Wednesday, 17 July 2013

End of the first PhD year - should I switch careers to Lion Taming?

I’m picking another career. Surely it’s not too late to change? I’ll just do something low key and not stressful, like lion taming or mountain climbing. SURELY anything must be better than this???!!

These thoughts were running through my head like a roller coaster train last week. AGAIN. If you've studied for a PhD and are not hugely organised AND overly smart AND very lucky and therefore very successful, they’ll probably be fairly familiar to you. Last week saw two VERY long days in the lab, gathering data that turned out to not be very useful. Gathering data for me involves some pretty intricate micro surgery that it has taken me a rather long time to get my head around. I remember the first time I attempted to cannulate. The post-doc training me was kind, helpful and gave a clear demonstration of how to slide the tube into the vessel. It took all of 2 minutes for him. When, two hours later, with shaking hands and a sweaty brow, I likened the chance of me getting the cannula in, to Narnia really existing out the back of the lab cupboard, he gently took the cannula and just finished the job himself. I’m never going to get this, I thought miserably. Five months on from that, I face different challenges. Today, I thought about throttling my computer when my code failed to produce the desired result, yet again, despite no errors or warnings appearing on the screen. To be perfectly honest, there are days when I wonder if I’ll ever discover anything of any use to anyone during the course of my PhD.

I know I'm not alone. A quick Google search reveals that there's actually a site entitled 'I did a PhD and did NOT go mad', a Facebook group called 'PhD stress' where the header says "How's my research going? F*** you, that's how', numerous websites offering ways to manage PhD stress and of course, chats to my lovely, and importantly, honest, fellow PhD sufferers. It seems to be fairly par for the course to be feeling this way. I can also, although I prefer not to, recall several friends with PhDs (who made their minds up career wise rather sooner than I did) who advised me not to do a PhD, due to the severe and debilitating stress that came with one. 

But I read up on other jobs to see if perhaps the rational idea of switching career yet again at almost thirty could be the right one and I just can’t seem to get excited about any of them. None of them offer the opportunity to roll five career paths into one. To spend my days, teaching, writing, learning new incredible skills, to attempt to pick apart the brain, the most fascinating organ I have ever come across. To program, to present and to discuss ideas with some clever and interesting colleagues. Whilst I remember the first time I ever tried and failed to cannulate with abject misery, I also remember the first time I succeeded as well. The rush of elation that comes when your body achieves something you thought impossible is outstanding. I remember the feeling of pride I felt when I first saw my name on an academic poster and when I gave my first talk to a group of my peers at a conference. And funnily enough, despite the fact that I have no guarantees on where my research is headed, I’m gaining so much just from the journey that most of the time I feel like this is the best job in the world.

PS If I'm going to believe everything a Google search tells me, I have to concede that actually, a PhD may not be the best job in the world, and in fact, caretaker of the island below, is.

Friday, 12 July 2013

The Modern Day Caveman; #moderndayproblems

By NeuroGirl Kira Shaw

I hold a personal fascination with evolution and have often found myself wondering “how can the modern man be related back to our ancestral forefathers?” Man has walked the earth for over 30,000 years. During this period, time has ensured many characteristics have been passed forward onto modern man. In this context I opted to select new-world problems and relate them back to life-or-death survival skills which have been honed and refined across our evolutionary development. The experiences of our pre-historic relatives have shaped the way the “modern caveman” reacts in 21st century situations, including challenges such as crossing busy roads, navigating the supermarket and attracting sexual partners.

Crossing a busy road can be related to dodging and out-witting potential predators stalking the savannah. Cars, vans and buses can out-muscle and out-run us, much like a hungry sabre-toothed tiger hunting for food. Humans can use their advanced visual cortex and frontal lobes to spot oncoming vehicles and formulate a plan to avoid a collision. Whilst previous predatory encounters have aided in the development of our visual and planning systems, being in close proximity with large vehicles rarely elicits the fight/flight response in contemporary Homo sapiens. An example of a present day problem that does cause a rush of adrenaline to kick-in is public speaking. Your ‘average Joe’ has few ravenous predators eyeing up his limbs, but instead fears the ridicule of a peer or competitor following public humiliation. Everyone has experienced those butterflies in their stomach as they step up in front of the judging eyes; the shaky hands as they try to hold their notes steady, and the lump in their throat as they utter their first sentence. Public speaking presents no danger to our immediate survival, yet our survival systems go into overdrive. In environments where humans can flourish, social standing grows increasingly important, meaning our most basic drives and instincts can be applied to ensuring the protection of our popularity, rather than the protection of our life.  

Not only have our survival priorities changed over time, but our modern day mating ground has also been transformed. The nightclub is an ideal venue for single individuals to gather and compete.  Sexual prowess is demonstrated via rhythmic and sensual dance moves, and societal status and worth can be exaggerated with a rather large bar tab. Now let’s compare the successful singletons in the nightclub to our sexually successful forefathers. Our ancestors valued male breadwinners who could hunt and provide, and women who could gather berries and bear strong children. In keeping with these traditions females may demonstrate their sexual worth by wearing tight clothes that highlight their youthful and ample assets. Rather than the old practice of clubbing the female over the head, the male flirting tactic has evolved overtime with the offering of a Jägerbomb (though arguably, the two tactics have the same after-effect of an aching head in the morning!). The acceptance of this gift of a drink is a positive sign, and hence the modern day couple is born. 

Once things have become more serious between our modern couple, one particular challenge they will face when feeding the family is where the next meal might come from. Though in modern times, this involves navigating the supermarket shelves, as opposed to our ancestors’ long journey to find a water source. The water source is entwined with an abundance of food and amenities conveniently situated in one location. This wealth of resources must be processed carefully, and the efficient Homo sapien will take only what they need and what they can carry. Upon entering Tesco, most of you will find yourselves heading directly to your usual purchases, filling the trolley with foods you know won’t go to waste. Your advanced frontal lobes will be of use to you again as they aid you with decision-making and forward planning: “I won’t need as much salad this week as we’re eating out on Tuesday”. Once our couple do reach the salad aisle those gathering skills, which have passed down through the generations, will prove very useful. The efficient shopper is able to locate the greenest spinach leaves and the lesser bruised banana skins. Our complex and perfect eye, baffling to even Charles Darwin himself, is drawn to the brightest and clearest colours, trained to pick out only the fruit and vegetables which fall into this category.

Whilst it may be difficult to imagine how our ancestors’ way of life has anything to do with modern day survival, their survival pressures and the resultant brain development is entwined in everything we do! Our evolutionary history has allowed us to overcome the challenges faced in night clubs, busy roads and supermarkets. So next time you go to the shop and pick up that loaf of bread, be sure to thank your great-great-great-(recurring) grandparents.  

Monday, 10 June 2013

My Top 5 Presentation Tips for Beginners

1.     Know Your Audience

One of the most important things you can consider when preparing your talk is “who exactly is going to be listening?” There are few things worse than talking to a room full of people who are either bored or cannot understand you. When preparing my end of year conference talk recently I had to bear in mind that I was talking to a room of Psychologists from all different disciplines – ranging from social psychology, to robotics, through to computational modelling. With such a broad audience it can be difficult to keep it engaging, but remember no-one knows your work as well as you do, and it is your job to get across to the audience exactly what it is you do and what results you have found. The biggest mistake you can make is getting too bogged down in minor details that will not appeal to your audience – if I had been presenting my work to individuals’ that study neurovascular coupling then my talk would have been very different. As I was presenting my work to a room of Psychologists I was sure to fully explain exactly what neurovascular coupling is, and to break down my experiment paradigm simply and clearly before discussing any results.

      2.     Keep Your Slides Simple
When you are talking the audience will be switching between focusing on you and reading the slides behind you. Presenting slides which are covered in text will leave the audience feeling overwhelmed and may even lead to disengagement from your talk. It is a good idea to only put your most important points in text – in order to emphasize them. Using bullet points and tables to simplify and separate your text can also help keep things clear. It is not just text which can overload your slides however, there can also be an issue if you clutter the space with too many pictures. As a rule with your pictures – the audience should be able to discern some information about what you’re talking about by looking at the images selected. Try to use diagrams and graphs were applicable too rather than disseminating results via text.

Figure 1: Example of a bad PowerPoint slide
Figure 2: Example of a good PowerPoint slide

3.     Practice Your Talk in Front of Others

Try to avoid going into a talk without first practicing it in front of others. As the writer of your talk you will find yourself too bogged down in the details to see the presentation from an outside perspective. Presenting your talk for friends, family or colleagues will mean you can see how an audience reacts to your performance. Perhaps you will find you need to remove a bad joke, or that you have not simplified a concept enough for the audience to understand – either way you will receive constructive criticism so that on the day of your presentation you appear polished and confident.

4.     Prepare for Questions

If you get nervous about the prospect of the unknown it may be a good idea to think about what sort of questions your presentation may generate. Ask others and think about it yourself as well – performing it for friends and colleagues will also allow them to think of questions you may get asked following your talk. Do take caution however, on the day you may get completely random questions based in other people’s research interests; however preparation cannot hurt and it will help you to feel calm and confident.

5.     Get a Good Night’s Sleep Before Your Talk

It is never a good idea to spend the night before a presentation drilling your notes or worrying about the next day. You do not want to seem too rehearsed! Perhaps go through your talk a couple of times in the evening before you get ready for bed, but don’t overdo it. Use the late evening to unwind and calm down. There is only so much you can take in on the last day, and hopefully early preparation will mean that you are not cramming the night before. A good night’s sleep will allow your brain to consolidate what you have learned, so you may even find that you can run through the talk better and more confidently following a night of restful slumber. If nothing else, conference days can be long and tiring and so adding lack of sleep into the mix may be a lethal combination!

Images taken from:

“Bad Slide”

“Good Slide”

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Heels, Naps and Eek Moments - BNA 2013!

NeuroGirl Kira writes on our first time experience of a conference:

This week the NeuroGirls attended their very first Neuroscience conference hosted in London, UK –the BNA 2013. We thought it may be interesting to dissect our thoughts and experiences of a conference as first-timers. The conference days were packed full of appealing lectures and posters, with so much to see and do that there was barely a minute to spare. The conference was set across a large space, the Barbican centre being a maze in itself. Organisation was key! We found ourselves armed with detailed itineraries to help keep our focus and direction. The topics covered by the BNA conference spanned across the whole of neuroscience, from astrocytes to autism. There were opportunities to attend relevant talks for your own research area; as well as non-relevant areas which appeal to your own personal interests; and even media-coveted topics (such as the talk on the use of psychedelic drugs in depression by Professor David Nutt as commented on by the BBC).  Set in the middle of the all the talks was also the chance to browse posters with the opportunity to network with the poster’s author and discuss research ideas. Whilst this experience may seem daunting to any academically-young PhD student, all of the authors we met were very friendly, helpful and clear. Although as a whole the conference seemed a bit daunting and overwhelming at first (with so many intelligent scientists and detailed research ideas) the overall experience was very valuable and the people very welcoming! 

NeuroGirl Rebecca thinks the best part of the BNA was…  the academic posters:

The sights! The sounds! The colours! And that was just one particularly interesting delegate presenting a poster with flaming red hair and amazing spike heels. The BNA poster sessions were by far my favourite part of the conference. The symposiums were interesting and informative, but quite often, the quality and depth varied vastly from session to session, leaving me floundering in one quarter of a 4-part session and tapping my nails in boredom in the next. The academic posters on the other hand, gave me, as a naïve and interested first year, the chance to peer into a wide range of topics, explained to me by some very helpful presenters. My research interests are in thalamocortical spindles and neurovascular coupling and I was lucky enough to also find these well represented at the conference. What impressed me the most however, was how enthusiastic everybody was to talk to me. I spoke with a young and nervous medic, only in his fifth year, who charmingly explained what slow oscillations had to do with declarative memory and naps – I’m now most thoroughly in favour of a mid-afternoon nap, apparently it IS long enough to see a positive correlation with memory performance, something I badly need!  I also spoke with lovely post-docs, seemingly stern group heads and many excellent PhD students all of whom were happy to explain their work and answer all questions that popped irreverently into my head. I would encourage anyone, especially PhD students to go along to the poster sessions, they are absolutely fab for improving your social and networking skills, but also for gaining additional ideas about your own research. I left each session with my head buzzing with new ideas, often ones that had been inspired by a quick chat with someone with a poster seemingly irrelevant to my own work. You never know what you will gain until you step up to that sea of ideas and plunge in!

NeuroGirl Priya gives her take on the BNA experience:

The BNA conference this year held at the Barbican saw the congregation of many neuroscience researchers within the UK and abroad get together and present months of hard work, to the wider neuroscience research community. Having been the first scientific conference I have attended within my PhD, I was very excited to be attending and to be honest had no expectations of how this conference was to be. I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at the Barbican as it was a very big venue and was completely packed with people - it was really nice to see that the neuroscience community is a big and an inclusive one. My itinerary was jam packed with all the important related lectures and posters I had previously highlighted. Conferences like these offer a great opportunity to be able to talk to a range of people, all of whom I spoke to were so evidently passionate about their research it truly was motivating for a first year to witness this and speaking to authors in person definitely helps in getting a greater understanding of the research carried out. In addition, the variety of lectures and talks meant that I could pick and chose the ones I found most interesting. Similar to the posters, I found going to the talks a good experience and opportunity to understand my field of research better and also think about when I would have to give presentations in the future (eek!).

The BNA was jam packed with things to do and this is congratulatory for all the organisers as they were able to simultaneously carry out poster sessions, lectures, workshops, company stalls as well as have interactive stalls for the general public to be apart of all at the same time and all with minimal glitches. It was evident that months of planning and organising took place prior and with the number of volunteers assisting, it was really nice to see this kind of involvement and importance given to conferences, this definitely makes me feel proud to be a part of the scientific community and the British Neuroscience Association. 

On the flip side, and I think this must be the case for most conferences due to the sheer amount of researchers presenting, it was evident that it became hard to fit everyone in to the timetable and this meant having many activities overlap so there were times were I had to miss out on some things. In addition, this also meant some talks started really early in the day and some talks went on until 8pm. This element of the conference definitely left me drained by the end of the day. A key thing to remember about conferences is that there is usually a plethora of information and sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming, in my case I found it hard to remember all the new information I was presented with throughout the day as well as taking part in all the networking events added on to the end of each day as well.

The BNA was a great first conference for the Neurogirls as we were able to find and interact with researchers carrying out similar research topics throughout the UK, proving to be an invaluable experience. We also feel that through this conference we have been able to understand and appreciate the research we carry out in the wider context and therefore apply this to our future work. We greatly look forward to attending the next BNA  conference, with more energy and having the privilege to attend similarly interesting talks again, so watch this space neuroscience! 

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Exercise and the Brain: Our Sporting Mission

Everyone knows that physical exercise benefits the body. After all, that honed 6-pack doesn’t come from sitting on the couch munching crisps. However, fewer people are aware that regular physical exercise can have serious benefits for the brain!

There is a legion of scientific evidence to support the idea that strenuous activity leads to the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The release of BDNF is known to promote healthy nerve cells, which are essential for mental performance, memory and recall. Physical exercise has also been shown to surpass mental exercise when combatting brain shrinkage (which occurs with memory problems and even in Alzheimer’s disease).

Considering all of these profound benefits for physical exercise on the brain the Sheffield NeuroGirls made it their mission to promote a healthier lifestyle in aid of neuroscience! We have vowed to take on new (and even dangerous) sporting activities at our own peril, and then relate our performance to changes which may be happening in our brain.

Our first mission is to tackle the world of rollerblading! Our first step was to fish-out some decent rollerblades on eBay and then take them out for a spin. The Sheffield NeuroGirls have currently been out for one (unstable) rollerblading session. We plan to track our progress with videos and photos – before mapping our improvements (hopefully) and relating these changes to the development of balance in the cerebellum; and skill acquisition in the motor cortex. Here’s hoping that all our practice means our frontal cortices can get a break when the skill eventually becomes automated.

So watch this space… Videos will be posted soon! (We just might have a particularly funny video of NeuroGirl Priya falling over in her rollerblades).