Saturday, 11 February 2017

Week 19: (6th February to 12th February 2017) or 'Happily ever after starts here'

Snuggled under a duvet of serenity, resting the sweet head on a pillow of peace, a magical spell of wonder will soon be cast across a child's mind. The fairy tale - a bewitching lullaby of sorcery and mystique - is about to begin. Four words glide like angels through the air to fall on their untiring ears; the only four words that can truly bridge the chasm between the world of humanity and that of pure imagination. They are, of course, these: Once upon a time...

...There was a tree. It had grown for many years and now it was growing old. Dark clouds swept across the sky. Rain fell, thunder roared and a lightning bolt split the tree in two. A woodsman came upon the broken tree and sawed it down so that only the stump remained. Soon a bark beetle with long feelers settled in. The beetle loved the stump and laid her eggs underneath the bark. The eggs hatched and tiny maggots emerged. All summer long they gnawed tunnels in the bark... (and so the short story by Natalia Romanova continues).

To capture and to sustain the attention of another human being, to guide their mind through the aisles of a narrative, is by no means a trivial pursuit. Be it a fairy tale about a rotting log or the evening news, the art of crafting a story and sharing it is not an inherent attribute we are born with. And for scientists, whose stories are at times riddled with complexities, it is not only prudent to consider what's being said, but the way it's being presented. In this, an extraordinarily diverse and busy week in what is now the fifth month of my PhD, I've been reflecting on this theme of 'Science Communication'.

On Monday, I was handed a milestone. It appeared in the form of 21 undergraduate essays and my very first marking duty. Their physical weight does, by no means, match the weight of the responsibility I feel, nor the extent of my honour. Despite what my colleagues may report, I do not feel - nor will I ever feel - that marking work is a burden. On the contrary, it is an enriching task both for the student that ultimately receives the feedback, but also for the marker, whose mind should be broadened and deepened with the dose of undergraduate wisdom.

The essays that sit next to me as I write are the first examined scratchings from those second year students involved in the course I have been helping to teach over the last month or so. As a reminder, the course is principally designed to tutor the student in the art of research proposal writing and a core tenet of that proposal is a review of the current literature. Indeed, it is this self-executed review of the existing work about a particular topic that every researcher must complete prior to mapping out a feasible study. It is, if you recall, what I did in the first couple of months of my PhD. And so, the students' first task was to write a 1000 word literature review on their chosen topic of study, identifying what has been explored thus far and the knowledge gaps that exist. Whilst I mark some of those, their next endeavour will be to start thinking about how to carry out an investigation to answer some of those unanswered questions.

When circulating around my groups this week, I was positively amazed at the pure simplicity yet intrinsic influence that accompanies the duty of teaching. At the very beginning of the session, a group outlined their research questions. (A research question, in a very self-explanatory way, is a question that the investigator asks prior to beginning a study). For instance, it could be: 'do cities affect soil moisture?' Whilst it perfectly reasonable to ask such a question, it is nevertheless quite broad and my main package of advice was to make these questions more specific and answerable. 'Do cities affect soil moisture' might then become: 'does city size reduce the rural topsoil moisture in the summer time?' With the latter, the inclusion of greater detail - the study region (rural), the section of soil (topsoil) and the time of the study (summer time) - renders the question to be much more answerable. When I returned to the same group at the very end of the session, their research questions had transformed. I had made a difference; their questions were now much clearer. This is, of course, just one of the many attributes warranted by those who pen scientific works: the art of being more precise.

With the workshop closing for yet another week, I headed off almost immediately and made passage for the library. There, in one of the study rooms, were 30 A Level students, some of whom I had met last year when I made a visit to a local Cumbrian school. On this particular occasion, they had travelled to Lancaster University to immerse themselves into a world of cutting-edge research. They were also here to learn and make use of one of the Library's most useful tools: the 'OneSearch' website. It can be used (and is employed extensively on a daily basis) to locate and download research articles. By conducting a search in a particular way, using the right 'search terms', there is a greater chance of finding an article which satisfies your needs. Once again, it's about communicating effectively; only this time to a search box.

Some of those A Level students might be back here in several years time, within the vibrant realms of a university, undertaking a PhD and will discover that whilst it's clearly substantial to carry out well-articulated, structured research projects, one of the most salient tasks is to share that research with people who can render real change. Indeed, it is only through working and communicating effectively with policy makers that a PhD thesis can have a sense of agency in the world. This week, I attended a workshop convened by Sophie Scragg, a Senior Universities Programme Officer for the Houses of Parliament. One of her principal duties is to travel to university institutions and encourage researchers to work with Parliament in shaping policy. To some extent, the STARS programme has already played its part to this effect. Last year, the first cohort produced a report for the Soil Health Enquiry that evidenced the importance of soils for the 21st century. You can read a copy of the STARS evidence by clicking here. Having said that, there is much more to write and much more that Parliament needs to read, so part of our session was spent discussing the most effective ways of communicating complex science to the 'non-specialists' that sit in Parliament.

Another equally fascinating arm of Parliament that I discovered in that workshop is the list of 'All Party Parliamentary Groups'. To those who are yet to be visited by Sophie, All Party Parliamentary Groups (or, APPGs) are clubs that comprise of members from a range of political parties which enjoy a shared interest. As an example, there is an APPG in: ants and heritage, bees, the furniture industry, home electrical safety and international mining (and of course, many more). When the list is scrolled to 'S', I was disappointed not to see 'Soil' there, though hardly surprised. However, there is an APPG for 'Sustainable Food and Farming' and 'Environment', both of which I'm sure cross over to discuss the integrity of soil on many occasions.

That evening, ahead of a two-day workshop on Innovation, the STARS constellation regrouped again, this time in Lancaster's Merchant House restaurant. We dined in what was once a wine merchant's cellar, 300 years ago, but which has since been converted into a private function room. The subterranean ambience one might expect from that of a wine cellar has not been lost, though.


Sitting patiently on the fringes of Lancaster is a secret. Moored to the edge of a still, shallow lake, hiding conspicuously behind the bulrushes as if espying upon a rare bird is one of the most uniquely designed buildings I have ever seen on my travels. At some angles, it appears like a fishing boat, designed with portholes and an inverted hull for a roof. At other angles, it's a house for a hobbit, curved and irregular with playful eccentricity. In many ways, it's as if it was built out of dough which has been moulded by the quirks and oddities that float around in the human mind.

Forrest Hills is, in fact, a meeting venue that occasionally tailors for weddings and likewise functions. The graceful ambience of the surroundings is by no means a 'decoration'; it is essentially part of what makes this place such an inspiring location. As STARS researchers, we were lucky this week to spend two whole days here. The Reed Room, where most of our time would be enjoyed, is in many ways an ideal lounge, equipped with a wood burning stove that glows subtly at one end and a panoramic vista of Fountain Lake from the other. In fact, the nature outside that enthrals the eye blends well with the straw bale walls and the chairs, upholstered I am led to believe using nettles and wood.

Like I say, we spent two days at Forrest Hills, but not 'for rest' as the name implies. In great contrast, we had a packed programme of sessions, each of which was tailored to a particular strand of what is now called 'Innovation'. Though there isn't much in the way of a definitive description for 'Innovation' in this particular context, the objective nonetheless was to strengthen our skills in communicating our research with non-scientists.

80% of our success as Soil Scientists relies upon, not what we do, but how we do it. So remarked the course convenor, Nick Skinner; the founder and director of a company called Poppyfish which develops learning and development workshops for businesses and organizations. And so it follows, that our 'behaviour' as scientists is intrinsic to our success. I refer to 'behaviour' cautiously as many may simply consider only two categories, born out of a distinction made first in primary school: good and bad behaviour. For Nick, behaviour is a little less clear cut.

Prior to the event, I completed a questionnaire that asked twenty questions about my 'working' life and with considerable ease, a computer churned my answers and gave me a colour. It is that colour that explains my behavioural preferences. Essentially, the four major colours that each of us 'have' are: red (assertive, risk taking, strong minded), yellow (positive, warm, happy), green (friendly, fairness, justice) and blue (calculating, logical, safe). The results from my own questionnaire show that my 'behavioural colour' is emerald, a blend of blue, yellow and green. I am, the report suggests, "likely to be neither strongly extrovert nor introvert, but have the ability to work alone or in teams. I strive for quality, work methodically and use humour in a dry way to express my opinion. I may bottle up my feelings and emotions and am a stickler for quality and detail. I like people and I am equally comfortable in large groups or with a small circle of close friends." I will let others be the judge.

Why does this matter? In many ways, it gives you an appreciation of the many varieties of behavioural types that exist within the Science community, and of course, within society in general. By identifying someone's behavioural colour, it is suggested that you can shape what you say so that it more effectively sparks their attention. Those individuals with red-dominant personalities are less likely to want as much detail as those, for instance, who are blue-dominated. Likewise, someone who associates with yellow are much more likely to be friendly and sociable.

In one the final sessions on Day 1 of the workshop, the task was to consider ourselves on the first day of retirement, looking back on a (hopefully) successful career. The challenge was to communicate what we'd achieved in our PhDs using six, pre-selected photos. Effectively, we were in the future, looking back on to what currently is the future, and the fact that we had to discuss our PhDs with six particular photographs, made the task equally as testing. Having said that, it shed light to some extent on the importance of considering the future now. The question is, of course, when I eventually reach retiring age, what do I want to say that I achieved? What difference do I want to say that I made to the world? What will people remember me for?

Day 2 of the workshop was centrally focussed on the art of networking; the ways by which we present the 'big ideas' behind our PhD research. Clearly, my 'big idea' revolves around the theme of enhancing soil productive lifespans. But whilst that may be the case now, I haven't always been doing this, nor will I continue to study this theme (although there's a possibility I will, of course) so a large aspect of networking is considering the people who I need to talk to next. Arjun Heimsath, one of the leading authorities on Soil Production, could be a node in my potential future network. We also learnt the art of delivering the 20 second pitch; a short summary of: who you are, what your big idea is, what you can do to help the person you're talking to and a concluding statement. And so, outside on the patio on a raw Thursday morning, overlooking the serenity of Fountain Lake, we stood and practised our spiels, complete with handshakes.

Thus, across the week, it has become increasingly clear that communication as a scientist is one of the most essential skills one can develop. There is, of course, a certain way by which to network with other scientists, which is quite distanciated from the way one might network with the public. As I parted from the venue, in the dimming light of Thursday afternoon, one particular sign stood out. It read: "happily ever after starts here". For me, however, the story has only just begun...

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