Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Planespotting for Beginners

Once upon a time when I lived in Sydney, Australia, I was standing down at the beachfront one night looking out into the dark distance of the Pacific Ocean when a single, plaintive light came twinkling into existence on the horizon. The lonely light gradually drifted closer and grew in strength, and without a great leap of recognition I soon realized that I was watching a late evening flight arriving in from New Zealand. Covering those vast distances, even at the jet-powered speed of a commercial airliner, there was something slow and sad about the light drifting wistfully closer.

I don’t know about you, but for me there are few more humbling sights as a human being than to look out on a clear night and see the silent winking of an aircraft’s lights, especially when it’s high overhead and as it makes its way into the distance. There is something about the scale and distance of the immense and powerful aircraft covering its monumental journey, whilst looking no more than a speck in the sky, that brings me for some reason very much in touch with the fragility of life, and the true tininess of human beings in comparison with the vast space of our planet and its atmosphere. Even though commercial airline flight is clearly a widespread commodity in many parts of the world these days, we can always imagine that the people on the plane have some special trip ahead of them, some work meeting, or are perhaps heading back to their families and friends and the familiarity of home.

I couldn't resist choosing this particular picture of an aeroplane (it's not even an Austrian airline).
The work of RuthAS under a Creative Commons Licence.
We recently had a visit from a relative from Germany who is a commercial airline pilot. He was stopping over ready to pilot his flight the next day from a nearby airport, and having some free time decided he would come and see us and visit my grandfather, his great uncle. When he was growing up, he would see my grandfather on visits to my Austrian grandmother’s home village in the mountains. There they spent long and happy hours in each other's company, though as I understand it, the ambition to become a pilot did not come until many years later. Fast-forward to 2015, and there we were sitting in my grandfather's home in England, with a living breathing pilot telling his wide-eyed audience about the wonders of flight and the true realities of the career of a pilot, the good and the bad. We were of course, suitably starstruck.

During that meeting he suggested we get hold of a cheap plane-tracking app, easily downloadable from the app store or whatever, for a bit of fun to track him back home the next day. I went for PlaneFinder, but in reality I see there are many available, and (even normal) people use them to track relatives flying in for a visit.

There are more planes than I thought.

Apart from happily tracking our relative back home the following morning, directly over the roof of Grandad’s care home, my current usage is far more nerdy than tracking my rellies. If I’m walking through the park or on my way to and from work, and see a vapour trail tracing across the sky, I will look it up. I find out which airline and aircraft is flying the journey, and where the people on board are headed (sometimes bringing back unpleasant memories of long-haul flights to and from Australia). I see how long I can keep sight of a particular plane as it soars into the distance. It helps me to visualize something that has often captured my interest and imagination: the true scale of the island upon which I live. The other night I just about managed to watch a plane from passing mostly overhead to the point where it passed the coast and headed out over the North Sea, before I lost track of it in the haze. 

They say the aeroplane has shrunk the planet, but I think in a way it can also help to teach us how big it really is compared to us, or rather how small we are in comparison to it. As a physicist I appreciate anything that helps me to make these visualisations.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Parental leave: this is where we get people from

I have returned to work after six weeks of an extended paternity leave for the birth of my first child, taking advantage of new UK rules that let both partners share the total amount of maternity leave - in my case meaning I have taken four of my wife's weeks of leave and added them to my statutory two weeks. By doing this, I've tripled the normal amount of time I would usually have had off work for this happy occasion, and have spent six great weeks learning how to look after, and getting to know, a bouncing baby boy.

Under its more relaxed guises, academia *can* be a very flexible environment, so I'm pretty sure I'm nowhere near the first person to take this amount of time off (or more) for the birth of a child. However, because the regulations only came in around April of this year or so, I do know that I am one of the first batch of fathers in my workplace to take the official shared parental leave arrangements.
Fairly obligatory.
These rules are a step forward in gender equality in the workplace since they acknowledge that parents may wish to share out the early parts of childcare and that this crucial time is not solely the responsibility of birth mothers. From a new father's perspective, it reinforces the idea that fathers are primary parents and not second class mums. Also, I have read before words from aggressive business leaders bemoaning the risk of hiring a woman who may fall pregnant, or choose to adopt perhaps, incurring the operational and financial costs of maternity leave. These arrangements are a step in the right direction to alleviate this inequality, removing the requirement that it is necessarily the employers of mothers who foot the "bill"; that in some cases men will take extended periods of absence too. In this way, men and women can be in it together. Now our split was very moderate, with me just taking four extra weeks, but as I understand it things could be a lot more equal, or even skewed to the father or non birth partner taking more leave.

The personal benefits of taking this extra time off (six weeks instead of two) were clear from the outset. More time off is more time with the new baby, this brand new and wholly inept person who famously does not come with a rule book. It was also a wake up call to the possibility that returning to work might actually be in some ways the easier option (with the caveat that this strongly depends on where you work, hats off to the policemen and doctors I knew for example, who were back saving people after precisely two weeks). I'm sure a lot of workplaces afford good opportunities for a quiet tea break, or just a nice regimented regime to counteract all the crying and nappies. I feel more confident after six weeks that I understand the challenges my partner faces in the approximately 9-10 months she has left on her maternity leave.

Bringing up kids not a full-time job. It is three full-time jobs: 9 - 5, 5 - 1 and 1 - 9 (thanks Mum, thanks Dad).

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Mike Monomer: "Polymer Song"

Dear all.

My YouTube account was hacked today by someone going by the name of "Mike Monomer" in what seems best described as an act of educational vigilantism.

He left this calling card. Enjoy.

Mike Monomer: Polymer Song
(c) 2015 Reptation Records

Well I'm a polymer scientist and when I meet new people
We talk about the weather or the news
But I always dread the question where they ask, "what do you do?"
So I wrote this little song to see me through.

I say I work on polymers and sometimes they go blank
'Cause polymer is not a common word in people's memory banks
If I say I work with plastics I sometimes have more fun
'Cause everyone knows what plastic is 'cause we use it by the tonne

Well polymers are molecules that make up things like plastics
But also things like rubber, or you could say elastic
Even DNA is polymer that's very, very long
But I think we'll do that in another song

The plastics mankind uses are too numerous to sing
But they're extremely versatile and good for processing
And once we've used some plastic, it doesn't go in the bin
'Cause it's good at being recycled and then used all over again


Yes, polymers are molecules that look like bits of string
Or much like cooked spaghetti if you happen to zoom right in
But for that you'll need a microscope to see what's really there
'Cause each one is one millionth of the width of a human hair


There's polystyrene, Perspex(TM), and uPVC
There's PVA and PEO and PET
There's one certain polymer whose name I think is great
poly(2-[dimethylamino]ethyl methacrylate)


Friday, 20 March 2015

To volunteer or not to volunteer : doing something extra in academia (via Think Ahead Sheffield)

I originally wrote this post for the Think Ahead Blog, brought to you by the Researcher Professional Development Team at The University of Sheffield. You can find the original post hereMany thanks to Think Ahead for the opportunity to write this article!

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”.

- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of The Ring (voice of Gandalf)

Successful time management could well be the most critical challenge for research staff trying to forge ahead in the early stages of their careers. Gandalf’s words of wisdom may well have been about dealing with the looming threat of cataclysmic evil, but I don’t think many post-doctoral researchers today feel too far away from the cutting realities of the ‘publish or perish’ academic world. I’ve certainly been reminded enough times that a healthy publication record is a huge part of securing that elusive permanent academic position.

This train of thought leads me to one conclusion: close the blog post you are working on, step down from your committees and get that research manuscript submitted. Your sole job is to produce research, and everything else pales into insignificance. Right?

Actually, I would argue that a small and considered amount of ‘extra-curricular’ activity, e.g. volunteering on a committee, engaging in outreach, or even teaching (if that’s not already an integral part of your job), can greatly boost the rest of your research life.

It’s certainly true that as a research associate (like me for example) working on a grant for a principal investigator (PI), it’s more that likely that you are very deliberately employed to produce research as your main job. Relationships with bosses, and perspectives can vary a lot, making it more or less difficult for some of us to engage in activities outside research. It’s certainly the culture of some bosses to expect an almost unerring commitment to research, to the exclusion of other activities. However, some contracts allow for a small amount of flexible professional development, and it may be worth checking yours and your funding body’s rules for clarification if you are not sure. For example the RCUK owned Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers stipulates 10 days per year professional development activity for each of us – how you interpret, negotiate, and use that is up to you.

This is the point at which I ask myself, “what sort of researcher do I want to be?”. Your profile as a researcher, at any level, depends on how you engage with others. Although writing scholarly articles is one form of engagement, and one that connects us with a global community, I suspect there is a large part of our profile that comes from those extra things we do closer to home. 

Professional development is a vital part of the make up of any successful researcher, and the skills we’ll need as young Lecturers, or independent Research Fellows (or whatever we would like to be doing), in the future are relevant right now. Take part in a measured amount of ‘voluntary’ work outside of the normal route of your research and I believe you will develop these skills and meet some brilliant people along the way.

For example, apart from attending thrice-yearly meetings of the Faculty of Science Researcher Development Group as a post-doc representative for Physics & Astronomy, I have also become involved with organizing an Away Day for post-doctoral research staff. This has been an eye-opening experience, not least because of the great people I have met from parts of the University where I would never have ventured to tread; our team now spans several departments and crosses faculties. These fantastic, motivated people have inspired me, whilst also showing me a fresh perspective on the research life of the University – I have quickly learned things are by no means done in the same way in different parts of the institution. Organizing an event ‘by the post-docs, for the post-docs’ has allowed me to think about what it is that I want from my role. For example, our Away Day theme this year is about communicating your research, and in devising activities and inviting speakers based on this theme, we as organizers have all found examples of good practice that we can apply in our own work. Not to mention experience in managing a mini project and a budget.

Going back to the quotation, getting the balance right and deciding “what to do with the time that is given to us” is the hard part, and I’ve no doubt that at times we will all wish to dial down our voluntary activities and concentrate on our research. There might not be as simple a balance as we expect, though: US science writer Jennifer Ouellette (@JeanLucPiquant on Twitter) explained in a recent talk (for the American Physcial Society) that the normalized research output of academics has actually been shown to increase when subjects took on a small amount of engagement or outreach. Those who took on too much, however, saw their productivity fall again. So while it really is about balance, it may not be the case that it’s in the best interest of our research to minimize all other activity!

One thing that I am certain about is that we are all different, and success is about finding the balance that works for you and your career.

All the best to you in experimenting with the formula.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The internet is furious with Science

I recently read this article summing up the relative financial cost to US science graduates and PhDs of staying in science. This article of course raises some pertinent issues around a US science system that seems, to my delicate sensibilities, a bit cut-throat, not to mention keeping people in ‘grad school’ into their 30’s even without any gap years. There are many valid points in this article. I also would not like to try and make ends meet in New York City or London as a scientist, and fair play to you if you are.

It pains me though to think in terms of the cost of science, and I can’t help noticing a lot of articles on the web bemoaning the general lot in life of scientists. A lot of them are the comic strips and memes (bleugh) I see shared a lot on social media that I think romanticize a sense of martyrdom among scientists and a general feeling that we are all hard done by, unique little snowflakes having to put up with terrible, overbearing supervisors, awful dungeon-like laboratories and the career prospects of an ice-road trucker in the era of some advanced runaway greenhouse effect. There just isn’t enough out there to balance it out (it probably makes sense… “Scientist happy in job” is about on an interest level with “cat gets stuck up a tree” I guess).

The internet is furious with Science.
I just can’t get on board with this notion that science is some savage taskmaster that chews up and spits out early career researchers (making the internet furious in the process, by the way). Yep, it’s hard. It’s meant to be. I’m going to tell you what I think is the benefit of being in science. It’s our job to find out interesting and cool things about the way the world works. We are allowed to think long and deeply about why and how the particular part of the universe we study works. We get paid (even some Ph.D. students do too) to explore and think and play around with stuff. On the other side, we are of course expected to produce data, interpretations, theories, inventions, results etc. that benefit the scientific community and the general public, sometimes in immediate and tangible ways, and sometimes in ways that will filter down in time. Some of what we do will benefit nobody at all, ever, but that is the nature of life and a risk we can never avoid.

I think a lot of the stuff I see on the web is trying to be positive, really. It serves to unite people around their experiences. It’s only human to like having a common cause (or enemy). By making our occasionally rankling feelings known we are acknowledging the difficulties of scientific life, which are there for all to see; we are saying that this is a hard life but a good life and we moan about it because we really want to succeed. It means a great deal to us. We see the value and therefore we feel the frustrations all the more acutely. I would also venture that British scientists need to take what’s written (or drawn) as a result of the US science system with a very critical eye; I don’t think we are necessarily always talking about the same things.

Being able to do science is a great gift. In the words of this blog and previous sage scientists who have gone before me, you must go in to science with your eyes open. The privilege to work on these problems is one to be treasured. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be competitive, but if you ever feel like science has cost you something then you’ve lost me.