EGU Blogs


Week 3, and the rising of a new dawn

It hit me. As I stared in to the depths of the ~500 or so papers I’d carefully curated in Mendeley, the gravity of a PhD came down like a tonne of dinosaur bones. This is big. Even simply in terms of background reading, there was so much to do it would probably take a year just to get through it. It was time for a pondering and a pint, and a reassessment of strategy.

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Week 3 in the Big Brother House wasn’t all speculative despair though. This Palaeontologist has been [relatively] busy! Between the deciphering of all compendiums on mass extinctions, the sourcing of new material to add to the never-diminishing pile of ‘stuff I have to read’, quite a lot has been going on! There’s always something going on in London.

Despite being thrust back in to academia, I’m still maintaining a pretty active interest in policy, largely with regards to education and science. So naturally, when a new ‘Policy Lunchbox‘ was announced looking into research careers, I was there. I think it’s important that, even if students aren’t aware of specific policies governing higher education, they should at least be aware of what people are saying, and any changes that might be lurking on the horizon. Hosted by the Brisitsh Ecological Society, Society for Experimental Biology, and Biochemical Society, this seemed like a good chance to see the direction that future of academic careers were heading. And have a free lunch. Imagine the anguish, then, when asides from one member of the Panel, I was the only actual academic to turn up, in an audience of 40-50, and one of I think only 4 males in the audience (naturally, the Panel consisted of 4 middle-aged white men). That was odd. Why weren’t there more researchers here to hear about what people had to say about their future? Slightly bewildering. I’d encourage academics, particularly those just starting out on the path, to get involved more in events and discussions of this nature. It’s important to venture outside of university once in a while to see what’s happening in these external but highly relevant spheres.

Turns out there is such a thing!

The Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology held their annual meeting this week in Raleigh, North Carolina. A swarm of hammer-wielding loonies, with various animals hides adorning their sun-beaten torsos descended on the unsuspecting city, and by the sounds of it, had a damn good time! For twitterers, the hash tag feed #2012SVP has plenty of 140-character long gems, and Bora Zivkovic has blogged the event.

Official logo, of what appears to be a crocodile noshing a leaf. Not sure about that, but then, I wasn’t at the conference!

Bora is also the co-host of an annual event called Science Online, also held in North Carolina. Tickets for this illustrious event have already been gobbled up by a hungry mob of scientists, reporters, journalists and science communicators of every breed. NESCent have procured a couple of tickets however, and are giving them away as a prize in a blog competition along with a travel subsidy, with the theme focused on evolution. I’ve submitted, and with a bit of luck, will be heading over early next year! This is about the time when C3-PO tells me how slim the odds of this occurring are.

Damn straight.

ORCID is a new tool for identifying and connecting with researchers. It seems like any other networking tool atm, but is quite young so might be worth signing up for and following any developments. Like any shiny new online toy, I signed up, naturally.

London also have an equivalent to the Science Online in NC, called Science Online London. The event series has been re-branded as SpotON, but the premise is still the same: a bunch of people who love science getting together to discuss how to boost it forward, with themes such as science communication and outreach, online and digital tools, and science policy. I’m co-coordinating a couple of sessions in the science policy strand for this year’s event. Stay tuned for more details! Again, I think it’s quite important that young researchers grasp these opportunities when they’re presented. I haven’t even presented orally at a conference before, and now, will have helped organise a session on increasing reciprocal engagement between policy makers and scientists, in the hope that we can take steps forward in evidence-informed policy. Neat eh!

It was also Earth Science Week last week! If you didn’t know, it’s not too late, but the whole idea was that you give a geologist a beer and a hug. It’s not too late! The real concept was to increase public engagement with the geosciences, and help foster an appreciation of the geosphere, geodiversity, and geoconservation. Note, you can add the prefix geo- to most words to make them georelevant. There was an event on at the Science Museum in London called ‘Science on a Sphere’, where a series of specially-designed short films about various aspects of geoscience were three-dimensionally projected onto a large sphere suspended in mid-air. The films themselves were pretty cool, albeit largely themed around meteorology, strangely, and the visuals were amazing. Unfortunately, there must have been a communications meltdown, as none of the people there for the half hour showings realised that the footage was anything beyond the usual material projected there. This was a pity, as pretty much everyone stayed for about a minute to watch, took a photo, and moved on, instead of enjoying the whole experience. Did anyone else manage to do anything for Earth Science Week this year (UK or elsewhere)? Dave, the creator and co-runner of Palaeocast managed to get a blog post out of it for the Geological Society – good publicity for our project!

Earth Science Week is supposed to get people of all ages engaged with geoscience! Maybe next year.. (2013, not what this image says)

A final point of mention, is that the Royal Veterinary College held their first RVC Lates this week, as part of Biology Week (which strangely coincides with Earth Science Week). There were some cool engagement activities there, including a highly suspect strawberry DNA extraction experiment (mush it up, add washing up liquid and 100% ethanol, and extract the DNA. I thought it was more complex than this..), evolution of the the V-formation in avian flight, zebrafish embryology. The piece to resistance was surely the dissection. A pony was uncovered and butchered by one of the professional anatomists of the RVC, much to the delight and horror of the audience members. My one memory will be the smell. And the blood. And the artificially breathing lungs. It was awesome, and I hope they do it again in the future! No photos unfortunately, as there were warnings about photos being mus-interpreted by certain parties should they be distributed. I also got to meet awesome Palaeo-artist Sam Barnett (@Palaeosam), who demonstrated some skill at sketching the various anatomical elements on display (including the only surviving image of the poor pony!)

This is pretty much what it looked like. That stuff on top is DNA apparently!

So yeah, a busy week generally for this Palaeontologist. London gives you the chance to uncover so many aspects of science, largely for free, and it’s so worth embracing them. You get to meet great new people, and learn a lot, and it makes a nice break from the current information-pump lifestyle of background reading (not that I’m complaining – my project is pretty awesome!). My final words will just be a note of encouragement to PhD students to get out there, break beyond the barriers of your research project and explore science and the other networks and opportunities out there!


Let the adventure begin!

The first post on this shiny new blog mentioned that I was going to offer a degree of transparency to my current role as a Palaeontology PhD student. I’ve only been going for 8 days, but already there’s plenty to talk about it seems! Here’s a few observations and thoughts about kicking off PhD life, and the activities that have stimulated these.

The number of people who’ve said ‘like Ross from Friends??’ so far is in the thousands. I’m not American.

Many of the new students to the Royal School of Mines have, somewhat unsurprisingly in my experience of Imperial College, been a little bit slow in up-taking the social aspect of PhD life. Others have been more willing to commit to the networking aspect of things, and it’s these people, I predict, who will thrive in the next 3-4 years here. For all new meat PhD students, I strongly advise biting the bullet if you’re not too good at talking/socialising, and making the additional effort to develop new friends and contcacts. 3 years is a long time to be alone. The alternative is to watch feeds like #ECRchat and #PhDchat on Twitter like a hawk. These are invaluable resources for any PhD student, containing many helpful links and personal advice. Also a nice place to go if you want to rant/scream, so I hear.

PhD students are encouraged to demonstrate (also known as being a Graduate Teaching Assistant, or GTA) for undergraduate classes. This is actually a neat way of getting some teaching experience, while refreshing material that you may not have learnt about in several years. For this, you usually have to pass some sort of course. We had to here, and for anyone else who had to suffer this tedious ‘training’, I feel your pain. There is a general scheme for training demonstrators at Imperial, which is kind of self-defeating as it neglects the explicit flexibility required for teaching in different subjects. I would not teach a student geology in the same way that I’d teach computing science. As such, the majority of the material in the seminars (yes, we were being spoken to about the theory behind teaching) was irrelevant, and clearly the whims of someone high up who spends far too much time making useless regulations. Hopefully, others who have had to undertake similar classes will have had a more workshop-style format, where you can actually practice demonstration technique and discuss how to engage students properly. I strongly recommend telling the moderators of such courses this, if that is not the case (I certainly did).

It actually wasn’t as bad as you might expect..

Nonetheless, new demonstrators were unleashed upon the helpless undergraduates earlier this week, and frankly, it was great! I had 75 or so students to co-manage, and the majority were willing to learn and listen. This is one of the cool things about geology, in that it’s really hands-on and a very practical science. And you know what? Rocks are pretty damn interesting, if you can make them tell a story. The first rocks the new students got to observe where a bit tricky though, including a flow-banded rhyolite, and a bioclastic limestone (remember, most of these students will not have done geology before!). It was great hearing the different thought processes as to what students thought they were, and rewarding after coaxing the correct answers out of them (eventually). Any PhD students who have the opportunity to demonstrate, I say give it a go!

Look at the rock. Isn’t it pretty.

Aside from this, the first week or so has been quite relaxing. I’ve installed Mendeley to help organise pdfs, a highly valuable tool for academics, and began reading into mass extinctions. I’m starting from the bottom up, to get a historical look at how the scientific understanding behind extinctions has evolved through time. There are some intriguing scientific papers out there, and if anyone is interested in learning more about mass extinctions, drop a comment here or tweet me up and I’ll whizz along a few select choices.

One thing I’m trying out is the creation of a theme matrix. Using Excel, this is a grid to extract and categorise information from papers I’ve read into various topics and sub-topics. At the moment, it’s only just getting started, but I’m hoping that it will serve as a nice basis for the literature review (a core part of the PhD write up), enable me to think more about trends within the literature, and is quite flexible in that themes can be modified. Organising the papers chronologically might help identify historical patterns, as well as first occurrences of techniques, things which are always good to provide a bit of perspective to research.

Hopefully I’ll have some more interesting things to show in the future. Preliminary plans are already in place to go and check out various fossils and modern specimens (I won’t say of what though yet!). If anyone wants to discuss the concept of opening up the PhD process a little more, check out the #OpenPhD feed on Twitter for discussion (there will be some at some point, hopefully!)

In the mean time, here’s a cool image of Deinonychus antirrhopus, and look, she’s happy to see you! Source.