Neither the Bang nor the Butt

Before I get started, I would like to define, “science” for the purposes of this post. Please note that science does not equal academia. Academia has its own problems and I am not going anywhere near those (right now)…

science noun
  1. the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment

Like a lot of the things I come out with, this is a preemptive explanation.

This week I filmed a three minute segment for the NBN children’s show, “So There!” One of the producers contacted me after seeing a piece about my outreach work in the Newcastle Herald aaaand I got quite excited.

nbn

It’s a pretty straightforward segment. I perform three “experiments” (which can be easily repeated at home) whilst narrating the science behind what’s happening. This is the basic premise of my kids’ parties, with the obvious difference being those are interactive!

Now, because I am me, and because I am not the most optimistic of individuals, I’d like to think I am aware of most of the pitfalls and judgements attached to science communication – especially with children. Hence this pre-emptive explanation, which should hopefully roughly translate as: Trust me, I know what I’m doing.

Most of the attempts to get children interested in science is based on the (other) Big Bang Theory. This is the theory wherein, if something makes a big enough Bang, then kids will be impressed – and the job is done. Now, I’m all for making kids happy, but as you can imagine, there’s a lot more to science than Bangs. The Big Bang Theory is one of the reasons why IFLS has been so popular – but it’s also one of the reasons why many scientists feel the site can really let the side down when it comes to science communication.

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All credit to the lovely Cyanide and Happiness guys, check them out http://explosm.net/comics/3557/

It’s one of the reasons scientists can shy away from communication and outreach. I was actually talking to one of my colleagues who is very pro-active about spreading the word about his work, but yet he is disappointed by this mentality. He was telling me about a trip to a science museum where he witnessed a kids’ science show which consisted entirely of things which go Bang. Now, because I am me, I took this as a slight towards my TV work (hehehe “my TV work”). I asked him how he proposed we SHOULD get kids interested in science – and of course he didn’t know.

Good scientists need to be a number of things. We need to be inquisitive, organised and creative. We need critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills. If we can encourage kids to develop even a few of these skills, we’re getting there. And remember, we’re not trying to cultivate a generation comprised entirely of scientists. We do not need a world full of researchers – we cannot support a world full of researchers! What we’re really trying to cultivate is a culture. A culture wherein everyone would be aware of science, everyone would respect science and everyone would appreciate science. In this ideal world, logic would prevail – and also there would be more funding for scientific research (!). No one would have to waste their time explaining why Paleo is nonsense, why vaccinating your children is the kindest thing you can do (unless they are immuno -compromised or otherwise unable to receive the injection! Can’t catch me, anti-vaxxers!), why coffee enemas are never going to cure cancer or why climate change is real (just ask John Oliver). People would make decisions based on evidence. People would ask intelligent questions. People would face the world with an open mind.

The truth is, the science is not the Bang – the science is in the asking WHY? In showing kids something so surprising or loud or colourful, we’re encouraging them to ask, “Why?” – this “Why?” is the first step to encouraging a scientific mind. Yes – the kids are looking at Science’s butt as it walks by. And THAT’S when the hard work comes in. Anyone can drop a Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke, but it’s making the explanation accessible and interesting that’s the tricky part. Also encouraging further questioning – leaving some things unsaid and waiting for the dots to join so you can make way for hypothesis building and fill in the blanks when the time comes (this can be tough on TV…).

My point is, that just because I am taking advantage of the Other Big Bang Theory, it doesn’t mean that I am “selling out”. I still consider myself a scientist, and I still hold the values of science very close. I’m using the Theory as leverage. It’s my “in” for building the foundation for inquisitive minds.

Trust me, I know what I’m doing.

As far as developing this mind even further – beyond the Bang, beyond the butt– what do you think? How can we encourage appreciation for the scientific method – hypothesis forming, how to scrutinise sources, critical thinking – as children get older and we have a bit more faith in their attention span?

I’ve had a few lesson plan/ outreach activity/ museum ideas around this theme and I’d love to share them with any interested teachers or communicators!

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My Fellow Tweeps-To-Be

Last week, I was honored to be a part of the Franklin Women event, “Making social media work for your career.” I had a really great evening; it was wonderful to be surrounded by such supportive, motivated and intelligent women. Thank you to everyone who came, and to the inspirational Dr Melina Georgousakis for inviting me to be a part of it.

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Though we did address a number of platforms on the night, Twitter was more or less the headlining act. A number of attendees either signed up for an account or sent their first tweet that very night, as a result of being inspired by the discussions (Shout out to @mrsxandra @magda_ellis @Brigid_Og @bhonah025 and @kamilla_marzec to name a few!).

While I’m excited to be spreading the good word, I’m also aware that merely joining Twitter does not a tweep make (tweep (n) regular user and enjoyer of Twitter). A billion users who tried Twitter have never come back. This is due in part to (what I believe to be) some shortcomings of the platform, as well as people not really knowing HOW to make the most out of their account.

I’m a natural problem solver (see: PhD student), as well as a bit of a bossy pants, so I’m here to provide you with a solution. A short(ish) primer on how to make the most of your brand spanking new (or plain neglected) Twitter account.

Twitter Terminology

#            The hashtag is a way to label your tweet. If you are tweeting about a TV show, conference, hobby etc and include a relevant #hashtag, it means that someone searching for relevant tweets can find yours easily. It’s also how a topic can start to “Trend”: if millions of people are talking about marriage equality (Hooray!), then the relevant #hashtag, #LoveWins may well start to Trend. Oh look!

lovewins

Follow         If you follow someone, their tweets will appear in your feed (feed = flow of tweets as seen on your home page).

@          @ represents the start of someone’s Twitter handle (I’m @cfawarren), and it’s also a way to send a tweet to someone (“Hey @cfawarren, I found this picture of a guinea-pig in a sombrero, thought you might enjoy!”). They will receive a notification of your tweet. Using @handle means that only the person you are tweeting and their followers will be able to see the tweet.

.@         Using .@ instead of @ means that your tweet can be seen by anyone (but only the person you are tweeting will get a notification). Using @ or .@ is often referred to in digital and non-digital conversation as “pinging” (“Did you see @cfawarren was pinging me pictures of guinea pigs all day AGAIN today?!”).

Retweet              (square arrows) If you retweet a tweet, it means it will appear in all of your follower’s newsfeeds.

Favourite            (star) If you favourite a tweet, the tweeter will get a notification. It’s the Twitter equivalent of a Facebook “like”. It basically says, “I approve!”, but with minimal actual effort. Favourited tweets will also get put in your Favourites List (on your profile page). It can be useful for marking things to read later.

favRT

Lists       You can compile your followers into lists, then look at the feed for each list separately. One of the reasons some people don’t like Twitter is that it moves too fast. If you follow a few actual friends as well as a couple of hundred scientists, science news sources and guinea pig breeders, chances are you will never actually see any of your friends’ tweets unless they are pinging you specifically. By putting your friends IRL (in real life) into a list, you can make sure you see everything they have to say. Unfortunetely, building lists in Twitter is a pain in the balls (very fiddly, not streamlined at all) so it’s best to add people into the relevant list as you follow them. This is best practise…but I don’t do it because I’m impatient. If you already have a load of tweeps you’d like to organise into lists, I’d recommend doing it in Hootsuite (though still not perfect).

DM        Sending a DM (direct message) to someone means that only they can see it. It’s a private conversation.

pigs

Building Your Twitter Experience

Twitter is a way to personalise the internet. Millions of articles are posted online every day: with Twitter, you can increase the chances that you’ll see the ones which are relevant to you. And it will facilitate discussions with others about topics YOU care about. From experience, you are way less likely to get trolled on Twitter than you are on a message board (but the risk is definitely still there!). Twitter is a way to connect with people with similar interests to you, and to access information about your interests. But you have to establish your follows and followers first. Here’s some tips on getting started and speeding up the process:

-Use lists             You can build your own lists (as mentioned previously) in order to organise your tweeps. You can also subscribe to other people’s lists. Once you subscribe to someone’s list, all of the tweets from tweeps on that list will appear in your feed. You can still unfollow an individual from a list you are subscribed to, don’t worry, it’s not an all or nothing system. This is a quick way to make your news feed interesting. I have several science-y lists you are welcome to subscribe to.

-Write a bio       You can’t expect people to follow you if they don’t know who you are. Use the bio feature to write a few words about yourself. Think about the kind of people you want to connect with and why: if they read your bio, do you think they’d find YOU of interest? I generally don’t follow back people without a bio because I don’t know who they are: I generally assume it’s a spammer.

-Have a display pic         Fair enough if you don’t want your face attached to your profile. Pick a picture of your pet guinea pig, a plant, a test tube, whatever. Just make sure it’s not the sodding egg. That egg screams, “I never use this account so don’t bother following me” and also “SPAM SPAM SPAM”.

No.

No.

-Have a personality        Try not to be too sterile when it comes to tweeting. I like to obide by “The Grandma Rule” (if you wouldn’t say it in front of your Grandma, don’t say it on the internet), and also “The Cocktail Party Rule” (if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face in front of a room full of people, don’t say it on the internet – thanks @StartupShelley). But that doesn’t mean you have to be a robot. Express your opinions, your loves, your hates, yourself! The connections you make will be way more valuable, you’ll enjoy it more and you’ll help make scientists look like actual humans.

All set? Got the lingo down and a couple of interesting followers? Great! Let’s go! Tweet away! Oh wait…

What to Tweet

A few suggestions…

-Be inspired by some trending hashtags               You might notice that your newsfeed will become inundated with recurring hashtags or themes from time to time. Remember #GirlsWithToys and #distractinglysexy ? These were great hashtags because they were accessible, fun and they were promoting an important message about women in science. Keep your eyes peeled for another opportunity like this, I’m sure it won’t be long before another one comes along.

Elevator pitching          Here’s one I’d like to think most academics are capable of. Tweet about your research! Try and make it as accessible as possible without being patronising. Get your “science sound bites” (another thanks to @StartupShelley !) out there. It’s a rhetoric I’ve heard several times at sci-comm events, but it’s true: the internet is a vacuum. If you don’t get in there and put actual science into the arena, there’s an endless supply of pseudoscientists waiting to make their contribution instead. Tweeting about your research also builds your personal “brand”. Wanky, I know. But if you put yourself out there as the expert that you are, people will recognise it. Importantly, journalists will recognise it. Future employers will notice it. Potential collaborators will recognise it.

-Share what you’re reading                      What interesting news or topical pieces have you read recently? What was your take on it? Did it remind you of anyone who might appreciate it? Ping, hashtag and retweet away! A lot of articles will have a “Twitter share” button already on the page.

-What are you doing this weekend?       Easy as.

-Join in with a conversation        Talk to your friends. Talk to strangers. Talk to (potential) mentors. If you can see people are having a conversation about something that interests you, jump in!

-Conferences     Find out the official hashtag for a conference or event, and use it to tweet your ideas and interpretations of presentations. Use it to find new tweep friends IRL! Use it to engage with people who aren’t at the conference but who want to know more. Use it to ask presenters questions if you’re feeling shy.

Twitter has helped me to build my confidence and my networks. It’s helped with my research and training. It’s helped me to connect with mentors. It’s helped me build my reputation. It’s helped me secure a number of invaluable opportunities (some of which I actually got paid for!).

Last but not least: it’s fun! Give it a go and let me know how you get on.

pic pc

A Cop Out

So I’ve been going through a bit of a valley of shit and was waiting to get out of the other side, so that I could write a post that goes something like this:

“Hey kids, sometimes life gets you down. But ya know what? *insert major realisation here*. In conclusion: it’s going to be OK.”

But I wasn’t getting out of the valley, and I still haven’t. I’m now getting to the stage where I have started to notice OTHER PEOPLE getting sick of my negativity. Instead of responding to this by readjusting my perspectives accordingly, it’s all turned into a kind of positive feedback loop, wherein I’m just left internally yelling, “I KNOW, RIGHT?! HOW ANNOYING IS PESSIMISM! GOD!”

When I take a step outside of my own brain (sorry Nikola), I can see how people would get confused and frustrated by my constant gloom. A lot of really (potentially) exciting stuff has been happening recently. Intrigued?

Reasons for me to not feel shitty:

-I got to talk to lots of *famous researchers at the Keystone Conference about my project AND THEY GAVE A SHIT (*in my field)

-I’ve had the offer to go and do some of my project work overseas.

-Because of this blog, I’ve got involved in a super exciting science careers/ gender equality project.

-I may have found myself a beautiful mentor in doing so.

-The inaugural EMBL PhD Australia Symposium, which I was on the committee for, went so so so so fabulously last week.

-I’ve finally got my teeth stuck into the Scientists in Schools project.

-I was invited (INVITED) to give a talk to a group of school girls about careers in biology.

…and yet. I’m not excited. I’m pretty sure that this is all about to come caving in, the minute someone realises that (I’m not actually supposed to be here). Despite all of the above, and the number of friends, family and co-workers spurring me on, my anxiety remains (see Fig.1). I’ve come to see that it doesn’t matter what’s going on externally, I’ll always find a reason to question my own validity, and that’s the way it’s always been.

self belief

Figure 1. Theories for self acceptance strategy A.Ideal scenario i.e. a falsity. B.Actual scenario.

When I realised this, I decided to make another list. A much more depressing one than the one above.

Reasons I have previously found to question my own validity as an actual human, capable of achieving things:

-Not having a boyfriend

-Not having enough friends

-Not getting along with absolutely everyone I have come into contact with

(warming up now)

-Being overweight

-Not being pretty enough

-Not wanting to play violin anymore

-Not liking sports

-Not partying “hard enough”

-Not being a mermaid

OK, so that last one hasn’t bothered me in a while, but it used to. I was thinking hard for a while about what it is that’s bothering me so much right now, so I could stick that one on the list too. Then I realised there were lots of reasons, and that made me sad and it probably didn’t matter anyway.

Putting that list together was a bit emotionally overwhelming for me. I saw how ridiculous it all looks now and consequently how ridiculous “Not getting a western blot to work” will most likely look in 5 years’ time.

You’d think now is when I’d start to write about how I’ve learned my lesson, and I’m moving forward and not sweating the small stuff etc. But if you were paying attention at the beginning then you’d know that’s not how it’s going to go, OK?

I’m still frickin’ crabby. I’m still worried. Writing experiment plans and literature reviews still makes me nervous. I’m still pretty sure things aren’t going to go my way. So here’s my shoddy excuse of a conclusion:

Creating things makes me feel better, and I just created this blog post.

shutup1

What if…?


What if my “working my hardest” is not enough?

What if my project fails?

What if I’m asking the wrong questions?

What if I’m analysing my data the wrong way?

What if someone disagrees with my ideas?

What if my hypotheses have already been disproved elsewhere?

What if I break my leg?

What if I fall pregnant unexpectedly?

What if I get robbed?

…Then I get out of bed the next morning, with my family and friends to support me (because they won’t love me any less), and do my best to carry on regardless.

 

whatif

I know that being thoughtful is an important part of being a scientist. Also in being a happy human.

But I think a lot of people can agree that it’s far easier to sit on either side of the scale of “too thoughtful” and “not thoughtful enough” than it is to sit in the middle.

 

Just pondering.

No Control

Things had been going pretty well. I was meditating daily, keeping a record of my distractions and negative thoughts. I was attending mindfulness workshops, paying attention to my relationships. I was feeling good, my experiments were working, and my data was looking interesting.

Then one morning I finished analysing the next batch of data and something didn’t quite fit. I didn’t know how to explain anything anymore. In short, it was all a mess.

I thought that all my hard work on myself was the explanation for my happiness. But in a matter of minutes, I realised that was bullshit. The main reason for my happiness had been my data. Once I realised that the “quality” of my work was on a down turn, my mood swiftly followed.

I really don’t know what else to do to protect myself from bad days.

The Decision That Wasn’t

Several weeks ago, I made a decision. 

I mean, I was pretty sure I had made a decision anyway; I just had to keep waiting for the right time to write a blog about it because then I’d know that I’d really made a decision. 

I’m not very good at making decisions.

After some long discussions with my supervisor about the realities of a career in research, as well my long standing aspirations of working in science communication/ public engagement, I semi-made a decision. Namely; I was not going to stay in research once I had completed my PhD, but instead move onto those aforementioned aspirations.

At first this felt pretty liberating. I didn’t have to worry about negative hypotheses, or “bad” data. I didn’t have to worry about whether experimental failures were indicative of a doomed research career. Get in, get a thesis, get out. 

Of course, feelings of liberation and generic positivity do not tend to stick to me for long. I soon realised that, instead of ridding myself of anxieties by moving away from academia, this action would probably just shift  all my worrying to another area of my life.

Namely; what if I’m walking out on academia too early? What if there is actually potential for me to succeed there? What if I spend the rest of my life feeling bad for giving up on something before I had really given it my best? In short, the thought of walking away from research made me feel really guilty. 

There are plenty of academics who walk away from academia. Contrary to what some “successful” academics i.e. ones who are still around for the time being, would have us think, this is not due to them being bad at science or not working hard enough. It’s a matter of mathematics. There are $x available for research, and >x researchers and projects competing for this (dwindling) pile of money. Just short of  0.5% of PhD students will make it to the level of Professor-dom. If I could make a living doing science for the rest of my life, without having to repeatedly prove that I was doing it significantly better than 80% of the rest of those poor bastards out there, then I might be a bit more willing to give it a shot.

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Less than 0.5% of PhD grads will make it to the level of Professor-dom (from the Royal Society report, “The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity”)

I always tell myself that, if the worst comes to the worst and I have to walk away from my PhD, I’m not completely unemployable (I mean, I’ve had jobs before at least) so things will be OK. “OK” in this context mostly meaning: not homeless. However, I’ve been in the academia game for nearly two years now, with a 9 month stint as a bioinformatics research assistant  and 15 months of PhD-ing under my belt, and my self worth has already become intrinsically linked to the quality of my work. The idea of simply saying to myself, “Whelp, I tried, I failed, onto the next challenge!”, tends to invoke a paralysing feeling of worthlessness. 

I guess what I’m wondering is: what is it about academia that makes academics so crazy: why do we attach our self worth to our academic productivity?

Discussions regarding mental health in the context of academia have recently been brought to the forefront of academic discussions within the twittersphere, thanks in part to the publication of this somewhat terrifying Guardian article. Scrolling through the comments, I noticed one along the lines of, “You’re all delusional, academics aren’t the only ones suffering, we’re all having a tough time out here!”. Is it really the academic environment which fosters these feelings of personal inadequacy, or is it just all in the nature of being human?

It makes me think: what about all those aforementioned poor bastards who had to walk away from research before they were even ready? They had to walk away after they had poured their heart and soul into grant applications, experiments, teaching, committee meetings ON TOP OF their PhD in itself.

Guys, how are YOU going right now? Does it really get better out there? 

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Evidence: I really do love Biology! Just maybe not enough to surrender my sanity.

A Letter To Myself In Six Months’ Time, When Things Are Likely To Not Be Going As Well As They Are Right Now (Because Generally They Aren’t)

Dear 25-Year-Old-Chloe,

Calm. The Fuck. Down.

I know what you’re thinking. “Yeh, whatever, it’s all very well for you, sitting on your pile of data, streamlined protocols and scientific reading. What about me down here, with all these new challenges to face, documents to write and troubleshooting to do?!”

Well, I’ve got news for you, kid. Those challenges I faced and overcame this year which LEAD to the pile of data and streamlined protocols and scientific reading: they were new and terrifying for me too.

Please remember that every challenge you face it just that: a challenge. Please remember to just have FAITH that it’s all going to come together eventually. It will take a lot of work, granted. And you need to have a very open mind when it comes to the question of what “everything having come together” is going to look like. In the very WORST case scenario, “everything having come together” is going to look like an abandoned protocol that just wouldn’t work out for you. It’s going to look like negative data which isn’t quite good enough to publish. It’s going to look like some self-important big-wig criticizing your work in front of a room full of people. None of these things are worthy of the levels of anxiety you are most likely devoting to them already; despite the fact that none of them have actually happened.

While every new challenge is a new challenge, the concept of a new challenge isn’t actually new. You know how to deal with it (i.e. just DEAL WITH IT), and you know what you expect (i.e. the unexpected). Don’t worry about not knowing where to start, because wherever you start is a great place to start. The point is: you’ve started. Don’t worry about wasting time by starting in the wrong place because…don’t you realise how ridiculous that sounds? You’re LEARNING: everything is new: everything is a starting point.

If you’ve just read those past four paragraphs and still feel like climbing into a time machine and strangling me for being a patronising wanker who could NEVER understand this pain, then you need to GO OUTSIDE. Failing that: watch a movie, have a nap, read a book, call your Mum, go for a pint, look at pictures of cats on the internet. There is no point in trying to be productive right now.

I’m pretty sure you can get through this PhD, and so does your supervisor, and so do your colleagues, and so does your family. I know you could argue with all these people to the ends of the Earth right now about how wrong they all are, and how stupid and incapable and overemotional and inadequate you are. But, before you do, please:

Calm. The Fuck. Down.

Kind regards,

24-And-A-Half-Year-Old-Chloe