Research without Borders: from the exhibitor’s stand, with Heide Busse

On Monday 9 May the Bristol Doctoral College hosted the ‘Research without Borders‘ festival, a showcase of postgraduate research excellence with over 100 student exhibits. Heide Busse, a second-year PhD student in the School of Social and Community Medicine, spoke to us about her experience as an exhibitor. Her research is funded by The Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer), a UKCRC Public Health Research Centre of Excellence. Follow Heide on Twitter @HeideBusse.

On the 9th of May, I swapped office and computer for an afternoon at @tBristol science centre, where I participated in the annual “Research without Borders” event. This event is organised by the University of Bristol and provides PhD students across the university an opportunity to showcase their work to other researchers, funders, university partners and charities with the overall aim to stimulate discussion and spark ideas.

It did sound like a good and fun opportunity to tell others about my research so I thought ‘why not, see how it goes’ – immediately followed by the thought ‘alright, but what actually works to make visitors come and have a chat to me and engage with my exhibition stand’?

Luckily, help was offered by the organising team for the event from Bristol Doctoral College in terms of how to think of interactive ways to present my research – and not to just bring along the last poster that was prepared for a scientific conference. For instance, we developed the idea to ask visitors to vote on an important research question of mine. That way, visitors could engage with my research and I could at the same time see what they thought about one of my research questions!

My PhD research looks more closely at the potential of mentoring as an intervention for young people in secondary schools. There are quite a few formal mentoring programmes offered to pupils but there is hardly any research in this area to suggest whether this actually works in helping to improve young people’s health, wellbeing or educational outcomes. To provide information for different audiences, I also brought a scientific poster along, as well as leaflets about my work and the work of The Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer), a UKCRC Public Health Research Centre of Excellence, which funds my PhD.


Exhibition Stand

On the day itself, over 100 PhD students exhibited their work in lots of different ways, including a few flashy displays and stunning posters about their research. We were given different research themes and I was included in the “population health” research theme – alongside 16 other research themes ranging from “quantum engineering”, “condensed matter physics” to “neuroscience” and “clinical treatments”.

All ready to go just in time before the official event started, I really hoped I wouldn’t be left alone for the rest of the afternoon polishing the pebbles that I had organised for my live voting. Fortunately, that didn’t happen! Time flew and without realising I chatted away for two and half hours to a constant flow of over visitors and other exhibitors – and actually hardly managed to move away to have a look around other people’s exhibitions. In total, I have been told, there were 200 people attending the event.

Visitors told me about their own mentoring experiences when they were younger, spoke about the things that mentors do and asked me questions about my research, such as why I research what I research, the methods that I am using in my research and what relevance I think my research can have for mentoring organisations- all questions that I could imagine could be re-asked in a PhD viva (in which case I guess it’s never too early to prepare!). This really made me think about my research and practice ways in which I can communicate this clearly to people who might be less familiar with the field or with research in general without babbling on for too long!

Note left by visitor

Note left by visitor

At the end of the event, I was really curious to see how many people interacted with my research and to look at the results of the live voting. I had asked individuals to vote on the following question: “Do you think mentoring young people in secondary schools has long-term benefits to their health?” and was actually quite surprised to see that 22 out of 25 individuals who voted, voted for “Yes” which indicates that there is something about the word mentoring that makes people think that it is beneficial, which itself is an interesting finding. Not a single person voted “no” and three individuals voted “not sure”.

Pebbles and 'live voting' ballot boxes

Pebbles and ‘live voting’ ballot boxes

The whole afternoon went well and made me realise the importance and benefit of talking to a variety of other people about my research – I guess you never know who you are going to meet and whether questions by visitors might actually turn into research questions one day.

How about signing up to present your research at the upcoming ESRC festival of social science, the MRC festival of medical research, other science festivals, talking about your research in pubs or talking to colleagues in the public engagement offices at your university?


Remembering Wartime Westray: a project with Emily Glass

Emily Glass, a postgraduate researcher in the Department for Archaeology & Anthropology, is a woman with many projects on the go. Between digging onsite for the University of Bristol’s Berkeley Castle Project, preparing for her upgrade this summer, and conducting her regular research on communist Albania, she has also found time to work with the Westray Heritage Trust on a First World War community engagement event as part of the WWI centenary commemoration on the Orkney Island of Westray. We spoke to her about the project to learn about its potential impact and the value of preserving peoples’ stories in history.

‘Remembering Wartime Westray’ uses the 1916 Battle of Jutland and the sinking of HMS Hampshire as a focal point from which to explore how the island of Westray was impacted both physically and socially by the First World War.Image 5 Seaplane Station Pierowall

Image 8 Sphagnum Moss collection

Photos of Westray life from WWI: people’s memories contain the most vital and significant narrative pieces of Westray’s wartime history

Image 9 RAF Vehicle outside shop


Why this point, specifically? Ms. Glass contextualises these particular events, explaining how by 1916 England had already been at war for 2 years. The Battle of Jutland brought home for the residents of Orkney “the fragile nature of being at war…first-hand”, because “the knowledge that German U-Boats had been able to get so close to the naval fleet meant that the Orcadian Home Front was no longer impenetrable. The active front line of war had shifted right up to the shores of the islands, bringing the horror and trauma home.” Across the nation, conscription became mandatory, rationing increased, and the death toll rose steadily. Stress, uncertainty and wartime fatigue overcame the island’s population: “a collective sense of vulnerability and loss was felt, but it was necessary to maintain some level of normality to cope with the daily routine of island-life”. It is particularly this tension, and the human faces and voices of this time, that Ms. Glass hopes to capture.

Image 3.2 Montage of FWW Objects Page 15

Example of an embroidered postcard from Ms. Glass’s collection of artefacts.

Her project endeavours to create a display that invites the local public and visitors to reflect on the major events that took place on Westray’s Home Front, the role of WWI in shaping today’s Westray, and finally to collect the memories and stories that are still known from this particular period in time. Discussing the project with her and going through her materials, it is clear that a large part of her energy is focused on preserving stories from 1916 – which exist in the form of artefacts, wartime memorabilia, documents and people’s memories – before they disappear into the past altogether. “It is important to examine any physical remains of the First World War before they become unrecognised,” Ms. Glass explains, “and get the stories behind wartime objects while they are still known.”

The artefacts that Ms. Glass hopes to record are war souvenirs from WWI life: trench art, embroidered postcards, trophies of war, maps of Westray’s wartime places, diaries, photographs. The project will also host a series of workshops to gather these local memories and record the stories behind them, providing specialist training to Westray Heritage Trust staff and volunteers on the appropriate methods of recording wartime history. In this way, the project will contribute immensely to an increase in knowledge of the surrounding area, and provide an archive for future generations to explore.Image 1 - 1917 Wheat Fleet Propaganda Poster

All recordings will culminate in a permanent and publicly accessible documentary and photographic archive of wartime resources on Westray, and further contribute towards a planned 2018 exhibition to mark the centenary of the close of the First World War.

Remembering Wartime Westray is supported by the Orkney Islands Council World War One Culture Fund and the Westray Heritage Trust. It is aimed that this project will generate a significant increase in local knowledge that will contribute towards an archive legacy for future generations.

PGR Stories: Suzannah Young and researching the homeless

Suzannah Young is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Modern Languages. Her research aims to find out where help with language is needed in homelessness services in Bristol and Cardiff, and what support is already available to people who need it. She wrote a post for us discussing her research, its value and impact, and what her PhD process has entailed so far. 

Before starting at Bristol in September 2015, I worked for FEANTSA, the federation of homelessness services in Europe, for six years.  I am also a translator and have an interest in migration. My research project aims to find out where help with language is needed in Bristol and Cardiff homelessness services and what support is available to people who need help.

When people move to a new country, they can become vulnerable to poverty, isolation and discrimination.  If people who move country do not have access to employment or government help, or cannot find a place to live because landlords discriminate against them, they might end up homeless.  

Homeless people need to use services that give advice, defend their rights and provide material support like food, clothes and showers.  It can be difficult for people with low levels of English to use these services.  The services might not feel able to talk to these people either.  An interpreter (someone who translates a spoken message from one language into another) can help them interact with each other.  

When I was working at FEANTSA, I often came across research or reports on practice that said that language difference was a problem for homeless service providers.  It was a problem because they couldn’t communicate effectively with homeless people who spoke another language.  There wasn’t any discussion of what was done to solve this problem, though.  As I am passionate about languages and believe that everyone should have the right to a decent home, I wanted to set about finding out what was being done to help homeless people who speak other languages.

My research therefore looks at what is being done on the ground, in a context of squeezed budgets: whether people using homelessness services have access to interpreters or other types of language support, like staff who speak other languages, internet translation tools or peers (other service users) who act as interpreters.  The study compares the situations in Bristol and Cardiff.  It may discover good ways of working that services can copy from each other.

I would like to interview homelessness service users, homelessness service providers and language professionals to ask them about their experiences in this area – of accessing language support or of providing it.  The plan is also to ask service users to produce (anonymous if wished) video diaries in which they can say in their own language what they would have liked to have said if they had had access to an interpreter when using a service.  This would reflect their direct voice.  Asking participants to use visual representations also diffuses the tension of language – if they wish, they can ‘speak without words’.  

This project is multilingual because I will be interviewing people who speak a variety of languages.  This will mean that preparation and data collection will involve various time-consuming and expensive language-related tasks.  I will translate materials myself or through translators.  I will employ interpreters to mediate interviews.  I will use external transcribers to transcribe interview data and video diary entries in languages I do not understand.  I will use translators to check the accuracy of the interpreting for languages I do not understand and I will employ subtitlers to translate the video diaries for the languages I do not understand.

The results should reflect the multilingualism of the project itself.  I would like to provide a series of narratives for service users to take away, which can act as a guide to using language support services.  I will need to make this available in other languages (which would require money, time and proofreading).  The video diaries should be subtitled, and I hope the subtitles will be available in all the languages involved, not just in English.

The results of the study could be made available in a usable format to services for homeless people.  They could be made into a briefing document that gives examples of how to work with an interpreter or translator or how to deal with a communication problem.  Another briefing document for language professionals working for homelessness services can give specific guidelines about language requirements in homelessness services.

Morphing, composites and structural muscle: thoughts from an Advanced Composites postgraduate researcher

We asked Eric Eckstein, the recipient of the prestigious Jefferson Goblet award for ‘overall best student paper’ at the 57th AIAA/ASCE/AHS/ASC Structures, Structural Dynamics and Materials Conference, about his work with ‘morphing’ composites. The following is a guest post about his journey to Bristol and with his composites research as an Advanced Composites postgraduate researcher with the ACCIS CDT

A composite laminate made from carbon fiber and aluminum alloy, heated in an oven to 150°C. Aluminum wants to expand under heat, but carbon fiber doesn't. When you stick the two materials together, the whole laminate curls as each layer tries to have its own way.

A composite laminate made from carbon fiber and aluminum alloy, heated in an oven to 150°C. Aluminum wants to expand under heat, but carbon fiber doesn’t. When you stick the two materials together, the whole laminate curls as each layer tries to have its own way.

Bristol has been my home for the past four years, having originally been born and raised in the USA.  Our university is one of the most well-known in the field of composites research, and was really a perfect fit for my interests in morphing structures.  The big idea behind morphing is to open up new ways of changing the shape of an object.  Traditionally, engineers get things to move about using a collection of hinges and actuators, but in many situations, it’s better to facilitate movement using organic flexing and twisting motions.  Nature has been using these morphing techniques for millennia, we see it in action every time a flower pivots itself to track the sun, or a pine cone closes up in the rain.  Meanwhile, engineers aim to exploit the same principles in order to make everything from more efficient aircraft to haptic feedback touch screens.  This is all great, but what really turned me onto the subject was an opportunity to achieve morphing in a simple, elegant manner.

Most moving structures have actuators separate from the structure, just like how our muscles are separate from our bones.  Morphing structures, like those sun-tracking flowers, have their muscle and structure built into one.  For cases where engineers can take the same approach, their moving structures won’t need hinges, pistons, or any other steampunk-like hardware, thus they can be made beautifully simple.


Ceramix matrix composite morphing structure at room temperature.


When heated to 1000°C, the structure bends upwards by about 6mm, driven by the thermal expansion of a stainless steel strut.

One of the biggest challenges we face is finding a good structural muscle.  The perfect material for the job would be able to expand and contract on command, much like our own muscles, yet be stiff and strong enough to bear great loads.  A great deal of progress has been made on this front using metals and polymers which respond to heat by expanding or contracting, but composite materials open up a whole new world of possibilities.  Because their expansion and stiffness properties can be accurately tailored by the designer, they can allow for a rich variety of movements, everything from bending, twisting, to snapping shut like a venus fly-trap.  I think that working with composite materials is akin to an artist swapping out his charcoal pencil for a whole pallet of rich colours.

The simplicity of a thermally-driven morphing structure can give them a natural durability in adverse environments, such as salty seas or hot jet exhausts.  The right materials need to be found, of course, and that’s one of our main focuses.  Metal-matrix and ceramic matrix composites have given us promising results, however these materials are still very much adolescent developments, compared to mankind’s established metallics knowledge.

We hope of course that our technology is picked up by the aerospace industry, but the real icing on the cake would be to find other, much broader applications.  I’ve read about an idea where morphing micro-capsules of a virus-fighting drug could be injected into your body, lying in wait for months until you get a fever.  That increase in body temperature triggers the thermally-driven morphing capsule to release the drug automatically.  Who knows what other applications exist?

10 reasons to exhibit your work at ‘Research without Borders’

RwB croppedNot sure why you might want to showcase your research at ‘Research without Borders’? Here’s 10 good reasons why you might want to get involved:

1. Get out of the lab / library


We spend so much of our time focusing on doing our research that we sometimes forget that there is a whole world of exciting opportunities for us to take advantage of! Take a break for a few hours and come down to @Bristol to tell others about what you’ve been working on. You’ll be much more relaxed and refreshed when you return to your work – and you might even have a few new ideas to try out!

2. Meet other researchers and connect with the wider Bristol community

UoB instagram account

UoB instagram account

Postgraduate research is so specialised and individual that sometimes you forget that you are part of a community of more than three thousand research students. Come and meet one another, share ideas – you might even make some new friends!

3. Potential employers

This year you won’t just be showcasing your research to other PGRs and the Bristol academic community – we’ll also be inviting key external partners, including academics from other institutions, industrial partners, local community groups and organisations, the Bristol City Council – the list goes on and on. Let us know if there is anyone in particular that you would like us to invite. This is an ideal opportunity for you to network with these high-profile guests. You never know, this could be a foot in the door for your post-PhD career!


4. Meet the people funding your research

We’ll also be extending an invitation to the charities and research councils who fund your research. This is your opportunity to show them what you have been doing with the money they have invested in you. It’s also a great opportunity for you to speak with funders about any ideas you might have for future research projects. It never hurts to make friends with the people who hold the purse strings!


Jorge Cham, PhD Comics

5. Talk to interested people about your research

Your supervisors, parents, partner, and friends are probably all getting a bit tired of hearing about your work. This is an ideal opportunity to talk to others who haven’t yet heard all about it. Plus, it’s always a good challenge to try to explain your research in a way that others can understand it. Take advantage of the fact that you’ll have a captive audience on hand.

6. Explore interconnections between your work and others’

You won’t be the only one doing all of the talking – this is a great opportunity for you to find out what other people are working on. You might just realise that there are connections between your work and others. Breaking out of your research bubble is never a bad idea!

7. Generate new ideas and collaborationsBCCS4

Be an academic in action! Meet new people, develop new ideas, learn from one another – that’s what being an academic is all about! This is your opportunity to spark new ideas with people you might not encounter in your day-to-day work.

8. Apply your expertise to real-world problems

Not sure what kind of impact your research could have on global challenges? How about problems affecting the city of Bristol itself? In addition to the research showcase there will also be opportunities for you to contribute your expertise to addressing real-world problems. A series of ‘Grand Challenges’ will be running throughout the day, enabling you to see how your knowledge and experience can help to solve some of world’s biggest problems.

9. Win prestigious prizes 

In the past, we’ve given away iPads, ferry boat rides, restaurant vouchers, Amazon vouchers… you never know what you might win! This year is no exception! We’ll be offering prizes for the 3MT, best poster display and best interactive research display.

*we’d like to confirm that, sadly, not everyone can win a prize

10. It’ll be fun! 

With interactive maps, graffiti walls and quick-fire talks, this event is going to be jam-packed with fun activities for everyone! Free drinks and food are just the icing on the cake.


Even the minions are excited for Research without Borders

So what are you waiting for? Sign up and reserve your place now!

What is the NSPPS and why should you get involved?

Alan Kennedy, a postgraduate researcher from the School of Geographical Sciences, writes about why he enjoys attending the Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session (NSPPS) year after year, and why current students should consider signing up. Already know you want to take part? Apply here!

The NSPPS is, it appears, now quite an establishment in Bristol: 2016 will be the event’s ninth year. What is it, and what has secured its place in the University of Bristol calendar for all these years?

Well, as the name suggests, it is an academic poster session welcoming pretty much anything relating to the science of the natural world. It turns out this description covers a lot of science, with representatives from Earth Sciences, Geographical Sciences, Physics, Life Sciences, Engineering, Chemistry and Mathematics. It’s a fascinating melting pot of ideas with some quirky and abstract topics on show, but each being a tiny, crucial cogwheel in the Earth’s system. The range of topics can show off the University’s diverse scientific community, spark collaborations and simply baffle all at the same time.

Besides the ‘boring’ scientific part of the event, NSPPS is a great occasion. Set in the Wills Memorial Building Great Hall, there is a plentiful stock of free food and drink and the social side of the event is great. Often the people carrying out the research are even more colourful than the science itself (especially after some free drinks). The social side also ensures the whole event is very relaxed, making it a great opportunity to get some practice and early feedback on your poster and presentation skills before taking on external conferences. Maybe you’re thinking of going to EGU in April? Then this is the perfect warm up. Added to that, there is healthy competition with entrants battling it out for a series of prizes from staff and student votes for the best posters. They’re proper prizes too (I can verify, last year I won an Acer tablet for the staff vote), so it’s definitely worth entering!

So here’s why NSPPS is still live and kicking after 9 years: diverse science, diverse people, laid back atmosphere, prizes and (of course) free food and drink.

Where? Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building.

When? 2-5pm, Monday 7th March.

Deadlines: Abstract submissions by midnight, Friday 29th February. Apply now!

The Bristol PLUS Award: Awal Fuseini

The Bristol PLUS Award recognises and rewards University of Bristol students who have gained significant professional and life skills through work experience, volunteering and other activities outside of their studies. The award is designed to help you enhance your CV, develop a variety of employability skills and be more prepared for the interview process. 

Awal Fuseini, a doctoral student in the School of Veterinary Sciencesshared his experience with completing the Bristol PLUS Award last year.

As a postgraduate research student, I am always on the lookout for any extracurricular activity that can improve my confidence, networking skills, presentation skills and add some weight to my CV, because I am well aware that recruiters/ employers are now looking beyond degree certificates. The activities leading to the award of the Bristol Plus Award certainly tick most of the boxes, hence why I decided to complete it.

The interactive nature of the workshops means all participants are encouraged to actively take part, this builds confidence and improves on team working skills. Some of the workshops eg the interview skills workshop gives participants useful information on what employers look for during interviews including body language skills, dress code and general interview skills. One of the most important workshops I attended was: The power of relationships in the work place.  After the workshop, I learnt very important skills that will enable me to work successfully with any difficult person in my future career no matter how complex the person’s life is. Other useful workshops included: Developing leadership skills and Clueless about your careers?

During the work experience aspect of the award, I was able to gain valuable work experience whilst getting paid and more importantly use it towards the award. My work experience was with a food certification company in London. My role involved visiting food processing companies and slaughterhouses to ensure that all procedures were consistent with the standards of the certification body. I did also do some administrative duties at the Head Office as well.

I have already encouraged some of my peers to complete the Bristol Plus Award and I will not hesitate in recommending it to the wider University of Bristol postgraduate research student community, it is a worthwhile award!

Curious? Think you can stand out from the crowd? Attend one of the Introductory talks hosted by the University’s Careers Service. For an overview of the award structure, see the below graphic:

New PLUS structure 

Help is at hand

To close out our day of discussing the silver linings of our Postgraduate Researcher’s work, and how they keep their heads up and stay motivated, we thought we’d offer a note about help.

PhD students are more likely to suffer from neglect, isolation, feelings of fraudulence and performance anxiety under pressure. They face an insecure economic future, and an increasingly unstable job market. It’s no wonder that mental health issues are on the rise amongst this demographic – and it’s time that we opened up the door to the fact that Higher Education has problems. We have to confront these painful truths and reach out to help. Institutions owe their students and their staff the appropriate resources and services to help them deal with mental health & wellbeing.

The University of Bristol offers a comprehensive counselling service complete with a list of group therapy sessions and personal wellbeing workshops. It  also has its own physical library and virtual resource centre. We also subscribe to the Big White Wall campaign, and recommend this online resource for anyone struggling to express themselves or reach out about a pressing issue that has been weighing them down.

The city of Bristol also has a host of services, mindfulness groups, helplines and charities available for all manner of support issues. Below is a brief, collated list of free helplines that are available (mostly) 24/7 that deal with some of the most prevalent issues PGRs tend to face in terms of mental illness and emotional support. This is by no means comprehensive, and it certainly doesn’t cover the entire range of issues that any individual may face. See National Mind’s tips for everday support, and this list of Local Mental Health Charities for further information.

Lastly, if you feel that your needs are not being met, please speak up. Never hesitate to get in touch if you don’t know where to turn, because there is always help at hand.

Sabrina Fairchield: “Why I Love My PhD”

Sabrina Fairchild is a PhD candidate in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Bristol.

What has been the highlight of your PhD so far?

The variety of places I have been able to visit. I have conducted archival research in England, the United States, Canada, France, China and Hong Kong. I even got to present my research in Japan. This is one of the unique benefits of being a researcher – and even though travelling can be quite tiring, the experiences you gain are incomparable.

Do you have any funny stories to share from your research and travels?

Once, when I was working at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., I was working with documents no one had touched since the early 1990s. I didn’t know this at the time — all I knew was that all my documents arrived wrapped in really annoying cellophane that I had to rip off before I could open the volumes. As there were no rubbish bins in the document reading area (for obvious reasons) I had to take all the wrapping to one of the floor attendants so they could get rid of it themselves. One day, after my umpteenth trip, the attendant approached me and informed me that the volumes had been shrink-wrapped in 1991 or 1992 to preserve the documents. The fact that the cellophane remained meant that no one had looked at them in the last twenty-years! This was either, he teased me, a very good thing or a very bad thing for my PhD. Since paying attention to the American presence in China has become one of my driving interests, I’ve chosen to believe it was a very good thing indeed.

When you’re stuck, or feeling frustrated, what helps you stay motivated?

I like to do something completely unrelated to my research. I’ve had the best breakthroughs when I leave my desk and gone for a run or a body balance class. I’ll either put the pieces together in the middle of the exercise or while I’m walking back. Often, that feeling of finally understanding something makes the original frustration seem worthwhile.

“Why I Love My PhD” is an ongoing series inspired by The Guardian’s series of the same name, about how our Postgraduate Researchers stay enthused about their work and what keeps them going on the harder days. If you would like to share your story or contribute, please get in touch.

Thomas Farrugia: “Why I Love My PhD”

Thomas Farrugia is a PhD candidate within the School of Chemistry, and was a contestant in our 3MT contest last year. In three words, he describes his research as “Biocatalysis”, “Materials”, and “Proteins”. 

Tell us about a time you have felt a distinct sense of pride in your work.

Finding a way around, or solving, a problem in systems I am working with is always a great kick – one case being where I found that I could produce the films I work with directly in cuvettes, meaning I could easily sample their chemical activity and run more samples in the same amount of time.

Are there any particular funny moments that keep you going in boring or tedious moments?

I remember having one colleague who was working with a pink dye whilst making a molecule – we could always work out where we had been or what he had used and touched because it simply got everywhere!

When you feel frustrated or at your wit’s end with your research, what would you say keeps you going?

When this happens I remind myself that persistence and pacing always pay off. I look back at what I have achieved, and then focus on things that have to be done.

“Why I Love My PhD” is an ongoing series inspired by The Guardian’s series of the same name, about how our Postgraduate Researchers stay enthused about their work and what keeps them going on the harder days. If you would like to share your story or contribute, please get in touch