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ISMET 6 report

A report from Panos Kirmizakis, who travelled with other REMEDIATE participants to Lisbon to attend a conference/workshop!

Bio-electrochemical Workshop 2017

This month Peter and I had the opportunity to attend ISMET6, a bio-electrochemical meeting and workshop organized by International Society for Microbial Electrochemistry and Technology which took place in Lisbon, Portugal from the 3rd to the 6th of October. I effectively learned in four compressed days what I usually learn in a month. The presenters were able to take the complex and make it simple. I now have a much better understanding of the interactions of microorganisms and electrodes, while finding novel ways to use them for sustainable applications.
ISMET6 covered the whole palette of interest of the community including fundamental aspects of biochemistry, microbiology, and the ecology of relevant organisms and communities, as well as improved materials and designs of devices and their industrial applications. Students had the opportunity to attend a pre-ISMET workshop with teaching sessions delivered by renowned leaders in fundamentals of electrochemical methods, molecular techniques for understanding and engineering electroactive organisms, and electricity driven carbon capture and utilisation.

learning

But even at an international workshop like this, fun wouldn’t be missed. We thank the organizers of the workshop for the social events, the tour of Lisbon and great monuments like the Belem Tower, and the fantastic dinner at Sintra in a friendly atmosphere where we made some new friends.

dinner

We look forward to attend the next ISMET workshop, which will take place in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK. To learn more about ISMET 2018 and the activities that will take place, visit the central website of EU-ISMET 2018 (https://conferences.ncl.ac.uk/eu-ismet2018/)

Science Uncovered 2017

The ESRs based at QUB recently attended a public engagement event. Here’s Panos with his thoughts:

Science Uncovered, which has been held in over 300 European cities for many years, took place on Friday September 29th with great success. The venue where European Researchers’ Night 2017 took place – Ulster Museum – was flooded with people; it attracted young and old alike. The audience, with particular love, embraced this multidisciplinary scientific event and listened to a variety of scientific talks, met young researchers, and participated dynamically in this fascinating tour of the world of science, research and technology.

public

It turns out that science keeps not only the interest of the public but also of the scientists/researchers themselves. The REMEDIATE team was there with Panagiotis, Tatiana, and Ricardo to welcome the public and speak about “Monitoring & clean up of contaminants using natural microbial batteries”, “Bioaccessibility of heavy metals in urban areas” and “Gene sequencing of contaminated groundwater (Do bugs catch colds?)”. We were asked a number of great questions, and enjoyed talking to everyone who came to our stand, as well as meeting other researchers who were at the event.

stand photo

To learn more about Science Uncovered and the participating research groups, visit the Ulster Museum website

https://www.nmni.com/whats-on/science-uncovered

science uncovered

Life after a PhD

Stacie Tardif brings us some lessons from those who have walked the path before us

The Danish Academy of Sciences and Papers recently hosted an event for PhD researchers in Denmark and their transition into post-doctoratal positions. Several guest speakers from very different backgrounds were invited to speak about their journey into their career, and to provide some insight and advice to us youngsters. With looming statistics

Taylor, Martin et al. (2010) [1]

Taylor, Martin et al. (2010) [1]

claiming that only a small percentage (0.45% in the UK [1]) of individuals will make it to full professorship, it is inherently clear that we must start thinking early on about exploring different career options. We received all sorts of advice, from detailed information regarding grant application opportunities in Denmark, to more personal anecdotal stories and reflections on what these individuals wished they knew before starting off their careers.  Several themes recurred throughout the day:

  • Be a risk taker and take part of high risk/high return projects
  • Is academia really for you? Have a plan B
  • Go abroad and move away from your PhD supervisor
  • Find a mentor
  • Build a personal brand and generalist profile
  • Don’t wait, apply for your own grants

The chairman of The Carlsberg Foundation, Professor Flemming Besenbacher, started off the day with an inspiring talk, appealing to our generation to embrace scientific social responsibility. He stated that the 21st centuries’ current global issues such as food production, water resources, and climate change can only be tackled with breakthrough innovations, and therefore as young individuals in society, he urged us to be risk takers:

World Economic Forum (2015) [2]

21st Century skills
World Economic Forum (2015) [2]

take part in innovative and interesting research which may ultimately result in fewer publications but will be much more substantial in impact. He also maintained that we should start considering other options than academia. As PhD researchers, we are currently developing numerous transferable skills which have been outlined in a recent report by the World Economic Forum [2] to be critically important in order to prosper in today’s society. As such, it is important to reflect on our personal competencies which may or may not be appropriate for the pace and space of academia. Professor Besenbacher counseled us to keep the following in mind when thinking of our future careers:

6 key elements for career planning:

  1. Understand yourself
  2. Develop your strengths
  3. Work with the best
  4. Share your success
  5. Innovate, don’t imitate
  6. Always work efficiently

Step 1 & 2- Know yourself and research your options

  • What skills/competences do you want to use?
  • What motivates you?
  • What values are important to you?
  • What kind of career do you want?
  • What type of work environment do you enjoy working in?
  • How should your workday be structured?
  • What do you want from your career?

Step 3 & 4-Set goals and make a plan

  • Make an informed decision about what is right for you and maybe have an idea for plan B
  • Prepare to jump: network your CV and cover letter and practice your elevator pitch!

Regardless of our future in academia or not, the skills required to write an excellent grant application are highly transferable to writing up successful job applications. Throughout the day we received lots of good advice on the ins and outs of grant applications. Before starting the process of writing a grant or applying for a job position, strong emphasis is placed on reading the call, paying particularly close attention to the small subsections that describe the assessment criteria. It sounds silly to highlight, however, it seems to be one of the main reasons why applications are rejected. No matter how qualified the person or brilliant the idea, with a pile of imminent applications ahead of them, members of the panel are likely to be running on little to no sleep, and looking for reasons to shrink their pile.

Grant applications are all about you, your network and your great idea! But what is a great idea, you may ask?

  • Original and inventive
  • Well motivated in terms of impact
  • Grounded in and relevant to research fields

The panel, which in many cases is comprised of 5% of researchers from your specific field vs. 95% from other related but different disciplines, want to understand your great idea! As a result, it is imperative to keep it focused, simple and concise. Many applications have very strict page limits (do not put anything in the appendices, the panel is not allowed to read them) but it is important to keep in mind that other people have the same restrictions as yourself, and so it is doable. Do not repeat the same information in the application as this is a waste of space and time for members of the panel. To save space, make use of figures and charts (e.g. Gantt charts) which can incorporate a lot of information in a small amount of space. Applying for funding through industrial post-doctorate positions is another way to go. These are typically 1-3 year positions carried out by a recent PhD graduate (under 5 years after graduation in Denmark) that have an industrial focus. It involves teaming up with a mentor in a public sector institution (academia) as well as a mentor within a company. You are extremely cheap labor and therefore it is inherently benefitial to the company (and yourself of course) to have you there so don’t be intimidated to approach companies with your great idea. In addition, several databases and professional matchmaking clusters are available to graduates seeking these types of opportunities. Most importantly, industrial post-doctorate grant applications in Denmark resulted in a 50% success rate in 2016 and a predicted 45% success rate in 2017. This is significantly higher than grants awarded for post-doctorate grants in the public sector. These positions can also serve as a foot in the door and a stepping stone to a more permanent position within the company.

Here are some grants to apply for in Denmark (similar one’s can be found in most countries); keep in mind that most of the time, these grants are not tied with citizenship:

Other speakers throughout the day highlighted the importance of moving away from your supervisor and going abroad. This, at least in Denmark, seems to give you an edge over other candidates as you are not only developing your skills as a researcher and broadening your perspectives/ideas and visions, but also developing an international network which makes you very competitive. Debate was underway regarding the ease of movement once established with a family, however with proper preparation, one speaker even moved her entire family including children to another continent.

Image by Angelo Su via Image Source

Image by Angelo Su via Image Source

The importance of finding good mentors along the way was empahised on several occasions. These mentors can advise you on scientific matter, introduce your to relevant networks and people and help you understand the mechanisms and unwritten roles of funder organizations such as the public, private and research councils. Finding several different mentors along the way is also a good idea as they can advise you and teach you different approaches, skills and techniques. You will, of course, benefit in different ways depending on the mentor but finding at least one mentor that has the same interests/visions as you will be extremely valuable in the long run. Lastly, it is absolutely crucial that trust and honesty is built between you and your mentor. It is imperative that your mentor is able to tell you some hard truths along the way, if required.

Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Image Source

Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Image Source

 

It is important to understand that positions in academia are exceedingly competitive and there is some value in building a generalist profile, which can be adapted to several positions in different institutions. Instead of specializing very narrowly in a certain area, it may benefit you in the long run to have a profile and track record that is flexible.

 

“Uncertainty is the new normal: complexity is increasing and therefore this calls for a paradigm shift in science” 
Professor Basenbacher

As such, adaptability is crucial. It is also important to build a personal brand and work on your 30 second elevator speech. People want to know what you do but will quickly lose interest if you go into too much detail. If you are able to boil it down to several simple keywords/buzzwords, people will be able to categorize you, put you in a box and ultimately, shuffle you from one box to another depending on their needs. As academics, branding may seem like something that belongs in the business world, but try to think of it as being a recognizable expert or specialist in “blank” discipline. As your “brand” grows, this may open up new opportunities in the form of interviews, publications, podcasts, invited speaker talks and even local TV gigs and most importantly, new collaborations.

The most important advice we received that day was to be passionate about our work and to love what we do. Without this, success, whether that is through the academic route or otherwise, will be fleeting and somewhat anti-climactic. Needless to say, I walked out of the room feeling inspired and with a sense of urgency to get to work, be innovative, take risks and enjoy the ride!

For more detailed information about the day’s proceedings and individual speaker’s presentations use the following link: http://www.youngacademy.dk/da/Aktiviteter/Phd%20seminar.aspx

References

1.            Taylor, M., B. Martin, and J. Wilsdon, The scientific century: securing our future prosperity. 2010: The Royal Society.

2.            Forum, W.E. New vision for education: Unlocking the potential of technology. 2015. World Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland.

 

Golden rules to be the perfect secondment host

As part of their training, REMEDIATE ESRs go on secondments to other beneficiaries or partner organisations to benefit from the expertise and experience of their hosts. Sabrina Cipullo has some ideas for making the experience great for everyone!

You receive a friendly e-mail from your colleague, where they show their interest in a secondment at your institution. The pressure is on! You may be of a calm disposition, but see how that fares when you’re screaming at the ICPMS for breaking down once again, while remembering that you never picked up the box of consumables you ordered the day before, and you just missed the compulsory morning Heath and Self briefing. Well fear not, practice makes perfect; here are a few simple tips to ensure the secondment is a raging hit. My advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience: I embraced the stumbles and screw ups, and turned them into powerful lessons like the ones below.

Before

As the host, you have the main role – plan early. Do a Noah and build your arc before the rains come: get as much done in advance as possible. There is no shame in recruiting a little help; sit with your secretary (hopefully you have one at your institution), review all the necessary steps, and do all your sweating and swearing beforehand. Make sure you know all the potential weaknesses of the system and the necessary steps to be taken for overseas travellers (e.g. getting a visa). Planning time is precious since your colleague might stay only for couple of weeks, so make sure all the precautions are taken for things to run smoothly.Make yourself available to help during the planning, also local phone calls are cheaper for you! When helping your colleague finding an accommodation, think carefully about price, and also the location. It might take a while to get familiar with the public transport. Take a look at other properties near you: what do the hosts charge? Finding accommodation might be particularly challenging, especially in more isolated places. Some host institutions cannot guarantee a place on campus during peak season, therefore other options should be explored. Airbnb is a reasonable solution for short stays, but you have to make sure your friend are ready to accept that they might have to make small talk with strangers over their dinner, which sometimes can be intimidating.

Once you have sorted out accommodation, you need to make sure that the landlord can provide a receipt or a proof of payment for your colleague to claim back. It is important you clarify what the other institutions expect to receive. Before arrival provide several contact numbers (landlord, main student reception, security, and maybe also your supervisor’s phone number) in case of emergency, it can be really stressful as a guest if you can’t find your accommodation and can’t get hold of the host.

During

A good host not only helps planning the accommodation and travel, but since you know your University (institution) better than anyone else, you have to plan all the aspect of your colleague’s stay! There are many chances to interact with host life through websites, virtual tours, and social media. However, visiting the campus will give your colleague a real sense of the atmosphere, so you could arrange a guided tour to meet staff and fellow students, see the faculty, visit the local pub and restaurant, and more.

collage

Make sure your colleague is aware of all the student union meetings, lab meetings, and other relevant ways of getting involved. Being an active member in the department can help him/her to gain a better understanding of what opportunities are out there and build a wider network. This is also a good way not to be stuck in front of a computer or in a lab all day, it adds variety to the day which can help decrease the risk of burnout.

It is also very important to ‘help others out’ without losing your own focus. Your positive impact on the world comes when you’re happy, so you really need to make sure you have a plan, a schedule to keep up with your everyday lab-life, but also being able to support and help your colleague visiting. If the rewards aren’t immediately apparent, contributing to the success of others pays off in the long run. Sometimes t’s difficult to say no to co-workers, but keep in mind that they are the one able appreciate your work and they will always be willing to help you out when you need it. After all, you have to remember that what is obvious for you (the drawer with the funnels, that 1 ml pipette that doesn’t work, or the balance in plant science that you are not allowed to use…) might not be obvious to someone who just got there.

Make sure you clarify what they expect from you and what you expect from them. Also you need to review and rehearse potential methods, protocols, and explanations. Be authentic, conversational, and real. Have a point of view. Bring something to the party. Own it. Time is crucial so make sure your explanations are clear and comprehensive. Essentially you’re saying, “Let me show you. See what I mean? Now look. Do you get the picture?”

The most critical skill is time management, finding a good structure to the day and keeping a day planner helps keep various demands in order. Structure and sticking to set times to write, read, and lab work can be particularly challenging (and stressful) when dealing with equipment, instruments, and people. It is important to set aside time from your research and books to take a break, what a better moment than sharing some time off at the café with your colleague? You can take a walk around the campus – hopefully no need for umbrellas – and have the time to recharge, and don’t forget to enjoy the journey!

Now you’re ready. You are the perfect secondment host.

collage2

After

I want to thank Stacie for being always interested, motivated, and curious about research. I really had a good time with her, and I am glad that our friendship is not dependant on mood swings and bad hair days. Thanks for your support.

I also wanted to thank Coren, for knowing exactly when to tell me what I want to hear, when I want to hear it the most. I consider myself very fortunate for having a chance to work with both of them. It was a great learning experience for me. I wish we had more time to spend together outside work, and visit the UK a little, but I really hope you will come back soon!

An art project that makes sounds based on the monitoring data from the pollution in a river. Anyone interested in doing the same for one of their sites?
The Animas project
Something for our ESRs from the Poundplace blog as we enter a busy period for them all. Hat tip to Naturejobs.                                                                                                                                                                                   This image was republished from Pound Place; under a CC-BY-SA licence

A done list

A beautiful illustration from Yi, based at the University of Copenhagen, of the frustrations and joys of being a PhD student:
As-chip primer
1 Dilute the 99 arrived As-primers;
2 Use Primer-Blast to check the specificity of 99 As-primers;
3 Use AlleleID to check the parameters of 99 As-primers;
4 ARGs HT-qPCR of the CCA samples;
5 ARGs HT-qPCR of the Tellus archived soil samples;
6 Order the oligo of 99 targeted fragment;
7 Regular PCR with 99 As-primers;
8 Sequencing of PCR-product of 99 As-primers;
9 Pig manure manuscript.

That’s a recent to-do list. I like to start every day with writing and checking my list, because it’s one way for me to clear the fog so I don’t miss anything important and can quickly move into “working” status.

However, there was a lot on my plate: faced with this long list of tasks, even imagining how I should manage my time to shorten it to a more refined list made me feel tired. “One by one, one by one, just pick one and focus on it first”, I told myself, and dragged my body into the lab with my tired “soul”.

Chip system

Days passed. One day I found, not for the first time, that I couldn’t fall asleep, and I was staring at my to-do list. I suddenly realized the to-do list is not only helping during work time but also “helping” me after work! I couldn’t help wonder if there is a so-called work and life balance, especially for a fallen leaf who is far away from its root.

By talking to friends and colleagues, I realised I am not the only one who has this problem, and I found a solution. “There are always more things waiting for you to do, you should think about what you have done instead of what you haven’t done.” That day, I made a done list after I finished work:

1 Ordered the primers;
2 Centrifuged and diluted the primers;
3 Parameter check;
4 ARG HT-qPCR of CCA samples (1/2);
5 Conference registration;
6 Targeted fragment collection.

After this, I had a very good sleep…

Chip system2

To-do lists and done lists are like yin and yang. A to-do list can direct you to focus on the tasks, and a done list can motivate you in a happier and more positive way, and can be used to review the day and give you a chance to celebrate accomplishments. PhD life can be fulfilling and challenging. Balanced self-management provides comfort for fallen leaves waving and dancing in the wind. From that day on, every time I feel overwhelmed, I ask myself before I finish work, “What is on your done list?”