Using Your (Research) Superpowers for Good

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at a foodbank in Aberdeen conducting interviews as part of a project with the University of Aberdeen’s Enterprising Researchers Programme. Enterprising Researchers gets PhD students out of their usual environment and into local businesses. The aim of this is not only to empower researchers to think differently about their research through developing enterprising behaviours, but it allows local businesses to benefit from the skills of PhD students too.

I applied for the programme towards the end of last year; after passing the group interview stage I was then able to apply to a variety of projects advertised. These projects spanned every industry you could think of; oil & gas, food & drink, scientific research, third sector and beyond. I applied for one project based with Community Food Initiatives North East (CFINE). CFINE is a unique business in that it’s part enterprise (selling wholesale fruit and vegetables to businesses and within the community, and offering cookery classes through their ‘Cook at the ‘Nook’ facility), and part charity (offering foodbank services, financial capabilities help and support across Aberdeen City & Shire and Moray). I interviewed with CFINE’s Chief Executive and an Enterprising Researchers Project Officer from the University, and was offered the project.

CFINE’s Cook at the ‘Nook facility

The work itself took a while to properly get off the ground – getting admin sorted, protocols written and the project registered took around 2 months as I was fitting this around usual PhD work, and the freelance work I do as well. This month I’m starting data collection, and it’s going so well! With this project I’m speaking to a variety of people across CFINE’s business and charity sectors; volunteers, beneficiaries of the foodbank and people using the other support services they offer. The work aims to build on some work CFINE have done internally, and figure out what impact the organisation has on its volunteers and users, and how CFINE can improve going forward.

This isn’t a paid project. Every student that’s part of the Enterprising Researchers Programme (ERP) is juggling their own PhD projects, conference attendances, report writing, academic reading etc, with their ERP project.

I’m not writing this post to demonstrate that the people taking part in this programme are great (though we are pretty great!). I wanted to write this post to encourage other PhD students and established researchers to use their research skills to help others. CFINE runs largely on the work and generosity of volunteers; some people volunteer for an afternoon each week, others are there packing orders and manning the foodbank every day – for some it’s like a full time job.

Foodbanks in Aberdeen are reaching their limit; CFINE put out a call last week because they are low on food, a few months before another foodbank in the north of the city completely ran out of supplies. Initially I wanted to donate and volunteer at CFINE, but using my time to carry out research for them means they’re getting better value from the time I’m giving.

The CFINE foodbank

As PhD students we’re building lots of different skills; we’re figuring out how to design, conduct and report research. We’re also working to juggle multiple things at once, communicate complex information in oral and written forms, and get everything done before funding runs out. These skills are all transferable, and could be hugely valuable to the charities and local businesses around you. If you’re thinking of volunteering, I’d really recommend reaching out to charities to see if they could use your research skills. The services we can offer could save them the effort of finding research companies, and the financial costs involved.

My day at CFINE yesterday wasn’t just of benefit to them. I came back home after a jam-packed day feeling motivated and enthusiastic, and really excited to carry on with the project. Use your research superpowers for things other than your PhD; it’ll give you that warm fuzzy feeling and it’ll help your community too.

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