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.


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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.

You reap what you sow- week 34 as a PhD student

Writing this is a welcome distraction from the monotonous grind of PhD life this week. I have even resurrected an old time-destroying habit that is competitive gaming to distract myself.

It is not that is bad or soul-destroying work, but if you do anything for a long enough period, it becomes boring. I have been harvesting and processing rocket for what feels like three months. I would really like a week of no lab work to concentrate on a few others things I need to get done.

I need to make some ground on my paper and learn a few data analysis techniques. You know how it is; you get home from a day a work and all you have the strength to do is the easy items on your to-do list.

I think the lack of energy for any substantial activity after a day in the lab is the cause of why I have relapsed and started to play video games again. They help to distract from the constant murmurings in my mind about variables I should measure and experiments I should re-run.

The forces of distraction are pulling me towards them as the minimum level of energy required to avoid them is not available. This weekend I am going to allow distractions!

This week brings with it a marker that I have had staked out for a few months; the marker is a three-month countdown timer to my transfer viva. This is essentially the only barrier between me and the next few years of continuation as a PhD student. Therefore, it is quite an important thing for me. To complete the process, I have to complete a report similar to that of a masters thesis and then have a viva, which is a grilling from two academics on your work. Of course, it won’t be anywhere as hard as the final viva, but to someone in my position, it feels as important.

The reality is that it is scarce for anyone to fail, and one should not worry too much, but in a more physical reality, it feels as if it is fifty-fifty: pass or fail.

Coming up next week is a day where I have to leave at 5:30 AM. This is something that would sound like hell, but I am looking forward to the change of pace. We are going to plant 9000 plants for a field trial; I have not been involved in the planting stage before, only the harvesting stage. It is going to hard, gruelling work, but I like to try everything once, and it will be a nice break from my day-to-day activities.

I hope next week will bring about the end of all the long days in the lab for a few weeks, so I can do some planning and get on track. Mostly, I hope I can make a decent start on my 1st-year report as this would help relieve some of the anxiety I have towards it. I woke up thinking about it during the week; this is one of my sure signs that I am not quite altogether mentally.

Rocket and Trains – week 30 as a PhD student

Rocketeering, this week I have been a nurse to several hundred rocket plants, watering and re-potting them as their need demanded.

Rocketeering, this week I have been a nurse to several hundred rocket plants, watering and re-potting them as their need demanded.

We are running a study to see how the chemical profile of four different varieties of salad rocket. Rather than buying the plants from a supplier we have been growing them indoors so we can control the conditions.

It has been my job to re-pot them from the germination trays into their final growing pots as living things age in their unique way, there is a consistent trickle of plants that need re-potting each day, and thus most of my time has been taken up tending to these needy buggers. After all the care and attention I am giving them they will not do the honourable thing and allow me to eat them as we have only grown enough to do our analysis.

I am ‘running’ this study jointly with one of the post-docs in the group. I jumped at the chance to work with a more experienced scientist, and I am looking forward to seeing what the results will be and if any papers come out of it.

Normally, I prefer to work on my own as I feel like I learn more. When I work alone, I only have to satisfy my standards, and as long as the work gets completed, I am happy. As a completionist, I think I would hate working with a perfectionist as I think it would be limiting with a lot of time wasted on details that are not important but ‘are better’. This is one of the reasons I chose a PhD so that I could work for myself in some small sense. That also happens to be my overall goal in life, autonomy!

Because I have had a lot of my time taken up by gardening, I feel as If I have not accomplished much this week. It is something that comes with the territory; when you’re not doing science, you feel as if you’re stalling or moving backwards. I have had a few of these ups and downs now and am experienced enough to ignore it; there is a lot of variance (ϭ2) in life!

In more personal matters, dancing was cancelled this week as the hall we use was needed for a polling station, yet another instance of politics defecating on the arts. I am surprised that as a male of 27 years who has never had an interest in, or a rhythm for dance, I am really glad my girlfriend signed us up to the classes and we are getting good!

I have also managed to run six kilometres with a pace under 5:10/km twice this week. It is nice to see progress, and for almost the first time in a decade, I prefer my cardio to weight training.

Next week I am going to Glasgow in Scotland for two days, so that should be exciting. I hope it will feel as if I am taking the Hogwarts express when I am on the seven-hour train journey.

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Glennfinnan viaduct – note my journey was nowhere near this romantic.

Blogging overload – Week 24 as a PhD student

Repetitive, monotonous, tedious, is how a feel about writing blog posts at the moment. I have been writing blog posts all weekend, and my motivation for writing this one is undoubtedly lower than average. My guest post for the British Nutrition Foundation has been sent back to me with some suggestions and corrections. At first glance, this seems like a bad thing, however, they told me that they definitely want it, after the changes have been made to make it more relevant to their audience. I have never seen so many comments on a word document before It is all a valuable learning experience especially as they phoned me up and went through it with me! I did not expect this to happen, I was waiting for it to be accepted or rejected. Instead, I am getting a mentor on how to write blog posts. A few of the many things I have learnt are:

  1. Be inclusive of everyone. I was using words and sentence that would be specific to people similar to me. An example would be that not everyone understands what the word heuristics means, so I changed it to rules-of-thumb.

  2. Don’t use the same keyword two sentences in a row. For example, Consumers have different levels of sensory perception. Varying levels of perception among individuals lead to different results. Doesn’t read as good as: Consumers have different levels of sensory perception. Individuals sense things to different levels which leads to varying results. This may be a poor example, but hey, what do you want from a noob like me!

I will do a detailed blog of the development of my guest post at some point in the future.

I have got back in the lab this week, which has lifted my spirits a bit; I have been trying to use an ammonia assay kit to determine the quantity of ammonia in plant tissue. Day one of testing with this kit was mixed; I need to find a sample of plant tissue with ammonia in it to confirm if my method is okay. I have also had confirmation that I can go and use the GC-MS equipment next week, so I can do more practical stuff and get out of this writing rut that I am in. I have discovered that I like practical problem solving much more than writing. Don’t get me wrong I don’t hate writing, I have just become a bit tired of it with the amount of it I have been doing lately: I need to find balance in my work.

I have also sent off my 6-month report, which was a document that talked about everything that I have done in the past six months and everything I will do in the next six months. One piece of doubt that is starting to creep into my mind is that I am good at the practical elements and am sure I can meet the end goal of the PhD. However, I am not so confident I can do the writing aspect of the PhD, it is something I am going to have to talk to my supervisors about. I have been thinking about it for a while without acting on it. I shall add it to my diary to make sure I do it!

I spent about £200 of my research budget this week on the ammonia assay kit and a NoIR camera to play with. I am going to try and assess plant health with it. I had a bit of retail therapy, with the house’s money!

On time or of time, or simply, time?

Of all the ideas and concepts that I have encountered, nothing confused and enthuses me more than time. It is a concept I have trouble understanding, so explaining my views will be difficult. I will try anyway.

For the day-to-day experience of life, it seems that time is an Inherent force like gravity or electromagnetism. For me at least it was somewhat unintuitive to find out that it is not. It is a man-made system to keep track of things that are important such as how long until it gets dark, and how long until it is winter, so we can stockpile a sufficient amount of food. I wonder what a world would look like where clocks or time were not invented?  If clocks were not invented or any other measure to standardise the processes that occur in the expanding universe, you would still age as ageing is just the sum of all the processes that occur within your body, but there would be nothing to compare it against.

It just so happens that these processes occur over a period which we have standardised as time, in the UK it is 30,660 rotations of the earth on average (84 years). The thing is, if the universe stopped moving and therefore, the standard by which we measure time stopped, we would still age, and ‘time’ would still tick by. If you’re anything like me, time is one of those subjects that you find hard to grasp. If you’re unlike me you’re either an expert when it comes to physics, or you do not think about time at all, and due to common sense, most people are in the latter group.

We, humans, change our standards of time depending on the seasons. We do not age a negative hour when the turn the clocks back, the results if that were true, would be very interesting. So the concept of time is quite fluid as it stands.

There are many phrases and quotes related to time, here are a few I like.

Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend – Theophrastus.

The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is – C.S. Lewis.

Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them – Dion Boucicault.

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once – Albert Einstein.


Here is a thought of my own. If time = distance / speed. If you have no reference points to measure speed or distance by – say you’re in a void – does time pass? My answer would be that time doesn’t exist in this question, but you will still age…over ti…

It is this last quote by Einstein that both disturbs and enthrals me. I know from reading, not from understanding, that time is relative; meaning that it changes at different rates depending on the observer. Once you divorce the idea of time being absolute, which I find difficult, it is easier to understand how clocks travelling at different speeds can tick at different times relative to the observer; just as a ball will have different relative speeds when thrown at two different starting speeds. Imagine you’re standing next to a road you see a car drive past, and the kid sat in the back throws a ball to the front of the car and you measure the speed. The speed will be whatever the boy can throw it at, say five mph plus the speed of the car say 70 mph, so the speed of the ball will be 75 mph relative to you the outside observer. Whereas, inside the car, the boy will only see the ball travel at five mph as he and the ball are already travelling at 70 mph, so the ball will travel at five mph relative to the boy, which is much slower than you see it. Time works the same way in a relativistic universe, and therefore, two people can have different views of time.


Here is a cool video of an interesting time-related paradox.

Early setbacks- Week thirteen as a PhD student


I feel as if I have been cruising with a strong tailwind for quite a while now; this week has not felt the same. The experiments I had been planning for months did not go as well as I would like. I was extracting volatile compounds from the headspace of bagged salad and then analysing the extracted compounds on a GC-MS system. I was expecting a high turnout of volatiles from the bagged salad; however, all I found was remnants of the extraction fibre. Residues of the extraction fibre were all I saw, until three days of continuously running samples, at roughly one sample an hour. The most disconcerting factor about all the experiments was that I only needed to detect one volatile. I can then track this volatile over time to see how it changes in concentration; this will then give me an idea of what day of shelf-life the salad is at: in theory. As I could not find anything for a few days, my mood was very low at this time. It made me reflect on how, after a while, you never really notice that everything is going well, a sort of hedonic adaptation. I was certainly due a failure; on reflection, I am still up and should expect a burst bubble soon.

Due to the experiments I have been running, I have had to revise and learn how to analyse the results I am getting, i.e. how to read an MS trace. From a subjective position, before I was doing my PhD I would have expected someone who was doing a PhD just to know how to do all the fundamental scientific analysis. However, as it turns out, YouTube and Google still hold most of my knowledge. My years of development through academia have allowed me to learn a few things; it is as if my operating system has improved and I am now much quicker to execute links to where the information is in external storage. My mind is partially in the cloud.

I cannot think of much more to add to this weeks review, I feel quite a bit heavier from the Christmas period, and my time off from running certainly has been felt on my last two runs. I am expecting this will normalise toward the end of January. My investment portfolio is up almost seven and a half percent, which counter-intuitively is not great news for me, as it now costs me that much more to invest. Ideally, I want the portfolio to stay low for a very long until I am approaching retirement, when a massive bull run ensues. First world problems. I haven’t made new years resolutions before as I found the concept a bit silly, why wait to improve your life? I always thought. However, the Christmas break is usually when I review the past year, so it does make sense on some level; this year I have resolved to reduce the amount of time I spend passively playing video games whilst listening to podcasts.

Notes from the future.

As you may know, these blog posts are approximately four months behind. Looking back at this one, all I can say is, keep your chin up it will all be fine, and the stock market has mirrored those percentages in the negative!