Is Ada Lovelace Day a paradox?

For Ada Lovelace Day, Dr Aby Sankaran of the Bristol Doctoral College reflects on the characteristics that have helped her as a PhD student, during her career as an engineer — and beyond.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of Women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths & Medicine). It is held on the second Tuesday of October each year and this year I have been invited to write my very first blog about it by the Bristol Doctoral College!

The invitation is bittersweet; on the one hand I am pleased to have been asked to write about this topic, but on the other, I feel uncomfortable that in this day and age we still need such occasions to mark and highlight female accomplishments.

To me, celebrations like this are a paradox — they propel women forward and showcase their achievements but simultaneously highlight a society where women are not considered equal.

I also feel unqualified to write this blog as I don’t think of myself as an appropriate role model. But this is perhaps my mistake, not celebrating my own accomplishments or valuing my self-worth. I would be doing myself a disservice if I said my career was a product of serendipity, but in reality, it has come about as a result of feeding my curiosity.

I am therefore going to focus on certain key characteristics that have helped me along my career, and hope they will help the future generation of female (and male) researchers too.

Blood, sweat and PhDs

Being an Engineer and having done a technical PhD has meant that I was predominantly around male engineers, but I adapted to the circumstances. I enjoyed a supportive and nurturing environment (mostly) where I have learnt from my male counterparts. However, some women may find it necessary to see female role models as they provide inspiration and demonstrate that it is possible to overcome gender barriers.

I have yet to meet anyone who has had a trouble-free PhD and there is a key difference between failing at various stages of your PhD and failure. Without true grit, I would frankly have struggled to see the end of my PhD.

Back bone, wish bone and a funny bone

When things are not right, fix it. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground, if you see bias at work or demeaning behaviour — call it. It can be as simple as hogging time using equipment in the lab or authorship over publication (male or female).

Most PhDs are at the brink of the unexplored and a motivated, blue-sky approach is needed to see the day. And when things don’t work out as planned, learn to roll with the punches. This was a valuable lesson when I was facing redundancy a year into a new job in a new city!

Be an opportunist

Big goals and bigger picture. Ultimately everyone around you wants you to succeed. Call in favours, ask for help and work your network. There is nothing wrong with seeing an opportunity and seizing it. Being a female does not make you any less entitled to success or its extent.

It’s easy to live in the here and now and not pay attention to the long-term plans, but setting (realistic) long-term goals might exactly be the drive you need to propel yourself forward.

Find a hobby that empowers you

You don’t have to be chained to your desk or feel guilty about doing non-PhD things. Pursue a hobby that lets you de-stress, boosts your confidence and allows you to disconnect. It can be cycling, running or knitting — anything that you fancy.

For me, it was climbing. It has given me time to think (while clinging on for dear life on a rock face), tremendous confidence and at times a much-needed way to vent my frustration.

Dr Aby Sankaran climbing in the Cheddar Gorge
Dr Aby Sankaran climbing in the Cheddar Gorge

Be your own hero

Break the stereotype — we limit ourselves mentally more than we are capable of. Don’t create your own glass ceiling, pick yourself up and be the strong person you need to rely on to see you through difficult times.

In an ideal world, men and women would be equal and we would not need to emphasise female accomplishments — instead, every day would be a celebration of human accomplishment.

However, women are underrepresented in a number of sectors and, in order to address the imbalance, we need reinforcements like this to encourage progress.

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

Tessa Coombes: “Why I Love My PhD”

Tessa Coombes is a PhD candidate in Social Policy at the University of Bristol.

What has been the highlight of your PhD so far?

The highlights for me have been the positive interest and support from people within the School for Policy Studies and from people I have spoken to outside the University. To know that others think what I am doing is interesting and worthwhile is always motivating. The fact that some of them even think it is exciting never ceases to amaze me.

When have you felt most proud of yourself during your PhD?

My proudest moment so far was undoubtedly that moment when I decided I wanted to do a PhD and subsequently received such phenomenal support from friends, family and lecturers to actually do it! Applying, getting accepted and starting out on my PhD journey made me feel incredibly proud.

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

The main thing that keeps me going when things don’t quite work out, or I’m having to spend hours on quite tedious tasks, is thinking about where I was a couple of years ago and where I am now. Back then I was working in a difficult and challenging environment, and not particularly enjoying life and rarely looked forward to going to work. Now I’m doing something I have chosen to do, something that I love and enjoy, for all the challenges it throws at me. I now enjoy the process of ‘going to work’, even Monday mornings are good. When at a low ebb I think about the end goal, finishing the PhD and what a sense of achievement that will bring. I would also say having a decent playlist to listen to is critical, as the right music will always lift your spirits and get you through the tough times.

Can you share something that makes you smile about your PhD?

My funniest moments tend to be when working at home and my cat decides it’s time to play or that she needs attention. She’s very good at sitting in front of the computer screen or on whatever I am trying to read, or just deciding to lie across my books and desk.

Tessa's cat keeps her looking on the lighter side of her reading.
Tessa’s cat ensures she takes regular breaks from her work…

 

“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

Jonathan Godbehere: “Why I Love My PhD”

Jonathan Godbehere is a PhD candidate in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Bristol. He works on Electric Machine Design for ‘Sensorless’ control.

Tell us about a moment when you felt really proud of your research.

That would probably be my first conference paper submission, and then acceptance.  It marked the first time I saw my work peer-reviewed, and I felt like my work was actually ‘good’ to some extent. It helped that it was also a big, significant conference in Montreal. I got to travel and see somewhere out of the ordinary for free, which was a bonus! It was a great payoff for all the hours put into the paper (and the work itself) in the first place.

What are you looking forward to in the upcoming portion of your PhD work?
The first time I turn on my electric motor – and it hopefully works!

Is there a moment in your PhD experience that always brings a smile to your face?

Once, we had literally kilograms of scrap copper left over from a lab refurbishment. The whole research group rallied to help strip the outer plastic coatings off so we could recycle it. The proceeds went to our group’s Xmas dinner that year, because we managed to raise so much money!  Quite a nice group activity.

“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

Blue Monday? Blue Any Day.

Blue Monday, popularly known as the “most depressing day of the year” and held on the third Monday of January, receives a fair amount of bashing in the press these days. Rightly so – after all, it was the pseudoscientific brainchild of a travel campaign for an airline that has since gone bust, all in the name of selling more holidays to people who are feeling vulnerable and in need of a pick-me-up.

Let’s be clear. That the world collectively feels more “depressed” on a single day of the year is clearly a misnomer. As many media folk have been quick to point out, this logical fallacy undermines our collective understanding of “depression” in its entirety. Clinical depression is a severe, chronic condition, one that doesn’t exactly take days off nor suffer from what most would call a “bad day”. People battle depression day in and day out, sometimes for months but often as long as decades. For many, it’s a lifelong illness that needs to be managed and maintained as many chronic physical illnesses need to be managed. Neuro-normative brains typically don’t become “depressed” because it’s cold outside, Christmas feels like a distant memory, and we’re all disheartened at the first high winter bill of the season with no festive break to look forward to –  save Valentine’s Day, which, please.

In this sense, Blue Monday’s dubious origins ought to be questioned and critically analysed.

In another sense, any day is an appropriate day to discuss issues surrounding mental health and wellbeing – whether you suffer from a specific, diagnosed condition or not. At the Bristol Doctoral College, we thought we’d take this opportunity to bring into discussion an issue that academia tends to brush under the carpet, but which has recently come knocking at institutional front doors with brute force due to its urgency: the chronic ill mental health of students in higher education, particularly in research students.

I’m not defending #bluemonday, and I’m especially not defending its source; I am reclaiming it in attempt to destigmatize issues around mental health and to encourage critical reflection on our own wellbeing. For many, every Monday is a Blue Monday; indeed, everyday is Blue Monday. Maybe our concern with what the day stands for is a microcosm of the larger problem:  maybe we ought to stop worrying about where ‘Blue Monday’ comes from, and use it as an opportunity to discuss how what most of us take for granted (our own wellbeing) will become a serious crisis for 1 in 4 people in the UK this year. Blue Monday, coming so close to the start of the year, can help us turn the lens on what is ‘blue’ in our own society, and what we can do this year to change it.

At the BDC, we’re taking this opportunity to remind our Postgraduate Researchers that we aren’t scared of talking about mental health. We’re not going to question you when you say you are having a blue day, a blue month, or a blue year. We’re going to point you to the services that are available to you. We’re going to champion the everyday actions that make a difference in everyone’s wellbeing. A part of that involves making sure our own wellbeing is healthy; another, much larger part, is about listening to your stories. Instead of discussing the cynicism of Blue Monday’s origins, we’re going to turn our view to the silver lining, and we invite you to join us.