YOU MAY PASS… WITH CORRECTIONS

 

Today I had my long-awaited End-of-Year-One progression viva. And when I say long-awaited, I mean that it took me three years to get here. I study part-time, I have a demanding full-time job, I’ve been seriously ill, and there was a death in my family. Oh, and I also volunteer for a local charity, I’m working towards Chartered Engineer status, and I’m attempting to purchase a house. So three years isn’t bad going, really. The plan is that I complete the next two years by 2020, so let’s hope life doesn’t throw too much more at me in the intervening period. Anyway, I’ve not yet received the formal nod, but I can proceed to Year Two subject to some amendments. I basically need to better define my research question, filter out a ton of irrelevant sections, and rein my enthusiasm in a little.

My report had the following problems to be fixed:

The Research Question had changed.

The title now bore little resemblance to what my report was about.  The project had begun with the general subject area of “ventilation in hot climates”, with many of the researchers in my study group looking at ventilation solutions for the Middle East.  However, no-one in my department was looking at the effects of hot weather on British homes, and we know that things are going to heat up a little with projected climate change, so I saw my niche and jumped right in.  And ended up studying something completely detached from what I’d originally signed up for.  So I changed the title of my thesis; I suppose it’s a good thing that I did it now rather than at final submission time…

What the hell am I doing here?

The aims, objectives and central question were vague, but what I presented in the viva voce exam was clear and focussed enough to convince the examiners that I deserved a chance.  My literature review was somewhat meandering, and because my new specialism was still an incredibly broad subject, I’d read up on just about everything.  There was no stone unturned, but all I had was a lot of stones.  When presenting at conferences, I ended up in discussions with people from just about every discipline (I am not joking, I’m talking Archaeology right through to Sociology, with a bit of Medicine and Architectural History thrown in.  Did I mention that I’m doing an Engineering degree?).  And I thought at the time, “wow, my research is so relevant, what a blessing to be studying an interdisciplinary subject”.  The only problem is that a Ph.D is about depth, not breadth.  The idea is that you create new knowledge in your very specialised topic, so that you become an expert on that one thing.  I was in a position where I’d developed a reasonable level of understanding of many, many, interconnected things, but my supervisors needed to be sure that I was ready to specialise and produce work that was still relevant and useful to society, but had a clear focus.

The Curse Of Boundless Enthusiasm

I am far too excited about my research. Ok, this may seem like a contradiction – Ph.D candidates need to have enthusiasm for their subject to the point of obsession, right? Well, yes, but I took this to a whole new level. As well as an extensive and expansive literature review, I also had Grand Plans For The Future.  I wanted to do everything, basically.  One of the examiners said that I had planned a project large enough to employ a post-doc with a team of 5 research students.  So I needed to scale it down a little, and focus on an initial project to get me through my Ph.D.  It is a bit strange that I’ve already thought ahead to the “Further Work” section of my thesis already, but at least I can envisage my future in academia.  Only problem is that I might have seen another intellectual butterfly to chase by that time.

How did I get through unscathed?

The entire point of the oral exam is to demonstrate to the examiners that you know your subject, have researched it in depth, and that you have a credible plan for the next two years’ worth of study.  Your research must be original, and bring something new to the table.  While you’re unlikely to make a ground-breaking new discovery during your Ph.D years (but you never know!), you will still be contributing something to the overall body of knowledge.  And your research will go far further than just your lab – it will cross borders, be cited by others, and lay the foundations for someone else’s Ph.D.  And my job was to prove that I was capable of all that.

The leading paragraphs may have seemed like a catalogue of failings, but this is par for the course as a research student.  Yes, you can’t be the best at everything.  Yes, you will get knocked back.  But you will also gain valuable experience and produce work that challenges the existing knowledge and challenges you.  You can list out all your failures as an academic, but they are part of a process.  Part of doing a Ph.D is learning how to do a Ph.D – how to learn, analyse and produce work of a high academic standard.  It prepares you for more – for a career in academia, which is essentially a method for filtering good information.  Papers get rejected, new ideas replace what we thought was immovable, people change their research focus.  It happens and you have to get used to it; the worst thing you can do is pretend you’re perfect.  Take these setbacks in your stride, they will inform your future work and career development.

And so, I acknowledged the areas in which I needed to improve, and came up with a plan for success during the Q&A:

Be Specific.

I narrowed down my research question to a rather long-winded, yet single, sentence that actually reflected what I am studying, rather than the all-encompassing “ventilation in hot climates”, which could be spun to cover just about anything.  My subject is still an interdisciplinary one, but it’s a far more specific and manageable one, too!

Make it testable.

It was made clear during the exam that I had studied a lot of literature in a lot of depth, but it wasn’t so clear what I wanted to use this knowledge for, or how I would demonstrate an answer to the question.  So I need to come up with a testable hypothesis that my research could use to channel its direction.  It’s a single sentence, but it is a question that will take a lot of time and resources to investigate thoroughly.  About one thesis’s worth, happily.

At this juncture, we also spoke about the possibility of the hypothesis being found to be false – what would I do then?  Turns out it’s ok.  As long as my method is sound, and the results are valid, they still matter.  We’ll know something that we didn’t know before.

Ask Questions.

The viva voce exam is a time for you to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of your subject.  But a major part of the exam is the Q&A after the presentation.  And it’s not a one-way street.  I wanted to know from the examiners: what do you expect to see in a good thesis submission?  Obviously, it’s different if it’s an interim review like mine – it’s a bit late to be asking this in your final Ph.D defence (unless you are expecting a serious amount of corrections)!

An interesting debate opened up when one of the external examiners revealed a difference of opinion with my supervisor over referencing styles.  I know how fastidious the examining board can be, so I will make sure I have this one sorted prior to final submission (I do not want to have to go through 90,000 words changing my references from Vancouver to Harvard style!)

PHD Comics: The Thesis Committee
This was how my viva was, except without the cookies.

 

WEALTH, HEALTH, AND WOO

 

Very often when skeptics discuss alternative medicine, they look at the problem only from their own perspective.  We know the facts, why won’t people listen, etc, etc.  But that ignores the real reasons why people choose alternative medicine.  The evidence is enough for us, but it isn’t for some people.  And those people tend to be at the more affluent end of the scale.  I don’t know whether anyone has studied or theorised on this previously, but there’s a few reasons that I think are behind this:

Wealth is the best single indicator of healthcare outcomes

There are many factors that contribute to this whole, most of them related to the opportunities made available to those with more money.  Richer people can afford to partake in more physical and enriching activities, can afford to eat better food, are generally better educated, and are more likely to have access to private health treatments.  The rich are already at an advantage, health-wise.  Because of this, they’re more likely to pay attention to their health and avoid unhealthy environments, and therefore are already going to be healthier overall.  If they don’t experience any medical catastrophes (life threatening illnesses, accidents) then they might suffer the odd minor thing here and there that can be treated at home, and these are the kind of things that clear up by themselves in a few days anyway.  These are also the types of ailments for which there is a booming market in alternative remedies.  It’s not difficult to see how one might think that taking one of these remedies has “cured” the illness – because it would get better by itself anyway.

Alt med is a luxury product

Homeopathy, herbal treatments, and spiritual healing aren’t offered by the NHS.  There’s a damn good reason for this – they don’t work.  But manufacturers and vendors of these products and services market them as a life-enhancing extra.  The NHS is there for emergencies, they say.  But this is the good stuff.  And given how expensive it is, it gives the illusion of quality.

High-profile celebs endorse it

The Royal family are mega-homeopathy fans, and the Queen’s 90, so it must be good right? (bear in mind what I said about affluence above)  Not to mention the polished and glowing celebrity wellness gurus hawking their latest juice cleanse or fanny rocks.  As well as being a luxury product, alternative medicine is a fashion accessory.  Fashions tend to spread within peer groups, and alt med crap is marketed almost exclusively to middle-class women with traditional responsibilities and high disposable income (yep, the marketing is sexist as well as elitist).  Which explains the tendency for lovers (and pushers) of alt med to be female.

Alt med gives you the warm feels

Science and medicine deal in evidence and cold, hard facts.  Our health service is underfunded and overstretched, and there just isn’t the time to give every patient a cuddle.  There are strong arguments for improving communication, bedside manner, and making care more compassionate, but the present political climate doesn’t allow it.  As a former private patient, I know that private healthcare offers more in terms of personalisation, time for the patient, and looking after one’s feelings.  This offers benefits in terms of how patients view their recovery and illness; it’s certainly more pleasant to feel like you are “looked after”.  Most private hospitals are completely legit, offering speedy, effective, and dignified care.  But the one thing they share with the woo-woo clinics is the compassion.  Paying for alternative medicine satisfies the yearning that people have to fell like they are “treating the whole person”.  Trouble is, that’s all the alt-med will give you.  If you want a genuine treatment, you have to defer to the science, sorry.

It’s deceptively alluring

All of the above reasons are driven by emotion, and emotion is an extremely difficult thing to bypass.  People cling to delusions and snake oil because it satisfies their need for empathy, and because to shun it would mean leaving behind a part of their identity.  Alt med is a lifestyle choice.  Based on this, our current tactic of blinding adherents with science is obviously not working.  Now that knowledge of the Backfire Effect is spreading, we know that we could be making their views even more entrenched.  So what do we do?  Whatever technique we use, we have got to remain true to the evidence.  Lose our integrity and we’ve had it.  Promoters of alt-med are well-versed in persuasive argument techniques and will pounce on the slightest slip-up.  I feel that bearing the emotional factor in mind, acknowledging it and discussing that with alt-med users could work.  It addresses the issue honestly and would give them something to consider about why they really use alternative remedies.  Another tactic is effective science communication, done in a conversational way, involving scientists from a similar societal group to the audience.  They need to be relatable, and they need to demonstrate an ability to understand.  Simply throwing facts at people and not engaging with those who “disagree” achieves nothing.  We need to at least start those conversations, because the most effective way of changing someone’s mind is to get them to reach the conclusion on their own terms.  You can sow the seeds and nurture them, but you cant force a change in mindset.

 

F*CK YOU, 2016.

 

One thing that pretty much everyone can agree on is that 2016 has been universally shite.  All the best celebs have died, we voted for Brexit, and Donald Trump was elected President.  I’m almost convinced that there could be a God after all, due to 2016 looking like an elaborate practical joke contrived by a mischievous overlord.  And that’s just a brief summary of all the terrible things that happened last year up until the beginning of November (I’ve probably missed a few, so much bad shit went down last year).  Also, these are things that were of note in the white, middle-class, Western world.  That’s just the frame of reference that I have.  Things might have looked a lot rosier in other cultures (every cloud, etc).

On 12th November, Twitter user @christhebarker created a Sgt. Pepper-themed montage of all those that 2016 had stolen from us (although 2016 really wasn’t done by this point).  Hover over the picture for more info about those in the image.

Denise Robertson Ed Stewart Carla Lane Garry Shandling Johan Cruyff Prince Buster Sir George Martin Anton Yelchin Howard Marks Leonard Cohen Arnold Palmer Harper Lee Pierre Boulez Gareth Thomas Erik Bauersfeld Glenn Frey Keith Emerson Burt Kwouk Sir Jimmy Young Paul Daniels Sir Terry Wogan Cliff Michelmore Jean Alexander Muhammad Ali Frank Kelly Caroline Aherne George Kennedy Maurice White David Gest Gene Wilder Lemmy Kilmister Prince David Bowie Pete Burns Alan Rickman Zaha Hadid Ronnie Corbett Victoria Wood Robert Vaughn Jo Cox MP Sylvia Anderson Kenny Baker Tony Dyson The Toblerone Travesty Donald Trump PEOTUS Leicester City Premier League Champions 2016

 

But after that, we needed to add another whole damn row, because 2016 is a right bastard, apparently:

blub

Is 2016 all that unusual?  Yes and No.  The number of celebrity deaths, international incidents, wars, and other human-induced clusterfucks is no more than in any other year, proportionally.  But as I said at the start, the events that have caught our attention have been skewed to the Western middle-class span of interests, and so it looks like we’ve been particularly hard done by this year.  And there are other confounding factors.  Think about when we started to define people as “celebrities” by modern standards – it was around the time that television really took off, from the 1950s.  People who made their name in early TV are well into old age now, and those household figures who have become so familiar are just like any of us, mere mortals.  So this might be the start of a wave of well-known figures dying off.  Which would make 2016 seem less exceptional in a few years from now.

Some of those celebrity deaths have been of relatively young people – Carrie Fisher, Prince, George Michael, David Bowie – but even though most of us will make it into old age, there is a sizeable minority of any population that is just unlucky and dies young.  I know people who’ve died in their 20s, 30s and 40s.  All of these deaths are tragedies, but they’re not as unusual as we think.

And even if 2016 is a statistical blip (which it probably isn’t), such is the nature of chance.  If all deaths occurred at a uniform rate, then THAT would be unusual. So whatever it is; more celebrities getting to an older age, more people being recognised as celebrities, better media reporting, whatever – we are just going to have to accept that Shit Happens.  And 2016 was really shit, wasn’t it.

 

FROM D.O.A. TO D.O.I.

 

I’ve been struggling with keeping on top of my research of late; my health’s not been brilliant, and I’ve had a lot of projects to get done in the run up to the end of the year.  I only officially handed in my end-of-year-one report the Monday before Christmas (it was a whole three years in the making), and I was worried that I might drop out, but also really sick of the whole damn thing.  While my ability to get the job done has been massively impacted by external factors, I found the literature review component of my studies to be a real drag.  I know how important it is to assess the present state of research and knowledge, so that I will have a firm foundation upon which to build.  But I really wanted to skip that bit and jump into the independent research stage!

Honestly, I don’t know if anyone else is quite as excited about transferring into the second year of a Ph.D as me, but I’m sure that with this level of new-found enthusiasm, nothing could possibly go wrong (extremities crossed!).  And now the fun stuff really starts.  And I’ve had a few very exciting things happen to keep my interest buoyed:

  • I submitted abstracts to two more conferences, and so far have had one accepted;
  • I’m assembling the structure of my first research paper;
  • And I published a referenceable work and created my first, proper, academic research profile!

If you’re a seasoned academic, you’ll see that these are just baby steps.  I am a curious toddler in a world full of adults.  But my childlike excitement for novelty is my gift – I’m in awe of what’s been achieved before me, and of what I can achieve in my research career.

You can find my ResearchGate profile here, and my first published work (originally created in June 2016) here.

 

THIS IS PLANET EARTH

 

Tonight I just caught the end of Planet Earth II – the last one in the series, as it happens.  It was about how various species have adapted to life in the cities that humans have created.  I switched on at the bit with hyenas that coexist with humans in Harar, Ethiopia, and watched right through to the end with Hawksbill Turtles crossing the road in Barbados.

The trouble with the Hawksbill Turtles is that when they hatch (which is at night), they need to head towards the sea, like, right away.  And how do they find the sea?  They follow the big, bright light in the sky because that signifies the Moon’s reflection off of the sea.  Unfortunately for them, humans have developed technologies that really screw with the hatchlings’ sense of direction.  Towns on the shore are full of bright lights that outshine the Moon, and so the turtles head away from the sea and into the towns.  Of those that do make it to the sea, only 1 in 1000 will grow to adulthood.  The odds aren’t looking great for the Hawksbill Turtles.

But back to the ill-fated wanderers.  Off they go on their journey towards what they must think of as the bestest, brightest, mega-moon evaaaaarrrrrrrrrrr!  And there are many hazards on the way.  Some disorientated turtles fall prey to hungry shore crabs, some slip into storm drains and can’t get out, and others get run over on the busy roads.  I’m not sure what happens to any of them that survive this turtle-themed Tough Mudder, but given that they need to make it to the sea to survive, it doesn’t look great.

But it’s not all bad!  Conservationists on the beaches of Barbados go out at night to rescue lost turtles and plop them back in the sea, as illustrated in this video.

Yay!  The heart-warming responses to BBC Earth’s tweets about this are testament to the Awesome Feels this engenders in the viewing public.  This time I haven’t concealed names to protect the guilty, as everyone in this public Twitter exchange is remarkably well-behaved:

But I’m not sure if this is the correct thing to do.  Watching this, I was reminded of the results of a well-intentioned intervention by humans on the nesting behaviour of black robins.  My party-pooping-self dropped a Devil’s Advocacy bomb on the Twitter love-in:

not one to mince my words The article I linked to (link reproduced below also) described how researchers in New Zealand noticed that some black robin females would lay eggs around the rim of the nest, leaving them less likely to be properly incubated.  The contents of these eggs would die.  And so conservationists would push these eggs back towards the centre of the nest to give them a chance of survival.  It was a huge success; more black robins were born and survived as a result of their intervention.  However, there was a catch: the offspring arising from the intervention would be more likely to lay their eggs around the edge of the nest.  The conservationists had inadvertently retained a trait in the species that would have been bred out due to natural selection.

The Road To Extinction Is Paved With Good Intentions

I wonder if that could be happening here – are we killing the species with kindness?  I’m not a biologist, so my expertise in this area is rather limited.  But it sounds like a similar scenario. Can anyone advise? Leave me a comment below!

 

REVERSE-ENGINEERING THE ENVIRONMENT: URBAN FLOOD PLAINS

 

I grew up in a coastal area, which used to be prone to flooding until robust sea defences were built in the 70s and 80s.  My parents had many stories of homes being evacuated and the army being brought in to place sandbags, and so I grew up considering flooding to be a risk only from the sea.

But of course, it’s not that simple.  Humans have changed their environment in a number of ways for short-term gains, with long-term consequences.  Many cities were built on the banks of rivers, for military and trading purposes.  At the time, no-one would have considered how these cities would have grown and developed several hundred years into the future.  The building materials available back then, and the density of development, did not cause issues with drainage. While sophisticated irrigation systems can be dated back to the ancient Egyptians, human manipulation of watercourses was only recognised as problematic in the last century.

The industrial revolution brought with it expansion of urban areas, and engineering of the natural environment, in the form of canals and railway embankments.  Watercourses were altered to provide drainage ditches, forge canal routes, and to culvert rivers and streams in built-up areas.  The Victorians also created an extensive and robust sewer network, to serve the sanitary needs of large numbers of people in a small space.  Flood plains were drained for farmland, and streams, ditches, and rivers were dredged to ensure the swift transportation of water from the fields to the estuaries.

Things are going pretty well up until this point.  Britain is a superpower, and has invested wisely and intensively in its infrastructure.  The transport and water networks are more than adequate to serve the needs of 19th Century Britain, and are the envy of the world.

But some time between then and now, things have changed.  It could have been around the time of Ian Nairn’s OUTRAGE, with the ever-creeping sprawl into Subtopia, when our love for concrete surpassed our respect for nature.  Let’s not be wishy-washy tree-huggers about it; we can do whatever we like to circumvent Nature, but when we’re not quite smart or diligent enough to do it properly, Nature defeats us with a vengeance.  The climate, land, seas, rivers and skies have no emotion or compassion.  When the rain comes down, we get wet.  And there is nothing we can do to stop it.  Which is pertinent nowadays because there is mounting evidence that the recent extreme weather in the UK, and other parts of Europe, is part of a trend driven by anthropogenic climate change.  See?  Mess with Nature, it messes with you.

Manchester is a great example of this.  We even got our own Facebook campaign during the last flood, which seems a bit OTT, but it’s nice that they thought of us.  My road has been flooded three times in the last year.  I live in the city centre.  While no (human) lives have been lost so far, the scale of damage and inconvenience caused is astonishing.  It’s incredible to see a month’s worth of rain fall out of the sky in the space of ten minutes, but it’s even more incredible to see roads become rivers, and buildings that we considered city-proof be ankle deep in flood water.  And I do feel for the numerous businesses that have cellars.  That is one clean-up job I would not want to be around for.

Manchester is an average city, and you’d think a relatively uneventful one.  But we’re realising that floods like these are not just possible, but likely.  And the areas closest to watercourses are where most of the development is.  The Mark Addy was a marvellous riverside pub on the banks of the Irwell (Mark Addy was a local resident who saved many people from drowning in the Irwell), but in the second-to-last flood, it was damaged so badly by rising water, that the business cannot afford the repairs.  Residents living along the banks of the rivers and canals have been evacuated from their homes in some cases, and The Lowry Centre (which has bizarrely been renamed as some nondescript corporate throwaway) had the river lapping at its doors.  Manchester was not built for this, but ironically, it actually was.

I don’t think there is the political will to do anything about it.  Construction on flood plains will still get approved, and people will still choose to buy homes in totally inappropriate locations.  Decentralisation of the economy could go some way towards reducing the risks cities face (I’m looking at you, London), but this is a process that takes time, something that we do not have the luxury of.  We can now see the effects of climate change happening right now, in our lifetime.  It’s no longer a problem that we can put off until tomorrow, but we will.  As often seems the case in the UK, Something Will Be Done once services are stretched well beyond breaking point, and something catastrophic has happened.  There will be much surprise in parliament and in the media, as no-one will have expected this thing that scientists had told them, repeatedly, over the last 30 years, would happen.

I had an interesting chat with my dad about flooding and land management (I grew up in a farming community), and his views on how to solve flooding are similar to those of others in rural, UKIP-loving little Britain.  When he worked on farms, the marshes were drained to make way for pasture, and ditches and streams were regularly dredged to keep the water flowing away from the reclaimed land.  My dad is a huge fan of dredging, and doesn’t understand why some of the fields are left to flood, when we could be driving a whacking great ditch through there to sort it out.  Well, this approach works for those living upstream.  But drain the flood plains and deepen the rivers, and you turn a trickle into a torrent.  When that torrent reaches the concrete jungle just before the coast, the city can’t cope.  Rivers in pipes, collapsed and blocked drains, very little bare earth – the water has nowhere to go.

My dad isn’t a full-blown climate change denier, but he seems unconvinced of the seriousness of the situation.  This annoys me no end, because not only does he pooh-pooh my area of work and study, but he buys into two ideas that contribute to me getting wet feet!  Not cool, dad, not cool.

I made a video of the second flood (below).  I’m a bit apprehensive about how my amateur commentary will be received, but YouTube stars don’t all go into it prepared, right?  I was probably more embarrassed wandering around talking to myself and videoing puddles, TBH.

 

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS?

 

I made some cool stuff, and I’ve decided to plug it!  Hey, it’s my blog, and I’ll post what I like on it!  It’s opthalmologically-themed – I thought the Snellen eye test chart looked pretty darn cool, so why not stick it on a t-shirt?  But I added my own twist to it; it gets progressively more blurry as you look down the chart – a bit like how it is for me when I visit the optician.  My shop has eye test themed t-shirts, mugs, stationery, bed linen, and more.  And any of these items would make a great gift for an ophthalmologist or optometry student.  Or maybe you just like the design, or like me, you cannot function without your specs and think it’s kinda funny.  Click on any of the images below to visit my shop and buy awesome Snellen chart gifts!

Science Lady's Cafepress Shop Science Lady's Cafepress Shop Science Lady's Cafepress Shop
But there’s more! I have another shop at Redbubble, on a rather different theme. 2016 has been shite, hasn’t it? (I will be blogging about this, too!) And so it’s the right time for a shop celebrating all that’s wrong with the UK (I don’t know how I am going to find the time to catalogue it all, seriously). I present to you, my shop Broken Britain. And here’s one of my (related) offerings. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!  If you keep doing that, you'll go blind!