Another month passes

So, we get to the end of November, a strange month of transitions that ends with me lolling on the sofa feeling grotty, instead of jetting off to Barcelona to attend a workshop. After a week of trying to fight them off I have let the bugs win.

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I say a month of transitions because November has been exactly that. Alongside the excitement of growing my first ever Movember moustache (a fine specimen that has raised around £200 for Mind), taking part in the excellent IAS2013 (and winning it), I have reached the end of the long-process of putting together the REF submission for UoA6 in the University. To be honest I can’t remember when I started that task, but we might quantify it by the number of Heads of School for Biosciences that have overseen my efforts in that direction (three in fact- so that’s a long time). The button has been pressed by someone in Research and Graduate Services and now I have my life back.

So, the last few weeks have seen me reactivating those neuronal pathways that are responsible for having ideas. I’m just a little concerned that some of them have decayed through lack of use, but a steady stream of possibilities fighting their way through my cold reassures me that a good grant funding idea is somewhere in my brain, fighting it’s way up to the surface. 

This space to think does strange things to me. On the one hand it is incredibly exciting to be able to flick up an idea, scrutinise it and then either bin it or file if for further consideration. This is what makes the life of an academic so fantastic. On the other hand it generates pressure. My employers want me to bring in research grants, they want the money probably a lot more than the ideas and the research outputs if the truth be told. That’s one source of pressure but the internal pressure is far greater than that. At the moment I am very conscious of the fact that I am rather lacking in external funding for my research and that induces a sense of panic. I look at colleagues elsewhere in the School and regard those with substantial funding with a mixture of relief that their efforts are helping the School as a whole, but terrible jealousy because I want that money for myself. It is easy to be caught up in an attitude that says we have to perform or be purged, that the bean-counters are watching us and monitoring our actions. None of these things are true, but the idea is propagated by some people’s unwise words and a suspicious academic community. This plays on the mind and forces premature funding applications, ill-thought out ideas and paralysis.

I know that I am not alone in feeling burdened by the pressures that are generated in a research funding vacuum. I was talking to a colleague about it the other day and learning how it can undermine confidence and impair a healthy work-life balance. The trick is managing the pressure and turning it into a healthy mix of positive action and disdainful rejection. There are times when I can manage that very well, but as the horrible man flu bugs ravage my cells today, I am a mote tossed on a sea of adverse reviewer comments that are yet to be made about the funding proposals that I have not yet written.

IAS2013 I won!!!!

IAS2013 I won!!!!

I can’t believe it! My life will never be the same again!

Commiserations to the other finalist, Susan Skelton. It must have been a close vote. All five of the Iodine Zoners worked their socks off over the last fortnight and anyone could have won the competition.

Susan, Rachel, Lou and Dilwar, it was a pleasure working with you all and we should be proud of ourselves for giving the students a great experience. We had some good chats about cheese, and Loch Fyne and cake along the way.

IAS2013- nearly over. Was it worth it?

As posted earlier, I am thrilled to have made the final of I’m a Scientist. I never thought I would get that far in the competition and so I am immensely chuffed about it. The fact that I have made it reflects a huge amount of work that I have put into it. I would guess that I have committed about 2 hours a day to this for the last fortnight. That has involved some evenings sat (as I am now) with laptop on my lap, glass of wine by my side, answering the students questions. It has also involved shutting up shop in the office for half an hour at a time to do the live chats. Today, those chats have eaten up 2 hours or so of work time. I can feel the bean-counters stirring and muttering darkly about the full economic cost of the exercise…

So, although it isn’t over yet, I feel it is time to reflect on whether it has been a worthwhile experience. Could I have made better use of my time? What might I have achieved otherwise? Should I have been giving that time to our own students at Nottingham? All in all I (and my wine glass agrees) think that this has been overwhelming success.

1. The students have benefitted immensely. It has been clear from the live chats that they have loved talking to the scientists, that they have learned some snippets of information and most importantly have learned how to ask about anything (death, sex, space, quantum physics, the weather, light, God, cancer, disease, infection, food, robots, the end of the world…) with complete confidence. As scientists we have been able to engage with them as equals, to provide encouragement and inspiration. We have laughed and joked together and the distance between a classroom in Hackney and my professorial suite (sic) at Sutton Bonington has been reduced. I wish that some of our own students would feel just as free to ask me about absolutely anything. Time and time again in IAS I have told the students to follow their dream, not be derailed or deflated by anyone else and stick to their guns. I hope that has given them a boost.

2. I have benefitted from the process. As an established professor of some standing, I am by definition a bit set in my ways and very specialised in my knowledge. Talking to the kids, ranging in age from 11 to 14 has been immensely challenging. To say that I have been out of my comfort zone would be a massive under-statement. I have been moved to a different planet altogether on occasions. It isn’t a problem to talk to kids- I own a fair few of my own- it is the having to think on my feet and respond at lightning speed to questions that aren’t on nutrition, aren’t even necessarily on biology. I feel that it has improved my communications skills, and more to the point I have been infected by the outreach bug. There will be more of this from me and I will find that when people are looking for volunteers to take part in things, that voice in my head will be saying ‘Go on… Go on. You could do that. You’d be good at it’. And I never refuse the voices in my head.

I would like to do this again sometime, but I don’t think I can. I have done the next best thing and convinced at least one colleague to sign up for the next one. I have also put the word around some of our local schools, so hopefully they will give it a try.

Watch this space for the result tomorrow… And then next week I will start work on the first full week of the post-REF submission era. I have some grant proposals beginning to crystallise in my brain.

OMG IAS2013!

OMG IAS2013!

So I have made the final of IAS2013. It has been an epic day of live chats and I don’t have the energy to write much more. Tomorrow is the denouement of this event. I shall do my best and hope to win the prize so that my local school will reap the fruits of my labours.