Self-Care Tips to Keep You Sane: Exploring (the Portland edition)

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been in Portland, Oregon, for work recently. I was there to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Clinical Trials (there are blog posts coming on the talks I attended, workshops I helped to facilitate, and the posters I presented!). The conference ran between Monday 21st May to Wednesday 23rd May, but I chose to fly out the week before on Wednesday 16th. Whenever there is a conference somewhere outside of the UK, I really try to build in time before or after work commitments to explore. I love to travel, and I feel incredibly lucky that my job at the moment allows me to trot around the globe speaking to people, learning, and developing my skills; it’d be a huge shame to fly in and back out without any time to explore.

For me, exploring is one of the best ways for me to decompress and force myself to relax. I figured there are probably lots of people that feel the same – I know that Soph from Soph Talks Science has discussed her passion for travel lots previously, and Lisa from In A Science World has just got back from her post-PhD adventures in Asia. Anyway, I wanted to continue adding to my ‘self-care tips to keep you sane’ series, by giving you an idea of what I got up to in my down time in Portland. Hopefully it’ll encourage my fellow PhD students, academics and people who travel for work to take some time for themselves.

Powell’s book shop

After I landed in Portland on Wednesday, I had dinner and then went to bed. When I woke up on Thursday the first thing on my exploration list was Powell’s book shop. Powell’s is a chain of book shops based across Oregon, but the Portland City of Books store on W Burnside Street is the biggest independent book shop in the world. This is no exaggeration; I spent 8 hours in Powell’s on Thursday. I got lost wandering around each level, even though I had a store map (yes, the store is big enough to have its own map), and I could have very easily spent another 8 hours in there the following day. I knew that whatever I bought in Powell’s needed to be transported the 5,000 miles back to Aberdeen in my suitcase, and that it would be stupid to buy tonnes of heavy books to then have to pay for additional baggage allowances. That said, in those 8 hours I still managed to find and purchase 6 books that I absolutely, definitely could not live without. I know, ridiculous. Even more ridiculous was that I went back on Sunday with a few colleagues and ended up buying 2 more books. I’m sure that I’ll end up reviewing a few of them in blog posts in the future, but mainly I just wanted them for when my thesis is handed in. I love reading, and a visit to Powell’s was my chance to pick up a few books that have not yet been released in the UK yet.

Farm Spirit

If you follow me on Instagram (@heidirgardner if you don’t already!), you’ll already have heard me sing the praises of Farm Spirit. If you’ve seen me in person since last Saturday, you’ll have likely heard the same thing verbally. Now, I’m going to mention it here – my experience at Farm Spirit was so good that I genuinely just want to shout about it so that if anyone is in Portland they can go and visit for themselves.

Farm Spirit is a fine dining restaurant that serves local, seasonal and completely vegan food. The menu is preset, and you need to book tickets in advance – I booked the same week that I booked my flights to Oregon because I was so keen to get a seat. Speaking of seats, at Farm Spirit diners sit communally and dinner is served at set times (usually 6.30pm and 8.30pm). I went for the 8.30pm sitting, and the communal dining thing was perfect for me because I was there alone – colleagues from the UK and Australia weren’t arriving in Portland until the next day. I’m not going to waffle on too much about how good the food was here, I’ll just post a collage of the photographs I took and let you judge for yourself. If you are ever in Portland, you have to visit Farm Spirit; it has been my personal highlight of the trip.

Mother’s Bistro and The Water Front

On Sunday when colleagues had started to arrive in Portland, I was eager to catch up with people I hadn’t seen in ages. Dr Kirsty Loudon (my PhD Supervisors last PhD student) and Karen Bracken (fellow PhD student looking at participant recruitment to trials, but based at the University of Sydney, Australia), headed out for brunch at Mother’s Bistro. After a quick Google the night before, this seemed to be the most highly recommended brunch in Portland. I arrived about an hour before we’d agreed to meet so that I could baggsy a table (they only take limited bookings and the world wants to walk in at around 11am on a Sunday, but it was definitely worth the wait.

After we finished at brunch we went for a wander around the city, headed to the Saturday Market (which is still called the Saturday Market even when it takes place on a Sunday), and then sneaked in another sly visit to Powell’s.. I know, ridiculous. It was super warm on Sunday and my jet lag still hadn’t completely gone (let’s be real, it never really went – I was awake at 4am most days which was not ideal before a full day of conference presentations), so we decided that an early dinner was a good idea. Kirsty and I headed back to the hotel to meet up with another Karen (Innes – a Trial Manager based in Aberdeen), and we had a lovely walk along the waterfront, eventually stopping for dinner at a cute little Italian restaurant that was only 10 minutes walk back to my hotel.

Over the course of the rest of the trip I got the chance to explore more of the culinary delights of Portland, and I managed to resist the urge to head back to Powell’s for a third time.

I really enjoyed my time in Portland, the fact that I had built time in to explore made the late nights/early mornings and few days filled with thesis editing feel much more manageable. The only thing that did shock me though, was the sheer scale of homelessness in Portland. The city clearly has a big problem with homelessness, which I guess isn’t such a shock – every city has homeless people – but this was so much more visible than I had anticipated. I didn’t feel particularly unsafe at any point, but I did feel incredibly guilty that I had flown half way around the world to give a few presentations at significant expense (obviously not personal expense, but still), when there were people sleeping in the streets just metres away from the conference venue.

A Trip to Galway, Ireland – November 2017

This week I was invited to the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway) by colleagues at the Irish Health Research Board Trials Methodology Research Network (HRB-TMRN). It was a flying visit – I flew into Dublin and then got the bus to Galway on Wednesday evening, and as I write this I’m in Dublin airport waiting for my flight home.

On Thursday I presented a big chunk of my thesis work in a HRB-TMRN workshop, advertised below:

This wasn’t the first time I’ve presented to an outside audience, so I didn’t think I’d be nervous at all – but for some reason I was.

The HRB-TMRN is a group made up of brilliant people, and the research group that I am part of has built fantastic links with them, so honestly, I just didn’t want to screw up and make the Aberdeen team look bad! All was well though, the 3 hour workshop went really fast, and (I think!) I managed to create a pretty relaxed atmosphere where people could ask questions and discuss issues. We just about stuck to time, even with all the fantastic discussion points that were raised throughout – and everyone seemed to have gained some knowledge from the workshop at the end.

I’m not going to put slides for the sessions up on here, but I will turn each of the sessions into a blog post at some point – I really need to focus on getting this work into papers and thesis chapters over the next few months and the cynic in me is cautious about sharing slides on this before publication!

Group work the Irish way – facilitated by Taytos.

After the workshop ended I went for a coffee with a few members of the team, which gave my brain a chance to decompress after listening to the sound of my own voice for 3 hours. We also used this as an opportunity to discuss pieces of work that we’re collaborating on at the moment, which was really helpful. This was the first time I’ve met lots of members of the team in person (Skype and emails drive the world of research), and it was so lovely to put personalities to names. Such a fab group of people with real enthusiasm for what they’re doing.

My whirlwind day ended with dinner out with the team – a brilliant and hilarious evening filled with laughter and the best seafood I’ve had in a long time. Looking forward to the Irish contingent’s trip to Aberdeen in January!

(R-L) Dr Sandra Galvin, me, Dr Catherine Houghton, Dr Patricia Healy, Prof Declan Devane, Dr Linda Biesty.

A Trip to Oslo, Norway – February 2017

Travelling is something that I’ve always loved; I get itchy when I don’t have a trip booked – whether that’s to a new city, country or continent. I enjoy exploring new places and new cultures, and I knew that I’d like to take as many opportunities to travel from the day I started my PhD. I’ve always been clear with my Supervisor that travel is on my agenda, so both he and I can keep an eye out for opportunities/conferences etc further afield.

So far the travel aspect of my PhD hasn’t been super exciting – I’ve spent a lot of time in various cities around the UK, but no where further. That’s been fine with me though, I’ve used my holidays to explore different places instead, so far travelling to: Denmark, Thailand, Iceland and Austria. PhD-wise though, at the beginning of this month I was given the opportunity to travel to Oslo, Norway for a few days – hoorah!

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If you’ve never been to Oslo, I would really recommend that you do. I was a bit nervous before I went because I have never travelled to a non-English speaking country alone before, it turns out Norway is not exactly non-English speaking! The country is essentially bilingual; every time I asked if someone spoke English I was greeted with the response, “of course I do, how can I help?”. Travelling around Oslo was also incredibly simple, the metro system, buses and trams all seemed to work seamlessly. They were always on time, super clean, and very easy to navigate.

Aside from the practicalities of getting around, Oslo is such a cool place to be. After 3 days of meetings and work-related activity, my boyfriend flew out so that we could spend some time exploring Oslo together. We had such a good time! Earlier in the week everyone had been saying how awful the weather was, it was -4 degrees C and snowing on and off, but compared to Aberdeen which is often grey and rainy, the snow was a welcome change.

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So, why did I go out to Oslo in the first place? The trip was part of a project funded by a grant we received from the Chief Scientist Office (CSO) of Scotland last year. The project is the core of my PhD work, and aims to find out how trial teams are currently doing trial recruitment, what sort of evidence researchers need to design effective trial recruitment strategies, and how that evidence should be presented to them.

I met with colleagues at the Regional Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, Eastern and Southern Norway (RBUP), and the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services (Kunnskapssenteret), to talk about trial recruitment experiences and issues, and tools and resources that might help. The individuals I spoke to were all hugely welcoming, helpful and enthusiastic about my work – I came home feeling excited to get back to my desk and get my teeth into this PhD again. Since I came back on February 6th I’ve Skyped with a few more members of the team out in Oslo, and again they’ve been brilliant! Over the next few weeks I hope to continue to collaborate and build relationships with the team, particularly at the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services; my research and interests align with the team there most closely.

If you’re in the process of PhD study, I’d really recommend that you try to integrate some travel into your work. Personally I think it helps with motivation and enthusiasm for your own work, but more importantly it undoubtedly strengthens the work you’re doing. Speaking with new people gives new insights into the work you’re doing, can make you think differently about the way you conduct your research, and ultimately ensures that the results of the work you’re doing have a greater impact on the research community around you.

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