Back to the grind – week 53

My daily routine has been skewed for the negative.

For a few nights in a row I have been going to bed a couple of hours later, and consequently trying to catch up on sleep the next day. I have disrupted my morning routine by sleeping through it. This, for me, is something that hasn’t happened since my teenage years. Way back then, it had a drastic effect on my academic performance; that is the excuse I give for my relatively poor grades.

So, this weekend I endeavour to reset my sleep schedule. I will be in bed by ten-thirty, even if I have to lie there contemplating the universe all night. On a positive note, it is not stress or worry that is keeping me up all night, it is due to socialising.

That is the primary goal of the weekend. The rest of my tasks are:

• Two gym sessions
• Look up conferences I want to attend
• Prep some work that I need to be reviewed by one of my supervisors
• Write a blog post

There are lots of other tasks that I would ideally like to complete, but they are all secondary and on a mental check-list that has been growing exponentially since 2014.

This week was of no particular importance for my studies; it was not an extraordinary week; thus, I only need ordinary evidence. Therefore, my telling this to you will have to suffice.

Most of my week was spent in the lab, and I snuck off to write whenever I had finished my experiments and had energy left. I have, a very easy to arrive at estimation, that I will not finish my literature review this month. I have the same old problem, not knowing exactly what I want to say, so I tend to get sidetracked a lot. Out of all the writing I have done over the last year this had been by far the hardest thing to do.

Going from a broad outline of a concept to getting specific words on a page is a particular challenge for me. If anyone has any suggestions on how I can improve in this regard, please comment below!

I have had another revelation this week, and I think it stems from my maturation. I have noticed that I am much more interested in nature. Specifically, I want to know the name of all different types of trees, and whenever I see an interesting fungus, I am straight to google to find out all about it.

See this beautiful mushroom I found on campus.

Magpie Ink-cap mushroom, found in Harris garden, The University of Reading
Magpie Inkcap

As a child and younger adult, trees were evaluated on their ability to be climbed, or a shelter from the elements. Recently though I have been enamoured with them and can’t find enough information. I can’t be sure as to why I have developed this fascination, but I assume this is part of the ageing process. The previously mundane is now genuinely exciting. Not for the adrenaline rush, it could provide, but for the information that co-exists with it.

Is this normal?

The penultimate one – week 51

This post marks the 51st week as a PhD student. I get the sense that I should do something special for next week’s post. Maybe I will interview myself or something else with less narcissism.

Writing about what I do each week as a PhD student has become quite mundane. Not necessarily because the work has become stale. More so that the content feels quite similar and the way in which it is constructed is always the same. I sit down at the weekend and try and remember what I did during the week. Because this has become boring to me, I try and write about other things during the week, where I can be a bit more creative.

I need to think of an innovative way to describe my week as simply summarising has run its course. I am open to any suggestions as to how I can accomplish this.

Something Interesting I stumbled across this week

White deer exist – I walking from Henley-on-Thames to Marlow with a friend and we came across these white deer. I have never seen these majestic creatures before, they look like mythical beings. They were roaming around a country estate; it was a Caroll-esque dreamscape. However, as my friend told me why these deer were kept, I have a strong melancholic attachment to that day.


Image result for white deer

The deer are kept to aid in the hunting of deer, as they integrate with herds of your average deer. The white ones easily stand out and notify the brave hunters with shotguns as to the whereabouts of the deer. Not a particularly nice ending to that story. As a bonus, I spotted the author of Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, at Henley literature festival. He was promoting his new book.

Apropos my PhD, the old adage ‘no news is good news’ applies. It was a business-as-usual kind of week. I spent most of my mornings In the lab either setting up or running experiments, and I spent the afternoons analysing the data recorded from experiments from weeks gone by.

I do not have the energy to dress this up as anything more than it is…work.

Next week I am travelling to Kew gardens in London for a day of talks by a company who makes scientific equipment. I have never attended such an event and am curious about how much I will learn versus how much sales speeches I will have to endure. As I don’t have any purchasing power, I doubt I will be specifically targeted. I have never been to Kew gardens which is essentially the only reason I am going to this event.

I intend on leveraging my opportunities derived from being a student as best I can.

I think next weeks post will be one of the best I have ever produced, that Is my intention anyway.

Passed a major milestone – week 50

Basking in the tranquility of the post-hand-in day.

The relative care-free feeling that I am now enjoying is most welcome. It has been several months since I have felt like this. Finally, I can relax. On Wednesday I handed in my one year report, and now things are in motion that are out of my control. I have to wait until my transfer viva where I will be quizzed on my report for a while, and then my examiners will decide if I can continue or not. As I do not know when this day will be, I can relax for a while.

Although, this state of relaxation is relative, and I cannot rest on my laurels as I need to take delivery of my plants for my next experiment. This is by far my least favourite part of doing a PhD, by ‘this’ I mean organisation. I have to or get to, organise it all my self which is tedious, to say the least.

I am in a constitutional quandary. Back when I was younger and taking any job I could find, I absolutely hated having to do things that other people told me to at timings they decided, a.k.a a job. Now I have almost complete freedom to do as I please I am having to rethink my philosophy on this. The organisation of my work is something I would outsource if I had the budget for it.

In fact, having thought about it a little longer, I need to organise things because my PhD dictates I have to. Therefore, I never really had freedom in the first place.

Despite passing a milestone this week, my life hasn’t really changed; this is a phenomenon that is banal to point out, but I shall do it anyway. After all, It’s all content. So every time in my life I have passed a significant milestone, such as completing my undergraduate degree, I had expected a significant change in my life when passing this milestone; however, life continues almost exactly the same. You would think I would learn from this and not expect big life events to change things too drastically. When I complete this PhD, it will be a day like any other, and there will be no difference between pre and post PhD life, although it will feel significant in the run-up to this point. I think the word for this phenomenon is anti-climax.

Apart from the milestone, this week has been fairly standard. I have been continuing all the experiments I have been talking about for the last few months, and planning what I am going to be doing with the void that has been left by the departure of the report. I am going to fill this void with more writing and more statistics. This sounds dull, and that is because it is dull. However, I need to get better with multivariate statistics as my PhD is essentially an exercise in collecting and analysing multivariate data. And I need to write as I need to publish, lest I perish.

I have a paper that Is maybe 20% completed that I would like to make some headway on. I am sure many of you have bits of writing that are nowhere near complete, but as a completionist, I only have one piece that is incomplete. And as you can Imagine this is awfully unsettling.

Merry Christmas! – week 49

Week forty-nine that is the longest Un-interrupted spree of anything I can remember. This post will most likely be a pivotal point as I hand in my one year report on Monday.

As you may be aware, because I have been whining about it for what feels like six months, I have to hand in a report that is the deciding factor as to whether I can carry on studying for three further years or leave with a simple masters degree.

One of my issues, among many, is that I get bored of reading my work quite quickly and have pretty much lost all interest by this point. There are still a few days of editing and last minute additions to go. Here is a graph of my attitude towards my work when a deadline approaches.

As you can see from the figure, there is an increase in effort up to roughly one month before the deadline. Then I lose enthusiasm as the deadline approaches. Well, folks, I am at the last point where my enthusiasm is very low, I am sick of reading my work and can’t wait to hand it in. They say a thesis is never finished; it is just abandoned. That is how I feel with all work, to be honest.

It will be great to have the life back where I can, spend my weekends relaxing and exploring rather than sitting at my computer finding things to distract me from my work.

In the week of a PhD student, there has not been much to talk about this week. I did do one thing that was slightly interesting. I may be pushing the boundaries of the acceptability for the use of the word interesting, but I did some microbiology!

I had done some micro before, during my undergraduate studies, and thoroughly hated it. The reason I am doing it now is that my supervisor said I should, and I agreed. It may give us some useful data. I had forgotten how much was involved in cultivating microorganisms. I had remembered that something’s had to be sterilised but hadn’t realised that absolutely everything needed to be sterilised and that a special maximum recovery diluent needed to be sterilised and used. So most of the effort of the experiment was spent on sterilising everything. I quickly remembered why I am not too fond of micro work.

The experiment went okay, albeit a few days later than I expected due to the need for sterilising everything. I am going to repeat it in a few weeks to see how much worse the samples have become and hopefully capture the entire range I would expect to find in real-world situations. I will think about that when it comes to it.

Wish me luck people, next time I talk to you I will have handed in my report and had my viva. Although as this was written three months ago, I probably won’t remember what it was like.

Caffeine dreams – week 47

I have now become familiar with a new type of hangover, I am sure I have had it several times in the past, but it has now become frequent enough for me to notice it as a distinct phenomenon.

When I want to work late into the evening, I usually have to be caffeinated. Often I get my timings correct and my caffeine high peters out just in time for bed. Inevitably, however, I get my concentrations or timings wrong, and I am lying in bed until the early hours of the morning waiting for my adenosine receptors to get unblocked.

After I do get to sleep, I inevitably lay in longer, to bring some balance to my life. However, it feels as if there is some universal force that doesn’t want me to sleep past 8 am as whenever I do I have this strange hangover. In theory, I should feel the same after equal periods of sleep; If I get 8 hours of sleep, I should feel as if I got 8 hours of sleep no matter of when those 8 hours are taken. This does not seem to be the case.

An interesting thought came to me while I was in this sleepy caffeinated state, and It is slightly political so feel free to skip this. I was born a European, who also happens to be British and English. And now seeing as Britain(primarily England as far as voting goes) has decided to leave, I will no longer be a European through no choice of my own.

Until now I had never thought of my identity as fluid as it is, but I guess nationality is much more frivolous than I had suspected, which makes nationalism even more of a joke.

This post had meandered away from its intended content, so let’s talk about being a PhD student.

I have found a delicate balance this week between writing and practical stuff. I spent my mornings (9-1) writing and spent my afternoons (1- boredom) analysing data. This is my preferred approach as I can do the thing that requires the most amount of creative input and brain power in the mornings, when I have the most energy, and relegate the monotonous, repetitive tasks to the afternoon. I hope I can maintain a schedule like this indefinitely(unlikely).

I have realised all too well, that collecting data seems to take many months longer than I suspected it would. This means that I will need to run many different trials simultaneously If I want to stay on track. This is another skill I am going to have to get used to. At the moment I am very anxious about it, but I guess I will have to accept this lower standard of well-being as the new normal for the foreseeable future.

I will keep calm and carry on; I hope to strike a good balance between work and play next year as I certainly have not achieved it this year.

Festival season – week 46

Well, I can’t think of anything better to do with my Saturday morning, so I shall write my weekly weblog.

As I write this, it is day two of the Reading festival – I am aware that what I am about to tell you will expose my location, but I shall throw anonymity to the wind – and I live very close to the festival site, so for the last few days I have had a constant stream of taxis going past my house1. Reading festival, as far as I can tell, is a sixth-form convention.

I have been to the festival a few times, but as I live so close, I have never camped. I think you have to be 18and comfortable with no sleep for three days, to even consider camping at a festival. I enjoy live music less and less as time goes by, the whole shared experience thing is not for me. I am not even slightly jealous of anyone attending the festival.

I have heard a lot of people complaining the festival is less ‘rock-centric than it used to be. You hear this kind of thing all the time in music, it is very tribal, and people often attach their identities to the music they listen to.

My point is this, the demographics of the festival is clearly 18-year-old people having fun with their school friends before they leave for University. Clearly, It makes sense to aim the music at the people that are likely to be attending, and as there are fewer rock acts in the public eye, it makes sense that current 18-year-olds will prefer different music. Festivals go in and out of business like empires, well done to Reading for catering to there audience and therefore surviving. Okay, enough about a music festival, you have never heard of.

As has been the theme of me for the last few weeks I have spent a couple of days writing, I shall say no more on the subject it is not the time nor the place. The most interesting – I admit I am playing with the boundaries of the word ‘interesting’ here – the activity I did this week was to spend an entire day analysing the output from one of my experiments.

A quick recap.

We grew Rocket plants at different temperatures 20, 30 and 40°C to see how it affected the chemistry of the plants. You will have to take it from me, that the plants showed a wide variety of phenotypes across the different temperatures which is interesting in itself.

Now I am looking at the results from the chemical analysis. This required me to learn new software and techniques for analysing compounds. I have well over 200 different outputs each with 10 or so things inside I need to look at.

A lesser man would see this as a dull, repetitive task that adds no value to the development of me. I, however, see it as a great learning opportunity. Well, the first ten are a great learning opportunity, the rest is a rinse and repeat process that makes the Marvel universe look innovative2. I learnt how to confirm what an unknown compound I was looking at is. By searching for the output from the UV spectrum and matching that with the extracted ions, I could confirm what compounds I had In my sample.

In short, you look at the mass of the molecular ion and then compare that to the known retention of the compound, if they align you can be mostly sure the compound is correct3.

In summary, it was quite a repetitive week, but I did learn something new, and overall I would say it was a good week. I have had worse.

1. Rented apartment, thanks baby-boomers.

2. A character in the marvel universe is almost exclusively 2-d. They have a super power and hidden secret e.g. murdered parents.

3. Exclusions apply.

Making time to write – Week 45

It is Sunday morning here in England, and I am writing this blog piece early so that I can work on my report. This is not what I imagined when I started blogging. I thought It would be difficult to be consistent, but not writing early morning on a Sunday difficult.

This week has been relatively routine, on Monday I loaded up the freeze drier, a procedure I can now do on my own. It is a large green box, that looks as if it was built in the 50’s. There is very little to it. There is a refrigeration component and a vacuum component. Mostly, you put your samples in, turn on the vacuum pump, and then wait.

Because the all the water in the plants is frozen and there is a vacuum, the ice sublimates to vapour and condenses on the condenser plate in the back of the machine. Five days later, you have a bunch of crispy leaves with no water in them. From this point, you have leaves that will not degrade in a hurry, leaving you to sample at will.

On Tuesday, I had a meeting with my supervisors which is always nerve-racking, but usually a pleasant experience. This one was no exception, I am on track at the moment and need to keep calm and carry on. They talk a lot and try to give good advice, and I try and pick out the best bits as it is tough to remember everything they tell you.

On Wednesday I was doing general busy work, loading samples onto various machines and doing extractions in the lab. On Thursday I had a writing day, where I stayed at home, these are nice to have at least once a week. Friday was a repetition of Wednesday.

As I have entered a period of relative busyness, few of my extra-curricular activities have slipped. I have not had any time to read any of the books I wanted for the last few weeks, and I have not played any video games, which means I haven’t spoken to many friends in a while.

Another activity that has slipped is my blogging; I have not managed to write my mid-week posts. This is because the time that I would normally set aside to do this has been taken over by writing for my PhD. I can handle the disruption for my routine for about a month at a time. I do not think that this disruption is worth it in the long run, and I would not want to put up with it for the entire four-stretch (my PhD is funded for 4 years).

I have had some good ideas – my opinion – with respect to blog posts. I think I am ready to start diving into nutrition and leverage my degree in nutrition in a thinly veiled guise for the creation of easy content. Also, I would like to do some crow sourced science, mostly by the collection of data from surveys as that would be feasible. Please let me know if you know of any decent sites for large scale surveys and data collection!