Saturday, 15 April 2017

Grant application success (Patient and Public Involvement with Parkinson's UK)

I'm very pleased to have been awarded a small grant from the good folks at Parkinson's UK! It was my first real grant application so I'm feeling very happy about it.

The grant will be able to help me better include Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) in my research. PPI is about involving the wider public as more than just participants. It's about including patients (if the research is clinical) and the public in the whole research cycle. Their contribution can be as big as informing your initial research questions so that it's more relevant to them. They may help write the plain English sections of the ethics application. They could help refine the methodology so that participants are comfortable throughout data collection. They can even help you disseminate your findings in plain English once the study is complete. There are so many opportunities for PPI in the research cycle, and it helps break down the barriers between scientists and participants.

I'm really looking forward to this opportunity, especially as the team from Parkinson's UK will be helping me to set up an initial meeting with a panel of PPI volunteers! I'm also quite nervous as this is a new venture for me. I don't have as much experience as I'd like with PPI. However, everybody I've ever met through my research into Parkinson's have been exceptionally lovely people! I'm looking forward to seeing what insight they have to offer to my whole PhD project plans.

Often participants with Parkinson's will say something totally off the cuff whilst in the lab that end up sparking new ideas for research. I think sometimes participants can underestimate how valuable their contribution is, and so I hope we can make our new panel of volunteers feel welcome and comfortable sharing their ideas.

Time to get planning!

Friday, 7 April 2017

"Standing Up For Science": early career researchers and media communication

Today I was lucky enough to attend a workshop hosted by Sense About Science, “Standing Up For Science”, aimed at early career researchers (ECRs). The workshop was about the importance of ECRs, such as PhD students and post-docs, providing our voice to media coverage of scientific topics.

The day started with a panel by three scientists: Dr Rachel Tilling, Professor Matthew Cobb, and Professor Allan Pacey. All three shared their stories of engaging with the media - both the positives and the negatives – before giving the chance for the audience of ECRs to ask questions about their experiences. This panel was probably my favourite of the day, as it really helped my see how really small efforts to engage with the media can easily snowball and make a big difference to our careers.

The panel reflected on their negative experiences and gave us advice on how to handle these situations, or how to avoid making the same mistakes they did. Top tips included simply relaxing about the situation (easier said than done!), not worrying too much about those negative occurrences, using Twitter as a platform to start science communication engagement, and biting the bullet and just going for it. I particularly liked Rachel's advice of “find a friend” who works in media, such as a science journalist. All three panellists shared similar experiences of being contacted repeatedly by the same journalists after they’d established this initial network.

The second panel of the day comprised of three journalists. Jane Symons and Peter Ranscombe are freelance newspaper journalists, and Pav Bhatti is a producer for BBC Radio Manchester. This panel really opened my eyes! Often we, as scientists, see journalists as a bit of a headache. Articles seem to be constantly churned out containing misinformation, sensationalist headlines, and cause a collective academic sigh of “here we go again…”.

I was really surprised to learn that journalists don’t actually write the headlines, and that that job belongs to the sub editors. What’s more, is that journalists are just as frustrated we are when they see those misconstrued headlines slapped on top of their work. The headlines are clickbait, and they’re there to draw the readers in. They don’t provide a summary of the article in the same way we’d expected the title of a journal article to.

Journalists are also keen to get their article as scientifically accurate as possible, and often it’s the scientists that are the barrier! If we don’t take the phone calls or emails from journalists, we can’t help them be accurate. If we’re not communicating our work in a way that journalists can understand, how can we ever expect them to write it in a way that the public can understand? Even with the “publish or perish” culture that surrounds science, we still have time to work on our academic papers, but journalists are often facing same-day deadlines, and have a limited amount of time to access appropriate experts. We can help by making ourselves known, offering our expertise, and writing to newspapers with opposing evidence when we see a “dodgy” story.

I didn't necessarily agree with everything that the journalists said. Or perhaps, rather, I was disheartened by the way that our aims are not aligned. The goal of a newspaper is to sell stories and generate online advertising revenue. Our goal is promote good science, conduct robust research, and report our findings without overhyping them. I think Jane provided a good example of this misalignment when she spoke about the way newspapers use relative statistics rather than real ones to overhype the danger, or benefits, of something, whether that be a particular food or medical intervention. Cancer Research UK has a good summary of the difference between real (absolute) and relative statistics if you  click here. I don’t think scientists are ever going to fully like the media's representation of science, but we can work together to make sure that the reporting is as good as possible by giving journalists access to our expertise. Jane mentioned that she is in frequent contact with her “go-to” statistician for these types of stories!

After this panel, we were given the opportunity in groups to discuss the obstacles we believe we face as ECRs that prevent us from communicating with the media. Many of the ideas that the different groups shared definitely resonated with me a lot. Imposter syndrome is frequently discussed in academia – the belief that you’re a fraud who ended up in this position by accident and that any day somebody’s going to realise what a terrible mistake they made when they hired you. We all feel like that! But this belief - the belief that we’re not as good as we (probably) are - stops us from feeling like we can present ourselves as experts. We believe that there are people with more expertise than us. However, a PhD is such a niche topic of research that we dedicate a substantial portion of our lives to, and whilst we’re doing that research we are, in actual fact, probably the world leading expert on that topic (thanks to Sofie, director of Sense About Science EU, for highlighting that point). We are perfectly qualified to provide our expert voice, and we shouldn't forget that.

Other obstacles centred on issues such as our reputations. Academics that have been in the field for a long time can get away with saying silly things or making mistakes when talking to the media. For an ECR, that incident is likely to be one of the first things that pop up on Google when a prospective employer looks us up. In the words of one audience member “the internet never forgets”. However, the panellists from the first session were adamant that we should dive in and do it anyway. One negative experience can easily be shrouded by ten positive ones.

The final panel was more broadly about science communication, public engagement, and a little about the Ask For Evidence campaign. The panellists were Hayley Gorton, a pharmacist with a lot of public engagement and science communication experience, Sarah Blackford who works with the Society of Experimental Biology, and Sofie Vanthournout who leads the Sense About Science EU office. Discussions centred on Sense About Science’s Ask For Evidence campaign, which encourages everyone (whether scientists or members of the public) to challenge claims made by companies or individuals by asking to see the evidence. Sofie provided a couple of interesting anecdotes on this, including one that prompted Vision Express to change their staff training, which you can read about here. In addition, we heard a lot about public engagement. As someone that has done a lot of public engagement before, I can appreciate just how important this work is. Both at Manchester and during my undergraduate at Lincoln, I have communicated the work we do to audiences of all ages, ranging from young children to the elderly. It’s a great skill to develop, and helps you to think about the best way to simplify your research for a lay audience. This skill can then be used to communicate with the journalists too!

Overall, it was a really insightful day, and I want to thank Sense About Science and all the sponsors for organising it. I've learned a lot and left the workshop with new perspectives, as well as a renewed vigour for communicating science!

Saturday, 18 March 2017

A day in the life of a PhD student

It's been a while so I thought I needed a prompt!

The inspiration for this post comes from a LiveJournal group "Day In The Life" that I used to follow around ten years ago. People would submit a post about their day, complete with pictures, and you could see what life was like from all over the (largely more economically developed, at least...) globe. I loved it, so I thought I'd do a PhD student version.

Monday 13th March 2017

The cat is awake first. She sleeps on the bed pretty much every night, and now that the sun's coming up earlier she's ready for breakfast earlier! The radio is set to go off at 6am, though it must actually be 5:59am as I hear the BBC pips go off just before my phone alarm does. Time to get up, get ready, and make sure the cat is fed...

Time to leave. It's sunny! It's hardly ever sunny in Manchester, and it's usually dark when we leave the house. It's setting me up well for the rest of the day.

Look how bright it is! I had to run
 for the bus, so no time to take
 a better picture...
It takes two buses to get to the office. On a good day this is a 45 minute journey and on a bad day it's...well, let's not go there. Today's a good day, and I'm at the office by 8am. Which is strange because's a big train strike on today so I expected the roads to be busy. Off to a good start!

Breakfast. I struggle to eat first thing in the morning so I sometimes grab breakfast once I'm at my desk. I go over emails I received over the weekend, or any that are on my "to reply to" list. I also make up my to-do list for the day. Anything I didn't get done last week, impending deadlines (*sigh*), little jobs that need tidying up etc.

I'm prepped for the day. I'm mid-way through writing an application for the NHS research ethics committee so I do some more on that. There are a lot of questions to answer, a lot of documents to prepare (participation information sheets, consent forms, letters, protocol...) and other things to think about. It's a loooong process so I spend 3 hours on that and then leave it there for today.

Usually I'd have just finished a meeting with my supervisors, but we skipped it this week as I don't have much in the way of burning questions or anything new to report. I'm seeing one of them on Weds to go over some programming anyway.

Instead, I decide to read a paper that we're discussing in journal club tomorrow whilst I have lunch. I run our lab's journal club so the pressure is always on to make sure I've done all the prep and set a good example to everyone else! Last time (two weeks ago ) was my turn to present so I did a presentation on my systematic review. This week is the post-doc's turn and she's picked an interesting paper on action observation in Parkinson's disease ☺.

I also take the plunge on the pre-registration for my systematic review; double, triple, quadruple check it and finally submit. I've been putting that off for a while because hitting submit buttons is not my strong suit. I usually get  Joe to press the button on things like online orders because I hate it so much! I get an automatic confirmation email, so now to play the waiting game. Look out for it on PROSPERO.

Time to contact some potential participants for my study. I'm collecting more data for the study I did for my Masters degree until I have fulfilled my a priori sample size criteria. I have a list of people with Parkinson's who are happy to be contacted by our lab, and a list of people without Parkinson's disease to act as the control group. I work down the list of people that I have yet to invite, and start contacting a few.

Now to do another activity that I've been avoiding for a long time. Programming in MATLAB. I had some problems with data pre-processing on my Masters degree, and I still haven't figured it out (over 6 months later...). I need to refresh my memory on what the code says ready to go over it with my supervisor on Wednesday.
PhD comics are genius - go check them out!
It took less than ten minutes to get overwhelmed, so I work on my systematic review instead! I'm working my way through the papers that I need to check the full text of in order to decide whether it'll be included in the review or not, based on my inclusion/exclusion criteria. I've got 41 left to read at the moment, but that number will go up soon in the next few days once I've met with the other reviewers.

Only 18 papers left to go through for the systematic review (it doesn't take long when you happen to get lots that you can quickly exclude from a quick scan of the method!), and it's time to stop. I think 8 hours is enough work for one day, and I'm tired! So I go to pick Joe up from Stockport. "Pick up" is a strong phrase as it's a 45 minute bus ride in the opposite direction to our house. But hey ho.

This is Merryn. She's certified adorable.
Home time from Stockport! Once home (about an hour to an hour and a half later - city life, eh?) it's time for eats whilst catching up with Jonathan Pie's YouTube channel (thoroughly recommended). We both leave a long day of sciencing (yes, this is now a word) behind to continue with the castle we've been building on Minecraft. After sufficient mining and crafting we watch a couple of episodes of Hemlock Grove (is it just me or is season 2 really weird compared to season 1? I'm not sure where the story is going and I miss old Shelley!). Then it's snooze time. With the cat's company, of course.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Dr Oliver Sacks, 1933 - 2015

It was with great sadness on Sunday morning that I learned of the passing of the great Dr Oliver Sacks.

Like thousands before me, it was Dr Sacks that first aroused my interest in neurological conditions with his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat - because who can ignore a title like that?! That was only 6 or 7 years ago (I was still doing A-Levels!) and I have since been working my way through the rest of his books. I was struck by the way he writes about his patients; it is obvious he cared deeply for each and every one, and invested a lot of time and energy into getting to the bottom of these strange, and sometimes wonderful, symptoms. I have also never seen so many footnotes in all my life! He had so much to tell us, but he seemed satisfied that he has left us having done his part.

I can't really express my gratitude in words for the inspiration he has provided, and will probably always be regretful that I never got around to writing him a letter when I had the chance. There is not much that I find more fascinating than the brain, and it was great to have such a prominent author providing such insights and bridging the gap between science and the interested lay audience.

As another great, late author once wrote "No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away", and for Dr Sacks those ripples may never fade.


"I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest." - Oliver Sacks, 2015

Friday, 24 July 2015

Summer Scientist 2015

All preparations are finished (I think!!) and now begins the countdown to Summer Scientist 2015, which starts on Monday 27th and runs through until Friday! Every summer the University of Lincoln's School of Psychology hosts the event which brings over 200 children to the university to take part in our experiments which are presented as fun games. Researchers get the opportunity to gather data to further our understanding of child development and the children get to take part in our games, play in the "Fun Zone", and graduate as a Summer Scientist!

This year is my first Summer Scientist Week (SSW) and I will be supervising the Super Shape Sorter game with the help of my student assistant Sarah, which comprises a visual search task related to the Eyelander research project. Eyelander is a computer game that encourages strategic visual searching and it is hoped that it can be used to improve vision in children with visual field loss, as this has previously been shown to be beneficial in adults. The project is a collaborative effort between the WESC foundation and the University's Psychology and Computer Sciences department. This week Tim Hodgson and myself met with Jonathan Waddington from the WESC foundation to go through the experiment in more detail, and now they've left me to my own devices to run it for the week...I hope they don't regret that decision!

The tasks, or "games", for SSW will be similar to those in the Eyelander game but with physical objects rather than a computer screen. Children have to find specific objects amongst an array of things on the table, and we'll time them so they must do so as quickly as they can! Let's hope things don't get too competitive :).

Safe to say I will be exhausted by Friday!

On a sad note, Friday also marks my last day working as a Research Assistant in the School of Psychology department. It's been fantastic, the perfect first graduate job! It's absolutely flown by and I hope to stay in touch with everybody here when I move on to postgraduate study and keep up to date on the research. Lincoln has a wonderful department and I will be sad to leave, but I must move on to my next adventure...Manchester, here we come!