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.

 

PUBHD MANCHESTER IS BACK!

 

Context: PubhD Manchester is a public speaking event that I co-organise, for connecting Manchester researchers and interested residents.

I posted about PubhD back in February, and with a few successful events under our belt (barring the odd logistical nightmare), we decided to take a break for the summer due to work and academic commitments, and the population slump that Manchester suffers every summer.

And now it’s back!  Three events are already scheduled for the new semester; you can find out more and register your interest on the website: www.pubhdmanchester.org.uk

 

YOUR RESEARCH IN FEWER THAN 140 CHARACTERS

 

The University issues a weekly newsletter to postgraduate students, with articles on research and events happening on campus, and in the city.  It’s in a magazine format, and also sometimes includes advice and general interest stuff.

One of their features is a sidebar with tweet-style synopses of candidates’ research topics.  It’s unsurprisingly difficult to condense 3 years’ worth of research into a tiny soundbite, but mine was good enough to be used this week.  Yippee!

Here it is:

140

 

VIVA IN T-MINUS 25 DAYS

 

I submitted my end of first year report last week, and while it requires minor alterations, my tutor is very confident about my progression to second year.  I’d been so nervous, thinking I’d not done enough, or not researched the right things, and having to juggle my studies with a full-time job didn’t help.  But they’ve got such high hopes for me that they’ve booked it in for the end of the month.  I’m both terrified and excited.  All year I’ve been looking for opportunities to present my work and defend my academic abilities.  And this is the biggie.

 

PSRS Poster

 

The Postgraduate Summer Research Showcase is an event run by the University of Manchester, for postgraduate researchers to produce a poster presentation on an aspect of their Ph.D studies, and present it to a panel of judges and interested members of the student body. I attended last year, and the setup is thus:

The first floor of the Christie Building (this is one of the grand ones behind the arch on Oxford Road) is filled with rows of pin boards, on which over 200 students present their work. Each candidate stays with their poster and answers questions on their work to anyone who asks. There’s a lunch provided for visitors, but you have to register in advance. So no sneaking in for a free butty!

Last year I saw some very diverse and worthwhile topics presented, ranging from understanding the role of various emotions in the progression of anorexia nervosa, to the use of stem cells in treatment for arthritis, to the study of knots in mathematics. The point of the event is that it presents work from all departments, and demonstrates the broad yet deep variety of research being conducted at the University.

First time around I learnt about the research of others, and got to understand the format of the event, and the standard of work expected. Second time, as a presenter, it was part of my journey to become a better science communicator and build up my academic reputation. I submitted a 150-word abstract on the topic of “19th-Century housing in a 21st-Century climate” relating to the particular subject of how Manchester’s vast quantities of Victorian housing could be adapted to suit the predicted changes in climate, and why we might want to do so. I’m not going to publish the abstract here, because I intend to produce more work on it. I don’t want to end up self-plagiarising.

TL;DR version: Manchester has a lot of old houses, many are likely to still exist decades from now, the UK is getting warmer, what are we going to do to make those houses habitable?

I was really excited about taking part, and exploiting one of the few opportunities that I have as a part-time researcher to present my academic work to others. But unfortunately for me, I had a terribly busy few weeks at my day job, and the pressure didn’t allow me time to complete my assignment. Added to this, I got called away to a meeting in London the evening before the deadline, so my plans to do a hatchet job on it the night before weren’t feasible either. I was really disappointed, as this was one of the first big opportunities to experience a conference-like setting, and I had felt so confident about doing it.

I then found out that I had to come in to the office on the day of the presentation to complete an emergency deadline, so the odds were just completely stacked against me.

I will, however, complete the work anyway. I want to study this topic in more depth, and so just doing the poster preparation will form the structure of the report. And so I’ve combined my post about the event with my post about the research. Below is an overview of the areas I want to research in more detail. This is just an outline – I can add so much more to this so I’m not worried about this list of ideas getting into the public domain.

I think the question is a really important one. Manchester has some of the most important architecture from the era of the Industrial Revolution in the whole country. Yes, yes, this is entirely subjective, but the sheer volume of history attached to places is quite incredible. And take a walk through the ghost streets of Ancoats, the former “workshop of the world” – it’s imposing yet eerie. There are many who think this should be preserved and recognised, but there is also a practical reason to retain it – there is a housing shortage and we have an incredible resource ready for exploitation. Just because our buildings are old, it doesn’t mean that they are obsolete. Many of the features of the Victorian home can be used to our advantage.

A great one is thermal mass. Structural materials that hold their heat not only keep the heat in during the colder months, but they retain the “coolth” during the summer. High thermal mass gives the internal temperature a bit of stability – the slow response of the building to the external temperature can help us to control our environment in predictable and less energy-intensive ways.

Related to this is the cavernous basement floors that many larger 19th-Century townhouses have. If you’re going to talk about thermal mass, the ground we walk on is the “go big or go home” option. Below ground, temperatures are very stable. This is why ground-source heat pumps can be used to provide heating in winter and cooling in summer. We know that there will be a small temperature differential between the indoor air and the ground, and we know what it will be. And so we are able to exploit it. So not only could we utilise basement floors to provide cooler and more stable temperature living areas, but we can also use the ground’s own temperature to heat or cool our homes.

Even dwellings without basements very often had ventilated floor voids – providing an essential level of infiltration all year round, and a welcome connection to he cool earth in summer. The latest building regulations have a complicated and fractious relationship with infiltration, with recent drives to insulate and seal our buildings as tightly as possible. This means the old Victorian house often falls short of the standard, and needs to be refurbished and improved prior to let, sale, or use as a working building. But are we showing a lack of foresight? My research aims to cover this topic in depth. Modern houses and apartments already show signs of overheating, before we’re even sure of the full extent of global warming. Refurbished homes have been reported as suffering similar problems, with such a strong emphasis on keeping warm that we seem to forget that summer is even a thing.

Adaptability is key; the ability to stay warm in winter and cool in summer. So undoubtedly airtightness provides close control, but if not applied properly it falls down. This is related to inappropriate use of MVHR (a form of low-energy mechanical ventilation system designed to recuperate waste heat from the air and turn it into useful work) systems (more on this below), which is a real shame because it’s actually a system that could do a lot of good if used correctly.

The principle of MVHR (mechanical ventilation with heat recovery) is to introduce external air to the building, but use waste heat from the indoor environment to maintain an appropriate indoor temperature – if the fresh air is just blasted in, then useful heat will be lost. The MVHR is designed to produce close control of the internal environment, but why does it go wrong? It’s mainly down to poor installation and commissioning of the system, and users not being properly educated about how the system is supposed to operate. MVHR can be used for cooling (as well as heating), by operating in bypass mode.

And there’s more: one of the cheapest and most effective things we can do to an old house is to change the windows. We can use better frames in the existing apertures to reduce leakage and thermal bridging, we can use double or triple glazing to improve U-value (a measure of thermal permeability). Yeah, I know, I went on about airtightness and insulation like they were terrible above, but like I said, it’s about controlling the indoor environment. If you design buildings that are perfect in winter but ovens in summer, that’s not control. Extremely sophisticated glazing systems have been developed to allow light in but to reduce the amount of infra-red radiation getting through – meaning that solar gains can be reduced while still having a light and airy interior.

If you really want to reduce solar gains during the day, you could fit shutters to the exterior of the windows. It might seem odd in 2010s Britain, rather than the Mediterranean or the Southern US, but there will come a time when we need them. It’s also another inexpensive trick that does a lot of good.

And a counter-intuitive thing: You can cool your house more effectively by closing the windows during the day, and opening them at night. Most people’s instinct in hot weather is to open a window, but in the Victorian house, the shade and thermal resilience of the heavy structure actually do more for you with the windows closed. Opening them just moves hot air around. When it’s cooler at night, the interior will be warmer, and so then is the best time to let that heat out.

What else is there about the Victorian home? Oh yeah, chimneys. In many of the converted period homes I’ve been in, the fireplaces have been boarded over. But we can open them up and re-use them – but not for warmth. If the fireplace is covered in winter, than it prevents heat escaping (can you see where this is going?). But open it up to allow summer ventilation, maybe in conjunction with some operable air inlets on the building perimeter, and voila – the stack effect draws air through the building, creating a cooling effect and important levels of air turnover.

That is something that’s often forgotten when thinking about minimising infiltration – that while a reduced ventilation flow can keep the heat in, we also require certain air change rates to maintain decent air quality indoors. No-one likes a stuffy environment, much less one that’s damp, smelly and downright icky.

And now to the roof. There are two different ways of looking at the problem. You can either try to reflect the Sun’s radiation, or absorb it. Well, that sounds like a huge contradiction, but it’s all about manipulation. If you paint your building white, you can reflect the radiation. But paint the roof black (and sacrifice your attic space, sorry), then you can heat the roof void and use it to drag air up through the chimney system more effectively (as discussed above). Cool, huh?

All of the above items are just some of the possible retrofit measures for a Victorian house. My next move is to model these using computer simulations. I’m going to learn how effective each measure will be, under different climate scenarios. But that’s for year two and three of my Ph.D; the end of my first year is about consolidating ideas like the above and demonstrating I’ve understood the appropriate literature.

 

RESEARCH VOLUNTEERING 9 – MOTION CAPTURE AND ROBOTICS

 

This was a super-cool adventure in the biomechanics lab at Manchester University, which is located in, uh, the Optometry building.  There was nowhere else for it, ok?

The research is designed to understand the nuances of human movement, to apply the findings to humanoid robots. The aim is to make robots move in a more natural, less clunky way. I’m sure that somewhere along the way there will be some Uncanny Valley-like results, but it’s all a step (ha) on the path to more humanlike robots. On a more serious note, the work has applications in medicine, for rehabilitation and developing prosthetics. Often university research sounds rather arcane and peculiar (Ig Nobel awards, anyone?), but it has real and relevant applications.Before the testing day, I was informed that I needed to be of average fitness as I would be performing walking and jogging movements in a gym for three hours. I do consider myself pretty healthy and active, but I was worried that they were expecting some sort of endurance hero to turn up. Fortunately they weren’t, and it was just repeated brisk walking over short distances.

 

The Biomechanics Laboratory
The Biomechanics Laboratory

When I turned up, the lab was set up with tracks on the floor and motion capture cameras on the ceiling.  At this point I realised this was going to be pretty futuristic and fun, and I was so glad I’d taken an afternoon off to help with this work. As is the case with all research involving human participants, the session began with the completion of consent forms.  This is to comply with the requirements of the University Ethics Committee, and also gives a chance for questions to be answered, and a little more detail about the work to be revealed to the volunteer.  Unlike any other study I’ve taken part in, this activity was accompanied by coffee and cake.  Researchers, take note!  It was quite a long afternoon, so we also had breaks and chatter throughout the session, to break up the repetition.

Following the initial registration process, I changed into a vest and shorts provided by the lab (this was necessary because my limbs needed to be exposed and I had to have various items of electronics fixed to my body).  I was then weighed and my height was measured.  It seems that I have got heavier (by 1kg) and shorter (by 1cm), which is the worst combination.  Damn you, properly calibrated scales!  This was necessary to calculate my BMI (it was a requirement of the study that participants were of normal weight – BMI 18.5 to 24.5).

Then I had a multitude of sensors fixed about my person.  It took about half an hour to get all of the kit on, and the placing of the devices was meticulous.  There were three different types of sensor used:

EMG (electromyography) sensors, measuring the activity of muscles involved in walking.  I had a number of these placed on my legs and lower back, to identify which muscles are active during which movement activities.

Pressure-sensitive insoles to measure my gait.  I also had to wear shoes provided by the lab, and due to my totally non-ergonomic feet, I required a 7 on my left foot and a 6 on my right.

You can see the marker pen still on my wrists a few hours after the experiment
You can see the marker pen still on my wrists a few hours after the experiment

Reflective motion-capture markers, which were placed all over: my shoulders, elbows, knees, wrists, ankles, hips, chest and toes, plus a snazzy felt hat with markers for my head.  In order for these to be placed correctly, one of the researchers had to feel for the exact part of the joint to place the marker, and draw on me with a felt pen ready to glue the silvery reflective marker balls on to my skin.  they also precisely measured the length of my hands and feet in order to relate the position of some of these markers to the rest of my body – my left hand is 187mm long and my left foot 236mm long.  Not sure what I will ever do with this information, but it’s kinda cool.

In addition to the above, I needed to wear transmitters for the EMGs in a snazzy tool belt around my waist, plus transmitters for the insoles were strapped to my calves.

When all of the gear was on, my height and weight were remeasured, and I had gained a centimetre in height and two kilos in weight (not surprising, given how much of the damn stuff there was).

I then stood in front of the display screen in the middle of the lab, and I could see virtual me moving around in the form of a number of white dots (silly dance obligatory at this point).  The researchers also had two screens in which they could see the pressure maps of my feet and the electrical output of my muscles.  The motion capture data was collected by a number of cameras on the ceiling of the lab, and the pressure and movement signals were transmitted over the wi-fi to the recording equipment.

My first task was to stand on one leg and then switch to the other, for both feet.  This is surprisingly difficult, and I didn’t realise how crap my balance was until this point.  This was necessary for a baseline reading.  Then the movement tasks began.  I had to perform seven different actions, involving walking for a short distance, and only slightly energetic.  The researchers recorded the data output for each of the seven actions, repeated ten times each.

Walking around with all the gear on felt a bit strange at first, but none of it got in the way of my ordinary walking style, which was really important as they wanted to record people’s normal, unimpeded movements.  The type of movements that the researchers are interested in are to do with changes in speed and direction, the type of movements for which we can easily distinguish between the characteristics of man or machine.

The experiment took about three hours to complete; one of the longest studies I’ve taken part in.  I got paid £20 for my participation, which isn’t loads, but given that I got to feel like I was in Avatar for an afternoon, it was definitely worth it.  The team are still looking for more participants, aged 18 – 40 with a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9, to participate in trials starting in September.  Details will soon be published on the University’s Research Volunteering page.

 

RESEARCH VOLUNTEERING 8 – THE EFFECTS OF AGEING ON MULTISENSORY INTEGRATION

 

This piece of research took me to the Psychological Sciences department. They have lots of studies that require human volunteers, and they are all really interesting. This study involved a number of hearing and visual tests, with the aim of looking at how ageing affects the way we process visual and auditory information.

I can’t give away too much information, as the study is ongoing and still recruiting (they are especially keen to find volunteers aged 65+), but I had to don a pair of headphones and respond using a clicker when I heard certain sounds.  There were other things going on during the test, too, like noises that I was not to respond to, but like I said, I can’t give too much away.  There were a number of these tests and also some tests combining a visual stimulus on a screen and a noise.  I was being tested on how I perceived these in relation to each other.

 

Things I learnt during the test: I have very sensitive hearing (yay!).  I’m more sensitive to sounds at the ends of the spectrum (at the limits of human auditory perception) than those in the mid range.  Yes, this is odd, and the researcher couldn’t explain it.  But that’s the result we measured and it stands.

I also got paid £20 for taking part, and you can too: http://www.studentnet.manchester.ac.uk/volunteer/display/?id=378933

PUBLIC SPEAKING

 

Given that I’m one of the organisers of PubhD Manchester, it’s only fair that I should give a talk of my own.  And it was my turn last night! I spoke for ten minutes on my thesis “Retrofitting UK housing for a warming climate”, and answered a load of questions from the audience (some of them were really tough, but these were the fun ones!).  I think I went over the 20-minute limit for the questions but because I was the last speaker, it wasn’t a problem.

There’s more info on the format of PubhD Manchester on the website, but to briefly cover what it was like, we set up in a lovely local pub with a whiteboard and some pens, and we had three speakers, each talking for ten minutes and answering questions afterwards. I was speaker number three, with the preceding two speakers talking about their research on British Imperialism as presented to the German public by the Nazi media, and the reaction of the coal industry to climate change legislation.

I usually introduce the event and each speaker in turn, but because the two organisers were both speaking this time we had to alternate.  When it was my turn I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I should be, and I actually really enjoyed speaking in public.  I recently went on a public speaking course with work, and it looks as though I might have actually learnt something from it.

I had been stupidly busy in the run-up to the event, and I wrote my notes for the talk during my lunch break on the same day.  Oops. But I know my subject really well, and on the night I just used my notes as a prompt – the way it should be when you’re doing a presentation. I felt really confident and enjoyed having people listening to what I had to say.  The audience was about 20 people, and this was a small event suitable for practising my presentation skills ready for conferences. Having to condense my Ph.D into 10 minutes meant that I had to review and carefully consider my research.  Events like these are good for consolidating one’s knowledge as well.  Some of the questions from the audience covered areas of research that I hadn’t even considered, so this gave me inspiration for new topics to include in my writing.

My speech seemed to flow well, in spite of my poor preparation, but it was very useful to have the timer on display near to me.  Being able to see how much time I had left allowed me to move on to new topics at the right time to structure the talk suitably.  It’s amazing how eloquently and clearly, and how much, I can talk about my work.  Many people commented before I did my talk that I’m very passionate about my subject and that they could imagine I’d be a good speaker.  I’m hoping to build on this and attend posters events and give talks on discrete areas of my work in other settings.

One thing that I was particularly worried about was my audibility.  I’ve been told before that I’m too quiet when I present, so this is something I’ve been working on.  And it turns out that people could hear me just fine, even in a noisy pub.  However, I still need to work on slowing down my speech – apparently I spoke at the same speed as I do in conversation – which is pretty damn fast.

After we finished the event, some people stayed in the bar to chat.  We had some really interesting conversations, not so much about my research, but really stimulating anyway.  And rather hilarious too – I heard some “interesting” tales of former student houses, and was introduced to the concept of the “chundergrad”.  Yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds.  The whole night was a good experience, for the mind, soul, and funny bone.  I’ll definitely come back for the next one (as the organiser, I suppose I have to).

 

RESEARCH VOLUNTEERING 7 – VIRTUAL REALITY

 

Following my most adventurous research volunteering experience (in which I underwent minor surgery in the name of science), I decided to take part in one a little more tame.  It involved sitting at a desk and carrying out a computer task.  Nice and safe.

The experiment asked the participant to walk through a virtual town (it was set up on a PC), with keyboard controls to move, and mouse control to determine the direction in which you were looking. This part of the task involved carrying a package from one building to another, and memorising the layout. After each fictional environment (there were 20 in total), I was asked to draw a map of the landscape in which I had walked, and answer some questions in which I had to recall the names of the buildings I had seen.

It was pretty repetitive, but kinda cool. I received a £10 Amazon voucher in exchange for my participation. The whole thing took about an hour.

After the experiment, I spoke with the researcher about what sort of things they were looking for. Different people tend to use different memorisation strategies, and look for patterns in different ways. I found the first few tasks a bit more difficult, probably because the controls were unfamiliar, and it was a task I’d not done before.