Being the new normal

 

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Women’s AFL has become the new normal. Image: lions.com.au

 

For me, Australian rules football has always been a jarring event. I always associated it with the cold, dark sadness of winter in conjunction with being dragged along by a former boyfriend to boring endless matches. I’d even change channel to avoid the news highlights, such was my aversion about the game. Some might say that was the real motivation for my leaving Melbourne but that’s pure speculation.

Then came Women’s AFL. Suddenly I cared. Suddenly the results became a mark of personal pride when my team were victors. Not only do I stay tuned to the news highlights about the games but I seek out information about who’s winning and even watch some of the matches. Admittedly only the last quarter but that’s a considerable improvement.

What has impressed me so much is that I can now relate to the game and to the players. Their triumph is my triumph. Even better, because of the brave few who fought for years to get the women’s league happening, now the next generation of women can aspire to play football professionally.

This is game-changing for many football-mad families where the daughters were always told they couldn’t play their favourite sport. A radio host recently admitted that only a couple of years ago he stopped his daughter from playing football because he thought there was no future in it for her.

Now, with the local women’s team winning the AFL Grand Final, the level of support is such that it feels like there was always a women’s league. It’s become the new normal.

This struck me as being so similar to STEM careers. Not very long ago women were actively discouraged from participating in STEM subjects because it was considered that there was no future in it for them. Some brave souls forged their way in through the condescension and insults but many women shied away from it.

Now being a woman in STEM is considerably better but there is still room for improvement. We still need to show the next generation that women can have interesting STEM careers, do them well and love them.

This is where science communication and outreach are critical. Love your work? Let school-aged kids see your passion and hear stories about the amazing work you do. Just being there, as a female talking about your experiences, can have such a positive impact on encouraging young girls into non-traditional careers.

It’s something that we STEM-careers women can easily do to make a difference.

Now we just need to work on that pay gap.

The Olympics of scientific conferences

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The Olympics closing ceremony resembles the close of a good scientific conference

The truly great thing about the Olympic games is the closing ceremony. Not because I’m anti-sport as some may suggest, but because this is when the athletes dispense with any animosity towards their competitors and enter the arena as friends. This is much like scientific conferences.

One of the key perks of being in research is going to conferences in far away lands. Having said that, my last conference was in my home town, but either way it’s always a great opportunity to meet with your peers.

Conferences can bring moments of great triumph and exhilaration. Like when you see the name tag of the person across from you at the lunch table and realise that you’ve read absolutely all their papers and follow their work obsessively.

You want to go over to them immediately and gush about how inspirational their work has been but you kind of want to be cool as well.The triumph is when you get the nerve to hold a normal conversation with them without them thinking your crazy. I’m still working on that last bit.

Occasional moments of exhilaration also occur when someone reads your name badge and approaches you to gush about your work. This never gets old. Ever. The struggle for me is to also be cool about it and not give them a great big bear hug of gratitude.

Then there are moments of despair. Like when someone presents their data exactly in your field but they’ve done it better. And with the most advanced technology. And are ready to publish. But always from despair rises hope, usually in the form of a new collaboration.

All this networking is exhausting. But by the end of a good international conference, any barriers between countries have been broken down, new alliances have formed and new ideas are set in motion. This is science at its best.

Now to follow up on all these leads and get some new data to present at the next conference. The training for the next event never ends and that’s just how we like it.

 

 

Coffee for the good of science

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Coffee breaks help generate a rapport between colleagues and avoid the need to settle disputes with cage matches. Image: mmaweekly.com

 

Locked away in our laboratories, researchers tussle for access to equipment and resources. The overriding sensation is a tense mutual respect. We generally acknowledge each other’s space and equipment but this respect is tenuous and can breakdown in an instant.

Something can go slightly wrong on a project and suddenly next week’s deadline is ominously close and that person needs all the equipment RIGHT NOW. This then encroaches on other people’s deadlines as resources they have booked and planned to use are suddenly inaccessible, and the whole ‘mutual respect’ thing descends into cage matches.

That isn’t quite true. We haven’t got a cage in the lab yet but I’m sure it’s included in next year’s budget.

This is one of the key reasons why research institutes usually have a ‘social club’. It’s a way of forcing people to get to know each other outside the lab in friendly environments and even footing. The same can be said for such activities as ‘lunch’ or ‘coffee breaks’.

Anything that involves the coming together of people – preferably in combination with food and drink intake – can improve relations.

As science becomes more multidisciplinary, being able to get along with other people who are not quite in the same team or have the same objectives is an increasingly important skill. Getting out of the lab and gathering around food with colleagues is a simple but effective method for creating better relationships and building stronger teams.

So go on, put down that pipette and have a coffee. It’s for the good of science.

Standing out from the crowd

Standing out from the crowd is becoming more essential for successful research.

The old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is a lie. It’s what you know and who you know that counts. Particularly in research. The foundation of research is knowledge and solid experimental designs and definitely you need to know your stuff. But there’s also no point doing marvellous research if your data is never published, never read or never cited. It’s also now essential to know people to get the collaborations to get the grants to start research.

This is where self-promotion and networking become critical. Happily there are many avenues for making your work stand out in a data-drenched world.

Mainstream media

Believe it or not, researchers will pay attention to mainstream media. This can be a really useful way of telling people about the great work you’re doing as well as hearing about what other research is out there. A snippet on the nightly news, a feature on a radio station or a stint on one of the science shows can get you noticed by someone outside your field in areas that you may not even know exist.

The best way is to pitch a story to a journalist. Preferably use an angle about something that is currently being discussed in the media to which your work somehow – no matter how loosely – relates.

Also let a journalist know if you’re doing something that just sounds awesome. Like using the Synchrotron for wine research, for example. Or going on an expedition to the Arctic tundra to find new bioactive peptides that may be the next cure for heart disease.

A media release after you’ve published your research in a peer-reviewed journal can still be a good way to go but put some thought into the timing of the media release to get you bigger bang for you buck. It may be worth holding off on releasing the news to coincide with a big event or conference in your field at a time when more people in the field are likely to be tuning into the mainstream media.

Social media

Published a paper recently? Tweet about it! Doing something cool? Take a photo and Instagram it! There are so many avenues for social media it is a missed opportunity not to utilize them.

The more people know that you’re working in a particular area the more likely they are to seek out your work amongst the – probably – hundreds of papers in the field. And the more people who read your work, the more likely your paper is to get cited.

So do it, start a Twitter account…and use it!

Non-peer-reviewed publications

Publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is the benchmark standard of any research scientist and close attention is paid to nuanced differences in citation indices. Yet non-peered reviewed publications invite a wider readership and can therefore also be of value.

These publications can be industry journals, broader science journals like New Scientist, and even society publications for members, such the Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s rag, Chemistry Australia. It is well worth getting mentioned in these types of journals to get more traffic to your peer-reviewed publications.

Online resources

Other, less conventional publications are also of value. An industry blog can have a greater audience than a printed publication and some popular science sites such as Sciengist.com are good for broadening your readership. It is worth keeping track of which blogs are being written in your field and who is reading them.

AGMs

Crazy, I know. As well as scientific society publications, annual general meetings of these organisations can be a great way to diversify your networks and mix with people in slightly different fields. The broader your society memberships, the broader your potential collaborations and the happier the potential funding body.

Conferences

The biggest perk of working in science is the international conference. Even attending an interstate or even local conference is nothing to sneeze at. These are the biggest gatherings of researchers and the best and most important networking events. Networking is essential. Tips for doing it right can be found here.

It is always important to speak to people in your field but also really interesting to speak to people outside your field. Poster sessions are a great way of finding out what other people are doing and why. The more people you can connect with at a conference the more likely useful ideas and collaborations will come your way.

All this networking and getting noticed takes time. But it will be time well spent if a chance encounter leads to another citation, new discovery, or even that elusive successful grant application.

Science communications starts with understanding the language

Scientific theories are not the same as conspiracy theories

Communication between American, Australian and English people can be difficult. Like when I ordered a lemon squash in England and was given some sort of dishwater containing fluorescent yellow dye. Or the reactions of hostel roommates in the USA when I spoke of the benefits of wearing a thong in the shower. Turns out I meant flip flops.

These differences are frustrating and occasionally hilarious but the confusion of science English and English English has more serious ramifications.

‘Theory’ is a big one. Einstein’s theory of relativity is not actually on par with Joe Bloggs’ theory about how aliens have invaded Earth and are masquerading as our leaders. Although, based on how our leaders behave, Mr. Bloggs may have a point but it is yet to be demonstrated mathematically.

Scientific theory needs to be taken a bit more seriously than conspiracy theories on the grounds that they have been proven to occur in every case that has been tested. That’s pretty convincing. It’s also pretty confusing. We really need a different name for ‘Theory’ so it better resembles its significance.

‘Hypothesis’ refers to a testable idea and not at all a gut feeling or hunch as it seems to suggest. More confusing terms can be found here.

When it comes to communication, clarity is everything. If I order chips, I may receive hot chips or packet chips depending on where I am in the world. Science communication also needs to factor in perception and use unambiguous terminology. Which may mean that it’s time to find some new words.