My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

A Nobel Laureate Lectures

For the past 13 years UCL has been organising a prize lecture in clinical science. This year, the prize lecture was to be given by Professor Barry Marshall, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2005.

Professor Marshall courageously infected himself with a microscopic corkscrew-shaped organism called Helicobacter pylori in order to prove this bacteria was the cause of many chronic, painful and often disabling stomach ailments (such as ulcers and gastritis)

A few days ago I received an e-mail about registration for this event, and I promptly signed up. The lecture sounded interesting, and even better, accessible, so yesterday saw me making my way to the lecture location to eagerly await what was to come.

I was not disappointed! Both the person introducing Prof Marshall, as well as Prof Marshall himself (and the provost who awarded him with the medal) made sure to keep the event light but highly informative. We learnt that stress does not cause peptic ulcers…though up to a few years ago people were retiring early for just this reason! Also, we learnt that you need to wait quite a long time to get the Nobel prize: be sure to make your big discovery young! We also learnt to keep our rejection letters…they will come in handy for lectures when we become famous 😉

On a more serious note, I was quote impressed by his dedication though! He found something which went against what others believed. However he persisted and time proved him right! He was so sure of himself that he actually ingested the bacterium to prove it!

You can read more about his work here (if you have access to the journal) or here. Or you can read his blog here.

You can also see a video of the lecture here.

I will leave you with a quote Prof Marshall kept on repeating yesterday:

The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge (Daniel J. Boorstin)

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Science and Heritage Symposium

A lot of people find working on their PhD a lonely ordeal. Fortunately for me, there are ten of us PhD students working with the same programme, together with a number of post-docs (2 of which are in my same department and office), and other research projects. All of us are part of the AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage (S&H) Programme.

Earlier this week the S&H programme organised a symposium in Oxford for us ten PhD students to have the opportunity to present our work to each other and to other guests from the heritage and related fields.

Monday was dedicated to a development workshop. This allowed us to first of all get to know each other and each other’s work better before starting to get ready for the presentations the next day. We are a mixed bunch of people, at different points in our PhD project and from different backgrounds. I found the workshop useful in giving me a better sense of belonging to something bigger, and also in giving support as I realised that problems I have faced and am facing are quite common for others in the group.

Monday night then our supervisors, invited guests and the programme’s advisory board joined us in Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, for a silver-service dinner followed by drinks. I appreciated the fact that on the dinner table we weren’t bunched by ‘status’, but we were all sitting together, giving all of us time to talk to someone from the advisory board, or someone working in the field, as they were sitting right next to you.

Tuesday was then the day of the actual symposium. I was first up, which was good as I got it over and done with quickly, but not as good as I wasn’t so sure what to expect. Also me and the guy who was up second got bombarded with questions (a grand total of 12 each!) which then tapered off significantly towards the end of the day.

I feel like I gained a lot from the day’s events. First of all it was a good opportunity to take some time to reassess where I am in the project to be able to present the work done, and also to go forward from there and formulate the plans for the coming weeks and months. However, even more useful than that was the interest of the audience there in discussing the work with me. Even though the question and answer session left me mentally exhausted, that and the discussions arising from it has helped me to formulate my thoughts better to be able to speak about the work in a hopefully more coherent manner. It has also shown me that I need to practise thinking on my feet more and formulating quick coherent answers in English. I have also pinpointed issues in the way I present my work, such as glossing over aspects of my work that maybe I should spend more time explaining.

I didn’t know much of what to expect from the symposium. However, it has definitely given me quite a bit to think about, particularly on the way I handle answering questions when I don’t have much time to think, and the need for me to think more about where the person asking the question is coming from in my answer (rather than just being happy that I got a somewhat coherent answer out). Hopefully it will only help to improve my skills and make me a better academic.

A very fruitful two days. Hopefully I get more such opportunities as any experience can only help to make you better!

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Heritage Science in Scotland

Heritage science is science for access to cultural heritage and for its conservation, interpretation, research and management

The ‘Heritage Science in Scotland‘ conference was organised on Tuesday by Historic Scotland, an executive agency of the Scottish government, “charged with safeguarding the nation’s historic environment and promoting its understanding and enjoyment”. Although I am not working in Scotland, as we are working in the field in the UK we were invited to attend.

The conference started off with an opening address by Prof Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland. She quite forcefully made the point about how strong Scotland is in science, and I think she also opened my mind to opportunities which exist in Scotland as regards science. Definitely a proud Scottish scientist, which I guess is what her work revolves around.

The other presentations were more intrinsically linked to the issue of heritage science. There seemed to me to be a lot of work going on concerning stone and inorganic materials. However this seems to be the situation everywhere, so wasn’t too surprised.

I was particularly excited about two presentations, one about a project I have heard about, and one which I hadn’t.  The first presentation was by Lorraine Gibson talking about the new AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage programme supported grant ‘Heritage Smells‘.

The other presentation was by Chris Hall, on Moisture Dynamics in Building Conservation. It might not have been the most impressive work, but I liked the simple way it was presented. Even though I have no background in the subject, I could easily follow, formulate questions, and the questions I formulated were answered. It was a well-structured presentation.

I must admit that my knowledge of what is going on in Scotland was quite limited; I am only just getting to grips with what is going on in London! It was very enlightening hearing from such an enthusiastic community of heritage scientists and to learn about what they are working on.

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September 2010