Picture this — a virtual showcase of postgraduate research

8 images from the 'virtual showcase' competition. Clockwise from top-left: an Action Man in military gear; a clock with a question mark on its face; a toy submarine; a Miffy toy dressed as a healthcare worker; a toy penguin on a sheet of ice; a bag of runes; an X-ray of a mouth; a painting of a heart.

Since its inception, our annual Research without Borders festival has been an opportunity for Bristol’s postgraduate researchers to set aside familiar communication formats like posters and PowerPoint presentations, and to consider how they can share their pioneering projects using methods that are a bit more … ‘outside of the box’.

When this year’s Research without Borders exhibition had to be cancelled due the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed that May 2020 would come and go without us being able to put the spotlight on any inspired and imaginative displays of PGR research. However, the BDC team had an idea: what if we devised a challenge that encouraged PGRs to find crafty and creative ways to tell the story of their research — with scope to use everyday materials from around the house?

The result was our first-ever Research without Borders ‘virtual showcase’ competition — and, below, you can take a self-guided tour of all 22 exhibits. We hope you agree that the entries are as ingenious as they are entertaining, and that all of the PGRs who participated deserve a huge amount of credit (and thanks) for taking the time and effort to create such compelling project pics.

We’d also like to thank our competition judges: Professor Robert Bickers (Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor, PGR), Sarah Bostock (Head of Marketing) and Doctor Jen Grove (Public Engagement Associate). You can read their comments on the winning entries by scrolling to the end of the page — although we’d recommend that you take the full tour.


Virtual showcase ‘exhibitors’

 

Khalid Al Mallak and Sarmad Ozan,
School of Computer Science, Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Engineering Maths

Can you sit normally on your chair without slouching or leaning forward?
Working in an office or from home has the disadvantage of sitting for prolonged periods. Therefore, to maintain our correct posture, we built a device that detects any improper lean to our posture while we are sitting to perform our work and notifies us with a light indicator. By keeping the right posture of our bodies, we would protect our necks, shoulders and lower back from getting exhausted.

Two images of circuit boards and LEDs - one labelled 'right posture' and the other labelled 'wrong posture' | Two men sitting at desks - one sitting upright, and the other with a visible slump


Merihan Alhafnawi,
School of Civil, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

Using a swarm of robots can be more efficient than using just one robot in applications like firefighting missions and environmental monitoring. A human interacting with one robot sounds complicated enough, so how about interacting with 100 robots? “Expressive swarms” researches how humans can interact with a whole swarm of robots! If the robots can work together to express themselves in an intuitive and meaningful way to the humans, then the interactions become natural, almost like working with a friend.

Merihan Alhafnawi with dozens of small swarm robots


Lujain Alsadder, Bristol Medical School

Remodelling from different perspectives: what the heart can tell us?
Blockage of a coronary artery will deprive certain areas of the hearts from oxygen and nutrients, leading to cells death and substantial changes, known as remodelling, in structure, function and integrity of the heart. My research explores ongoing remodelling which involves cellular components like mitochondria, and major constituents including heart proteins, as well as regional and blood metabolites. The aim of my work is pinpoint key changes to better understanding the process of heart remodelling and identify possible therapeutic targets.

Two square paintings of hearts. Between them is an assortment of stones, earplugs and drawing pins.


Linda Bassett, School of Humanities

‘Nothing Like a Dame’: Womanhood and Feminine Experience in the Work of Laura Knight
Today a forgotten name of Art History, Laura Knight was a pioneering artist. Her paintings from the first half of the 20th century chart the progressive role of women through a period of social and cultural change. Her sophisticated images rely on familiar subjects, yet confront traditional stereotypes and challenge the attitudes of the time. Still relevant in our modern age, Knight’s work deserves a reappraisal.

A classical bust and an 'Action Man' toy (holding nail varnish) on top of a map of Cornwall. Behind them is a the sleeve of a vinyl record: Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake Ballet Suite.


Dora Bonini, School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine

Streptococcus pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus are two dangerous bacteria, causing high mortality worldwide. They are resistant to antibiotics and we need new drugs to treat them. They have several molecular “tools” that allow them to attack humans. Both bacteria include a variety of subgroups, with differences in their DNA. Some subgroups are better than others at attacking humans. My research wants to find the DNA differences between groups, understand why they make some groups more successful and target them to make new antibiotics.

A small pink-haired toy. Beneath it is selection of everyday tools. Beneath the tools are two drawing with labels: Streptococcus pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus. Between the two drawings is a pill.


Daniel Chukwuemeka, School of Humanities

That African Prince That Keeps Sending You E-mails: E-fraud Economy in Postcolonial Nigeria
Internet fraud is a global digital practice, yet Nigeria is one country that is nearly generally associated with e-fraud by a greater number of people. My research explains the reason behind this collective assumption: the exchanges that obtain in fraudulent transactions are similar to the political and economic exchanges that constitute the Nigerian state; just as the scammer impersonates a real character, Nigerian government officials hide behind state legitimacy to convert public wealth to private use.

A MacBook laptop. On top of it is a novel ('I Do Not Come to You by Chance' by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani), an iPhone and a pair of sunglasses.. To the left of the MacBook is another novel: '419' by Will Ferguson.


Jessica Cross, School of Chemistry

Cells and the City:  Driving Transport in the Cell
Just like our cities, inside our cells things are constantly in motion. Careful control over these transport processes is essential for us to stay healthy. The “roads” are a network of filaments called microtubules and the “cars” are motor proteins which pick up their cargo and walk along the tracks to deliver them to their destinations. We are developing new tools to ‘drive’ these motor proteins when they go wrong in human diseases.

A balloon (labelled 'cargo'). Beneath it are pipe cleaners (labelled 'motor protein') and a cardboard tube ('labelled microtubule'). To the left of these items is a toy car on a road.


Anca Dobrescu, School of Psychological Science

Exploring the associations between parent’s ideal portion size, the amount a parent serves their child and child’s self- selected portion size
In the first few years of their life, children are dependent on their parents to offer them food. However, parents are given little sex- and age-appropriate guidance about the portion size of food suitable for children. Parents report using estimates of their own portions of food when deciding how much to offer their children. As a result, we predict that the amount parents serve themselves is correlated with how much food they serve their children and with the amount children self-select. Understanding these associations will help support parents, and provide new insights into the prevention of childhood obesity.

A large Iron Man toy holding a sign. The sign says 'What is your ideal portion size of pasta with tomato sauce?'. In front of this toy are four discs, each covered in wool - an effect designed to look like plates of food. The discs are labelled 'parent's', 'parent serves for child', 'child's' and 'bow;l of pasta with tomato sauce'. Next to the child's disc is a LEGO Iron Man.


Tamsin Dobson,
School of Civil, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

Hot, Wet, Slimy and Broken
Your submarine is sinking because a part has failed where it was previously repaired by welding! Why did it fail? The weld? Corrosion? Biofouling? My research aims to answer these questions for a metal that is used extensively in submarines and ships: Nickel Aluminium Bronze. I weld the metal, use special microscopes to look at it, drop the metal into the ocean (and the lab) and then try to break it. I call it my “hot, wet, slimy and broken” method!

A toy boat with a towel beneath it. On top of the towel, which is intended to look like the sea, are: a lighter (labelled 'weld'); a toy frog (which is saying 'biofouling is the attachment of marine organisms (like me) and sea slime!); some toy fish; a metal gear; a toy submarine; a shell. Next to the submarine is a match (labelled 'weld').


Isolde Glissenaar, School of Geographical Sciences

Mapping sea ice in a warming climate: how satellites measure sea ice thickness
This project uses data from satellites to study the thickness of sea ice. The satellites that we use shoot laser beams towards the surface of the sea ice and measure the time until the reflection of the beams return. Over time the satellite returns to the same location. If it takes longer for the reflection to return now, we know that the ice is thinner than before.

Two toy penguins on a frozen surface. Above them is a cardboard satellite.


Mark Gormley, Bristol Medical School

Spotlight on Mouth Cancer
The world’s 6th most common cancer is found in the mouth and throat. This disease is predicted to increase by a third over the next 10 years. Known risk factors include cigarette smoking and alcohol, as well as the human papilloma virus, which is thought to be sexually transmitted. While the majority of cases of are linked to smoking and alcohol, using genetics we can better understand the contribution of less well known causes. My research analyses large genetic datasets of people with mouth and throat cancer and studies cell lines to identify new potential targets for prevention or therapy.

An X-ray of a mouth; negative images of a pint glass and an ashtray in a jar


Eleanor Haines, School of Economics, Finance and Management

Root-ing for Community
How can Community Farms encourage people to engage more with the environment? Or to care for others in their community? This research examines how volunteering on a Community Farm can physically involve people producing their own food, helping us to think about where our food comes from, and its impact on the environment. It will explore how they can bring people in communities together, and form relationships between farmers and customers.

Four people standing in a circle, photographed from above. Their arms are crossed in an 'Auld Lang Syne' style. However, instead of holding each other's hands, they hold objects. The objects are (clockwise from top): a leek; a trowel; a carrot; pruning shears; yarn.


Amy Holt, School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine

Using labelled nutrients to understand cancer cell (or cat) metabolism
To find new ways to treat cancer, we need to know what makes cancer cells different from healthy cells. Like all living things, cancer cells (and cats) metabolise nutrients to survive and grow, but cancer cells do this differently to healthy cells. In the lab we can give cancer cells labelled nutrients, which allow us to ‘see’ how their metabolism is working. This can help to design new treatments, or to work out how to use existing treatments more effectively.

A cat eating from a bowl. Next to the cat is a transparent container labelled 'Cat food ingredients: for experiments only'. Diagrams featuring interconnected circles and rectangles are attached to both the cat and the container.


Hernaldo Mendoza Nava,
School of Civil, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

Bioinspired sound production using instabilities
The annoying sound of crushing a can or squeezing a plastic bottle is produced by buckling! Likewise, ermine moths buckle a striated membrane in their wings to produce distinctive sounds to ward off bats. In engineering, buckling can lead to structural failure but nature provides us examples of how to exploit it. This research takes inspiration in ermine moths to develop structures with adjustable acoustic and dynamic response to enhance the design of sensors and actuators.

Four images of a hand holding a paper 'wing'. Beneath this set of images is a larger image: a cartoon bat hovering over a crushed plastic bottle. To the right of the bottle is a cartoon mosquito. An arrow next to the mosquito points down to a rectangular image of a reflective surface.


Olivia Morris-Soper, School of Humanities

Magical Objects in the Medieval Period: Tools of Cunning Women, Seers and Sorceresses
This thesis explores connections between Arthurian magical women and their historical predecessors in Anglo-Saxon England. Magic and supernatural landscapes lie at the heart of Arthurian literature and there is a close connection between magic and Arthurian female characters. Anglo-Saxon cunning women were established magical practitioners and can be seen in the archaeological record. This project combines archaeology and literature to consider the similarities and differences between these women, thus shedding new light on British medieval magical women and their tools.

An antique book open on an illustration of a woman. On top of the book are a selection of objects: candles, an open bag of runes; a large, opaque crystal sphere; a transparent crystal skull.


Shahd Mostafa, Bristol Medical School

Bio-Fabricating Constructs Suitable for Pulmonary Valve Replacement Therapy in Paediatric Patients with Congenital Heart Defect
Children born with a structural defect in their heart struggle to survive given the current procedures and repair methods that fail to grow with the child’s heart. Therefore, the child needs several open-heart surgeries throughout their life leading to increased death rates and a reduced life quality. To solve this issue, I obtain the amniotic membrane from the placenta, process it, and use it to fabricate a biomaterial that has the ability to grow along the child’s heart as well as encourage the heart to regenerate. This material would potentially eliminate the multi-step repair process since only one procedure is required to repair the heart, increasing the quality of life and survival of children born with congenital heart disease.

Three rows of baked cookies on a flour-covered surface. Top row: a cookie labelled 'amnion + placenta + baby'; a cookie labelled 'heart defect'. Middle row: a cookie labelled 'amniotic membrane'; a cookie labelled 'defective heart'; a cookie labelled 'baby patient'. Bottom row: a cookie labelled 'repaired heart using amnion; a cookie labelled 'healthy baby'.


My Nguyen, School of Physics

How can we optimise membrane protein crystallisation?
The cell uses membrane proteins (MP), which are located at the cell surface, to communicate with their outside world. Studying MP structures can improve drug design and the diagnoses of many diseases. We determine the structure by shooting X-rays through MP crystals. Finding the right crystallisation conditions is like straying in a maze without a map. My research focusses on providing phase diagrams (PD) as ‘crystal maps’ to find the right crystallisation conditions.

A small wooden maze. 'Temperature' is written on one of the the outer walls. On another outer wall is written 'protein concentration'. A stick figure stands at the entrance, and it has a light bulb over its head.


Helen Smith, Bristol Medical School

Artificially intelligent (AI) powered systems have been developed to aid clinical decision making; some have been deployed into healthcare. Determination of ethical and legal responsibility is necessary to ensure stakeholders are fully aware of their duties and obligations to patients, thus aiding the goal of preventing harmful consequences of AI use.

A toy Baymax facing a toy Miffy. The latter is dressed as a healthcare worker. The Baymax is saying 'It's your fault'. The Miffy is saying 'No, it's your fault'. Beneath them is a caption stating: 'Artifical intelligence to inform clinical decision-making: the challenges of attributing ethical and legal responsibility.'


Alex Willcox, School of Physiology, Pharmacology & Neuroscience

Motor Adaptation allows us to adjust our movements in response to changes in our environment. However, with age, adaptation becomes slower and less effective- possibly explaining the increased incidence of trips and falls amongst older adults. By training rats to reach for a food reward, motor adaptation can be induced by a sideways shift in reward position. Alongside behavioural studies in humans, this rodent model is hoped to identify possible causes of the age-related decline of motor adaptation.

[Find out more about animal research at the University of Bristol.]

A rat grabbing a piece of food with its paw.


Carissa Wong, School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine

Boosting the immune system to shrink tumours

Cells: building blocks of our bodies,
Immune system cells protect us from disease,
Cancer happens to be one of these,
Key immune soldiers are called “T-cells”
Theoretically they can kill cancer pretty well.
But in a solid lump of cancer which we call a tumour,
Cancer cells have a malicious sense of humour,
Cancer acts upon its defensive will
To take away T-cells’ ability to kill
I’m decoding cancer’s defensive strategies
To give patients more anti-cancer options to succeed.

Three rows of objects. Top row: a ball in a net (labelled 'live cancer'); pieces of netting (labelled 'cancer defence'); a crumpled piece of blue paper ('dead cancer'); a small piece of paper (labelled 'T-cell army'); a packet of pills (labelled 'medicine'). Middle row: a cartoon face with an uncertain expression (labelled 'T-cell mood'); a ball in a net covered in smaller faces with the same expression; an arrow pointing right; a ball in a broken net covered in smaller faces with the same expression. Bottom row: a cartoon face with a happy expression and a small packet of pills; a red ball covered in smaller happy faces and some broken netting; an arrow pointing right; pieces of blue paper and small happy faces on top of a red ball.


The runner-up

Sophie Chambi-Trowell, School of Earth Sciences

Tiny chompers: What do the diets of the earliest mammals and reptiles tell us about modern ecosystems?
We can learn a lot about an animal’s diet simply by observing what it eats, but with a species that has long gone extinct we must instead rely on their bones. This project aims to bring together multiple cutting-edge techniques to analyse both the jaws and teeth of fossil reptiles and some of the world’s earliest mammals, which lived on the same group of islands, thereby giving us insight into some of the world’s earliest modern ecosystems.

A selection of toy lizards enjoying a picnic.

What the judges said:

 

  • ‘Best title. Knew immediately what the project would be about from image, and it was well supported by the text.’ — Professor Robert Bickers
  • ‘This simplified well, what is actually a complex and sophisticated project. Picture is appealing and links well to the summary and project.’ — Sarah Bostock

The winner

Octavia Brayley, School of Biological Sciences

How does light pollution affect the behaviour of crabs?
Humans create light pollution from; house lights, streetlamps, and lights along beaches. This has huge negative effects on animals because they get confused from the artificial light at night which can block-out the moon, meaning they don’t know what time it is, and this can disrupt feeding patterns and make it difficult to find a mate. My research looks at how detrimental this pollution is to the behaviour of crabs and how we can minimise these effects to preserve animals.

Two cartoon sea creatures standing in front of a cardboard house (lit from inside) and a clock (with part of its face covered by a question mark). Behind this arrangement is a poster featuring a night sky. The left-hand creature is saying 'I can't find any food'. The right-hand creature is saying 'Where is my soulmate?'.

What the judges said:

 

  • ‘Really great picture and interesting topic, unique and thoughtful, real-world impact is clear and I liked that it’s so niche.’ — Sarah Bostock
  • ‘Very creative image, which is fully relevant to the research. The caption is really clear with accessible language.’ — Dr. Jen Grove
  • ‘Wonderfully engaging composition and clear explanatory text.’ — Prof. Robert Bickers

Research without Borders 2020 Virtual Showcase: online competition

Research without Borders 2020

We are inviting postgraduate research students to share the story of their research in one image for the chance to win a prize in our online competition. 

Whether you get creative with paper, pens and glue, draw us a picture or use items found in your kitchen, your challenge is to create and photograph something that tells the world about your research through one image. The more creative and unusual the better! 

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic we have had to cancel our annual Research without Borders 2020 festival of postgraduate research, which was due to take place in venues around Bristol in May 2020.  We hope that by holding this online competition, our wonderful community of postgraduate researchers have the chance to share their fascinating research with the wider world in a different way.  

The challenge 

How can you bring your research to life through an image? We invite you to submit an image that you think helps share the story of your research, with a short, accessible description. Here’s a few ideas of how to participate: 

  • Get crafty: We know you can’t get to shops to buy special craft supplies. Instead, we encourage you to get creative with what you have around you at home – pens, paper, glue or tape could be used to create a model of your work. 
  • Grab some objects from around the house: What items can help tell the story of your research? This could be something literal or a more abstract interpretation. For example, perhaps a colander represents a molecular structure, some fruit and veg could stand in for your research participants or you could create a costume to reflect the period in history you are researching using bits and pieces from around the house. 
  • Got some kids’ toys lying around? Perhaps you have some Lego that you can use to recreate your work? 
  • Dig out some existing photos or visuals: You can also use existing images of you working on your research project — e.g. a photo of you in the lab or on a field trip — although we would encourage you to think of imaginative ways that you can combine or adapt these images.

All entries will be featured on our Bristol Doctoral College social media channels. 

How to enter 

The competition will run between 9am on Monday 11th May and midnight on Sunday 24th May. All entries will be collated and featured in an online gallery the following week.  

To take part, please share your image, a title and a short description (up to 80 words) that explains how this image illustrates your research and why it is important. Please don’t use technical jargon if possible, instead think how you could explain what you do to a friend outside of academic or a member of the public.  

Ways to share: 

Judging 

Submissions will be judged by a panel of staff from the BDC, Public Engagement and Communications teams (to be confirmed), on the following criteria: 

  • Overall, how engaging is the entryDoes it clearly communicate the relevance of the research to the public? 
  • How visually effective is the image? Does it make viewers want to know more about the research? 
  • How effective, clear and accessible is the description? We are looking for a clear description using non-technical English which grips the reader and highlights the relevance of the research. 

Prizes 

  • First prize: £50 Netflix or Spotify voucher 
  • Runner up: £20 Netflix or Spotify voucher 

Example entries

Conny Lippert - RWB online entry
Gothic Topographies: New England and other Spaces in the Work of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. In the gothic genre, the past tends to encroach on the present, and, harking back to the country’s history, H. P. Lovecraft’s and Stephen King’s fiction engages with wider American societal anxieties via their own geographical roots in New England. This research shows how their gothic topographies provide the setting for crises of identity and authenticity, feelings of guilt, and the fear of transgression.
[Research by Conny Lippert]
Elizabeth Mamali - RWB entry
How do same-sex couples engage with wedding rituals that are grounded in heterosexual meanings and traditions? This project looks at the motivations behind same-sex couples’ decisions to replicate, appropriate or entirely reject well-established wedding rituals that are underpinned by the heterosexual norm: the belief that people fall in two complementary genders (female and male) with natural roles in life. The research aim to challenge stereotypes and simplistic assumptions that people make about same-sex relationships, gender identity and sexuality. [Research by Elizabeth Mamali and Lorna Stevens]

See also some examples on Twitter:

Terms and conditions

  • You must be a current postgraduate research student at the University of Bristol. 
  • The competition is open until on midnight on Sunday 24th May 2020. 
  • Entries to the competition must present work conducted as part of your research degree.
  • Photos can be taken on any device and can be colour, black and white.
  • By entering, you give the Bristol Doctoral College permission to feature the photo on their website and social media channels.
  • We will assume that all submissions have the permissions of anyone featured in the photo (this is the responsibility of the applicant).
  • Added 13 May: You must have copyright to reproduce your image and have created it yourself. You also need to have permission to use and edit any stock imagery that forms part of your submission (for example a photograph taken by a third party which you may have edited). If you are unsure about permissions, please contact research-without-borders@bristol.ac.uk.

Any questions? 

Contact us at research-without-borders@bristol.ac.uk. 

‘Jump at the chance’ — 3MT advice from a Bristol winner

Rebecca Shaw presenting during Bristol’s Three Minute Thesis final (Colston Hall, May 2019)
Rebecca Shaw presenting during Bristol’s Three Minute Thesis final (Colston Hall, May 2019)

What does taking part in the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition really involve — and what do doctoral researchers get out of it?

Rebecca Shaw, a postgraduate researcher in the School of Humanities, shares her reflections on winning the University of Bristol’s 2019 competition.

The idea seems simple enough – write a three-minute speech about your research and present it in front of your audience. But actually, as it turns out, 180 seconds isn’t that long! Making this the perfect challenge for any doctoral student.

I entered the 3MT competition during my second year of my PhD, and it was a fantastic opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on my research, and think about it in a different way.

For while we, as doctoral students, are intimately aware of our own research projects, distilling them down to a three-minute speech that will appeal and make sense to the general public – well, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

The trick I found was to find a ‘hook’; some aspect of your research that could get your audience interested and thinking, ‘hmm, this sounds interesting’. Here, the bespoke training offered by the Bristol Doctoral College was invaluable. Discussing your presentation with the Bristol Doctoral College staff and other research students, who have no idea about your research or even your subject area, can help you find that ‘hook’.

The training also offered you a chance to practise your presentation, as on the day (yep, you guessed it!), you aren’t allowed any notes or prompts. Just one static slide that you can refer to throughout your presentation. And don’t forget about that three-minute rule – one second over and you’ll be disqualified. Timing really is everything.

The semi-final of the competition soon came around, and after a final practise in the space, I felt ready. It really does feel like everyone’s presentations are amazing – each competitor had clearly put in a huge amount of work, so the competition was tough.

What I found, though, is that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it too. Deliver your speech with confidence, as if you’re telling a story on stage – the idea is to get the audience to engage with your research and your presentation. They are never going to do that if you mumble your speech while looking at your shoes. So, perform it!

The same goes for the final. At this stage, you really are competing against the best presentations. The final takes place at the end of the Research without Borders day, which I had also taken part in. It was quite a long day, as you can imagine, but I just thought – I’ve got one chance to wow everybody, let’s do this.

When my name was announced as the winner, I was genuinely surprised and of course, thrilled. The whole experience of 3MT had been quite the rollercoaster, much like any PhD! But given the chance to hone and practice your presentation skills, conquer any fear of public speaking, and gain fresh perspectives on your research – what research student wouldn’t jump at the chance?

So give it a go, and if you do enter, good luck!


Interested in taking part this year? You only have until 9am on Monday 16 March to apply for the University’s 2020 competition, so don’t delay!

To submit your application now, visit the Bristol Doctoral College’s 3MT pages.

Prizes, perspectives and popped balloons — Laura’s Research without Borders story

  • Laura Fox holding a scientific model
    Laura Fox's Research without Borders stall was entitled 'Nano: Nice or Nuisance?'.

Dr. Laura Fox, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Bristol, is a Development Scientist/ KTP Associate in the Physics department at the University of Manchester. In May 2019, when she was still a postgraduate researcher (PGR), she won the ‘Best-Communicated Exhibit’ prize at the 2019 Research without Borders showcase exhibition.

Below, she reflects on the festival — and why getting involved was such a positive experience for her.

I took part in Research without Borders (RwB) in the final year of my PhD (2019), while I was writing my thesis. I decided to take part mostly because I had gotten fed up with the daily slog of writing and sitting at my desk for weeks on end. Taking part in the festival let me have fun with my research again and view my work from a new perspective.

Getting out of the writing bubble

Coming to the end of a research degree sometimes feels like you don’t have time for anything else. You can feel like you should live and breathe your research, which you probably have been doing for 3/4 years.

When you have been working on something for so long, it can definitely start to feel a bit stale towards the end. Taking myself out of the writing bubble to view my research from the eyes of the general public really helped me to squash that feeling. I really enjoyed putting some creativity into the stall design, making colourful and engaging posters, displays and demonstrations. Sparking a bit of joy back into my research again.

The BDC provided some really helpful sessions to help us plan a stall design, discussing what had worked well before and how best to communicate with a wide variety of people that would likely visit us on the day. From these sessions, I learnt the importance of keeping it simple and how much people love to be quizzed!

Sharing research with diverse audiences

I had a bit of set-up to do on the day, as I had decided to make a display out of balloons to represent a cell membrane. Quite a few popped, as you can imagine.

I was ready to go as the doors opened with props and quizzes to describe what I had been doing for the last three years of my life! The first guests at my stall were a large group of retirees that took part in my quiz, ‘Nano: nice or nuisance?’. I was surprised at how much they already knew and they had some brilliant questions. This experience taught me never to assume someone’s knowledge! Within the group were people who used to be engineers and worked at NASA!

From then on, I had lots of visitors at the stall throughout the day — including four-year-olds, sixth-formers, teachers and industry professionals working in a huge variety of fields. Explaining my work to such a large range of people with different science capital was a challenge, but one I’d been prepared for.

A rewarding experience

The event was brought to a fantastic end by the final of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, which I watched as part of the audience. At the prize-giving and drinks event afterwards, I won the prize for the ‘Best-Communicated Exhibit’ — and I got to use the prize money to attend a conference and give an oral presentation in Sofia, Bulgaria. I’m now happy to say I’ve since submitted my thesis and passed my viva!

Taking part in RwB gave me improved communication skills, the opportunity to network and, most importantly, renewed energy to finish writing up! It’s a fun day and a fantastic thing to put on your CV, so what are you waiting for? Apply!


Want to give it a try yourself? To apply for this year’s festival, just complete the Research without Borders application form before 9am on Thursday 6 February 2020.

If you’d like to get more information about the festival before you apply, the Bristol Doctoral College team will be holding two drop-in sessions in the PGR Hub (2nd floor, Senate House). Join us at:

  • 1.30–2.30pm on Wednesday 22 January
  • 1.30–2.30pm on Friday 24 January.

5 reasons why you should apply for Research without Borders

Bec Rengel at the 2018 Research without Borders showcase exhibition
Bec Rengel at the 2018 Research without Borders showcase exhibition

Bec Rengel, the Bristol PGR who picked up the ‘best-communicated exhibit’ prize at the 2018 Research without Borders showcase exhibition, reflects on the festival — and why getting involved was such a positive experience for them.

We’ve all been there. You’re slogging through that research degree (for me it was my MPhil), but it isn’t nearly where you hoped it would be by now. In fact, you’re caught in between being proud of your work, and wanting to bury it in a shallow grave while you flee the country assuming a new identity.

This is how I felt when I applied for Research Without Borders (RwB) in 2018. And here’s 5 reasons why you should too:

1. It helps your research

When designing your stall, you need to think about engaging, creative, and clear ways of conveying your research to members of the public. It prompts you to look at your research in ways that you might not have before, giving you a fresh perspective.

Talking with members of the public, you’re forced to examine every aspect of your arguments, sources, and results. For example, during one in-depth discussion, I ended up having a huge breakthrough and discovering a strong answer to my primary research question. I’m not saying that’ll happen for everyone, but it’s almost inevitable that you’ll come out of RwB with more ideas, clarity, and even new directions for your research.

2. Careers, Careers, Careers

Believe it or not, RwB is a huge event that really packs a punch on your CV. If you’re looking to continue a career in academia, public engagement experience is an absolute must and RwB can help kick-start your career.

If you’re heading outside academia, RwB shows employers that you can manage your own projects, think creatively, and engage audiences. It’s also a fantastic way to improve your communication skills, making interviews that tiny bit less terrifying!

3. Get out of the bubble

Sometimes you can get completely lost in your research, consumed by #gradlife, and forget why you started your degree in the first place! After all, we don’t just do research for ourselves, but to make a contribution to society in our chosen field.

RwB gives you the opportunity to take your research directly to people, finding out what people outside universities think, as well as seeing just how your research can make a real difference in their lives.

4. Get creative

Even if you don’t think you have a creative streak, you’ll be amazed at what you could do! I saw robotics demonstrations, magic, a full pub set-up, screen printing, interactive maps, guessing games. It doesn’t even have to be something particularly elaborate. Sometimes the simplest thing like an artwork display or a prompt for attendees to write their fondest memory of Bristol were enough to draw people in.

5. Networking

RwB doesn’t just showcase your work to the general public. You’ll also be able to meet industry professionals from a huge range of sectors. And don’t despair my fellow Arts and Humanities researchers, RwB isn’t just for science, technology, or business! I met professionals working in heritage, education, civil service, journalism, research, law, you name it! It was fantastic to see what people with degrees like mine went on to accomplish.

You’ll also get the chance to meet amazing fellow PGRs, researching everything from bees to Beauty and the Beast. Research degrees can be pretty isolating — particularly when, like me, you’re working alone with mountains of books every day. RwB is the perfect opportunity to make new friends and leave your self-imposed solitude in the library or lab.

You won’t regret it and you’ll leave with a stronger research project, vital skills, new friends, and great memories. Go ahead and apply!


Want to give it a try yourself? It’s not too late! Just complete the Research without Borders application form before 11am on Thursday 28 February 2019.

6 reasons to apply for Research without Borders

By now, most Bristol PGRs will (we hope) have heard about Research without Borders, the University’s festival of postgraduate research.

You might not have heard, though, that there are a lot of good reasons why it’s worth your time — from communication training to making new connections.

So, ahead of the closing date for applications (11am on Monday 5 February!), we thought we’d share a quick round-up of the benefits of taking part. (Of course, if you’re ready to apply now, you can just pop over to our Research without Borders page.)

1. It’s a chance to showcase your work to potential employers

We’ll be welcoming a wide variety of visitors to both the Colston Hall exhibition and the discussion series — from academics and industry contacts to fellow PGRs and school pupils.

If you’re keen to share your research with the wider world, then, Research without Borders is an amazing opportunity to make connections with audiences that otherwise would be hard to reach.

Want to get a flavour of the festival? Watch this round-up video from the 2017 showcase.

 

2. You’ll get £30 to develop your display

We’re encouraging all our exhibitors to come up with creative and imaginative displays — above and beyond the standard academic posters.

We know that this kind of creativity comes with a price tag, though, so every PGR who takes part in the showcase event will get £30 that they can use for materials or equipment.

But what happens if you have a particularly ambitious idea for your exhibit? We’re keen to encourage innovative approaches — so, during the training phase, you’ll be able to apply for up to £200 to make it a reality.

3. You’ll sharpen your communication skills with free training

Every PGR who takes part — whether they’re exhibiting at the showcase event or presenting during the evening discussion series — will receive a bespoke package of training that’ll help them structure and communicate their ideas.

Alfie Wearn quote: “The training was very useful — especially on speaking with the public and making a potentially complicated topic into an interesting story.”

4. It can open up new opportunities

It’s not just a fun event in itself; Research without Borders can also be a springboard for PGRs who want to communicate their work to the world.

After last year’s festival, some of the participants went on to talk about their research on podcasts, at public events, conferences — and even on television.

5. It’s recommended by other PGRs

It’s no secret that we think Research without Borders is a fantastic opportunity for Bristol’s PGRs.

You don’t just have to take our word for it, though. Watch Jessye Aggleton, who took part in last year’s festival, share some of her reflections on the event.

6. You might win an iPad

Interested in taking part in the showcase event? If you do, you might win the coveted title of ‘Most Engaging Exhibit’ — an honour that comes with a free Apple iPad. Other prizes on the day will include money for researcher development activities.

You can find even more reasons to take part — and submit your application — by visiting our Research without Borders page.

Hurry, though! The deadline is 11am on Monday 5 February.

How the 3MT reminded me why my research matters

Alfie Wearn won the Bristol 3MT final last month for his presentation on predicting Alzheimer’s disease. Here he shares his experience of taking part; from almost pulling out of the competition to winning the Bristol 2017 finals in Colston Hall.

Step out of your comfort zone. Comfort zones are the enemies of achievement.” – Roy T Bennett

I’m not normally a fan of inspirational quotes like these, but I make an exception for this one. I like it because I heard it just as I was about to pull out of the Three Minute Thesis ® (3MT) competition just a couple of days after applying. I told myself that because I was at such an early stage of my PhD, attempting to present a kind of “thesis” summary would be a bit fraudulent – in truth however I think I was wondering what on earth I’d gotten myself in for, and was looking for a good excuse to run away back to the safety of my comfort zone. I lost that excuse pretty swiftly when I was told that plenty of people had taken part in 3MT in their first year. So I bit the bullet and continued with the process. In hindsight – a good decision!   

Training & Practice

I was enticed, in part, to participate in the 3MT competition and Research without Borders because of the various public engagement training courses that were available for all successful applicants. During one course a communications expert at the University taught a group of us 3MT hopefuls the importance of creating a story, and using relatable analogies to engage audiences in our research. I also got a chance to practice a very early draft of my talk to this group during that training course. I got some really helpful feedback which helped shape the final version of the talk.

In the days leading up to the semifinals, I practiced it every time I had a spare 3 minutes. I practiced in front of the mirror, in front of friends, I even videoed myself on my phone to see how I sounded to others, and to see if I was doing anything stupid with my hands (still not sure I’d sorted that by the final…). I probably practiced it about 50 times more than necessary, but it gave me confidence, which, I have learned, is all important in something like this.

Actually doing the talk

Eventually the semi-finals came about and I finally got to perform what I had been practicing so much for the past month. Despite all this practice, I spent the 10 minutes before my turn wondering why I had not gone over the talk ‘just one more time’ – so much so that I completely missed the previous couple of speakers. But when it came down to it, I realised that actually doing the talk wasn’t nearly as bad as sitting and thinking about it. I immediately forgot all the worries and worst-case scenarios I had constructed for myself and just spoke about what I knew, and what I had practiced. And honestly, I really enjoyed it. Of course, by the time the finals came in May, as part of the Research without Borders showcase day in Colston Hall, I had completely forgotten this lesson, and once again spent the 10 minutes beforehand wishing for that one more chance to practice…   

Thoughts, feelings, and lessons learned

I’ve learned that condensing a PhD-sized amount of work into 3 minutes is, if nothing else, a great way of making sure you know exactly what it is you’re doing. Now I realise that sounds like a stupid thing to say. But when you spend so many hours, days and weeks with your head buried in your PhD work, and have little contact with the outside world, as often happens during a PhD, it’s easy to lose touch with the bigger picture. You forget that not everyone knows a lot about Alzheimer’s disease, or the role of the hippocampus in the consolidation of memories. It helps to focus your work, and when you’re having a bad week it is sometimes helpful to be able to remind yourself as to why your work matters.

I urge everyone to have a go at the 3MT and taking part in Research without Borders. You get a snapshot of all the research at the university that you might never even have realised is happening; from ageing kidneys and forest ecosystems, to noise-reducing materials in aeroplanes and the evolution of invertebrate vision, to name but a few. Lifting your head above the water every now and again to see what is going on around you is a habit we should all get into – and what better way, than these two fantastic celebrations of research at the University of Bristol.

You can listen to Alfie talking more about his research, alongside other 3MT finalists, on this Speakezee podcast.

Alfie’s presentation will be judged at a Vitae hosted (virtual) national semi-final next month. Six finalists will then be selected to perform live at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference during the gala dinner on Monday 11 September 2017. We’ve got our fingers crossed, Alfie! 

Find out more about Alfie’s research:

Twitter: @AlfieWearn

Speakezee: https://www.speakezee.org/speaker/profile/2646/alfie-wearn

University research page: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/neural-dynamics/people/alfie-r-wearn/index.html

Research without Borders 2017: check out the highlights!

It’s over a month since our Research without Borders festival of postgraduate research took place across the Univeristy of Bristol and Colston Hall – so these highlights are a good reminder of what fun we had, how much we learned, and how hard our postgraduate research students are working each day of the week!

Pick up on the buzzing atmosphere from our showcase afternoon finale and hear from participants about why they got involved and what they learned:

Research without Borders: a blog from last year’s interactive display winner, Henry Webber

As our 100 postgraduate researchers involved in this year’s Research without Borders festival prepare their exhibitions, discussions and presentations, we took a trip down memory lane to last year’s showcase and talked to the winner of the prize for Interactive Display, Henry Webber, an Archaeology and Anthropology PhD candidate.

Last year I applied to display my research at the Research Without Borders festival. I wanted to use the process as an exercise for thinking about my ideas, and how to present and communicate these ideas to a mixture of people from colleagues to academics, to the general public and other industries.

My research involves connecting archaeology with agriculture. It is about learning what impacts humans have had on the landscape, the material remains left in the soil, and how these may be impacting state of the art farming techniques and agricultural knowledge in the 21st century.

Some of the main aspects that I wanted to convey were the material aspects of my research, the focus on soils and how they are central to both archaeology (for the study of the human past) and agriculture (for the future of society). In addition, I wanted to showcase how agricultural techniques are changing with the evolution of remote sensing data, and software and hardware development. With an increased focus on high resolution data and precise methodologies, such as GPS steering of tractors and variable rate fertiliser application, requiring ever more detailed knowledge of soil variation, the impacts that humans have had on soils are becoming increasingly more important.

To try to engage people in my display and demonstrate these ideas, I brought in real soil and turf blocks to replicate a field with a crop. I then stripped off the topsoil and recreated a miniature archaeological site with darker colours of soil representing high organic matter and nutrient levels such as phosphorus, which is often found in conjunction with archaeological sites. I used toy tractors from my childhood to demonstrate the actions and spatial connection that farmers have with archaeology and to explain some of the contentions that currently exist between farmers and archaeologists. Next to this I had printed images of my case study datasets and a projector with several videos showing high-tech precision spraying, laser weeding and autonomous vehicles. I also brought some actual geophysical equipment (Ground Penetrating Radar) for people to use. With Ground Penetrating Radar, it is possible to see objects below the surface, and in the display hall we could tell where pipes, electric cables, and solid floor supports were from the way they reflect radar energy. This sort of technique is also however, commonly used to discover buried archaeology.

After I found out that I had won the prize for best interactive display, I was delighted! I had certainly got a lot out of the event already from just the networking and discussions with people, but the prize was an additional bonus. The prize consisted of money to put towards training of my choice, which I decided to use to improve and continue my professional development in being qualified in agronomic advice.

I had already completed a course in fertiliser and agronomy advice as part of the PhD, but this extra funding helped me to continue to be professionally accredited and knowledgeable about current agronomic

Research Without Borders Event, University of Bristol/@Bristol

advice, issues, and legislation. This has great benefit for my research as, when talking to farmers, I can contextualise my research in ‘real life’ farming practices in the UK today. It has also helped me to engage with farmers and develop positive relationships around which my research can become much more reflexive. Finally, this training provides me with a qualification that will be useful in any future career path relating to food and farming and allow me to have a broader perspective.

The Research without Borders festival was certainly a great event and I am glad to see it continuing this year. It was worthwhile from many perspectives for me and I would encourage you to get involved to meet new people, try out new ideas and explore displaying your own research!

The showcase exhibition returns to Colston Hall frmo 2 to 5pm on 12 May in this year’s Research without Borders festival. Sign up for tickets via Eventbrite