Posts Tagged ‘student’

Not that Adam

In August 2014 on August 5, 2014 at 10:09 pm


Sarah: Federal member for Melbourne Adam Bandt featured as a showcase interviewee at ANU’s excellent PhD to Present event last week.

Adam trained as a lawyer, and returned to university for PhD studies after 10 years in the workforce. He made many interesting comments about being a postgrad student, and of the broad value of doing a PhD. I jotted a few of these down in case of general interest.

On the process of starting a PhD:

“For me the biggest barrier was just beginning to write. I though ‘I can’t possible being writing until I understand everything about this field.’ But then someone said to me ‘you’ve just to start writing – it will be rubbish but you have just got to start’.”

On the transferable skills coming from a PhD:

“For me it’s less about methodology and more about being to able think about and distill ideas.”

On knowing when to stop researching and just write it up:

“One of the best things I got from working as a lawyer was a recognition that deadlines insist upon themselves. It’s not always going to be perfect, but sometimes you just have to get it done by a certain date.”

“As long as you’re prepared to acknowledge the limitations of your knowledge.”

On why he got into politics:

“It was actually scientists who convinced me to get into politics – reading the science of climate change.”

In answer to a question relating to whether research is partisan or not:

“I think we do badly in Australia in terms of encouraging pure research and letting people use PhDs as a place to explore ideas”

“We need more money, we need more academic independence, and we need to prioritise research as a country.”

On the value of staffers with postgraduate degrees:

“We’re really lucky in parliament because we have a parliamentary library. It’s full of people with PhDs and we’re better for it.”

On whether having a PhD should be overtly stated:

“It’s not something I hide, but to be frank, I didn’t want to be seen as too up myself.”

“We don’t do ‘the popular academic’ that well in Australia.”

On why he is passionate about research:

“Partly it comes from having done a PhD, but more broadly it’s a debate about which way we want our country to go and what do we want to prioritise.”

“I think someone needs to stand up for pure, undirected research. It’s about saying ‘what kind of society do we want?’”

On the role of expert opinions:

“It’s important, especially when people can advance ideas in the public realm.”

“It is important but it’s not sufficient.”

“The attack on the role and the legitimacy of science and research has been mind-boggling, and has a chilling effect on everyone else. It also de-legitimizes science and research more generally.”

A huge thanks to Adam for contributing to the day, and for his frank revelations.

And I’ll forgive him for not being *that* Adam.

[image thanks to chris m on flickr]


Show us your skills

In August 2014 on August 5, 2014 at 9:21 am


Sarah: Having an 11-year old in my house, I’m used to the term ‘skills’.

“Nice skills, loser”

“Oh yes! Skillage!” (after kicking a goal from an acute angle)

“Show us your skills”

Friday last week I was involved in a great event which also talked about skills. But not footy skills. This time it was PhD skills, or more specifically the skills you can pick up during a PhD and which are transferrable to a variety of work settings.

The event was PhD to Present (see program here, and tweets collected under #PhDtopresent here), organised by ANU Research Skills and Training. I was lucky enough to be a panel member, and also to hear a range of fantastic presentations throughout the day. It got me thinking about some of the skills which I use in my current work, and which I picked up during my PhD years. Here are five quick pointers that occurred to me as relevant to my own career, and might sound familiar to you too.

Getting started
The beginning of a PhD is like the biggest piece of blank paper you can imagine. What to do first? Pick something small, and do it. Then pick the next small thing, and do that. Lo and behold, two things are done, and you’ve started. Those small things can include seemingly insignificant actions like reading a paper and making a few notes, getting some equipment ready for an experiment, writing an email to source an antibody – anything that gets the ball rolling. Imagine someone saying to you “what did you do today?”  – you need to be able to give them a concrete answer.

Start in the middle
Once a wise nun sang “let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start”. As it applies to writing, I beg to differ. Start in the middle. When thesis or paper writing, this can be the materials and methods section. Not creative, not interpretive, but just a good solid way to start seeing words on a page. For article writing, it can be as simple as writing out the quotes from an interview. Suddenly you might see how other words can form around them, and you’re on your way. I’ve also heard Allison Tait give this advice recently.

Task management
Lots of things to finish, multiple deadlines, many clients. Many of my weeks look like this. The PhD equivalent involved several experiments on the run, a presentation to prepare, and an association event to organise. At home, it’s each of three kids howling for attention/food/love. Best approach? Don’t panic! Deep breath, loudest squeaky wheel first, one thing at a time.

Know thyself
After four years of working on a single research project, most of time on my own, I got to know my own brain pretty well. Mornings = good thinky stuff going on. Afternoons = too knackered to be creative. Exercise = critical for a change of pace and making sure I slept well. All these are quirks I still apply – mornings are for writing, afternoons are for editing or cross-checking boring titbits, exercise is very important.

Pick up the phone
Yes, we can all email, SMS, tweet and Facebook to our hearts content. But nothing works like a real conversation for creating action and connecting as a fellow human being. If you’re not sure what somebody’s email meant, pick up the phone and clarify it. If that deadline is not going to be manageable anymore, pick up the phone and renegotiate it. If you need to find a speaker for a conference session, pick up the phone and have a yarn about it. Even better – if geography allows – arrange a coffee meeting. Real life interactions have less room for misinterpreted tone, and make it harder for the opposite person to send a “no can do” answer back purely out of annoyance.

[image thanks to flying cloud on flickr]



QnA: Developing skills for scientific enquiry

In June 2014 on June 17, 2014 at 9:34 pm


Sarah: Last week I spoke about science writing and blogging to postgraduate journalism students at the University of South Australia. Following the lecture, the students and I had a great Q&A session which has now spilled over into email conversations. Today a student sent me these two great questions:

Query: I was interested in your point (made during the lecture) about your daughters’ teacher who, although she had never studied science formally, taught children to ask open ended questions/ have an inquiring mind/ participate in open ended conversations. Would you say these inquiry skills are most important for students to learn in science classes at primary school

Students are blogging more and more these days and I thought blogging may be a good way for students to develop their science inquiry skills, ie. question, predict, plan, conduct, process & analyse data, evaluate and especially – communicate. As a notable ‘science blogger’, what do you think about this idea?

Response: Yes, I do think inquiry skills are a critical aspect of primary school education – and not just valuable to science either. The best adult scientists have an awareness that there is never a single or correct answer ‘out there’ to each dilemma. Investigating scientific theories – also know as hypotheses – involves seeking evidence. New information either supports or refutes your hypothesis, and then you refine your hypothesis on the weight of evidence. So learning to keep an open mind, ask lots of questions, not to be put off by different kinds of evidence is an important lesson to learn early. Having teachers who aren’t afraid to say “oh well, that’s interesting/unexpected” and to invite kids to reconsider their thoughts on how things work is so valuable. If kids are taught to seek ‘the answer’ and not be able to discriminate the quality of the information they see, it’s probably very difficult to undo.

I think blogging can also be a useful way to learn research skills – but with some limitations. As long as the blogger has a rigorous approach to seeking and evaluating the quality of evidence, it can work. Seeking confirmation of facts through alternative sources is also important. In addition, using the internet as a research tool has some limitations. For example, using Google to search for evidence will return information tailored to suit the user based on past activity, not on the quality of evidence necessarily. Also, on social media – as in real life – people tend to collect people around them who reflect their own views. These may not necessarily be balanced and evidence-based views.

Addendum: When I posted this same article on the ScienceforLife.365 Facebook community, and shared to my own personal page, I received responses from two teachers whose opinion I respect.

This comment is from a university teacher: Yes and no. Yes, that students need to have open-minded and thoughtful teachers that allow the students to consider things in their own open way (which I think is the essence of the above). However, it is just as important to ask questions that lead to conclusions. Too often ideas are bounced around via open questions that never get resolved. I think that is the second part of the post, and it’s true that students need to come some conclusion in the end that is consistent with what science says.

This comment from a teacher of junior primary aged children: When I pose a question through provocation in the classroom it has a twofold purpose. To invite children in to both the theory and the language of science and to orchestrate the learning to enable the children to achieve the scientific outcomes. When we empower the scientific competencies in even the youngest of children we are inspired by the deep thinking and learning that occurs. We hear the children name themselves as scientists and use complex scientific language in their everyday learning. We look now, always at the child as competent rather than an empty vessel that needs to be filled! Great post!

[image thanks to audio luci store on flickr]


QnA: Can ‘like’ treat ‘like’?

In June 2014 on June 17, 2014 at 9:19 pm


Sarah: Last week I spoke about science writing and blogging to postgraduate journalism students at the University of South Australia. Following the lecture, the students and I had a great Q&A session which has now spilled over into email conversations. Here’s one of the written queries I received, and my answer.

Query: Thinking about homeopathy, how does the theory of “like treating like”’ relate to science?

Response: As far as I know, there is no scientific evidence to broadly support the idea of ‘like treating like’.

Treating medical ailments in a scientific manner involves considering what specific mechanism is involved in each case. As an example: for a fever which results from infection with a virus, this involves thinking about how the virus creates changes in the body which elevate temperature. In a nutshell, the virus triggers a response in the body’s immune system. This response includes the release of signalling molecules (known as cytokines) which tell the cells of the immune system to travel to the site of infection, and also coordinate activities which eventually kill the virus (in most cases). Unfortunately the cytokines also lead to a rise in body temperature. So using something like panadol reduces body temperature and pain in a targeted way and without limiting the ability of the cytokines to coordinate immune activity.

However in each treatment there is also a placebo effect. In effect, this refers to the fact that people tend to feel slightly better after taking what they perceive to be a treatment even if that treatment has no actual effect at a biological level. The simple act of believing a treatment is effective actual does have an impact – how much of an impact varies according to the situation. Here’s some more reading:

[image thanks to Sue Clark on flickr]


Day 59. Keen for Sunscreen

In October 2012 on October 10, 2012 at 1:09 pm

As I wandered around the internet yesterday, the ‘Keen for Sunscreen’ title grabbed my attention.

Maybe ’cause it looks like my last name ‘Keenihan’ (I’m just waiting for my kids to be nicknamed Keenas Mustard). Maybe ’cause it strikes a chord given I have a red-headed husband. Whatever the reason, I followed it up.

Keen for Sunscreen consists of a twitter account, a Facebook page and a blog site.  Posts include news, information and updates relating to skin health and skin cancer prevention. Sounds great! But why? Where does the information come from? Can I rely on it? Is it based on good science? And who on Earth is running this thing? No names or background information appeared on the sites (October 9 2012). While I understand that anonymity is highly valued, I do like to feel like I’m dealing with a real person in online conversations.

Being a nosy parker, I asked the twitter account holder if they could tell me a bit more:

Hi there! I love yr idea, but I’d love to know more about who is writing this & where does your info come from? Thanks 🙂

An answer, came quickly:

I’m a student at UNSW Australia – info comes from various sources, @SkinCancerOrg @MelanomaAus and many others. 🙂

Of course I couldn’t stop there. It was twinterview time.

(1) why did you set it up?

(2) how long will it run?

(3) target audience?

(4) how do you decide content?

(5) sponsored?

She or he was very friendly and willing to help. The answers were as follows:

(1) campaign for media class

(2) as long as I possibly can

(3) mostly teenagers/college students

(4) credible and interesting, content that will shock people into action

(5) nope 🙂

I’m assuming that the campaign will provide academic insights for the student as to how to use social media for public relations and disseminating information. And perhaps offer some personal satisfaction too, being based around an important public health issue.

I’m also assuming that the student would like some feedback, so here goes:

  • It’d be great if you could post some brief information about your project on the ‘about’ page of your blog and Facebook page, and on your twitter profile (people would be more likely to trust you that way, in my opinion);
  • If you’re posting health and scientific information, the strength of your argument would be improved by providing links as to where the original information came from (not everyone will care about this, but scientists and clinicians do need to know that information came from a reliable and valid source);
  • Use of hashtags #fact and #truth worries me a little – if you search in twitter, you’ll see that all sort of subjective and often weird tweets are posted using these. Try and come up with your own tags which are specific to your cause, or find and use ones that other reliable health and medical accounts regularly apply; and
  • Have fun with it! I find I’m much more likely to be active on social media every day if I have conversations on a regular basis and engage with others online.

Good luck Keen for Sunscreen, I’ll be looking out for you.

[photo thanks to bimurch on flickr]