Tuesday, 1 July 2014

How to help someone that is writing up their thesis

Writing a thesis is a lonely and it can be a very stressful time. I found it extremely difficult to keep up with friends and family. Holding normal, conversations that lasted longer than two sentences without my mind drifting away to thesis related thoughts was also a challenge.

Quite a few of my close friends have gone through their thesis too and I thought it might be useful for those that haven't experienced the joys, highs and lows of thesis writing how they can help support those that are writing up.

A few things that you can do to help...

See if they would like to go out for food or a walk but don't get annoyed if all the said person does is talk about their thesis. Getting writers away from their computer can be a welcome distraction.

Send them some nice smelly soaps/shampoo - I stopped all shopping when writing up

You could also send fruit and healthy snacks. Confession time. I once spent a weekend at my desk writing up and ate all of my desk mates food because it was within arms length. He wasn't happy. His nickname for me is now 'the seagull'.

Try not to get annoyed if they are a bit snappy or don't reply to emails/requests - when you are writing up your mind works in strange ways

If you are planning something tell them where they need to be/when and what they need to do. Don't ask them a lot of questions about availability and dates as they will probably get confused. Trying to plan when you are immersed in a thesis is a challenge.

Be patient and supportive. They will stop writing their thesis (and hopefully pass) but thesis writing can last for months/years. It isn't like writing up a dissertation as part of an undergraduate or masters course.

A few things that might be best avoided..

Don't keep asking what they are doing post-thesis (especially if they don't know)

Don't say 'have you not finished that yet?'

Don't compare their thesis to your undergraduate project..

If you are the thesis writer...

Try not to get stressed when people can't understand the situation.

Get outside every once in a while (it helps)

Try and speak to your friends and family every once in a while

Try and get a hobby that doesn't take up too much time but does give you some escapism

Watch cat videos on youtube (and/or ASMR ones - also I found watching 10 minute episodes of Charlie and Lola on iplayer also helped!) Here are a few more suggestions for current thesis writers!

If anyone has any other tips or stories to share please do! 

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Academic Blogging - Getting started

Looking to share your research project online via a blog or social media but not sure where to start?

I often get asked how you blog. So here's a post with some hints, tips and how to get started with a blog.

I think blogging can be an extremely useful tool but it isn't for everyone, it is hard work and can be extremely difficult to do well. There are also risks involved and it usually isn't the best way of engaging with the public.

Researchers can blog for a number of reasons. It could be to share work with a wider audience or to share it with peers and there's plenty of folk (myself included) that blog about working as a researcher in a general sense. These posts are mostly read by other researchers. I found blogging through my PhD quite therapeutic and it helped me make a few new friends along the way.

I've included lots of links in this post to resources elsewhere on the web. I'm definitely not the first person to post about blogging so I have included lots of links to other tools and resources. I will continually update this post with links so please post things you have found useful in the comments!

Things to consider

Before getting started familiarise yourself with other blogs and work out what you like, don't like and how you want your blog to look (use google to search for blogs that cover your area of interest). There's usually a reason why popular blogs are popular.. look at the tools they use and the way they are structured (but don't steal!)

Think about the audience you want to reach with your blog and tailor your design accordingly.

Don't create anything too fancy. You want a platform that can be accessed via a computer, laptop and via mobile and tablet devices. Most people read things via social networks via phones and tablets. According to twitter 76% of people access twitter via their mobiles. 

Blogging is an investment of time and effort and it can be worthwhile but you need to make sure it's the right move for you. Will you have regular content, an audience and be able to sustain writing quality posts over a period of time?

Check out any guidelines on blogging from your institution. There may be someone that can help support you and your blog and always remember to let people know you are going to be blogging if the blog is going to contain details about your research. So...

Getting started - choosing a blog platform

I use blogger because it is super easy. I wanted something where I could start posting content immediately and without too many options but with some custom features. I didn't want to spend time learning to write new code or how to build a website from scratch (although I have now started to learn that!). It isn't as professional as other platforms but it works for me as I wanted to focus on the content.

If you want more ownership and control over how your website looks then you might want to use Wordpress. You can use a template of Wordpress (wordpress.com) or construct your own website from scratch (wordpress.org). My guess is if you are reading this post then you are probably looking for a simple platform.

There's also Tumblr where you have less control over the design and look. If you want to compare all three options then this website has already done that for you.

The platforms are all constantly changing and evolving so what works now might change in a months time.

The most important thing to consider with design is to make the text in your blog readable so a simple design and layout works best. There are some more thoughts on blog design here.

You can swap blogs between platforms at a later date.

You might also want to register your own URL (e.g. www.heatherisawesome.com - which is an actual website). It's easy to do and costs a minimal amount. It looks more professional but I never bothered making a custom URL for this blog.

Alternatively you could pitch a blog idea to a blog network. These bring different blogs linked by a theme together. There are lots of them (some by subject area) and can be a great way of reaching an audience by building on an existing platform. They all work differently and may have different rules regarding posts. I would recommend seeing if there are any in your area and looking at what they do. The other advantage to blogging on a network is that they may have a blog editor that can help you improve your posts rather than just working on your own. I blogged on a network for a while it was fun but I decided I wanted more freedom.

My advice would be. Start with a simple layout. Concentrate on the content and you can always build more custom options in at a later date and that leads me swiftly on to...


I find it's easiest to post content about the things that I am working on. Seeking and creating fresh new content in addition to a full time job can be difficult so my blog links with my job which I really enjoy. Content needs to be.. relevant and of interest to others, something you have credibility to discuss and are passionate about and it really needs to serve a purpose...

You need to know why you are investing time in sharing things via a blog otherwise you can lose motivation, lose momentum and the blog can stop.

Be realistic about how often you can post. In an ideal world I think one to two posts a week is a good rule to keep people coming to your blog. However, that can be really difficult to achieve and very time consuming.

Be wary of sharing details of your research work if you are planning on publishing it at a later date. That said I think you can generate real interest from readers on the web by talking about how you work and what research it is you are doing. Of course if you do publish a paper then BLOG IT (but again, be careful of image rights as these can be held by the publisher even if you produced the image. If you are unsure- check).

If you are a PhD student or post-doc make sure you let your supervisor know that you are blogging if you are using information from your work. I know many people blog anon BUT they avoid using anything that could link them to their place of work (and sometimes even avoid their research area).

Link content to other sources and make sure you credit others on the web if their work inspires you .. also seek permission to reuse photographs, images and you find on the web. Don't just stick them on your website. There are some that are free to use here's an overview of using photos and images here.

USE PHOTOGRAPHS/IMAGES/DIAGRAMS if you can. It just makes things look nicer. Even better.. create your own images and diagrams Errant Science has some awesome creations! If you are unsure where an image on the web has come from this is a handy tool that tracks it back to the original source.

Develop your writing by getting others to proof read your blog. If they are your friends you will probably get a limited about of feedback but they might spot some typo's for you!

When I you post something always think about who you are writing for because every blog has a...


This can be tricky but it is important. Think about who you want to contact about your work. If that is other academics - great! Or the public... more difficult but still great. Tailor your content and posts accordingly and make sure you are publicising your blog (you do need to do this) in the right places to reach the audience you want to. Have your audience in mind when you write your blog. Even better get someone from your target audience to read your posts before publishing them.

To reach your audience you need to find where they are on the web, that could be via twitter (I've written a getting started guide), facebook, LinkedIN, reddit, pinterest.. or any number of social networks. You might not need to use all of the networks. Top tip. I think twitter is the most useful BUT make sure you learn how to use it properly.

Do some research, set up appropriate accounts linked to your blog and make sure you let people know about your blog. If you can reach people with wide networks (e.g. a society you work with) then let them know and they can help you share your content. Without sharing your writing then it will be difficult for people to find the content.

You could also ask an established blogger if they would be happy with you writing a guest post on their site. It's best to do this after you have written a few posts so they can refer back to that in order to see if your content and style fits with their blog. Interact with other blogs through the comment sections too. Don't just continually post 'HI I WROTE A BLOG'. Participate in the online community by being helpful to others.

Use the 'labels', 'keywords' sections on your blog to help search engines find your posts. You can use adwords to help you determine which keywords are the best to use.

In order to decide on an audience you might want to think about WHY you are blogging.  I know my audience is mostly people who are early career researchers HOWEVER I also know my blog does reach a public audience and more senior academics and I know this because of...

Tracking and metrics 

There are LOADS of different tools you can use to track who is visiting your site and for how long. The jury is still out on the best way to track the impact of blogs and the reach of posts.

They can be useful to see how many people are accessing your content and where they are finding your website. Here's some explanations of the terms used on tracking and metrics websites.

Tracking keywords too as to how people find your blog can also be interesting but you can spend lots of time getting bogged down in checking stats and metrics. Different websites will report slightly different numbers visitors and stats for various reasons. It's a confusing landscape so the best advice would be to use a couple of different tracking sites just to make sure.

Your outcomes might not be to reach 10000000 people with your blog but they might be to involve others in your research project which leads me on neatly to....

Being available

Make sure you have an easy way on your blog for people to get in touch or connect with other networks.e.g. a CONTACT ME HERE tab or 'gadget' in blogger (these are found under the layout options).

If this all sounds like too much (I used to spend at least 3 hours or so a week on my blog) then you might want to check out some...

Alternatives to blogging regularly 

You could always write a guest post for another blogger.. (they should have details of how to get in touch with them via their blog page).

Or pitch an article for The Conversation (online platform written by academics)

Check out these blogs for inspiration: 

Ed Yong's 'It's Not Exactly Rocket Science' - note he is a professional science writer but he posts his picks of the best science blogs each week .. a great place to find more blog inspiration.

Robert Hooke's London - beautiful research blog

The Thesis Whisperer - excellent PhD focused blog

Scicurious - moved from anonymous blogger to non anon blogger

Biochembelle - blogging about life as a post-doc

Handy tools for bloggers...

I use evernote for everything..to collate ideas, remember useful websites and to create blog posts but here are some other tools that might be useful - Blogging tools 

Blogging books 

There are books about blogging. I've never read one but perhaps I should have. I would be interested to know if anyone has found a book useful or if anyone has any further hints, tips and ideas to share.

Please note - I'm not responsible for any content on pages I am linking to. No-one asked me to link to their page or paid me to include their blog on this post. There is advice all over the web (business blogs, beauty blogs) and I wanted to provide a resource to further information for those that are starting a blog.

Please let me know if any of the links aren't useful or if you have any other useful ones to suggest please do! Don't spend money on producing a blog at first and be wary of any blog posts that try to sell you services! 

Monday, 2 June 2014

Why do scientists work in strange cabinets...?

Scientific laboratories are often surrounded by strange cabinets or 'hoods' which researchers work in...but why? 

*please note I was approached to post this blog post and there is a disclaimer at the bottom* 
Image from genencor_14 on Flickr
I worked under a hood when working with my cell cultures during my PhD in order to keep the cells sterile and avoid contamination and infection of the cells. 

Their history

These sophisticated systems were initially developed for the aerospace industry in order to control dust contamination that could negatively impact on the reliability and precision of parts.

Microbiologists did not take long to switch onto the benefits associated with the technology. A 1967 scientific paper notes, experts in the field had long been seeking ways to control contamination. In their piece, which was published in the journal of the American Society for Microbiology, Martin Favero and Kenneth Berquist stated: “For many years microbiologists have attempted to devise more efficient techniques for controlling microbial contamination. These efforts have ranged from the use of cotton-plugged tubes to large germ-free isolators used by gnotobiologists.

“Experience has shown that considerable care, time and money are required to prevent contamination of animals, culture, media, antigens, antisera and other materials which must be maintained or handled in a sterile condition.”

The scientists added that laminar air flow products were tried in their lab in a bid to provide an environment free from microorganisms. The results, they suggested, were “excellent and consistent”. The pair revealed that the new equipment saved “considerable technician time” and stated that it represented a “sound investment”.

If you haven't seen a hood before, here's a picture!

The importance of laminar air flow cabinets for medical science

It’s incredible how quickly and dramatically medical science has progressed. One of the things that has facilitated such rapid advancement is the equipment available to researchers. A wide range of hi-tech instruments now allows scientists to continually forge ahead and expand our sphere of knowledge.

Laminar air flow cabinets are a great example. These units are designed to keep working areas free from contamination and they have proved invaluable in a range of fields, including microbiology.

How do they work?

These cabinets create particle-free working environments by projecting air through filtration systems and exhausting it across work surfaces in unidirectional streams. In other words, the body of air created flows with a uniform direction and velocity.

The cabinets are enclosed on the sides and constant positive air pressure is maintained within them to prevent the intrusion of contaminated air from the surrounding room.

The here and now

Of course, things have changed a lot since this paper was published. The laminar air flow products on offer at present are much more sophisticated and varied in nature than their counterparts in times gone by. 

It’s now easy to order tailor made versions designed to suit the specific requirements of labs in the fields of medicine, pharmaceuticals, chemistry, electronics and manufacturing, among others. They can be used to protect the user and/or the research experiment. 

Meanwhile, the products come in vertical and horizontal designs and they also come with hoods. In addition, organisations can purchase laminar flow benches and booths.

For the best results, people must ensure that they select products that meet each and every one of their requirements. By heading to firms such as Contained Air Solutions, they should find what they are after.

It is hard to say exactly how much of an impact laminar air flow products have had on the field of medical research, but the technology has certainly helped to drive innovation and progress.

Please note I was approached to share this blog post but it contains both my words and those of Contained Air Solutions. 

I do have a real interest in the use of lab equipment and it's history.. anyone else that wants to share information PLEASE DO! 

Monday, 21 April 2014

Read my thesis and let's chat about sharing research

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So my thesis has been published online on the University of Aberdeen Library page. You can read it by clicking here

It has the very snappy title 'GPR30 and ERα36 and their potential role in breast and endometrial cancers'

This is my lay abstract:

Oestrogen is a hormone that is mostly associated with the development of sexual organs and the female monthly menstrual cycle. However, it is also known to play a role in breast cancer. The presence of oestrogen can make some breast cancers grow and in the 1970s ‘anti-oestrogens’, like tamoxifen, were developed which have successfully prevented the growth of some breast cancers by blocking the action of oestrogen. Oestrogen causes this growth by binding to specific ‘receptors’ in the body. The anti-oestrogens work by blocking the oestrogen binding to the receptor. Some breast cancers do not have the receptors and therefore can’t be treated with anti-oestrogens. These types of cancers tend to be more aggressive and have limited treatment options. We know that in the lab these cancers can still respond to oestrogen, despite their lack of receptors, suggesting the presence of ‘alternative’ receptors. Two alternative receptors have been discovered; GPR30 and ERα36. This study investigates the presence and role of these two possible alternative receptors. We investigated if activating them with oestrogen could cause the cancer cells to grow and move, which is the first stage of metastasis. We also investigated these receptors in endometrial cancer which, like breast cancer, is related to oestrogen. We found the two alternative receptors present in the endometrial cancer and found that they may play a role in endometrial cancer metastasis.

If you have problems accessing my thesis please let me know.

I thought as I have blogged throughout my PhD and shared pictures and information about what I did as a research student it would only make sense to share my thesis on my blog too.

I would appreciate comments and questions but please don't tell me if there are any typos in it!!

I've also been chatting about my life as a PhD student and reflecting back on some of the problems, good times and bad times with Matthew from Errant Science. You can watch us rabbiting on about PhD life and answering some questions below... (I had a very bad cold when this was filmed!) 

If you are interested in public engagement, science communication and getting your research work out there in the big wide world then we are going to have a hangout on the 5th of May (please join us!) 

If that wasn't enough we did a LIVE CHAT and answered some questions about research tools, software and life after PhD's (you can see that below).

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Want to see more good science writers in the future?

Producing a science magazine is tough going. These guys have produced a magazine and a video. Watch it and share it to help them raise funding to do even more awesome science writing.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Post-PhD life - Life decisions and blogging

I graduated from my PhD some time ago now. I moved away from research when my funding expired and after a lot of decision making and deliberating I took a post in Public Engagement at the University of Aberdeen. I started in late 2012 and I've really been enjoying it so far. I am involved with planning, organising and running lots of public engagement events along with speaking to researchers about the many different ways they can engage with the public, how to bring the public into research, a bit of training and also discussing how to use social media as a researcher (which I really enjoy).

It wasn't an easy decision and I didn't discuss it on this blog at the time for a number of reasons. There was a post-doc opportunity too but that was in Canada and I wanted to stay in Scotland as my (now) husband is based here and I decided that I wanted to move full time into public engagement. I knew that I would enjoy the role and it seemed that this option would lead to a much more secure career (although maybe it won't!) than a temporary post-doc placement.

I've been blogging here on and off but not as often as I was during my PhD. I lost the blogging bug for a while as partly I was incredibly busy and I had a lot of things not related to science, public engagement and blogging going on, some good some not so good. Good stuff included getting married, moving house, job and graduating in quite a short period of time.

I've recently started a new blog, called the science tourist which is a mini travel blog of interesting science places, like Tycho Brahe's observatory on an island in the middle of Denmark and Sweden, and features events taking place in Aberdeen that are related to science. I would love it if some readers of this blog would check that out (and I think some of you will find it interesting!) Some the events I feature and discuss I am now involved with organising. I enjoy going to science events and whenever I travel I seek out interesting places to visit so this new blog is really just bringing together some things that I love and seems quite natural for me.

For the time being I am going to keep this blog going as every now and again I think of things that might be useful for current PhD students and I do some evidence hunting on dodgy scientific claims. I will also post things about public engagement here. I also know that there are still regular visitors to the pages of this blog so it seems silly to remove it.

I've also been doing some chatting via the power of Skype with Errant Science. Standby for that video which is all about reflecting on doing a PhD post-PhD and we are also doing an exciting new thing... a GOOGLE HANGOUT. Please come and talk to us! That is happening on the 9th of April between 7.30 and 9.30 on Google+.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Beauty Blogger Challenge to Ask for Evidence

Beauty and health product manufacturers are keen to open their doors to questions from users in order to get people on the web talking about their products ( If you're interested in following some of the chat then just look at #bblogs on twitter). But with the doors seemingly opening there's still a lack of people asking the right questions about what product testing takes place to create the claims they put forward and the real scientific basis behind their formulations and potions.

Beauty and health blogs are huuuuge business, many get numbers of hits that print newspapers would be jealous of. I'm tempted to mention a few products just to score myself a better ranking on google..  Beauty and health manufacturers know this, exploit it and often run events and send free samples just for beauty bloggers. Some blogs offer critical reviews of products, others just seem to like the freebies. Then there are the really shameful attempts at debunking that are just used to promote other products. Beauty and lifestyle magazines know this too and they engage with bloggers to get the lowdown on the latest and best things that the bloggers are enjoying (or not enjoying).

This is the bit I do not understand. Beauty bloggers are a clever bunch. They have codes of conduct and disclose which products they bought and which were PR samples. They pride themselves on reviewing and providing overviews of products but they don't ask for evidence from the product manufacturers on product claims.

This is a plea and a question to beauty bloggers out there. The ones I follow and the ones that I don't know yet....why don't you ask for more information and would you consider doing it in the future? 

I know many read these blogs for enjoyment and escapism but asking a few more questions about the product testing and results isn't about taking away the enjoyment of health and beauty it's about making better decisions regarding products so you can understand what is worth a higher price-tag (other than the packaging). What works for which skin/body types, which products can make a difference and pick the best for you. 

I'm going to illustrate this with an example of 'seemingly open doors but then closing them in your face when questions are asked' approach from Rodial on a Cosmo magazine webchat. 

I spotted that Rodial, the famous manufacturer of the 'boob growing cream', were doing a live webchat with Cosmopolitan. They promised to answer all questions, so I thought that might be an opportunity to ask them about some of their formulas and what testing they actually do in order to generate the claims they put forward.

They did answer my question on the post (you can link to the full Q&A session by clicking on the picture and take a look at what everyone else was asking).

They didn't answer my question fully, so I asked for more information and was given an email address. I wrote up my experience of asking for evidence for the amazing 'Sense About Science' Ask for Evidence Campaign where you can see other great examples (and outcomes) of people asking for evidence and advice on how to ask.

I followed up with email(s) to Rodial....

They weren't forthcoming with information and they still haven't answered by last response. I'm hoping this blog post will give them an extra nudge and will continue to try and discover how they have tested their claims to see if they can really back up what they are saying on their packs.

I enjoy reading beauty and health blogs for various reasons and there's no reason why these powerhouses of influence can't start asking more questions about the products and claims they are told. There are some resources online, such as beauty by the geeks (but even they don't ask how products are tested to make the claims on packs) and bloggers that tackle the science behind the products but I think the bloggers themselves (and encourage the magazines) to be more critical of the products (it's not like there's a lack of them on the market)... and challenge what is being said so it becomes normal routine rather than being a niche area for only some. 

You know what, with the masses of people available to beauty bloggers with their huge readerships with support they could even design and run their own some well planned and organised randomised controlled product trials of their own.

For more info on the boob growing cream see - http://jdc325.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/silencing-critics-legal-chill/