Are we there yet?

Francis WoodhouseFrancis Woodhouse is a postdoc at The University of Western Australia.

Born and bred in England, he did a bunch of degrees at the University of Cambridge—first a bachelor’s and a master’s in Mathematics and then a doctorate in Mathematical Biology—before moving out to Perth.

The content of Francis’s research is gradually including more biology every year. At the University of Western Australia he works in bioengineering and biofluids, developing models of knee cartilage damage and repair to understand and prevent the onset of osteoarthritis.

He maintains side interests in pattern formation, self-organisation, and microswimmer propulsion.

He tweets as @fwoodhouse and blogs at www.microbiohydro.com.


Tropic of Capricorn sign (Photo by Dan Dyer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dwdyer)

Tropic of Capricorn sign (Photo by Dan Dyer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dwdyer)

I’m every Aussie’s least favourite invader: a grubby, plummy pom.

But unlike the other half million of us here in Perth, I’m not here for the sun, sand or surf.

I’m here for the science.

Nearly a year ago, I left the crumbling mortar of England to take up my first postdoc, far away at the University of Western Australia. I’d never switched university before, let alone moved country, so I was a little apprehensive.

Will they understand me? Do I need special gloves to deal with all the redbacks? Can I apply sunscreen fast enough to keep up with the sunburn?

I needn’t have worried. Confusion, spiders, and sunburn have all been minimal, and I’ve settled in just fine. I don’t yet ask “how ya going?”, and “Australia” still has four syllables, but I’ve happily accepted the flat white and long black as the two coffees to rule them all.

The first thing I learned is that Australia is really rather far away from England. I always knew this on paper, but the soul-sucking malaise of twenty hours in the air made it feel very real indeed. The journey isn’t getting any easier with practice, either (and being forced to pause in Baku doesn’t help).

Thankfully, the malaise didn’t last, and the distance receded once I’d wrapped my head around the novel avian and arboreal life forms. With somewhere to live and the city sussed out, it didn’t feel so alien anymore. Before I knew it, a couple of weeks had gone by and it was time to start work.

Moving to Australia didn’t mean existing research connections had to languish, so I soon resumed interacting with colleagues in Europe and North America over the all-connecting Internet.

That’s when the perception of distance came back, and this time with tyranny.

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In praise of national networks

Photo by Noel Lopez (http://digerata.net) from unsplash.com

Photo by Noel Lopez (http://digerata.net) from unsplash.com

I was listening to a wise old researcher the other day when she said:

International networks are lovely, but it is your national network that will get you funded.

I realised that she was right.

We talk a lot about the importance of building an international network, but we don’t often talk about the importance of building a local network.

We put a lot of time into going to international conferences, looking for opportunities to get out of our own countries, and there are very good reasons for that. International conferences, by their very nature, tend to provide a wider point of view, a better sense of what is going on in a field.

International links provide enormous opportunities for better research, whether it is comparative research across cultures or access to more specialised equipment and facilities. Also, getting outside your own country helps to widen your perspective.

However, my job is to get you funded, and so I’m going to tell you what she told me:

It is your national networks that will fund you.

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It’s not you, it’s me

Prebake diversity (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Prebake diversity (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Does like attract like?

I’ve had a majority of introverted friends in my life. My most enduring friendships are with those who are poster-children for Susan Cain’s book, Quiet.

As we now know, because internet checklists and Cain keep telling us, no-one is ever 100% introvert or extrovert – we have tendencies towards each type, and there are some of us who can move between them such that the category of ‘ambiverts’ has now entered the conversation.

William Pannapacker wrote an excellent piece about academic introversion in 2012, which discussed the rewarded behaviours of academia, as well as how students’ academic participation is valued (i.e. through visible, heard contributions). His sketch of ‘wallflower’ students and how they can shut down and disengage reflected aspects my university student experience all too well (my personal blog post “Once a wallflower” gives you the goods on this front).

I recently attended a conference with my new job hat on. It was a conference I’d never been to before: the biennial Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) conference in Adelaide.

This post gives you an insight into the contrasts between how an extrovert and an introvert approach the conferencing game. Many thanks to Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) for playing along!

Now, to the conference! [Bonus: there's a quiz!]

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Ask a question

Do it (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Do it (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I’ve been loathe in the past to talk too much about what I do on an everyday basis in my job.

This is because I’d been made wary by certain (rare, it must be said) attitudes towards sharing information about internal processes for research development and researcher support.

I said then and I’ll say again now for the record: There’s nothing really new or ‘top secret’ in research education and development. As every Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) conference testifies, there’s much to be gained and nothing to lose by workshopping or sharing your processes.

As yet, there is no laser-pen that will automagically generate a winning grant application. Until that pen happens along, what research education and development people do – academic or professional administrative staff – is hone models and ideas that have had a range of outings.

As in so many areas of intellectual and professional endeavour, lots of people have gone there before you, and they’ve been doing it for longer than you.

This does not mean the work is any less valuable to researchers who need to know about these strategies and methods. Nor does it mean the staff managing these researcher development programs are any less committed to finding better and more effective ways to help researchers make good research happen.

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Beyond 2015 – beyond borders

A red tabard with the name and logo of the Nanjing Institute of Mechatronics Technology in Chinese and English.

Nanjing Institute of Mechatronics Technology, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

In 2015, the Millennium Development Goals expire. What comes next? At the moment, the world is engaged in a giant conversation about how to do this again, only better. The Association of Commonwealth Universities are encouraging universities to engage in this conversation. I think that’s a great idea. Universities, through their teaching, research and civic engagement, help to make the world a better place. We need to be engaged in this conversation.

Like many universities, my university sees itself as a global institution. As a global university, I believe that my university should know how it aligns with the Millennium Development Goals. It provides one measure of how global we are, of how much we are helping the world at large.

The Millennium Development Goals are global goals. They recognise that global problems require global solutions. They understand that no one person, organisation or country can do it alone. We need to push beyond boundaries. We need to look outside our bubbles.

In my own research, I look at privacy on the Web. Lately, some of that work has examined how sharing works on social media services. By its very nature, the World Wide Web is a global phenomenon. Social networking services promise that you can share with anyone, anywhere. So you would think that research about them would be global in nature, too. It makes sense, right? I thought so too – until I went to China.

In 2013, I spent seven months in Nanjing. It was different and wonderful and amazing and unsettling and just brilliant! I had a great time. Thank you, Nanjing.

Before I left, I thought, “I wonder what work has been done in my area on the Chinese social networking services.” Not as much as I imagined, as it turned out. The table below shows the number of articles on Google Scholar that mention the names of some popular social networking services.

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Why bother with research engagement?

Mark Hamann (James Cook University)After working for both NGOs and government, Mark Hamann is now a researcher and lecturer at James Cook University in Townsville.

His research interests cross several disciplines but generally relate to marine wildlife ecology, marine and freshwater turtle biology, marine wildlife management, conservation biology, and the impacts of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems.

Most of Mark’s current research projects are conducted with partners from government, industry, NGOs and Indigenous communities. He spends a considerable amount of his time talking about science and science delivery with his collaborators.

Last year, Mark participated in “I’m a Scientist get me out of here” and he was introduced to the world of online science communication. 

Mark tweets from @turtlesatJCU.


We already engage all the time. It’s a part of family life, work, and our everyday relationships.

Weave mandala (Photo courtesy of Mr Greenjeans on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaylon)

Weave mandala (Photo courtesy of Mr Greenjeans on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaylon)

Engagement describes a journey; it is about building a conversation, a friendship, trust and – ultimately – a working relationship.

But why do we need to do it? And how do we, as scientists, engage? Do the ways in which a researcher might engage differ from how we engage with friends and family?

In a professional sense, scientists need to engage across many sectors of society. They need to do this to keep their work relevant, market themselves and their research potential, and create networks that help build a career, another’s career, foster collaborations, or to assist in government decision-making processes.

General engagement models consist of a series of stages that shift the relationship from Information sharing through to Empowerment (Information – Consult – Involve – Collaborate – Empower). With empowerment comes a traditional relationship with shared deliberations, shared goals, and ultimately the shifting of power for making decisions from one party to another. The goal of an engagement exercise might not necessarily be Empowerment, but it is a highly sought-after endpoint in many community-based projects. It is certainly true, for example, in community-based management of natural spaces.

Many people have an intrinsic ability to engage, especially in a public arena, yet struggle in a professional setting. Getting it more right than wrong requires practice, patience, and risk.

In 2001, I had just started a working on a project to set up a sea turtle monitoring project in a remote part of Northern Australia. It was a short, one-year project to collect biological data from turtles so we could fill an important knowledge gap for their management. The challenge for me was that I had never been to an Indigenous community and had little knowledge of how to even begin.

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Keeping referees sweet

Cupcake salvation (Photo by Fooi-ling Khoo)

Cupcake salvation (Photo by Fooi-ling Khoo)

Choosing the referees to list on a CV and job applications can be a complex business, particularly when you’re starting out.

You want a balance of voices who could credibly recommend you.

Perhaps someone who has been your academic supervisor, an examiner, a senior colleague who knows you and your work well enough, someone you’ve RA’d for?

For a non-academic job, maybe – just maybe – that first round of referees might include the boss of the fish and chip shop you worked at over the summer.

For academic jobs, there are other considerations in the mix, too: Should you have at least one international referee? One internal referee from your current position? Will it look odd if you don’t include any of your supervisors as referees? What if Professor Z on the hiring committee sees that you used Dr X and not Associate Professor Y…?

After navigating the rocky straits of choosing and securing your referees, you need to ensure that they’re on board with you for the duration of your job hunt(s).

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How to chair

Lion tamer (Sourced from Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lion_tamer_(LOC_pga.03749).jpg)

Lion tamer (Sourced from Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lion_tamer_(LOC_pga.03749).jpg)

What’s worse than having to give a conference paper in front of my esteemed colleagues?

I’d say it’s chairing these esteemed colleagues!

Through my years of presenting at and convening conferences, I have always had one greater fear than being the paper-giver and that was being the chair. It feels pathetic to admit this, but the responsibility of chairing brought all my apprehensions about public speaking to the fore.

When giving a paper, I’m usually anxious about “question and answer” (Q&A) time – the Wild West of conference moments (right next to the conference dinner…). It was a time over which you had little control over what might be thrown at you. You couldn’t plan for it. My imagination (which is excellent, by the way), conceived of all manner of intellectual take-downs and derisive snorts about my conclusions.

These preoccupied me such that I wrote about my strategies for handling Q&A.

Chairing taps into all my existing anxieties: it was a whole session where you weren’t necessarily in control of what people might say or do, but this is specifically what you are tasked with as the chair.

I’ve written before about how to build your conference karma (aka ‘how to make convenors love you’) and, spurred on by a recent query from my colleague Warren Staples (@warrenstaples), here’s a list of strategies I’d suggest to get you through a chairing gig.

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Descending on Adelaide (ARMS 2013)

ARMS 2013 - AdelaideIf you happened to be travelling on flights to Adelaide over 10-13 September this year, you may have overheard some juicy academic gossip and, hopefully, many scandalous declarations about the higher education sector in Australia and elsewhere.

You may well have been sitting near a posse of professional research staff.

The conference we were flying to was ARMS 2013, the peak meet-up for people of our persuasion.

ARMS (Australasian Research Management Society) is the “professional society for specialists in management and administration of research”, and may need to change its title slightly given the organisation now has a Singapore chapter. Or this may be the beginning of a more pronounced ‘Asian’ in the ‘AustralAsian’ (given tantalising comments by former ARMS President, Ren Yi [@melbcollege], on Twitter about possible links with China – see below)?

I didn’t attend the pre-conference workshops this year, and arrived in Radelaide in time for the welcome reception on the evening of 11 September.

The reception was held in the same venue as the rest of the conference: the Adelaide Convention Centre. As anyone who has floated around convention centres knows, these spaces are often vast, echoing, and – really – socially sterile. Getting into the exhibition hall (where the reception was held), I warmed the space up with meeting colleagues, buddies from last year, and the fabulous opportunity to hang with an old friend who was ‘out-of-context’ at a research management conference.

The conference was very well organised (kudos to the conference committee), and afforded many opportunities to learn about the current state of our professional sector, research policy, and funding bodies in Australia and internationally.

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Hashing it over

Pink button with # symbol and blank line, held in an open palm

Hashtag button (Photo by Eclecticlibrarian)

Anyone who has converted to Twitter, and uses it with regularity will know about the prevalent use of hashtags to ‘stream’ tweet content.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, have a quick read of this official Twitter page, or check out the wittier, unofficial Guardian version.

In short:

A hashtag, for the non-Twitterati, is a word or smashed-together phrase preceded by the hash symbol (#), originally devised as a way to keep track of the flow of subject matter in the Twittersphere. (Ben Zimmer, Visual Thesaurus)

I recently saw someone on Facebook cramming hashtags into their status update. I must admit to rolling my eyes and muttering acidly, “It’s not Twitter, doofus” (oh, yes, fear my acidity).

Yes, I know Facebook is trying to get in on the hashtag action, but – in the very average ways I use Fb – it is largely absent and still an anomaly. Those who frequent Yammer have often used hashtags, and I know of tragics who have brought the hashtagging habit to their emails.

For the most part, though, hashtags live on Twitter.

When I first started on Twitter, I thought hashtags were silly. Yeah, that’s me: broadminded and noble embracer of change.

What I failed to realise was that getting value out of hashtags, and getting to a stage where I’m using and following them deliberately, requires a commitment to the medium that I didn’t have as a newbie. At that stage, all I saw was a soup of symbols and run-together text.

Since that time, I have come to love hashtags. Love them with an unnatural, nerdy love.

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