Learning to Teach

University of BristolRebecca Ingle is a second year PhD student in the Bristol Laser Group in the School of Chemistry. Her research involves studying photodissociation dynamics in both the gas and solution phase using a combination of laser experiments and computational chemistry methods.

At its heart, a PhD might seem quite a simple thing. Bumble around in a lab for a few years, try to find conferences in the most exotic corners of the Earth, write a few things down. However, as well as the exciting cutting edge research, there are a whole host of other opportunities to challenge yourself with, including trying your hand at teaching.

Some people might consider teaching a waste of time; after all, you won’t have much of a PhD if you don’t have a tome of research to submit at the end. However, it can be an excellent way of developing your confidence, learning about some new subject areas and picking up some so-called ‘employability-skills’ if you are ever planning on leaving the realm of perpetual studenthood. You might even find teaching motivates and helps with your research work, rather than detracting from it.

If you’re looking back on your first year undergraduate studies with a warm sense of nostalgia, longing for the days when you thought you knew everything, then perhaps teaching is also for you. But how do you go about getting involved and more importantly, how do you start becoming an effective teacher?

Choose your Audience

There are a huge number of opportunities available for teaching, both in and outside of the university. Maybe herding groups of undergraduates and their chemicals back to the fume hoods, where they belong, sounds like the challenge for you or maybe you’d rather try to instil a love of maths in the younger generation. Regardless of what size groups or subjects you want to teach, you can probably find something to suit.

If you fancy venturing outside of the university, the market for GCSE and A Level tutors is huge. It is even possible to teach online now. However, it is worth doing your homework if you are planning on tutoring through an agency to ensure that they are reputable and exactly what cut of your earnings they take. Although perhaps less lucrative, schools are often keen to get support with after-school science clubs or additional support for students.

Most departmental opportunities are advertised by email but it can be worth keeping an eye on opportunities on a university level as well as via Widening Participation and the Careers Service.

Be Prepared

It may seem obvious, but the better you know the material yourself, the better you will be able to deliver it. The more thorough your understanding, the easier it will be to come up with alternative explanations to try and make sure all your students understand the material. If you have a feeling for what students typically find difficult on a course, it can be worth preparing extra questions or examples to give them more opportunity to practice and feel more confident.

However, no matter how hard you’ve studied the subject, some enthusiastic student will come up with a question you had no way of anticipating. Cue desperately trying to remember what you definitely knew four years ago to avoid shattering the naïve illusions of undergraduates that think you are the font of all knowledge. On the plus side, getting used to thinking on your feet in these situations makes question time at conference talks seem like a breeze.

If avoiding working with projectors and computers is impossible, turn up to the room three hours early, preferably with someone from IT in tow. The closer it is to the start of the lesson, the greater the likelihood that the computer will refuse to log on, decide that .ppt is an unknown file extension and delete all your files.

Seek Help

If you are completely new to teaching and have no idea how to cultivate the aura of calm and knowledge that your lecturers seemed to manage so easily, there is a lot of help out there. The University runs several ‘Starting to Teach’ courses specifically to address this problem and course organisers are normally only too happy to help, as if you fail to answer the students’ questions, they’ll only get asked them later.

Course organisers and other PhDs typically know what the most common issues and problems are likely to be or if you’re helping with practical sessions, ten different ways to switch the equipment off and on again to get it to work. Your supervisor might have some sagely tricks of the trade to share as well.

It can be nervewracking standing up in front of a class, hoping that after an hour, the whiteboard of algebra will suddenly make sense to everyone but it can be immensely rewarding seeing students making excellent progress. Being a researcher means you can often give a unique perspective of where a lot of theories are actually used and bring some seemingly useless topics to life. Sometimes the answer will be ‘I don’t know’ but you might find yourself learning as much as your students do.

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.

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.


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!

Ten thousand papers a month

Nick-JonesNick Jones is a second-year postgraduate researcher in the School of Mathematics. His research is rooted in physics and the problem of understanding how a large number of interacting particles behave. Particularly interesting is the case where the emerging cooperative behaviour of the whole system is very different to that of the smaller pieces that make it up.

Most of the days that I spend working on my PhD, I am at my desk (which, incidentally, has a pretty great view over Clifton). There, I’m usually confronted by a web browser with so many tabs open that you can’t read the names. Most of them have the same icon though: the ‘smily face and crossbones’ of arXiv.org – a website where many researchers post preprints of their articles, as well as lecture notes and other such useful things. One thing you realise during your studies is just how much information is out there, and what a challenge it is to find the thing you need: at the end of last year arXiv passed one million new papers since its 1991 inception. Initially, the papers were in one sub-field of physics and there would be about one hundred papers added per month. Since then it has grown to cover physics, mathematics and computer science as well as quantitative subfields of other sciences, with almost ten thousand new papers each month! It is a fantastic resource; with many scientists making their work available for everyone to read, including those readers who don’t have the journal subscriptions that I get through the Bristol library. Other fields have similar preprint servers, and not every physics paper appears on arXiv, but some idea of the quantity of new work can be gained from the graph below. newsubsMost of the growth you see is in adoption of arXiv by a subfield, but note that hep-* (the high energy physics category) has had a relatively constant submission rate for the past few years, so the number you see is probably about the size of the active field. This works out at about twenty five papers per day, so a lot to keep track of!

With so much research being done it can be difficult to stay on top the field your project sits in. One way is to meet people at workshops and conferences (and stay in touch – they might write to you with something interesting!), but if you are at the office you will need to keep track of articles on the internet. If the field is moving quickly, you will have to keep an eye on the preprints in case something you need appears and to make sure you don’t end up doing research that would have been new at the start of the year but has now been done somewhere else. Equally, if there is less activity in your field, it’s easy to stop looking for new publications and then you are guaranteed to miss developments. And of course, these are just the new papers, you also need to know what is already out there! Thankfully, the internet makes life easier, but sometimes a bit of luck helps too. In an effort to make sure I didn’t miss anything new I signed up for the ‘scientific recommendation engine’ Sparrho. You put in keywords that you are interested in and then it will check all kinds of websites (including, of course, the arXiv!) for articles. You then tune it by choosing which of these you consider relevant. After putting in three words that I thought most appropriate for my research project and playing around for five minutes it came up with a paper from 2013 that is exactly what I needed and which I could easily have never found! Since then I have been using it to keep tabs on new papers in my field, although I haven’t had another such breakthrough from (recent) history.

Two weeks in the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’

University of BristolJames Hickey is a final year PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences. His research is focused on unravelling the mechanisms that cause volcanoes to become restless prior to eruptions. Ultimately, the aim is to improve our understanding of precursory signals to enhance forecasting and mitigation efforts.

Workshops, conferences, field work – national and international travel is an essential part of many PhD programs. I’ve been lucky enough to see numerous new parts of the globe during my studies, and, less luckily, numerous different airport layovers (I’m currently writing this post from a corridor between terminals at Washington airport…!).

I’m on my way back to Bristol from a workshop in Ecuador on volcanic unrest, which culminated with an eruption simulation exercise. As my PhD is focused on unravelling the science behind volcanic unrest, these trips (this is the second of three with this specific aim) form a main focus for the real-world application of my research.

This workshop was split into 3 different parts. The first was a series of lectures on how volcanologists, social scientists, emergency managers, civil protection officials, and the general public interact during volcanic crises. Each specialist contributed their individual expertise, in my case as a volcanologist interpreting the signals that the volcano gives off, but the main message was that communication at all times between all parties must be especially clear. As with almost all lectures though, this part of the workshop obviously wasn’t the most exciting – especially with the inevitable jet-lagged tiredness kicking in for the first few days.

The second part of the workshop took us out into the field to explore two of Ecuador’s most famous volcanoes: Cotopaxi and Tungurahua. This was my favourite part! These are two quite epic volcanoes with the classical conical shape you imagine when you think of a volcano. By examining them in situ we learnt about the hazards they pose today to many nearby towns and cities. This really helps to put my research into perspective, as I know that by contributing to a better understanding of how volcanoes work I am helping to protect the people whose livelihood’s depend on the benefits the volcano brings them (for example, the more fertile soil).

Cotopaxi volcano, summit 5897 m ASL
Cotopaxi volcano, summit 5897 m ASL

The final part of the workshop took us to the Ecuadorian national centre for crisis management in Quito (cue vigilant security checks!). Here we conducted the volcanic unrest and eruption simulation. This is similar in some ways to a fire drill but a whole lot more complicated. Simulated monitoring ‘data’ from the volcano is fed to a team of volcanologists who have to quickly interpret what the data means and feed that information in a clear, coherent and understandable way to emergency managers, politicians and civil authorities. Upon the advice of the volcanologists, the decision makers can then choose how best to respond and mitigate a potential impending crisis. As this was just an exercise, different stages in the unrest crisis were dealt with all in one very busy day, with ‘data’ from the volcano arriving every couple of hours but representing several weeks or months in simulated time.

The final ‘update’ from the volcano: BIG eruption! I think we all could have predicted that – everyone likes a grand finale.

Despite the Hollywood firework finish, these exercises are crucial to prepare those individuals who will actually be in positions of responsibility when a true volcanic crisis develops. By playing out the different stages in as close to real-life as possible, strengths and weaknesses were highlighted that will allow for improvements to be made in the future. Improvements that may just save extra lives or livelihoods, and foster improved relationships between the public and the scientists trying to help them.

As one of those scientists, I was just happy enough to be able to take part.

Stellingen: The ten most important propositions from my PhD journey

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!

Getting a PhD is a ritual. Different countries have their own customs surrounding the process, preparations, ceremony, and so on. The thesis I spent the past three and a half years doing experiments for and writing up (like Richard), is an impressive brick containing over 40 000 words and 50 data figures. Let’s be honest: despite my best efforts to make this book readable, accessible and nicely presented, not many people except for my colleagues and examiners will read it. To ease this problem, Dutch tradition has a solution – stellingen (propositions).

In the old days, the 10 propositions (stellingen) would have been the ten statements of the thesis you actually defend. Nowadays, they present the most accessible summary of a few years of work and characterise the PhD candidate: their values and reflections regarding their work. So, I decided to borrow this custom to say what it is that I have learned over the past few years, not only scientifically but also personally. If you would like to know what I spent over 3 years researching, you can watch me tell the story in 3 minutes.

The top 10 messages of my thesis are:

1) A PhD is a Gesamtkunstwerk (from my friend Babett)

This German word describes a piece of art which uses many forms, a total artwork. I see my PhD as a total artwork: the art of honing my microsurgical skills, the creativity of troubleshooting, the beauty of statistical significance stars, the poetry in writing papers and reports, etc. The endless hours, months, years of perfecting all the techniques culminating in the thesis and title of “Dr”. The PhD is an all-together-piece-of-art.

2) If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? (Albert Einstein)

Doing postgraduate research is about answering questions NO ONE, not a single person in the world, knows the answer to. I often felt dumb (just like Madeline), and I didn’t always know what I was doing. Technical learning challenges were huge, data analysis difficulties were even harder. I struggled; I fought hard to trust the method, to distinguish a real effect from the noise. I won and I found out something no one knew.

3) Ano1 in juvenile rat urinary bladder (my thesis)

This is the title of the paper I published in the open access journal PLOS ONE. Getting my research peer reviewed and published makes my contribution to world knowledge publicly and freely accessible (and makes life easier for my examiners).

4) Movement depends on initiation, propagation and tone. (my thesis)

Although my research was on the movement of the bladder wall, what I learned throughout the project was that every action needs to start (initiate) and then be followed through (propagated). I made action plans, but they only mattered if I executed them.

There were times when I worked too much… and I also learned that constant contraction of the system is impossible. You need to relax too! This is a tricky balance, but when achieved, it gives happiness 🙂

5) In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm…in the real world all rests on perseverance. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Science isn’t achieved easily, but enthusiasm and perseverance drive it.

For me, it was curiosity and love of discovery during the good times, and perseverance all the rest of time, learning to take things one step at a time (just like Rhiannon!)

I told my friend Bartholomew, we get the PhD for surviving the process rather than the actual achievement. It isn’t entirely true, but because in science we do so much more than the world will ever see, it cheered me up on many occasions after failed experiments. Every step, even failure, was a part of figuring out how the world works.

6) Your life, your PhD, your problem

I had problems. If you’re doing a PhD – you will have problems. It is your life, so take control over your career. Being at Bristol, there are plenty of options to solve the problems you might have: technical or personal. You’re not alone! Take control and act – plenty of opportunities land in your mailbox every week.

7) Curiouser and curiouser(Alice in Wonderland)

During a postgraduate degree, we are surrounded by loads of amazingly smart and passionate people. During my PhD I had the chance to hear about fascinating science and meet inspiring scientists. Did you know that this year’s 2014 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, Edvard Moser, gave a talk in the Neuroscience department exactly two years ago (19 Nov 2012)?

I got my nose out of the lab and went to seminars to hear what else is out there and asked colleagues what they do. For science, one of the best forms of communication is coffee breaks, so use them – not to network, but to make friends. It worked for me – thanks to this I have an entire thesis chapter based on collaboration!

8) Communication – the human connection – is the key to personal and career success (Paul J Meyer)

So you are a rocket scientist? Well, unless you can write a paper about it, give a talk I can follow and understand – no one cares.

Writing is difficult for everyone, but you can learn to be an effective writer and better communicator. Online courses, onsite courses, practice, practice…There are plenty of options at Bristol Uni. Writing well and speaking well are assets, whatever you do.

9) Constitutive response to when something turns up is YES (Jim Smith)

When an opportunity came – I said yes. I had a chance to do something for others and created a yearly meeting for early career researchers in my field (the Young Urology Meeting). Saying yes to new opportunities gave me experience and created even more opportunities.

10) To pee or not to pee? (adapted from Shakespeare)

My research has contributed a tiny bit to the understanding of how the body works and parts of this might be used to answer the existentially painful question of patients in the clinics with bladder problems. But it left me perpetually full of questions no one knows the answers to. So for me, the only option is: Science: yes or KNOW!

Getting a PhD is a journey full of obstacles and interesting people, struggles and discoveries, dumb moments and personal growth.

My journey not only pushed the knowledge boundaries of the field, but most definitely pushed me. It pushed me to be at my personal best: in the lab and in the office, to be a better person, to be a thorough and tireless researcher and to be in charge of my project, my time and my life.