Thursday, 10 April 2014

Want to see more good science writers in the future?

Producing a science magazine is tough going. These guys have produced a magazine and a video. Watch it and share it to help them raise funding to do even more awesome science writing.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Post-PhD life - Life decisions and blogging

I graduated from my PhD some time ago now. I moved away from research when my funding expired and after a lot of decision making and deliberating I took a post in Public Engagement at the University of Aberdeen. I started in late 2012 and I've really been enjoying it so far. I am involved with planning, organising and running lots of public engagement events along with speaking to researchers about the many different ways they can engage with the public, how to bring the public into research, a bit of training and also discussing how to use social media as a researcher (which I really enjoy).

It wasn't an easy decision and I didn't discuss it on this blog at the time for a number of reasons. There was a post-doc opportunity too but that was in Canada and I wanted to stay in Scotland as my (now) husband is based here and I decided that I wanted to move full time into public engagement. I knew that I would enjoy the role and it seemed that this option would lead to a much more secure career (although maybe it won't!) than a temporary post-doc placement.

I've been blogging here on and off but not as often as I was during my PhD. I lost the blogging bug for a while as partly I was incredibly busy and I had a lot of things not related to science, public engagement and blogging going on, some good some not so good. Good stuff included getting married, moving house, job and graduating in quite a short period of time.

I've recently started a new blog, called the science tourist which is a mini travel blog of interesting science places, like Tycho Brahe's observatory on an island in the middle of Denmark and Sweden, and features events taking place in Aberdeen that are related to science. I would love it if some readers of this blog would check that out (and I think some of you will find it interesting!) Some the events I feature and discuss I am now involved with organising. I enjoy going to science events and whenever I travel I seek out interesting places to visit so this new blog is really just bringing together some things that I love and seems quite natural for me.

For the time being I am going to keep this blog going as every now and again I think of things that might be useful for current PhD students and I do some evidence hunting on dodgy scientific claims. I will also post things about public engagement here. I also know that there are still regular visitors to the pages of this blog so it seems silly to remove it.

I've also been doing some chatting via the power of Skype with Errant Science. Standby for that video which is all about reflecting on doing a PhD post-PhD and we are also doing an exciting new thing... a GOOGLE HANGOUT. Please come and talk to us! That is happening on the 9th of April between 7.30 and 9.30 on Google+.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Beauty Blogger Challenge to Ask for Evidence

Beauty and health product manufacturers are keen to open their doors to questions from users in order to get people on the web talking about their products ( If you're interested in following some of the chat then just look at #bblogs on twitter). But with the doors seemingly opening there's still a lack of people asking the right questions about what product testing takes place to create the claims they put forward and the real scientific basis behind their formulations and potions.

Beauty and health blogs are huuuuge business, many get numbers of hits that print newspapers would be jealous of. I'm tempted to mention a few products just to score myself a better ranking on google..  Beauty and health manufacturers know this, exploit it and often run events and send free samples just for beauty bloggers. Some blogs offer critical reviews of products, others just seem to like the freebies. Then there are the really shameful attempts at debunking that are just used to promote other products. Beauty and lifestyle magazines know this too and they engage with bloggers to get the lowdown on the latest and best things that the bloggers are enjoying (or not enjoying).

This is the bit I do not understand. Beauty bloggers are a clever bunch. They have codes of conduct and disclose which products they bought and which were PR samples. They pride themselves on reviewing and providing overviews of products but they don't ask for evidence from the product manufacturers on product claims.

This is a plea and a question to beauty bloggers out there. The ones I follow and the ones that I don't know yet....why don't you ask for more information and would you consider doing it in the future? 

I know many read these blogs for enjoyment and escapism but asking a few more questions about the product testing and results isn't about taking away the enjoyment of health and beauty it's about making better decisions regarding products so you can understand what is worth a higher price-tag (other than the packaging). What works for which skin/body types, which products can make a difference and pick the best for you. 

I'm going to illustrate this with an example of 'seemingly open doors but then closing them in your face when questions are asked' approach from Rodial on a Cosmo magazine webchat. 

I spotted that Rodial, the famous manufacturer of the 'boob growing cream', were doing a live webchat with Cosmopolitan. They promised to answer all questions, so I thought that might be an opportunity to ask them about some of their formulas and what testing they actually do in order to generate the claims they put forward.

They did answer my question on the post (you can link to the full Q&A session by clicking on the picture and take a look at what everyone else was asking).

They didn't answer my question fully, so I asked for more information and was given an email address. I wrote up my experience of asking for evidence for the amazing 'Sense About Science' Ask for Evidence Campaign where you can see other great examples (and outcomes) of people asking for evidence and advice on how to ask.

I followed up with email(s) to Rodial....

They weren't forthcoming with information and they still haven't answered by last response. I'm hoping this blog post will give them an extra nudge and will continue to try and discover how they have tested their claims to see if they can really back up what they are saying on their packs.

I enjoy reading beauty and health blogs for various reasons and there's no reason why these powerhouses of influence can't start asking more questions about the products and claims they are told. There are some resources online, such as beauty by the geeks (but even they don't ask how products are tested to make the claims on packs) and bloggers that tackle the science behind the products but I think the bloggers themselves (and encourage the magazines) to be more critical of the products (it's not like there's a lack of them on the market)... and challenge what is being said so it becomes normal routine rather than being a niche area for only some. 

You know what, with the masses of people available to beauty bloggers with their huge readerships with support they could even design and run their own some well planned and organised randomised controlled product trials of their own.

For more info on the boob growing cream see -

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Tycho Brahe Museum and the problems of publishing your science in the middle ages...

Yesterday I visited the Tycho Brahe Museum on the tiny island of Ven or Hven in Sweden. I'm going to write more about Tycho Brahe and the museum but for now (and the observatory he built in the 1500s).. here's a little descriptor from the gardens explaining how even in the 1500s it was important to disseminate research knowledge... and that Tycho the scientist didn't trust the people that printed his works. So he built his own printing press and printed it himself.

Uraniborg was Tycho's castle and the museum is based around where it once stood.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The end of the PhD

My PhD has been printed off, handed in, examined, corrected, printed off again in hardbound form, signed off, handed back in and I have graduated. AT LAST!!! This is my last post about the PhD (I think!) and goes through some coping mechanisms I developed at the end when I was juggling finishing off with a full time job...

Me and my younger sister at my graduation

The end of the PhD was hard work. It's a long, time consuming process that I have mentioned previously. I'm currently working as a project officer in public engagement with research, my job involves evenings, weekends and general odd hours. Juggling both the job and the PhD was a bit tricky at times, but just about manageable. I had to allocate work, PhD and free time effectively and stop doing a number of things that I enjoy. I haven't spoken to friends or family as much as I wanted to. Finding time to write blogs that required research was tricky as I just didn't have the time. There were a number of sunny weekends when I was stuck at my computer when I wanted to be outside.

I didn't give up everything I enjoyed though and actually this transition time between PhD and work allowed me to pick up a few new activities that helped me switch my mind off, replenish my thoughts and get some sleep. These, I think, have helped me focus a bit more and get me finished up.

For when I just couldn't switch my mind off 
I started lurking around on youtube late at night (as you do) to help me chill out and calm down as quite often my mind was whizzing. I ended up watching something called ASMR videos ... which stands for 'autonomous sensory meridian response' (I don't think it needs this overtly medical sounding terminology but it does help you find the videos on youtube). Basically, people talk about mundane things and make noises by tapping nails and crinkling wrappers. Don't just judge me... watch this video and tell me you don't feel sleepy! 

To get me outside and away from a computer
Gardening. I put my name down for an allotment (a patch of land to grow things on) with the local council when I started my PhD and 3 years later in Feb 2013 I got my own patch. It's been a great way to get outside and tire myself physically out (digging is hard work!). Even before the allotment I had been growing things in tubs in my yard and on my drive. Not having an allotment doesn't stop you from getting outside and growing!

To help me keep connected with friends and family despite lots of them being 500 miles away
I've had less time to travel so thanks to the wonders of technology I spoke to friends and family more using Facetime and Skype. It made me feel a bit less guilty about not seeing people. It helped me to schedule in time to call people rather than just calling on a whim. That way people didn't interrupt me when I was working hard and I didn't waste my downtime by ringing people who were busy. 

Planning for the future 
Having a focus for post-PhD life was also quite helpful. I've got quite a nice one as I am getting married next year.. BUT the temptation to spend all of my time planning a wedding rather than finishing up was all too tempting.. so I limited my planning for stages when I couldn't really do much to my PhD (like after I had handed in the first time and I was waiting for my first viva date). Having a positive focus such as a holiday/trip/event ANYTHING for life post PhD is great to think about when the end seems so far away. 

Mad Men 
I had to limit my TV viewing but there are a few guilty pleasure TV programmes that I did give myself chill out time to watch. One of which is Mad Men. It makes me happy. *spoiler alert*

Peggy Olson accidentally stabbing her boyfriend with a makeshift bayonet and then getting dumped in the ambulance was one of THE GREATEST things I have ever watched on T.V. 

Skeptics in the Pub
I am still co-organising and running SITP in Aberdeen with Sonia. It's an enjoyable social event and gives at least an hour and a half welcome distraction from my PhD. It only runs once a month so the time investment was relatively low.. although attending one the night before my viva may have made me a little bit more stressed than I needed to be (and I can't remember anything at all about that talk).

Things I avoided 
There are a large list of things that I tried to avoid. I sometimes failed but quite often these activities distracted me and rather than making me focus more got me a bit stressed out about other things.. these included (but were by no means limited to) BBC news, Twitter, The Daily Mail website, Candy Crush Saga and Heat magazine. I love twitter but sometimes when you need to concentrate hard on one thing it's best to just keep away. 

I don't know if anyone has any other suggestions for the end of the PhD to share. Please do. I imagine knitting is quite relaxing. I tried that for a period of time but I was rubbish at it. It seems that I went into my PhD as a young person who enjoyed festivals, travelling, going to gigs (I haven't been to a gig in what seems like a lifetime) to one that is quite happy pottering about an allotment with strawberries and attempting knitting.... 

And now, post PhD, I feel mostly relaxed. I was initially exhausted. Really exhausted. It took me a month or so before I started feeling like 'me' again (yes really). I slept and caught up with friends. Now my mind is wandering to what I can do with all the time I have 'free'..... and what to do with my blog! 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Social Media LinkedIn/Networking for employment workshop

I was invited to speak at a student led session about networking and LinkedIn with the main aims of using these to get a job...

My talk looked at networking and social media in general and outlined some of my own examples

I put together a prezi presentation so I thought I would share it here. 

If you are interested in this you might want to look at my 'how to use twitter' and Social media and the PhD presentation.

Friday, 3 May 2013

The PhD Viva (survival)

On my very first day at university I was queuing at the bank and in front of me was another female student waiting to open a bank account. One of the bank assistants came over and started filling the form in with her and he asked,  "Are you Miss or Mrs"? neither, she replied, "I'm a Dr, I passed my PhD viva this morning". I was in complete awe. I was stood in a queue with someone that had just passed a viva (whatever that is) and she is now a DR. I never imagined that 8 years later that I would be sitting one...

I sat my PhD viva last week and I am writing this in the post exam glow exhaustion. For anyone unfamiliar with a viva they can take on slightly different forms with different numbers of examiners and different requirements, but essentially 'a viva' is an oral exam. My viva was with two examiners, one from my university and the other from another university. Both examiners were researchers in an area related to my PhD topic.

I handed my thesis in back in January so there has been a gap of around 3/4 months between me finishing writing and sitting my viva. Not an unusual amount of time. I am not working in a lab, or on the same project (at all) anymore. So I had been very much removed from my PhD life. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It allowed me to look at my thesis before my viva with relatively fresh eyes and pick out some errors and areas where I could add clarity. I flagged those up with markers and highlighter pens and spent some time refreshing my memory on recent research papers/reviews and points relative to my thesis and project.

One week before the viva I felt fine about it. I knew my project and I knew what extra bits of reading I needed to do. My biggest worry was what I was going to wear (I chose a smart but comfy dress).

Then the fear set in. I was imagining nightmare scenarios and fundamental problems with my project. My biggest worry was being asked a really simple question that I wouldn't be able to answer and humiliating myself.

PhD vivas are daunting. Imagine finding two people you don't know but are examples of fine upstanding citizens and asking 'hey, want to judge me on the past 3/4/5/6 years of my life and tell me if it was worthwhile or not?'

Two days before my viva I was pretty stressed out. I was trying to keep calm but the fear had taken hold. I know that it didn't really matter, but it did matter. Googling 'failed PhD viva' and 'PhD viva horror stories' is not a good idea.

Going into the room I was a bit of a nervous wreck but my examiners kindly put me at ease by telling me that they had enjoyed reading my thesis, that I didn't need to worry and to think of the viva as more of a conversation.

For the next 3.5 hours we looked through my thesis and discussed the wider implications of my work, what my work involved, and how that led to my results and conclusions. They spotted typos and added their thoughts to my project and conclusions. It was a conversation, but it was one more like mastermind than a friendly chat in the pub. They were tough they asked me a few curve ball questions that did throw me a bit and on one occasion I had a complete mental block about a series of experiments that I had planned to do, but for the life of me couldn't recall (I did recall them a few minutes later).

I don't think I really enjoyed the experience but I didn't hate it either. At times being allowed the time to discuss thoughts and ideas was nice but I always was acutely aware that this was my viva and although the examiners were smiling I was being judged.

After they had finished discussing my thesis I was asked to leave the room as they had a discussion regarding the outcome of the viva. I was out of the door just long enough to tweet 'I'm standing outside after my viva waiting to go back in' when they called me back into the room and told me the magic words, "congratulations you have passed". So I passed my PhD with minor corrections and I was very happy, but mostly very tired.

I was exhausted, really exhausted. It isn't like getting a good set of exam results after the stress has passed and you can just go out and celebrate. I went to the pub with some friends and was underwhelmed. I couldn't sleep the night after my viva because I was still so switched on (despite the gin and champers). The following day I was still exhausted. I woke up again about three days later.

Some people on twitter asked for tips for 'surviving' a viva. All I can say is what was passed on to me before my viva:

  • know your stuff
  • don't be defensive 
  • try and relax
  • clarify the question before you answer it
  • be honest: theses aren't perfect 
  • no research project is perfect be aware of the projects limitations and strengths
  • take your thesis with you (with notes and things)
  • think about your thesis and findings in the context of the 'bigger picture'
  • be prepared to offer your own views where there is no right or wrong answer
Keep smiling :-)

For more info on PhD and survival tips see -