In The Zone

My last blog post was pretty gloomy, and led to lots of people asking if I was okay. That wasn’t the intention of that post – but thanks to all those lovely people who reached out!

Good news is that things are going much better. That bit of Fear really gave me a kick up the proverbial and made me just sit down and do stuff. So now I’m what I like to call ‘In The Zone’, which has many benefits, but also its problems.

For me, being In The Zone is being (reasonably) focused, able and willing to get up, sometimes go to the gym, get breakfast, sit down at my desk, and being prepared to stay sat there all day. And often most of the evening. And then doing the same thing the next day. And the next. And over the weekend. Even the Bank Holiday weekend (I’m not bitter about that at all.. nope).

And really, that’s probably what most people expect of a PhD student, that constant pressure to be constantly working which I’ve fought against for the last almost 4 years. I’ve tried hard to keep my evenings and weekends free, but now it’s crunch time, and stuff needs to get done, so something has to give.

Sacrificing my free time isn’t one of the problems I was talking about, though – I always knew that would need to happen at some point. The problem with this phase of working is getting too stuck in your own head. You’re in there, just you, all day. I work mostly from home these days, so apart from the other half getting home in the evenings, I rarely talk to an actual face-to-face human. So you’re trapped in your own mind, talking to yourself (sometimes out loud), focused on the task at hand, and just working. And this is great! You get lots done, you feel good at the end of the day, so good you often continue working.

But it’s very easy to stay up there, in your head, when it’s time to come out. Like when your other half gets home and tries to have a conversation, and you respond with mumbled, half-formed sentences (sorry, Josh). Or when you meet friends at the pub on the one occasion you let yourself free of your study-prison, and all you can do is stand there wide-eyed and smile manically at the many people and noises and colours of the world outside (sorry, friends). It can be really hard to dismount your own brain for a bit and engage with the world, especially if you know it’s only for a few hours until you have to work again. But it’s important to try. Last night I gave myself an evening off to recharge and went to the Science Museum Lates, which also served to remind me of all the cool science and sci-comm going on out there, and why I kept at this sodding PhD.

So although The Fear was pretty scary and really not welcome at the time, through writing about it here and getting lots of lovely people saying lovely supportive things (along with a long weekend in Amsterdam), it has been enough to push me into what is rightly the most productive part of my PhD. But if you find me wandering around in the outside world, muttering spidery-sounding words and cowering from the bright sunlight, please shoo me back to my study.



Pint of Spiders… With Robots

The end of May saw the arrival of the 3-day Pint of Science festival, which I was proud to present at this year! For those of you who don’t know it, each Pint of Science event features a couple of scientists talking about their awesome research, usually in a pub function room, to the general public. Tickets are super cheap and it’s after work so people are keen for a pint while hearing about and seeing some interesting science – making it incredibly accessible to everyone!

This year it was in 21 cities across the UK, and in 12 countries across the globe. I was part of the London events, in the Tech Me Out section. My talk was first up on the first night – and it was sold out, so no pressure…

For me, it was the first time I’d spoken about my research in depth to a completely general public audience – so preparing it was a new challenge! It was also the longest talk I’ve given to date, at around 25 minutes. As I was in the Tech section, I decided to begin with the cool robot stuff! Showing loads of videos of robots running around really calmed my nerves, and the audience seemed to like it too. Videos are always great in a talk!

I then showed lots of robot fail videos to highlight the fact that although today’s robots are great, they’re not always that great…


Then that got me into talking about how we can learn from the way animals move, and especially spiders – and onto my work (which is detailed in a previous post).

I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Pint of Science. The audience were great, and asked lots of interesting questions at the end, which is always a good sign! There was beer, there was science, there was a super interesting speaker after me talking about using tech to improve athletic performance – what more could you want?!

Lucy Orr of Ars Tecnhica did a nice write-up of my talk (thank you!) and some nice people tweeted some nice stuff:

All in all, it was a brilliant experience, and one I can highly recommend to all researchers and scientists out there. A relaxed atmosphere, a great team of volunteers (big thanks to Agata Nyga, Fabio Tommasini & Francesca Solmi of UCL for organising the event I spoke at!) and science in a pub. Perfect.

Also a big thanks to Mendeley, who sponsored the Tech Me Out event. They gave us some cool free stuff and they featured a summary of my talk on their blog.

Is Technical Language Always Necessary?

Specialist language in scientific literature can, in my opinion, put people off. Is it always necessary? How can we strive to narrow the divide that jargon creates? And how am I going to address this when writing my PhD thesis? Musings below.

Lately I’ve been doing some more reading around my thesis subject in preparation for writing up. I’ve been making notes from textbooks, casting my eyes over topic reviews and poring over original research papers.

As I covered a subject related to my thesis, but unfamiliar to me, I suddenly realised how often I was stopping to look up the meaning of particular words or phrases. Every time I did so I’d have to go back and re-read the sentence or paragraph; it wasted a lot of time.

I’ve started to wonder how necessary this technical language really is. To me, it often feels a like a hang-up from the ‘Days of Science Past’, when there was a huge divide between the intelligent, educated upper classes and the typically uneducated working classes. The only people who would read these technical writings were the educated, and it almost seemed like a competition to see who could write the most jargon-filled paper (at least, that’s how I feel when I read old research papers). In addition, there seemed to be the attitude that if you didn’t understand something, you weren’t smart enough to be reading it, anyway.

Today though, scientists, and specialists of all kinds, are much closer to the general public. You don’t have to be a scientist to read original research. You don’t have to have a degree in physics to be interested to hear what’s going on at the Large Hadron Collider. You don’t have to be doing a PhD in cell biology to want to understand the basic principles of embryonic stem cell research. Science and society overlaps so much these days.

And that’s my point – why is science still using such technical language and alienating people who don’t understand it, when so many more people want to and can understand? Hell, I felt alienated reading about a subject related to my own PhD thesis, because I didn’t understand half the words.

Now, I understand in some contexts, for example in the interests of brevity and accuracy, technical language is useful for getting to the point quickly. I understand that specialist journals are just that, and they’re likely to only be read by people familiar with that subject. But what about papers in journals that cover everything and anything in a broad subject e.g. biology? Not every biologist is a neurologist, or a muscle physiologist, or a geneticist. We don’t all know the ‘common’ technical language for every field. I feel that the biggest journals, like Nature and Science, are a bit better at avoiding jargon (although occasionally some pretty rubbish science gets in), probably because they know their audience is incredibly broad, catering for scientists, journalists, the general public, and beyond.

I’m just wondering if it’s time for us to reassess the purpose and readership of some of these journals and textbooks. You can pretty much guarantee that it’s going to be accessed by a wider scope of people than it was, say, half a century ago. So isn’t about time we update our language to accommodate this? Particularly in instances when you can easily replace the technical word or jargon-filled phrase with common language of a similar length (I found this was a the case A LOT when I was looking stuff up recently; it was very frustrating).

This is what I intend to do when it comes to writing up my thesis. Originally I thought I’d do the ‘official’ version for my examiners and university and whatnot, full of all the technical terms one might expect, and then do a ‘simplified’ version for myself to keep, and for friends, family and The Internet (if anyone is remotely interested in reading it). And then I thought: why? Not only is that duplicating the work for myself, but why shouldn’t a PhD thesis be accessible to everyone? So that’s what I’m going to to. I’m going to make my thesis as readable as possible, for anyone. Of course there will be things like statistical tests where I’ll have to just write the name of the test I use rather than explaining how it works in a billion words, but where possible I’d like to make it simple.

I’d like to make a plea for future (and current) researchers to bear the non-specialists in mind when they write things up. We all like using big words when we know what they mean, because it makes us feel smart (I definitely do this) but surely it’s preferable that more people understand what you’ve spent the time and effort writing?

In this post I’ve really just been airing my thoughts on this matter, but I’d love to hear what other people think about this topic – do you think academic texts should be jargon-free? Do you think there’s a time and place that we should use jargon? Comment below or tweet me!

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