A new chapter for greenhouse gas emissions — how a Bristol PGR’s research had real-world impact

Eleni Michalopoulou (centre) with project partner Tim Arnold (left) and Prof. Mike Czerniak (right).
Eleni Michalopoulou (centre) with project partner Tim Arnold (left) and Prof. Mike Czerniak (right).

Eleni Michalopoulou, a third-year PhD student in the School of Chemistry, explains how she came to be a contributing author on an important Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change report.

I think now, looking back a year later, it was my inner physicist that helped me look at the problem from a different perspective.

‘The problem’ here was why there was such a big gap in the measurements of CF4 — a nasty greenhouse gas, historically emitted by the aluminium and the semiconductor industries, that has a global warming potential (GWP) of 7360 and a half-life of 50,000 years.

This perfluorocarbon is the focus of my PhD research in the Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group. In particular, I’ve been trying to work out why there’s quite a big gap between what we call a top-down estimate, which broadly means the amount of CF4 we measure in the atmosphere, and the bottom-up inventories, which are compiled from several bodies and/or different industries.

These three years that I have been working on my project, which is sponsored by Prof Mike Czerniak and Edwards Ltd, have been wildly interesting. I had the opportunity to look very closely into the aluminium and semiconductor industries and their emissions, how their technology has changed over the time and how geographical shifts of the industries had an effect on the emissions of CF4 and other PFCs.

However, the more I read about the industries, the more it seemed like there was something missing — something that would help explain the gap and the discrepancies. No matter how we looked at it, the emissions that came from the aluminium and semiconductor industries alone were not enough to explain those discrepancies.

Since there was no explanation for the gap, given what we had already found and what we already knew, I started to look in the literature for other sources, either less known or less likely.

Eventually, I found the work of Hanno Vogel at TRIMET Aluminium, which involved estimating PFC emissions that came from the rare earth smelting industry. I was so excited when I found that — mostly because I had taken the risk of spending quite a lot of time looking into something that could have been just a wrong idea or a bad hunch.

Once we started the discussions with Hanno, it became very clear to us that we were both on to something. From his side, it was a ‘bigger picture’ point of view; from my side, the discrepancies and that gap now made so much more sense.

Very soon afterwards we joined forces and started presenting our work at conferences. I think what really helped us make our case regarding the PFC emissions from the rare earth smelting industry was that his work combined with mine made a really good, logical argument — and good, logical arguments are always great when you are trying to do science!

The best moment was when we presented our work to the head of the greenhouse gas section for the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. What we were suggesting about the contribution of the rare earths to the PFC emissions seemed to make so much sense to so many people.

Not too long after that, we were notified that the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) was considering adding a brand-new chapter regarding PFC (and other greenhouse gas) emissions from the rare earth smelting industry, as part of its 2019 Refinement of the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.

We were, of course, absolutely thrilled to hear that! Along with the news of the new chapter came the nomination for both me and Hanno to be included as contributing authors for that new chapter on rare earth smelting and its associated PFC emissions. Eventually, we received the email from the lead authors confirming both of us as contributing authors for the chapter. I can’t speak on behalf of Hanno on this, but I sure spent a significant part of that day just absolutely bouncing around with joy.

There is still a lot of work to be done of course, but I think it’s a great start!

Researcher reflections — how working with young offenders changed me

This guest blogpost is a personal reflection by Adeela ahmed Shafi, a PhD candidate in the School of Education. Adeela is also Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Gloucestershire and Vice-Chair of the Avon & Somerset Police Powers Scrutiny Panel.

If you’re a researcher, there’s plenty of literature available on how to be ethical; how to reflect and acknowledge your presence in research, in terms of research design, data collection, analysis and indeed the claims made.

However, there’s not much out there on how the research process actually impacts on the researcher.

My research contributes to the intense political debate on youth justice by exploring the nature of disengagement in young offenders in a secure custodial setting and how this group can be re-engaged.

What I would like to do here, though, is talk about the challenges — methodological, ethical and personal — that I needed to navigate in order to get to the findings.

Challenges, dilemmas and adapting your approach

For me, there were many personal and methodological challenges in working with incarcerated young offenders.

For example, I had prepared all manner of interview aids to help me elicit data from my participants — all derived from the literature in terms of the best way to interview children and vulnerable participants. However, I ultimately found that these were all quite superfluous and in themselves made many assumptions about my participants.

In the end, then, I found I had to ditch these and just use myself as the main resource. This involved having to reveal some of my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and in doing so redress the power imbalance between myself as a researcher and the incarcerated participants, who had very little power or autonomy. I hadn’t actually planned that in my data collection prep work!

Having got myself in a position where my participants were willing to trust me and open up, I felt myself amidst an array of ethical challenges and dilemmas. Not least of these was that I was now in a privileged but weighty position of responsibility, with a duty to tell the story of a ‘doubly vulnerable’ group who had little voice in a society that had already passed judgement on them.

Retaining and representing what’s been shared

Because of this sense of responsibility, I felt that the handling of the data had to avoid fracturing the essence of what had been shared. I found my memory, emotions and the field notes of each interview were essential in this, because I could recall the additional aspects of the interview not recorded in transcriptions to enter the analysis — in particular, the body language and the atmosphere in the room during the interviews. Even now as I write this, I find myself transported back, and I remember how riveted I felt when listening to them.

My experiences also reinforced the criticality of the researcher in the generation of data, and in ensuring that this data was represented in a way that captured the richness of it. I didn’t see it as data ‘waiting to be gathered’, because my participants indicated they’d never had the space to give thought to their educational experiences in the way that engagement with the research had enabled them.

In short, working with these young people meant I was able to get a glimpse of their potential.

But I feel guilty.

In participating in the research, I was showing these vulnerable participants what could be — but what was not to be. Being unable to facilitate the potential I witnessed beyond the scope of my research stung.

I realised then that research can change you.

Moving on

Photo of Richard Budd

Richard Budd was awarded his PhD in September 2014, having successfully defended his thesis a few weeks beforehand. Based in the Graduate School of Education, he conducted a comparative case study of how German and English undergraduates understood and negotiated their respective higher education contexts. This required implementing a qualitative research design, conducting in-depth interviews with students at universities in each country. 

I dotted the last ‘i’ and crossed the last ‘t’ on my PhD seven months ago; it seems like aeons ago. It’s developed into a platonic thing now where our time together is infrequent. I’m afraid we simply grew apart. The attraction that emerged after initially circling each other cautiously was followed by a period of intense and all-consuming passion, a long stretch of easy cohabitation, then increasingly frequent rows and finally, heartbreak. What remains is respect and a shared history, but the viva was a counselling session when my examiners highlighted what I already suspected: the writing was on the wall. No hard feelings; I’m a better person than I was before and am very grateful for that. For a time this was the centre of the universe, and then there was the sudden realisation that the orbits had shifted, leaving a (mostly) fond memory and a reference in my bibliography. I haven’t got space for that kind of relationship any more. I’m just juggling too many different things nowadays.

My last blog in this series looked at what you need to do to boost your post-PhD employability. I was doing well enough back then, and three months later, I’m pleased to report further progress. I’m working part-time as an RA on a project that looks at maths teaching and widening participation (WP). We’re currently analysing data from group discussions with the teachers who participated in our study. It’s complex, challenging and interesting, and is clocking more miles on the research tachometer. We’ve had a symposium with some other WP projects accepted at a big national education conference in September. I’m also giving a paper of my own at the same conference – this way the project pays for me to go and I get to fly my own flag, too. I’ve had the same paper admitted at a European conference, and have been awarded funding to attend that. This one is particularly handy because it’s profile building, networking, and a small tick against the ‘garners funding’ box. Oh, and it’s in Budapest!! I’ve also drafted an application for money to put together a seminar series on graduate employability, and this is about the only other type of funding I can apply for as a part-time, fixed term researcher. It’s a slow burner, though, because the person I need to help me polish it up for submission is simply too swamped with other stuff to be able to help for the time being.

What else…I’m supervising a Master’s student, which is great. My supervisee is, thankfully, engaged, energetic, and receptive to advice. Helping others develop their projects is rewarding and helps me realise how much of the research process is second nature now. My blog, Stuff About Unis, is attracting a steady level of traffic, and I’ve been out in schools delivering a workshop I put together on the nature and results of educational research. I submitted my first paper in February, and I’m expecting to hear back from the editors in about June. They say that your first review is a bit of a (painful) rite of passage. Provided they accept it, I’m braced to have quite a bit of work to do before resubmitting it. Then it gets read again, further changes recommended, back and forth, until it’s finally done. I’ve got another paper I’m looking to submit in June, and again this’ll be subject the same prolonged period of negotiation. I might have two of my own publications by Christmas. I also work part-time for GW4, coordinating academic staff development projects across the four universities. Working with people in four different organisations, all in separate geographical locations, is challenging, but it’s providing an inside view of academic careers, collaborative projects, and doctoral training, as well as an education into how universities function behind – or alongside – the academic work. This is all really useful as much of it taps into things that I’ll be expected to have experience of in the future.

Something that’s struck me over the last few months is how incomplete my understanding of the academic job market was. Most of my knowledge has been picked up piecemeal, from conversations, CPD sessions, and staff developers. Particularly since the introduction of tuition fees, student satisfaction, and employability ratings on the league tables, there’s an enormous emphasis on undergrad career support. In comparison, postgrads get a raw deal in my view. We are supposed to be more independent and seek things out ourselves, but some structured, clearly available support wouldn’t go amiss. For example:

  • What is an academic CV supposed to look like? You could possibly hunt down some of the examples buried in the Vitae website, but did you know that our own HR pages have useful information on this? I found out about this from a mentoring circle. It’s intended for internal promotions, but gives a really good template of what needs to be on there.
  • Where do you look for jobs? I knew about jobs.ac.uk, which should cover the UK, but only last week a friend mentioned Euraxess, which has positions all over Europe. AcademicKeys might be of interest: it’s mostly US-focused, but also has jobs around the world.
  • How do you put an application together? Some of it is simply filling in boxes, but the personal statement is an art form that a friend of mine recently talked me through. You have to be absolutely explicit about how you satisfy all of the essential criteria (what’s on the last blog, and probably more), and hopefully a good proportion of the desirable ones. You also need to look at the teaching/research profile of your potential employer and make it very clear how you would fit within this.

Seven months out, post-PhD life is more or less on track. All I‘ll need is time, elbow grease, and the planetary alignment of a job whose requirements I meet more than the competition. Don’t ask me what the interview might look like or what I’m expected to wear, though, I’ve no idea. Answers on a postcard, please…

Lost, Doom, Eureka – Three random Thursdays

University of BristolDominika Bijoś is a final year postgraduate researcher from the School of Clinical Sciences, based in the School of Physiology and Pharmacology. She studies smooth muscle contraction and examines how other cell types influence it in bladder tissue and in the whole organ. Initially, she used molecular and cell biology techniques, but spent last year watching and analysing moving bladders and the conclusion was – they dance the samba!

“What to do?!”, “nothing works” and “success!” is the range of my experiences of a PhD – any of this sounds familiar? I dare not quantify how often each of those days happens…

Lost – The day I don’t know what to do

It is a grey rainy day. I feel lost in the overwhelming amount of things I need to do. Prioritizing is never between more and less important stuff – it is between important and deadline important. I can’t do everything in a limited amount of time, but right now I am paralysed with inability to decide what I should devote my precious limited time to. Have a cup of tea with a friend, breathe. Say it out loud.

Once a decision is made, it is easier – I can at least focus on one action. I will first write the review draft, send it to my boss, with this done I will analyse the data and show it to him at the next meeting (no surprise here, bosses love data) and then prepare everything for tomorrows’ experiment.

That’s the plan. Cup of tea gets me going.

Doom – The day nothing works

In science experiments fail every day…. next thing you know you spent the first year of your PhD building a tool, optimizing a protocol, troubleshooting… You start a day: prepare, try, try, try, fail, try more, fail and go home… no wait, boss has another idea to try. Try, fail. Home finally.

I need a Mary Berry cake to cheer my up. Bakeoff on TV will do.

The difficult part isn’t in the fact that it didn’t work, not even in preparing and doing the experiment everyday as if you were about to discover something new. The difficult part is not letting it get to you and keep going.

Eureka! – The day we discover something new

Spring has come, so did the visiting specialists from Japan. In between going about the usual business, the group is doing EXTRA experiments with the Japanese visitors. Guess what? They don’t work. The equipment picks up only noise, tools break, fire alarm goes off and we need to start again, and everything that can go wrong… does.

Thursday, 9 am – prepare, 10 am – visiting scientists start, noon – Louise takes over, she works to make it work… It does at 6 pm. Next, the magic happened: an amazing recording of nerve activity! A activates B – that has never been shown before!

If A activates B and the communication is supposed to be both ways… why not check if B really activates A?  It is 7 pm and it is a crazy idea. The Experiment started 10h ago, but it WORKS NOW. It takes so much hard work, no one wants to stop! Japanese visitors share their instant miso soup with us. Delish. Note to self: buy some as back up food.

Did I mention the boss is in the lab? It is not a lost PhD moonlighting and struggling in isolation, no. Today is the day when the whole team works together. Everyone is tired, the lab could do with better ventilation, but there aren’t normally 5 people working there… This week is different.

At 9 pm the we see that B activates A. Wow.

This was the day when science worked, the day when we discovered something new and I saw it happen.

I love it. I love science.

On Friday we celebrated in the pub. Boss paid all rounds.

Thursdays123Friday
Thursday 1, Thursday 2, Thursday 3 and Friday!

P.S. With this post I thank everyone I worked and drank tea and celebratory drinks with!

The Why and The How

Madeline_BurkeMadeline 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.

Flowchart

What are the differences between sciences and engineering? Not an earth shattering, life changing question, I’ll admit, but one I have been pondering recently after my foray into nanoscience. Having previously defined myself as an engineer, a PhD in nanoscience has made me challenge my views and definition of science as a subject. Cheesy I know, but seriously, the differences between my engineering student university experience and that of my science graduate colleagues were astounding to me. So I decided to try and define these differences and where better to start answering my questions than the oracle of all things known (also known as Google or in this case my first hit, Wiki answers).

Wiki answers says “A scientist is a person who has scientific training or who works in the sciences. An engineer is someone who is trained as an engineer.” Somehow I don’t think it is that simple. As I’ve found out there is a huge amount of overlap between science and engineering, especially nanoscience. Let me explain – engineering is essentially applying scientific principles to real world problems, a product or solution is created and the problem is solved (or so engineers like to think). Science looks at the world around us and tries to find answers to its mysteries. The difference is not about the knowledge needed to study or practise these disciplines, but in the questions you ask.

In essence, a scientist looks at something and wants to understand “why?” Why is the sky blue? Why do things behave differently on the macro and micro scale? Why do stem cells proliferate and other cells do not? Essentially, it is about understanding and acquiring new knowledge. Engineering is more about “how?” As an engineer, I ask how I can make other cells differentiate. How can I sequence DNA cheaply and accurately? How can I make computers better, smaller and cheaper? Engineering is about invention and solving real-world problems rather than acquiring new knowledge.

This is where the hot new subject of nanoscience comes in, bridging the proverbial gap between science and engineering. Nanoscientists ask both types of questions: why do things behave differently at the nanoscale, and how can I apply this to a real world problem?

But I suppose the big question is who cares? Should there be a distinction between science and engineering? I highlight the well-known case of the chicken and the egg: in school, we were taught that science came first and engineering was the application of science, but now important advances in nanoscience are usually the result of a new tool becoming available. You could say that nanoscience is driven by engineering advances.

Nanoscience is starting to address the distinctions between engineering and science, and also within science itself. Coming from an engineering background the “why?” of science was a shock to me, but I’ve come to see it as an advantage. Engineering is often money and product focused, but without the why of science it wouldn’t exist. I still have the odd “how are you ever going to apply that to anything useful?” moment but in general nanoscience is perfect for me. I get the why and the how!

Right, you’ve got your doctorate. Now what?

Photo of Richard BuddI don’t know how common this is, but I gave no thought to ‘post-PhD’ when I started out. I was mostly interested in the field and wanted to see if I had what it took to do a doctorate.  Job thoughts came later, with an academic career emerging as the frontrunner by several lengths. I love my area of research, I really enjoy teaching, and there’s no ceiling as to how far you can develop intellectually. I had a good job for a time before I started my postgrad studies – interesting, well paid, international travel, nice people – but after a while I wasn’t getting any better, just learning more facts. The next options for me were to go into management or get involved in more advanced kinds of research. It was a no-brainer: I had to go back to university.

So, here I am, with my PhD, and looking at the job market. It looks like getting from a freshly passed viva to a lecturing post requires having a few things on your CV:

  • A doctorate;
  • Research experience (in addition to your doctorate);
  • Teaching experience;
  • Conference presentations;
  • Journal publications, and preferably a book;
  • Successful research funding bids;

I’ll go through the list, in principal and in (my) practice.

You didn’t always have to have a PhD/professional doctorate but you probably do now. It might not be as important in some subjects like nursing, teacher training, or architecture, but having one in those will certainly not count against you. In most subjects, though, it’s a case of no doctorate, no entry. For me, that’s a check.

Getting research experience – preferably as part of a research team – seems to be pretty important. Not many have the opportunity to do this before their doctorate and you can’t always squeeze it in during. You might get to be involved in other people’s work if you’re in a lab in your research group, but this is not an option for everyone. Teaching is readily available if you’re studying in a department that has undergraduate students, less if you’re not. I had a career in non-academic research before I came back to university, managed to get a few cameo research jobs during my PhD, and am now working on a research project. My department was a graduate school and you couldn’t teach until you upgraded from MPhil to PhD, but I previously taught English in Japan and then accumulated quite a few bits of bobs after my upgrade, too. So far, so good!

Most people do conference presentations as they go along. They’re nerve-wracking, but you get to share your research, pick up new ideas, and often meet some interesting (and perhaps useful) people. You can start off small, presenting at student conferences or at the ‘early career’ section of a major one, and then at some stage move into the bear pit with the grown-ups.  It’s all a practice thing and I did a few of these every year, some of which went well, some of which didn’t. Still, I learnt from it, quite enjoy it really, and that’s another box ticked.

Publishing is tricky, particularly during your PhD, unless you’re involved with someone else’s research project. Like me, you may not have anything new to say from your doctorate until you’re near the end of it. You can do book reviews, though, but I’m personally not sure how much this counts. There can be quite a lead time on journal publications: a few months to write, share, revise and then submit them, then a few more until they’re reviewed and sent back. Then you have to address their suggestions and resubmit it, provided they didn’t reject it outright in the first place. Only after all of that – once it’s all been approved, of course – can you put that precious ‘Budd (forthcoming) Catchy But Serious Title, Prestigious Journal, 3 (1), pp.34-52’ on your CV. Books are another option, at least in the social sciences. Unfortunately, you can’t just send the editor your final thesis copy, it’ll need months of rejigging and then more editing. Publications are where I fall flat at the moment. I have one that I’m working on by myself, two collaborative ones from other work I’ve done or am currently doing, and then at least three more from my PhD. In a year from now, it’ll all look rosier, and in two years, peachy!

Research funding is a bit of a Catch-22 in that you can’t get funding without a permanent job or a permanent job without funding! The ideal route is that you get a two to three-year ‘post-doc’ soon after your viva that brings everything on the list with it – research, teaching, presentations, publications, and research funding. People in the sciences tend to do a few of these before getting a permanent job, but in the social sciences it’s usually one, and there are far less of them around. They’re often not that well paid and/or quite short term, which is completely unhelpful if you’ve got a family and can’t move around every six to 12 months.

I hope most people are more informed about what happens after the doctorate than I was four years ago. I did manage to work most of this out as I went along, though, and am now only a few publications short of the next stop on the ladder. Some people I know have moved from their doctorate to a lectureship almost seamlessly, but this is pretty unusual. It’s probably good to be aware that there is a bit of a chasm between completing your thesis and The Job. You may have to fill the gap with part-time and/or short-term contracts, and you’ll need to collect certain building blocks to construct your bridge to the other side. Good luck…

Postgraduate research: student-employee limbo

Sarah_JoseSarah 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!

It’s the start of a new academic year. Watching the new batch of postgraduate students settle into PhD life has got me thinking about my own arrival two years ago.

It’s very strange to go from being taught everything as an undergraduate student to being a PhD candidate who has to teach themselves about their project. It was a little overwhelming at first, but with the help of my supervisor and lab mates I quickly learned the skills that would be vital over the coming years, from laboratory techniques to the best ways to organise your data.

It’s exciting being at the helm of research, exploring something that no one has ever done before. You start to feel like a real scientist, and you’re treated like one by academics and students alike. You start talking to people about your ideas and planning your first publication…

But then the niggling voice in the back of your head points out that you’re not a real academic. The ID card hanging from that official-looking University of Bristol lanyard still says “STUDENT”.

Who am I?

Doing a PhD is like living in a student-employee limbo. Life as an undergraduate is very guided and enclosed, although it might not feel like it at the time. You go to lectures and practical lab classes, you have exams, and then you finish. Postgraduate research is far less structured; you are the driving force behind your project, so it takes a certain type of control freak / self-motivated person to get anything done.

I’ve had access to loads of great training and resources as a student at the University (and of course there are the added benefits of student discounts and council tax exemption). At the same time, I am lucky enough to be paid a living allowance stipend, which instils a sort of employee mentality. I always work in the office instead of at home, which has enabled me a deeper integration within my department because you get to know the people you work with.

As a postgrad you and your peers have a lot more experience than you had as an undergraduate, where every lab technique was new. As a third year, I’m pretty confident with the methods I use, but speaking to post-docs makes me realise that they have a far wider range of experience and skills than I do! Building up this knowledge takes time and it’s usually not something you’d sit down and study, but rather you’d ask someone to show you how.

A research apprentice

I tend to see myself as an apprentice researcher. Doing a PhD is all about acquiring the skills you will need later and learning the academic ropes. You do have annual assessments and hopefully you get a degree at the end of it, but you’re the one in control.

My advice to our new starters? Make the most of your status. Take advantage of the constant barrage of opportunities to learn new skills as a student, but use your professionalism to show that you are a researcher in your own right. Attend conferences, talk to other people, and don’t be put off by their titles. You’re not an undergrad anymore; you’re a researcher.