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.
Advertisements

Science and Art – a Natural Partnership or Two Very Different Fields?

In my last post I explained the main aims that I have for the Fellowship that I am currently on; if you missed that, then in basic terms I want to explore how science and art can come together to improve the way that members of the public engage with science.

Since that post I’ve had lots of conversations with wonderful scientists, researchers, science communicators, and members of the public (Canadians are probably the friendliest people in the world, but Canadians in coffee shops are a whole new level of friendly), about the relationship between science and art, so I wanted to try to capture some of those thoughts in a blog post. Mainly I’m writing this as a way to keep track of my own thoughts around this topic, but I’m also interested in hearing your thoughts to – leave a comment below or send me a Tweet if you’d like to join the conversation!

My initial thoughts about the potential relationship between the fields of science and art started a really long time ago. In my early teenage years I wanted to be a graphic designer, I had dreams of setting up my own business, just like my Dad had, and spending my days steeped in creativity. After a couple of years that no longer sounded like a viable career for me; I did a GCSE in Art & Design and got a grade A, but even the process of doing a GSCE in the subject felt like too much pressure for me. I loved being creative, but being creative under pressure (in this case exam conditions) was not something I enjoyed at all – the pressure made me feel claustrophobic and my usually creative brain was suddenly unable to think as usual.
That realisation was a tricky one; I clearly wasn’t cut out to be a working designer where the pressure was not exam conditions, but bill paying and you know, life. I thought about other careers including law, medicine and surgery, my grades were decent and the options presented to me by careers advisors at school were a reflection of that. None of those really interested me and it took me a few months of trawling through university prospectuses to find the course I wanted to do – Pharmacology (the science of how drugs act on the body). I still wasn’t sure where I’d go career-wise, but I figured getting a science degree would give me some options, and I liked the sound of the topics that would be covered in the Pharmacology degree program at the University of Aberdeen.

During the years of my undergraduate degree I didn’t do much art, I made jewellery sometimes but I didn’t feel like I was being creative very often at all. Now when I look back, I was being creative all of the time; but I’d been taught throughout years of education that creativity meant activities like drawing and painting. I was writing all of the time, I read daily, and I was solving problems in almost every aspect of my degree – all tasks that require creative input. I was being creative, just not ‘traditionally’ so.

It’s not just me that has thought this way. Towards the end of last year I took part in the ‘I’m A Scientist‘ online event with school children across the UK. Lots of them were asking questions about careers, what our favourite subjects were at school and whether that linked in with what we were doing now. My favourite subject was Art & Design, and it took those kids asking questions of me to realise that I use creative skills every single day in my job. To me, science is inherently creative, I just hadn’t realised it because my teachers always presented science and art as opposing fields; you were good at one or the other, not both.

I guess this sort of thought process came from the myth of the left brain/right brain.

Image credit: Maggie Wince ‘Left Brain / Right Brain’

From a blog post written by Robert H Shmerling MD from Harvard Health Publishing:

“Those who are right-brained are supposed to be intuitive and creative free thinkers. They are “qualitative,” big-picture thinkers who experience the world in terms that are descriptive or subjective. For example, “The skies are gray and menacing; I wonder if it’s going to rain?”
Meanwhile, left-brained people tend to be more quantitative and analytical. They pay attention to details and are ruled by logic. Their view of the weather is more likely, “The forecast said there was only a 30% chance of rain but those cumulonimbus clouds will probably bring thunder as well as rain.””

I’m not going to go into the depths of scientific research that discount this thought process, instead I want this blog post to be a way for scientists to be reminded that they are creative people, and for younger readers to understand that it’s absolutely fine (and actually very helpful) to think creatively in the world of science.

Note: If you are interested in learning about the science behind this left brain/right brain idea, I saw that Samantha Yammine (you may know her as Science Sam) plans to cover this on her Instagram over the coming weeks. Follow her here and keep an eye an her Instagram stories and feed.

The reason why I’m passionate about exploring how art can be used to engage the public with science is because of these experiences; I never thought I would be a scientist because I thought that I was a ‘creative’ person; someone expressive and emotional (ask my boyfriend, I can be pretty dramatic if I’m hungry/too cold/too hot). I am expressive and emotional, and I’m a scientist too; I think that those qualities make me a better scientist. Lots of the conversations that I have had over the past week have included scientists echoing that sentiment. Infusing science with creativity means that conversations about science, and scientific issues, are encouraged within and between groups of society outside those that they may reach with traditional forms of science communication. It’s no use trying to have a conversation about a scientific issue that could impact on everyone, if there are huge sections of society not being invited into that conversation. I believe that creativity is one way to ensure we’re at least inviting every part of society to that discussion.

What do you think; if you’re a scientist, would you describe yourself as creative? If you’re not a scientist, then what do you think of this idea of sparking conversations about science with creative practices?


More information on the idea of science and art working together can be found by clicking the links below:

Artists and Scientists: More Alike Than Different
Why Art and Science are More Closely Related Than You Think
Art for Science – Science Communication Through Art
Why Researchers Should Use Art to Talk Science
Scientists are More Creative Than You Might Imagine
Exploding the Myth of the Scientific vs Artistic Mind

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!