The Bristol Bone Biologists — aka Bristol PhD students Elizabeth Lawrence and Jessye Aggleton — share an update on the project they’re running with the European Space Agency (ESA) as part of the Spin Your Thesis! programme.
Fish are probably the last thing you think of when you hear about space, gravity and astronauts.
Later this year, though, our team will be putting zebrafish in hypergravity.
Why? We want to explore the effect of different gravity levels on tissue development in ‘normal’ zebrafish and zebrafish with a genetic mutation that’s linked to Stickler syndrome and early onset osteoarthritis in humans. The data we collect will provide an insight into how physiology changes in different levels of gravity and improve our understanding of the changes astronauts undergo during spaceflight.
Our last written update was in February after we visited Belgium to attend the ‘Gravity-Related Experiments Training Week’ run by the ESA Education team. The training week was an interesting and intense introduction to planning and running a high-profile experiment. We quickly realised that our experiment date of mid-September didn’t seem so far away when we had so much to prepare!
Since then, we’ve been busy running initial research to make sure both our data collection and data processing will run as smoothly as possible. We recently submitted a paper that talks about our initial findings on how a specific genetic mutation affects joint shape and function in zebrafish in normal gravity (1g). Along the way, we worked out how we are going to collect results and process data after the experiment at the Large Diameter Centrifuge in Noordwijk.
As well as being busy in the lab, we have also been completing a variety of paperwork including: work breakdown packages, timelines, system engineering analysis and budgeting (less glamourous but very important!).
Outreach and public engagement are also a critical part of the project. Alongside creating a fun logo, designing a mascot (Finn the fish), and drafting team stickers and t-shirts (Jessye has thoroughly enjoyed using her penchant for graphic design!), we’re currently setting up a collaboration with We The Curious.
As part of this pilot, we will be asking the public to choose one of the experiments we do using the zebrafish as well as telling them more about our project and how amazing fish are! This will run from 20 to 26 August 2018.
To widen the net our project will cast, we’re also applying for sponsorship for experiment materials, showcasing our work in competitions, and we will be filming the experiment in the hope of making a short film that we can show at science festivals and online.
So far, the project has been amazing at developing skills for our PhDs, with our project planning abilities improving massively as a result.! It’s also made us much more engaged with the impact of communication and outreach, which is essential for any postgraduate researcher.
Finally, we’ve been making sure our social media is looking sharp! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and visit our website to keep updated and find out more about our project.
In the meantime, in the inimitable words of Kylie Minogue, ‘I’m spinning around… Move out of my way…!’
Katiuska M Ferrer Portillo is a PhD student in the School of Modern Languages. Her research project focuses on the charting the influences and geography of the Bristolian dialect. She shared her experiences with us as a participant in both the Discussion Series and Showcase Exhibition events in this year’s Research without Borders festival.
Applying to take part
February 20, 2017: busy as I was with the preparation for my father’s visit from Venezuela, I received an email from one of my PhD supervisors suggesting that I should participate in the Research without Borders (RwB) event organised by the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC). I paused for a moment to read the event’s advertising:
“All festival participants will: •be offered a bespoke programme of training •meet, connect and collaborate with researchers from across disciplines •showcase their work to a broad audience of academics, students and the wider public •have the opportunity to connect with external experts and industry professionals.”
Although I am a mature student with previous experience in a legal background, and I have presented my work in conferences, youth charities, social clubs, community centres, and have further discussed my research on the local press, BBC Radio Bristol and ITV West News, the fact that English is not my native language made me feel somewhat uneasy and that I needed more training to hone my presentation skills. Hence why I decided to apply for both the Showcase Exhibition and the Discussion Series components of the festival.
Training and preparation
As a proud member of the University of Bristol research community, and I am aware of the high academic standard, prestige and recognition enjoyed by our University. However, I was not prepared for the excellence of each one of the speakers who led our training for the discussion series.
Malcolm Love’s ‘Presenting your Research with Impact’ workshop marked a sea change in my presenting style. Thanks to Malcom’s advice, I learnt the importance of: warming up before presenting, dividing presentations in sections, how to apply a story-telling approach even for the most technical talks, and some good tips to calm my nerves – such as chewing gum for twenty minutes before presenting.
After weeks of hard training and thorough preparation, the moment of truth arrived. The RwB week started with the first ever discussion series, ‘Changing perceptions, transforming identities’, and I was the very first presenter in a venue packed to the rafters with 100 people capacity, including my husband, my niece, my two PhD supervisors, lecturers from the School of Modern Languages, and several friends. No pressure there, then!
So, there I was, nervous but with an adrenaline rush, trying to transmit to the audience the importance, usefulness and beauty of my research, while cracking jokes to conceal that the wrong set of slides appeared on screen! Thankfully no one noticed! Yet the training, preparation and my genuine passion for my work paid off. The presentation was a success. People who were unfamiliar with my discipline asked the most interesting questions during the discussion afterwards while we were enjoying our drinks. The experience has led to further interviews for the University of Bristol Facebook series, Bristol Faces; the Science Technology Today website; as well as my collaboration as an article writer for PolicyBristol. Yet the best was still to come.
The Showcase Exhibition on Friday, 12 May kicked off with a vibrant atmosphere full of the energy and enthusiasm, the sort that only ideas, endeavour and hopes of young researchers can produce. Very rarely do science and humanities researchers get the opportunity to amalgamate their work. That day, a combination of vets, mathematicians, sociologists, engineers, physicists, biologists, physicians, lawyers, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, dancers, artists, literature researchers, and sociolinguists like myself, amongst others, had the chance to share their experiences and bridge the gap between academia and our local community. Thanks to the BDC, Colston Hall became this unique melting pot.
As soon as I got to the Colston Hall, I started to set up my stand trying to put up a giant poster to a poster board, when Kitty Webster, one of the event organisers, asked me if I wanted to talk about my work with Made in Bristol TV. Of course, I replied “YES!”, and Kitty told me that the reporter was going to interview me 20 minutes after the opening of the showcase.
I suddenly realised that I had just an hour to set up my stand and prepare my talk!
The RwB presentation skills training proved to be a lifesaver, because it helped me to give a natural and professional interview about my research on Bristolian, with less than 60 minutes of preparation. That was indeed, the most exciting moment of the week for me!
Last, but not least…
Lastly, but no less important, was my interaction with the general public, and the possibility I had to collect data from young Bristolian speakers, a group I was struggling to encourage to participate with my work. That was definitely a rounded day, but all good things come to an end, and after an exciting and diverse round of presentations for the 3 Minute Thesis Competition (3MT), the event finished, but not without a wonderful post show celebration, whereby the winner of the 3MT and the most engaging stands were chosen. I had the opportunity to make friends with engineers, vets, and biologists, a crowd that, as a sociolinguist, I do not normally mingle with, and once again, RwB made that possible.
Thanks to my fruitful experience at the RwB event, I realized that the University of Bristol offers professional spaces like the BDC, where communication skills are a valuable asset, and this defined a breakthrough moment in my professional life, because helping people communicate their work with impact is a career path that I would like to consider in the future.
Interested in applying for Research without Borders 2018? Visit the BDC website to read the FAQs and submit your application. The deadline is 11am on Monday 5 February 2018.
Thomas O’Shea-Wheller is a final year PhD student in Biology. He studies the behaviour and social organisation of ants, with a particular interest in how complex collective behaviours may emerge from simple rules at the individual level. His research has been featured on the BBC, PBS and Wired, among others. Photo credit: Mengqiong Zhou.
From the moment I started my PhD, I knew that I wanted to engage people with my research. After all, that was how I first became interested in science; by learning about the work and discoveries of others, and so I was eager to elicit those same feelings of enthusiasm that I had felt as a child.
The only problem was, I had no idea how to go about doing it. Initially, it was far from clear which of the many avenues of ‘public engagement’ were actually worth the time and effort, and besides that, if anyone even cared about the work of a PhD student. After doing some research, however, it became apparent to me that much of the exposure that could be received in science was dependent upon making your work accessible, rather than upon its exact subject. Such a revelation could at first seem like a bad thing; after all, shouldn’t research be ascribed coverage based on its merit and scientific significance alone? In fact, what it means in practice, is that all scientists have the potential to intrigue and fascinate others with their work. Of course, ground-breaking discoveries are guaranteed to receive ample attention, and justly so, but with the right approach, so can more modest advances. There is, however, one caveat to achieving this; you need to be able to crystallise precisely what makes your work interesting.
I’ll admit that I consider myself fortunate in this regard; my area of research, the collective behaviour of ants, is relatively relatable and easy to explain, since most people have at least heard of the industrious insects. That said, whether you study trans-membrane receptors, or the self-organising properties of chemical compounds, it matters not, as all research has one uniting faculty that lends itself well to public engagement. Specifically, if you are investigating anything scientifically, it is because you hope to find something of use, or at the very least, something novel. This—by its very nature – is going to be intriguing to people, and all that you have to do is explain it in a way that will foster understanding.
Making your science accessible is, somewhat ironically, more akin to an art; a delicate balance between removing unnecessary complexity and avoiding an overt ‘dumbing down’ of the core concepts. The best advice I can give is to focus upon isolating the central points or messages that are most important to a piece of research, while doing so in as straight-forward a manner as possible. A distillation, so to speak.
Once you have some practice in summarising your research effectively (and practise you will need), the final piece of the ‘puzzle’ concerns how best to disseminate your findings, in order to reach the people you wish to engage. The answer to this really depends on your personal aims and target audience, do you want to inform the general public? The scientific community? Or perhaps a combination of both? Activities such as science demonstrations and talks to schools are a great way to gain experience, and most institutions provide ample chances to do both. However, if you truly wish to reach the widest audience, and make a lasting impression, publication of your work is key, as it paves the road to media coverage.
It goes without saying that in an increasingly technologically-centred society, digital media really does form the heart of any effective promotion or engagement strategy. So, how can you go about getting such coverage? It is often a lot easier than you might think. If there is one key point to take away from this post, it is that preparing and disseminating good quality press releases is probably the most important factor in increasing the media impact of your research. The good thing about this, is that it is relatively easy to do; simply contact the relevant journal prior to the publication of your article, and discuss putting together a statement. Furthermore, you can ask the same of your university’s press office, as they will often distribute a summary of your research in tandem with the journal, and are usually more than happy to do so.
Just ensure that you are not idle.
The reason I bother to mention this, is that it is something that it is so rarely taught, or even mentioned, but has a massive impact; an effective press release can literally mean the difference between a national headline, and a complete lack of interest. Put simply, by the time you are publishing a piece of research, you have already invested (often very) considerable effort into it, so why neglect the final stage, when it may determine whether anyone actually reads it?
Fortunately, there is now a promising trend towards more awareness on the part of PhD students when disseminating their research. Student press-groups, and better information relating to the benefits of press coverage, have become markedly more common in the few years since I began my PhD. Still, there is a lot to be said for actively promoting your own work; do not be afraid to contact the press offices of journals and institutions alike. If they are going to publish your work, ensure that they promote it as well.
On a parting note, the more practice you have, the better you will become at it, and in terms of the cost-benefit trade-offs (apologies, I am a biologist) I can think of few other public engagement activities that are so rewarding.
Sarah Jose is third-year postgraduate researcher in plant science. Her research focuses on how plants limit water loss by producing a waterproof coating and pores that can close to prevent water from leaving the leaf. She spends a lot of time looking down the microscope at nail varnish impressions of leaves!
Go to lab. Learn new techniques. Network at conferences. Write a thesis of epic proportions. Survive viva. Graduate.
Before starting my PhD, I expected that I would learn new research skills, improve my written and oral communication and leave as a fully-fledged scientist. Along the way there have been so many other fantastic things that add a deeper meaning to my time at Bristol. Here are some of the unexpected benefits of doing a PhD:
Surrounded by great ideas
I had a year away from academia between finishing my Bachelors and beginning my PhD. One of the things I came to miss most was the constant transfer of knowledge that goes on in universities. There’s probably a seminar or research talk underway at Bristol every working hour of the day. While attending every single one isn’t likely to please your supervisor, picking one or two relevant ones each week really enhances your work by broadening your horizons and saves you from becoming too blinkered around your tiny little piece of the research puzzle.
Be a mentor
Sure, I’m still a PhD student, but I’m also a mentor for undergraduates. Most graduate students work with undergrads at some point, either as a teacher, laboratory demonstrator or supervisor of research project students. I absolutely love using the knowledge I have gained to help enthusiastic people work through problems they encounter in my field, explaining difficult concepts with clarity. The students pay you back too, by getting you to think about your work in new ways, which is often a great idea generator.
Spread the word
The fundamental importance of our own research seems obvious to us, but think about it from another perspective. The average taxpayer hasn’t heard of the genes that I am researching, so why should they pay to fund my work? Even if you self-fund your studies, you need to be able to explain the relevance of your work to the broader society. During your PhD you’ll develop your own answer to this question, and come to realise that getting people excited about your research and field of interest will enable you to inspire others and become a leader. I’ve done a lot of different types of public engagement, from Bristol’s Festival of Nature, to blogging, to being questioned about all things food by teenagers, and each one develops a unique skill-set to promote academic research in different ways.
Meet amazing people
Bristol has an international reputation, which is why amazing people are drawn to it. Some of the big names in my field have visited the University either as visiting academics, invited speakers or simply attending conferences, and it’s fantastic to have the opportunity to meet these inspirational scientists. During my time as a Press Gang member for the University’s Cabot Institute I’ve met an entirely different set of influential people and received invaluable insights into the inner workings of science policy. There are a lot of opportunities for PhD students to meet leaders in their field and have in depth discussions about shared interests and ideas. You just have to speak up!
We are all presented with a multitude of amazing opportunities as PhD students. You need to filter out those that matter most to you and grab them with both hands. These experiences are valuable both for career development, but they also enrich your time as a postgraduate and get you thinking more deeply about the world around you.
What have been the unexpected benefits of your PhD? How do you make the most of them?