Madeline Burke is a third-year postgraduate researcher in the department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. Madeline did her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering before switching disciplines when she started a PhD with the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials (BCFN). She is currently building a 3D bio-printer that can create human tissue by printing stem cells. Madeline’s research is interdisciplinary, using concepts from chemistry, cell biology and engineering, to design matrices for stem cells that not only support the cells, but cause them to grow into desired tissue such as cartilage. Most of her time is spent in the lab, designing new experiments and building her 3D printer.
As a PhD student I’m always worrying. I worry that I’m not doing enough work, that I should be getting in earlier, that I should be working “smarter”, that my experiments aren’t working, that I must be doing something wrong because they should be working by now…you get the point.
Sometime during my first year I thought to myself ‘there must be other researchers out there who are worrying about the same things that I do’. Like all good researchers who don’t know the answer to a question I turned to Google to see if I was right, if there were other students out there who were worrying as much as I was about everything PhD related. Much to my relief I came across a whole host of blogs dedicated to people that felt exactly the same as I did! PhD students who weren’t sure research was for them, students who loved researching but had an unshakeable feeling that they weren’t good enough, students who were questioning why they were doing a PhD.
It was an amazing feeling – I wasn’t alone! Other people were having the same problems as me, but even better, they had advice for how to deal with these problems. I found one blog dedicated to writing a thesis in three months, I found another on how to deal with a difficult supervisor (not that my supervisor is difficult I would like to point out!) and another on finding jobs outside research after your PhD has ended. I found more blogs then I could mention, written by struggling PhD students on their experiences in research and academia. These blogs all helped me to make more sense of my PhD. I could relate to what other people wrote and look up ways of coping with PhD stress and expectation. I started to realise that sometimes I enjoyed reading these blogs more than I enjoyed my PhD, but still I did nothing about these feelings – I just got on with my research while moaning to everyone around me who would listen.
After going through a particularly bad spell of results a few weeks ago and really questioning whether this was what I wanted to do with my life, a friend approached me and told me about a media course run by Sense about Science, a London based charity whose aim is to equip people to make sense of science and evidence. I have been on a few media courses before, including one very enjoyable course run by Imperial, but this was different.
We got to quiz a panel made up of both researchers and journalists on their experiences with science and the media, including (to name a few) an assistant news editor at Nature, an Infectious Disease Epidemiologist in the World Health Organisation and a freelance journalist who writes about the science behind the beauty industry. We were told not to be afraid of the media when it comes to our research – by doing a PhD we will automatically know more than most people about our fields and we shouldn’t be afraid of using the media to promote our research. A valid point. I, for one, would worry that my opinion was not ‘expert’ enough. The panel also advised having three points and sticking to them – even if that’s not what they have asked you – a good point for any form of communication, really. I left wondering if that would work in a viva!
The journalists shared how they put a story together, including what they would need from scientists. For example, they need someone who would be readily available to give a quote and that the quote would be easy to understand. Finally, the day was rounded off with a Research Media Officer giving us some tips on how to get involved in science communication. One of the common themes of the day was to get involved and make your voice heard. We were told unequivocally to join Twitter and another piece of advice I really took to heart was to start a blog. I had toyed with the idea before but the Voice of Young Science media workshop really gave me the push I needed to get started.
The internet is such a powerful tool, so use it! How can you get your voice heard? How can you motivate yourself when you research just isn’t working? What if academia just isn’t for you? There are loads of websites out there answering these questions, just start Googling.