International conferences – perks and pitfalls

So, let’s talk about conferences; more specifically, let’s talk about solo travel and networking. I recently had the pleasure of attending the 16th Euroseminar on Microscopy Applied to Building Materials (EMABM) in the delightfully picturesque village of Les Diablerets, Switzerland. It looked like I had been transported into the Sound of Music, but with less singing and more cement science happening.

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Conference venue in beneath a Swiss alpine visage? Check.

This was my first international conference, and my first conference presentation, so I think it was legitimate to be moderately anxious [read: terrified] about the whole situation. Throw into the mix that the organisers and attendees make up about 80% of authors in my mendeley catalogue and a totally new terrifying dimension emerges. Imagine presenting rubbish to this crowd! What an awful impression that would make, and surely they would ban me from attending any other conferences and regale stories of my failure forever more…. In summary, on the flight over, I may have worked myself up slightly.

As you may have deduced from my opener, I was the only person attending this conference from my research group. There’s a couple of points relating to this that I thought I’d explore a bit further, instead of focussing on the conference itself.

Whilst I don’t find solo travelling daunting, and this conference was close to home, I did spend a bit of time contemplating how even just travelling to distant locations could be overwhelming even without the added work related anxieties. I think it can sometimes be easy to romanticise work based travel, but in truth, even if it’s to the most delightful of places and for the most interesting of things, it can sometimes be a bit of a slog.

You’ll probably have already seen from our previous blogs that networking is the aim of the game at basically everything that we attend. I don’t think you can overstate how important this is, and yet (for me, anyway) it is probably one of the most difficult and intimidating things I can imagine. I find it uncomfortable to approach strangers and enter into conversation with them, and would be generally happier hanging back and watching things unfold. When you are attending events with people you know it can be easy to slip into this sort of behaviour, just staying in the safety of the familiar. When you’re on your own you have the dubious advantage of not having this, forcing you to be bold and enter the fray – invariably you are left wondering what you were so worried about to start with.

I was surprised by the reaction I received from a couple of people when they found I was there alone – the prospect that someone else would basically chaperone me was quite baffling! That sort of response also initially threw me, I wasn’t sure what they wanted me to say… “Oh, yeah, now you mention it this is terrifying, I’ll just run off…”

Whilst these issues aren’t earth shattering, I thought no harm could be done by pointing out that they are part and parcel of the PhD experience – and hasten to add that although this post may seem negative they are really rewarding and mostly enjoyable! In terms of my experience from this outing, I learnt that my reluctant networking isn’t as bad as I think it is, and, like any skill, will improve with practice. Don’t be afraid to talk shop and try not to doubt yourself too much – nobody knows your work as well as you do, stick up for it! In moments of self-doubt, reminding myself that my work was accepted on its merits for the conference worked well – they haven’t let you on the bill as a merry joke, so calm down.

In the end, my presentation wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. After some minor microphone issues (wearing a microphone didn’t go well for me…) I didn’t miss out any salient points, kept to time and (sort of) handled the questions. Overall, the whole conference was great, and even though it was quite tiring I really enjoyed myself. I mean, it’s hard not to when you are in such a fab place with about 80 interesting people to chat to!

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Our hosts showed us the delightful surroundings.

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We sampled some delicious local cheeses.

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We were treated to some more local produce in the form of lovely wine from Chateau d’Aigle.

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Why you should enter speaking competitions

While public speaking is not everyone’s favourite pastime, entering these types of competitions is actually really beneficial and not as terrifyingly awful as you might think.

Speaking competitions usually have a vague theme but are opportunity for you to speak about anything you have an interest in. In the competitions some of my research colleagues and I have entered, we’ve spoken about our research because that’s our field of interest and expertise (apparently). Choosing to discuss your research is certainly very helpful: you cement your own knowledge of the topic, get used to explaining your research to non experts and can often get really good outsider feedback and insight that you might not get otherwise. Additionally, speaking events like this push you outside your comfort zone in terms of speaking in front of and to strangers. In both competitions I’ve participated in, some of the best feedback and discussion actually occurred over the refreshments in the breaks.

Nobody really enters a speaking competition for the glory, but there are often benefits to participating beyond networking over some biscuits. Competitions I’ve entered have given out cash prizes, sometimes even just as a participation award. There’s also non-financial gains up for grabs too. Winners may be asked to compete further, be included in a societal magazine or  invited to other events organised by the hosts. I’ll be attending the North West branch of the Nuclear Institutes annual dinner this year as part of my second place prize.

So having convinced you that speaking competitions are worthwhile, here are some tips from myself and others in my department who have done well in various competitions:

  1. Pick a topic you are passionate about. Where you have the leeway to obviously. Passion and enthusiasm for your topic really comes across well when giving a talk and therefore will always be more interesting.
  2. Smarten up your slides. There’s potentially some marking criteria that judges how snazzy your slides are and it’s easy to put in this work beforehand.
  3. Time yourself. Again, in the marking criteria there’s often some consideration given to how long you talk for. If it’s a ten minute talk, with five minutes of questions, you should be speaking for ten minutes. I actually hold a kitchen timer in my hand so I can see how long I have left. I also try to make a mental note of where I should be in the talk by 5 minutes, 7 minutes etc.
  4. Practise! For the love of god practise and out loud too, be that in front of other people or solo. What you think is a fifteen minute talk in your head could be way longer in reality. The day before I had my first year assessment by presentation, my fifteen minute talk was 34 minutes long, 26 if I rushed.
  5. Structure your talk like a story. Beginning-middle-end, regardless of what content you’re putting in there. Something that tells a story and pulls together to a conclusion goes down really well with judges and audiences.
  6. If you can, use props. Being able to hand some items around (at least in smaller audiences) is always a crowd pleaser and really helps to tell your story.
  7. Try to enjoy it! I know, it’s hard especially if you really loathe public speaking but it’s just a talk. Competitions aren’t going to be as harsh question wise as a conference might be and your audience want you there.
  8. Ask questions. When it’s the turn of the other speakers, if they’re fielding questions from the audience and you have one, ask it. It pays to be shown to be engaging in all aspects of the competition.

I would certainly encourage people to enter competitions like this. For the sake of an afternoon pulling together a presentation (or tweaking one you have already) and an evening actually speaking to people, you could come away with a lot more than you had intended.

Another side to PhD life: Conferences in Oxford & Walks in Wales

Whilst most of the time a PhD student is locked up in a lab or tied to a computer all day, occasionally sent out to entice people into science at an outreach event, some of us are lucky enough to get opportunities that are a bit out of the studious norm. Last month, I spent a couple of weeks away from the trials and tribulations of research to attend and help at the Actinide XAS (AnXAS) conference in Oxford, followed by a trip to Wales to demonstrate a first year Environmental Science field course.

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An awkward pose next to my poster at Actinide XAS.

AnXAS was held at The Queen’s College at Oxford University and, as a Manchester-dweller for my entire university career, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the gravitas of our venue for the week. However, it proved to be the perfect venue for an equally extravagantly named conference ‘Actinide X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy’ in which XAS users from around the world came to update everyone on their work, the facilities available, and all the cutting-edge research that is currently being performed. The week proved to be both interesting and useful, as when I wasn’t donning my fetching sky-blue ‘Conference Coordinator’ t-shirt, I was presenting a poster and getting expert eyes cast over my current research.

A brief few days of research back in Manchester punctuated the conference and trip to Wales where I lent a hand to some of future environmental scientists in the field. Whilst being less than adept at the geology sections of the field course (I was somewhat naïve and flabbergasted by the vast complexity of rocks), I managed to delve into the depths of my undergraduate chemistry knowledge as we explored Acid Mine Drainage on Parys Mountain. In between climbing the dizzying heights of Cadair Idris studying atmospheric science, and combing the sand dunes of Ynyslas for biodiversity and chemical data, the students also explored the ideas of geological disposal of radioactive waste, which I felt much more comfortable explaining. The week was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the city and a fantastic experience in teaching the undergraduates.

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Me rambling about nuclear waste disposal on Anglesey; the modern PhD dream.

As May begins, I’m finally back in the lab and the office to power on with the PhD life, however, I hope this brief piece has shown that being a PhD student isn’t all science and stress and sometimes climbing a mountain is one of the best ways to develop your career!

2017: A UNTF Odyssey

Time really has flown, my first ever conference was now over a year ago! It was the University Nuclear Technology Forum, okay it was technically a forum, in Sheffield and whilst it was a good experience it was so early into my PhD that I didn’t give a talk. I actually hadn’t given a proper talk at any conference/forum until just recently, when UNTF 2017 rolled around. This time the commute wasn’t so bad though, in fact I can just about see the building it was in as I write this from my office.

Now agreeing to do a talk at a conference is very easy to do, realising two weeks later that you then actually have to write one, practice it and then stand up in front of 50-odd people is another matter. Especially when you remember how much you loathe public speaking.

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It’s not something I’ve ever enjoyed and I have dreaded every single time I have had to stand up in front of people and give a talk. The ones I’ve done so far have usually been smallish affairs, either as part of the NGN training or before that as a mere undergrad. I think now looking back that the smaller the group watching the worse it is, especially when you know them. Which is why my practice presentation for UNTF, in front of my two supervisors and 2 colleagues who’d just done their practice talks, went as about as badly as I was expecting. The whole talk was pretty shaky to be honest.

But I went home, refined the slides and verbiage using the given advice and learnt it perfectly, or about as close as I could manage. And honestly the actual talk I think went fine. Okay I was probably talking too quickly and maybe I forgot to mention a couple of things but it was much less of a deal than I thought it would be. 50-odd people seemed much easier to present to when compared to a more intimate setting. In fact, I think everyone from my group spoke incredibly well and even if our talks were quite a bit different when compared to the mostly chemistry and material science topics being presented the prize for best talk was awarded to another nuclear instrumentationist (which is apparently not a real word) from my group, Lucy McAreavey.

Talks are something that happen a lot in academia, be they in group meetings, conferences or demonstrating, and it’s something that I always tried to avoid. And whilst now I wouldn’t exactly say that I enjoy them they’re no longer the big deal I thought them to be and I’ll feel a lot more confident the next time I have to do one, which is next week. I should probably go and make some slides…

Advice from a PhD skills share session

As part of my ongoing doctoral development (think continuing professional development but for PhD students) I organised a “skill share” session between our first years (NGN members and standard PhD intakes) and some final year and new postdocs. Admittedly I had to bribe participants with food but that ensured a good turn out and questions for our skill share panel were collated in advance so they chance to think of some good answers.

While it sounds fluffy and very soft skills, it proved very useful and I thought I would share some of the insight as it may prove useful for others!

The project and the thesis

Most of the advice offered pertained to these two really important things. It was stressed to us that we should remember our projects belong to us and while supervisors are there to guide and advise, they should be a reflection of our particular niche interests within our respective fields of science. We were very strongly advised to have a general idea of our thesis chapter headings, as this would make planning experimental work easier and focus our efforts.

In terms of actually writing the thesis, starting early is key! However it should be noted that any conference proceedings, papers or interim reports we have to write can quite easily be edited to just slot into the overall thesis document, particularly where that first piece of advice has been taken on board and the work relates well to chapters of the thesis. First year literature reviews also come into this category. It’s worth doing things once but well, rather than having to repeat all your efforts in third year as the clock runs down

Management (data, time and supervisors)

To make our use of time more effective, we should be looking to set up habitual systems to make the process more automatic. This means getting into a good habit of organising data into experiment related folders containing all the related data and analysis documents. Bonus points for relating that back into a lab book for faster retrieval of complete information in the future. It’s a good idea to spend some time now getting the data into a useful and publishable format so that when it needs to be used it’s formatted and ready. Choosing a consistent format now makes thesis editing much less strenuous too. Our research group is particularly fond of Origin software, so we should be getting familiar and competent using it sooner rather than later (other graphing software is available).

In terms of time management, we were told to expect our second year to be the most productive for results and that in the mean time, we should not be afraid to make mistakes and most importantly, learn from them. We should be particular in how we use our time (ie. not writing blog posts for procrastination. Ahem.) and should be flexible. Perhaps more suited to lab based experimental work, we have to be prepared for slumps in the progress and use this time to do something productive, like writing things with the thesis in mind. Those of us with industrial supervisors were reminded that we are doing PhDs not EngDs so most our focus should really be on the science side and less so the industrial application, although this may come down to supervisors.

Speaking of supervisors, we were advised to manage them, in line with taking charge of the project. The best tactic for meetings is to go with a summary of results and things accomplished, using the opportunity to ask questions and for advise and clarification. How often to meet your supervisor resulted in varying advice, but it seems once a fortnight to once a month is most suitable.

Don’t panic!

While there were a few horror stories, we were reassured that most people do finish their PhDs and that it just takes a little forward planning. Start saving money now in the event you overshoot your deadline, make use of the services available if you need to take a leave of absence for short or long term illness etc. and ask for help from the others in your department who have already been through it all. Perhaps most importantly, enjoy it as best you can!

Special thanks go out to our volunteer post docs and 3rd year PhDs who took time out of their schedules to share their wisdom with us. It was much appreciated by the first years and we left feeling quietly confident about moving our projects on! While I did organise this motivated by ticking a box on some side project, I’m tempted to keep organising sessions with each new intake given the success and feedback of this first one and I would certainly recommend doing something similar in other departments/research groups. The best advice is always that most relevant and specific to your situation.

Confirmation reviews: the road to becoming a real PhD student

As part of the progression from the first year of PhD research into becoming a fully-fledged PhD student, candidates are required to undertake some form of confirmation review to ensure that both the project aims are achievable, and that the work completed so far is appropriate (in terms of breadth and quality) to allow the researcher to achieve said aims. This all seems very reasonable in terms of ensuring funding for research is being used in the best possible way, and ensuring we make the most of the skills we are bringing to the project as candidates.

I guess the process is slightly different at the various institutions, but here in Sheffield it goes like this:

Step 1: Do a 15 min seminar (+5 mins questions)

Step 2: Complete a 10,000 word report containing project justification, literature review, programme of work plan, experimental work completed to date (with results and discussion), and some preliminary conclusions.

Step 3: Successfully navigate a confirmation review of the report through viva voce examination.

If all goes smoothly we can successfully continue on our way to study for our PhD, safe in the knowledge we haven’t got completely the wrong idea about what our research questions are.

It was down to business with the first stage of this process on Monday the 3rd of April, when myself and the rest of the Sheffield cohort completed Step 1 in the above list. The remit for the seminars was to summarise the background and outline the objectives of the research project, and to present any relevant results. It has been a little while since I saw these folks present their own research – probably about a year in some cases, and it was really pleasing to see how comfortable they are explaining the intricacies of the literature in their fields and how they plan to fill in some of the gaps that remain.

In brief, we had a whistle stop tour of hot isostatic pressing for the immobilisation of high alpha wastes from Amber, Michaela introduced us to thermodynamic modelling of HLW glass (and some of the intricacies of the Thermocalc software), Joe explained about the surface finish of steel and how this relates to the performance of nuclear waste canisters, and Sarah outlined how she is using high temperature ammonolysis to discover novel uranium oxynitrides (…phew).

Initially I considered 15 minutes to be quite a long time to talk for, but it would seem that you can fill that time fairly easily! So much so that my presentation was a minute over, however the rest of the group had much better time keeping skills than me. Of course it is always the question section at the end that is dreaded, and whilst there were a couple of tough questions asked nobody crumbled under the pressure – in fact quite the opposite.

Once our sessions were over it was back to the lab and regular activities for us all, with a strange feeling of relief but trepidation (no feedback yet, and no idea of when feedback is to be delivered – the self-doubt finds a way to creep in). It should definitely be noted that for Amber and Sarah this was just the beginning of a week of presentations – both were off presenting at different conferences / symposiums / competitions who will have had their socks knocked off from the performances we saw!

Just a casual 10,000 word report and marginally terrifying oral exam to go now.

 

NB – Sorry, I forgot to take any photos. But imagine a lecture theatre and you’re pretty much there.

That Friday Feeling

There are ups and downs in research.

Sometimes everything seems to be working great until you realise you forgot that one important measurement and have to do it all again. Sometimes it’s worse and you realise that the method you have been using is flawed and have to complete the same work AGAIN. And sometimes, your research just randomly stops working.

If this happens once, it’s frustrating, when it happens several times, it can be utterly depressing.

The good times are good. Your experiments yield the expected result, or show you something completely unexpected but interesting. This can lead to a period of thinking, and working out exactly what has happened but at least it’s progress.

My research is more fickle than that. It likes Fridays. Monday to Thursday, it’s not interested. I get rubbish results and stupid errors for seemingly no reason. Like my sphere falling 2 cm away from where I released it, like it has been granted magical teleportation abilities. But when Friday rolls around, everything goes well. I get those results I’ve been trying to get all week. Or I try a long shot and it WORKS.

Perhaps it’s me. My Fridays are usually packed full; all my meetings are scheduled for Friday which usually leaves me only a couple of hours for real work. Maybe I get that Friday feeling and my optimism results in better experiments. Maybe the fact I only have a couple of hours of work makes me super productive. But I don’t feel like it.

So I’ve been thinking of other reasons for this. Maybe it’s because in creationism, on Friday God created.. Let me Google that… Animals of some description. That’s not going to work. Hmm. Friday’s child is… Loving at giving (thanks Google). That works better.

I wonder what happens on Friday 13th. Will my Friday research win, or will unlucky number 13?


Actually, in researching Friday for this post, I found this webpage. I’m 110% sure it’s a credible, peer-reviewed source. Seems generally Fridays have it bad. They’re good for evil, holding a Coven, a hanging, or having an accident. And from the list of things that will cause bad luck when done on a Friday, I suggest we all take Friday off in the future to hide in a hole. These include doctors visits, projects, trips, laughing, affairs of love, news, haircuts, being born (but this comes with the trade off of being loving and giving and having second sight and healing powers so that’s ok), don’t turn your mattress, do laundry or cut your nails.

 

Happy Friday everyone!

The future of Nuclear Security: Commitments and Actions

Hi, I’m Mauro and Nuclear Security and International Relations have always been some of my favourite interests.

From the 5th to the 9th of December 2016 it has been held at the IAEA Headquarters in Vienna the International Conference in Nuclear Security [1].  The main focus of the conference was to discuss commitments and actions to be undertaken in the next future concerning the current status of nuclear security, efforts to be made, existing approaches, emerging trends, technological developments and so on.

I did not personally attended the conference, however, an essay competition for students and early career professionals was proposed by the conference committee.  The essay topic was “The future of Nuclear Security: Commitments and Actions”.

I realised this was an opportunity to join my interest on both nuclear security and international relations composing an essay with which to share my thoughts and ideas.

The essay starts with a little bit of history, mentioning the main milestones that led to the commitments being undertaken nowadays. After that, the main body of the essay, namely “what is next?” begins. In this section I talk about how to maintain and possibly improve the three pillars of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. Finally the conclusions complete the essay.

“Nuclear security has been one of the major concerns in the second half of the 20th century and continues nowadays to be a crucial matter of interest.

Subsequent to the Second World War it became extremely important to monitor the nuclear countries’ policies and strategies. Eight years after the birth of the United Nations, on the 8th of December 1953, the President of the United States of America, Dwight D. Eisenhower, addressing a UN general assembly laid the foundation for the establishment of an international agency aiming at endorsing the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only. Three years later, in 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created. Despite such an achievement, numerous geopolitical crises undermined the enactment of a broader nuclear regulatory arrangement between countries. Over two thousand nuclear tests….”

The essay carries on with about 2500 words (I hope to not bore you); if you are interested on reading it, here is the link.

UK-Ukraine Chernobyl workshop (UK-raine?)

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Since my trip to the Chernobyl exclusion zone and power plant, the Immobilisation Science Laboratory has forged some great connections which have lead to some interesting projects.

The projects pertaining to the decommission and management of the Chernobyl site are funded under the Global Challenges Research Fund, evidence of the international collaborations needed to deal with the ongoing safety of the site. Projects include the characterisation of Lava like Fuel Contaminated Materials, a new formation of product caused by the melting of the fuel assemblies combined with the structural surroundings and fire fighting additives, which the Sheffield team have been undertaking in making a simulant material. There are also sociological projects to explore these interesting concurrent issues that nuclear communities past and present face alongside the engineering challenges.

In light of all this work, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop between the Sheffield ISL members, sociological researchers, robotics researchers and scientists from the National Academy of Sciences in Ukraine. The workshop aimed to provide an opportunity for the Ukrainian scientists to share the problems and findings at the Chernobyl site and the UK teams to share their research and how it may apply to the site and it’s populations. Rather than the typical conference style of presenting experimental results, this was aimed much more at presenting the aims, expertise and current work of the various research groups represented.

Despite the very broad intention of the talks, communication was a big issue here. The Ukrainian scientists were largely reliant on Russian translators but the technical nature of the talks, even deliberately pitched at an easy level, proved unavoidable and very challenging for our translators! (To see how much of a task this is, I’d recommend the book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe). However, the topics covered were very interesting and there is quite a range of research that has potential to be utilised at the Chernobyl site and others. Some of the remote robotics designs are amazing: snakes, quadrupeds, lunar lander styles and my favourite, the 2m long, 250kg mechanical spider design!

Workshop delegates outside Halifax Hall Hotel

Workshop delegates outside Halifax Hall Hotel

Saving the most enjoyable bit for last, there is a Ukrainian custom of sorts to propose a toast between each course of a meal. We were treated to some hilarious stories of events that have occurred while the collaborations have been in progress. And of course, the complimentary wine helped!

Winter School 2017

So welcome to the first big post (barring of course Jon’s research update) of 2017 which will begin a new trend of hopefully semi-regular posts starting soon with an introduction to the new members of NGN, AKA Cohort 3, very soon.

Before that though, winter school! Our yearly Joint Nuclear Centre meet-up between the cohorts of Nuclear FiRST, our sister Nuclear Energy CDT from down south ICO (Imperial, Cambridge and Open University) and of course the best of the lot, Next Generation Nuclear. It’s a yearly get together, located in the exotic town of Solihull this time, of the above universities and groups in order to present our research to each other and to expand our contact networks with people that work in a similar area.  Of course it’s not just all fun and presentations, there are also guest speakers from places such as AWE and Horizon Nuclear (hopefully building the new ABWR in Anglesey) and a panel discussion.

The talks were as interesting as last year and while it may have been predominantly material science and chemistry based I still managed to find some talks that were relevant to me, even if one of those talks was carried out by Kevin Tree who’s in my research group. My favourite part though was the panel discussion which really delved into some interesting questions. It was decided on though to use Chatham house rule in order to foster some more candid opinions so I’ll just gloss over what was said and just say that the only improvement would have been if it was more similar to least year’s panel. The previous panel contained some differing opinions on the topic of a nuclear future in this country which spawned some interesting debate.

The poster competition on the second day was our contribution. Along with our peers in ICO we got to stand by an A0 sheet for two hours while being quizzed about our work. It wasn’t as boring as it sounds though, there was beer. And wine. The prize for first place was won by Dham-sham Rana from ICO and it probably wasn’t even rigged. At least the two runners up were of our very own NGN. Connaugh presented her work on Nuclear forensics and Rosie her work on Contamination Assay. There was some questionability about whether or not we could post images of the posters on this site so instead here’s a shot with details hopefully too low-res to make out.

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Overall it was a good few days, let down perhaps slightly by the food at the hotel. Aside from the presentations it was of course also a good chance to meet with the new members of Cohort 3 who as we speak are being thrust into the research setting of their universities as they begin their first research projects and skill training.