A population geneticist, a palaeontologist and a budding ecologist walk into a bar…

The train to my new university went from mild dry london through the misty frosty swamp that is the British countryside.

The train to my new university went from mild dry london through the misty frosty swamp that is the British countryside.

 

…and after three drinks, came up with a clever idea for some novel research into community dynamics in fragmented tropical forests.

 

In my first week at Queen Mary as an undergraduate, I had a genetics lecture from a guy who’s a bit of a legend at our university called Brendan. He put up some comics on the projector that explained the scientific process as ‘try and do something, fail, go to the pub, try again, fail better’ in a loop. At the time, I remember thinking this was a joke based on the student drinking culture, but it soon became apparent that no, actually, that’s sort of how it works. He was referring, of course, to how utterly invaluable conversation with other academics is, and it just happens a room with beer is the environmental niche of good ideas.

I’m applying for a PhD programme at the moment, and part of the application is a piece of written work that more or less constitutes a research proposal. Not necessarily for the project I’ll be doing (it’s a one of those courses that’s structured in the first year and delays decisions on projects), but basically for them to see how my brain works and to give us something to talk about if i make it to interview. I’d spent a good proportion of the last few weeks thinking up and rejecting ideas, getting good ones but not being able to finish them, and being generally frustrated and probably overthinking it. But then on Friday I went to our local Wetherspoons with some of the academics in my department, as we do most Fridays. We got talking about the things I was interested in and eventually had a collective brainwave and thus, my research statement was born. I wrote it the next day, sent it off to a potential supervisor at the university I’m applying to, and got a bit nervous.

Today, I went to said university, had a look around the city (which is beautiful) the departmental building (which is not, but still cool), and some of the places I could live. I spoke to the course administrator who was very helpful and motivating, and then ended up meeting my potential supervisor in the afternoon. I told him about how my research idea was born in the pub, which he was amused by; he was generally positive, as were his nest of grad students in the office next door to his. After I left, I got an email from him that said my statement ‘looks great’ and he couldn’t think of anything to add for improvements. Now, that’s what you want to hear!

I like it when things work out like that, but I must say of all of the long-term life lessons I learned as an undergraduate, “go to the pub” was probably the best one; not just for entertainment value but also because this isn’t the only time problems like this have been solved with good conversation. In fact, it’s helped in most situations I’ve been stressed, vexed or stuck, and I think in all likelihood it’ll be the one piece of advice I’ll offer friends and peers most consistently throughout my career. Just be careful you don’t get so drunk you forget the clever idea you have, because that’s less good.

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What am I doing?

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Brian Cox, eat your heart out.

This is a photograph of me out on a scientific research trip. Dressed as a Pikachu, overlooking a mountain somewhere in the south of France. Because that’s what I like to think my life as a scientist entails. A lot of nonsense in a pretty place.

I’m still extremely early in my career (so much so that arguably I’m not entitled to call it my career yet) but I’m fortunate to have many friends at various stages in theirs, from whom I can learn a lot about what to expect. And also, I guess, what is unexpectable in the rollercoaster of life that is academia. I hear. This is a very good thing. They haven’t even put me off.

What is not a good thing, is that having a reasonable idea of my competition and the standard of my future colleagues is actually quite a large pressure. I’m surrounded by people who are paid as their jobs to have ideas and to go about solving them as problems, and others who have recently jumped the mammoth hurdle of Writing a Thesis, which requires having enough understanding of something and drive to actually write what is essentially a book on it. And by comparison, I feel very small. Because, while I know what I’m interested in, “what I’m interested in” actually constitutes a very large field indeed, and I feel that by this point i should have a clearer idea of exactly what I want to be – and am capable of – doing.

I put off applying for a PhD this time last year because i had a couple of ideas of short things that I could do which would allow me to branch out in my field. There are parts of that plan (the parts that went wrong) that I regret, but I’m largely happy with my decision. However now I can put off no more, and am currently in the process of locating and applying for appropriate programs.

My issue at the moment is that all of them require me to submit research proposals. I made a research proposal for my current project but that was not an easy task, and the idea itself was concocted dually between me and my current supervisor. Now I’m trying to carve out an actual, feasible thing that is My Idea, that I could in an ideal world follow up and solve.

How do you do that? I worry that the fact that I have to ask that question is a bad sign, but we all have to start somewhere, right?

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Greetings from INTECOL!

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After a more exhausted June than I expected, and a busier July than I’d anticipated, I’ve made it to INTECOL 2013, an international congress of ecology. It’s a once-every-four-years thing, and given this year it’s in London and I still qualify for student entry prices, I couldn’t miss out. It’s is my first ever proper conference, and as a fresh-out-of-undergraduate student, I didn’t know what to expect or what I’d be able to do.

I’ve only had one full day so far, but already I’ve attended a really interesting symposium on disease dynamics, been pleasantly surprised by an excellent lecture by Joel Cohen (Rockefeller university, USA) which involved more questions than knowledge, and been told to Blog More in a workshop. So that’s what I’m doing. I’ve also bagged four textbooks, three notebooks, a variety of print copies if journals themed on my thesis topic, and a collection of bits and bobs all for the pricely sum of no pounds, thanks to the British Ecological Society and other exhibitors. Hurrah!

I came here alone, with no knowledge of anyone else who’s coming. I know that my new supervisor is giving a talk on Wednesday, but I haven’t seen him anywhere yet. So I’ve been improvising and finding pele to talk to. Sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it hasn’t, but at a mixer last night with the rest of the parasitology group I seemed to integrate quite well so I’m feeling more comfortable now.

Yesterday I almost walked straight into Robert May, had a mild fangirl moment (reading his work got me interested in mathematical ecology) and hid behind a column. I’ve offered my services as a person interested in data to Dr Cohen, and so far I’ve got my feelers out for other people I could potentially work with. This is exciting, most people are pretty friendly! A friend of my last supervisor told me that I need to have more faith in my own ability, so now the only challenge is acting on it.

I have four more days of this, and I can’t wait! Wish me luck!

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Correction! QMSci issue 4 is here!

QMSci issue 4 is here!

Yesterday I said that the university magazine didn’t run any of my content. I stand corrected; the summer issue was published online¬†today,¬†and includes my interview with Professor Brian Cox, where we talk about surprising physics and the challenges of biology. You can read it by following the title link, or clicking here.

I hope y’all enjoy it.

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