Embracing the permanence of change


Managing change can be the mental equivalent of a Cirque du Soleil performance. Image: cleveland.com

The truest of truisms is that everything changes and nothing is certain. Except, of course, for death, taxes and the alignment of grant application deadlines with the busiest times of year.

Change is a permanent state of being in research, where topics can switch direction on the whim of a funding body embracing a new buzzword, and everything that you’ve been working towards for months or years becomes suddenly irrelevant. It’s enough to drive anyone under their lab bench in a foetal position.

Change-management needs to be considered an essential ability of researchers and yet this is one skill that’s not usually part of PhD training. During a PhD, there is one project that continues until completion, regardless of any shifts in research interests. Even when the entire topic disappears, like when a government stopped global warming, the PhDs continued.

And as tough as PhD research is and as many problems that crop during this research, it is nowhere near as psychologically traumatising as shelving all your research just before the project bears fruit.

Shifting project directions on a proverbial pin-head takes a kind of mental dexterity that would make any Cirque-de-Soleil performer jealous. Developing these abilities should be encouraged more during PhDs but probably not to the extent of forcing major change onto students.

With experience and practice in research skills, suddenly changing topics is not only possible but also potentially exciting. But only after the researcher has been coaxed from under their bench. There must be an adjustment phase. Usually involving both chocolate and wine.

Shelved research doesn’t have to die and so there’s no need for an extended period of mourning. With proper labels* and document management, such research can be put into temporary stasis from which it can be reborn. Probably in a new and improved format with a funky new buzzword in the title.

In the meantime, there is opportunity to take on another challenge and a new topic full of exciting problems to tackle. The new collaborations formed and approaches developed may even assist in solving past research problems.

With change comes opportunity and with the right skills and sufficient supplies of chocolate, it can be embraced.

*A hard lesson well learnt!

The great research swap


Transitioning into different research topics is like leaping from Halo to reality. Completely different terrains but some skills are similar. Image credit: forbes.com


Changing research topic is a big challenge in research. A PhD is like being completely absorbed in particular online role-playing game where you know all about the allegiances of other players and the strengths and limitations of your character.

And then after the PhD, it’s expected that you side step from your PhD topic into a completely new topic. Much like launching into a whole new game where you don’t know the landscape nor what you have to work with to navigate the terrain. The whole process is disorientating and yet it’s absolutely essential.

Conquering a new world can be exciting and it’s great for boasting a new post doc’s CV. But organisational restructures can also leave experienced researchers with years of research suddenly shelved and a directive to tackle a whole new topic. This is where those that are most flexible in their research will survive.

Luckily there are some skills that are universal for all research topics.

The most obvious is how to conduct research. No matter what the topic, solid experimental design underpins everything in research. These skills are invaluable and can go anywhere. Much like a foldable bicycle.

Secondly, there are enough processes in research that any self-respecting scientist with OCD can use to cope when faced with a new project. Here’s a summary of some of the processes for conquering the new research topic:

  1. Scour the literature and get up to speed with the field. Definitely check out the latest review papers and follow the papers references there.
  2. Learn methods and practice them til confident of reproducible results.
  3. Design some experiments and get that science happening.
  4. Write up a paper. It’s like putting a flag up and staking your claim on the new topic.

One thing to remember is to keep tabs on the former topic just in case the wind changes and the old topic becomes new again. Writing a review paper is great motivation to keep up with the literature in that field. The additional citations that inevitably follow are just a bonus.

The shift in topic is can be invigorating when it’s planned and can be frightening when it isn’t. Happily, the new world can be conquered in a systematic way and, if successful, the skills of project transitions can be added to the list of transferable skills acquired in research.

Of course playing different online RPGs is sure to help as well.

Dancing science


Dancing is the next level in science communication. Image: nytimes.com

Dancing is not a required skill for studying science. In fact, whole science degrees can be awarded without assessing a single pirouette. And yet recent years have seen a groundswell of people attempting science communication through dance. Can this really be good for science?

Science communication is a growing field with more people talking and writing science than ever before. Explaining complex concepts in short and easy-to-understand formats is an important skill for scientists and some brilliant competitions have been set up, including Fresh Science.

While the idea is to encourage PhD graduates to distil the key messages from their research for a non-expert audience, this can be demoralising for a new PhD graduate. Having years of challenging and detailed research condensed into a three minute presentation is heart breaking.

Can there be another way? Bizarrely, yes. But it’s not necessarily more satisfying.

Instead of explaining your thesis using something practical, like words, there is growing interest in Dance Your Thesis competitions. This takes science communication to the next level. Not only do researchers need writing and speaking skills to do better science, it looks like we’re going to need to be good dancers as well.

I am not a coordinated dancer. Not that I let that stop me, but generally it’s in the public’s best interest to keep such urges behind closed doors. Without any background in formal dance training, I struggle with why anyone would think that dancing a thesis would be a good idea. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with mine. Aside from tap dancing the names of bioactive compounds in Morse code.

And yet the idea is has resonated with people around the world, including Sydney and Munich. Last year’s winner has over 160,000 views on YouTube, which is at least 159,998 views more than my thesis. This idea has merit.

Dancing science may or may not be bringing science to whole new audiences. But it is getting a lot of public interest and it certainly helps scientists think about the bigger picture about what their results mean. And on top of that, it’s a lot of fun.

Coffee for the good of science


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.

Simple science can be clever science


Science sometimes requires skills like Macgyver’s. Image credit: comicbook.com

Science has made leaps and bounds in recent decades with the development of sophisticated instruments that measure deeper and deeper into our world. Discoveries can now be made that confirm the existence of gravitational waves, the structure of proteins and everything in between. This is a golden age of scientific exploration.

And yet there isn’t a laboratory in the entire world that could function adequately without such equipment as a marker pen.

When we talk science and stand in awe at our capabilities and technological advances, it’s easy to forget that much of science uses very rudimentary equipment. Particularly in applied science where a new project with industry means having to measure a characteristic of a real world sample right now.

This includes, for example, the level of sediment in a tank. How do we measure it? Get out a marker pen and draw a line on the tank where the sediment comes up to. Genius.

Or when we need to compare the filterability of samples too small for the real method, how do we do it? Pour the sample through the filter paper and mark the receiver flask with the volume filtered every 10 seconds. Marker pen wins again!

The genius of early scientists was in developing ways measure the world around them. Today determining the structure of an unknown molecule, for example, is very straightforward, as long as you have a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer and mass spectrometer handy and really, who doesn’t? But a century ago this was a real challenge and involved a massive array of indirect measures to get the final structure. And some genius. That always helps.

Even in modern labs, it is an invaluable skill to be able to develop practical and reproducible methods on the fly using everyday, inexpensive lab equipment. Sophisticated equipment is essential but expensive and any cost savings to a research budget is applauded.

Particularly if there is a solid element of ingenuity associated with it. Like rigging up a large hadron collider in the basement using rubber bands and lengths of pipe. I think that might have actually been a Macgyver episode.

While high tech science paves our way to a deeper understanding of the universe, we must remember that it is also the simple things in science that help push that knowledge forward.

Accidental talents


Working in a lab may make you a better dancer. Image: psu.edu/khallmusic 

Research scientists have unusual skill sets. Some skills are expected, like good experimental designs and writing decent scientific papers. But other skills develop as side effects of repeated lab work that are just plain weird. Useful, but weird.

One of the key skills that I’ve developed is the ability to transfer small amounts of liquid from one vial to another. I should really have that on my resume. My entire PhD consisted of evaporating solvent from compounds that I isolated from leaves and then dissolving them in the smallest volume possible. And then transferring that concentrated solution to a more convenient container. An important skill.

Another accidental talent of many researchers is the Art of Finding Stuff. Before any new experiment can begin, Stuff must be found. Mostly containers. Science revolves around the particular vessels that are available for storing liquids and many experiments are designed around the size and number of available storage containers.

Labs also contain many hidden and long forgotten chemicals and glassware buried in the back of drawers labelled with very unhelpful names like “Things in here”. The real skill comes from remembering what’s actually in these drawers from the last round of rummaging, thus reducing the time taken to locate useful items.

One of the more unexpected skills that I’ve developed as a researcher is dancing. I don’t mean the tragic happenings that occur when I listen to dance music, which is unfortunately more related to seizures than elegance. I mean the delicate balance of interactions that come from performing coinciding experiments with other lab users that is surely on par with the grace required for, say, ballroom dancing.

The necessary politeness needed to work very closely in another’s space and the acknowledgement that both parties must move in a particular way to meet similar objectives are common elements in both dancing and lab work. There’s also the inevitable give and take required for both parties to achieve their objectives. With practice, this becomes smoother and more natural, making this more art form than science.

More often than not that act of doing science takes much more than scientific knowledge and we don’t even realise that we’re building these skills. If only that was the same for exercise.

Life learnings beyond a PhD

paper towel

Refilling the paper towel dispenser. Nailed it!

Q. How many researchers does it take to fill an empty paper towel dispenser?

A. None. Purely because we don’t know how and are too embarrassed to ask. Elucidating the chemical structures of unknown compounds? Too easy. Elucidating the workings of a paper towel dispenser? That’s just crazy-hard.

The PhD has taught me a range of skills beyond research but sometimes I think I missed out on some essential learnings.

In the PhD days I joined a speaker program promoting the benefits of learning maths to high school students. Great for logical thinking I would say. And logical thinking Is great for solving problems.

I firmly believed that until the day I tried to use logic to find eggs in Woolworths supermarket. Near the fresh produce? Or the baking aisle? Um….breakfast cereals? No, I found them next to sauces. Obviously.

Which is when I realised that life functions in a realm beyond logic, sometimes entering into the world of black magic. This is clearly the case with any administrative task. After getting some samples were analysed externally, I tried to fill out the forms using logic instead of chicken bones and failed.

Me: So, I don’t need to fill out a good received form, right? On account of there being no actual goods received?

Chicken bones: Yeah you do.

On another occasion one of the forms called for a ‘Brief description of goods.’

Me: Um…Acetonitrile?

Chicken bones: Nope. Catalogue number. Obviously.

See? Voodoo.

I tried to use a stapler the other day. These staplers haven’t work since the administrative assistant left a couple of years back but I thought I might give it a go. Of course it got stuck. I spent the next half hour trying to prise it open again.

By comparison, HPLCs are not a problem. I can easily to pull one apart and put back together. Other mechanical devices are also fine. One time I even built a fully functioning rotary evaporator from spare parts found around the lab. But staplers are just something else.

There have been some small triumphs. The printer has gotten stuck so often that now, with the help of the large diagrams and step by step guides, I can confidently retrieve a jammed piece of paper. The dishwasher is also no longer a minefield of indecipherable buttons and dials thanks to the guidance of knowledgeable tech experts.

The PhD has taught me much but there is still so much to learn. Fortunately, the real world has many amazing people – admin masters, tech experts and lab specialists to name but a few – from whom I can learn new and useful skills.

In time, with patient tuition and the development of standard operating procedures that contain detailed diagrams, I may just be able to master the paper towel dispenser. Maybe.

Writing a new chapter in science. Literally

Books. Like journal articles but heavier

Why do researchers write book chapters? Cutting edge science is clearly in the journal articles and this is always the best place to showcase research. The next best thing is to attend conferences where we can point out our latest research and hope people will find our paper. And then cite our paper.

Yet we spend a great deal of time compiling book chapters whenever the opportunity arises.

The problem with books is that they sit in a library. At my work, that means going all the way down one flight of stairs. I’d then need to carry the book all the way back upstairs. The only real upside is that I’m sure that counts towards a gym workout.

Online journal articles are far easier and more readily available. They are the most current, cutting edge science. In so far as is possible after the months of redrafting.

I’ve heard it said that the amount of effort spent in writing and re-drafting peer-reviewed scientific papers is so great that every ten papers published equates to a writing a novel. Such a great analogy. I think I’m onto about my third book by now.

With journal articles always as the go-to place for the latest research, books may be considered passé. So why do we bother to write book chapters?

Mostly it is because there is something more permanent about contributing a chapter in a book.

The hope that it will make a longer lasting impression than the thousands of journal articles published each year. That someone new to a topic will pick up the book and read the chapter and learn the essential elements required to understand the new papers that are published in a particular field. That the tangible pages – real pages – will hold the knowledge that will resonate through the ages.

And it’s just cool.

PhD training gives you so much more than just a PhD

Daniel thinks he’s just painting a fence but Mr Miyagi is teaching him so much more.

Studying for a PhD in anything makes you an incredible expert with a very narrow field of expertise. Fortunately, like Daniel painting a fence and waxing Mr Miyagi’s car, doing a PhD gives you far more useful skills than just the direct project outcome.

My PhD was in natural products chemistry. This makes me an absolute gun at evaporating solvent from column fractions and dissolving them in the smallest amount of liquid possible. Yet there were so many other useful skills that I learned during my studies that I didn’t really appreciate at the time.

Here are just some of the useful things that can be learned from a PhD.

Writing science

Writing research papers is not a natural way of communicating. The writing style is concise and precise with no wasted words but enough detail to make sense to someone outside your project. No pressure.

The hardest part of writing a paper is being able to convert all the reams of data into a single coherent story. A big part of this comes from knowing what to leave out. You can’t do everything at once which is why Future Research is one of the most important sections of the paper.

Being able to do this well is highly valued amongst researchers and the skills only come from practice writing up your own data.

Working smarter not harder

It is easy to become so completely ensconced in the research that we forget to take a step back and have a broader look at our results.

My attitude was always to plough through work in the hope that one day I’ll get it all done or at least under control. This doesn’t work with research. The harder you run at it, the more work you have to do and the worse you do it.

Time is much better spent in planning at the start and then assessing the data at the end of each section before moving on. This sort of information would have been incredibly useful at the start of my PhD.

Public speaking

After almost having a nervous breakdown before my Honours presentation, I set out to learn all about public speaking and how to do it. Turns out that the more you do, the easier it gets. Teaching in tutorials, labs and eventually lecturing knocked that fear right out of me. Nothing like giving a two hour lecture to make a ten minute conference presentation seem like a piece of cake.

This is an insanely useful skill for researchers. Not only do we need to know how to present our work to our peers, but also to the broader public, who fund our research often through taxes if not donations. Being able to tailor how you describe your research based on the background of your audience is a brilliant skill that well worth practising.

It can take you a lot further than just being good at science.

There are incredible opportunities available during a PhD and these will give you many more useful skills than just the project outcomes. And, ultimately, that is what makes it all worthwhile.