Monthly Archives: December 2017

Careers – no ‘one size fits all’ for scientists

A longer version of this article originally appeared in Physiology News.

‘What matters most is how well you walk through the fire’ – Charles Bukowski

The career path of scientists is oft the result of happenstance; a chance meeting at a conference, a quirk in a dataset, a change in personal circumstance. There’s no one size fits all for scientists’ careers. We sought to highlight this with several case studies to encourage you on your way.

The beauty of science is it takes you across borders
by Rebecca Dumbell, Postdoctoral Training Fellow, MRC Harwell Institute, UK

I completed my PhD from the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen in 2014. The Rowett had merged with the University a few years before I joined, and combined with the rural location at the time, this meant that it still had the feel of a research institute. Towards the end of my PhD I heard about a postdoc position coming up at the University of Lübeck in Germany through word of mouth. In a bit of a whirlwind I flew out to Germany for my interview the day after submitting my thesis, and I started the job a few months later.

Getting set up in my new job and new country was a challenge. I quickly learned that I needed a lot of documents, all from different offices located very far from each other, and they all had to be collected in a particular order. My EU passport smoothed the process and made my experience much easier than what I witnessed my non-EU colleagues go through. Within 1 week I had everything I needed, including a place to live, a bank account, health insurance and a pension plan.

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Lübeck. / Shutterstock

I spent almost 2 years as a postdoc in Lübeck and I really loved living in Germany. Half of my colleagues were German and the rest came from all over the world, all speaking English in the lab. This was a lot of fun and we set up things like ‘international cooking club’ and, my personal favourite, whisky club. I found that as the only native English speaker I was the go-to proofreader; this certainly improved my grammar if not the work I was checking!

I now work at the MRC Harwell Institute in Oxfordshire as a Postdoctoral Training Fellow, and again find myself in a research institute in a rural setting. This comes with its own advantages and challenges. I have to go out of my way to build on my undergraduate teaching experience. But, once identified, these issues are overcome by connecting with people at the nearby University of Oxford, and with my wider professional network.

For me the chance to work abroad is a big draw for a scientific career; it built my confidence and expanded my professional network as well as providing a great experience. Coming back to the UK was right for me at the time but I’d not rule out going abroad again.

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© The Physiological Society

‘Establishing a life outside of work has been vital in putting my work here into perspective, and makes those inevitable scientific frustrations far easier to deal with.’ – Chris Shannon, University of Texas Health Science Centre, USA

The quest for the Holy Grail of lectureship
by Gisela Helfer, Lecturer, University of Bradford, UK

After I graduated in Zoology at the University of Salzburg, Austria, I worked at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Andechs, Germany. Here I found my love for science in general and chronobiology in particular. From Andechs, I started my northwards journey, first to do a PhD at the University of Birmingham and then to postdoc at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen. Throughout my journey, I was very fortunate to meet some amazing scientists, mentors as well as peers, and it was always my ambition to succeed in academia. Six years of postdocing, three moves and two children later, I finally found the Holy Grail in beautiful Yorkshire. In March 2016, I started my permanent lectureship at the University of Bradford.

Academia has one of the longest apprenticeships that I am aware of. Undergraduate studies, plus/minus masters studies, PhD studies and then several years of postdocing. For me, this totalled to 14 years of apprenticeship. Despite this long training, I was little prepared for the job of a lecturer. Yes, I had some teaching experience. I supervised students in the lab, I occasionally lectured to undergrads and I even worked a few months as a teaching fellow. In my CV I called this ‘extensive teaching experience’ – little did I know. Because in reality I spent all my days and often nights (the joys of circadian rhythms research) in the lab or in the animal house. And I loved every minute of it!

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© Wellcome Library, London.

Now, I am rarely in the #Helferlab. The brand-new set of pipettes that I proudly bought from my first grant is now exclusively used by my students, while I spend my time rushing from place to place. I run to see undergrads or I run to one of my countless meetings.

I admit that I miss being a postdoc. I miss being in the lab from morning to evening, I miss having a supervisor who keeps me right (although my mentor at the Rowett is only a phone call away) and I miss the untroubled life of only being responsible for the next set of experiments. Of course, I do not miss the dreadful months before the contract comes to an end.

Despite all of this, I enjoy being a lecturer. While the holy grail is not as shiny and golden as I thought it would be, the journey was certainly worth it, and I would do it all over again. Next goal: professorship.


This article was compiled by Jo Edward Lewis. You can read more testimonies in the original article in our magazine, Physiology News.

Open education: a creative approach to learning and teaching

By Vivien Rolfe, Associate Head of Department, UWE Bristol, UK, @vivienrolfe

A longer version of this article originally appeared in our magazine, Physiology News.

Open education, a means of widening access to education and materials, is not a new idea. Universities and teaching institutions have been inviting the public through their doors for centuries, and in more recent times ‘open’ universities have further championed the widening of access to formal education.

Open education was a dominant philosophy and practice in the 1970s. Unstructured curricula fostered creativity and supported diversity in learning, and knowledge was shared beyond the institution. The present reiteration of open education has similar underpinning ideals: providing an education system that shares, and is more inclusive and equitable.

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Open education – from content to practice

The relationship between shared open educational resources (OERs) and emerging open education practices is a hot topic of debate. Great work within schools, colleges and universities has clearly emerged through either the generation of openly licensed content (a good starting point), or the development of open practice and pedagogy.

A widely accepted framework for practice development is David Wiley’s ‘5 R’s’ (Wiley, 2014).  They stand for Retain (you control what happens to the resources you share) through to Reuse, Revise, Remix and Redistribute. This, in my experience, is a useful concept for teachers who aspire to develop their open practice

Open practice can extend the utility of our academic work within our institution, and even beyond the walls of our universities to a wider community of learners. In the UK, some notable examples include the University of Lincoln ‘Student as Producer’ project where students engaged as co-creators of open content, and the open photography course #Phonar at the University of Coventry which invited public collaboration and led to students working with professional communities as part of their learning.

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Much of the UK activity stemmed from the 2009 – 2012 HEFCE-funded Open Educational Resource programme. Over 85 projects spanned most subject disciplines, and were seminal in building the community of open practitioners that thrives today by bringing them together in an annual conference organised by the Association of Learning Technology (#OERXX). I have reported the reach and impact of the OERs produced by these projects, and of using web marketing techniques to share content online (Rolfe, 2016).

Open practice for life science practicals

My recent work has explored open pedagogies in an attempt to address challenges facing laboratory practical teaching. Practicals are timetabled laboratory events, and it is well documented that teaching staff and technical teams struggle to address the gaps between school and university in terms of laboratory experience, for an ever-increasing number of students (Coward and Gray, 2014). Student criticisms include no buzz, repetitive nature and lack of social engagement (Wilson, Adams and Arkle, 2008).

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So in my experience, what are some of the benefits and challenges of open educational practises in practicals?

Open education projects at De Montfort University included OERs on laboratory skills. Still accessible today via the project website and YouTube, these relatively low quality materials by today’s standards, were popular with students and boosted their confidence before entering the laboratory for the first time: “[Virtual Analytical Laboratory] has been very useful in easing my nerves before lab sessions” (Biomedical Science student, Rolfe, 2009). These resources were then embedded within the timetable with students working through workbooks prior to entering the lab. Soon, students were creating video of their own laboratory work and sharing these either informally with each other through social media, or as part of the project website. The laboratory technical teams also created resources in areas they thought students particularly struggled with. One of the benefits cited by staff was they needed to spend less time repeating basic instructions as students had an overview of the fundamental skills.

Other applications of open education included students accessing resources by QR codes at different workstations to introduce them to different techniques, which helped to cater for large student numbers in the lab in a more effective way. Students were also engaged in producing multiple-choice assessment questions, later shared as OERs accompanying resources on the project website.

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Longer term, open education led to changes to the learning culture itself, with students taking control and implementing their own ideas, such as photographing histology images using iPhones for sharing as OER on the Google service Picasa, and later a Facebook discussion group. Some of the lasting impact of this work is the cross-university interest it generated – for example technology and arts students becoming interested in science projects, and the OER being available globally to support informal and formal learning, providing new insights and perspectives for students (Rolfe, 2016).

As more evidence is gathered as to the benefits and uses of OER and open practices, a new theoretical basis for open practical pedagogies may emerge. What is important is that we continue to openly share our case studies of teaching practice to build a fuller picture. That way, larger communities of teachers can grow and benefit:

“It has changed my practice in terms of whenever I’m doing anything I think how could this be an OER or how could it supplement what I’m doing”. (Microbiology lecturer).


Read the full-length version of this article in our magazine, Physiology News.

References

Coward, K., and Gray, J. V., 2014. Audit of Practical Work Undertaken Accessed 12 May 2017].

Rolfe, V., 2009. Development of a Virtual Analytical Laboratory (VAL) multimedia resource to support student transition to laboratory science at university. HEA Bioscience Case Study. pp. 1-5.

Rolfe, V., 2016.  Web Strategies for the Curation and Discovery of Open Educational Resources. Open Praxis, 8(4). [Accessed 12 May 2017].

Wiley, D., 2014. The Access Compromise and the 5th R. [online] [Accessed 12 May 2017].

Wilson, J., Adams, D. J. and Arkle, S., 2008. 1st Year Practicals–their role in developing future Bioscientists. Leeds, the Higher education Academy Centre for Bioscience. [online] [Accessed 12 May 2017].

11 networking tips to boost your career

by Hannah Marie Kirton, Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, UK

We hear it all the time: networking is so important for us. It’s true! Never underestimate the power of networking. However, for some of us, it’s not that easy. Do you find it daunting? Difficult to initiate? Or do you just need a motivational boost to start building new and existing relationships? Amidst the inhibitions to just get out there and network, it’s important to realise the true potential of networking and how it impacts career success. In this article, I have compiled a ‘Mini Journal’ of networking tips and advice, but more importantly, explained its importance.

What is networking?

Networking is an interaction that exchanges information and ideas, in order to develop productive and professional relationships. Networking is best, and easiest, at conferences and meetings, where there are a multitude of professionals in and related to your field of interest. But remember, networking is not just about speaking with key leaders in your field. It’s also just as important to talk and network with PhD students, postdocs and other early career researchers. If anything, forming new contacts with early career researchers is more beneficial, since you will grow together in your field and may regularly contact each other throughout. Plus, they are a direct contact to the group leaders who you may be interested in working with and therefore, a good way to understand how that lab or institute works and supports early career researchers.

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Why is networking important?

Put simply, networking with PhD students, postdocs and group leaders can benefit both your research and recognition, which, if performed correctly, will boost your career.

  • Research

Communicating with researchers and experts in your field can open up new questions and ideas for your research. This will enable you to view your research from a different point of view, both technically and theoretically. Collectively, this helps to shape and strengthen your research. This also forms the basis of collaborations, which generates a multidisciplinary approach to research and facilitates publications in high-impact journals.

  • Recognition

Networking is also an excellent platform to increase visibility within your research field, and visibility to prospective future employers. It also enables you to communicate with PhDs and postdocs you may later work with, who are equally key to your future.

How to network?

Try to break away from your comfort zone at conferences and meetings. It is so easy to stick to your lab team and supervisor, but remember, you have already formed professional relationships with them and see them every day! Challenge yourself. Be curious and open your mind.

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Beginners top tips

  • If networking is not your strongpoint, start by speaking to early career researchers in your field. Attend early career breakout meetings such as the postgrad, postdoc breakfasts and career sessions, and talk to the people around you, i.e. talk about their poster and research, or even their career. It’s amazing how quickly people let their guard down once you talk about or compliment their research.
  • Attend poster sessions. These are generally more informal and relaxed, helping you to ask your question and engage in conversation over research.
  • Add your e-mail address to your posters. This will help people to get in touch with you. Remember, you are not the only one networking.
  • Simple ways to interact with researchers at conferences can include striking a friendly conversation at a dinner or coffee queue or sitting next to someone at lunch. This is an easy way to build your confidence and get used to introducing yourself at conferences.
  • Alternatively, utilising a familiar point of reference helps to build relationships, i.e. mentioning a work colleague you both know.
  • If you’re not ready to ask a question at the end of oral presentations, approach the presenter after the session. Be confident, but think carefully about your question!

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Advanced top tips

  • If you aim to speak with team leaders in your field and don’t quite have the courage to walk over and introduce yourself, look out for them at the conference reception or dinner. An easy icebreaker is to smile, introduce yourself, and talk about your lab and research. Try to follow that up with an easy question about their research, or yours!
  • Be specific when you approach people. If you admire their work then demonstrate it, by saying something like: ‘I really enjoyed your recent paper in Neuron about sodium channels’.
  • If there is a particular person you would like to speak with, email them a few days before the conference and let them know you’d like to meet up. This cuts out any awkward introductions, and forces you to follow your plans to meet.
  • Alternatively, plan ahead prior to a conference or meeting. Read about their research and publications before approaching them with your questions. This will help you articulate questions specifically, clearly and with confidence.
  • Once you have developed a network, make a strong effort to maintain that link. Promptly reply to emails or make regular contact when possible. It is very hard to make connections, but very easy to lose them.