Inaugural Science Slam (University of Reading)

Two weeks ago I helped host the University of Reading’s first Science Slam. It’s a fun, exciting research event with ‘performances’ from 6 PhD students using props and no powerpoint to explain their research. Here is our winner – Charlotte Hill – explaining her work on the potential benefits of cannabis in the treatment of epilepsy. I can’t wait for the next one!

My week as a lecturer – in pictures #3

So this post is slightly delayed – first I’m not organised enough yet to write my posts in advance so they can update automatically and second everyone needs a holiday (see last snap for evidence). So what was I up to last week?

Campus - deserted - students gone home

Campus – deserted – students gone home

Monday - My course GV1HUM Human Geography for 1st year undergrads finished last week, but I was busy marking their assignments today. 11 group posters on the relevance of human geography in the 21st century. The teams who had been working together since week 1 could select any example/case study they liked. We had posters featuring cyberspace, Macdonald’s, Coca-Cola, farming, transport, wind power, youtube, Haiti earthquake, slums, globalisation. Using the University of Reading conference poster template, the teams excelled themselves in producing professional looking posters. I really enjoyed this as an assessment exercise, particularly the poster display last week. The posters will be used for visit days and open days for prospective students. Next year – the assessment will combine presentations to the whole group. I met up with the second marker to finalise marks. I then ploughed on with writing up my notes for the 13 dissertations I had to second mark. Wow – a range of projects – very impressed again. Hopefully I can feature details of some of them in a future post.

Government Chief Scientific Adviser - Professor Sir Mark Walport

Government Chief Scientific Adviser -
Professor Sir Mark Walport

Tuesday  – Today looked like it was going to involve a transport headache. Travelling from Reading to Kew Gardens for 10am. But it was very pleasant. I took the train as usual to Paddington and then the district line to Kew Gardens. Being above ground on the tube, crossing the river Thames – it was a nice way to go to work! I was invited to Kew, or rather the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew, for the launch of the LWEC Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative. The first presentation was by Professor Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, who assured the audience he represented not only science, technology, medicine but also the social sciences. I was there to present my research on tree health, enthusiasm and citizen science. There was a strict 5 minute presentation rule and then 15 mins for questions with the two other presenters in my session – it was over very quickly. They are making a video of our talks available. I will post it when it appears. The new Chief Plant Health Officer was in attendance, Professor Nicola Spence, in her closing remarks she mentioned my work -

Hilary is a science watcher.

I love this sentiment. I am. That’s what I’ve been doing and to see this work recognised as important in terms of understanding the role of scientists and policymakers in constructing the ‘tree health agenda’ (particularly for the public) was a real highlight. Now I need to get on with writing about it! After the launch I headed over to the Science Museum for the launch of The Science Museum Group Journal. The head of research and public history had organised a string quartet to entertain guests – nodding to the planned music and science exhibition in a few years time.

OPAL UK - new project partners

OPAL UK – new project partners

Wednesday - Back to South Kensington this morning for the OPAL tree health survey working group. Fieldwork!!! Brilliant. Taking out my notebook and cracking on with some research was great. I’ve been following the working group as they designed, produced, launched and re-launch the survey. I know everyone now in the working group and my work is making an important contribution to the survey itself and the work of OPAL more generally in the area of tree health. I am holding a workshop in a few weeks time on citizen science and tree health to help identify the next 18 months of my research. Most of the people around the table at OPAL will be attending. The task we identified as part of the workshop will be to ascertain the various citizen science projects relating to tree health and identifying their respective audiences. Helping the punter! I had to leave this meeting early as I was heading to Birmingham for the ESRC Pitch-to-Peers Workshop for their Transformative Research call. I hopped on the train at Euston and was there just in time for the meeting at 5pm. I can’t disclose any details but it was agreed by the panel and peers that this format of 7 minute presentations (following a two page case for support) is something research councils need to consider for other grant calls. The opportunity for applicants to ‘answer back’ and ‘clarify’ project aims, outcomes and potential impacts was regarded as invaluable.

Thursday – Birmingham as above.

Red Sea

Red Sea

Friday - Out of office on!

My week as a lecturer – in pictures #2

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Sunday I started a bit of lecture preparation on Sunday with some pancakes. Lemon and sugar, of course. On Twitter (@DrHG) I’ve had wonderful conversations over the years with a variety of people in nature conservation, academia, polling, government about pancakes and how they eat theirs. Recently it was suggested to me that tweeting about pancakes wasn’t going to do much for my academic credibility. I began to doubt the pancakes. But now I am back – those conversations built rapport, reminded me there are people behind the 140 characters and reveals Twitter isn’t only for (as some might have us believe) self-promotion. So the pancakes are back!

20140321-080354.jpg Monday Can you believe it…my last lecture of my first term of teaching arrived. 10 weeks have flown by. One of our department secretaries said, ‘just you wait…it only speeds up’. Uh oh. I’ve been teaching first year geographers on human geography principles and practice. It has been about figuring out who geographers are, how we think and what we do. The focus here has been on: disciplinary history – where has geography come from, what are the exciting new trajectories; the importance of concepts of space, place and scale setting us apart as a distinctive discipline; and an introduction of qualitative and quantitative methods. The culmination and highlight of the course was Monday’s group poster display and presentation. 11 groups took part in a mini conference discussing case studies demonstrating the relevance of human geography in the 21st century. Two prizes were awarded one for best poster as voted for by the students and the other the winner of The Great Geography Bake Off. Unfortunately the cake above (baked and iced by me and Jess (my postgrad demonstrator)) whilst very tasty – didn’t win.

20140321-081247.jpg Tuesday I was in the office holding personal tutor meetings. An absolute pleasure to see how two terms at Reading have helped these young geographers carve out a degree path that suits them. Notwithstanding the 6 essays due in by this Friday! I also completed the marking for the 11 posters as part of my course. Phew. No small undertaking.

20140321-081545.jpg Wednesday sadly this image does not do justice to the amazing day I had in the New Forest. I was doing fieldwork – attending a rather interesting conference on “encouraging community engagement, volunteering and citizen science in the control of invasive non-native species” organised by the New Forest Non-Native Plants Project and the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Fascinating contributions from Wildlife Trust leaders, volunteers, OPAL, RINSE and the Biological Records Centre.

I was struck by the words of one volunteer who before he started his talk said, “I’m a volunteer not a professional”. It set the direction of my thinking for most of the day – the amateur, volunteer, enthusiast, citizen scientist, professional, expert – labels often freely applied but with very important consequences. In the case of this chap – he might volunteer his time unpaid – but he manages a woodland for the Forestry Commission and engages other volunteers in the project. Hardly non-expert, non-professional, citizen-only science. Need to get these thoughts down on paper.

20140321-082552.jpg Thursday Another day in the field but with two hats on. First as a cultural geographer interested in citizen science and tree health and second an academic representing the ESRC. I was in London for the UK Environmental Observation Framework panel on citizen science. The group meet every quarter to share and advance citizen science working in the public sector. The group has representatives from all government environment agencies, plus a social science representative from the ESRC (me). Our biggest piece of work was commissioning Understanding Citizen Science and Environmental Monitoring by Helen Roy et al. We are now exploring the impact of this guide to citizen science and looking to future work.

20140321-083345.jpg Friday One week to go and then some annual leave – oh yes! But today is going to mostly involve 4 things – (1) preparing for tomorrow’s Science Slam. This is the University of Reading’s inaugural slam but it is sold out and promises to be fantastic (more next week); (2) meeting my dissertation students at BSc and MSc; (3) preparing a 5 minute presentation for the launch of the LWEC Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative. My ESRC project was selected by organisers to feature in the section on ‘detection’ of pests and diseases; and (4) typing up the reports for my 13 BSc dissertations. A mixture but as always a pleasure. I heard someone say the other day nothing really is work unless you’d rather be doing something else…if you’d rather be doing something else then it’s too much like hard work and you don’t want to do it, and I think in life if you can find a balance of doing the things you have to do with the things you really want to do and that’s a unique balance and that’s what keeps me sane anyway.

My week as a lecturer – in pictures #1

20140314-071908.jpg Sunday – my week started on Sunday afternoon following a morning at The Vyne in Hampshire. A National Trust property. Went to meet-up with family who were on a coach tour there. We enjoyed the sunshine, walking around the lake and taking photos of trees. When I got home, I re-read my student essay plans and thought about the week ahead – lots of things to tick off the to do list. No writing on the cards this week. Just event-planning AND figuring out my 6 weeks in Australia!

20140314-065902.jpg Monday – I have been reliably informed that the first year of being a lecturer is the toughest. You’re preparing materials from scratch, you don’t know all the admin systems and, for me, I’m getting to know what makes geography students tick. This is compounded when you’re also trying to figure out what sort of teacher you are. Teaching my course #gv1hum Human Geography Principles and Practice has been a wonderful experience. This week I was offering collective feedback on essay plans. The question is: “Place is a center of meaning constructed through experience” (Tuan). Discuss.

20140314-065347.jpg Tuesday – I was meant to be in London this lunchtime but something had to give in the schedule. Research time has become a precious commodity this term. Re-arranged my meeting for next week. Popped out for a walk at lunchtime. Struck by how much I like the University of Reading campus. This is the library.

20140314-064831.jpg Wednesday – in my office, drawing up a set of priorities for my ESRC project on harnessing enthusiasm for citizen science. Key themes, identifying the contribution to the literature and realising I can’t do everything. I have a range of case studies but now need to be targeted in how I work with them.

20140314-064439.jpg Thursday – walking between my office and library for a meeting with colleagues in corporate relations and events. I’m hosting a citizen science and tree health workshop in May. Stopped to watch this duck on small pond under building.

20140314-070757.jpg Friday – foggy outside. Also foggy inside – think my hayfever has started and it’s only mid-March. Yesterday I collected the dissertations I am second marking, reminding me how much I love project work. This morning I’m meeting my mentor “off campus”. It’s a tiny bit crazy that meeting in our offices is too distracting. But people see you’re in the office and want to chat (guilty!). Hopefully this will focus the mind and the coffee should be good.

About a PhD: is it a bad romance?

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I’ve been trying to keep up with the ongoing Twitter, Facebook, newspaper, discussion forum, coffee room discussion around doing a PhD, its implications for our individual and collective mental health and the job prospects (for example: Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia)

These discussions are not new but in the last couple of weeks have been taken up with renewed vigour and introspection from individuals inside and outside the University. The honesty with which people are writing about this relationship makes for emotional reading and it is a discussion we must have.

But – how do we process all of these feelings? What will be the result for the PhD and the prospective/current/former PhD student? Will it alter how we go about our work in academia and how we perceive those who leave? Is doing a PhD a bad romance?

I spent the first 3 years of my PhD watching colleagues prepare and submit their theses. I don’t think I can identify one of us who completed our PhD and was unscathed by the process – good or bad. Doing a PhD changes you. I’m not suggesting for a second that a PhD is unique in this regard. Everything we do alters us or others in some way.

I called this post ‘About a PhD’ – inspired by Hornby’s book ‘About a Boy’ – because doing a PhD is like being in love.

Will had never wanted to fall in love. When it had happened to friends, it had always struck him as a peculiarly unpleasant-seeming experience, what with all the loss of sleep and weight, and the unhappiness when it was unreciprocated, and the suspect, dippy happiness when it was working out.
Nick Hornby

We live, work, socialise, feel, travel with our PhD from 3 years to anything up to 8 years (perhaps more). As one friend said to me, some marriages don’t last that long. We pour ourselves into the research. We oscillate between love and hate as we craft its chapters. We present it to the world as part of us. Towards the end of my PhD I carried it around in a folder just in case. Just in case I’d work on it or it might be lost.

In the February prior to submitting my thesis in the September (at the end of the 4th year) – my flat caught on fire. My husband and I, my neighbours, we were safe. But our flat was wrecked. In the moment that I watched the fire brigade working on my flat with their oxygen masks on – I completely forgot about my thesis. I didn’t beg the firemen to rescue my computer, papers, data… (I wasn’t hoping it would be destroyed either). I saw how my love was bigger than my PhD, yes, I was lost in it for quite some time – but on that day I knew that being safe was more important.

I can’t say that this experience has led me to any long-lasting clarity over academic life. I love the work. I work in the evenings and at weekends (but not all of them). Of course, I’ve moaned about it – we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. Who doesn’t like a good gossip? Just this weekend, I posted on Facebook:
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My PhD has upset me and made me cry. I’ve thought I was losing my mind over it. It has also given me some of the best experiences of my life – flying over the Grand Canyon, going on the TV, moving to Cornwall. It’s cost me money and friends. Conference fees, counselling, working weekends and cancelling meeting up with friends because at that time ‘the work’ is more important. My PhD (the experience and the text) has given me my career and finally a longed for sense of satisfaction in my worklife.

I mentioned in a previous post on thinking sideways about PhDs that I am giving a talk to a room full of geography postgrads in April. The discussions I mentioned at the outset are making me nervous. Some of it will be scary to newbies and well-trodden ground to the more experienced – but so far my message about a PhD will be: doing a PhD changes you, you will share with your doctorate some of the best and worst experiences of your life, you will know yourself better in so many ways as a result, but you won’t always remember to listen to yourself – your mind, heart and body – you will fall head over heels, you’ll go doe-eyed, you might spend some time in self destruction mode, love hurts.

But is doing a PhD a bad romance? I’ll leave the final thought for now with bell hooks (2000):

Time and time again when I talk to individuals about approaching love with will and intentionality, I hear the fear expressed that this will bring an end to romance. This is simply not so. Approaching romantic love from a foundation of care, knowledge, and respect actually intensifies romance.

IAG/NZGS Annual Conference – CFP Enthusiasm – Melbourne, June 2014

DrHG:

Interested in emotion, affect, participation, motivation, curiosity, enthusiasm? See my session for IAG/NZGS Conference. This is a standard paper session, incorporating 6 papers. Please submit your abstract via the conference website (http://iag-nzgs2014.org/be-involved/submit-an-abstract/) and indicate that you would like your paper to be considered for Session 04. Please also email your abstract separately to Hilary Geoghegan (h.geoghegan@reading.ac.uk).

Originally posted on The Culture of Enthusiasm:

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This session forms an important part of my ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) Future Research Leader award, investigating: ‘Harnessing enthusiasm: ecosocialities and citizens as early-warning systems’. The project involves developing a research network between the UK and Australia/New Zealand (for starters!) on enthusiasm. I’d really like to hear from researchers/geographers working in this area – or who see links with this work. My empirical work is focussing on public participation in and enthusiasm for citizen science in relation to tree health, pests and diseases. I have previously researched in the areas of technology enthusiasm, environmental volunteering, architectural enthusiasm and lay knowledges of weather. I will be in Australia between end of May 2014 to just after the conference in June.

CFP Geographies of Enthusiasm
2014 Joint conference of the Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) and the New Zealand Geographical Society being held June 30th – July 2nd at the…

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Research Impact: pathways, cul-de-sacs and beaten tracks

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We’ve had two meetings in two weeks in my Department and School on the question of ‘impact’. It has been a great topic around which to bring together social and natural scientists.

RCUK applications now require a two page ‘pathways to impact’ document.  The document is described in the Je-S guidelines as “detailing the activities that will increase the likelihood of potential economic and societal impacts being achieved.” Research councils acknowledge that applicants won’t have crystal balls to see into the future, but researchers can think carefully about the ways in which their research might have impacts (today, 2 years time, 10 years), as well as the steps they will take to ensure the maximum impact of their (publicly-funded) research.

Last year, several people I follow on Twitter chose to write about ‘impact’ – why it matters and how to do it. The LSE even have a website dedicated to the impact of the social sciences. In this blog, I want to return to these blog posts from last year – to think a little bit more about ‘pathways, cul-de-sacs and beaten tracks’ to impact.

The first is by Hilary Sutcliffe (Director of MATTER) who has written (on her personal blog) about the ‘cul-de-sac’ of knowledge that is academic research.

When people said that citations were the most important measure of an academic’s value to the University, I thought they meant ‘the most important’. Not ‘the only’.

This fixation on citations pretty much ensures a ‘cul de sac’ of knowledge because of the narrow channels of access to the information, the language used and the way the system actually penalises those who want to spend time communicating their work more widely.

We aren’t talking about co-creation here, or anything fancy, this is simply bog standard comms – making sure that useful information, gained through rigorous and effective research processes, can be used in decision making or enhance the knowledge of the people who might find it useful.

I forwarded a link to this page to a friend who completed her PhD last year. We talked about whether it depended on your career stage as to whether you can talk about ‘impact’. This partly prompted this post – which has been sitting in my drafts folder for ages (blogging guilt). I don’t think career stage should come into the discussion over whether your research has an impact, or indeed how involved you can become in pathways to impact. I was recently invited to talk at an ESRC first year PhD student conference to get people thinking about impact from the get-go. I couldn’t agree more with Hilary’s conclusion to her blog post or the ESRC’s decision to raise the question of impact early (although this does also raise a set of questions around the REF, publishing research on blogs before academic journals, Open Access – more on this in a future post too):

So for the sake of all the waste of brilliant brains; all that fantastic knowledge languishing, unread, and often unreadable, in expensive mags; all that tax payers money spent; let’s blast the end off the cul de sac and build a many branched superhighway for the knowledge to be dispersed! It would certainly help build confidence in social science to make a more significant contribution to all our lives, and be a better use of all our hard earned cash! (From Hilary’s blog)

The second blog post that intrigued me was by Steven Fielding (Professor of Political History, Nottingham) writing about making an impact (part 1). It has been retweeted numerous times and I understand why, but I also see where the comment from my friend about career stage comes into it. This is a professor talking about a BBC Radio 4 documentary.

Of course, I will be working on the documentary while teaching, finishing a book and doing all the other stuff academics are expected to do in the increasingly crazy world of UK higher education (thanks, David Willetts!). Many academics rightly resent our increasing workload and the spiralling of expectations so doing the documentary on top of everything else is a commitment not everyone can take on.

Some might think, then, that I am a lackey of The Man, doing the documentary to generate some further ‘impact’ for the REF. In fact, I’d do it without the institutional ‘impact’ imperative – although it is nice that such work is now formally recognised, rather than in A.J.P. Taylor’s day denigrated. People like me should try to make a connection with as many as possible: surely it’s bizarre that academics spend so much time producing ‘knowledge’, which they then share only with a tiny number of fellow geeks – and students?

I would however be dishonest to claim that it is a sense of duty that ultimately motivates me. I do it because (whisper it) I enjoy it: it’s great fun and I am so glad to be able to do it again.

This programme will obviously reach a large number of listeners but I am not sure how many of us lower down the ladder have the confidence to approach radio producers about a programme (**correction** if you don’t know how the process works check out Steve’s blog post) – although the AHRC have teamed up with BBC Radio 3 for its New Generation Thinkers award:

Up to sixty successful applicants will have a chance to develop their programme-making ideas with experienced BBC producers at a series of dedicated workshops and, of these up to ten will become Radio 3’s resident New Generation Thinkers. They will benefit from a unique opportunity to develop their own programmes for BBC Radio 3 and a chance to regularly appear on air.

This is clearly a step in the right direction.

The other day I met an impact manager, who suggested what researchers do is create outputs (articles, books, patents) and impact is something that may or may not happen somewhere sometime further down the road. We don’t ‘do’ impact. However what we can do is work to create the right conditions for our outputs to be picked up by individuals, communities and institutions.

So what can we do to begin getting the conditions right? Here are a few small interventions to get us started. These are not impact – they are you on the rooftop with a megaphone – we don’t know if anyone is listening. These are communication methods I’ve used and found to be successful as a cultural geographer – extending my network of contacts – although they aren’t right for all researchers all of the time. And that there are more participatory pathways to impact that will feature in a further blogpost. Also if you’re reading this you may well already do the following…

  • Social media: set up a Twitter account or Facebook page for your research, or you as a researcher. I am @DrHG and I’ll follow you. Use this as a means to create a network of ‘stakeholder’ contacts. This certainly works in the area of nature conservation…and others, I’m sure!
  • Blogging and websites: set up a wordpress.com blog (other blogs are available). These sites are increasingly user friendly and like Twitter and Facebook can be updated on the move via a smartphone – you can also link your online presence(s) so they all speak to each other. I’d also say blogging helps to develop an accessible writing style. For me, this site gives me a presence online that I can refer people to regardless of the institution I am working for at the time – which at early-career often means you are moving between universities and other places.
  • Talking shop: becoming involved in organisations that are relevant to your research – becoming a member of a society that relates to your work, providing the opportunity to share your research interests and findings, as well as help identify new sources and areas of study. A good example here is some work I’ve been doing with an enthusiast group and then the opportunity to present that work at their annual conference. Another way is to write something for their blog or newsletter. Also think about involving project partners in your research, those individuals, communities and institutions that might be interested in helping you frame and shape your research, as well as act on your results.
  • *most importantly* having an open attitude: whilst the pressures of the recent REF, teaching loads and everything else means that sometimes we end up thinking only in our ‘silos’ and that we are more than likely going to present our work at our disciplinary conferences only, publish in journals in our particular fields and talk with those who are most relevant to our research – some of the greatest rewards, which often aren’t  ‘measures’ en route to promotion etc., are to be gained when seeing others beyond disciplines, universities and traditional measures of academic merit value and most importantly enjoy our research. It means being open to surprise, serendipity and going off the beaten track – time for a plug for my paper with Tara Woodyer over at Material Sensibilities on enchantment (if you’d like a copy please do drop me a line in the comments box). I think both of the bloggers mentioned above demonstrate this attitude.

Whilst we can’t all have (or even want) radio shows, tv programmes, popular books, the list goes on,  we can do our best to ensure that our research reaches and involves those who in some cases fund us, but also challenge and cheer us on with our research – we may also find that the response we get makes us better researchers and improves the relevance of our research questions to our audiences. Some people have talked about academia on the one hand and the ‘real world’ out there on the other. As a geographer, I don’t think we can talk of separate spheres – yes, institutions, education, funding etc. means we work within particular structures and are governed in particular ways, but our inquisitiveness about the world is something we share.

So, let’s see impact (or rather creating the conditions for it) not as a box to be ticked but – for some – a way of researching to be embraced.

P.S. see also recent special issue of ACME on The Impact Agenda and Human Geography in UK Higher Education