Are we there yet?
29 July 2014 5 Comments
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.
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.
It was all down to time zones. E-mails over a twelve-hour difference get exchanged at most once a day; a videoconference requires someone to be in darkness; and daytime posts on my west-focussed Facebook are rarer than dropbears.
For a while, I fantasised about towing Australia into the South Atlantic. But time went by, I grew to appreciate the better-thought-through, scholarly, once-a-day e-mail. Going to a conference was a big help, too: I made some new connections within the continent and felt the warm embrace of the smaller, cosy Australasian research community.
Everybody I met was from out east – Brisbane, Hobart, Sydney, and a few New Zealanders for good measure. To them, it seemed as if Perth was downright mythical. They had all heard of Perth, but hardly any had been here. If someone did know Perth to be real, then it was rarely from a short visit. Instead, it was from going to school here, or growing up here, or spending fifteen years here on a fly-in fly-out (FIFO) contract hand-digging bauxite.
I exaggerate, but the problem is there, and its impact on sandgroper academia is not to be underestimated.
Creativity needs contact with others, so the lack of visitor throughput can quickly stymie output if the problem isn’t recognised. Even the mid-project grunt work needs external inspiration every now and then, and morale can suffer if there’s no-one around to remind you of the bigger picture.
That’s not to say there aren’t any people in Perth at all. In fact, people abound, and day-to-day this is the role a research group fulfils. But research sometimes needs new people. Fresh ideas and fresh faces are invigorating, no matter how briefly they hang in your orbit.
I’m used to highly-connected local networks. Britain – indeed, Europe – is densely packed with research institutes all entangled in a web of speedy trains. It is both cheap and easy to pop over somewhere else for a day to meet people and give a guest lecture, so visitors are frequent and varied. This fluid movement of academics broadens the intellectual landscape for all parties involved. After all, the best collaborations are forged over fistfuls of seminar biscuits.
Perth is different. For those from the academic smorgasbord of the east, coming out west is a grand event.
The five-hour flight isn’t exactly dire, but it’s long enough to be tiring and pretty much rules out a day trip. Worse, it’s enough time for the airline to try to feed you, and that can put you off the entire enterprise.
Perhaps making a more substantial trip out of it would be worth your while? You’ll come to Perth, visit colleagues at one or two of our five universities, then hop around a couple more cities’ research centres before you go back home. Lovely. Just like you did in New Zealand, but with fewer sheep and more sunburn.
The only problem? There aren’t any other universities in Western Australia outside of the five in Perth. Scratch that plan, maybe you’ll go to California instead.
It’s not all bad news. The isolation means that when people do come, it’s with serious purpose. They aren’t going to spend a day at a time dotting around a half-dozen universities; they’re yours for a week or more, with undivided attention. Even when nobody is visiting, Perth’s research community is strengthened by its isolation within Australasia, much as Australasia’s research community is tightened by its place in the world.
The fact remains, however, that variety is the spice of deep thought.
So, how am I dealing with the intellectual isolation? Simple: if they won’t come to me, then I’ve got to go to them.
Conferences are vital, and sandwiching a trip with quick visits to local research centres is icing on the cake. I find that treating my brain to new ideas is enough to get an intellectual kick, a wave to ride until the next trip.
Until then, I’ve at least got the plan in place, and sometimes that can be enough to keep the research wheels rolling on the dusty red road.
Despite the geography, Perth is a nice place to work. The University of Western Australia campus is beautiful; the city’s gentle and comfortable; the summer humidity is low; and the coffee, wine and beer are all splendid. If you’re into sunshine, there’s rather a lot of that, too. Perth’s great! Do come and visit. Please…