7 things all Bristol PGRs should do in 2017

Make sure you start the year as you mean to go on by getting involved in the thriving research community here in Bristol. Here are some of the highlights coming up in 2017 that our postgraduate research students should watch out for:

1. Look after yourself by prioritising your self-care

We bet you didn’t expect to see this as number 1 on the list, but looking after yourself shouldn’t be forgotten. Life as a researcher can take its toll on your mental and physical health. In the depths of research – whether in the lab, the archives, or the field – it’s all too easy to get sucked away from the wider world. Take a quick look at our virtual resource hub for activities, events, information and news about mental health and general wellbeing.


2. Celebrate the start of your research at our special inauguration event in February

If you’ve started your research degree on or after 1 August 2016 then come along to our special Researcher Inauguration event on Monday 6 February, 2017. Receive your official welcome from the Vice-Chancellor and President of the University, Professor Hugh Brady, and introduce yourself to the University’s rich and vibrant research community over a glass of wine and some nibbles. Sign up for your free ticket here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/researcher-inauguration-event-tickets-30551567561

3. Showcase your research at the BDC festival of research: Research without Borders 2017

Our flagship Research without Borders festival provides an interactive space for Bristol postgraduate researchers across all disciplines to come together and showcase their work to a broad audience from within and outside of the University. This year’s festival will include a whole week of interactive showcase events: an evening seminar series, the finals of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition and an afternoon showcase exhibition at Colston Hall on Friday 12 May. More than 100 PGRs shared their work at last year’s exhibition, through research posters, hands-on demonstrations, innovative research displays and lively discussions. Take a look at last year’s event to get a sense of just how special the event was – and help us make this year’s event bigger and better than ever! Keep an eye on the Bristol Doctoral College website to find out how you can sign up.

4. Sign up for personal and professional development training  

In an increasingly competitive environment there is a growing demand on postgraduate researchers not just to be qualified experts in their subject area, but to be highly accomplished individuals with the skills and attitude to communicate, innovate and adapt within a continually changing landscape. The Bristol Doctoral College runs a Personal and Professional Development programme with more than 150 workshops, seminars and online resources designed specifically for postgraduate research  students. Take a look at the full catalogue and sign up today!

5. Join the Bristol SU Postgraduate Network

The PG Network is a student-led initiative for all postgraduate students (both research and taught) that seeks to develop an active, strong and vibrant postgraduate community here at the University of Bristol. The PG Network organises events in Bristol and provides a real chance for students to work together to shape and develop Bristol postgraduate community life. Get involved and keep up to date by joining the group on Facebook.

6. Learn something new and see where it takes you

Keep your mind active even when you need a break from your research by going to a public lecture, talk or debate about something completely different to your main study area. There are numerous public talks and lectures in Bristol, and many of them are free to attend. The Bristol Festival of Ideas attracts experts from around the world to Bristol with an inspiring programme of debate and discussion throughout the year. The Arnolfini also organises regular talks and the Pervasive Media Studio at the Watershed holds a free lunchtime talk every Friday.

7. And finally, make the most of being in Bristol

Bristol has a wealth of cultural treasures and historic places to explore – from museums, art galleries and theatres, pop-up cafes, festivals and world-renowned graffiti. Make sure you make the most of studying in such a vibrant city and take some time out of your research to explore. Keep up to speed with what’s going by keeping an eye on Bristol 247 and Bristol Museums.

The time for post-referendum grief is over: pro-active strategies for European-minded PGRs

Isabel Stockton is a doctoral student in the Department of Economics, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the ESRC, although they are supported by the Bristol Doctoral College. 

Within the university: Fight for your funding

As PGRs, we transcend groups that are often talked about as separate entities, namely university students and academic staff. As the UK negotiates its exit from the EU, we – or future cohorts of PGRs – are likely to be affected in both of these roles. The Treasury has recently announced that the government will underwrite bids for EU Commission funding made before the UK’s exit. This is excellent news that mitigates the uncertainty about our participation in collaborative European research in the short term. However, no commitment to preserving the fee status of EU students beyond this year’s incoming cohort has been made by the University or the government. At last month’s #bristolisglobal event, Pro-Vice Chancellor International, Dr Erik Lithander suggested that the University may decide to make up for any shortfall in government funding for EU students’ tuition. As we all know, securing funding for research and for research students is no walk in the park even at the best of times. Brexit constitutes a considerable financial risk for the University, so help make the PGR case for our funding priorities.

evidenceSpread the love for evidence

Like many of the students and researchers around me, the referendum result did not worry me about any immediate change to my status as much as a change in political culture brought about by the campaign leading up to it. Whilst the rhetoric of either camp gave cause for concern, the leave camp’s anti-intellectualist argument that culminated in Michael Gove’s statement that “People in this country have had enough of experts”, should attract our particular attention as researchers. Now is the time to shout about our love for rational debate, for empiricism, for limiting the range of plausible disagreement by facts. Celebrating a plurality of methods and questioning established truths is at the heart of research. We must not allow those who would like prejudice to go unquestioned to co-opt the language of inclusion of dissenting voices. This is the time to show the public that while research may and should allow space for disagreement, it is not arbitrary.

Stand up to racism: This is our home

None of us can have failed to notice the increase in derogatory comments and hate crime related to race and ethnicity reflected in anecdotes as well as statistics since the referendum. We cannot tolerate our fellow citizens being told to “go home”, so speak up when you witness abuse and report it to the police. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published an advice sheet collecting contacts and information on your rights in this respect. But outside of acute incidents, you can contribute towards an inclusive, supportive environment for migrants, at universities and beyond. Get involved with campaigns like #WeAreInternational and #BristolisGlobal or start your own and if you can, directly support migrants and refugees by donating or volunteering.

EuropeLive the European Dream

Journalist Nicholas Barrett’s emotional statement, “We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied” went viral immediately after the referendum. But the personal side of European integration that he refers to was never about directives and white papers and green papers. Freedom of movement certainly helped, but to those of us with first-hand experience of intra-EU migration it has always been painfully clear that it is far from perfect or hassle-free anyway. On top of that, as we keep being reminded of, nothing has legally changed so far. So bite the bullet and do the paperwork, now and in the future, and live a European life. Apply for funding from your sponsor, your School, the Alumni foundation, research societies, or the government (and the EU while you can). Do fieldwork, attend events, network, do a placement abroad. And if you want to really make your point and be a part of a cross-national European marriage, Twitter has seen proposals to unspecified people with European passports…

accessMake Academia accessible

The overwhelming majority of academics’ voices in the run-up to the referendum favoured a remain vote. The result, however, revealed a deep divide by education and socioeconomic status. This calls for action on two fronts. Firstly, make education accessible to more people, to make universities more representative of society as a whole. This can take a variety of forms, from getting behind efforts within the university to widen participation through admissions strategies to supporting pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. UoB students and staff are involved in numerous initiatives and charities tackling these issues. And secondly, redouble our efforts to make sure recommendations based on academic research are both relevant to lived experience and credible. This includes being open about our assumptions and about the limitations of what we can predict. The cultural change required to achieve this can and should be driven by PGRs.

politicalGet political

If there is anything everyone seems to agree on at the moment, it’s that no-one knows what Brexit will actually look like, so it is up to us to shape it. Universities UK, the National Union of Students and UCU have all formulated demands for research and higher education in the upcoming negotiations. Continued membership in the European research network like other non-members such as Norway and Switzerland, funds to compensate for lost EU research funding and guarantees for EU nationals currently working and studying in the UK tend to be high those lists, with the first one now the subject of a petition to parliament. You will each have some demands to add to that, so make them heard and hold the negotiators to account. Speak up on social media, contact your MP, get out and organise in grassroots initiatives and encourage others to do the same.

#ALD15: Thei Zaza

Thei Zaza is originally from Greece and is a PhD candidate at the Aerospace Department at University of Bristol. 

What is your specific area of research? 

I am working on a fleet of autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles and I have designed different techniques to optimise their routes considering loitering and collision avoidance constraints. Mathematical modelling and software design have interested me from a very young age, as I come from an ‘Engineering’ family.

What inspired you to leave home and come study in the UK?

My brother’s courage and willing to study and succeed abroad have always fascinated me and inspired me. He has been my mentor my whole life, supporting me to achieve my goals since I can remember. And now, because of him, after 15 years since I first decided that I wanted to become a researcher in engineering, I am closer than ever to finish the hardest project I have ever been assigned.

Any inspirational words to pass on to budding female engineers?

Engineers do not have a gender. As long as you aim high, you will make it to the top!

#ALD15: Dr. Orly Razgour

Dr. Orly Razgour is a NERC Advanced Research Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences. She sent us some images of her exotic research and discussed her mentors and heroines with us.

I am a research fellow in Biological Sciences working on biodiversity conservation under global environmental change. I was always interested in understanding how the world around me works. I was inspired to work in science after travelling in Latin America and seeing first hand the incredible diversity of wildlife and the extent of human impact on the natural environment. My research has taken me around the world – catching bats across Europe, in the Amazon rainforest, Middle Eastern deserts and the Ethiopian Highlands. Throughout the way I have been inspired by many great and dedicated women scientists around me, but my greatest inspiration has been Emma Goldman, who inspired me to live my life and pursue what I believe is right.

Read more about Dr. Razgour’s work.


Dr. Razgour's research with bats has taken her across the Ethiopian Highlands, 4000m above sea level.
Dr. Razgour’s research with bats has taken her across the Ethiopian Highlands, 4000m above sea level.

#ALD15: Dr. Döndü Sahin

Dr. Döndü Sahin is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Centre for Quantum Photonics. She spoke to us about how she ended up as a researcher, her curiosity as a child, and how her profession has opened up gateways to the greater world.

Can you tell us about your specific area of research?

When I am asked to explain my work to public, I usually make an analogy to internet-banking, as confidentiality affects people in their daily lives and so is relatable. Currently, for example, classical channels are used for the password transfers in internet banking. Therefore, when we log on to our internet banking we are given one-time-off password which is valid for only a limited amount of time. This is only because the classical channels are prone to the interception and if somebody eavesdrops on the channel and steals our passwords, they can empty all our accounts! However, if the channel is secured by encrypting the password based on quantum mechanical rules, which means using single photons, then the password is transferred safely. To explain, a photon is the single particle in light. When we send a single photon to the receiver and s/he does not receive it, an eavesdropper must be in the line. In that process, single-photon or photon-number-resolving detectors are required to detect those photons. I studied these types of detector during my PhD research, and have continued now as a postdoctoral researcher on this topic.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in quantum photonics?

I was always a curious child, asking lots of “why” questions but I never knew before I attended university that I would be doing research. I discovered my love of research when I met some enthusiastic professors/researchers during my Bachelor’s at university. Then, when I started my final year project, I knew I would be definitely doing PhD because it was inspiring to be in the lab and get my hands dirty.

There are also some advantages of being a researcher which are worth mentioning. Firstly, we get to meet lots of interesting, clever and inspiring people continuously. Moreover, we travel to different places for conferences/meetings and visit other research labs for work. I also believe, as opposed to some common belief, it is no different than many other jobs in the market.


Döndü  in the 'cleanroom': researchers must wear special, dust-free covers not to introduce particles or dust to the environment.
Döndü in the ‘cleanroom’: researchers must wear special, dust-free covers not to introduce particles or dust to the environment.
This is Döndü's experimental setup from her PhD. The shiny metal in the middle is the cryostat in which she did experiments using superconducting detectors. Inside the cryostat temperatures drop as low as -271 ◦C.
This is Döndü’s experimental setup from her PhD. The shiny metal in the middle is the cryostat in which she did experiments using superconducting detectors. Inside the cryostat temperatures drop as low as -271 ◦C.
Döndü has travelled the world with her research. Here she is in Nice, France, taking a break from her work to discover the city.
Döndü has travelled the world with her research. Here she is in Nice, France, taking a break from her work to discover the city.

#ALD15: Kate Oliver

Kate Oliver is a PhD Candidate with the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials EPSRC CDT. In an extract from her own blog on Ada Lovelace Day, she discusses nanotechnology, making humans more efficient, and the motivation and inspiration for her work.

What motivates your research?
I came to research nanotechnology because I wanted to build the future. I wanted to use the beautiful, isolationist physics principles I studied to understand the world to do something. We have enough problems now — global warming, antibiotic resistance, increasing population, decreasing arable land, increasing energy needs — that pretty much everything could use improving. We certainly don’t have an abundance of materials to do it with. We need to do more with less, be more clever with what we have. We should use as little material as possible, make systems that automatically save energy, design things that work based on their inherent properties. Take less, get more, be more efficient, be more adaptable, and put design into every molecule of what we do. I want life to be more like science fiction.

What inspired or influenced you to pursue physics?
I was torn between studying physics or going to art school. In the end I decided I could always draw in my spare time while doing physics professionally, whereas being allowed to play with particle accelerators on a casual basis was less likely.

Could you tell us about your current projects?
I’m building a 3D printer and developing a material for it to print that will react to changes in heat. The idea is to 3D print things that then change shape – adding a fourth dimension to printing. These smart materials could save energy and do multiple jobs.

Kate in her happy place, surrounded by 3D printing materials
To read more about Kate’s inspiration and heroine, Professor Tomoko Ohta, read her tribute here. Professor Ohta was a great population geneticist who invented the ‘nearly neutral’ theory of genetic drift. 

#ALD15: Grace Edmunds

Grace Edmunds is a qualified vet who now works as an early career researcher in the field of tumour immunology at the University of Bristol. We spoke to her about her motivation to go into cancer research, how her love of animals led to a love of science, and the impact of a teacher’s encouragement on young women.

What is the focus of your current research project?

Our immune system includes certain cells designed to kill cancer cells. These are known as ‘Cytotoxic T- Cells’, often called ‘CTL’. We know that when the body detects cancer, it activates these CTL. However, after entering the tumour, they appear to be “switched off” by molecules found in the tumour microenvironment.

In our lab, we are using state-of-the-art analyses to find out which molecules from the tumour are switching off CTL. If we discover that by targeting certain proteins, the CTL appear to come back “on” again, then we might be able to develop new drugs with applications for use in people. Trials of the latest immunotherapies in cancers such as melanoma indicate that such drugs can produce an impressive response and increased survival rate when combined with existing chemotherapy and radiotherapy options. It is therefore important to keep searching for more treatments which allow or enable our own bodies to do the cancer fighting for us. You can read more about the latest developments in tumour immunotherapy here.

Who or what inspired you?

At the age of 2 my parents bought me a book called ‘How Things Work’. Children love to ask questions and they always want to know why things happen the way they do. Mum and Dad thought the book would satisfy my inquisitive nature but it seemed to make it worse – I have never stopped wanting to understand the mechanisms behind what we see and experience every day. Biology, chemistry and physics are difficult subjects, but to me nothing beats the feeling you get when you are sat in a lesson and suddenly you understand where plastic comes from, or why the sun is hot.

I was also inspired by fantastic teachers at school. At secondary school, when I was a shy twelve-year old, I didn’t have much confidence and wouldn’t speak up much in class, particularly in subjects I didn’t fully understand or that felt quite information-packed. Then one day my chemistry teacher came up to me during a lesson when we were revising for a big test, and I remember things were starting to click in my head about how everything fitted together. My teacher leaned down and said very quietly, “keep up the good work, Grace – I think you can do really well in the exam on Friday”. I hadn’t really thought about doing ‘well’, but I took the encouragment and worked really hard that week. It turns out I got 100%. Everyone has a brain, but we all need confidence in our ability to use it. My other teachers taught me revision techniques and life skills that I have used consistently through my two degrees, and am still using today. Mainly, they made science fun and approachable; in one particular instance we learnt about radioactivity using chocolate M&Ms… There is nothing so important as an inspirational teacher.

What age did you decide what you wanted to do research?

Although I can look back and think about how much I enjoyed science at school, I think I would have dropped the science subjects if my love of animals hadn’t driven me to qualify as a Vet. I was much better at languages and I really enjoyed music and art. Science was hard and it required a lot of hours spent rote learning and trying to understand the concepts. But my overarching aim kept me going, and in 2008 I started at Bristol Vet School. It didn’t take me long to realise, at least subconsciously, that I was different to many of my peers in that I loved biochemistry and physiology (the purely scientific components of a veterinary degree) more than the lectures on animal-handling and behaviour. When we were about to transition into our clinical, animal-based years, I realised with a small shock that I would miss molecular biology. I decided to intercalate, which means that, along with 20% of my year, I took a year out of vet school to complete another science degree. Intercalating vet students take subjects from Zoology to Anatomy, but I settled on Immunology and Cancer biology. I chose this area because, once more, I was inspired by great teachers from my previous lecturers on these topics, and I wanted to get stuck in the nitty-gritty minutiae of what I’d studied so far. I was also drawn to making a difference to human and animal health through medical research. During my intercalated degree I worked on using the analysis of immune cells to combat tumours. My remit was to see if my particular team could make a new, specific technique work on a certain cell type; to my excitement and delight, we realized that it didn’t just work, it had the potential to be very powerful and effective! I was then completely hooked on tumour immunology. I finished my vet degree and worked for a year in a small animal hospital, but I stayed in touch with my supervisor because I wanted to follow the progress that had stemmed from my experiment. In the end I knew I had to go back, and I have now returned to his lab to carry on.


Acknowledgements: Grace is funded by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute and the Wellcome Trust.


Grace in her happy place: dolled up in scrubs and surrounded by pigs
Grace is happy both in the lab and the farmyard

#ALD15: Dr. Daniela Schmidt

Dr. Daniela Schmidt is Professor in the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences. She wrote to us about her inspiration to become a leading academic in her field, the nature of research and fieldwork, and the hats she wears beyond her profession.

I am a Professor for Palaeobiology in the School of Earth Sciences and I head the Global Change theme at the Cabot institute.

Though I did not grow up by the sea, I have always been deeply in love with the ocean. It gives me a feeling of happiness and calm. I wanted to contribute to protecting the environment and its inhabitants. I started studying biology but soon recognised that this was not what I wanted to do. I changed at the end of my first year to Geology (and my dad was not impressed about not bringing to an end what I had started). What I love about Geology is the combination of the ecology, which attracted me to begin with, with the ability to detect cause and effect over longer time scales than just an experiment over a few weeks.

My current research focuses on understanding the causes and effects of global warming and ocean acidification on marine ecosystems, both today and in the geological record. We characterise past intervals of rapid environmental change and determine the biotic response to these changes. We have found that the rate of ocean acidification today is faster than any change since the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago. I am very proud that our findings have contributed to the last IPCC report and inform policy makers about the long term consequences of ocean acidification.

I am not just a researcher but also a mum, supervisor, mentor and teacher. Combining it all is hard work and I have had to become a highly organised person. I love going to the field, may it be at sea or with students to teach them how to bring a large number of smaller observations together to create a bigger picture.

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day: An Introduction

October 13 is #ALD15, a worldwide celebration of female researchers, teachers, technicians, assistants working in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM). To kick off our University campaign, #UoBInspired #ALD15, we at the BDC thought we should probably tell you what it’s all about! Before we begin our rollout of the inspirational women working in our own, local STEMM fields, here’s a little background on who Ada Lovelace was and what led to her status as a modern-day symbol of women working with and around technology.

Ada Lovelace, the bright and mathematically-inclined daughter of the erratic poet Lord Byron, lived an intriguing, productive, and sadly short-lived life, dead from cancer by the age of 36. Her name was actually Augusta Ada King, named Countess of Lovelace after her marriage to William King, Earl of Lovelace; she is known these days mainly as Ada Lovelace. Renowned for her work with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, a prototypical machine that contributed to the invention of today’s computer, Lovelace’s published a set of elaborate and thorough notes which in turn provided the inspiration for Alan Turing’s work on modern day computers in the 1940s. Her publication is still available today, simply entitled Notes, and is widely considered the first computer program. She was only 27 when the notes were published. Babbage described her mathematical powers as “higher than of any one[sic] he knew”, and despite her tempestuous and wild social life – a series of love affairs, gambling debt, and a fractured relationship with her family – she remains a powerful symbol for modern women in technology and engineering. Lovelace herself dubbed her own work “poetical science”, and her life as “a bride of science” in which she married her love of maths with her imaginative spirit.

While Lovelace excelled at her career and contributed widely to her contemporary intellectual circles, her personal life was equally alluring. Estranged from her father, who died when she was eight years old, Lovelace was raised in the cloak of scandal: she was viewed as the outcome of divorce and a product of single-parenting, and associated with the allegations surrounding her father’s immoral behaviour. Famously, despite her father being at the centre of Victorian society gossip even after his death, Lovelace did not see a picture of him until her twentieth birthday, as her mother reportedly kept their family portrait covered in a green shroud. Lovelace was raised mostly by her grandmother and did not have a close relationship with her mother. Her childhood was riddled with illness, and existing correspondence suggests she suffered from a distinct lack of a maternal nurturing.

Today, Lovelace’s legacy lives on in both the computers we type on and the correspondence she left behind. She was a complicated and compelling figure who traversed boundaries, as woman, scientist, daughter, mother and lover.  In the vein of great scientific minds such as her famous male counterparts Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and even Richard Dawkins, her writings express an appreciation for the mystery and magic of science, and so of living and reality, and in this she truly represents the poetry in maths, science and technology. In a letter to her neighbor and friend Andrew Crosse she describes and champions interdiscplinarity: “The intellectual, the moral, the religious seem to me all naturally bound up and interlinked together in one great and harmonious whole… There is too much tendency to making separate and independent bundles of both the phyiscal and the moral facts of the universe”. This seems a fitting exclamation for a woman who did not like to be bundled up or boundaried herself, and who lived a contradictory life of scandal and genius in which she both broke the rules, but also set them.

Read more about Ada Lovelace Day here.

Join in the University of Bristol’s celebrations by tagging #UoBInspired and #ALD15. Check out the full list of events, and follow our blog throughout the day to read the stories of our own inspirational ladies in STEMM.