My Geology Note-blog

A chronicle of my PhD journey and other geology writings

Category: Academia

The Role of Scientist as Entertainer

A poetic prologue: 

(or The Role of the Poet as Entertainer)
by Roger McGough

During dinner the table caught fire.
No one alluded to the fact
and we ate on, regardless of
the flames singeing our conversation.

Unaware of the smoke
and the butlers swooning,
topics ranged from Auden
to Zefferelli. I was losing
concentration however, and being
short on etiquette, became tense
and began to fidget with the melting cutlery.

I was fashioning a spoon
into a question mark
when the Chablis began to steam
and bubble. I stood up,
mumbled something about having left the gas running
and fled blushing
across the plush terrain of the carpet.

The tut-tut-tutting could be heard above
the cra-cra-cracking of the bone china.

Outside, I caught a cab
to the nearest bus stop.
While, back at the table,
they were toying with blazing fruit
and discussing the Role of the Poet as Entertainer,
when the roof fell in.

(poem from Holiday on Death Row by Roger McGough (Jonathan Cape, 1979).


I tried to resist titling this piece “The Role of the Scientist as Entertainer” but it still feels most apt even if not the best, not least because what I’m going to talk about is less the scientist as entertainer than the lecturer as entertainer. But, the Scientist as Entertainer invokes something of the theatre and flare of the old public lectures given by distinguished scientists of the Royal Institution, the class room lectures with standing room only, where the charisma of the speaker is somehow still eclipsed by the science itself.

But this is not the image of the modern lecture or even, to be honest, the reality. Although I defy anyone to try and fall asleep in Nottingham University’s famous Thunder and Lightening lecture, the lectures of undergraduate courses? That’s often a different matter.

A key question to begin with would probably be what is the goal of a lecture? In the case of an undergraduate course it would appear that the primary task is to impart knowledge within a framework whereby the student can pass their exams and obtain a degree. This is in contrast to what could be considered the goal of the RI’s Christmas Lecturers (as an example) who’s primary goal appears to be to open up people to new ideas and enlighten but no necessarily to teach. Even if teaching does occur it is not structured and cannot readily lead to a complete understanding of a topic.

The question is then, can there be an overlap? Can structured teaching be delivered through the means of the sort of skills and showmanship employed by those who give public talks?

I support one key area that is always missed out in public lectures is the “dry stuff”. The grunt work that is needed to properly understand and build to big ideas is glossed over in favour of surface explanation so that the “big idea” can be understood if not necessarily digested to the point that it can be built into true knowledge. But then what exactly is “dry stuff”? Is it possible then to turn “dry stuff” into equally engaging information?

One of my favourite lecturers from during my undergraduate degree was an brilliant performance lecturer. She always recorded her lectures as podcasts which made revision a joy because I could basically follow along on her lecture slides and sit through her entire lecture again. In the first year she taught us geological hazards and her lectures were always peppered with anecdotes, quips, asides, references to her own research and more. Now you could argue that geological hazards is a pretty fun subject to cover but within it was some serious science too. There had to be, it was a degree course after all!

In the second year she taught us part of geophysical methods which was a far more technical and meaty module than what she taught us in first year but it was still engaging and interesting. She also started several classes off with showing us some resent seismic data she had received from a fracking site that she was working on to illustrate the issues of pin-pointing earthquakes within the crust.

One of the other things that I loved about her lectures throughout my time as her student is that she opened up a world of scientific debate and intrigue. She taught me to question, to be skeptical and to always check the saturation values on a colour map of data. She was the one who taught me that a straight line on a log-log plot didn’t mean a necessarily linear relationship between variables as anything plotted on a log-log graph produces a straight line. She highlighted how the slightest change in starting conditions can create either stable, chaotic or short lived systems. She is probably one of my biggest scientific influences despite the fact that she holds controversial scientific views and is considered by others in the scientific community with skepticism not least because she switched from one side of a particular debate to the other with a level of humility rarely seen in academic circles. She recognised that the theory didn’t fit the facts so she went in search of new theories. She grabbed my attention from day one and it didn’t let go. But I somewhat digress!


Recently I was made aware of the following quote by Michael Faraday, venerable Royal Institution member:


Borrowed from

Perhaps this speaks into the crux of the matter. It is not the content but the character delivering the content that matters.

Patrick Stewart reading PTA minutes will always be engaging where as that boring bloke you met at a family get-together that time reading the opening soliloquy from Richard III will be the most painful experience in your life.


Yes, this is a picture of Patrick Stewart reading the minutes of the last PTA meeting. To see it in its original context click here for a Zero Punctuation episode about Dishonored (apologies in advance for excessive swearing in the linked content)


I mentioned in my previous post that I have been teaching seminars on professional engineering skills. It’s been a battle to make the content engaging, let me tell you. For one, it’s been difficult to fully express the value of covering things like reflective thinking and CV writing so early in their degree and the other stuff, academic integrity especially, has felt like I’m already punishing them for a crime they haven’t committed by subjecting them to such dry material. I tried my best, I really did, but I am early in my teaching career so I know that it all probably sounded like the very definition of “being lectured to”. Not everything in life is fun and games (if it was doing the washing up and hoovering certainly wouldn’t exist) but I did feel bad that they were potentially going to miss out on future important information because I had bored them previously. (Although, as I say, not everything in life is fun and games and sometimes the bitter pill is good for you).

So, in conclusion, what is a lecturer’s role as entertainer?

I think at the end of the day there is no way to please everyone with a lecturing style but I do know that you will always remember more when you were engaged and it seemed like the lecturer enjoyed the topic they were speaking about and had a full understanding of it.

So, since I am not an authority on all this I can only advice myself, and I suppose my advice to myself would be as follows:

  • know what you’re talking about
  • enjoy what you’re talking about
  • speak passionately about what you’re talking about
  • remember Michael Faraday’s advice (including dressing smartly)
  • oh, and a quip, joke or funny image to break the tension is handy



The reference to Richard IIhas given me an excuse to use one of my favourite memes:


The author of this article can’t quite believe that term is over…. except she knows it’s the case because another pile of marking has landed on her desk. 

“Confessions of a semi-employed academic” or “tales from the practical: resurrection”


This is not hyperbole, this is reality for marking University work… I’ve got over 250 items for two different assignments to mark over the next fortnight or so.

So my PhD funding reached it expected end and I’m into my fourth year.


Part of that preparation has been my teaching over the last 3 years and, until I acquire full-time gainful employment, the manner by which I can keep myself afloat. So this academic year I’ve taken on lots more teaching and dived considerably further into assisting with teaching in Engineering and not just Geography. So how’s that going? Let’s begin with a section I’m calling:

Lecturing but not “lecturing”

Depending on what discipline you are in at University what is expected of PhD students in terms of teaching can be very different. For physical sciences demonstrating will be assisting and answering questions in practical classes but for humanities it’s likely to be leading small group seminars and for all subject marking assignments will be a key use of PhD students too. But the module I’ve been helping with has transcended the usual expected discipline boundaries. It’s a seminar series teaching professional engineering skills to classes of up to 45 students (more on that number, anon) in 4 50-minute lecture slots. There’s several of use leading the seminars and between us we teach the entire first year of Engineering, nearly 800 students on a 2 week rotation in which we take 3 seminars then assist with 3. Those are pretty mind-blowing numbers. This is one of the solutions that have been used to address the problem of teaching skills that would usually be taught in small tutorial groups when the student numbers have ballooned.

When I was told that this was what my demonstrating for that module was going to be I was quite daunted. The material was being provided but I’ve never lead a full size class for an entire lecture slot before. I guess practice over the years has paid off because after a shaky first one any nerves were minimal and I fell back on some of my Youth Worker tactics to get around issues I had in class (pro tip: If a group of people are talking when you are the fasted way to make them shut up is to ask them a question. Suddenly, they don’t want to talk any more!). Still, it did feel like being thrown in at the deep-end. I hadn’t been expecting to basically lecture to a class in all but name. But it’s been a valuable experience. To quote a Latin phrase I recently learnt:

“Docendo discimus” – by teaching, we learn

I’m now going to switch to a new topic which I’m titling:

I might be jaded but I’m still finding new lows

After 3 years of teaching I thought I’d see it all. You can find reflections on such here, herehere and here. There are three things I hadn’t personally witnessed while teaching until this term, one was headphones in a lecture, one was the Thursday morning graveyard shift and the lastly was, well, we’ll get to that in a moment.

But yes, to the first, you read that correctly, I gave a seminar where at least 2 students sat through the entire class sat their will earphones in. One was even directly in the middle of the class so frequently in my line of sight. It made me quite cross to be honest. I know why that was the case, because nothing more blatantly says “I’m not interested in what you are saying” than having earbuds in. I think the only way for it to be worse would be someone sat with their fingers in their ears chanting “la, la, la, not listening!”.


Now, perhaps they didn’t have music playing but still, appearances count for a lot and just because you sat at the front of the class feeling all keen that doesn’t excuse you from the moment when you fall asleep. Here’s a handy diagram:


On to my second point, the Thursday morning graveyard shift.

For those who haven’t attended University you may not be aware that Wednesday afternoons are given over to sports practice. In reality only a small percentage of students actually take part in team sport so most use it as free or study time. After practices is also when most teams will have their socials so a lot of people go out on a Wednesday night. Wednesday night is also student night at the clubs in town so non-sports clubs will also hold socials then to take advantage of cheep entry and cheep drinks. The result? Thursday morning hangovers wipe out half of the attendance to Thursday morning classes. And that’s if you’re lucky. In the seminars I’ve lead at 11:00 on a Thursday the turn out should be 45 and I’ve regularly only had 12 people. For the other days of the week and other times the attendance has been well over half consistently so it’s definitely something about Thursday mornings.

I think I must have considered the “no one turns up on a Thursday morning” phenomena as a academic urban legend. But I have seen the face of things, my friend, and I can tell you, it is true. Now, let’s quickly move on before I start ranting about low attendance at any other time of the week.

So what is this final thing that so appalled me? What could be worse than everything else I’ve ever witnessed up to this point? Try an entire class of foundation year students talking throughout a lecture or upping sticks mid-way through and simply leaving with no regard for the lecturer. Usually students have the good grace to sit and listen when the lecturer is in full flow. Not that class. Oh no. Appalling.

So now let’s finish up with a quick, quirky section I call…

Just call me Ross Geller…

One of the unique problems with teaching across 2 departments is, ok, it’s not a unique problem at all… but it’s a pretty serious one.

Take my typical Thursday. Arrive at Bay campus, PhD work 9-11, teaching on Bay Campus 11-12, then 1-5 teaching on Singleton Campus.

This leaves less than an 1 hour to get 5 miles across town, eat and drink something and be on time to teach at 1. I currently am sans car and wouldn’t even bother with one anyway because parking costs a fortune at both ends and would add extra time to the whole process. Mercifully the busses have been on my side otherwise I would have been doing an impression of Ross Geller from Friends:

The conclusion

So that’s been my term of teaching so far. I honestly do enjoy teaching but there’s certain aspects that I’ve mentioned (and others that I won’t on a public forum) that attempt to beat the joy out of you however, sometimes there’s a ray of light….


The author is a PhD student and junior teaching staff member at a well-known Welsh University and all opinions expressed here are her own, especially any negative ones.

If any undergrads are reading this, do me a favour, be nice to teaching staff, most of us are trying our very best.

Trip to BOSCORF!

The prologue: (cue Frankie Howard)

Here follows a “day in the life” sort of piece concerning my trip to Southampton to collect samples for my PhD. The time stamps are when I started writing each section and I am leaving it written as-was for full effect. All photos are shamelessly nicked from Millie Watts’ and the BOSCORF’s twitter feed. For more information on BOSCORF see their website here and follow them on twitter @BOSCORF_NOC and my guide for the day Millie @GeoMillie.  Right, onward!

And so begins my long day there and back to Southampton. Except my day actually began at about half past midnight when I woke up, peered across at my alarm clock, saw the top of the digits over the stack of books on my bedside table, panicked, then checked my phone to confirm that what could have been an eight was actually a zero. Such is the life of the highly strung academic. Putting on a long, rambling YouTube video was enough to send me back to the land of nod until my alarm woke me up at Six. Waiting for my taxi outside the flat, I heard the dawn chorus despite the mist.

I indulge in two things when I go to the railway station, one is taxi cabs (either there, back or both depending on the time of day) and large drinks from the station’s coffee shop (ha, ha, no free advertisement for you here! As they say, other publications are available). And after the newsagent nearly tried to charge me fifteen pounds for my magazine and getting my hot drink, I shuffled off down the platform to find my seat on the train (a Great Western with slam-door carriages, not quite as old school as Northern Rail’s Pacer stock but certainly possessing more charm). Speaking of trains, I recommend to you the currently-on-iplayer episode of Panorama concerning the UK’s current sorry state of train affairs.

The train’s filling up already (because of course it is) but I now have time to reflect upon the day’s tasks, which to the average person sounds a bit off. Trotting off down to Southampton to the National Oceanographic Centre (specifically BOSCORF) to collect some North Atlantic marine core samples for my work. Additional tasks include a shed load (which is an SI unit of measure and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) of writing to be getting on with. Train journeys, I find, can be ideal writing environments, not least because of the lack of readily available internet (must. resist. checking. for. free. WiFi). All being well I may manage to hash out a good few hundred to a thousand words today. As the sign on a local Chinese Restaurant genuinely says; Win-Win.

Work word count: 414

The train is getting increasingly busy as we pass through the stations onto Cardiff. I am somewhat concerned that what I have written for work thus far is less scientific, academic journal material than it is slightly rambling, single author monograph. We shall see. The fog is even thicker now than it was back in Swansea, probably something to do with the damp farmland around here between Bridgend and Cardiff.

Work word count: 465

On train two of two on the way to Southampton. I had to have one of those awkward “excuse me you’re in my seat” moments with the person next to me because of course I did, it wouldn’t be train travel in Britain without it. For some reason the train is just, sitting, here despite the fact it should have left at half past the hour. It’s probably waiting for another delayed connecting train to come in but dear goodness, if they keep up that trend the entire rail network would end up delayed!
*tannoy announcement*
Turns out the train ahead of us hasn’t cleared the line… for whatever reason. Dear me I deeply dislike being late for things, especially if I do everything in a timely manner and the reason ends up beyond my control. On the plus side for people still boarding the train if they were running late this morning they’re in luck to be sure.

Finally, at 8:39:30 we’re off!

[No further posts were written because the day was so busy when I finally got to Southampton half an hour later than planned.]

Word count: the same
Powerpoint slides for Tuesday: almost updated.

    Very little should be able to dampen my mood right now but by golly, former British Rail is having a good old go at it. The train out from Southampton Central was running late and got to Reading just as the doors on the Swansea train closed. Despite the obvious situation, after 40 agonising seconds the train pulled out without us who needed to get to Wales. Cue a half an hour wait and now a further wait in the train at the station as they wait for a connecting train (how nice of them! Wish the previous train had waited for us… grumble, grumble, ad nauseum). When we’re actually on the move I’ll be in a better mood to wax lyrical about my day. (Also, oh goody, someone near me on the train smells like a brewery… this isn’t going to be a pleasant stint…)


“I’m a trifle miffed” (c) Yahtzee Croshaw

Word count: the same
Powerpoint slides for Tuesday: Completed.

    There is something about trains that provoke productivity. Possibly it’s the knowledge that there is no alternative stimulation or seating arrangement for a good few hours so you jolly well better make the most of it.

    In light of making the most of it lets summarise my eventful first visit to the National Oceanographic Centre at Southampton. Approaching from the wharf side past container ships and a cruise ship you don’t fully appreciate the sheer size of NOCS. Laid out spectographically (yes really) with colour coded “nodes” denoting different sections it’s a rabbit warren that I’m glad I didn’t need to navigate by myself. BOSCORF, my destination for the day is separate from the main building and consists of the refrigerated core store with enough space for 5 km of core it is currently overstocked with more than 8 km of core, and a suite of prep and analysis equipment. For most people just the suite of equipment would make them as Charlie was in the Chocolate Factory but for me the best was yet to come in the cores that had been laid out for me.


That’s a lot of cores!

    There is an austere beauty to sediment cores, especially marine sediment cores with their pale fauns, muted greys, deep blacks and sandy browns. A particularly stunning example is BOSCORF’s so called Butterfly Core which contains a clump of mud that had rolled in such a way that layers had formed all different coloured horizons. When it was split and the structure was revealed it looked like a swallowtail butterfly.


The butterfly core in all its beauty

For those who may consider mud to be “mud” these cores from the North Atlantic will change your mind and then some. First off, what a geologist means when they say “mud” is not the same as the mud you find in your back garden when it rains and the soil turns to soup. Mud is a grain size, far smaller than sand grains, usually made of clay minerals and finely ground rock flour. It is so fine grained it can take months to settle to the sea floor and a single centimetre of mud can represent decades of deposition.

    Sub-sampling the cores is a fiddly procedure but satisfying when it works. You only even work on half of a core that is taken. When it is recovered it is split and half becomes an archive section while the other half is the working section that you can sample from. Knowing there’s still a pristine half left is small comfort when you bugger things up so badly your past-self cringes with embracement from the middle of last week. Luckily I had an excellent guide through the process (thanks Millie!) and the mainly fine grained nature of the important bits of the core made it easier to sample.

    You know how if you’re down at the beach and you’re making sand castles, if you get the water to sand mix wrong it doesn’t form a nice solid castle shape after a gentle spade tap but a collapsed blob or a powdery lump? That is the fear as you pull the plastic casing up from the sediment and hope and pray that the sample comes with it and not flop out on the top of the rest of the core. Luckily no such mishaps befell me except for a near miss that was quickly dealt with by a quick thinking Millie and a new piece of cheese wire.

Word count: 512

    At Cardiff. Had it not been for the delays I would be seeing the lights of the Liberty stadium on the outskirts of Swansea-land instead of the inside of Cardiff station. I guess the biggest question is when did I turn into someone who looked forward to bed time? (Granted I’ve been up since 6 and worked at least a 12 hour day so maybe the desire for bed is justified?).

    The rest of the NOCS is basically everything you ever wanted in a nationally funded research facility, more labs with more equipment than you know what to do with, dozens of people all about the place, a canteen with a view of the harbour and a knee high door labelled B. Baggins (yes, they have a hobbit hole in the blue node, and it made me very, very happy). One of the lovely things about big research facilities is the diversity of work being done and the somewhat pleasingly utilitarian architecture. We even noised through the door of one of the newly refurbished teaching labs to see a class learning about geological maps. Truly, I was with my people today! Sometimes being a geologist in a geography department feels like being the classical music reporter to Rolling Stone magazine, there’s a definite connection but the chord progressions are totally different. (Hush, it’s neatly 10 O’clock and I’m tired, I can’t be expected to always come out with witty metaphors).

    I had to wonder whether my enthusiasm was coming off as disingenuous (and I told Millie the same) but I genuinely was getting excited by the things I was seeing and the ideas we were having as I met people over lunch and in BOSCORF. A friend of mine said that when he reached the end of his PhD he found that he had loads of new questions he wanted to investigate if only he could get the opportunity. One key advantage of my work is that I basically recycle other people’s previous samples. Don’t forget that each core section, which is about 1.5 m long at most probably cost on average £1000 to recover on a research cruise so you might as well get the most from them. Contained within BOSCORF is multiple academic careers worth of possible investigations including more than enough tephra deposits for me to be getting on with for now!

    Another big thank you must be extended once again to Millie and the BOSCORF team for hosting me and letting me make use of their samples, some of which are still under limited external use agreements. I needed no persuasion at all to take up the offer of returning to BOSCORF soon but first to analysis the samples I have taken today, that will be enough work to get on with for a little while!

This is losttimelady_PhD signing off at 22:03.


Millie and I (with fellow BOSCORF staff on the screen behind) while we were packing up the cores to go back into the fridge.

The samples and I made it safely back to Swansea and soon they shall be getting zapped in the X-ray machine.
If you read this far, thanks!


Elitism is the enemy of merit

OK, this is going to be a knotty one….

Let me tell you a couple of quick tales before starting to provide much needed background:

The second High School I attended was a selective grammar. This was 2003 where such things were so rare as to be considered as legends along with wyvern on maps (“here be dragons”). Current plans may very well soon resurrect this mastodon but without its former social context (the training ground for the white collar work force from bank clerks to solicitors) I’m not sure what, if any, good it can do. But I digress. The point is it was an unusual educational environment (a C grade wasn’t seen as a passing mark so much as barely above failure). It gave you a warped sense of what ‘normal’ actually was let me tell you! or so I thought.

I discovered later that when it came to the pursuit of post-16 career choices my school was ahead of the curve… they believed there was one way to go about it. And that was sixth form followed by University. Out of a year group of 120 (yes I went to high school in a small town surrounded by rural villages, so sue me!) I’d say barely a handful didn’t actually carry on into sixth form (on balance we may have actually gained more students then those who left!) and everyone, and I mean everyone, was expected to get their UCAS applications done. And not just done, done for the Oxbridge deadline despite the fact that only a dozen or so people actually applied to study there. There was no doubt in my school’s mind that their students all went to university. And I’d say that, more or less, that’s how things panned out.

Now I took the road less travelled, I didn’t go straight to university. I worked as a church youth worker for a year and did a distance learning diploma as part of the job. To begin with my teachers all but had a fit. How dare I go against the grain?! Granted, they simmered down when I explained my plan and finally conceded that if I wanted to apply when I actually had my A level grades, well, at least that rid the process of so much uncertainty.

This is in complete and total contrast to others whom I know well who were the only one, or one of a small handful, from an entire year group to go to University. Chalk? Meet cheese.

There are lots of social reasons why university still is seen as a path travelled by “other people”. Just as I was embedded in a school that expected me to apply to university with no other option presented as an alternative, other schools will take the opposite approach (if they offer job and careers advice at all!)

University is seen as expensive, a debt few people earning less than the national average wage could conceive of being able to pay back (debt was a reason I nearly didn’t go to university myself). As a young person grows up they become attune to the worth of money relative to their background. £50 can mean very different amounts to people. For some, that’s a little, for others, that amount is a lot.

University is seen as elitist. Full of aging academics in funny gowns talking in some weird hybrid of English, Latin and Ancient Greek to lecture halls of quietly vegetating students. While for the most part this is very far from the truth the behaviour of certain academics in the public eye don’t break down this stereotype, they reinforce it.

Now I don’t live in a hole. I’m fully aware of the issues of controversial speakers having invites to events withdrawn, the #black-lives-matter movement hopping over the Pond to the UK, the spat between Student Union Officers at other universities and the students they are meant to represent with relation to diversity (or lack their of) and finally, the redefinition of the words sexist, racist, culture and violence.

When said-certain academics speak out against these people who wish to silence discourse their words are not heard by their target audience. They are heard by everyone else.

When Richard Dawkins created the “university is probably not for you” trend on twitter I am sure it began with wanting to tell the hyper-sensitive minority already in universities that reasoned debate and the challenging of ideas are the very point of universities. Alas, instead it will be added to a continuing list of reasons why university will be seen as something for “other people” and not a possibility for everyone.

The odd thing is is that I always thought University was for clever people. People who were smarter than me and for a lot of my schooling it was an unobtainable goal in my mind. But when I got to the applying stage it turned out I was academically good enough to apply. I didn’t think University was for the rich, middle class (of which I was not) but for the bright and hard working. With emphasis on the “hard working”.
To quote Thomas Edison: What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

(Aside: Isaac Newton attended university because he hated being a farmer but had been made to farm by his mother. Lucky for us his old school master convinced him to finish his education and then go on to university.)

Widening university access is vitally important. I’ve expressed this feeling many times before that given equal educational opportunities those with the skills and drive should achieve their fullest potential. We’re still not there yet in this country, let alone globally ,but here’s a few crumbs of food for thought which probably won’t win me any friends.

  1. Full-time university study is not the only path to a degree or even a vocation
    I was heartened to see in the news recently that a fully on the job, apprentice-style nursing course will be soon implemented within the NHS. If we are to admit as true that certain subjects are necessarily less traditionally academic and more hands-on it makes perfect sense to train people with that philosophy in mind. I would rather have a plumber who trained on the job fix my water pipes than someone who did an academic degree focused on computer simulations of fluid dynamics! (Hyperbole for rhetorical effect, don’t get cross with me!)
  2. We must avoid snobbery regarding the possession (or lack thereof) of degrees
    “Gradibus ascendimus” or “ascending by degrees” (the witty motto of Grey College, Durham) is certainly one way to get places. Indeed it should be the great social equaliser. If you have the knack, you’ll get the letters after your name. But in the same way as we shouldn’t measure success as amount of money in the bank we shouldn’t measure it by the acquisition of qualifications. Success can be measured and achieved in so may ways and for many the path of social mobility will be through university education however…
  3. University may not be the right path
    We must make sure that all paths are open to everyone.
    Monty Python says it better than I can…

There should be no disgrace in a student from a private school wanting to be a butcher in the same way as their is no disgrace in a student from a comprehensive school aspiring to be a judge. That is making sure all paths are open to everyone not making it so that university becomes the only path for everyone. To reiterate, the point of widening access and outreach is to give people choice to do what they want to do in accordance with what they are good at.

We have to get away from any notion that a person’s worth is measured by external forces, especially when those measures are informed by the prejudices of others. We must accept that the brightest and best may not actually fit within the mould of universities because we know that people learn and engage in different ways. All paths are equally valid, especially if we have the choice of paths to take.
After all, there was some German bloke called Albert who disliked his schooling, refused the go into the family trade, who couldn’t get a job as a teacher and ended up worked in a patient office… and then discovered the theory of special relativity!

For anyone reading this who still thinks that a career path they’d like to take “isn’t for people like me” I’m here to tell you that because you want to follow that path, it is for people exactly like you.
To speak from the knowledge of but one path: I assist teaching at a university and I would rather be under-resourced and teach only a dozen students who battled their way to be in those classrooms than have the flashiest labs in the world and have to teach a dozen-dozen students who arrived at the university gates by taking the path of least resistance out of social expectation.

The author of this blog once again reminds the reader that the opinions expressed herein are purely her own and do not represent the university she is currently at. However, in preference, please send all hate mail to her lab so she can X-ray it before opening it. 


Remember, if you do chose to go to university, you too can have the opportunity to have Prof. Stephen Hawking photo-bomb your pictures.

Unexpected tales from the practical class

This post comes to you, like a football match, in two parts. Part one will be a more reflective, thoughtful piece. The latter will be more of a comedic “the undergrads these days?!” Bit.

Part 1: You are not your work but it still hurts

I’m going to give this part as little context as possible so as to provide few, if any, identifying characteristics for the sake of anonymity.

Personality clashes are always tricky. On the one hand it’s just how people are, on the other, we all have to develop filters so that we can adjust our behaviour to situations. Case in point, you might swear like a sailor most of the time but you won’t do it in front of your gran.

We Brits have a terrible problem with not saying things directly to the point that those of Germanic decent appear blunt and harsh to our ears, when really it’s just because we tip-toe around things and lace our language with subtext and innuendo. Americans will sound friendly to the point of us suspecting that the speaker is disingenuous (when they probably aren’t) while our love of sarcasm makes us difficult to read. My point is, it takes all types to make a world.

But when someone so bluntly, so brazenly and publicly makes a comment about your work it’s hard to rationalise it. The individual in question is a student that myself and several colleagues have had interactions with before. Said student has been opinionated within a classroom setting but not as to contribute to the class but instead to pass judgement on the teaching of the class.

For me, this came to a head when, during an introduction to the topic at hand, (which included me addressing how the students could use the example as a way to improve their work), said student cut in stating that what we (for it wasn’t just me) were talking about was irrelevant and they wanted to get onto the important ‘actual’ stuff. It was cutting and all we could do was respond as diplomatically as possible (had we been blunt and unfiltered we probably would have told them were to go, i.e. Out of the room and not to return until they’d evaluated their behaviour).

In a teacher and student situation the control of what is deemed relevant or irrelevant is firmly in the hands of the one doing to teaching. And I think this applies regardless of the relative ages of the student or teacher. A student may disregard the teaching at a later date and make a value judgement then but in the moment to verbalise a judgement during the class is not appropriate.

The move towards student as consumer is making this kind of thing more prevalent but the fact remains, in the classroom setting those who teach are the ones with the skills and knowledge. Things that may appear to be asides or digressions may actually lead to the student becoming a more rounded individual. If, however, they want prescriptive learning with no flexibility and personal flare to the work, may I recommend just reading text books?


Actual representation of academic textbooks…

Part 2: Via la phone-less revolution

I’m wondering whether a phone hand-in at the start of university lectures and practicals may be the way forward. Why? Oh boy…

I mentioned in my previous posting on this site my despair at the lack of attention spans of the current crop of students and it came to a head this week.

So, are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.


Simultaneous Doctor Who and Listen With Mother reference, mmmm, efficient

A friend who first trained as a lawyer before moving on to a different vocation once told me about his personal experiences of falling asleep in university classes. That is to say he managed what would usually be thought impossible and fell asleep in tutorial seminars. The set up for such classes hasn’t changed all that much and usually consists of a class of about 20 or fewer students sat in the style of King Arthur’s court with a seminar leader, usually a lecturer. The very thought of falling asleep so visibly surprised me, in a semi-dark room with 200 other students yes, but in a small group…! I am, however, fairly sure that falling asleep isn’t the go to solution for the uninterested student today, no, instead they turn to that wonder of technology, the mobile phone.

(Aside: This week a colleague of mine did witness a student fall asleep in a practical class!)

This week’s lab classes are what I would consider “fun ones”. Touring about research labs is always interesting and the students were getting three for the price of one; optics, SEM and X-ray CT. The class was split into groups of about seven students and rotated around. The reason why it was only seven-ish per group is the SEM room is small. By the by, the a fore mentioned sleeping student nodded off in the SEM room. Yeah, I know.

So I was manning the part of the tour covering the CT scanners. A quick presentation on the science, showing them the equipment, mentioning X-ray safety, showing some data, talking about the lab research and finally showing how the scanner works. I had about 40 minutes with each of the 3 groups and that was quite a lot of talking. (Aside number 2: I currently have a cold so teaching for 3 hours solid in a noisy lab didn’t done me much good, so I’ve taken a spot of sick leave this week so I could work and teach later in the week).

You would think, therefore that the attention the students would show would somehow be proportional to the effort I was making. They want to be here, right? They’re paying for it (at its most base, capitalist level). If you think that, regrettably, you are wrong. Less than half made notes, a fair few muttered and smiled between themselves as I was talking and the greatest insult, yep you guessed it, playing on their mobile phones.
Now I cannot demand respect; respect is earned and I am a PhD student most of them have met only once before. What I thought was a given was courtesy. Ha!


I’ve used this one before… but I really like it and it fits, OK.

I fell like a broken record going on about this. In a class where you just get on with things you’re only wasting your own time if you check Facebook or whatever instead of doing the work and asking questions. But in a small group teaching scenario? Here’s my brutally honest feeling on the matter: It’s rude.

The fact is, in the moment when I clapped eyes on this one particular student stood directly in front of me on their phone I was dumbfounded. I just didn’t know what to say so I ignored it. Unfortunately that condones the student’s actions.
Now, there are perfectly good reasons to have a phone handy in a class; maybe to make notes on in lieu of a laptop or notebook, perhaps to look up information (that’s a regular thing in other classes I teach), some students did take pictures of what I showed them or maybe they need to be in contact with a family member or similar because of an emergency. Unfortunately the cynic in me doubts such noble ends for this week’s crop of students that are surgically attached to their phone.

Y’know, the wonderful thing about being taught something is you can fully engage with it and you don’t have to think about other things. Like any other performance medium, a good lecture takes you out of yourself. That’s a luxury these days. But the nano-second attention spans of some mean they are missing out on the joy of focusing completely on something.

One of the reasons I play video games is because I like getting absorbed in a world. When I’m slaying dragons in Skyrim I’m not wondering about videos on YouTube, or the EU, or the hostilities in Kashmir, or the drug war in Mexico, or the US election, or who’s in the singles charts, or what to get someone for Christmas et al because I’m slaying dragons to awesome orchestral music on the side of a snow covered mountain that is crowned with an ancient dwarf ruin! (Why yes, I did get a free download of Skyrim: Special Edition recently, how could you tell?).

Interest, I think, is key because although I can become interested to the level of fixation with trivial stuff (like video games) I also love my job and it interests me. I assume (or maybe I should hope) that that is why the students have chosen to do their degree subject. Because they are interested. Now, like everything there are less fun bits to my work: data mining on excel, editing text, general paperwork, more editing, and yes my mind will wander but I try and fight against it for the sake of the interesting bits so I can be attentive for longer and…

Oh sorry, am I boring you?


The author would like to point of that the closing line of this piece was a joke.
She also knows that whoever got to the end of this is probably a member of a choir in the crowd that she’s preaching to.
Futher more, she is well aware of the irony of the fact that most of this post was written on her mobile, but in her defense switching on a desktop is cumbersome when you just want to get an idea down in writing.


#Relevant to your interests

The tales from the practical class: Reloaded


Teaching is in full swing at the University at the moment. I will preface this piece by saying that despite the hard work (and it is) of teaching I do enjoy it and love interacting with students. However, as with all things we love, we complain because we care.

First though, let’s indulge in some silly vignettes before I get onto the meatier things.


Classic Undergrad Moments Montage

A student who wanted to bribe my colleagues with a quid for the answer in a minerals identification practical.

The student who didn’t have a lab coat or the 50p required to borrow one because they doesn’t carry cash. Ever. Not sure how they’re going to pay us back! And also, I didn’t know The Queen was studying in my department as she is the only person I know who doesn’t carry cash (except on Maundy Thursday of course).

The rag-tag group of pals who managed to convince the lecturer in charge of a field trip to stop off for MacDonald’s after an afternoon in the rain at 4 degrees above freezing plus wind chill. Bless.

All the students that keep turning up to practical classes without a ruler, then ask me how to work out the grain size of rocks. (Answer: Measure it)

The completely unsubtle students who tried to sneak a look at my answer sheet during an assessed practical.
0/10 for style, folks.

The post-Trump-win lamentations from students that dominated a practical, instead of, say, the work.

A field trip to caves being scuppered by the film crew of Doctor Who.

The student who arrived half an hour before the start of a practical… There by walking into the end of the previous session.

All the students who were late for an assessed practical because they went to the wrong room. (Actually, that wasn’t funny, it was kind of saddening)

Honourable mention goes to the two students who were wandering the corridors of the department lost and trying to find their tutor’s office… All offices are on the same floor on one long U-shaped corridor. Oh dear.


Serious commentary time

Here follows 5 statements that I will draw on in the discussion below:

  1. This week I dug out a pile of lecture notes from a module I did in my 3rd year of undergraduate. It was a really hard module with a big piece of complex summative coursework making up a large part of the assessment. The module was about the structure and large scale processes of the planet including the driving forces behind plate tectonics and the complexities of earthquake fault zones (to name two aspects). One lecturer’s approach to easing(!) us into all this was to have every single one of his lecture slides have at least one equation on it, usually differential calculus. But we put our head’s down and got on with it. It was tough stuff but I’m glad I took the module.
  2. I wanted to get a first class degree (who doesn’t) but my efforts were tempered not by wanting that Damian Hirst (First) but learning as much as I could and trying as hard as I could. We all have a talent wall and I hit mine eventually in modules and topics I wasn’t as proficient in and ended up with a respectable, high 2:1 for my efforts. It got me to where I am now, so that’s what matters.
  3. When I was an A level student I took AS Maths. It did not go well. The only thing that saved me from an out and out failing mark was my ability to mechanically follow the rules of calculus and be able to do algebra and trigonometry. It was suddenly too abstract. I got to the point where I would stare at a blank page in my notebook and not even attempt to answer the question. Not because I couldn’t start it but because I knew I’d get it wrong. It was a really negative cycle to be in.
  4. I can remember things I learnt in primary school. Activities I did, trips we took and stories and facts we learnt. We visited the Farne Islands during the year of the foot and mouth disease, we learnt about Grace Darling, puffins, and the monastery of Lindisfarne to name but a few things. I first memorised “From a railway carriage” before I was 9. I treasure my ability to remember, like J K Rowling’s Pensieve I like to look anew at my memories. After all “man is the sum of his memories” [sic]
  5. I have watched the entirety of the following films start to finish: Lawrence of Arabia, the extended cuts of the Lord of the Rings films, Ben-Hur (the Charlton Heston version, sans the first 10 minutes because it was on telly and I missed the start), The Wolf of Wall Street, The Dark Knight and the meditative documentary Into Great Silence. This is not a gloat, or an “I’m better than you” declaration, basically what I’m saying is I possess an attention that when interested, becomes captivated.

3D TV with Digital surround sound eat your heart out!

The above are all things that I have mused upon in light of the attitudes displayed with alarming regularity by the current crop of undergraduates. Perhaps it is an issue peculiar to where I am but frankly that would be terribly bad to assume that the students at my University are somehow worse than those at others. Granted, my own undergraduate experience is different from others in the sense that I have ended up in academia but I reflect on my contemporaries from my undergraduate days and I do see distinct differences between then and now.

Let’s start with point 3:
There seems to be an instinctive shying away of trying things when their is a risk of failing. I find myself encouraging students to commit to writing down an answer to a problem in class even when they have followed through the steps and therefore should be able to give the correct solution. It feels akin to watching a student work out an unknown angle of a triangle, going through the method, using the correct trig functions then at the end refusing to put down a value for theta.
I am therefore reminded of myself as an AS Maths student. The fear of getting it wrong is crippling. I think it is more so than ever tied up in the current teaching methods in schools. Education is becoming very perceptive. Besides the above example from a recent practical class I have also witnessed a student become distressed at the thought of having to put two opposing view points down in a essay. The lack of a “correct” answer clearly distressed them.
At University their is rarely a right answer to complex issues, merely well test and observed theories. In the case of observed phenomena I have to disagree with Master Obi-Wan Kenobi: he says “you’re eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them”, when I ask a student to tell me what they see I am not asking a trick question. Observe and record then discuss and theorise and finally test and comment.

On to points 1 and 2:
It is becoming increasingly common for students to demand far more of tutors’ and lecturers’ time than is reasonable. One student came to see a colleague about a piece of work outside of the tutorial time. I assumed that they had missed the last tutorial and were wanting to catch up. No, they wanted assurance that they were on the right track because they wanted to get a First. But no amount of time with staff is going to make up for the hard work and limits of a student’s talent. Not everyone will get a First. And that’s OK, or at least it should be.
I’m alarmed that there is an expectation that because students are now paying so much money for attending university that they deserve a good grade. That’s not what your paying for dear undergrad, you’re paying to be taught and have the opportunity to earn a degree, the rest is up to you. Unfortunately the business machine of universities are extremely interested in student (read, customer) satisfaction so courses are forced to remove from their modules topics and concepts deemed too advanced. Give these BSc students equations to do and your module satisfaction ratings will drop like a stone. But being pushed is part of learning. I am no natural talent myself, I have to work at what I do, especially when it comes to things that do involve post-GCSE level maths. But when I do achieve something difficult the feeling of accomplishment makes the hard work worth it.

Points 4 and 5:
I personally think that attention and engagement is a learned skill. Being attentive for an hour solid is something you have to work at. Recent pedagogy seems to run counter to training attention but instead caters to a lack there of. How did I learn to have good attention? I took notes in lectures; I was studying a subject I liked; attending church helps funnily enough because if you zone out you look like a right wally when the next hymn starts and you’re still sitting like a lemon; and making the effort to resist the call to daydream, however strong.
When I find myself repeating instructions given to students mere minutes ago, when they can’t seem to recall something they were taught in a lecture the day before and Sixth Form is “ages ago” one wonders if they’re in the right place. If you can’t remember information about a subject you’re studying it’s probably because you’re not interested, and if you’re not interested, well, perhaps you need to find something that does interest you and do that instead.

Blimey this has turned into a long one.
These are merely my thoughts and I don’t have any answers and this is not meant to generalise all students, it’s just common issues I have personally encountered.

The author is a PhD student who helps teach courses mainly on geology, environmental science and computer skills. All views are her own so send the lynch mob to her door not anyone else’s. 

Fix’d: Mary Rose project archive announcement

After months of rigorous work including talking thousands of photographs and processing the data for days on end, Sarah Aldridge’s work has culminated in the launch of, an online repository for 3D models of the remains of those who died on board the Mary Rose and the items the men once owned.

Working closely with other academics at Swansea and Oxford University as well as the Mary Rose Trust, whose multi million pound bespoke museum has just officially opened, Sarah has created an archive of data open to the public and possibly the first of its kind.

Sarah’s Engineering supervisor has been quoted as saying that Sarah’s work ‘would test the scientific value of digital archaeology – and the world’s burgeoning collection of cyber-artefacts.’ And that “Lots of museums are digitising collections, and a lot of the drive behind that is creating a digital copy of something,”

Sarah’s Biomechanics supervisor also highlights the potential impact for modern human health: “It might be that somebody in, I don’t know, Arizona, has a particular speciality and they say, ‘Do you realise that this person here has such-and-such a condition?’ It’d be very nice if that happened,”

Sarah has commented that during her time performing the photography for each 3D model things have got a lot quicker, at the beginning a single skull could take an entire day. Sarah’s lab mates are grateful that with the successful launch of the website they might actually get some time on the computers again. One colleague has been quoted as saying, “Sarah’s work is awesome, we’re so please it’s got some much press coverage…. But we need another computer to cope with all the work!”

With 92 almost complete human skeletons,  over twice as many individuals identified from the ship not mentioning the thousands or artefacts found Sarah’s work will create an unprecedented window for the public to interact with Tudor history.

Author note: This is a satire on how PhD student’s work will always come second in priority to those who originally had the idea.

XRM 2016 conference day 3: “Hay Jude” parody songs

“Day 3 in the XRM-house, the delegates are in Lecture room 1, singing.”

That is a thing that actually happened. In celebration of 3 of the founding members of the XRM conference who are also X-ray microscopy pioneers, Professors Schmal, Kirz and Burge, a lyric-swap of The Beatles No. 1 sing-a-long song was sung. Who say’s science conferences are dry affairs? (Granted, I think some people were a bit bemused and/or embarrassed by it but my time as a young worker has helped me embrace silliness such as that when I used to be among the embarrassed group).

Today was a half day but no less packed. Session one saw talks on studying art using microprobes; chemical mapping of low concentration elements in the tests of foraminiferas; and a talk on scanning theory and reconstruction that I would probably appreciated more had I had the right background in X-ray physics.

The second set of talks I attended discussed improvements to 4D tomography reconstruction (where the 4th dimension in this case is time). Once again freeware is on offer to try out the techniques back in the lab and I have been assured by the presenter that although the maths is complex (he showed us all the equations) it’s easier to use.

Today I presented my poster which is always heartening but quite tiring too. I like chatting over my work in that sort of situation because it gives me ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of before. It’s a bit of a problem in one sense though, I end up coming back with even more ideas that either would add directly to my work or would be really exciting to do.

In my free afternoon I mooched about, firstly, around a bookshop (they seem to call to me like a dog whistle). I always find that different cities have different types of things in their charity shops. Oxford, I predicted, would have a good selection of academic related texts (not necessarily textbooks, just notable works relevant to the field). To my delight I am now the proud owner of a very good condition copy of Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott. Another future blog post may be a review of said book. Books are one of the few things I have a genuine weakness for buying. Luckily charity shop books are always at a discount which is great for people who have to weight up buying food vs. books.

My second stop was the Oxford Natural History museum which I really enjoyed. I know I’ll have to go back again when I’m less brain dead from X-ray science as I didn’t do my usual amount of reading of signs. It’s a very beautiful building both inside and out, especially the stone pillars inside that are all made of different rocks from the British Isles complete with chiselled labels. Once again, photos will be forthcoming.

My only complaint is the frequent use of wet preserved specimens next to fossils in displays to show modern similar species. I’ve got better with spirit collections over the years (a biology classroom with a resident half-eviscerated rabbit in formaldehyde will do that) but most of them were invertebrates today and things like slugs and leaches make my skin crawl. The dinosaur skeletons are terrific and I really liked the “you can touch” style displays of rocks, fossils and even a stuffed black bear.

Notebook page count for today: 18

Time for bed, said Zebedee.

Day 2 at XRM 2016: Taiwan vs. Hamburg

Another packed day has been and gone at XRM 2016, so packed in fact I’m surprised that talks that happened only this morning weren’t actually from yesterday’s programme.

Update: I now know what ptychography is! But don’t ask me to explain it because I don’t understand it well enough to properly articulate it.

Today’s talk highlights included:
– imaging phase separation in Li Batteries
– 4D imaging of various stripes, 3D plus spectra and 3D plus time series, with the latter examples being Li Battery explosive failure and watching a match burn from inside it.
– Imaging and analysing the compound eyes of bees (including some seriously cool image segmentation methods) which I found particularly good.
– Lots of open source software

…….and the battle for the 2020 location of XRM, Taiwan vs Hamburg. Imagine the Olympic bidding only without the corruption and the presentations are more interesting. One of the fun things about the bid talks, and a lot of the other talks for that matter, has been finding out just how many X-ray and Synchrotron facilities are out there in the wide world. Voting closes later in the week so we’ll know then where the conference will be held in 4 years time. (In two years the conference will be in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. And yes I did have to look up the spelling of ‘Saskatchewan’).

Today I did a lot more chatting to people. People who know me back in Swansea probably wonder if I ever shut up but I’m usually quite shy around new people so it helped that it was other people who instigated the conversations. In particular I ran into people who I’d met at the ToScA conference last year in Manchester. It’s always great to catch up and exchange lab stories.

People will often say that conferences are the best place to start collaborations. I never really understood how that actually happened but after the last 2 days I’ve realised that you don’t need to persuade a scientist to collaborate. It comes up so effortlessly; whether it’s an offer of an exchange of samples, machine time, software code or even just a lab visit. It really is heartening that although we can often feel like individual islands of research just a tiny bit of activation energy is enough to bring people together.


Pages of notes made today: 27

I’ve also been taking lots of pictures of the displays within the Institute including crochet hyperbolic planes, porcelain topographic sculptures and a modular origami bee hive with model bees. So there’s another blog topic for after the conference!

Tomorrow is a half day so I’ll be visiting some of Oxford’s sights and trying to bag a few more colleges to add to my list.

Analysis technique of the day: STXM (sticks-’em), scanning transmission X-ray microscopy
Best acronym of the day: MANTiS software (with a mantis shrimp as it’s logo), Multivariate ANalysis Tool for Spectromicroscopy




Ouch! My brain! XRM 2016 Day 1

If how well a conference is going were to be judged by the number of pages I’ve filled in the first day only XRM 2016 is doing rather well (18 pages!)

Got out of bed very much feeling like an undergrad in halls again, not least because I’m staying in a room in Keble College and had breakfast in their Great Hall (I think petite pans are the signature breakfast roll of academic institutions from one end of the country to the other). Bright sunshine and pretty architecture certainly make for a pleasant walk even when you know you’re going to be inside all day.

As a geologist and not an X-ray scientist by trade I feared that coming to a conference billed as “X-ray Microscopy” (of which X-ray tomography is only a tiny part of XRM) might leave me in over my head.

Well, yes and no.

Talks today ranged from overviews of several research facilities and new scanning components to direct applications. Talks on applications included an summary of an on going study hunting for why Alzheimer’s Disease develops and how; using sandpaper to enhance imaging (no really); and my personal favourite, a talk on what the structure of dinosaur teeth can tell us about their diet and evolutionary path (answer: a lot!)

But the title of this is “Ouch! My brain!” and for good reason. The science of X-ray microscopy, which seems to me to be three parts physics to one part algebra to two parts geometry, did go over my head at times so to dilute my shame here are the definitions of some words or vocabulary I had to look up later:

Microphages: In there more common recent usage, a microphage is a white blood cell in a vertebrate immune system.
Dark field X-ray: X-ray signals produced by scattering caused by porous structure within a material. These signals are dependant on the orientation of the sample in the case of materials showing anisotropy.
Spherical harmonics: mathematical functions applied to coordinates on a sphere surface. Handy for when you’re dealing with points on the surface of the Earth (which is more or less spherical in an oblate spheroid kind of a way).
Coloured X-rays: Bands of particular X-ray energies similar to how different colours of light are confined to certain wavelengths. Useful for detective chemical composition of a sample.
Ptychography: err… something about diffraction patterns and… yeah I’ve got no Earthly clue. Questions for someone tomorrow.

Despite attending the conference alone I did a surprisingly large amount of chatting to folks today, mainly because I set myself the goal that if I saw anything that a colleague might be interested in or relate to their work I should make enquiries.

I may submit something to the conference blog before the week’s out but for now, further updates will be here (including pictures hopefully when I work out how to get them off my phone).

Roll on Day 2… but right now I need sleep!