Work-Life Balance?! Sorry What…?

Recently, my work-life balance has come out of equilibrium, leaving me no time to blog. I passed my ‘PhD Upgrade’, which is an assessment of whether or not I’m capable of finishing my degree. Following this, I was left with a shed-load of ‘normal research’ to catch up on, a brief holiday and a nasty cold, which I think was my immune system’s way of telling me to slow down! All things considered, the last six weeks have given me time to reflect on what a bad work-life balance looks like. It’s a common topic in every workplace and since ‘Scientists are normal people’ it’s about time we started discussing it too!

It may seem obvious, but having a good work-life balance is not only better for us, but it’s better for our research and it’s better for our employers too. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that stressed people are less productive and more prone to both mental and physical illness than their relaxed counterparts: they take more time off and spend less time delivering results. Personally, I am most inspired when I’m most relaxed; since finishing my period of over-work my productivity has doubled. In my experience, Scientists like the idea of their job being a lifestyle choice and often find it hard to accept that the main reason we work is to earn money, so that we can have an enjoyable life. But what’s the point of work if we have no time left for ‘joy’?

In my opinion, the antiquated structure of academia makes it hard for Scientists to strive for a good work-life balance. Most of us are employed on fixed term contracts all the way through to our mid thirties (if we’re luck enough to be legally employed at all…). Consequently, we are often preoccupied with out-performing our competition and we lack the security that allows us to relax into our research. Whether intentionally or not, these conditions result in employers and bosses having power to set the tone for how hard we should be working, for how many hours and when those hours should be. It’s human nature that we want to emulate those we need to impress. All this can results in a self perpetuating cycle of over-work, with few checks and balances to ensure we’re looking after ourselves. At least this is the narrative we hear….

Despite all the challenges faced by Scientists, I firmly believe that a work-life balance is achievable. I recently had an extremely uplifting conversation with a lecturer who ‘[doesn’t] work weekends’. Simple as this sounds, it was music to my ears! As Scientists we are privileged with an immense amount of freedom compared to those in other professions. We can and should work smartly and efficiently to give ourself time off. To an outsider it would be easy to say that the biggest challenge with a self-motivated career would be motivation itself. I prefer to argue that it’s stopping we need to worry about.

My Scientific New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year Everyone! 

Just like many of you out there I’m dusting off the mince pie crumbs and grumbling my way back into work after all the festivities. Also like many of you, I’ve made some New Year’s resolutions that I hope to stick to in 2019. I thought a good way to start January blogging would be to share them. They are…

1. Publish my first paper

Getting your work out there is pretty much the only working goal for most Scientists. It’s key because Science isn’t technically Science until it’s been peer-reviewed. This means being scrutinised by anonymous, independent researchers. As an early-career researcher it’s also pretty important if I want to bag myself a job after my PhD – nobody takes you seriously until you can prove that you do good, impactful work.

2. Collaborate wherever possible

The biggest thing I learnt in 2018 was how little I know… However, the good thing is that all other Scientists are in the same boat, they just don’t know the things that I do and vice-versa. The only way you can grown and improve as a Scientist is by listening carefully and learning from others.

3. Do less, think more

The best days in my job, the ones I enjoy most, are the days when I do very little. Not because I’m lazy (although I really ought to add procrastinate less to this list too – who doesn’t?) but because it means I’m thinking really hard about stuff. Thinking isn’t only fun but it means I’m less likely to waste time jumping into experiments I haven’t properly thought through.

Well there they are! Here’s to a good 2019 🙂 Continue reading My Scientific New Year’s Resolutions

A Scientist at Christmas

Well it’s that time of year! So it’s only fitting that my last post of 2019 is a festive one. You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve ignored the temptation to pull out some geeky Christmas-related Scientific facts. These have been massively over done – and quite frankly, geek as I may be – Christmas isn’t my area of expertise!* Instead, I thought I’d run you through a typical Scientists Christmas.

Are you sitting comfortably? Well close your eyes and imagine… Three Scientists all sat cosily together around a log fire… there’s probably some carol music somewhere in the background…the tree lights are on… there’s mulled wine and mince pies. Their lab coats and goggles are glistening with the reflection of the flames… !STOP! If I was a betting woman I’d bet I caught you here (if I didn’t – well done you). It’s all too easy isn’t it? The second we hear ‘three Scientists’, no matter what the context, our mind’s tell us to stick on the lab coats and goggles – they probably have grey crazy hair too. Obviously this would be really silly at Christmas! But that’s what society has conditioned us to think – me included – and I am a Scientist, currently sat around a fire, not in a lab coat (but in a rather fetching Rudolph onesie)!

In truth, three Scientists at Christmas behave exactly like everyone else. That scene until the lab coat remark is totally true. In my house there’s also probably a squabble over the tv remote, several terrible hats being worn, and some cats and dogs vying simultaneously for the closest spot to the fire and any unattended grub. In your house you might have a similar or different set-up, or you may not celebrate Christmas at all – and you’ll look just like all the millions of Scientists out there doing just the same as you.

So my seasonal message to you all – take a look around you. This is what Scientists at Christmas look like.

*Although if you do feel inclined to spice up your holiday with a little Science then I highly recommend ‘The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas‘ by Dr Hannah Fry and Dr Thomas Oleron Evans – available in all decent book-sellers.

Fact or Fiction? When Opinion and Science Get Confused

In my last blog I talked about the Scientific process – about all the checks and balances information must go through before it is considered by Scientists to be a truthful report, ready for publication. Communicating this is an issue close to my heart – largely because of the rise of ‘Fake News’.

‘Fake News’ has, of course, always existed. You only have to look at war-time propaganda, or Shakespeare’s Histories to realise that humans are often more interested in a good story than good facts. However, in this new Information Age, our propensity to overlook hard evidence is becoming increasingly mainstream. Indeed, only following people in whom we trust and whose opinions we share – and then re-sharing their comments and broadcasting them as our own – is a norm of today. Although this is generally harmless, the narrowing and marginalisation of good Scientific assessment (remember from previously that each and every one of us is a Scientist) has the potential to severely damage society.

We are all vulnerable to ‘Fake News’ from our children and young adults – who face the perils of developing in the face convincing perfection plastered all over instagram – to our leaders and politicians who can easily get swept up by the ease at which propaganda can be distributed and shared so much that they end up believing their own opinions to be fact. Indeed, those of you who regularly practice Scientific analysis when consuming media will hopefully have noticed that in writing this blog, an opinion piece, I am giving no evidence to my claims. If I’m wrong, these may be shared.

So how do we rise above the sea of grey and pull out the truth? Personally – I just think like a Scientist. Just like you can. Next time something on your news feed peaks your interest, I challenge you: Ask – what evidence is this based on? Is there another reputable source that corroborates? Does this fit with the facts I already know? All the questions that Scientists ask all day every day – it’s surprisingly easy and indescribably empowering.

Why should you believe me? Well, surely you now know you have the tools to decide that one for yourself…



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The Scientific Process

In my last blog I mentioned my wish that Scientific thinking was more widely discussed. I’m following on from that this week and going into a bit more depth. In our current climate, faith in Science is dwindling and the culture of fake news, where anyone with access to the internet can claim any opinion as fact; and where we only have to encounter options we share, is rising. For example Googling ‘Do people believe Scientists?’ gives front page headlines of ‘American’s Don’t Believe Scientists and That’s OK’ and ‘Should we Believe Scientists that say Global Warming is Real?‘ I hope to convince you today that, while we may not know all the answers, boy, are we sure of the ones we publish!

The first step towards understanding the Scientific process is that nobody, not even Nobel Laureates, just goes and solves a big question. Each project is an incremental step up the mountain, generating more questions than answers.  From these questions new projects are born, and so the never ending network of research goes on. In fact, one of the biggest challenges for me, a mere infant in my Scientific career, is accepting how little I do, and will ever know. For the next steps we must answer two questions:

  1. Why do Scientists generate more questions than answers?
  2. Who decides whether the answers are correct?

The first is simple. The Universe is really complex!! Scientists are fed by curiosity and scepticism; when designing an experiment we can’t just accept the result. There are so many assumptions that must be made to simplify the beautifully difficult world we inhabit that we must always question ‘what could we do better?’ and ‘Is this really sufficient to describe nature?’ Furthermore, when we finally build a suitably sophisticated experiment, often it’s so good that it allows us access to a new problem we previously couldn’t see. For example, I simulate molecules and I’ve started having headaches over the minutiae of computer science and computer-generated errors…

The answer to the second is stems from a long-established and robust process. When we encounter a problem, we consider all the ways we might be able to solve it; we then narrow these down and test them. Then compare them. Then re-test. Along the way we’re continually checking peer-reviewed literature for insight and inspiration and, once complete, our work is itself anonymously peer reviewed and critiqued before it’s allowed to be published.

So that’s that! Lots of questions and lots of evidence required before a Scientist would even consider making conclusions. We’re a sceptical and thorough bunch!

P.s. On the theme of peer-review and sharing/critiquing ideas – I was at a conference in Greenwich today and thought that’d make a lovely photo to caption this week. I haven’t suddenly jumped from molecules to architecture!





Inside the Scientist Brain

But why though? But why? But what does that mean? But why?!

This was my side of the earliest conversation I can remember: I must have been about three. I was sat on the bathroom floor – presumably as my Mum was frustratingly trying to get me ready for bed. I’d got fixated on the meaning of a word and wouldn’t let her stop answering until I was totally satisfied that I understood what it meant; the definition, typically for Mum, involved some more words I didn’t understand… I just wouldn’t let it go.

I choose this as a good example of the fact that almost everyone is a Scientist, or has been at some point in their lives. Only we Scientists ‘switch on’ that part of the human psyche a little more often than average – partly because we’re paid to! We don’t have anything crazy or ‘boffiny’ going around our heads – we aren’t floating on some other worldly mind planet. In fact, we’re just quite dogged at asking questions.

Scientific thinking comes down to two key principals : Analysis and Logic. These do, I admit (although it doesn’t help the stereotype) seep into every day life – you can’t help it! We see the world in a straightforward, skeptical way: we question everything but we don’t let this wind us up because logic always overrides. Logic allows complex, overwhelming problems to be broken down into a series of simple ones . We’re not geniuses, in fact, we do everything we can to avoid solving the big questions: instead we just make sure we get all the little ones right…

If you ask me, with the rise of social media and ‘Fake News’, us Scientists really ought to do more to promote and champion this way of thinking. It’s so easy to believe everything you see nowadays. In fact, it’s surprising how much can be gained from a small step back, a little bit of logic and that all important ‘why?’

So What do Scientists Actually do All Day?

Let me just start out by making one thing very clear… This blog is NOT a place where I explain Scientific concepts to you in a well meaning but slightly patronising way. There’s a lot of that about and, despite my skepticism,  a lot of it is very good quality. If that’s what you’re after then please look elsewhere. However… I do think it’s important that – if I’m writing claiming to be a Scientist – I at least introduce myself and tell you about what that means for me. A bit like that awfully cringy moment in team-building-type days when you’re asked to say who you are and one interesting fact about yourself. Well here’s mine and I promise it’ll be over soon.

I work at King’s College London as a PhD student in Physics (PhD student basically means I’m a trainee Scientist if you didn’t know, but that’s a touchy issue and one I may or may come back to in a future post). When I started my Undergrad degree I thought that if you did Physics you either went into banking or Engineering; I didn’t much like the sound of a ‘city’ lifestyle so for my placement year off I went and joined an Engineering consultancy firm. Turns out that I wasn’t an Engineer! Although I had a great time and learnt heaps just from growing up and getting a job, Engineering just wasn’t, isn’t and never will be me.

I return to my degree with way more skills and way more confused about what I was going to do with my life (typical melodramatic student in their twenties type stuff – Scientists are like that too!) This was all until one afternoon in mid-November time when I was sitting at my desk in Halls going through some homework questions for my project on how charges behaved in magnetic fields. They were hard but when I finished them I sat back and smiled to myself and wondered at the beauty of the Maths I had just accomplished. Then it hit me… This makes me happy! I get real pleasure from tackling a hard problem, looking at the answer and knowing I’ve just improved our understanding of the University by a fraction of an iota. Why don’t I just keep on doing this?!

So here I find myself almost two years later, sat in my flat in London after a day spent tackling hard problems and trying to improve our understanding of the Universe (that’s not strictly true – I spend my day trying to get my computer to work and marking the first year Undergrad homework but don’t tell anyone that because it spoils the story). After realising that, to me, job satisfaction means giving some of my knowledge back to the world, I’ve wound my way into Bio-Physics. But what does that mean?

I’m part of a team that’s is interested viscosity change in human cells: think of it as studying whether the bits inside our body cells are runny, like water; or gloopy, like honey. Gloopy cells are known to be linked to all kinds of nasty diseases: Alzheimer’s, tumors, diabetes… even the ageing process…The scary thing is, despite viscosity being linked to some of the greatest killers of our time, we know almost nothing about it! At King’s, we’re trying to fix that.

My specific job is a support role. I’m a trained Physicist so I know almost nothing about Biology.  I do, however, understand the tools the Biologists use. They track viscosity change using fluorescent dyes which allows them to see flows through the cells. It makes our lab look like a bit of a disco with all the glow in the dark stuff (and I know I’m not helping my stereotypical Science point by putting glowing chemicals in test tubes in your mind but at least it’s the fun bit!) Of course, if you’re mixing dyes into your experiments you need to understand them and what they do to their environment. If you didn’t you’ could run the risk of being the Scientific equivalent of a plumber that turns up to fix a sink with a bag full of baking ingredients – silly. So ensuring that doesn’t happen is my job. All day, I make computer simulations of fluorescent dyes, in order to help the Biologists understand what their results actually mean. I can do that because fluorescence is linked to electrons behaving badly (and I do mean badly it’s a headache!) and electrons means quantum mechanics – Physics – my background.

So that’s me. Now we’ve got that over with I’m looking forward to talking about some actual issues – but at least you might find me at least a bit more credible now. However, if you still need convincing, check out my Instagram and Twitter during the week where I’ll be posing pictures of what all that simulating and Biology-helping means in real terms. For all you nerds out there – the particular dye I research is BODIPY-C12, and it’s structure (in simulation form) is this week’s blog photo.