My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

Skills Development: Introduction to MATLAB

Another skills development course I followed over the past week or so was Introduction to MATLAB. Since the beginning of the year my supervisor had suggested that I should look into MATLAB since it may prove to be very useful. I had attended another course before this called ‘DIY with MATLAB for the Computer-Shy Scientist’. However, unfortunately, it did not prove to be too useful, mainly as I am not as computer shy as THAT!

The course was split over three days, with a two hour theory lesson in the morning and a two-hour practical session in the afternoon. I went to the course with the MATLAB skills I learnt in the previous course (i.e. close to none :P), and with some programming background with Pascal from when I did my computer studies O’level some 7 years ago! (and an awful course in Pascal at university).

A first warning I would probably say to anyone who wants to learn MATLAB is probably that before hand it may be good to brush up a bit on their mathematics…nothing major, and not much in depth, but having an idea of how matrices work would certainly help. Luckily I still remembered how those worked from my secondary school mathematics, so I was fine (hence, you see that you don’t need in depth knowledge to help you through if I remember it ;)). Also, some background in programming of course does help. It is not essential, of course, but knowing a bit of Pascal and how programming languages work, and how some things like variables, loops etc work certainly made my life easier!

So what did I think of the course? I liked the way the lecturer presented the aspects of programming within the context of a problem. So every lecture started out with a problem he described which we would solve by the end, and during the lecture he then interweaved between pure MATLAB skills, and how these could be applied to the problem. This meant that besides getting some programming skills we were also exposed to ways we can actually use this to solve a problem in a coherent way.

Another thing I liked was the practical sessions. At first I was a bit surprised that they just gave us a sheet of work to do, and let us work on our own (I was expecting it to be the more boring way of the demonstrator explaining how to solve the problems, and us just listening). This however meant that we could all work at our own pace, and actually get to grips with the problems. This is the only way to actually learn I believe…by trying the problems yourselves rather than hearing someone drone on and on about how to solve them. Nevertheless, it would be good if we were also offered some kind of solution guidelines for what we didn’t work out in the class, and even to have some way of knowing that what we were doing was actually right. But otherwise, a great course I think! I liked the way it was organised, though maybe as some people suggested, it would be nice if, similar to as available for other languages and programmes, a drop-in services was available to help with any problems.

So far I don’t have anymore courses booked for the next few weeks…they do stop a bit over the summer holidays…but am looking forward to more in Autumn!

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Interdisciplinary Studies of Evidence

Yesterday I attended another of the graduate school skills development course. This time round it was called: Interdisciplinarity: can there be an integrated concept of evidence, which was the last of a series of courses on Interdisciplinary studies of evidence.

Why did I decided to attend? Well, my PhD is very much an interdisciplinary, bringing together aspects of the sciences and social sciences and humanities. As I implied in my previous post, I am finding some difficulties in determining how best to present my work to a panel of people from different backgrounds, and so thought that this would be a good course to follow. Also, I thought it would help me concretise better my thoughts on bringing together evidence from different fields (often with different vocabularies and expectances) and presenting as a complete project rather than disjointed parts.

The programme was presented by Jason Davies, from CALT. Entering the room (which was not the easiest thing to find ;)), I found a room with around 20 people. I was expecting the group to be much bigger, but I am glad it was such a small group. This gave us the opportunity to discuss the issues being presented (which the presenter gladly allowed us to do), and to get the most out of the session. The session got us thinking about what interdisciplinarity means, and how this affects our work and especially our way of thinking.

Overall assessment? I went into the course expecting some answers. Unfortunately(?) I didn’t get any, but what I did get was a deeper understanding and a more concrete idea of what interdisciplinarity means both to me and to my work. Also, it gave me the opportunity to discuss issues with my work, as well as hear about the issues others, which are more advanced in their studies, are encountering. So though I didn’t get what I went looking for, I think I got so much more. A success then I would say 🙂

Interdisciplinarity: An Issue

Interdisciplinarity: An Issue

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Monitoring Meetings

My PhD is part of the AHRC/EPSRC-supported Science and Heritage Programme. A few weekd ago I received an e-mail from the Programme Coordinator that the Programme Director wanted to meet up with me and my supervisors from UCL and the TNA to see how the research is progressing and any problems etc.

The monitoring meeting was set for the 12th of June. For this meeting I had to prepare a presentation focussing on the research which has been carried out. I was a bit apprehensive about the presentation, because following my short presentation at the 1st research meeting, I knew my supervisor thought that my presentation skills were quite appalling. I think I however was more apprehensive about the mock presentation scheduled with my supervisor and another research assistant, than with the actual one (possibly because after the second one it would be all over ;)).

The day of the mock presentation arrived, and I was slightly nervous. Now normally I don’t mind presentations much (possibly cos I enjoy that the attention is on me? O:)), but this time round I really wanted to make some kind of decent impression! Everything set up and off I go! It went quite well, and happily my supervisor said that my presentation skills have improved…phewww! He suggested a number of changes to my presentation, which I was happy to oblige with seeing as they were very valid, and back to my offices I went to finalise the presentation.

Friday arrived…monitoring meeting day! I went up to the meeting room early to set up the desk-projector and make sure that everything was working well. After a while my supervisors arrived, and then the programme director.

Meetings: started!

First I gave my presentation, followed by a general discussion all together and a number of questions. Then, the programme director talked to my supervisors alone (wish to have been a fly on that wall ;)) and then me alone, as had been planned.

How do I think it went?

I think it went OK. I was asked some questions which I think I answered quite well, but then was asked about my ‘research hypothesis’, and just couldn’t think what that was! I kept on thinking about research questions, and then just gave up and gave my answer as research questions (after stupidly asking: emm…what’s the research hypothesis?) Oh well!

Other than that, my supervisors seemed happy, the programme director seemed happy…so I’m happy…won’t hit myself over the not-so-bright things I said, and hope to improve for the next time 🙂

All in all however I think that one important thing hopefully sunk into my brain now: not everyone in the heritage field is from chemistry! I always approach presenting my work as though the people have my background. But after the research meeting presentation, and more so after this one, I realise that my approach is completely wrong! I approached these meetings as me ‘showing off’ what I have been doing. Now that I realise that in front of me when I rpesent I will have people from a wide variety of disciplines, from architects, to conservators, to archaologists, and conservators, I realise that the most important thing is not the details what I have been doing (even if I have been told to speak about my research), but to give them the overall picture of the project, with limited if any specific details. Then, if they are interested in a specific part, they can ask me further questions after the general idea has been obtained.

Wish me luck for my next one, whenever that is 🙂

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Collaborative Doctoral Awards

Collaborative doctoral awards are a ‘special bread of PhDs’. In these kinds of PhDs, the work carried out is not only based at a higher education institution (HEI), but is also done in partnership with a non-academic partner organisation or business. This often means that the student needs to split his/her time between these two institutions, doing the work required in both, but at the same time getting the resources and know-how from both institutions.

But why am I discussing this today? Well, I am actually carrying out a collaborative doctoral award (or as it is also known, CDA); my HEI is University College London, while the partner organisation is The National Archives. When I accepted the post however I didn’t really realise what this means, and I am up to now certain I am not realising the full impact of this. However, yesterday I attended a meeting which for the first time opened my eyes to what this really means.

What was the meeting? The meeting was a London CDA Network Meeting. This means that the CDA students based in London (or even outside for that matter) meet up to discuss about CDAs, and in general as a networking and support structure. I had received e-mails about a couple of others, but for some reason or other never really made it. However yesterday I did! And so glad I did…I took so much out of it.

Being there, talking to other CDA students meant that for the first time I actually started to understand what a CDA really means…up to yesterday I knew there were two partners involved, but I never really thought about it, and how this affects me and my work (negatively or positively). The most important part for me was starting to realise the full implications of a CDA. This means that I can now start thinking about this reality, and hopefully making the best out of this experience…there is so much you can take from it once you realise the opportunities. Also, hearing others articulate their experience made me put into words some of the feelings I have been having about the PhD. It made me understand better that it is not only me having these thoughts and experiences…but what others could do was articulate them, having been in the process and thought about the reality of a CDA more than I had (Before yesterday I barely thought of myself as a CDA student!)

So what do I think about CDAs now that I have finally realised their scope? I think they are a great thing to be part of as having two supervisors in two different types of institutions means that you can get a wider variety of support. However, I think you need to first of all understand the reality to be able to exploit it as best you can and get the best out of it. It seems that CDAs are a ‘new breed’ of PhDs, so if I had to say anything for future students it would be for them to understand the reality sooner than I did. In a way I feel that when I started I was not made aware of the full benefits of a CDA…and this seems to be a common comment by most people there – e.g. not just me, but others as well never thought about being located at the partner institution and just thought about moving to the academic partner. However, this is one of the benefits of a CDA…that you can access the resources of both institutions, depending on the project’s needs.

I think that it is important that there is more information out there about what a CDA really is. I think it is important for new CDA students to understand what it means, since only like that can students get the best out of it. But overall I think it is a great idea…and having a student network for it is even better 😉 Thanks London CDA Network for letting me know about what I am part of without realising the full scope of it!

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Pisa…A Research Visit

In the last post I left you with my arrival in Pisa. Now, having completed my time there, I am back in London. But how did it go, and why did I go there?

The first aim of my visit there was to determine a method for the extraction of the dyes from my photographs, followed by their separation using chromatographic methods. Thus, the majority of the first two weeks was spent trying out the methods mentioned in literature for similar methods (since none were found for my exact requirements), and then depending on the results obtained modifying the methods to obtain the best methods we could. This is proably one of the most tricky parts of a research project, since it can take a very long time till the best combination is determined. Luckily, we found something we could work with, and thus could get on to the next part of the work. This involved analysing aged photographs using chromatographic and colourimetric methods and correlating the two. What about the  results for this? I must say not all the results are perfect, but at least I proved what I was there to do.

What about the other aspects of the research trip? I must say it was great! I enjoyed the work, the people, the lifestyle…everything. Being in Pisa also meant I could get to other parts of Tuscany quite easily…so I visited Florence, Siena, Lucca, Cinque Terre, Certaldo etc. I also had people visiting me, which was nice.

I think that it is not enough from these research trips to take only the work, but it is so much better if you can experience a bit the life in that place…you really do gain a lot…not just in friends, and results, but also in other skills such as project management and time management (since you are there for a limited period of time).

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June 2009