Chapter 10: Rise of the Podcast

Commuting sucks. This is a fact which I believe is hard to refute. Each day I drive for 30-45 minutes (depending on traffic) to and from work. This is a process which if done more than once rapidly becomes tedious. As I sit in my car waiting for the traffic lights to change I have two ways to break the monotony. Firstly, listen to my radio, which has terrible reception and sounds like a Dalek doing unspeakable things to a blender, or listen to one of the greatest media formats developed in the last two decades- podcasts.

If you can’t tell from my tone I am a big fan of podcasts. I feel like the idea of podcasts started to slowly grow from the early 2010’s but over the last few years podcasts have become wildly popular and grown beyond what could have been predicted. The level of choice that we are now offered is incredible, the internet is a veritable smorgasbord in terms of podcasts. To help narrow down that choice, below I’ve listed some of my favourites which I listen to almost every week. I’ve chosen to talk only about none-science podcasts and have given a brief description of why they are worth listening to. In a future post I’ll mention the science focused podcasts which I listen to. If you’re truly desperate for science podcasts I recommend you check out Lewis MacKenzie’s big list of science podcasts.

My Brother, My brother, and me

This is the first of a few podcasts in this post which are hosted on the Maximum Fun network. Maximum Fun is collaborative network which brings together some incredible podcasts, the ones which I mention here are just some of my favourite- they have many more which I recommend you check out. Back to point the point at hand, My brother, My brother and Me, MBMBAM for short, is a comedy podcast featuring 3 bothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy. The podcast is an “advice” podcast; the brothers answer question submitted to them or found on Yahoo answers (yes it still exists). In actual fact advice is rarely given as they usually end up down a hilarious tangent. Semi-regular segments include such gems as Haunted doll watch, Munch squad and Celebrity wine? Why not! If I am being totally honest this podcast has me laughing so hard I have cried on at least two occasions.

Art of manliness

Some may be sceptical based on the name but trust me the Art of Manliness podcast is well worth your time. Brett Mckay, responsible for the Art of Manliness website, interviews guests based on their area of expertise, recent work or life experience. The topics cover everything from philosophy and politics and and featured guests range from psychologists to members of the military. The two greatest things about this podcast are 1) its regularity (usually around two episodes a week) and 2) the range of topics covered. The podcast also strikes a brilliant balance between interview and discussion, I’ve managed to learn things from fields I would never have considered. If you’re looking to hear some interesting conversation about some engaging topics I recommend checking out their archive.

The Adventure Zone

The idea of listening to other people play table-top games may sound weird, I was doubtful when I first heard the idea, but you would be surprised. Another McElroy production The Adventure Zone started as the 3 brothers and their father, Clint, playing Dungeons & Dragons the role-playing table-top game. It may sound like a strange concept but D&D podcasts are very popular now and The Adventure Zone threads the needle between gameplay and narrative story telling making it one of the best out there. The podcast is now entering what could be consider “season 2” and they have moved on and are trying out a different style of table-top game, and it remains just as entertaining. I realise some people will have reservations about listening to a podcast like this but it is worth taking a chance and seeing what you think.

Dude soup

The Dude Soup podcast is brought to you by Funhaus, who are a division of the entertainment/ production company Rooster Teeth. The Dude Soup podcast is mainly a video podcast (they have audio only but my preference is video). As such this is the one exception on the list; I don’t listen to this on my commute- I find it perfect to put on my phone while I’m doing house work or cooking. Because they have origins in the Rooster Teeth family of content they focus on discussing video games, films and TV and general “nerd culture.” 

Bubble

Once again another Maximum Fun Production, and most recent addition to my regular podcast schedule, Bubble is a Sci-Fi narrative podcast. It is currently on episode 7 and since the first episode it has shot up to the top of my all time favourites list. The story follows residents of Fairhaven, a giant corporate run Bubble surrounded by violent wasteland. It features incredible voice acting from a long list of actors and consistently has me grinning like a fool. If you only listen to one podcast from this list please listen to this one, you won’t regret it.

Honorary mentions:

Wonderful- another maximum fun podcast, featuring Rachel and Griffin McElroy, youngest of aforementioned McElroy trio, the pair take turns to describe what they find wonderful and why. This makes for lovely lighthearted listening, fantastic for a mid-week pick me up.

Limetown- another fictional Sci-Fi narrative podcast, this was released in 2015 and follows a radio reporter as she investigates the mysterious disappearance of every inhabitant of a small town in Tennessee. While only 6 episodes long this will have you on the edge of your seats the whole time.

Those are my favourite podcasts, if you have any more recommendations I'm always on the look out for more so be sure to let me know on twitter. This has been Steve, and don’t forget to keep being awesome.

Chapter 9: Too fast, too furious?

I am ashamed to say that for the last few weeks the blog has been quiet. The main reason being that I have been studying for my first year viva; a process where I have to justify all the work I have done during my first year on the PhD. Now that the viva is over I have a little more time to dedicate to the blog. This week I will be talking about fasting, in particular a recent experience I had when I tried fasting out for a few weeks. I tried my best to come up with a “fast” based pun for the title of this post, if you can think of anything funny let me know so I can steal it and pretend I'm funnier than I actually am.

The process of fasting involves voluntarily giving something up for a certain period of time, when fasting is mentioned most people think of food; it is the most common example, another  being alcohol. Fasting has received attention lately because of some arguments that have suggested that it provides both physical and mental health benefits. However, rather than seeking to gain any benefit I was curious about how I would personally handle going without food for certain periods of time; in the past I have had an unhealthy relationship with food (especially pizza...mhhh pizza). Based on some light research I decided to try two different types of fasting over the course of the last month. I won’t be diving deep into the science behind fasting, I will do that in a future post, instead I am going to talk about my experience while trying it out.

24 hours, one day a week

As the subheading suggests this type of fasting involves going without food for 24 hours once a week. In my case, I choose to do it middle of the week, from Tuesday evening to Wednesday evening. The night before I ate a medium sized meal, woke up, did some exercise in the morning then went to work without breakfast. I didn’t really notice that I’d skipped breakfast till it reached mid-morning when I felt a slight pang of hunger, but I was fairly busy with work so was able to ignore it without much difficulty. Come lunch time I was most definitely hungry, and when I turned up to lunch with nothing more than a bottle of water I got a few questions and some strange looks. During this whole period I made sure to drink plenty of water and managed to survived lunch, despite being slightly jealous of other peoples food. The hard part came when I went back to the office. As the afternoon wore on I could feel my concentration slipping and it became hard to focus on anything that required too much brain power. As such I decided to catch up on paperwork and emails; tasks which didn't need a lot of energy. When home time eventually arrived I had managed to power through the afternoon slump and my stomach no longer noticed that it was hungry, but I could tell that I was a little more impatient with the traffic on the drive home. Once at home when early evening rolled around I prepped another medium sized meal and happily sat down and tucked in. After this first day I waited a week and repeated the process. Having done it before I knew what to expect. I made sure to plan my day accordingly, I did lab work in the morning and then caught up on paper work during the afternoon. I felt less irritable this time round and as a whole it wasn’t nearly as difficult as the first week. I only tried this version of fasting for two weeks, I might give it another go in the future and if I'm feeling brave extend the fast to more than 24 hours. Other than a lack of  focus during the afternoon it wasn't nearly as difficult as I had expected and it really made me appreciate that first meal once the 24 hours was over. If anyone did try this method I would say to make it easier on yourself and if you can, the first time you do it, do it on a day that you know won’t involve too much stress.

Intermittent fasting

After the first attempt with fasting had went off without any major problems I decided to try a different approach, intermittent fasting. In this case, you don’t forgo food for a full day instead you have a limited number of hours during which you can eat. There are no specific rules, most of the reading I looked at went for leaving a 14 to 16 hour gap between meals and only eating during a 4 to 8 hour window. During the first week this meant that, for the full week, I only ate between 11am and 6pm which equated to skipping breakfast and making sure I had an early evening meal. After surviving the 24 hour fast this felt significantly easier; I didn’t suffer from a lack of focus during the afternoon. After doing that for a full week I felt fine, the hardest part was avoiding snacks on after 6pm an evening when at home. To make the next week a little more challenging I decided to narrow the window and only eat between 3pm and 7pm. This meant that there was a 4 hour window when I would eat, which would consist of a small meal at 3pm and a medium size evening meal at around 6pm. This defiantly made it a lot harder, particularly as the UK was having a glorious heat wave during the week I decided to do this, meaning I had to fight the urge to grab a lunch time ice cream. With this new schedule I found that at the start of the week at around 2pm I begun to lose focus, like during the 24 hour fast. However, once I had been doing it for a few days I was able to regain that focus pretty quickly. This method, while harder in some ways as you have to carefully schedule your meals, was the easiest to follow and ended up being a lot of fun. That was two weeks ago and since then I have been trying to stick to that schedule as best I can (although as I write this someone has brought in a Caterpillar Cake at 11am and I am not ashamed to admit that I had a cheeky slice). I plan on sticking to this plan, at least the next couple of weeks. 

A summary

For now that covers my brief foray into fasting and I can say it has been an interesting little experiment. It took my body a while to realise that being hungry isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and that if you skip a meal or two it’s not the end of the world. Like I said I plan on keeping up the intermittent fasting to see how it affects me long term. If anyone is considering giving fasting a go a big disclaimer (and a good rule for life) do your research before you try anything. If you are interesting in reading more there are loads of resources available. This experiment was partly inspired by a pair of art of manliness posts (here and here) from a few years ago. The articles give a brilliant introduction to fasting if you wanted to learn more. If anyone else has had any experience with fasting I would love to hear about it, feel free to tweet at me and we can get a discussion going.

Now that I have some more time available I hope to be back and posting regularly, so until next time this is Steve the Scientist signing off.

Chapter 8: SciComm- what, why, where!?

If you follow me on twitter which I hope you do, firstly to feed my ego and secondly to keep updated about this blog, you might know that last week I went to another event in London. For once this wasn’t a CDT event, instead it was for the London Science Communication Symposium (AKA SciComm Social). In general, Science communication is shortened to SciComm; it is slightly less of a mouthful and people think it sounds cooler. This symposium was a gathering of people involved in various types of SciComm coming together to have a discussion about the field. There were students who were studying it as a Masters, some worked in public engagement for an institution, others worked as freelancers, and then there was me - an awkward PhD student. It was interesting getting a look into the field of SciComm so I thought I’d take a quick look at some of the highlights that I took away from the symposium.

Hard to define

An idea which occurred on more than one occasion was that defining Science communication is hard. One of the reasons for this is because it can take many forms, whether that is a blog, videos, or outreach events. This variety makes it difficult to create a specific definition. The best way to look at it is an attempt to involve and inform those not directly associated with science about the in's and out's of both scientific research and science in general. This description doesn’t quite do it justice so I apologise to all those who attended the event, but it is one of easiest ways I can think to describe it.

The day mostly consisted of people much brighter (therefore ever so slightly intimidating) than me giving brief talks about their subject/area of SciComm followed by a discussion panel. The overarching theme for the day was “Why”, in particular why people do SciComm. It was a question that asked people to delve into their motivations and the discussions took some interesting twists and turns. The following points are those which I found most interesting and were particularly focused how SciComm is done and what it should aim to achieve.

Consider and connect with your audience

A common thread throughout the day was that to be effective as a Science Communicator you need to understand your audience. This means you have to connect with them so that they actually engage with what you are trying to talk about. To do this a number of suggestions were made. This included making what you are discussing personal, because having a personal connection to something is much more engaging than just being talked at. Likewise, we were advised to focus on telling stories and creating narratives. It sounds obvious but humans care about stories, it’s why myths and legends exist. If you want to get someone involved in a conversation you have to get them involved and stories are a great way to get people involved.  

Making it better

Another fantastic point looked at how to improve the work you do in SciComm. One of the best bits of advice was that you “learn by doing.” Once again, this sounds obvious but it is easy to forget that sometimes you get lost in the planning and thinking rather than the actually doing. It was suggested that the best way to improve the kind of SciComm work you do is by doing more of it. Likewise, another brilliant point, which relates to the previous point about making it personal was to bring everything you are to your work. Don’t be afraid of injecting your personality into what you do. If you can bring personality into your work you can make it unique and much more engaging.

Science communication is changing

While the concept of SciComm might be new to some people it has been around in various forms throughout the years. One of the most important themes, I felt, was that it has naturally changed over the years, but to ensure that that change is for the better we need to take charge and help direct it. In this case we need to try and change how the research community interacts with the outside world. Ideally, we should be aiming to bring science and culture together, and make the concept of science accessible to everyone. This once again relates back to a previous point concerning connecting with an audience. We should be aiming to engage in a conversation with one another, not just throwing facts out there and expecting  people to find it engaging. This was definitely one of my highlights from the day and is something that I want to try and work on myself. I’m still not sure how to get started but just having an awareness of what I am aiming towards will help.

On a final note, one of the most inspiring sentiments of the day was as follows: “go and make cool shit happen.” If that isn’t inspiring I don’t know what is.

Those were just some of key points that I took away from the  SciComm Symposium, and will hopefully learn from. If you want to know more about what went on PhD student Rebecca Emerton has posted a blog which I recommended that you check out. Likewise take a look at the group’s twitter if you want more information and have a look at the people who were talking during the day. I recommend that anyone interested in science communication or anyone who wants to find out more considers going next year, I know I will be.

That’s enough for this week, next week I will submitting my first year report so I might not post but I plan on being back the week after and will be talking about a new experiment I’m trying, involving pizza, the ancient Greeks and a cold shower. Until next time, this is Steve the Scientist signing off.  

Chapter 7: Sensors and sensibility

In the last few posts I have been focused on telling you what I have been up to, from a trip to London to starting my new project, but this week will be a little different (exciting I know). For the last 2 weeks I have been reading up around my new project so that when I start in the lab next week I actually know what I am talking about, or at least can pretend I do. I have been reading papers almost exclusively about biosensors; which is a key part of my new project. Since all I have done is read about them I thought that telling you what they are is pretty much a summary of what I have been doing during the last few, rather uneventful, weeks. Below I’ve created a condensed version of the basics about biosensors, namely what they are and why I am interested in them. 

The bits and pieces

To start with it’s probably best to know what a biosensor is. To break it down: bio- means something biological, and sensor- meaning something which detects or senses something (I know you’re not supposed to use the word you're defining in the definition but in this case it is hard not too). Essentially this boils down to give you an idea of what a biosensor is: an analytical device which measures something that you are interested in and a part of that device is biological.

To understand a biosensor and how it works it is best to look at all the different parts individually (shown below with the help of cartoons, the best way to learn). Firstly, you have the thing that you want to measure/detect, this is your target (1). To be able to detect this target we need something that is going grab onto the target and tell us that it is there. This is our bioreceptor (2). This bioreceptor is designed so that it can only grab onto the target and nothing else. When a sample of something (e.g. blood) is put on the sensor and the sample contains the target it gets stuck to the bioreceptor, this is called binding (3).

Figure 1.png

An example of this would be glucose in blood. When you have a sensor which is designed to detect glucose you put a blood sample in and an enzyme on the sensor grabs the glucose in the sample. When the target is there and binds to the bioreceptor it causes a in the receptor, this leads us to the next step.

When the binding happens the receptor creates a signal (4). This signal can be anything; it can be a physical signal, where the bioreceptor changes shape, or it can be chemical, where binding causes the release of another chemical. This signal varies depending on the kind of target and the type of receptor. Either way the binding has caused a signal, now we have to turn that signal into something more meaningful. This is where a transducer comes in (5).  A transducer is a device which turns one thing into another, usually it turns one form of energy into another. In this case the transducer turns the signal from the bioreceptor into another signal which can be more easily understood by our next component- the detector. The detectors jobs is to detect (who would have guessed?). It detects the signal from the transducer and creates an output which tells us if the target is there. This can be as simple as a yes or no answer or it can be more complicated and tell you exactly how much of the target is in the sample.

Figure 2.png

Once again using our glucose example, if glucose is in the sample it binds to the bioreceptor, this produces a chemical signal, this signal is then turned into an electrical signal. This electrical signal then tells our detector how much glucose is on our bioreceptor. Then an output is produced which tells us exactly how much glucose is in the blood sample. To summarise this whole process I’ve put all the panels together and written a flow chart below to make it easier to see:

How a biosensor works: the target binds to receptor-> the receptor produces a signal-> the signal is carried to a transducer-> the transducer signal is detected and creates an output.

How a biosensor works: the target binds to receptor-> the receptor produces a signal-> the signal is carried to a transducer-> the transducer signal is detected and creates an output.

Biosensors are bio-awesome

While you now hopefully understand what a biosensor is, you might want to know why we use them. There are a whole bunch of uses for biosensors, far too many for me to fully discuss here; but there are two obvious ones. Firstly, diagnostics. If you are sick we need to be able to find out what kind of illness you have, so that we know how to treat you. This is where biosensors can be useful; they can help identify what is wrong with you and what the best treatment might be. I keep mentioning it but glucose is one of the most well-known examples. If you have diabetes it is important that you keep an eye on the glucose levels in your blood. A biosensor can be used to monitor this rather than having to continually take blood samples or just guess the best time to give you treatment. 

The second use is particularly relevant given the current global climate- environmental monitoring. Sustainability and awareness of the environment  has thankfully grown over the last few decades.  Thanks to technological advances, as is the case with biosensors, we can  measure what damage is being done. In this case a biosensors can be used to check if the water contains pollution or harmful bacteria. This is useful because we can use it to make sure that we aren’t doing anything which damages the environment and check that when we try and help the environment we don’t accidentally make it worse.

In general biosensor are a field of research that is made up of different areas of science; it’s a bit of a hodgepodge, which is possibly my favourite word of the day. It is part chemistry, part biology and part physics. This is one of the reasons I enjoy; much like a box of chocolates you never know what you are going to get (side note: sorry Forrest Gump you are a great movie but that is a terrible analogy). Still, biosensors are a cool bit of tech which are only going to become more and more useful as technology develops,  which at least in my mind makes them exciting.

For now, that is enough of me gushing over why I like biosensors. Hopefully you have learned something about biosensors, if not I best get better at talking about then since the next 3 years of my life will be focusing on them. Until next time this is Steve the Scientist signing off.  

Chapter 6: One more step

One of my all-time favourite scenes from the Lord of the Rings films happens early in the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring. Sam and Frodo are leaving the shire and Sam stops and points out that if he takes one more step it will be the furthest away from home he has ever been. It’s a small moment but a fantastic representation of a very relatable feeling; stepping out into the unknown, into a situation you feel you are not ready to handle and aren’t prepared for. You may be wondering why one earth, or why on middle earth, (terrible joke I know, but I couldn’t resist) I am talking about this scene.

As part of my training on the CDT I was required to undertake two training projects before starting my full project. Two weeks ago, I finished my second training project and as of last week I officially started my main PhD research. It was at this point I experienced an overwhelming feeling of apprehension. Before I dive into that feeling any further I should provide some context and explain how my project came about.

In the CDT we don’t apply for a specific project. Instead we get the opportunity to help create and choose a project which interests us. To do this, a “PhD generation” event was held in London several months ago. It consisted of a large conference room with a mix of academic staff from the university, members of industry from various pharmaceutical companies and the 8 PhD students from my year. The academics were then divided into groups based on their area of expertise, and for the rest of the day we worked with the different groups to come up with ideas which people thought were intriguing and worth spending the next 3 ½ years researching.

From there the projects generated were taken to the higher ups - their official name is CDT management but higher ups sounds cooler. Then once the projects were fleshed out by academics and approved, we were given a list to choose the one which interested us most. Since it will take up more words than I feel like writing today I will give the “elevator pitch” version of my project: my aim is to develop a device (a biosensor) which we can stick in humans to continuously measure how much of a certain drug is in their blood. At some point I will actually do a post discussing the ins and outs of my project, I promise.

Back in the present, or at least last week, I met with my new supervisors and we sat down to come up with a more detailed outline of the project, discussing what we were hoping to achieve and how realistic we thought it was. After that meeting I went back to our office, sat down, and was overwhelmed by a flood of nervousness and anticipation. When trying to identify this feeling, what immediately sprung to mind was the scene from LOTR which I mentioned earlier (it took a while but I told you I’d get there eventually). It was a sense that I was about to step into something entirely new.

The more I thought about it the more I understood why I felt like this. I came to the realisation that in my relatively short academic career I have only ever worked on shorter projects that were driven by supervisors. Now with this project I am in control; the supervisors used the phrase “you will be leading this project.” Not only that but it will be significantly longer than any project I’ve done before (3 years 4 months, not that I’m counting). This was a very intimidating feeling, particularly for someone who feels like they still know very little about their subject area. On the other hand, and on a more positive note, I also feel a sense of excitement. Basically, I think I’m balanced between apprehension and excitement… and I can’t help but wonder how many other people have experienced this?

On that note, I think I have rambled enough about my emotional psyche. The plan for the next post is to discuss what biosensors are and why I like them so much. Until next time, this is Steve the scientist signing off.

Chapter 5: To the Crownlands

Last week I spent the week visiting London. In case you didn’t get the reference the title of this post is a nod to Game of Thrones; Kings Landing, the capital city of Westeros, is in the Crownlands (references are always funnier when they have to be explained). The reason I mention this is because to me London can sometimes seem so different it may as well be part of a fantasy story.

The CDT I am a part of is paired with University College London (UCL), because of this we semi-regularly do training weeks which take place alternately between London and Nottingham. If you hadn’t guess this time we were in London. This was only our third time in London but this trip was significantly more successful than others; last time a group of us shared a room and due to a mistake with the booking I slept on the floor of the hotel room (I’ve definitely slept in worse places).

On our last trip to London our training focused on practical skills; if I’m honest despite the fact it was only a few months ago I have forgotten most of what we were taught (sorry if any of the CDT people are reading this). This time our training focused on “personal development.” This included a seminar dealing with difficult supervisors, which I thought was ironic considering the difficulty I had with my supervisor on my last training project. While that gives you an idea of what training I was doing while visiting London it isn’t what I want to make the main point of this post.

I feel like when I was younger I misunderstood what travelling for work meant. I always figured it would be interesting to say to people that I was away traveling on business, and that “I’ll be back from Dusseldorf on Friday!” In reality when you actually talk to people who travel for work they point out that all you usually see is an airport/train station, the hotel and wherever you are working during the day. For instance, despite going to London twice I haven’t been to many of the actual tourist spots, but at this point I could walk blindfolded from King’s Cross train station to my hotel (although I wouldn’t recommend wandering around London blindfolded).

This little discussion of travel isn’t supposed to be cynical, in fact I want it to be the opposite. While it may not always be how you imagine it, travelling for work can be fun experience and (from my own perspective at least) I should see traveling for work as an incredible opportunity, even if it is not what I expected. People are always amazed when I tell them that up until last year, when I was 23, I had never been to London; I had never had the opportunity. Now it is something I can say I have done, even if it was for work, I should count myself lucky enough to have had the chance to see more of this corner of the world.  

Once again, I am trying to stumble my way toward a coherent point- even if it might not be what you expect, take advantage of everything you have and find enjoyment where you can. In science we can forget that while we are “pushing the boundaries of knowledge” we should try and enjoy ourselves while we can. I was aiming for this to be a mundane recap of my time in London but it evidently ended up down a different, more philosophical, route. In the next post I am hopefully going to get into a bit more of the science stuff, specifically how my research project came about, and what I will be spending the next 3 and a half years (yikes!) working on. Until next time, this is Steve the Scientist signing off.

Chapter 4: Sunshine and UV Rainbows

The story you are about to read is one plagued with disaster, a phrase which here means one that suffers from a number of disruptive events. Sorry, that might have been a little over-dramatic; I’ve just finished watching Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Anyway, back in the real world, in the last post I discussed my first training project. For those who didn’t read it, the TLDR version: I tried a new area of research (chemistry), enjoyed it and learned some new science stuff. Now I’m going to being talking about my second training project and, unfortunately, it proved that what the Gods of Science give with one hand they can take away with the other.

Under Pressure

While the supervisor from my first training project thought I was a fool for picking an area I had little practical experience in, I’d like to think he at least appreciated that my intent was to learn as much as possible. The supervisor for my second training project did not appreciate this fact. In our first meeting, he said not only would there be a very steep learning curve but I would be in charge of two undergraduates and would be the “team leader.” The project would focus on HPLC (high pressure liquid chromatography), a technique which I (once again) had no experience in. So the thought of having to teach others this technique filled me with dread.

HPLC is very much like other chromatography you might have done in GCSE- you can separate a mixture of substances using a liquid which drags them up a solid surface. The main difference is that in HPLC the whole things is done under pressure and you can use ultraviolet light to analyse the stuff which comes out. It is not hugely difficult once you understand the basic principles, but it is one that requires practice to get right. Initially this wasn’t a problem, but as time went on technical issues combined with my lack of experience lead to difficulty in producing the “right results”, as my supervisor called them. After the first few weeks my supervisor decided we would have weekly meetings with the whole team to ensure we were communicating properly. This continued for the remainder of the project and made it rather difficult; it was hard to stay motivated when you were called in every week and told that what you were doing was entirely wrong and you should do it better.

Thankfully, by the end of the project I was able to scrape enough results together to finish the report that was required. This was something that for the last few weeks I was very unsure I would manage; at one point the HPLC machine broke and we had to wait for it to be repaired for almost 2 weeks.

Overall, it proved significantly more stressful then the first training project. Once again, this is not wisdom but, sometimes you need to learn to accept that some things are out of your control. That can mean accepting equipment breaking and micromanaging supervisors are out of your control, and all you can do is deal with them to the best of your ability. Hopefully this post hasn’t been a complete downer, and at least we are now all caught up in terms of the last few months.

Finally, I can start to give updates that are significantly more recent. My aim is to post every other week, because not enough usually happens to give weekly updates. My next post will be after (potentially during) a training week which takes place in London. Till next time, this is Steve the Scientist signing off.

Chapter 3: Chemistry Schmemistry

In the last post I briefly (it wasn’t that brief) covered my history in academia, from time as a young thespian, through being an undergraduate to a PhD student in Nanomedicine. Now the plan is to use this and the next post to cover the first eight months of my studies (when I was too lazy to start writing this blog), which should be enough to bring us up to speed. At which point, I can stop rambling about past events and start rambling about more recent activities instead.

As I mentioned last time, I was accepted on to a Centre for Doctoral Training or CDT. For those not up to date on the ins-and-outs of a PhD, a CDT means that before you start your research project which takes 3-4 years, you first have a training year. In my case, that consisted of two smaller projects where I had to try and get as much experience as possible in a variety of areas, before specializing with my main project.  My plan is to cover my first training project, which ran from October last year to January this year with this post, then in the next post I’ll cover my second project which ran from February to last week. Then we’ll finally be all caught up.

Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed

To pick our first project, we (the “we” here refers to the 7 other students who are on this year of the CDT with me) were given a list of projects to choose from. We were encouraged to pick ones that were outside of our comfort zone; those running the CDT said this was the best way to learn. The problem was, even if we appeared to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we were already outside of our comfort zones (at least I felt I was). A new city, a new building, working with people we barely knew… I questioned, in my own head, how much further out of our comfort zones we could go.

As they say, fortune favours the bold; they also say there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity (I have a habit of straying onto the stupid side of the line). I made the decision to go extremely outside of my comfort zone and so picked a project which focused on organic chemistry. While I had studied chemistry a few years earlier in college, I could remember almost none of it and had little (zero) practical chemistry experience. In my first meeting with the man who was to be my supervisor for the next 3 months, the first question he asked me (after I warned him how little I knew) was, “why did you do this to yourself?” He asked this with equal amounts of pity and curiosity - pity because he thought I was a fool and curiosity because he wondered how someone could be such a fool.

The crux of the project I had chosen was focused on synthesizing (I found out this is a fancy chemistry word for “making”) new compounds based on a drug which already existed, in the hopes of making it better. The problem was that we, by which I mean my supervisor (I didn’t know enough at this point to have an informed opinion), were unsure how best to go about this. It turns out that in chemistry the endpoint, getting the thing you want, is the important bit and getting there is just a matter of trial and error. That is what I spent the vast majority of the project doing, trial and error in an attempt to make a derivative of our original drug.

The first few weeks were mainly about learning the practical aspects. It turns out this is very reminiscent of cooking, albeit with slightly more finesse and fancier equipment. One of the most interesting pieces of equipment I got to use, which I hadn’t used before but had heard of, was an NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance Spectroscopy). I’m still not 100% sure on how NMR works, but the idiot’s version is that samples are hit with a magnetic field and the nuclei (plural for nucleus) of atoms release energy which is like radio waves. Then, like tuning a radio, we can pick up these wave or signals and can piece them together to tell us what kinds of atoms are in the sample. This can then tell you exactly what you have in the sample which, in chemistry, is the whole point - make something new and find out what it is.

After learning this new stuff and taking a few cracks at making our new drug, the trial and error part of the project was mostly proving to be error. That was until 2 weeks before the end of the project, where we had some success. I’m fairly sure that when it worked I let out an audible yip. It turns out that I do enjoy chemistry, at least I did when it eventually worked. Once the project was over, I was required to write up a report and handed that in during the last few weeks of January. In the report we were required to sum up how we thought it went. I chose to describe it by saying, “chemistry doesn’t always do what you want, but that didn’t stop it being fun in the end.”

These posts aren’t supposed to pass on any kind of wisdom and usually they will be the opposite; an example of what not to do.  At the very least, I learned that getting outside of your comfort zone can be hard but if you get the chance to learn something new it can be really worthwhile.

Next time I’m going to cover my second project, and I’ll warn you now it isn’t nearly as “wise” as this one.  Until next time this is Steve the Scientist signing off.

Chapter 2: A History Lesson

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away… that doesn’t work, I think someone has already used that. Once upon a time… still no, overused... I give up.

Before we can dive into what is going on with my PhD, (we’ll get there eventually I promise) I’m going to recap the journey which led me there. I’m not doing it because it’s particularly important or dramatic, unless you count that incident with the train in France, but we don’t talk about that (it still haunts me to this day). It just feels like the right thing to do - before you know what’s coming you should know what came before. And if I am going to compare this PhD to the hero’s journey, it is best to know how the hero ended up on that road in the first place (I know in the last post I said I’d keep the hero comparisons to a minimum… I’m trying my best).

 

A flair for the Dramatic

I stand alone onstage. The audience is silent. I am Bruce the Spruce. At least, that was the name of the first acting role I remember being given. I can’t even remember if I had any lines, I may have been just a stationary tree in the background for the whole play, but at age 10 I didn’t really care; I was just glad I got to dress up as a tree.

That was the first of a range of minor acting roles; I went to a Secondary school (that’s High School to those outside of the U.K) that was aimed towards the “Performing Arts”. This meant that all things music, dance and drama were the main focus.  I’m not sure why my school chose to focus on this particular area but I have a feeling it happened in the wake of Billy Elliot, a film about a young coal miner learning ballet, which was based in the town right next to mine.

At school I chose to put my energy into drama (my singing and dancing are still to this day abysmal). It may seem like a leap from the dramatic arts to science, but I was slowly developing a keen interest in the more academic field. Up until I was around 14 I had chosen to ignore this because I thought science was too “nerdy” (as we all know drama is cool and science is uncool… at least that is what younger me thought). Then came the time to pick college subjects, where I had to make the decision between drama/performing arts or science. If you hadn’t figured it out yet, I picked science and chose to study chemistry and biology. I still wonder if I made the right choice; I could have been the next Leonardo DiCaprio (probably not, I don’t have the chin for it, or the hair, or any of the other impeccable facial features).

The research bug

From college, I (along with a great many from my generation) decided to carry on into higher education and went to The University of Leeds, where I chose to study Pharmacology. Occasionally, usually when I first met someone new, I would get asked what made me choose this subject. I always gave the honest answer, and people still refuse to believe me, that “it sounded like it could be fun.” That was all. I did almost no research and went purely on instinct. If anyone is thinking about going to university and is reading this, (if universities still exist in the future) I don’t advise using this method. It worked out for me, but always do your research before making such a big decision.

Thankfully, I got a great deal of enjoyment out of my degree and had the typical student experience; I drank alcohol and ate an unhealthy amount of fried chicken (at one point I lived 2 minutes from KFC - that was a rough year). More importantly, during my second year I took on a summer project and was bitten. Not by any radioactively enhanced insect, but by the “research bug.” I came to the realisation that I could spend my time in a lab, away from other people and if I was lucky, be paid to do so. To me this seemed like an ideal job. From there, I started to drift towards a career in research and decided to stay on and do a Masters, to stave off getting what some people call a “real job,” (FYI research is still a real job).  My Masters was fairly uneventful, and after my Masters I was extremely lucky and managed to get a job at the university as a research technician. This focused on biosensors (at some point I’ll do a post about biosensors, because in my entirely unbiased opinion they’re awesome).

 

Into the unknown

At this point in the timeline we are in early 2017, and following almost a full year developing biosensors at the University, I decided to continue my pursuit of a career in research with the next the logical choice, applying for a PhD. After a discussion with an old supervisor, I decided to focus on bio/nanotech and applied for a CDT, Centre for Doctoral Training, in Nanomedicine at The University of Nottingham. After what felt like a horrendous interview, (in my experience interviews always feel worse than they actually are) I was told several weeks later that I was accepted and would start in September 2017. So, after spending over 5 years at the University of Leeds, I packed up and headed down to Nottingham, into the unknown…

This is where I was, seven or eight months ago, about to start a PhD.

And now I feel like I’ve reminisced enough for one post. I realise this was a long one, I did have a lot to cover, but thanks if you’ve stuck with it this far. In the next post, I’ll be covering the successes and failures during my first few months on the PhD. Till next time, this is Steve the Scientist signing off.

Chapter 1: A Hero’s Journey

Seven months ago I sat down to read Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Despite owning the book for several years (I think it was a gift?) I had yet to make the effort to delve into the rather sizeable tome. That was until prompted by a tweet, which I’ll get to in a minute, and I decided to crack the cover. I read the first three pages in a week, then gave up and decided to move onto something more my level - like Kipper or Let's Go Home, Little Bear.

Around the same time, I made the decision to try and start a blog in which I would chronicle the PhD I was about to start. I came up with a blog title, drafted the first post and started designing the website. And, just like the book, I gave up. The post sat saved on a memory stick and the idea was forgotten about, laid to rest alongside previous unsuccessful endeavours.

In both cases, the book and the blog, I used the excuse “I was busy”, which at the time seemed true. The two were linked by an initial idea, prompted by the aforementioned tweet (and subsequent comments); a friend of mine started a twitter thread which compared the trials and tribulations of a PhD to the journey seen in The Lord of the Rings. It was an impressive story he told and I recommend checking it out: 

This is what prompted me to try and read Campbell’s book discussing the hero's journey; LOTR being a typical depiction of this story trope. I have still yet to read the full book but have since read certain sections and done some more research on the subject. In particular, I wanted to see if other people had drawn the comparison between the hero’s journey and a PhD. I found a paper from Colorado Technical University that tried to use the hero’s journey as a way to prepare doctoral students for their studies.  While this study was interesting, it was based solely on testimonials. So I started thinking, it could be more compelling to see how Campbell’s journey compared to a PhD from a first person perspective, from the heroes themselves.

So that's where the idea for this blog came from; in September 2017 I started a PhD and wanted to chronicle my journey from start to finish. Unfortunately, I have failed to document the first seven months. Thankfully, I am on a CDT (centre for doctoral training) which means that my first year is a training year, and I will be starting my actual PhD project this coming May. Essentially, I am making another excuse to justify why I failed to start this blog seven months ago and am only now getting started.

I realise this is not an original idea; since blogging became cool in the early 90’s PhD students across the world have chosen to blog their time in academia. Likewise, I’m aware that setting myself up as the hero of this “story” is a little grandiose. But trust me, it could be worse and unfortunately in this analogy, it is necessary. Plus, it’s my blog so I can do what I want! (Sorry for yelling).

The aim of the blog will be to collect data because, you know, that's what scientists do.  Not only that, but throughout history people have used journals to keep track of their progress and document their thoughts - Marie Cure and Charles Darwin both kept notebooks of their discoveries. I’m not saying that my writing a blog comes close to their historic findings (I did warn you that the grandiose comparisons could be worse) but it just highlights that chronicling this kind of adventure can be important. Plus, this will be as much for my own records as it is for anyone else’s; I want to be able to look back and follow my descent from student to mad scientist.  

In the next post I’m going to cover my history and how I ended up doing a PhD, because if we are going to follow a hero we need to know his origin (I  really am  sorry for how this comes across, I’ll try to keep it to a minimum in the future, I promise). Until next time, this is Steve the Scientist signing off. 

Sources:

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Lord of the Rings: an allegory of the PhD?

Launching New Doctoral Students: Embracing the Hero’s Journey