Free to good home – one Research Whisperer

Map of Melbourne city, showing three campuses

RMIT’s city, Brunswick and Bundoora campuses, courtesy Google Maps

I’ve just finished a ‘grand tour’ of all the Schools in our College (read “Departments in our Faculty”, depending on your terminology).

It was great! I spent three days a week, for a month at a time, working in a completely different space.

In the middle of last year, when I came back from China, I sent a note to our seven Deputy Deans (Research). It was headed ‘Free to good home – one Research Whisperer’. In it, I asked if they would be interested in hosting me for a month. They would need to provide a desk and a chair, and access to electricity and the wireless network.

In return, I would spend three days per week in their School for a month. I’d still be doing my normal work, but I’d be a visible presence and would be able to meet with their staff, etc.

I was overwhelmed with the response. One school came back literally within minutes of the post. Every other school responded positively, with the last one even expressing the fear that they might be too late, and have missed the boat.

Every school was different. Some had real difficulty finding a seat for me. Others were able to give me a room with a view. For me, it didn’t matter where I sat, as long as I was where the action was.

Being in a central unit, it is easy to be seduced by the image that the centre is the focus when, in fact, the work happens in the schools, departments, and centres. That is where the teaching and research happens. Everything else is a scaffold to support that work.

Getting back to the periphery is a very simple, very powerful way to demonstrate that you recognise that fact. This is how it worked for me:

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Worth more than money

Power Ranger for sale (Photo by Peter Dutton: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joeshlabotnik)

Power Ranger for sale (Photo by Peter Dutton: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joeshlabotnik)

At the moment, there isn’t a lot of glory for an academic in crowdfunding.

If you want to get promoted at a university, you need to secure funding from one of the key funding bodies in your country (the National Science Foundation in the USA, for example, or one of the Research Councils if you are in the UK, Canada, or Australia).

There is this dodgy hierarchy of funding with one or two national funding schemes at the top, followed by other national funding, then by other government funding, then industry/philanthropic funding (depending on your discipline). In that hierarchy, crowdfunding sits somewhere down the bottom, as a type of philanthropic funding.

Crowdfunding is a lot of work, and it isn’t work that most researchers are familiar with. It takes most people into areas where they may not be comfortable. At its heart, crowdfunding is a funding campaign and the two key tools are Facebook and Twitter. Not everybody wants to take their professional identity into Facebook. They might prefer to keep it as a personal realm (despite the fact that work leaks in). While they might be happy to build a professional identity on Twitter, for most academics this is new territory. Unsettling new territory.

The point of a funding campaign is to ask for money. That’s what the ‘funding’ bit means.

While academics are generally good at promoting their research, they aren’t good at asking their friends and family to give them money to fund their research. Often, they don’t understand why anyone would want to fund their work. They like it, and they see the benefit in it, but they’ve spent the better part of their lives explaining to Uncle Ted ‘exactly what is it that you do, again?’.

Given that most crowdfunding campaigns start by mobilising personal networks, that means not just explaining to Uncle Ted what the work is, but asking Uncle Ted to put his hand in his pocket and donate to it, and have him then tell all his friends to do the same. A lot of people feel uncomfortable about that.

I don’t shy away from these topics when encouraging people to try crowdfunding, which may explain why I haven’t had any takers at my university yet. Perhaps I should try to emphasize the positive side of a crowdfunding campaign. There are lots of positives to emphasise.

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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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