Living Near Peterborough and Have Some Free Time This Weekend?

What are you doing this weekend?

If you’re stuck for ideas, come and see me at Peterborough STEM Festival!

The STEM Festival in Peterborough is an event run completely by volunteers, and a passionate bunch they are too! This year the team have put together an incredible line up including:

  • TV presenter Maddie Moate who  will be doing an event linked to her Mission to Mars Astronaut Academy, and also a meet and greet
  • A tech-based escape room with BGL Group
  • Technology business Codem and their Sahara Force India F1 car and simulator
  • A Mad Science show featuring ‘flying toilet roll’, ‘eye-boggling erupting pipes’ and ‘cool dry ice’
  • Mathematician Katie Steckles’s show ‘The Mathematics of Paper’
  • Mathematician Dr Tom Crawford, aka Tom Rocks Maths, who will be talking about the science and maths behind a perfect penalty kick
  • Making the best paper plane with Thomas Cook
  • An introduction to coding with Vivacity Code Clubs

As I said earlier, I’ll be there too. I won’t be talking clinical trials though, instead I’m taking Science On A Postcard on the road! I’ll be there with my lovely partner selling enamel pins, postcards, notebooks, tote bags, pocket mirrors and more – all with a STEM twist!

Peterborough STEM Festival is completely free to attend, to make sure you don’t miss out grab your tickets here. Hopefully see you there 🙂

Why You Should Consider Building a Business as a Side Hustle

I’ve been pretty vocal on this blog about the importance of public engagement and science communication, but I’ve also said that I want to stay in academic research long-term – so why did I decide to build a business whilst doing my PhD, and why should you consider it too?

‘I Support Diversity in Science’ enamel pin badge.

My reasons for starting Science On A Postcard were pretty basic – I wanted a creative outlet, and I was frustrated after a stranger in an airport said that I didn’t look like a scientist. Before I’d even boarded my flight home I’d set up Instagram and Etsy pages for Science On A Postcard, and I’d decided I was going to create science-related merchandise that people could use (notebooks, tote bags), wear (pin badges) or send (postcards), to show that they were scientists. The whole point was to normalise science, but looking back on it this little business has actually taught me an awful lot.

Why build a business?

PhD students and people working in academia more widely are often criticised for staying in academia and failing to gain any experience ‘in the real world’. Personally, I think that notion is ridiculous – just because I work at a University doesn’t mean that my job is any more or less difficult or unrealistic than any other. Even so, that criticism is still common, and setting up your own little side hustle is one way to demonstrate that you are more than capable of thinking on your feet, innovating, managing your time and taking a leadership role.

‘I Support Women in Science’ enamel pins.

Not only has my business taught me more than I ever imagined it would, it’s been incredibly rewarding. Do a PhD can be pretty slow at times; data can take a long time to collect and analyse, and you can very easily find yourself slipping into a routine of plodding along pretty slowly. Some people are fine with that, but honestly, I find that to be one of the most difficult parts of the research process – the rewards (i.e. results, papers, conference presentations and collaborations) can be few and far between, and I work best when I am able to thrive off smaller successes that happen more regularly. Science On A Postcard gives me those very small, very frequent rewards – as I write this I have processed 507 orders through the shop, and I do a little squeal of excitement every time I sell something, whether it’s a bulk order or an order for a single postcard.

All of the excitement and learning involved with building a business would not be worth it if I didn’t absolutely love and believe in the products that I’m designing and selling. I’ve talked before about how important it is (for me at least) to have a creative outlet, and having a commitment to that creative outlet – i.e. customers messaging me on Instagram, Twitter and Etsy telling me that they love their products and they are eagerly awaiting new releases – means that I have to switch off from work for hours at a time. During my PhD that was incredibly valuable, because it meant that I was forced to draw, to design and to think creatively about things that were not linked to my research project in the slightest; those hours were significant breaks that I used to manage my stress levels and reduced my anxiety because I still felt like I was being productive.
You don’t need to design and sell products to get that stress relief, you could do anything – freelance writing, teaching, blogging, photography, you could even set up a little baking business! It’s not about making money – you probably won’t have time to invest to grow the business to such a stage that it’s actually making you any real income, at least during the time that you’re studying – it’s about forcing yourself to take time away from your work, giving your brain something else to focus on whilst your research plans take a backseat.

A few words of warning
‘David Attenborough’ enamel pin.

That said, one of the biggest shocks for me was how much work having this tiny tiny little business would be. I’m working full time at the moment, and that means coming home from work to spend an evening packaging and posting orders at least every few days. I’ve also had to get an accountant because I’ll need to pay taxes at the end of the year – something I was entirely naive about before I realised that I very much needed to get my head around that sort of thing (…just a few months ago).
I’ve noticed patterns in how busy I am which helps me to manage my time and get organised, but it’s still all on me – I design the products, find suppliers, figure out how much stock I can afford/will sell and then place orders, photograph, price and list my products on Etsy, advertising and marketing (hey follow the shop on Instagram and Twitter for updates!), and then sorting out packaging and postage so that customers get their orders in pristine condition. Even then, there’s lots of customer service involved if/when the postal services screws up and orders are lost or delayed!

I realise that a lot of what I’m saying comes from a position of privilege – I am lucky in that my PhD was funded, so I didn’t have to pay fees and I received a tax-free stipend that allowed me to pay rent, buy food and have an ok social life. Setting up a business is not for everyone, but if you are in a position that allows you to do something like that and you’re not sure whether to go for it, I would very much recommend that you do.

5 Podcasts You Should Listen To This Month

About a month after I handed my thesis in, I bought a new car. It was a very exciting day – it’s the same car that I had before, but with 100,000 miles less on the clock, and the addition of a USB port that means I can listen to stuff on my phone, through my car radio. I KNOW. It’s been a mind-blowing few weeks of discovery. I’ve listened to some absolutely brilliant podcasts, so I thought I’d start #Blogtober by sharing them; they’re all science/healthcare related, but with topics communicated in such personal and accessible ways that one of them genuinely made me cry.

Healthcare is HILARIOUS

What’s it about? Casey Quinlan describes her podcast as ‘Snark about Healthcare’ which covers things pretty well. She’s a ‘Comedy Health Analyst’ who advises people to stop screaming because laughing hurts less. A lot of her content focusses on the American healthcare system and the frankly laughable systems that it is made up of. It’s frustrating, upsetting, but with a brilliantly hopeful and rebellious streak.

Any standout episodes? The most recent one! #CochraneForAll – Bagpipes, science and crisis comms. My friend Lyuba Lytvyn is interviewed on this podcast, and she mentions me! Obviously, that’s not the only reason why this is a fantastic episode, but it helps. Aside from that though, the episode covers the need for healthcare consumers to be involved in research (#100in100), the importance of capacity building in patient and public involvement, and more from the Cochrane Colloquium that was held in Edinburgh in September. Also, the episode with Victor Montori as a guest is brilliant – listen to it, he’s calling for a revolution in healthcare, and he’s talking a lot of sense.

Links: Listen here | Support on Patreon here

Science Talk

What’s it about? This is a much more standard podcast than ‘Healthcare is HILARIOUS!’ – it’s an interview format that features various guests joining host Steve Mirsky each week to talk about the latest advances in science and technology. As well as podcasting, Steve is also an Editor and columnist at Scientific American.

Any standout episodes? The episode that first got me listening to this podcast was ‘Out with the Bad Science’, where Richard Harris (Science Correspondent for NPR) joined host Steve Mirsky to talk about the problem of poor quality science in the Biomedical Research community. He also discusses his book, ‘Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions‘ – I bought that book whilst I was still listening to this episode of the podcast, and I’ll be reading (and hopefully reviewing it on the blog) later this month. Going on what Richard Harris was saying during the podcast, I suspect it’s going to be brilliant.

Links: Listen here

The Story Collider

What’s it about? This podcast is probably my favourite of this entire list, because it’s so personal, so emotional and yet it’s still communicating science and stories from scientists. The show is presented by Erin Barker, a writer and storyteller, and Liz Neeley, a marine biologist and science communicator – the partnership between the two makes for an incredibly powerful podcast full of important stories that I’m very glad are being shared.

Any standout episodes? There are three episodes that have stood out to me whilst listening to the Story Collider back catalogue, one of which made me cry:

  1. Science Saved My Life – Stories About Life-Saving Passion
  2. Abortion – Stories From Doctors and Patients (Part 1)
  3. Abortion – Stories From Doctors and Patients (Part 2)

‘Science Saved My Life’ is the episode that had me in tears – particularly Rose DF‘s story; listen to it, please.

Links: Listen here

The Recommended Dose

What’s it about? The Recommended Dose is a podcast produced by Cochrane Australia and presented by Ray Moynihan – a multi-award winning journalist and health researcher. ‘This new series tackles the big questions in health and offers new insights, evidence, and ideas from some of the world’s most fascinating and prolific researchers, writers and thinkers,’ says Ray. ‘Its aim is to promote a more questioning approach to health care.’

Any standout episodes? Again, the standout episode has been the episode that first drew me in and pushed me to start listening to the rest of the series; in this case, it was episode 14 that featured Gordon Guyatt as Ray’s guest. Professor Gordon Guyatt is known as the ‘Godfather of Evidence Based Medicine (EBM)’, and this podcast is a brilliant look at his career, his beliefs in terms of why he coined the phrase, what evidence-based medicine really means in the current healthcare climate, and what the future might hold for EBM. I’ll be doing an ‘Inspiring People’ blog post on Gordon Guyatt later on this month, so keep an eye out for that if you’d like to know more about him and how he’s impacted my views on medicine and healthcare too.

Links: Listen here

Strange Bird

What’s it about? Strange Bird is hosted by Mona Chalabi, the Data Editor of the Guardian US, and it focusses on the use of numbers to help answer questions on difficult topics. The aim of this is ultimately to make people feel less lonely – to show that the birds that seem like strange outliers often aren’t.

Any standout episodes? Strange Bird only has one episode at the moment, so clearly that’s what I’m basing my entire recommendation on. That episode, ‘Miscarriage’, sees Mona Chalabi (who I’ve fan-girled over in the past) talk about this sensitive subject using numbers to help her answer questions on the topic. The conversations and thoughts can be uncomfortable – in this episode Mona discovers that her Mum had a miscarriage – but it’s presented in a really gentle and caring way.

Links: Listen here

What podcasts have you been listening to recently? Leave a comment with your recommendations and I’ll be sure to check them out 🙂

Why I Think Scientists Should Take Inspiration from the Likes of Kylie Jenner

I have been gently simmering about this for over a week, so I’m getting my thoughts out – be warned, this is a long blog post. It may not be the most coherent piece of writing I’ve ever done (if anything, I hope it isn’t – that award should go to my PhD thesis – yep, still talking about it!) but I hope it gives people something to think about.

A few weeks ago the New York Daily News Twitter account shared this tweet:

People were not happy. I don’t follow New York Daily News on Twitter, but I was aware of this tweet because people that I do follow (colleagues, scientists, academics, people I think are brilliant (highlights include Louis Theroux and Stacey Dooley), and lots of PhD students) were retweeting it or responding to it. The majority of these responses were from PhD students and scientists describing what they are doing with their lives in increasingly condescending and belittling ways. I’m paraphrasing, but a lot of the responses that I saw were along the lines of:

  • “I’m in grad school working to try and find a cure for cancer.”
  • “I’m getting my PhD at X institute, and my research aims to improve quality of life for people with X disease.”
  • “I do research for X charity which is aiming to improve treatment for X disease, X many people die from it every year.”

Alongside this weird moral one-upmanship, a lot of the responses critiqued the post’s use of the term ‘self-made’.
If you don’t know who Kylie Jenner is, she isn’t someone who has grown up with nothing – she is the half-sister of media giant Kim Kardashian, and she’s featured on the show Keeping Up With The Kardashians for years. Kim Kardashian was first made ‘famous’ by the release of a sex tape in 2007. Since then, Kim Kardashian (now Kim Kardashian West – she married Kanye West in 2014) has launched various businesses, accrued 58.5million Twitter followers, published a book made entirely of selfies, been on the front cover of Vogue magazine, and lots more. It’s fair to say that Kylie Jenner has had a very privileged upbringing.

The responses that really frustrated me though, included jibes about her half-sister’s sex tape, the fact that Kylie posts revealing photographs on Instagram, and that she’s had cosmetic procedures like lip fillers.

What exactly has it got to do with us (as scientists) if she’s showing what is considered ‘too much’ on Instagram? Personally, I think it’s completely up to her, and if she feels comfortable with her body then why shouldn’t she flash a little side boob every now and again?! I don’t do that on my own social media profiles, but it’s got literally nothing to do with me what Kylie Jenner posts. In the same vein – so what if she’s had lip fillers? She was insecure about an aspect of her appearance (which likely came from years of being dragged by the media), she was an adult, and she made the decision to change that. The key bit here is that it’s her decision. Her decision has nothing to do with anyone else.
The reference to Kim Kardashian’s sex tape is troubling because initially it was leaked, she never released it herself. She initially sued the company that had it to prevent its release – she later settled out of court, but this essentially started out as a case of revenge porn. That’s not something that anyone wants, ever. Who are we to question what Kim Kardashian (and the rest of her family) then did to capitalise on it? Plenty of people have had sex tapes released to the public; very, very few of them are now as a successful as Kim Kardashian and co. Their success is not simply down to a leaked sex tape, it is down to well crafted business deals and knowing how to use the media to your advantage.

In addition to this, Kylie has made the majority of her money from her own cosmetics line; Kylie Cosmetics. Many of those same people (overwhelmingly PhD students and early career researchers) that were tweeting their moral superiority in comparison to Kylie Jenner, also regularly take part in campaigns to support women in science, to prove that women in science are just as entitled to hold prominent roles in scientific disciplines as men are, and to break stereotypes about the ‘type’ of person that a scientist is.
This time last year there was a big Twitter campaign to try and get cosmetics company Benefit to change an advertising campaign that suggested that girls should ‘skip class, not concealer’. I wrote about my thoughts on that campaign here (spoiler alert: what a dumb marketing move, girls are perfectly capable of wearing makeup (or not) and going to class as well). In response to that campaign, people tweeted their makeup filled selfies (myself included: below) and discussed how their looks are not linked to their intelligence. So, why are those same people bashing Kylie Jenner for everything she does? I understand that the wording of the original tweet that started this post wasn’t great ‘What are you doing with your life?’ is not a useful or fair quip, but the responses demonstrate that people are not just against what the New York Daily News started, they’re calling Kylie out for simply doing what she wants to. They’re being unfair and condescending to Kylie’s intelligence just as the Benefit Cosmetics campaign was condescending to women and girls that chose to wear makeup.

This constant bashing of media stars like the Kardashians and Kylie and Kendall Jenner isn’t cool. They are a family of strong and powerful women, and they have created an entire empire based on one family member’s sexual encounter with a guy I’m betting you’ve only heard of in conjunction with Kim Kardashian. I’m not saying that I’m a fan of the Kardashians or Jenner and her sister – I don’t want Keeping Up With The Kardashians, I don’t follow any of them on social media, and I care very little about what they do or say. In fact, sometimes the things that they do and say actively annoy me; I’ve previously written about how Kendall Jenner’s pushing of so-called detox teas is shite, the whole Kardashian crowd have been known to advertise vitamin gummy bears, and recently Kim Kardashian advertised the use of ‘appetite suppressant’ lollipops. None of those things are good, and the fact they regularly pedal poor science is damaging, but the backlash against the Kylie Jenner tweet wasn’t about that – scientists and PhD students were using it as a way to show their moral superiority. In the process, I argue that they lost any moral high ground they may have had.

So, instead of calling Kylie out for how she makes money, I think that there are things that scientists and researchers can and should learn from her and the rest of the Kardashian family; their success is not simply down to a leaked sex tape 10 years ago, it is down to well crafted business deals and knowing how to use the media to your advantage.

Using the media to your advantage is something that, in general, I don’t think scientists are very good at. Talking as a scientist, I think we’re too close to our research, too precious about the way that details are reported, and I think we find it difficult to let go of the fact that the public do not need (and often don’t want) to know every minute detail about what we do – often, they want a story, some emotion, and an outline of what we do that they can understand and repeat to their mates. I don’t say that in a belittling way; when I go to science engagement events that’s exactly what I want – I don’t care about how many chemicals you used or how the powder you used had to be weighed in a special container, I want to know what that should mean to me, and how your work could impact on my life.

The Kardashians and Jenners show us how to turn any situation into an opportunity, they demonstrate how women should be confident and proud of their bodies, they teach us about feminity and gender by taking ownership of their sexuality, and perhaps most importantly they are marketing magicians. Science needs more of that.

To close on a lighter note. Some responses to the Kylie Jenner tweet were brilliant, this was a personal highlight:


I’m Very, Very Excited About This

On January 25th I was in London for an interview – I briefly mentioned it in an earlier blog post but decided to skim over it in case it hadn’t gone as well as I’d hoped.

On February 13th, after a fortnight of pacing the flat every time the postman was more than 3 seconds late (side-note: the postman was well and truly sick of me by this point), a bulky A4 envelope landed on my door mat with the news I had been hoping for.

My interview was successful, and now I can finally reveal that I am the super proud recipient of one of 150 Fellowships from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

WCMT was established in 1965 when Sir Winston Churchill died. The Trust is now a national memorial to Sir Winston, and each year they fund up to 150 fellows from all backgrounds to travel overseas in pursuit of new and better ways of tackling a wide range of challenges facing the UK. This isn’t an academic Fellowship – no qualifications are need, it’s about having a project and the passion to improve a community, profession or field.

There will be many more blog posts on my experiences of the Fellowship over the coming months as I plan and carry out my trip, but for now I just wanted to thank the brilliant WCMT Fellows that encouraged me through the application process – Dr Heather Doran (2015 Fellow – read her report here), Sarah Frost (2011 Fellow – read her report here), and Rick Hall (2016 Fellow – read his report here).

So what’s my project all about and where am I going?
I am so excited to be travelling to the USA, Canada, Singapore and Hong Kong to explore the process and practice of science blogging.
I’m particularly interested in why scientists are blogging, how they are sustaining these activities when they are so often done out of a passion for science, and how we can use creative approaches (here I mean anything from knitting to doodling, videos to animations – the list is endless!) to effectively communicate complex scientific topics to the public in engaging ways.

As I said earlier, check back in over the coming weeks and months to come along with me on this super exciting journey – I’m so excited!

A Day at the Wellcome Collection, London

Last week I was in London for an interview (hopefully more on that later, but until I find out the results of said interview let’s skip over that..). The flight down from Aberdeen was super early and I didn’t fly back until 7.30pm, so I spent the majority of the day at the Wellcome Collection.

Every time I’m in London I mean to come to the Wellcome Collection, but I’m usually so pushed for time that it ends up falling off my itinerary in favour of the stuff that I’m actually in London for. Anyway, with a decent amount of spare time I was delighted to be able to have lunch in the Wellcome Cafe (super busy, but really friendly staff and the best sweet potato salad I’ve ever eaten), spend money I shouldn’t be spending in the Wellcome Shop (everything is gorgeous and I need all of the books and science stuff that they sell), catch up on emails and have a mooch around the Wellcome Library, and have a look around the exhibits before heading back to the airport.

The Wellcome Library

I got a free day pass to use the library and wifi, and honestly, I wish this library was closer to home for me. You can’t take in coats/bags etc, you leave your belongings in a locker outside the library, and take what you need in (laptop, charger etc) in a clear plastic bag. This is the best thing ever. At first I was a bit weirded out by this, but when I got into the library it made more sense. There’s no clutter anywhere, people are working away without ‘stuff’ everywhere, and all of the stuff you do in an effort to procrastinate and avoid work is locked up. I found the library a really good place to do work in; I hate working in cluttered environments because I find it hard to concentrate, so this was perfect. I got through a tonne of emails, a few bits of my to do list, and then went for a wander around.

Exhibits at the Wellcome Collection

I missed the ‘Can Graphic Design Change Your Life?’ exhibition, it finished on the 14th of this month and I’m still not over it – if you’re interested in that I’d recommend Chloe Turner’s blog post here which gives a good summary (and some sneaky photos) of the exhibit. Anyway, what I did see were the Medicine Man, Medicine Now, and Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine exhibitions.

Medicine Now was my favourite of the exhibits, and the one I was most impressed with. It offered something for everyone, there was an activity station at the back where children (and adults!) were playing and making postcards to communicate their feedback (left).

The Medicine Now exhibit also had some ridiculously cool exhibits aimed at increasing understanding of the human body. First – this slice of human, yes, it’s a slice of an actual human being. When the person died they donated their body to science, and the fluids in their body were replaced with plastics to allowed a clean cut to be made. This is a controversial technique, but if it’s your thing I’d also recommend trying to get to a Body Worlds exhibition. I went to one at the Centre for Life in Newcastle a few years ago and it was fantastic.

Behind the slice of body (wow, that does sound gross) above, you can see a transparent model of a body, complete with organs, blood vessels and bones. In my opinion this was the best bit of the entire exhibit. By the body’s feet was a panel of buttons, no instructions, just buttons. Clearly my curiosity got the better of me and I went on to press each and every one of the buttons in front of me – thankfully, that was the idea. When I pressed the buttons, the corresponding organ lit up. I took a little video clip for Instagram so you can see what I mean:

As well as the super cool bodies, Dolly the sheep made an appearance (well, her front-page Time magazine, some droppings and a handful of wool, as did a wall of chromosomes made out of socks.

If you’re in London and have a few hours to spare, I’d definitely recommend heading to the Wellcome Collection! The Medicine Now exhibit is permanent and free.