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.