there it was, the finality of it: I was now in Nottingham, alone in a renting house. I was at Uni.

Why was I not in halls? Nottingham was my second choice University and by the time I had confirmed the place, it was too late for a place in halls.

I can clearly remember that the landlord had not finished decorating the place, having perhaps expected me a day or so later, but I distinctly recall a lady being in to clean the property as I unpacked. I had just made my bed for the first time with my orange-and-brown hand-me-down duvet cover. Now, I loved that duvet cover, but I get a pang of sadness when I remember this lady chatting to me. She saw the bed made up and said, 'that's nice, duck'. Could she have really liked it, or could she have just seen this poor lost boy and felt sorry for him? It's too long ago to be sure now.

What I was sure of in the year 2002 though was, I was no lost boy, but a roaring lion of a man! I was 18 years old, yes, a big manly 18-year-old. I had good A-levels in clever subjects. I was a musician, in a band, I was a tough Coventrian, I had a stripy beard. What more proof required? Yes, I had shaved stripes into my beard, and wore wooden beads around my neck that came from H&M Hennes. I don't have a picture to illustrate this specimen of a man, but some from a few months later, sans stripes, show the great hulking example of masculinity that I was.

Above: It's not piss. Below: two feet, one sock. (Thanks to Tea Hole).
What does this have to do with science though? you may or may not ask. Well, I had come to Nottingham to study physics. In the next bit of this post (it's getting a bit long, and I'm supposed to be working), I'll write about what it was like for me to be a first year physics student.

This is part one of a two part post. Part two is here

Thursday, 19 September 2013

PAPS2013 - spiders and steel

Last week I attended the Physical Aspects of Polymer Science conference, the 26th biennial meeting of the Institute of Physics Polymer Physics Group. This meeting has been running since the 1960s and showcases the strong tradition of polymer science (and physical aspects thereof) in the UK. It's also a meeting that resides deep in my own personal scientific folklore, having attended two of these meetings, in Durham and Bristol, as a fiesty and idealistic young Ph.D. student in the naughty noughties.

Due to my recent career gear change I had the great pleasure of being simply a member of the audience - with no poster or talk to deliver - and from this relaxing vantage point I was able to take in the full and varied program of the highly stimulating but questionably acronymed 'PAPS13'.

A couple of highlights for me happened in adjacent talks. The University of Manchester's Tom Waigh's talk about coherent x-ray imaging techniques went quite far in convincing me that we'll one day use special x-ray beam lines to make coherent images of materials on atomic scales, realising the dream of just 'taking pictures' of polymer (and other) molecules. Tom Waigh was not the only scientist at the conference to highlight the benefit of real space images over inverse-space scattering techniques, and Sheffield's own Nic Mullin showed some incredible AFM images where single polymer chains could be resolved.

The following talk came from Sheffield materials scientist Dr. Chris Holland, who explained some fascinating mechanical and rheological studies of spider silk, and the incredibly sensitive unspun 'dope' that the spider uses to spin its silken fibres. Despite all the interesting physics and rheology on show it was mother nature's example that truly hit home the strength of spider silk though, when our speaker related us his tale of an unfortunate bird who flew into a greenhouse back in Oxford that was home to his eight-legged research associates, at feeding time.  The feathery fool was comprehensively caught in the spiders' webs and had to be freed by human intervention. I had to wonder what sort of sticky end the bird might have met at the hands (legs) of this pack of hungry spiders, or if indeed the spiders were more scared of it than it was of them.

The real shudders came at the refreshment break shortly after though when I reached for a hot beverage. I made a very high pitched noise when I finally realised (after the brave Dr. Matt Mears had to point out) what was residing in the bottom of my mug.

Eight legs or sixteen?
A hairy spider.

Dr. Chris Holland assured me this hairy stowaway was not one of his collaborators, claiming that he prefers his coffee without spider. I only wanted a tea, and was glad I did not boil or drink Spid (think tea bag on the head, hot water, and milk) and he was later released into the wild. Whether you like them or not, they are incredible beasts. I am going to settle for respecting spiders from a distance, and marvel at the properties of their silk.

The conference dinner was held at the Kelham Island Museum and featured a self-guided tour of the museum's collection of artefacts chronicling Sheffield's steel-making heritage. This was followed by some enthusiastic extra-curricular drinking activities in the excellent Fat Cat pub and beyond to round off a great meeting.

More about spider silk:  
Laurie Winkless writing for Materials Today on Super-Strong Spider Silk
Oxford Silk Group webpage

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

471 litres of tea

The last about 10 months have seen a lot of change for this blogger, including starting two new jobs and two house moves, and even a return to the UK from Australia. Phew, I'm pooped, but I'm also very, very glad to be back in the saddle working as a post doc at the University of Sheffield.

After finishing a two-and-a-bit year stint working as a post doc at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, I spent 10 months working for Elsevier as a journal publisher and an Associate Editor. Perhaps I'll say more about that stint in publishing in a later blog post, and perhaps not, because I don't want to sound like some kind of newly formed expert in scientific publishing. Needless to say I could not resist the allure of the world of scientific research and here I am, back in the saddle, like a scientific cowboy. Yeee-ha!

It's a mug

To facilitate my transition back to the academic world my wife has bought me a scientific mug to smoothen the synapses with freshly brewed tea. The mug depicts a collection of objects in the solar system and various facts about their diameters, orbits etc. She rightly pointed out the conspicuous presence of Pluto, our de-classified solar system mascot. We assumed that the design dated from before our cold and distant cousin was torn from the hall of planetary fame, and we also mused that perhaps these issues were not at the forefront of the minds of people who sell mugs. Since the mug's design makes no attempt to classify the objects depicted thereon, planet, star or otherwise, I am quite happy that Pluto is there and I find the little yellow dot pleasantly nostalgic.

To get me back into the scientific mentality, a brief calculation on how much tea per year is likely to be quaffed from this receptacle. The mug has a diameter of approximately 10 cm and a similar height (yes, a fat aspect ratio). Thus its volume is pi*5cm^2*10cm or 0.785 litres. I plan to empty this mug an average of three times a day, five days a week, and I estimate that about 40 weeks a year will be spent in the Department. Thus I estimate 471 litres of tea will be drunk per year, which for your information is 9.42 petrol tanks full on my car.