Arctic Science Conference 2015 & thoughts on technicians (or the lack thereof)

Last week the University of Sheffield has hosted the 2015 NERC Arctic Science Conference. I got roped in to helping out with the conference organisation after another PhD student (who was previously helping) went and got herself a real job ten days before the conference started. Talk about awkward timing!

My role was to liaise with the UK Polar Network (UKPN) and ensure that the early career conference attendees were well catered for. For those who don’t know, the UKPN is the British branch of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS). Both organisations work to promote the interests of Masters students, PhD researchers, Postdocs and other early career scientists in polar fields. This includes running events like mentor panels, public outreach events and skills workshops.

In this case I was helping the UKPN team to run a mentor panel on career progression in academia, especially focusing on getting and completing Postdocs, and to set up their AGM, which is held every year at the Artic or Antarctic NERC conference (they alternate annually). After a bit of stressful last minute running around, both events went off (mostly) without any hiccups. Thankfully!

In particular the panel event was very well attended, possibly because it was held in a pub. This was a very interesting session that led to some fairly heated discussions on the relative merits of Postdocs vs. industry positions vs. getting the hell out of research. It was particularly interesting to get opinions from members of the panel who hold positions in ‘normal’ university-based academia compared to those in ‘public’ research institutions (namely the British Antarctic Survey). This raised some interesting differences in the career paths and funding practices of these different research bodies. Not to mention eliciting some conflicting opinions from some very world-weary Postdocs!

There was however one thing that the whole room agreed on – we want more technical positions. Most projects in the polar sciences require some technical expertise, be it field skills, looking after equipment, lab work or computer-based skills. At present these technical skills tend to be provided by Postdocs with the exception of field skills, which are can be provided by specialised field assistants, and the use and maintenance of lab equipment, which is done by lab technicians. The UKPN group at the panel event felt this was not sufficient to cover the range of specialised skills needed. We also felt that getting Postdocs to do this work is essentially just a way to get access to the skills without paying for a full-time permanent technician. In particular Postdocs are often expected to spend long periods of time using their specialist technical skills to work on small parts of projects that they are essential for but from which they will receive no funding or publications. Seems a little unfair and perhaps even exploitative.

From the PhD student perspective, I would agree with the above complaints and would add that a wider range of permanent technical staff would be extremely useful for everyone in a department. For example, the Geography Department here at Sheffield used to have a specialist cartographer to help academics make maps and figures for publication. This role was axed with the advent of widespread personal computing but now everyone from PhD students to Professors has to make their own figures (or pay to outsource this skill). Constructing maps and figures takes a lot of time and can involve learning specialist software, hence the large number of figures you see in papers and on posters that have clearly been made in PowerPoint! Would it not be better and possibly more cost-effective to have a technician who knows all the right software packages and can make figures for you? Equally it would save many PhD students, me included, months if we had someone we could go to for assistance with technical computer work – particularly GIS, MatLab and programming. The university’s IT services can usually install the required software but that tends to be the limit of their usefulness. We need better support in these areas and it does look like hiring permanent technical staff would be a good solution. Technical positions would also be a way to provide more permanent job options for those who want to stay in academia but who don’t want to do research or who can’t commit to the transient life of a Postdoc.

Anyway, rant over. It was an interesting week and it was great to have the chance to see ‘behind the scenes’ at a conference. I recommend that any polar scientists reading this check out future Antarctic and Arctic NERC conferences and that the early career people amongst you get yourselves joined up to the UKPN. It’s free and you get access to loads of useful events as well as a network of like-minded people to talk to/ rant about the lack of technicians with!


p.s. the image for this post is from:

Quaternary Research Association Postgraduate Symposium 2015, Cambridge

(Photo above of the Scott Polar Research Institute, where the conference was held. Photo from the SPRI website)

Last week the Quaternary Research Association’s (QRA) 20th annual postgraduate symposium was held at the University of Cambridge. Followers of this blog will know that I enjoyed last year’s conference in Exeter (read about my experience here) and wasn’t about to miss this year’s event, especially as it included a tour of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

Speaking of which, the conference kicked off on Wednesday with the tour of BAS. We got to check out the aquarium (so many starfish), the MAGIC GIS mapping workshop, the ice core labs & cold rooms as well as the fossil collections. All very cool and really interesting. A particular favourite were the fossils, which included some weird uncoiled ammonites and a glitter-covered fossil shell. The glittery shell was odd but extremely well preserved from the time when Antarctica was around the Equator and had a lovely tropical climate. It must have looked great sparkling away on a coral reef.

Following the trip to BAS was an icebreaker event at the Sedgwick Museum, surrounded by more nice fossils. This was a good chance to get to know everyone and was so well provided with free booze that the conference organising team were practically begging people to take home some of the leftovers. Obviously I did my bit to humanely dispose of a couple of bottles of ale! We also had a very nice conference dinner on the Thursday night that was equally well provided for with alcohol – although I do think the food at Exeter may have been slightly better (but only just & mainly due to the pizzas and the cream tea!). But Cambridge certainly provided the best booze in terms of both quality and quantity. Nottingham will host next year’s symposium and I’m very interested to see how they will rise to the challenge.

The conference proper ran all day on the Thursday and Friday at the Scott Polar Research Institute. This is mainly a chance for people to present posters and talks on initial or preliminary results to get some feedback or to do a ‘dry run’ of a presentation destined for a larger conference. It’s always interesting to find out what other Quaternary postgrads are studying, to share some ideas and get feedback on your own work. This year we had a lot of ice and ocean research being presented, which was very interesting and led to some good discussions around the posters. We also had a strong international showing with researchers from Ireland, Germany and Argentina alongside the Brits.

So once again I had a good time at the QRA PG Symposium and would thoroughly recommend that any Quaternary postgrads reading this check out next year’s event in Nottingham. I’ll certainly be pushing it to the other postgrads at Sheffield; after all we’re only an hour away on the train and hopefully there’ll be more free food and booze (as well as Quaternary chat, obviously!).

A trip to Exeter for the QRA Postgraduate Symposium

This week I’ve been at the Quaternary Research Association (QRA) Postgraduate Symposium, hosted by the University of Exeter’s Geography Department. This is an informal PhD student-only conference that gives Quaternary postgrads the chance to meet up and do trail runs of posters and presentations in a chilled-out atmosphere. I went along because I’d heard it was a good laugh, to get some more presentation practice and to spend this year’s remaining research training grant.

The conference started with an optional field trip to Dartmoor on Wednesday, led by the incredibly knowledgeable Dr Tim Harrod. Unfortunately for those of us on the fieldtrip, the weather was against us and it tipped it down on and off all morning. This limited our options as we didn’t want to spend too long outside the nice dry minibus and the low cloud meant that we couldn’t see much even when we did venture outside. Still, the misty cloud did lend a nice atmosphere to the landscape, very ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’! Tim more than made up for the inclement weather with his interesting insights into the area’s history, geography and geology. A particular highlight was the visiting the Bronze Age village at Grimspound with its resident Dartmoor ponies. After a tasty pub lunch, the weather improved and we were able to escape the minibus to have a look at the local peat and to climb one of the area’s granite Tors, which was warm in waterproof trousers but worth it for the view from the top. In the evening after the field trip the other delegates arrived and we had our welcome drinks before heading into town for large and surprisingly cheap pizzas at the Old Firehouse, which is apparently an Exeter institution.

Thursday saw the start if the conference proper, which consisted of a range of postgrad presentations and posters as well as a keynote talk by Prof. Dan Charman about career progression post-PhD. We also received a tour of Exeter’s new palaeo fire lab, including a demonstration of burning things in one of their instruments. Everyone loves a bit of fire so this went down very well! Friday was similarly structured, with the last of the postgrad talks followed by the QRA PG AGM. One of the primary aims of this session was to choose a new junior PG rep (congrats to Nottingham’s Jack Lacey) and to choose a venue for next year’s Symposium. I was particularly pleased with the choice of Cambridge as this is my home town and because having Jenny Roberts as chief organiser means that we should have a strong showing of ice and climate/ ocean postgrads. Maybe we’ll even get a look into the ice core rooms in the British Antarctic Survey (if we’re lucky and promise not to touch anything)!

One thing I have to say about this year’s meeting in Exeter is that the food was great. Most of us were staying in some very posh undergrad halls (I couldn’t get enough of the rooms – so much nicer than the prison block I lived in during my 1st year!), which did a particularly good cooked breakfast with nice sausages and even fried bread. I hadn’t had fried bread since I was a kid and had completely forgotten how good it is with baked beans. Then of course there were the pizzas that I mentioned above and the very yummy conference dinner that came with a respectably large amount of wine. And of course there are the obligatory cakey treats during the coffee breaks; we even had a Devon cream tea on Thursday. Honestly it was worth the registration fee, which was very reasonable, for the food alone. Thanks have to go to Nicole Sanderson and the rest of the Exeter team for doing such a fantastic job arranging all of this.

So if you’re reading this in 6 months’ time when the advertisements for the next QRA PG Symposium come out, then I’d definitely recommend that you go along. There will be interesting people, some kind of field excursion, nice food and it is a great chance to air your research in a low-stress environment. See you in Cambridge!


QRA@50 Conference

Royal Geographical Society, London

 I’d decided to attend the Quaternary Research Association’s 50th birthday conference really just to find out how conferences work before I have to go and present a poster or talk at one. Turns out this was a pretty good idea and QRA@50 was the ideal place to do it. This event is billed as the ‘Annual Discussion Meeting’ and so is a low key event with a 50:50 mix of academics and postgrads – nice and low stress! Plus this year the theme was all about looking back over the progress made in each area of Quaternary science over the past five decades. So a real broad range of talks and no horribly in depth and technical sessions to try (and likely fail) to understand! Brilliant for a first ever conference.

There were too many excellent talks and speakers to list them all here but I will pick out a couple of real highlights. Obviously I enjoyed the icy presentations of Geoff Boulton and Richard Hindmarsh as well as the Wiley-Blackwell lecture by Maureen Raymo, which taught me basically all I’ll ever need to know about identifying orbital climate forcing in ocean cores. But I also found interesting other talks in a more diverse range of subjects, particularly John Lowe’s dating techniques 101, Sandy Harrison’s look at model validation (clever use of a George Orwell quote!) and the sea level double-act of Ian Shennan and Roland Gehrels.

Apart from the talks the poster session was especially valuable to me and I spent a fair bit of time noting down what does and doesn’t work on an academic poster. I’m sure this will come in very useful someday soon! Poster sessions are also a great opportunity to chat to academics and other postgrad researchers. Everyone says that more science is done at these sessions than is ever achieved via the lectures.

So I’d say if you’re a postgrad student (Masters or PhD) and you get the chance to go to a small conference definitely do it. It’s a great way to break yourself into the academic conference scene, do a bit of networking, pick up some top hints and tips, and of course you might even learn something. But definitely bring a notebook, you’ll need one.

BSG Windsor Workshop 2013

So I have spent most of the last week in Windsor Great Park at the British Society for Geomorphology’s Windsor Workshop. It’s a chance to meet other physical geography PhD students and to get the low-down on how to finish your PhD with minimum possible faffage!

We were staying in the Cumberland Lodge, which is kind of like a stately home-cum-conference venue (see the photo attached to this post – thanks to Wikipedia for that one). It’s the sort of place with pictures of the Queen in every room and where you could have an epic game of hide-and-seek if the mood took you. I was going to count the number of pics of Queenie but there were that many that I never had time. Great food though and plenty of it, we will all have to be exercising like crazy over the weekend to burn it all off.

Anyway to stop myself digressing into a meal by meal list of yumminess, I’d better say something about what we were actually doing. There were a series of short talks by BSG academics on everything from types of modelling to how to get published. Lots of handy hints and tips but particularly useful in my opinion was a group exercise where we had to plan a PhD project and present a kind of pitch for what we would do if we had that project. To make it extra challenging, each group was created so that none of the members had much knowledge of our project area and then we were given just a couple of hours to work on it. So no time for lit searching or backtracking in our choice of aim or methods. We really had to think fast, especially as the winning group got a bottle of wine. Bribery is definitely the best policy when getting students of any type to get their thinking caps on.

The group presentation set us up nicely for presenting our individual projects to a those of our peers who are working in the same broad area and to a couple of the academics. This presentation was a lot harder than it sounds as we only had 5mins to get across the gist of our PhD and then had to face a barrage of questions. Luckily no-one seemed to think my project was a really terrible idea/ that I am totally mad to be doing it. So that’s a massive relief! And the questions were very helpful in getting me to think about possible issues in my methods, which I can now work out how to avoid.

But the best part of the workshop was definitely meeting the other students. So reassuring to find out that the problems I have been having are shared by lots of others and to compare how things are done at Sheffield with other unis. Plus of course it was very interesting to hear all the icy peoples’ presentations and get a flavour of their project. As the only ice PhD starting at Sheffield this year, it was nice to have some geeky chats with other people doing similar projects.

Overall, the workshop is good opportunity for sharing info and ideas as well as getting some top tips from the people in the know. And now I might actually have some friends at the next conference I attend. No need for my excellent “awkward person standing in the corner like a lemon” impression (it’s very convincing I hear).

So thanks to the BSG and particularly the academics who ran this year’s workshop (you know who you are). Also thanks to the Cumberland Lodge staff, who were even nice to us after my group had broken a table and I’d lost my door card (oops). Did I mention that their food was ace? And merci beaucoup to Mark, Rupert and Kate for giving me a lift to and from Windsor in their snazzy hire car. It would have been a long train ride from Sheff without you guys (with significantly fewer 80s power ballads), and I would never have known how many Gs you can generate going around a roundabout at 30mph.