Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Learning from Darwin - the naturalist approach

An 1871 caricature following publication of Darwin's The Descent of Man. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was one of the most famous naturalists, whose scientific studies included geology, botany, palaeontology, human evolution and more. Image: Public Domain.

I've recently been branching out in terms of topics to write about. I contributed to the Science Borealis blog with two posts: one on rivers and their interaction with the environment, and one reviewing a podcast by CBC on earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest. Whereas earthquake science has always been close to my heart, rivers were not something I used to spend lots of time thinking about. Yet, it has been a very rewarding experience that allowed me to think scientifically about a new topic. It also made me wonder whether as scientists we should be more aware of the old school way of doing science. There was a time when scientists weren't seismologists, or volcanologists, or evolutionary biologists, but really "naturalists", who studied many different things a once, often leading to a less detailed but more complete picture of the world.

On the one hand, we need specialists. It takes time and effort to research the tiniest detail that could push humanity forward. As small as some advances in science seem, it takes years to build the detailed background knowledge to get to that point of understanding.

On the other hand, science couldn't survive without generalists. Inevitably, if time is spent digging deeper and deeper into a particular subject, it becomes more difficult to keep an eye on other branches of our field of study, discipline, or science in general. Without somebody to tie together the big picture, it is easy to get lost in the details of a small subfield of science. Without looking into other disciplines, we may be wasting time by reinventing something that has already been successfully applied in a different context.

In a way, specialists are the pieces and generalists the glue, that holds everything together. As an individual, striking a balance between the two can be tricky. Is the specialist vs. generalist a career decision that needs to be made early on and cannot be reversed? Is this a black or white decision, or can there be a grey area where we place ourselves somewhere along a continuous spectrum between two extremes? How do we interact with each other along this spectrum, and do we need to consider this when assembling scientific projects and teams? Are certain personalities more drawn towards or suited for one or the other?  And last but not least, at times of "publish or perish", can we sustain being generalists without sacrificing our careers, when it may be much easier to publish continuously by becoming an expert in a small discipline and continue building research in the same direction? I would love to hear your thoughts, as comments, or messages, or in whichever way.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Defending my PhD

As promised in the last post, here comes an account of what inevitably follows after 4-5 years of working as a PhD student: The defense! In a Canadian defense the student gets to present the main results from their thesis, the examination committee can ask questions about thesis and the research, and everything is witnessed by anybody who would like to be there. The audience can even ask questions, too! So let's see how mine went:

In Germany, colleagues traditionally make a doctoral hat ("Doktorhut") and decorate it with lots of items that reflect the person, or the research, in some way or another. James got everyone in my office to pitch and make one - don't I look cool?! ;) © James Hickey
After submitting my thesis at the end of April, I scheduled my defense for early July. The time frame was dictated partly by the university in order to give the external examiner enough time to work through the thesis, and partly by time constraints of my supervisor and committee members. I spent most of the time in between relaxing and regaining some of my mojo, which had - not surprisingly - gotten lost a bit during the last frantic weeks of writing. 

Around two weeks before the defense my German-ness kicked in, and I decided it was time to start my preparations. I started out by re-reading my thesis - it's impressive how much stuff you can forget, even if it's your own work, in just a matter of a few weeks! 

The next step was to prepare my presentation. My aim was that the talk itself should be interesting to somebody who doesn't know anything about what I did for my PhD, so I included some background slides that would explain to my mum or my grandma what the basic terms and concepts are. I then spent most of the presentation showing some results from the last chapter of my thesis. That part hadn't gotten as much attention in previous talks, simply because it was the newest addition to my research. This also meant that I was still excited to talk about it - something that wasn't necessarily the case with the previous chapters. It's not that they aren't interesting, it's just a bit tiring to keep talking about the same thing over and over again, and I wanted to make sure that the presentation was exciting to the audience, which is easiest if I - the presenter - was excited about it myself.

I did two practice presentations in front of an audience, one in the actual room where my defense was going to be held. It was nice to get a feel for what the room was going to look and feel like on the day, and to be aware of any peculiarities of the setting (for example, which light switches turn on/off which lights, the fact that the projector cuts of a tiny slice of the left-hand side of the slides, ...). I felt two practice rounds were just about right, anything less than that and I might have not been comfortable with the presentation, anything more and it might have sounded too rehearsed on the day.

The last part of my preparations was supposed to include thinking of questions that people might ask me after the talk, refreshing some of the background knowledge that went into my research, and brushing up on some basic concepts that I may have forgotten about since I applied them for my work. It turned out my motivation for this kind of preparation was fairly low, and with various other things going on there wasn't actually that much time anyways.

So finally, the big day was here! Of course I was super nervous, and showed up half an hour early just to get my bearings, set up my laptop for the presentation, and have some time to breathe. My supervisor, committee, and audience started to dribble in, and the 30 minutes build-up felt like half an eternity. The actual defense, in contrast, went surprisingly quickly. My talk went well and I managed to stay within the allotted time frame. The three rounds of questions that followed (one from the committee, one from the audience, and another one from the committee) were all about parts of my research that I could easily answer - after all I had done the work and thought about everything that went into the thesis for years! That also meant that it wasn't a huge deal that I hadn't been able to "study" or revise much beforehand. After a couple of hours that felt like much less than that, the whole thing was over. The committee sent everyone for a closed discussion, and after only a short while brought me back in to say that I had passed with only minor revisions - yay!

The rest of the day was dominated by lots of cheers, toasts, drinking, eating, and celebrating. My supervisor had put out an invite to everyone in our research group and some other friends to gather at his house for a party, and needless to say after all that I collapsed into bed and slept for a loooong time!

In retrospect, I think my preparations (or lack thereof) worked out quite well. Lots of people said to me beforehand, "Enjoy the process, this day is all about you", but that's much easier said than done. I did find that nobody really wanted to trip me up, and most questions I got reflected that, so the only "prep" that was really needed was to be confident about what I did, and to be open to some potential different approaches or to new perspectives on my research. 

Last but not least, I woke up the next morning, not really feeling any different. With all this build-up over the years, the ups and downs of the research and grad student life, the stress of writing up the thesis, and the tension before the big day, it's almost an expectation that things should be new, and different, somehow, when you're through. And yet - there was nothing! It still hasn't fully sunk in yet, despite having submitted my corrections and officially having finished my programme in the meantime. I do, however, now appreciate much more why people want to use those two letters in front of their name. It's not to say that a PhD, or being a Dr., means you're better than anyone else. It simply means that you've gone through a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears (almost literally) to get to this point, and it feels nice when people acknowledge that. And after all, Dr. K sounds pretty awesome, don't you think? :)

Monday, 25 July 2016

The way through my PhD, and how I managed to get to my defense

That moment that I've been working towards for so long, it's finally here! Just over 2 weeks ago, I successfully defended my PhD thesis. I'm only a few minor corrections away from officially being a Dr. - yay! But let's go back and see how I got here. I'll follow up and tell you about the actual defense in the next post, so stay tuned!
After a bunch of applications and preparation, I started my PhD at UBC in Vancouver in September 2011. The anticipated time to do a PhD at UBC is 4 years, but most people that I know have taken a bit more than that, usually 4.5-5 years. Taking into account my 4-months leave last summer, I managed to fall pretty much exactly into that time frame. 

The first couple of years were quite "slow", meaning that I didn't make tons of research progress. This is quite normal, it took some time to get my bearings in a new city and at a new university, I took some classes, my supervisor was on sabbatical for a year, and we spend some time trying to figure out what exactly I would work on. 

Once we had the details of the project narrowed down, I took my "candidacy exam". The main step was to write a proposal for my work, and then have a "mini-defense" in front of my supervisory committee. This exam exists so they can determine whether I would advance from PhD student to PhD candidate - a first stamp of approval that says, "Yes, we think she will be capable of doing the work and successful in her PhD". Around this time, my supervisor and I agreed that I should have at least three publications in order to finish my degree.

The pace picked up a bit in my third year, when we spent quite some time writing my first publication. It was a slower process than I expected, partly because I had only written a publication with my Master's supervisor, and my PhD supervisor and I needed to work out how to align our writing styles, our ways of thinking, etc. It was really good to do this waaaay before I was due to write my actual thesis, I imagine the thesis would have been quite a big effort otherwise.

In my fourth year, I thought I had a plan and was on schedule to finish by summer 2016 without a huge rush. Of course, the way these things go, the plan fell through and I went on leave for an internship, knowing that I would only have two semesters left when getting back to UBC, and still having to do a TON of research, and write up two publications about said research. 

Those last two semesters, the end of my fourth and beginning of my fifth year were a crazy, crazy time. I spent most of my waking hours trying to get the research done as soon as possible, and at least have my second paper accepted, if not published by the time my thesis needed to be submitted. In addition, I had chosen to move to the UK more or less permanently during that time, so I also had to organize my move and all sorts of logistical issues. 

That second paper took its sweet time, but was finally accepted just a couple of weeks before my thesis was due. Because the revisions for this publication had taken so long, there wasn't much time for paper number 3. Within about three weeks in early-mid April of this year, I churned out my last publication, and managed to get it into a submittable state just in time. We submitted the thesis and the paper a day ahead of schedule, set a date for my defense, took care of all the logistics, and the following weeks were amazingly free of worries and work. 

I'll talk more about the actual defense next time, but for now I want to finish with four take-home points, that will hopefully help you, as a PhD or other graduate student, to focus on what's important and stay on schedule. If you're not in grad school and have no intention of every going down that route, then maybe at least with this post you will have gotten a glimpse into my life for the last few months and years, and forgive me for neglecting my blog or friends for a while here and there.
So here's the gist:
  1. Don't worry, if things seem to be progressing quite slowly in the beginning (or almost up to the end). Most people I know did almost all of their really productive work in their last year.
  2. Have clear goals set from the start, and make sure you're on the same page as your supervisor (having 3 publications was the goal in my case). That way it's easy for you to check in on the way and decide when to call it a day.
  3. Have a plan, but be prepared for things to go wrong - because they will. Inevitably.
  4. Try to publish as much as you can on the way, if your university allows it, and use those publications in your thesis. That way you'll have parts of your thesis written way before you're actually thinking about sitting down to write that dissertation.
This last item turned out to be quite important for my defense, as we will see next time...

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Science journalism - Or how I met Jonathan Amos

Last week, I was in Vienna for the General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union (EGU). Every year, more than 10,000 geoscientists come together in this beautiful city on the banks of the Danube and discuss their latest research results. Along with the scientists, educators, teachers, and policy makers, journalists join the party and report some of the most interesting, surprising, or groundbreaking scientific findings. For the first time, EGU launched a student reporter programme this year. There were five of us students who got to report on aspects of the meeting for some of the EGU division blogs (check out my posts for the EGU Cryosphere Blog here). One of the perks of our reporter status was that we got access to the press office, where I had the chance to have a chat with Jonathan Amos, science correspondent for the BBC.

Jonathan - originally from Bristol, my new home - has been working for the BBC since the mid 90s, but as it turns out he also has a background in science. Originally trained in sociology, he decided to take distance courses at the Open University to learn more about different scientific disciplines after having started working as a reporter. His continuous interest in science is very evident in his reporting, and among other he has been awarded with the prestigious Sir Arthur Clarke Award.

Jonathan's profile on the BBC homepage. I had no idea that he is from Bristol!

As someone who has acquired most of her science communication experience in North America, I was curious about Jonathan's opinion on differences in terms of science journalism on different sides of the Atlantic. Initially, his answer was that he can't think of any fundamental differences. However, when we kept talking about the issue he mentioned that from his view it seems like many science events in North America (such as the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco) do not get covered by the big US television networks. I never noticed that! This issue would probably be relatively easy to fix, and might help with some of polarization the US population is experiencing in terms of whether or not scientific facts are understood and accepted by the general public. 

Related to improving the way scientists communicate with the public, Jonathan made an interesting comment. As a scientist I sometimes read articles in the newspaper and get a bit dissatisfied with the use of some scientific terms. Viewed from a journalistic perspective, however, sometimes scientific accuracy might be less important than using a term that gets the concept across to a reader, in a way where they can relate to the idea with something they are familiar with. Jonathan's example was the term "regolith", which is used to describe the outermost layer of the moon. Even though there is definitely no soil in the scientific definition on the moon, using the term "soil" when we talk about regolith helps to convey the idea that regolith is often quite lose and broken up. I have to agree that using slightly inaccurate analogies might sometimes be good to convey a message. However, many misconceptions about scientific facts come from the use of such analogies. For example, during my outreach visits to schools I've encountered more than one teacher who believe the Earth's mantle is molten. The mantle does "flow" over time periods of many thousands or even millions of years, but there is only a very small amount of actual melt. If teachers have misconceptions about science, these will be passed on to our children, so if science concepts are simplified too much we risk misunderstanding. In the case of "regolith" and other specific terms I think the best option might be to use the term, but explain it properly when it's used the first time. What do you think?

Viewing the conference, geosciences, and science communication from the perspective of a journalist was definitely a unique experience, and one that I wouldn't want to miss. From what I've seen in the press office last week things can get pretty hectic, so I appreciate that Jonathan took the time to sit down with me and answer all my questions. At the end of my interview he told me that he likes to ride his bike, so keep an eye out and maybe you'll see him whizzing past on his way to the next interview...

Monday, 15 February 2016

Please hold

Dear beloved readership, with no doubt you will have noticed that it's been eerily quiet on these pages lately. I am in the process of finishing up my PhD thesis, and I desperately need the few minutes every week that aren't occupied with data analysis, writing, eating, or sleeping to get away from my computer, to go outside, or to the gym to get rid of some of the tension that builds up during the rest of the day. Unfortunately that means that I will put this blog on hold for the next few months. Hopefully at some point this summer, I will be back with good news. In the meantime, I hope that you will find other volcano- and science-y online resources, and that my absence won't stretch your patience too much. Wait for me on the other side!