My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

Preliminary Studies

As I said in the introduction to this blog, I have started what I am calling preliminary studies. What I am doing in these studies is that I cut some photographs into strips. Following this I am heating the photograph strips in an oven (a very crude way of speeding up the ageing process).

I started this study highly optimistic that I would start seeing something change in the colour of the photographs quite quickly. However, after the first few days, I immediately realised that my optimism was misplaced. The photographs seemed to want to spite me and not degrade (or at least not as fast as I would have hoped for). After a couple of weeks of this, we decided to try introducing some humidity for some of the samples. This didn’t seem to particularly speed up the degradation process, besides totally ruining one sample were I added the highest level of humidity I tried, where the gelatin melted and I got a glob of dyes and gelatin at the bottom of the flask I was trying this out!

What to try next? Last week we decided to increase the temperature a bit more, and see how that goes. I wasn’t too hopeful, having been deluded before, but today I decided to have a very good look at the samples, comparing strips I have removed before from the oven to those still in there…and guess what? Success! All samples registered a change which can be seen with the naked eyes from where they started off! Though the way wasn’t as fast as I had originally thought it would be, it feels great that we are getting somewhere now. That was definitely some good news.

And that wasn’t the only good news today 😉 But I’ll tell you more about the rest when it is confirmed.

Filed under: Experiments and Methodology, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Graduate School Courses

Since my tuition fees are paid by a UK research council scholarship, this means I need to take 20 credits (the equivalent of 10 days) of courses. No this is not such a difficult thing to do, since there are a wide variety of courses available, and you can also get credits for attending workshops, presenting papers etc. So far this year I have already got 14 credits (and I should easily get the remaining 6 if the things that are being planned go as wanted). So far I have taken courses on library skills, Intellectual property rights, experimental design, and also got some credits from two workshops I attended in Ljubljana in November.

Another thing I was interested in learning more about was MATLAB. I had attended a ‘DIY with MATLAB for the Computer-Shy Scientist‘ course. However, I think the course was much too geared for someone who is totally computer-shy (I’m not exactly so) than on learning the capabilities of MATLAB, so by the end of the two sessions, I found that I didn’t learn much about what I can do with MATLAB (or not as much as I was hoping for).

The course I had wanted to take originally was however called ‘Introduction to MATLAB‘, but so far it hasn’t been available. FINALLY today registration for the course has been possible. I am not signed up for this course :). Not sure if I’ll use MATLAB, but it may come in useful, so why not take some time to learn a bit about it and it’s capabilities? Looking forward to starting 🙂 (though people have told me it can be quite stressful!) We’ll see 🙂

Filed under: Events and Activities, Research Process, , , ,

Lessons in Manual Writing (and Supplying!)

This is a rant…I apologise for this coming so early on in the life of this blog (hope I don’t put you off ;)), but I have been fuming about this issue for quite a while now!

Since our department is still quite new, we are continuously buying new equipment, which of course we need to figure out how to use. Now, since I am the one needing some of this equipment first, this means that it falls to me to figure out how these instruments function. Easy task right? Just follow the instructions!

That’s what I thought too! But the situation is not always as easy as it seems. Why?…

Well…first of all I think that some of these companies need to learn a bit about manual writing. Even a simple thing, like how to switch an instrument off, is often missed out! Some of them are quite straight forward (though that is not a sufficient excuse according to me…what if the person who should be using isn’t the brightest in the world, or just simply cannot figure it out at the moment? Shouldn’t that be included?), but in other cases, the switching off procedure requires you to press a combination of buttons, or depress the same button for at least 5 seconds, or something like that…not everything is exactly intuitive. They should also understand that the people using the instrument are new to the instrument…they may not understand the jargon you include, or cannot do the assumption leaps you do! (This is especially the case when for some reason the pictures/text described in the manual is different from what is happening in your instrument, or, worse, when pressing the buttons directed in the manual give you a totally different result to what you expect [worse off is if the button options are all scrambled up throughout the manual, so it’s not like one combination has been switched with just one other! Believe me…I have a manual like that right now…it took me some time to figure out what is what!]).

Ahhh! And once you write them? Send them to the people buying the instrument! Or at least make them available to your customers and tell them how to find them! I am sick and tired of getting exasperated at figuring out an instrument, only to e-mail the company, which replies saying…this is the manual you need…so why didn’t they send it immediately with the instrument like they sent I don’t know how many instruments? 

Worse off however was one company which send us an instrument, which I was trying to connect to my computer (it should have had the capabilities!). One problem…we were supplied with around 5 software applications on the CD…which one to use?…Well, most of the applications had at most a 1-2 page colourful description of what they should do (if anything), which was more advert than help! I installed all applications…still couldn’t figure it out. Hmm…at my wits end I decided to call the company

Call 1: I am told that they sent us an old version of the CD (We bought it end of 2008, and the new version of the application came out in 2007!). OK…I could download the new version on-line. I download the new version, but still nothing happens!

Call 2: I am told that the new version does not necessarily work on Vista…but I have Vista installed! OK, one of the research assistants has XP, so I try it on hers…still nothing! The computer doesn’t seem to be able to recognise the instrument.

I leave some time pass…

By this time I was highly frustrated, and I didn’t want to disconnect before they told me exactly what  I had to do…I was a girl on a mission! I wanted to get this instrument and the computer to communicate! It was essential that they do! (otherwise this would have meant me jotting down over 15,000 values by hand!!! Not a pleasurable task!

Call 3: A new person answers…as soon as I start explaining, he said: I know what your problem is, give me your e-mail address, and I will send you the instructions! WOW…OK…I gave him my e-mail and 5 minutes later I had the instruction sheet in my inbox.

I arrange the settings to the new settings…and…

  • drum roll*

It worked! They connected! They recognised each other! WOW!

What I didn’t understand was why they didn’t supply that sheet with the instrument itself, since evidently it is something they know about (if you talk to the right person). Not having it meant that I spent I don’t know how many hours trying. Do these people enjoy making life for others more difficult?

Oh well…I will shut up now, and go back to my happier self.

But really…people…write decent manuals and supply them to your customers!

Filed under: Experiments and Methodology, Rants, Complaints and General Malaise, , , , , , , , , ,

Research Meeting: 2

When I joined my department, our research group was quite small. However, with time we have been growing, with two research assistants joining the group since I joined in September. Now that the group is growing (the research group is still quite small, with around 10 people linked to it in some way, and not all based at UCL, so not all can attend) my supervisor has started research meetings. Today was the second one we’ve had, with the first one being held around a month ago.

But what is a research meeting?

Well, in the sense of what we are doing in these meetings, they allow the people in the group to come together around once a month, to discuss what they have been working on, giving the opportunity for discussion on the work being done, and insights from others to be inputted. Last time being the first one, everyone prepared a short explanation of what their work is about (since though we’re all in the same centre, and we’re a small group, most people are working on different projects, and are coming from quite varied backgrounds, so this was essential). Today however it was slightly different. First off everyone said a bit about what they have been working on in the past month. However, the meeting also gave the opportunity for people working on one project to ask for some serious input from the others in the group. Since we all have different areas of interest (though interlinked in the field of cultural heritage), this meant that people could bring to the table their knowledge and ways of thinking.

What do I think about these meetings?

I think they’re great! The first time I was involved in any kind of research meeting was during an internship I had done at the University of Konstanz in Germany on Microbiology, where the whole research group (which in this case amounted to quite a lot of people) met (I think) once a month, for updates about what is going on, and one or two people to present what they were working on. Up to now most presentations I have seen have involved either no one asking any questions (since you don’t want to cause any problems to your fellow students), or the questions being asked being more as a form of one-upmanship rather than a genuine interest in the work. However, in both the current research meeting, and the one I attended in Konstanz, I have been impressed that there actually is space in the academic world for some decent discussions with colleagues in an open forum, without the feeling of you being criticised (destructively).

In the current research group I am sure these meetings will become very useful and important. The main reason for this is that there are people in the group who have been in the field for quite some years, and who are well involved in it. This means that they know the work that is out there, what is being done, and who is doing it. This is very important in a situation where, as was said today, the work is published in a wide range of specialised journals that you would be probably hard-pressed to find unless you know it is there and look for it. Also as I said, the different backgrounds of the people (from chemists to architects to archaeological conservators, electronics engineers and building engineers amongst others). In an interdisciplinary field like heritage research it is good to have these different people around the table giving their input.

Filed under: Events and Activities, , , , , , , ,

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