The Science of Sin with Jack Lewis – Edinburgh Science Festival 2019

As I said in my last post, I’m currently at Edinburgh Science Festival, learning lots about public engagement and science communication, but also getting the chance to sneak into some of the shows for free. Monday evening saw me make my way back to the Pleasance to see ‘The Science of Sin’ presented by Dr Jack Lewis.

(On an unrelated but important note, I am now very familiar with the cafe at Pleasance, and wholeheartedly recommend their curly fries, veggie chilli nachos, and English breakfast tea, though I’d avoid the halloumi burger if I was you.)

The Science of Sin was probably the show that I was most excited about, though also the one I knew least about. I hadn’t heard of Jack Lewis before, and during the beginning of his talk he attempted to explain why – fantastic TV series hidden away on niche channels. Still, I was frustrated that I hadn’t found his work before, because it’s right up my street.

Image of Dr Jack Lewis presenting
Image credit: Hire conference 2018

Jack is a Neuroscientist by training, and now describes himself as an Author, Broadcaster and Consultant. To that I’d also add that he’s a passionate advocate for good science, a talented blogger, and my favourite kind of atheist, more on this later.

Front cover of 'The Science of Sin' by Dr Jack Lewis
The Science of Sin by Dr Jack Lewis

His talk focussed on his latest book, The Science of Sin, which aims to bring together the latest findings from neuroscience research to shed light on the universally fascinating subject of temptation – where it comes from, how to resist it and why we all tend to succumb from time to time.

Each of the book’s chapters is inspired by one of the seven deadly sins, and Jack’s talk was structured in a similar way, littered with tips and tricks to help us better manage out most troublesome impulse.
My favourite being, if you wake up painfully early and cannot get back to sleep, do not use this time for good. Do not head to your desk to make a start on work, do not spend your additional time beating your high score on whatever game you’re pretty sure you’re addicted to right now. No, do something you actively dislike; choose to use this time to clean the oven (or equivalent task that you repeatedly avoid). Why? Essentially, your brain is like a petulant child, if you reward it when it wakes up early you will remain awake, and you might just wake up early tomorrow as well. Forcing yourself to clean the oven will make your brain regret acting up, and you’ll find yourself yawning and sleeping soundly within a matter of minutes.

Image of cartoon drawings of each of the seven deadly sins

The rest of the talk looked more at how the seven deadly sins relate to human social interactions, and how each of the sins are essentially extreme versions of things that, in lesser doses, are good for you. He talked through each of the deadly sins and explained how they connect to the survival of the human species. Without greed, our ancestors wouldn’t have put on the much-needed extra chub that enabled them to survive times when food was sparse; without lust, our ancestors would not have found their partners and reproduced; without envy, our ancestors would not have been driven to self-improvement after seeing someone else succeed. The seven deadly sins are deadly only when pushed to the extreme; and the extremes of each of those ‘sins’ result in isolation.

So, back to that ‘favourite kind of atheist thing’… I wanted to draw attention to how respectful Jack’s discussion about religion, and how science relates (or doesn’t), to it. He is someone who respects religion and understands that it offers people a variety of things that science, currently, does not. He explained how he had been a member of his local church choir despite being raised atheist purely because he loved singing, and he went into depth about the impact that the church has had on his life in terms of community. In science, we don’t have an obvious community; we do science in labs, in offices, and in schools across the world, but we don’t have a place where we go to meet other scientists on a regular basis. We don’t have a place to go to where everyone knows your name (if you’re not singing the Cheers theme tune right now then I suggest you change that asap), a place filled with people that you know you can rely on; a sense of community.

Image credit: John Atkinson, Wrong Hands

After the show I went to get my book signed (no shame, I am a book nerd and a science nerd and a signed science book is 100% relevant to my interests), and we ended up having a beer in a pub round the corner from the venue. Nerding out with fellow scientists is one of my favourite things, and the conversations that we had left me thinking a lot about the way that scientists treat their work, and how they then decide to communicate that work with people that have chosen a different career path. I’m still mulling many of those thoughts over, but I’m sure once I’ve had chance to think some more they will prompt future blog posts – a few of them would be a bit political so I want to make sure that I’ve put enough thought into them before throwing them out into the internet!

For more information about what Jack does head to his website, and I’d recommend picking up a copy of his book too – buy it from the publisher here (I’m doing my best not to buy books from Amazon, hence the publisher’s link). This blog post on Jack’s website also includes videos from the time that he went to Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park – a place that’s usually reserved for religious preaching – to talk about neuroscience.

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Songs for Science Education with Jonny Berliner – Edinburgh Science Festival 2019

This week I’m at Edinburgh Science Festival as part of their Delegate Programme, and it’s been fantastic! The programme enables science communicators, researchers, public engagement professionals, teachers and creatives to come together to find out how the Edinburgh Science Festival team craft events, choose speakers and put together the programme. We’ve also been able to attend a number of the ticketed events so that we can use them as discussion points later on in the programme.

The first event of these ticketed events that I chose was, ‘Songs for Science Education’, which was described as a humorous and song-studded talk with science troubadour Jonny Berliner. Jonny Berliner - science through song

I’d never heard of Jonny Berliner before, but figured that using songs and music to communicate science would fit into my recent quest to further the impact of science communication with creativity. I’ll be honest here – before attending I fully expected these songs to make me cringe. I had flashbacks of the toe-curling songs that I’d been taught during science lessons at school that aimed to help me remember things, but ultimately resulted in me turning a vibrant shade of beetroot whilst I attempted to get away with miming the words. I was a quiet kid, and when teachers tried to push me by forcing students to sing these horrendous songs solo in front of the class, it made me dread attending lessons.

Anyway, I’m pleased to report that I found myself laughing, learning, and at times voluntarily singing along to Jonny Berliner’s science songs. Not only was I impressed with the way that the science songs made learning about areas of science that I’ve previously actively avoided (dark matter, for example), I was also happy to see Jonny discuss the important subject of ‘democratising science’, in his words the process of improving access to information, accountability of scientists, and representation of scientists. At beginning of the talk, I was unsure just how many of these issue that a seemingly simple science song could tackle. Perhaps predictably, again Jonny proved me wrong in his explanation of how songs can open science up to the masses by making subjects memorable, understandable, critical and universal.

The video below for Jonny’s song ‘Sexual Reproduction’ was a highlight as it allowed him to explain how he uses humour and diagrams to make his music videos just as engaging as his songs.

That said, I think my favourite song of the entire show was ‘Understanding Misunderstanding‘; a song written with Professor Abigail Williams from the University of Oxford, to communicate her work on 18th century English Literature.

From Jonny’s website:
“Abigail’s research looks at ways in which the misreading of text in the 18th century parallels many of the problems faced navigating new media in the digital age. Her research tells us that there is no need to worry. As people learned to handle new media in the 18th century, they learned to deliberately misread texts, leading to great satire. It is just a matter of time until we can do the same with digital information.”

I recorded a snippet of Jonny’s performance of this song, so you can see just how utterly brilliant it was. Also, the song was so effective that I found myself talking about Abigail’s research in conversation with a stranger this morning – we were talking about The Daily Mail’s reputation for bullshit science, which led to talk of fake news, and then suddenly I found myself humming the start of the chorus of Jonny and Abigail’s song; “There’s so much misunderstanding, fake news spread globally, how do you know what to think, when the web’s got no integrity?

Now, music is not my strong point.

I learned to play the keyboard when I was much younger, but quit when my teacher suggested that I sit the Grade 1 exam – my reasoning being that as a hobby, it shouldn’t be an additional cause of exam stress. I don’t think my teacher was very keen on me after that. That said, Jonny gave some excellent ideas during his talk for those of us that are less musically inclined than him; the act of writing a song is itself a learning exercise, and though I highly doubt that I’ll be singing about all things clinical trials any time soon, I may have a stab at writing a science song for my own amusement.

For more information about what Jonny does, and to access his portfolio of science songs, head to his website.

On Not Being a PhD Student Anymore

I’ve got a (relatively long-term in the world of academia) grown up job; hoorah! After my PhD finished I had a 6 month contract working as a Research Assistant, that contract ended just before Christmas meaning I could head off on my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship travels. Now I’m back in the UK and looking at career steps that are hopefully a bit more stable.

I’ve been working as a Research Fellow for a month now, and I’ve had a few friends who are in the final stages of beavering away at their PhDs ask what it’s like to not be a student. Personally I hadn’t really put much thought into it before anyone had asked – probably because I’m working with the same (wonderful) team as I was before, and I have been focussing on learning how to my job and getting back into some semblance of normal life after a few months gallivanting across time zones.. Anyway, I figured it was time to reflect on how things have changed (or not) since leaving finally student life behind at the age of 26.

Image from Cristina Vanko’s 100 Days of Adulting project

First up, I’d just like to confirm that the rumours are true; there is life after a PhD, and it is entirely possible to not be a student.

 

When you’re in the thick of it, it can feel overwhelming and never-ending, but it does come to an end and you absolutely can graduate. Lots of people have done it before you, and people will do it after you; but it takes grit and resilience. I’ve spoken before about my hope of staying in academic research, and for now at least, that’s going well – my current contract will keep me in employment until 2021.

The main difference between my role now and my role as a Research Assistant, is that I’m now leading a project rather than supporting other researchers across lots of different ones. In that sense it feels a lot like when I was doing the PhD; I have a main project to focus on, and then a few little ones bubbling away in the background. If I’m honest, I much prefer that set up than Research Assistant life – I found working across lots of different things without leading any of them quite difficult, I felt like I lacked focus because my work was so varied. Now my days are still varied, but not too varied if you know what I mean? The work is substantial enough for me to get my teeth into, but there’s also some nice bits of what I think of as ‘snack-y’ work for me to do to keep me on my toes.

I think the only real difference between working in an actual grown up job and being a PhD student, is that people seem to take you a bit more seriously (I’m cringing just typing that, but I think it’s true… eeeek!). When I say ‘people’ I don’t mean my colleagues at work, I mean everyone else. I’ve shed the badge of student that I’ve carried around with me for so long, and it feels like people now view me as a ‘Researcher’ because I work for a University. My own perception was that I was a Researcher when I was doing my PhD, but maybe that’s not normal? I don’t know.
The best example of this was when my partner was updating our details for council tax recently. He asked what my job title was, and I said Research Fellow, and he did a sort of double take and said ‘seriously, I thought you were a Researcher?’. I explained that when someone asks me what I do, ‘Researcher’ is what I use – it’s more descriptive, and the ‘Fellow’ literally adds nothing but jargon and a weird air of self-importance. The response I got to that? ‘Yea, but Research Fellow sounds so much more of a big deal, like woah, you’re a Research Fellow, that’s pretty cool.’

Anna Borges / BuzzFeed / Via buzzfeed.com

It’s weird how a job title can make people think differently of you, more often than not they take you more seriously as soon as you no longer reply ‘student’, and that’s felt very strange to me over the past few weeks. I still feel like a giant baby, I am still outraged when I’m expected to pay bills on a regular basis (I’m only half joking; seriously, it’s relentless – every month?!), and I still call my Mum when something of note happens because I’m largely clueless as to how to deal with things that grown ups do (see the point above where my partner was dealing with the council tax..).

Adulting is hard, and not having the safety net of the student title takes away a whole lot of leeway when it comes to screwing up and not knowing stuff (I have no proof of that, that’s just my perception). Now it feels like people think I know shit when in actual fact I feel like I know less than I ever have? Anyway, I’m going to end this post now before I continue to waffle on about how growing up is an absolute con. Please tell me I’m not alone here?!

Good Things: March 2019

HOW IS IT APRIL ALREADY?! Seriously, this year is going by at an unbelievable pace and it’s beginning to freak me out. I’m back today with my Good Things post for March. I started doing this in January as a way to open up a bit more and make this blog more personal, but I then didn’t do a one at the end of February because the start of March was filled with things that were very much Not Good, and it didn’t feel right.
The 6 broad categories that I used in January seemed to work pretty well, so I’m sticking with them for now – let me know if there’s any other categories you’d like to hear about!

Excellent humans

I’m starting off this post in a hugely mushy way – bear with me, this kind of slushy shit won’t be around for long. At the start of this month I lost a friend to suicide. It was really, really horrendous, and I’ve thought about him a lot over the last few weeks. The only good thing that came out of that entire horrendous ordeal was making sure the people around me knew how much I loved them. My partner, my Mum, and my friends, have all been highlights for me this month. I feel lucky to have such a fabulous group of humans surrounding me, and this month has been very much about making the most of free time spent with them. I’m sure there are other excellent humans in the world that I don’t know personally, but right now I’m pretty sure that my tribe trump all others.

Cool places
Lunch at Bonobo, Aberdeen
  • A few weeks ago I went to a local vegan cafe for the first time. I’d wanted to go for ages, but it was actually waaaaay more gorgeous than I thought it was going to be. If you’re in Aberdeen, go to Bonobo, but don’t go too often because I want to make sure that I get a table every time I go.
  • At the start of March my partner and I went away for a weekend, nowhere super exciting, but we had such a lovely time. We went to the cinema in Dundee, stayed in a hotel near Edinburgh and got room service and watched Crufts (I really love dogs ok), and on the way back we went to St Andrews for lunch and a wander around. It was the perfect little old couple day, and I loved St Andrews so much that I then met a friend there for lunch later in the month. It’s a super cute little city, and I’ll definitely be visiting again over the coming months.
  • In a really sickening way, I’ve loved being home this month. Aberdeen is bloody lovely when the evening start to get brighter.
Wandering about in Aberdeen
Book(s) of the month
Online media
  • Podcast: Polarised – Denialism, with Caroline Lucas & Keith Kahn-Harris. Polarised is a podcast from the RSA that aims to investigate ‘the political and cultural forces driving us further apart’, and this episode was the first one that I listened to. I listened to it when I was driving from Aberdeen to Edinburgh for an event, and found myself having to pull over multiple times so that I could pause it and scribble down ideas that I was having as a result of the points the guests and hosts were making. Expect a few blog posts that refer to this over the coming weeks.
  • Blog post: Public engagement can fight against health inequalities – but only if we do it right: Imran Khan for the BMJ blog. Imran Khan is the Head of Public Engagement at Wellcome, so it’s not at all surprising that he’s managed to perfectly articulate the value of public engagement and the potential impact that it has on health research. This piece made me a bit emotional, and I’ve bookmarked it so I can send it to people in the future.
  • Article: False balance – what it is and why is it dangerous? Sophie Cremen. If I remember correctly Sophie wrote this about a year ago, but reshared it on Twitter which was how I came across it. In short, read it, it’s bloody brilliant and raises crucial points about the way ‘balance’ is presented in the media, particularly when it comes to stories about scientific topics.
One specific moment

A few months ago my wonderful friend and colleague, Dr Heather Morgan, asked me to design the artwork for the new podcast that she’s launching. I agreed to, but was nervous to actually do it because doing design work for people is terrifying because I’m not a designer. When I eventually got round to doing the thing and sending the image to Heather, I got the biggest warm fuzzy feelings ever.

Artwork for Higher Education, Human Employment (HEHE)

I’m sneaking another moment into this category because it was so lovely that I can’t not mention it. The wonderful team at NUI Galway sent me a huge hamper of Irish goodies! I’ve worked with these incredible humans for a few years now, and I have loved each and every project we’ve worked on together. The fact that they sent me this gift complete with PhD-related congratulations actually made me tear up. So unexpected, so unnecessary, and so bloody lovely. I am so lucky to work with this team, and I hope the collaboration continues for many years to come! (Also, strawberry and champagne jam is up there with the best things I’ve ever tasted)

Irish goodies gifted from colleagues at NUI Galway
Work thing

Earlier this month one of my fab colleagues, Dr Katie Banister, went into a few of the local schools to talk to students about clinical trials. She invited me to go with her and it was SO FUN! We talked about the trials that are going on at the Aberdeen Trials Unit, as well as the subjects we chose at school and University that then led us to the careers that we’re in. I left feeling suuuuuuper passionate and motivated to get stuck into work, just like every other time I do meaningful public engagement.

What did you love about March? Leave a comment below and let me know 🙂

Why Do I Have Depression? Making My Experiences Worthwhile

I’ve talked about depression a lot on my blog recently. I’ve been very open about my own experiences, but I’m acutely aware that my experiences are individual to me, and on the whole, we don’t completely understand why people experience depression, why they experience it in certain ways, or how we should treat it best. Sometimes it can be really frustrating to live with depression; previously I’ve found myself feeling a bit jealous of people that don’t have this heavy blanket to carry round with them – why do I have these experiences? Why don’t others? If I have kids will they have these experiences too?

Instead of being jealous or frustrated, in recent months I’ve mad a conscious effort to make my own experiences of depression feel worthwhile. Whether that’s been blogging about it, providing online support to people that I’ve never met, talking to people in real life.. it’s been a weirdly nice way to ensure that something good comes out of such difficult experiences.

Now, I’ve decided to take part in a research study.

My entire PhD looked at participant recruitment in research (specifically, clinical trials), so I know that recruitment is hard. That said, I’m not taking part because I don’t want the researchers running the study to stress-cry more than absolutely necessary. I’m taking part in a research study about depression because it makes me feel like I’m contributing to solving the problem. If I have to live with depression, then I may as well use my experiences to help researchers understand it more thoroughly. Maybe my contribution to research will help answer why I have these experiences, why others don’t, and whether any potential children of mine would be at risk of these experiences as well.

So, what’s the study?

Recently, researchers at King’s College London launched the largest ever single study of depression and anxiety. They aim to recruit at least 40,000 people living in the UK that have experienced depression or anxiety at some point in their life. This study, the Genetic Links to Anxiety and Depression (GLAD) study aims to ‘make important strides towards better understanding of these disorders and improving the lives of future patients‘.

If you live in the UK and have experience of depression or anxiety, I would really recommend that you watch the video below, and read on to find out more information about what taking part in the GLAD study involves.

It’s really important that we try to get as many people from as many different backgrounds to take part. When lots of similar people (i.e. people of one ethnicity, people of a limited age group, people of the same gender etc) take part in research, the results are at serious risk of bias – meaning that the results would only be applicable to the group of people that took part in the study. The GLAD study team has explicitly said that they want to recruit from diverse groups that represent the entire UK population, and they are actively working to address the complex barriers that exist for some potential participants by working with mental health organisations that have links to various different communities around the UK.
Clearly, it’s important that everyone with experience of depression or anxiety takes part in this study, but if you do know of any mental health organisations, or community groups that you feel may be difficult to connect with via the methods that the team are already using, please do forward them this blog post or direct them to the study website (www.gladstudy.org.uk) for more information.

How you can take part in the GLAD Study

Step 1: If you have personal experience of depression or anxiety, and live in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, head to www.gladstudy.org.uk. Scroll to the bottom of that page and enter your details to sign up.

Step 2: Read the information sheet carefully to ensure that you understand what the study entails, and what will be expected of you if you take part.

Step 3: Go through the consent process, this is a series of 15 yes/no questions, and you’re also asked for your address and NHS number (I didn’t know my NHS number and was still able to go ahead and complete it – I’ll go back and complete my NHS number when I have it later this week).

Step 4: Complete the GLAD study survey. This is quite a long process, but it’s where the bulk of the effort comes in terms of research participation – after this involvement is pretty minimal (but still important) going forward. I think it took me about 30 minutes or so to complete the survey. The survey is split into various categories, the sensitive ones also include an option to skip if you don’t feel comfortable answering them, which I thought was a good way to ensure that the research doesn’t trigger anyone with particular life experiences.

Step 5: A GLAD study saliva kit was sent to me within just a few days of completing my address details in step 3. Open this up and make sure that you have everything listed in this ‘what is in my saliva kit?’ section of the leaflet enclosed.

Step 4: Follow the instructions to fill the saliva sample tube – note, make sure to brush your teeth 30 minutes before giving you sample, and don’t eat or drink anything in that time. You need to fill the tube to the 4ml line, and there will already be 2ml of a DNA stabiliser in there. This may take a few goes; 2ml of saliva is a lot more than I expected, it took me 5 goes to get enough! Pop the lid firmly back on the tube and shake it up.

Step 5: Put everything in the freepost envelope that comes in the kit, and pop it in the post box.

That’s it!

When the study team receive your sample, they will extract DNA from your sample. Samples will then be stored without any of your personal details; if you are from England and Northern Ireland, your sample will be stored at the NationalBiosample Centre (NBC) in Milton Keynes, if you are from Northern Ireland, some of your sample will also be stored in secure facilities at Ulster University in Coleraine, if you are from Scotland, your sample will be stored at NBC and some will also be stored at the Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility at the University of Edinburgh, if you are from Wales, your sample will be stored at NBC and some will also be stored at National Centre for Mental Health/MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomicsat Cardiff University.


This post is in no way sponsored or affiliated with the GLAD study. I enrolled in the study as a participant following the steps described above after seeing a post about the study on Twitter. I wrote this post as I want to highlight how quick and simple study participation can be, in an effort to encourage people with experiences of depression or anxiety to take part themselves.
For more information please visit www.gladstudy.org.uk.

Popular Science Books on My Reading List

When I first started this blog (2 years ago, can you believe it?!), I wrote a blog post about 5 popular science books that I recommend to anyone who dares to ask me about the subject. That post had a really good response, and since then I’ve been reviewing books on this blog individually after I’ve read them. I’ve been reading lots recently, but more fiction than non-fiction, which has left me with a pile of popular science books that I still need to get to. I’m not sure which I want to tackle first – I just want to read them all, so I figured I’d list them here, and then if any of you have read and enjoyed them you can let me know.

Invisible women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez

From the inside cover:
“Imagine a world where your phone is too big for your hand, where your doctor prescribes a drug that is wrong for your body, where in a car accident you are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, where every week the countless hours of work you do are not recognised or valued. If any of this sounds familiar, chances are that you’re a woman.”

This. Sounds. Incredible.

(and rage inducing)

I preordered this book a few months ago and totally forgot about it. When it landed on my doorstop I did a little squeal of excitement, but now I’ve seen eeeeeeeveryone talking about it on Twitter and I’m nervous that it’s not going to live up to my expectations. Does anyone else get that?

The only woman in the room: why science is still a boys’ club by Eileen Pollack

This is another book that looks like it’s going to make me rage – there’s a theme beginning to form here..

I bought this book when I went to Powell’s City of Books in Portland last year, and despite carrying it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, it’s been tucked away on my bookshelf since then. It looks like a book I’ll love (and again, rage as a result of), and I’m excited to get to this one. It was named one of the notable non-fiction books of 2015 by the Washington Post, and it focusses on Eileen Pollack’s quest to find out why, even now, relatively few women pursue careers in what she calls ‘the hard sciences’. I really dislike that dichotomy of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, because it implies that there’s a difference in quality, rigour and as a result, respect for and value of. To be clear, I don’t think that there is; so-called soft sciences should be equally as valued as so-called hard sciences – both can be done badly, and both can be done well. Poor phrasing won’t stop me reading this though – I’ll just be mindful of Pollack’s potential biases when I’m reading it.

The war on science: who’s waging it, why it matters, what we can do about it by Shawn Otto

This is another book I carted home with me from Portland, and at 514 pages it’s not the lightest.. I think it’s size is the reason why I haven’t read it yet – it weighs a tonne and the quotes on the back emphasis how ‘well researched’ it is, which is a good thing, but it’s making me hesitate to pick it up in case it’s really dry and full of jargon. Given the subject matter, I really hope that’s not the case!

I’ve never seen anyone talk about this book either. It doesn’t have many reviews on Amazon or GoodReads, but the reviews that are there seem good.
Have any of you read it? I think I need someone to rave about it to finally convince me to start reading.

A guide to making science matter: Escape from the ivory tower by Nancy Baron

I ordered this book after speaking to Jim Handman; science journalist, Executive Director of the Science Media Centre in Canada and former senior producer of science radio show Quirks and Quarks. Jim is kind of a big deal when it comes to science journalism, so when he recommended this book I bought it straight away.
Nancy Baron is a communications coach with an incredible track record, and I am SO excited to read this. From the back, “No one understands scientists the way Nancy Baron does. This book helps connect the worlds of science, journalism, and policy in very entertaining and insightful ways. If you care about linking science with action, this is the book to read.” (Pam Matson, Scientific Director of the Leopold Leadership Program, Woods Institute for the Environment and Dean of the School of Earth Sciences Stanford University).

I already feel like I’m recommending this book before I’ve read it. This is on my April reading pile so expect a review relatively soon.

The state of medicine by Margaret McCartney

Another of Margaret McCartney’s books, ‘The Patient Paradox: Why Sexed Up Medicine is Bad for Your Health’ was included in the 5 science books blog post I mentioned earlier, and this is McCartney’s newest book. Released in 2016, this looks at the NHS – in my opinion, the best thing about the UK.
The back of the book claims that ‘the NHS is the closest thing the UK has to a national religion’, the reason behind that being that it unites people across social and class divides. This book isn’t an ode to the NHS though, it’s about the financial strain that the service is under, and the political decisions that have led to the situation we now find ourselves in.
I love Margaret McCartney, I’ve fangirled about her on this blog before, and I know this book will not disappoint.

If there are any of these books that you’d like to see me review, let me know and I’ll try to make those a priority!

Some Thoughts for New WCMT Fellows

At the start of this month 150 new Churchill Fellows were announced. That means it’s been just over a year since I could talk about my WCMT Fellowship – which seems insane! My Fellowship adventures started at the beginning of January and finished at the end of February, so I’ve had some time to decompress and attempt to make sense of the reams of notes I made over the course of those 8 weeks. I wasn’t able to go to the new Fellows’ seminar to share my excitement and experiences, so I thought I’d share a few points here.

Leaving the UK.

If you’re a previous Fellow like me, please comment below and share your tips for new Fellows; and if you’re a new Fellow, I hope you find this useful! Happy to answer questions if there’s anything I’ve missed too, just leave a comment or contact me on Twitter 🙂
If you’re not a new Fellow/don’t plan on doing long trips any time soon, this is probably not the post for you – it’s going to be pretty long!

Planning
  1. Plan your trip with a gap at the end before you need to get back to real life. For me, I only really started to make proper links between the conversations I was having towards the end of the trip, and having an extra week at home before I went back to work was really good for letting all those ideas stew without other things needing to take priority.
  2. Plan trips carefully, taking into account the potential for jet lag. I was either cocky, stupid or ignorant when I booked my flights, and I definitely paid for it. Flying from Washington DC, to the UK, to Berlin, and then to Singapore within a few days was not my finest moment, and my jet lag in Singapore ruined the first few days completely.
  3. Leave space in your itinerary for unexpected meetings, new connections, and downtime. You did not travel across the world to have to say no to meeting new people, similarly, you did not travel across the world to sit in various branches of Starbucks. Make the most of the time you have – that means meeting people you might not have expected to but also sightseeing and visiting places you otherwise wouldn’t get chance to.
  4. I get lost wherever I go, I have a terrible sense of direction and I knew I’d be reliant on Google Maps to make sure I could find my way around. With that in mind, I chose hotels in Singapore and Hong Kong that came with a ‘Handy‘; a smartphone that is docked in each room that comes with free local data. I got free mobile data through my network (EE) when I was in the USA and Canada, but having a Handy was incredibly useful when I was in Singapore and  Hong Kong because my mobile data would have costed me £6 per day to use.
  5. If you’re visiting places where English is not the first language, I’d recommend having a few select phrases memorised or at least written down. I had hotel addresses saved in various languages which was particularly useful when I needed help trying to navigate public transport, and I don’t eat meat so I had a few versions of ‘vegetarian’ noted down to make sure that I could communicate that in cafes and restaurants.
Packing
  1. Packing cubes are life changing. I packed for the first leg of my trip without packing cubes (completely forgot I had them), and didn’t appreciate them until the second part of my trip. A previous Fellow recommended them and I thought he was over-egging their impact, but they really do make travelling to multiple destinations so much easier.
  2. Buy a travel adapter that covers multiple territories, and take an extension cable. The placement of sockets in hotels has become one of the most boring topics that I can rage about (seriously though, why is there never a socket next to the bed for a phone charger, and next to a mirror for hair dryer/straighters?!).
  3. Make a formula for your hand luggage – take the minimum you need and try to leave lots of space in case you buy things and your suitcase is too heavy (I like books, standard airline weight limits do not). Standards that I always include in hand luggage: a mini toothpaste, toothbrush, hand cream, tissues, mini pack of wipes (for grubby fingers or to take makeup off etc), a book, headphones, a booster charger for my phone, small supply of medication (in case your suitcase gets lost), a spare pair of contact lenses, and my glasses. Everything else is extra bulk that you end up dragging around airports, wishing you hadn’t.
  4. Luggage is important – use something that you trust not to break because this is absolutely not the time to see the contents of your suitcase whizzing its way around the baggage reclaim belt. I used AWAY luggage – the large suitcase and the everywhere bag for my hand luggage. It’s now the only luggage I’ll ever use. It’s sturdy but relatively light, and the AWAY packing cubes fit perfectly.
  5. Pack clothes with the intention of doing laundry – there’s no need to take enough outfits to last you 4 weeks when you take take enough for 1 or 2 and wash them. Whilst I’m on that point too; don’t do laundry in hotels! The price is extortionate, and if you use a local launderette you can often get them back within quicker turnaround time. I used a drop off launderette in New York that charged by the kilo and meant I could have everything apart from the clothes I was wearing, washed for less than $10.
Money
  1. The funding that you received from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust is enough to cover your trip, but bear in mind that you might want to do more than just cover your trip. I saved some money of my own to add to the funding I got for the Fellowship, meaning that I was able to spend a bit more on areas of the trip that were important to me (always staying in hotels rather than hostels, going on day trips to places further afield etc).
  2. Make sure you have at least some cash in each currency you’ll need. In places like the US I used my card all the time (remember to 1) tell your bank you are travelling before you leave, and 2) check for potential charges!), but when I got to Singapore and went out of the airport to get a taxi, I was surprised that the taxis only took cash.
People
  1. Find a ‘connecter’ – this is actually a piece of advice I was given by one of the wonderful people I met in Toronto (hoorah for you, Dawn Bazely!). I met her in the first stop of my travels, and a self-described ‘connecter’, she linked me up with lots of other people. Some I couldn’t meet because they were too far away, but I was able to Skype them after Dawn introduced us, others I met the next day. People that know people are your best friends whilst on a WCMT Fellowship!
  2. Meet people you think you disagree with. This is a weird situation to describe because I don’t want to mention names, but look for the people in your area of research that appear to have opposing views to you. Talking with these people will stretch your ideas, challenge you, and strengthen what you get out of the Fellowship. I met with a few people that I thought may hold opposing views to me, but after I’d heard their reasoning it was clear that we weren’t so different, and that taking their concerns into account was important if I ever wanted my Fellowship to achieve anything.
  3. Not all conversations need to be planned. I spoke to people looking around art galleries, science museums and exhibits – I didn’t know any of them before and I don’t know any of them now, but when you’re travelling alone you tend to have lots of conversations with other people that are travelling alone, or groups of people that feel a bit sorry for you wandering about by yourself. Those conversations can be just as valuable as the ones that are intentional.
Note taking
  1. This probably goes without saying, but taking notes after (or during) each of your meetings is crucial. I took two audio recorders with me, but ended up not using them because I was often meeting people in busy places where the sound quality would have been too terrible for me to ever want to listen back to. Instead, I used a pen & paper. I didn’t take notes during all of the meetings because I was conscious of wanting to really take part in the conversation, but after each meeting I spent 15-20 minutes writing notes to make sure I’d captured everything.
  2. As I said, I used a notebook – not a laptop, iPad or anything electronic. That meant I was entirely reliant on not losing the notebook. That was fine, it was small enough to live in my handbag, and it only came out for me to take notes. Still, I took photographs of each page after I’d written them, just in case. I prefer writing notes to typing them because I remember them more easily, but if you decide to go down that route I’d definitely recommend taking photographs just in case your notebooks gets lost.

At the very beginning of my Fellowship journey I was so overwhelmed, I don’t think I really believed it was going to happen until I started meeting people, but the main thing is to dedicate yourself to your project, and enjoy it! It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and one that I will remember for the rest of my life. Now to convince my boyfriend to apply for a WCMT Fellowship so that I can piggyback onto any future travel plans..

Returning home.