Friday, 11 December 2015

Myth-busting the barriers to public engagament

Right now I should really be focusing on writing my thesis, but when I heard about an opportunity to spend a day discussing public engagement at the University of Birmingham I just couldn't resist... Especially when I saw that Professor Alice Roberts would be presenting - after finishing my placement with the radio show, a number of people have asked me if I want to be "the next Alice Roberts" so I thought I'd go along to find out the answer! 

The event was hosted in the mid-renovation Lapworth museum: a light and airy space that had a much more open atmosphere than the dark confines of a seminar room or lecture theatre. This meant that throughout the day I felt much more open to asking questions of the speakers. 

We heard from researchers at the university - each tackling a common barrier to public engagement. It was interesting to hear all the different examples, and their (sometimes conflicting) experiences of the support from the university media team. 

A very informative workshop from Paul Manners followed, looking at the case studies submitted to the research excellence framework (or REF - it's what university research departments are judged on). The national coordinating centre for public engagement had looked at all the case studies and analysed which had contained public engagement. It was an interesting review, and showed what kind of content a case study on a public engagement activity would need to have to qualify as "4 star". 

After some more myth-busting examples, we were joined by the pro-vice chancellor Tim Softley, who spoke about the cultural change that was needed, and happening, within the university to develop its engagement activities. 

We then heard the bureaucratic side of the story, from Jenni Chambers of the RCUK before she joined Tim, Paul and Alice Roberts for a panel discussion. This was really interesting, and covered a number of points, including how engagement could (or should) be measured, and whether schools and the local communities also required cultural change for enagement to be successful. 

The final session of the day was Alice Roberts, who engaged us all, even after technical problems meant she had to do without her powerpoint slides. She tackled the problem of image: that of the "mad scientist", and what we can do to reach out and change that perception. She spoke of the importance of removing labels: whether it be labeling a GCSE student as a "scientist" or "non-scientist", or a recent trend of the use of the word "geek". 

I found the event really engaging (ha!) and definitely a worthwhile escape from my life of thesis writing. I aim to help the public engagement group at Birmingham by writing up some of my activities for them to post on their blog, so I can act as a point of contact for other researchers looking to do the same. Watch this space! 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Naked Scientists: Week 6

Week Six:

I've been a bit useless at keeping this blog updated...

Since starting at the Naked Scientists, I've interviewed people about beetles, magnetic materials, runners' high, lorries and slippery steel!

This week I somehow managed to be super efficient. In a flurry of activity between 4:30 and 6 on Monday afternoon I managed to get one of Chris' interviews scheduled and mine booked in for first thing Tuesday morning. This meant I was essentially one day ahead of myself all week which gave me a good opportunity to focus on planning my show.

I made quite a lot of phone calls to researchers in different areas trying to get and idea of what i should cover when discussing big data, and how to do this without any of the sections of my show repeating themselves. I also took a trip into Cambridge for the Festival of Ideas to see Data Shadow: one of their art exhibitions on personal data and privacy. It was really interesting, and prompted me to think twice about logging onto unknown wifi networks.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Week 5 at the Naked Scientists

After a rather disastrous week working on my PhD at the neutron beam source just south of Oxford I returned to the Naked Scientists (without the keys to my room in Cambridge, but that's another story...). 

This week there were loads of news stories,  and a lot of it from the UK, so we were busy doing research calls and arranging interviews. Unfortunately the researcher for the paper I was looking into was on sabbatical, so I was left searching for a local commentator.

As the paper was on materials chemistry, and that’s my area of research, I persuaded one of the post-doctoral researchers from my department to speak to me about the paper. It felt a bit weird doing an interview like this, knowing that you both knew the same information about the paper, but it was good experience to give something new a go.

I also did some research calls for my show, and it’s definitely starting to come together! 

Friday, 2 October 2015

Naked Scientists: Week 3

Week 3

After spending the weekend exploring Cambridge, Sunday saw my first visit to the BBC Cambridgeshire studio for our live show. I was expecting a dark underground room, but it's a nice airy studio and we'd filled it with lots of guests for our Q & A show. I had a lot of fun updating the twitter account with the answers our panel were giving to the varied questions sent in by our audience. 

Another Monday, and another collection of interesting news from around the globe to choose from. Alongside publishing online some of the news pieces from last week, I arranged to talk to one researcher in Canada and another in the USA. Both were great, and by the end of Monday I’d arranged interviews for both Chris and myself. 

An addition to a normal Monday was a request from BBC Cambridgeshire for a Naked Scientist to talk about a news story on their drivetime programme at 5:45. As is becoming usual, I volunteered! Graihagh and I chose a research paper that had come out that day on a research project that studied the UK Biobank data to see if there was a genetic influence on lung health and its relationship with smoking. It was a really interesting paper, and I had about an hour to prepare to talk about it on live radio! I felt much more prepared for this much shorter slot than for last week’s phone in, so it went much better. (Or at least that’s what I was told!) 

On Tuesday I managed to get my interview done, although had some real challenges with the studio connections. I ended up chatting to him for quite a while, which I knew would make my editing job harder! I then went to the #Camscicomm social, and met some more locals interetsed in science communication.

After Wednesday’s meeting. I attacked the edit and managed to get it down to the right time. I then put some time into starting to plan my show. 

As interns, we’re given the opportunity to produce one show on our own. This means we can choose the topic for the back end, as well as being in charge of collating any news stories for that week.
I had originally wanted to plan my show around renewable energy, but once I had mentioned my work with POST last year on big data, everyone seemed to get a bit excited. So I got in contact with my supervisor from POST, to ask her for any tips on interviewees.
The main problem is having too many ideas! As usual…

I’d also been put in charge of organising “Question of the Week” for next week, so started looking for appropriate experts who could help answer the question sent in by a listener. If anyone knows the wind speed needed to blow over a lorry then get in touch!

Thursday sees the writing of the news article to accompany the audio news piece, and this week a group lunch to say goodbye to one of the interns. I was particularly restrained and only had 2 pieces of cheesecake…

Friday began by finding out my new piece was in the script for the 5live science show. This was quite exciting! I don't think I'll be listening live at 5am, but definitely one for iplayer.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Week 2 with The Naked Scientists

Monday began as it did last week: searching for news. We found a lot of interesting stories, and divided them between us. We all struggled today, as most of the stories came from the USA, and so there was a lot of waiting for people on the other side of the world to wake up!

The portable recording equipment
On Tuesday it became apparent that a few of the stories weren’t going to work out, so I called a researcher from Cambridge whose paper we had seen a press release for on the university website. The phone call did not turn out as I wanted it to, and instead of doing a research call I ended up booking a face to face interview with her for that afternoon! This prompted some speedy tuition on how to use the mobile recording equipment (right), and some less speedy navigation around Cambridge to find the zoology building.

I made it through the construction site and eventually found the reception. I was then led down to the “beetle lab” where rows of boxes of soil (and beetles!) were kept in cupboards. It was on the walk down that I discovered the professor had actually been on Radio 4’s Today programme that morning talking about her research! No pressure for her next interviewer then…

We got down to the lab and, after brushing the beetle off my chair; I sat down and set up the recording equipment. Everything worked: result!

The interview went OK – she was excellent as she’d prepared answers for the questions from Radio 4, but I could have done a bit better. It’s definitely harder when you’re doing the interview face to face.

After another navigational fail, I made it back to the office and successfully uploaded the audio from the interview before calling a potential interviewee for Kat in the states. That all went OK so I went home on Tuesday feeling pretty good!

Me getting nervous before my live Q&A!
The last one to leave the building
Wednesday morning saw the group meeting and editing my piece. Chris then mentioned that he had a regular slot that evening on BBC Radio Norfolk where he answered science questions live from the public. And that he would like an intern to go along with him. Guess who volunteered! I couldn’t decide if I was excited or terrified, but it did mean I spent most of the rest of the day fretting. I did manage to get my news piece finished before heading down to the studio and dialling up Chris.

We were soon live on radio! I was quite nervous at first, which I’m sure you can tell, but as soon as I got a question I knew the answer to I relaxed. I am very glad I did it, but I’m not sure I would have said that at the time. You can listen here, starting at 2hrs10 ish.

Thursday saw some final editing tweaks and then writing up the story to a news article. I discovered (too late) that you should never re-record questions and cut them back in. This prevents any chance of twisting what your interviewee has said. For me, this meant re-doing the edit I had spent Wednesday afternoon doing! The end result was worth it though, and I was pleased with the edit. It didn't make the news for 5live, but it has been published as a special. Thanks to Rebecca Kilner for talking to me!

Friday, 18 September 2015

Week 1 as a Naked Scientist

The Naked Scientists are an award-winning broadcast organisation that produce weekly shows, articles, news stories and special podcasts. Thanks to funding from The Royal Academy of Engineering I am about to embark on an 8-week internship with them - keep reading to find out how I get on. 

The week before I was due to start at the Naked Scientists, I was at conference in Rio de Janeiro on the subject of Chemical Challenges in Renewable Energy. At the conference, I met a previous Naked Scientist, Ben Valsler, who was able to give me a bit of an insight before I started. I’m very glad for this; as he warned me that I would be starting very much from the word go, including helping out for their live radio shows on Sunday evenings. It was pretty exciting to hear about all the different things I would be doing, but it did involve some last minute rearrangements as I’d only planned to live in Cambridge Monday to Friday! 

So, arriving in from Rio at 17:30 the day before starting was perhaps an error, compounded by traffic on the motorway from Birmingham, meant I arrived half an hour late and without the one thing I needed (my passport) on my first day! This all turned out to be fine and I was quickly introduced to one full time member of the team (Graihagh) and the 3 other interns who had been there for varying periods of time already. We’re based in a large country house, Madingley hall, in a nice green area north west of Cambridge.

Every Monday morning there is a group meeting run by the producer for that week to determine which news stories will be covered. They then get distributed among the team. You might get a topic that you will end up leading an interview on, or you might be asked to research a paper that someone else will cover instead. Either way, you start by trying to get in contact with an author for the paper. This can be challenging if they are working in a country with a considerable time difference! You then need to have a conversation with them and work out if you think they are suited to being an interviewee. Can they describe their research clearly and enthusiastically? Before agreeing to definitely interview them, we ask for a sound check, so that the listeners will be able to hear them clearly.

In my first week, I wouldn’t be interviewing anyone for the show, so I did a couple of research calls to “scout out” potential interviewees for other people. I was lucky, as both of the people I contacted were happy to talk and very good at communicating. They also sent through pretty good sound checks.
My job for the week would be to write one of the short news articles and I found the most challenging part of this choosing a topic! Overwhelmed by the number of new articles published this week, by the end of the day I had only managed to get my shortlist down to 5.

Tuesday morning saw me return to my shortlist and get started on my news article. I needed to contact the paper author and arrange an interview. I would then record the interview so I could have accurate quotes, and get some practice in using the studio and editing for next week.

My usual inability to make decisions struck again, and so I made two article frameworks and sent off emails to the corresponding paper authors. One of them was pretty prompt at replying, so I arranged to speak to him on Wed afternoon. 

I then went down to the studio (out of the estate, and just down the road) to have a look as another intern went down to do a recording. It’s a small room in the zoology building, with a microphone and some sliding knobs. It looks complicated, but when you know which buttons to press, it actually is quite simple. The key point is to make sure it’s recording properly!
All of the shows are transcribed, and it’s our job to check through them before they go online, to make sure they match the audio that accompanies them. 

I also had a meeting with the managing editor, Chris, who ran through the day to day runnings of the group, and asked me whether I had any specific aims for the placement. It was good to talk to him, and it seems that the opportunities available are limitless!

The Naked Scientists have a group meeting every Wednesday morning, to discuss the previous week’s show and the items for the coming weekend. This was really interesting - hearing what Chris and his team want from a topic, and the different ways they can be presented. I mentioned that I had felt a good pre-arrival intern guide would have been great, and so managed to get myself assigned the task of creating one! I also arrived in to an e-mail from the other potential interviewee, so ended up deciding to make both of the news stories into articles.

For everyone else, the rest of Wednesday was a day of editing like mad to get the news articles finished before the deadline at the end of the day. I finished off my news articles and in the afternoon had my first interviews. The first one was a bit of a disaster: I had no idea I started every question by saying “Umm... So...” and how having a microphone in my face would make me unable to talk normally. But once that was over, the second one was much more relaxed and I was able to have a really interesting conversation with the researcher.

Thursday for me was my first chance at editing – I went through both of my interviews and took out all the “umm”s and “so”s from both me and my interviewees. This is a strangely satisfying experience when you get it right and just as frustrating when you don’t! The challenge is getting a 15 minute interview down to less than 5 minutes of airtime. I was quite pleased with the work up of my second interview by the time I was finished, and wished I had recorded it properly so I could submit it as a news article. It has made me look forward to next week’s opportunity. I also did some odd bits to help out other people, like booking a meet and greet for one of our guests who will be speaking live from a different location on Wednesday, and trying to track down some information from a researcher in France.

During my time here, one of the permanent staff Georgia will be acting as my “mother hen”. Essentially, she will be my first point of contact if I have any questions about anything. On Thursday afternoon she was able to listen to my interview and also read my two news articles. She was very positive about them, but also gave me some really useful feedback. It’s only when you go through something with someone that you really understand what kind of output they are looking for. After some edits and hunting for pictures, my articles were ready to go online – you can find one on why cavefish have no eyes here and another one on a record breaking artificial leaf here. After this week, I really can’t wait to get started next week on a piece to go into the news.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Professor John Loughhead, Chief Scientific Advisor for DECC comes to Birmingham

Yesterday, the chief scientific advisor for DECC, Professor John Loughhead, came to Birmingham to speak as the first in a series of lectures run by the Birmingham Energy Institute
Before the lecture, there was the opportunity to attend a student Q&A session, which I signed up for as soon as I heard about it! 

I arrived to discover there were only 12 of us in the Q&A, so an ideal opportunity for us to ask Professor Loughhead our questions in a much more personal environment. There were students from a range of research backgrounds, which led to a nice variety in the questions asked. From small modular nuclear reactors, to onshore wind subsidies via Electric Vehicle uptake and carbon labelling we covered most of the main areas of a future UK energy system. I, of course, asked about hydrogen and it's part of the UK's future. Professor Loughhead agreed that the technology is very attractive, mainly because there are no emissions at point of use. However, whilst there is still the option to buy petrol/diesel cars, there needs to be additional advantages to ownership: people don't like to be different. Maybe even the support of a Hollywood star would shift the balance...?

Throughout the session, Professor Loughhead was very personable and answered (or at least, tried to answer) all our questions: even when asked whether DECC, and himself, actually had any influence over governmental decisions! 

After a quick chat with us over a cup of tea, we all went upstairs to be joined by a theatre full of people to hear his lecture. Beginning by admitting he had one of the best jobs in the world, he then went on to speak about the UK's targets as set by the Climate Change Act, and how DECC was helping the UK get to these targets. 

He stressed the need for new technologies, and encouraged us students to get back to the lab! However, we were warned of the uncertainty of the energy system (including oil price fluctuations) and how this can be a massive turn-off for investors.

There were some really interesting graphs in his presentation, including one showing the reduction in research and development funding in energy research that occurred towards the end of the 1980s, and which is only just starting to rise. 

To finish, he stressed that innovation is not just needed in technology, but also business models and markets. 

It was a great talk, with an excellent opportunity before hand to discuss individual issues with the speaker. I look forward to the next in the lecture series!

Friday, 26 June 2015

3 Minute Thesis 2015

2 years ago I competed in the University's "3 Minute Thesis" competition. This involves PhD researchers explaining their thesis to a general audience in 3 minutes with no props and using only one stationary slide.

Last time I made it through to the university final, but no further. I really enjoyed the experience: so much so, that I managed to persuade my Mum (who is studying for a DBA at Henley Business School) to enter the heats at her university! After she made it through to her university's final, I knew there was no way I wasn't going to be able to give it another go...

Last time, I started with the basic chemistry, building up to the topic of my research and then finishing with the applications. The video is here. After attending a 3MT training session put on by the graduate school before the heats, I decided to change the order a bit: starting with the motivation and application of hydrogen fuel cell technology and then going into more detail. 

After a hectic week prior to the heat, and the timer having technical issues during my presentation, I wasn't sure how it had gone, but was pleased to find out that I had made it through to the final (phew - at least Mum hadn't beaten me yet!!). We then had a morning of training from Lucy Vernall from @ideaslabproject where we analysed previous 3MT presentations and discussed ways to improve our own. 

I came away buzzing with ideas, and had a bit of a re-write. I then did quite a lot of practice: in my room; in the car; even out running along the canal! I made some changes to my slide: coming up with the final version below illustrating the different way that hydrogen is stored in the two vehicles. 

The day of the final began with filming in the media centre - instructed not to wear green so that we didn't disappear into our slide, we headed to the studio underneath the great hall. I was first up, having been randomly selected to present first both for filming and for the event in the afternoon. I stood on my piece of tape while the camera and lights were lined up, and I was "powdered" to remove any shine. And.... action! 

I managed it in one take! I found it hard to not move around and keep my focus on the camera, but I think it went OK. Even though I began calm, by the end I was shaking like a leaf, so I'm glad there had been no major problems because there was no way I would have been able to do that again. 

Now followed a few hours back in the office preparing a conference presentation (with very different slides!) before the live final in the afternoon. 

The final was put on as part of the graduate school's awards ceremony: we presented at the start and then after all the other awards were given out, the winner would be announced. Up first, I gave my presentation to the audience, who were really open and welcoming. It felt much less nerve-wracking than either the heat or the filming! Although I did finish and I was shaking like a leaf! The finalists were all based in a different room, so I didn't get to hear anyone else present. But everyone seemed to come back feeling confident that they had done well.

After a drinks reception we returned to the main room for the prize giving. One of my fellow School of Chemistry researchers won the publication prize, so Chemistry was already doing well! They announced the prizes for the runners up for the people's choice and the judges choice first and then, to my complete shock, they announced me as the winner! 

I am so pleased to have got through to the next round - thanks to everyone who helped with the organisation and the training, and apologies to those who saw me talking to myself on the canal! The next round is judged based on the videos, and then the national final is in September in Manchester. So watch this space....

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Leading Academics: Prof. Jennifer Tann

I knew the second session of Leading Academics (see here for the first session) was going to be good when the speaker was introduced as having "laughter" on her list of interests on LinkedIn. And I was not disappointed. Professor Jennifer Tann was a very engaging speaker and was there to talk us through how to recognise (and make the most of) personality traits in both ourselves and other people. 

Before the class, I completed a Myers-Briggs test on "Type Dynamics", which told me that I fitted the "ESTJ" profile. This means that:
  • I am more Extroverted than Introverted (E vs I)
  • I pay more attention to things I have directly Sensed than by iNtuition (S vs N)
  • I make decisions based on Thinking rather than Feeling (T vs F)
  • I make Judgements based on action plans, rather than Perception: letting things happen. (J vs P)
Some people had only vague preferences for one of the two options, but for the last 3 points I was pretty much off the scale! I wasn't very surprised by the results, but I was looking forward to learning what this really meant. 

In groups of similar temperaments (all the SJs were together) we discussed leadership practices: which would come most naturally for us, and which we would struggle to be good at. It was interesting considering how much more comfortable we all felt "leading by example" when compared to "encouraging from the heart".

So, as an extrovert, I show everyone my strongest personality trait: my judgement. However, introverts display their 2nd strongest, making them more difficult to get to know. It was intriguing to hear how illness or stress can change this: exposing your more hidden personality traits. I guess this is why people say "you're not yourself" when you're feeling unwell. 

After another session on the Leading Academics course, again I went away wanting to spend more time on self-assessment. I have been sent away with the "Strengthsfinder" book which also profiles you based on a series of strengths. We were advised to learn what we are good at, and what we enjoy doing, but not to use it as an excuse! Carrying out tasks which are not covered by your strengths may be exhausting, but they are often necessary. Discovering what kind of environment you need to be in to compete them is also key: as they are against your normal habits, they may need to be done in a similarly contrasting environment. 

Thanks to Jennifer for such an interesting session, and again to the careers network for running the course. It was great to be a part of it, even if only for a small while!

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Leading academics: Adair Richards

The University of Birmingham enterprise unit run a course called "Leading Academics". The description is as follows:
In June 2015 we will be hosting a six-session series which gives doctoral students the opportunity to engage with guest speakers on how they have made it to the top and the issues they face and have overcome, as well as acquiring frameworks and toolkits for their future careers.
Unfortunately I was unable to attend all 6 of the sessions, as lab work for me is reaching its peak, but I had spotted the phrase "Science communicator" in the description of one of the speakers, so I spoke to the organisers and managed to arrange to come along for just one session: the one Adair Richards was presenting. 
(To hear more about Adair's work: go to his TEDx talk - well worth a watch:

Arriving halfway through a course is never ideal, but the first exercise was to discuss the most intriguing ideas that had come up from the previous sessions, so I was able to catch up with the key points. The course is about learning what key attributes leaders have, how to recognise the skills that you have, and how to develop yourself to become a successful leader. 

We spent some time in groups discussing the definition of leadership, with most coming up with the same key words: influence, inspire, understanding, enabling, integrate, common goal. 

Adair then took us through some leadership theories, and I found myself thinking of examples of both good (and not so good) people I had been working with in the past, and how those theories applied to them and the group we had been working in. All the characteristics painted a picture of someone worth respecting, and who you desire to work for. The key point for me was that it became about how you act in a way that means people want to do what you are asking them, and go ahead with their task without feeling directly influenced. 

We heard about Adair's background: of opportunities seized; failures; successes and learning how to be lucky. It was interesting to see how he has guided his career path not by making a goal and working towards it, but more short term decision making based on his basic values. It made me realise the importance of self-assessment, and knowing your own definition of success. 

The session ended with his "Top 10 leadership lessons learnt". From the importance of a good attitude, to the need to keep on learning, all the points made me want to sit down and spend some time thinking more about myself and what I want, rather than my work and where it is taking itself. 

A very interesting and engaging session! To the extent that I'm coming back for the next speaker tomorrow... 
Thanks to Adair for delivering it, and to the careers network for letting me come along. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

FameLab Academy - the final!

This year, I have been able to be a part of FameLab's launch of FameLab Academy in Gloucestershire. I have been on a training masterclass, been a mentor for Pate's Grammar School (visiting twice: 1 and 2) and had the scary experience of being a judge! Yesterday was the final of the competition. All of the twelve finalists had qualified via their school finals, been on a science communication masterclass, and had the opportunity to visit an engineering company. 

Before the final started, I had the chance to catch up with the other engineer mentors to find out how they had been working with their link schools and what other science communication activities they had been up to. I also spoke to the teacher I had been working with at Pates and found out that the student I had spoken to about Oxbridge interviews had been offered a place at Cambridge! I wonder whether any of those in my engineering introduction session will end up pursuing it as a career.

After an introduction from edf energy, who were hosting the event, the final began! What followed were 12 fantastic talks, on scientific and engineering topics ranging from how we handle pain to invisibility using octupuses (octupi?). I was impressed by the improvement I saw in the students I had mentored at Pate's, and the finalist we put through from St Edward's. There were some great props and demos, and I learnt a lot!

After all the students had spoken, Nick Harrigan (@sparrigan) gave us a fab demo on lightbulbs (yeah, I know - but it was actually interesting!). I never knew that you could use a gherkin instead of a filament, although it was a relief that said gherkin did not set off the fire alarm...

The judges: Ben Garrod (@ben_garrod), Louise Emerson from Cheltenham festivals and Ben Salisbury from edf had a tough job... 
After their deliberation, they awarded runners up prizes to Abi (Pittville School) and Lexie (from Pate's - wooo!!!) who spoke on living in space and the feasibility of swimming in syrup. The overall winner was Harry from The Cotswold School, who grabbed everyone's attention with his opening line of "Aphids SUCK" and then went on to discuss these tiny creatures, which I never realised were so interesting... The engineering prize went to Chris, from St Edward's whose enthusiasm for trains meant his talk on streamlining was gripping. 

A huge well done to all who competed - not just yesterday, but throughout the process. Also to Ali Mawle from Cheltenham festivals and her team who made the whole of FameLba academy happen so successfully. And thanks to edf, who made it possible for me and the other engineers to be a part of such an awesome competition!

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Astronomy in the City

Every month, the University of Birmingham Observatory team runs an evening event called "Astronomy in the City". At the last #brumscicomm social, I met a few of the PhD students who are involved, and so I dragged a friend from to solid state chemistry group along to see what it was like... 

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download
 the highest resolution version available.
The night was pretty cloudy, so we didn't get the chance to actually do any stargazing, but the evening was still very well managed and attended, and I still had a lot of fun (and learnt a lot!) After an introduction from Dr. Graham Smith, Simon Stevenson gave us an excellent presentation on observing black holes. 

We learnt that black holes are relatively easy to see if they are next to another star (although the radio and X-ray images look nothing like the very glamorous artistic impression from NASA on the left) but if that second star collapses and you have two black holes next to each other, then it becomes very difficult to see anything at all. However, these black holes will orbit one another, with the orbit slowly decreasing in size until they combine. This combination causes a ripple in space time (coolest phrase ever??!) and produces gravitational waves. It also produces a sound! He introduced the LIGO - a massive experiment set up to try and measure these gravitational waves. 

After Simon, Callum Bellhouse gave us a guide to the Night Sky in March: there is a lot to see! The "most exciting night sky object" will be Jupiter, which will be easy to see in the sky at ~21:40 each night (you'll be able to tell it's a planet not a star because it won't twinkle). The big event of the month will be a partial solar eclipse on the 20th March. We were given some good tips as to how to see the eclipse safely, using objects we have at home: including a colander! The peak viewing time will be 9:30 in the morning, so I'll be dragging the rest of my office out with their kitchenware hoping for a clear sky...

After the talks there would normally be telescopes out in chancellors court, but because of the weather we were inside. There were still lots of things to look at and do, including some very fancy telescopes that you could program to track specific features across the sky. I was surprised at how short the telescopes were! By adding in a series of reflections, the effective length can be increased in what appears to be a short casing, like the orange one on the left.
A telescope built by a former member of UoB's AstroSoc

They also had a lycra universe which gave an awesome demonstration of how the planets orbit the sun - it's the first time I've seen a golf ball painted like the Sun before! After asking lots of questions about the inner workings of the LIGO, and battling each other on the computer at "Big Bang pong" we left chatting excitedly about all the things we'd learnt, and wondering how we could get our work in the Chemistry department even half as engaging...

The next of these event is on the 25th March, and I'm already crossing my fingers for clear skies!

Thursday, 12 February 2015

FameLab Academy - judging!

As part of my FameLab academy mentor-ing, I went to another school (St Edwards in Cheltenham) to judge their final. They had 10 students in the final, and I was sent a list of topics in advance, so I knew (vaguely) what they would be talking about. There was a wide range of topics, and I was excited to learn new things! I got to the school and met the other judges before the final started. It turns out that I wasn't the only one nervous about asking questions! After each talk, each of us was going to ask a question: either about the topic, or the research process the student had done to make their talk.

Just like the "adult" version of FameLab, the students were all required to talk for a maximum of 3 minutes on a science topic of their choice. I think I was expecting a lot of nervousness, and a lot of mumbling. But I was so impressed by all of the talks! From chocolate, to steam trains, to bugs that live in your face the topics were all interesting and the facts were delivered clearly. All of the students were very confident in their delivery, but there were some that really stood out. They were passionate about their topic and that really showed. I never thought that steam engines or bugs that live on our faces (yes, I know - yuk!) could be so interesting. It was a tough job picking the top 3, with some disagreement amongst the judges, but we managed it…  If that is what the rest of the schools’ finalists look like – I cannot wait until the final!!

Monday, 9 February 2015

RSC Early Career Energy Sector Chemists Symposium

On Friday, I went to the Rolls Royce Learning and Development Centre in Derby for the RSC Early Career Energy Sector Chemists Symposium. It was an interesting and varied day, with attendees presenting posters, alongside presentations from those further on in their chemical careers. 
The chair of the energy sector committee, Richard Wayne, opened the day with the objectives for us to think about our career direction, network and have fun! 
The first presentation was from Paul Stein, the Chief Scientific Officer at Rolls Royce. After a few minutes racking my brain, I realised that I recognised his name as a contributor to my POST note on Big Data in Business! I managed to catch him after his talk to thank him for his help, and he was very complimentary about my note. He spoke about what he considered to be the significant technology trends for the future, and how they were likely to effect Rolls Royce. It was interesting to hear that in-flight engine shut downs used to be commonplace on passenger aircraft, but are now very rare, because of the ability to collect so much data from the engines in flight. 

The next two presentations were from Alexander Kilpatrick (who won the poster competition at last year's event) and Alissa Cotton (who won the energy sector PhD thesis award last year). Both spoke about their research and how it progressed into their current job. 

My poster - on my recently published work
It was then our turn to talk... Each of the poster presenters had to do a 2 minute flash presentation about their research, to signpost their poster to the rest of the group. I enjoyed this, as it brings life to the abstract book! We then had lunch and the poster session, in which I had some interesting conversations about my research and also other peoples'. 

After lunch, the focus moved from research to careers beginning with a very useful talk from Charlotte Ashley-Roberts from the RSC. We were given lots of good tips about how to look for jobs, how to write a CV and how to come across well at interview. 

We then heard from Stephen Preece (Chief Chemist at edf energy) and Professor Upul Wijayantha from Loughborough University. They told us about their career paths, and what they had done that meant they had been able to progress. 

Key points that I picked up on from the last few talks were that you really need to know yourself! I will be going away from the event planning to really think about what my strengths are, and how involved with science I want to be in a future job. We were advised to be prepared to move around and do something different to learn more about the company or the research area. 

Unfortunately I had to head off before going on the tour of the heritage centre, but I thought it was a very informative day, and an ideal opportunity to present a poster at an event aimed at younger researchers. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

FameLab Academy part 3

So, as part of my role as an mentor for FameLab academy (here and here), I went back down to Pates to work with their school finalists on their FameLab academy speeches before their final on Monday. We had an hour over lunch, and I had heard that they really wanted to rehearse more than anything else. 7 of the 10 finalists were able to make it, and so we went through each of them in turn. After they had done their 3 minutes, I asked the other students to give them feedback on the parts they should keep and the bits they should change.

Not only was I very impressed by the quality of the pieces, but also the excellent feedback that they were able to give each other. I admitted afterwards that I had seen worse competitors in the real FameLab competition, and these guys still had a week to go!

After we had been through the group, with topics ranging from dreams to erasers, I stressed the point that FameLab is about your audience learning something new. We then went through the talks as a group, discussing what we had learnt from them. The speaker would then know what impression they were leaving their audience with, and whether that was what they had intended for them to take away. All of the students were clear enough that this was the case, which was good to see.

I wish them all luck for their school final on Monday. I go to judge at St Edwards on the 12th Feb, and if they are as good as the group at Pates, then I'm in for a challenging afternoon!

Bright Club Birmingham!

As part of my non-researcher life, I am spending 2015 doing a series of challenges for charity. (For more info go to, or Occasionally the challenges overlap with my life as a scientist, and February's challenge is one such example. Last night I performed at the Birmingham Rep, as part of Bright Club. The description for the show read:
"Join a new set of academics as they channel their inner comic genius to show that university research isn’t always as serious as you might think. Expect amusing tales about life and work in an evening of laughter and music."
A few weeks ago I went along to some UoB organised training for the event. Before turning up, I had no idea what I was going to talk about, or how much I was supposed to be speaking about my research or trying to be funny! Afterwards, I felt the same, but slightly more terrified... 

A long train journey and many long bike rides later, my mind had been given a chance to wander, and come up with some ideas. Although I still maintained there was nothing amusing about my research, I was starting to realise that many of the day-to-day things that happen in a lab might actually appear a bit odd to an observer. So these were what I focussed on. 

Rather than talk you through my set - I will let you watch it (here) instead. (I can't bring myself to watch it!)

Despite being a complete bag of nerves before going up, and shaking like a leaf afterwards, I did actually enjoy it a lot! So, if any of you out there are looking for your next #scicomm challenge then look no further than bright club...

I hate to admit it, but I would totally do it again! Thanks to Sarah Cosgriff for the recording, and Jim Bell for the photos.