Ghost town – week 25 as a PhD student

Easter weekend has turned the university into a ghost town; I walked into the university on Thursday morning only to find myself felling Cillian Murphy in the opening scenes of 28 days later.

Yes, this was written many months ago.


I can tell that there is a public holiday here in the UK by the relative inactivity of my inbox. In academia, downtime is a strange thing as under normal circumstances there is someone insularly working at all hours of the day. You will never be the first or last person in or out of the building. This is because of the flexibility you have in academia, and why it is so attractive to some people.

I did not plan on taking any time off over Easter; however, I have reached a point where all I can do is write. Since I have been doing a lot of this lately, I am going to take a break. I have also been feeling a little burnt out and to be frank, bored. I am going to go and spend some time with my parents over the Easter break and forget about my work obligations, and hopefully recharge. The initial burst of motivation I had at the start of my PhD has dwindled, and I am glad of a short break.

I have been working on two different experiments this week, trying to determine the ammonia concentration in different salad leaves and extracting Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from the packaging of leafy salads. There is a tiny literature looking at ammonia in plant tissue over time, so this is something I am going to investigate. The problem with a tiny literature is that there are very few methods that can be used to analyse ammonia. At the moment I am using a modifying an ammonia testing kit for blood plasma, and it is looking semi-promising at this stage, I will continue along this line of enquiry after Easter. With the collection of VOCs I was testing a new technique where I pumped the headspace of the salad bag out of the pack through a trap; I then measured the VOCs on a GC-MS system with an attached thermal desorber – I realise a lot of people reading this will not understand the specifics, but I am writing for a scientific audience and realise I have been fairly scant on scientific detail recently. If you’re new or haven’t pieced together from my rambling what I am actually doing… I am primarily doing the chemical and biological groundwork for future technologies that will increase the usable life of food – specifically leafy salads – and reduce food waste.

This week was much more enjoyable than last week as instead of sitting at home alone writing; I was working in the lab with other people, with whom I could talk. The increase in happiness just from being around other people has put me in a reflective, philosophical mood. One of my fundamental issues is that after six-months of any, job, hobby or other goal-oriented pursuits, is that I get bored and disinterested. Thinking specifically about jobs, the best jobs I have ever had were not necessarily the most interesting, they were the ones where I got on really well with other colleagues, and at times it felt as if I was just going to work to talk to friends. In the worst job I ever had, warehouse operative, there was a period of a few months were I was working with a few good people and I did not mind the depressing job so much; inevitable they left to go on to bigger and better things, which isn’t difficult when you work in a warehouse, and the job was miserable again, soon after that I decided I should go to university…Basically what I am trying to say is that who you work with may be more important than the job itself, and I must remember that in future.

Too much writing – week 22 as a PhD student

In the latest chapter of me doing a PhD is more of a filler chapter; the story has had a brief interlude where all I do is sit at my desk and write. If only all I did was write, that would have been a much better week; instead, I wrote for about 20 minutes and then proceeded to spend 10 minutes browsing the internet. I then repeated this for 8-10 hours a day, five days a week. I do actually enjoy writing; it is just very difficult to do it for days on end without getting burnt out; it is for me anyway. I am sure all my fellow students will have sympathy with this, and all those who are in a job that they are not 100% happy with; this is where relying on discipline is essential, as motivation is fickle and can often leave you alone for long periods of time.

I have been working on three different bits of work, my 6-month report, a paper I am writing, and a guest blog post I am writing for the British Nutrition Foundation. All of which, I am bored of looking at, this tends to happen to me with writing. I start out highly motivated; then there is a perfect negative linear trend in the interest in my work – we are talking a correlation of 0.999. I am unsure if there is a cure for this particular ailment, If you have one, please send it my way. One good thing about only doing writing this week is that I got to spend all my time at home, which is my preferred location, I am very hobbit-like in that sense. As for you dear readers:

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

As a side note, if there is a better work of fiction than the fellowship of the ring, I don’t want to know about it.

If you consider my time outside of my day-job, I did have an exciting week. On Tuesday I was in London attending a concert by Post Modern Jukebox, they are a group that became popular on YouTube for doing covers of songs on different musical styles. If you want to see Lady Gaga’s Bad romance performed in a Gatsby style, I suggest you check them out! They were perfectly enjoyable, and they did an excellent take on the main Harry Potter theme song, however, and this is true for any artist when they don’t play your favourite song you can only give them a seven out if ten max.


By far the most bizarre and comfort-zone-smashing thing I did this week was attend an American rock-and-roll dance class with my partner. We were both the worst dancers by far, I had never danced before, and my partner only had danced as a child. If there is one thing scarier than giving a presentation in front of many people – especially for an introvert – it is dancing, in public. It was one of those things we signed up to whilst slightly inebriated, but instead of just writing it off as drunken nonsense, actually going through with it. My partner and I were the youngest there by a good 20 years; she was only slightly less nervous than I was. However, as is normally the case when doing scary things, it was much more fun than scary. It was much harder than I thought it would be but this only spurred me on to get better, I will definitely continue with this. This is by far the biggest surprise of my life; I enjoyed dancing: sober! One of the problems with this, however, is now I have many extracurricular activities, I am starting to become a Jack of all trades and the master of…

 

You should judge a book by its cover

You shouldn’t Judge a book by its cover.

This is a phrase to which I take exception, and I do not know why this phrase has become so renowned as it seems so false to me. I am not talking about this phrase in its literal sense with regard to books; however, I still think it is false when talking about literal books. I have a degree in nutrition and food science, and there are thousands of books that I can judge by the cover and know they are trash and not worth my time. Time is a resource I do not wish to waste, so I will judge some books by their cover to save it.

Onto the more philosophical application of the phrase. The cover is all the information you have about someone whom you’ve never seen before. If you have already seen someone or something, you have already judged them/it at least once. One extreme example I have to evaluate this involves children or vulnerable people. Should you allow a child to interact with any random person as you should not judge them by their cover, or should you judge them and base your decision on all the visual cues you have?

As an adult I judge people, rightly or wrongly – here I am arguing that it is rightly– by their cover. If I am walking down the street and see some drunk men quarrelling, you can safely assume that cover will be judged harder than an autobiography by a reality TV star.

Why I think this phrase still has some credibility is that invariably whenever you meet someone, they are a good person. Should you judge a person as good before you’ve gotten to know someone? And is It even possible to not judge someone? I doubt it.

In fact, I would go further than saying you should judge a book by its cover; you continually judge by the cover. As you gain information, you should continually re-adjust your judgement as people can and do change.

There are a number of reasons as to why I do not understand this phrase and therefore, do not take it seriously. I imagine this could be a contentious issue and my opinion may be somewhat naive, so please educate me.

Apparently the phrase was first published in the mid 18th century, and frankly, that’s where it should have stayed.

 

Physically shaking – week 19 as a PhD student

Once again, a skill that I thought was overhyped in its importance has had a significant impact on me this week. I am talking about networking; as an introvert, this is a not a skill I enjoy nurturing. I mentioned last week that I had to give a presentation this week, it went okay. It was a three-minute thesis competition that I did not have a choice about my participation. I felt okay giving the speech as I had practised it around 50 times in the mirror; however, my legs were physically shaking behind the lectern. I did my talk, got off the stage and that was that, or so it thought. At the lunch break, to my shock, I had many people coming up to me and saying that they found my talk interesting. I accepted the compliments and just assumed they were being nice, and perhaps they were. The next day I ran into someone whom I had never met, and again, to my surprise, they said they liked my talk. I started talking back to this person, and asking her about her work; we had a good conversation about measuring sugars! The most exciting impact from my talk was yet to come; I received an email from someone in the audience who worked for the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), and she said that she enjoyed my talk and wanted me to write a guest post for their website(1). Of course, I will jump at the opportunity, and post a link to it on here once it is live; the only issue is that it will remove my anonymity, maybe it is time to own my work. So, what did I learn from this experience? Giving talks, no matter how terrifying and seemingly irrelevant looks as if it is an excellent way of increasing your opportunities.

The conference that I had to give my talk at occupied most of my time this week. However, I did manage to run two different experiments; making this week one of the busiest so far. I measured the volatile compounds given off from rocket leaves, and the microorganisms that reside on them. I also got close to finding out what compounds I have seen that are not in the standard library’s.  I also extracted glucosinolates from rocket leaves and will review those next week. This weekend, I have spent almost all of it trying to make a poster for a conference I have next week; I am looking forward to the conference but do not relish making this poster. February has consisted of two presentations and a poster presentation; I hope I do not have any more for a long while as I need to get my head down and write.

I did not win any of the prizes on offer for the three-minute-thesis competition; normally, I would probably just ignore this. I have kept the book of abstracts, and intend on going through it and looking at the writing to try and figure out where I can improve. The younger me would not do this, I believe in learning from your mistakes and intend to get around to reading the abstract booklet later today! Maybe I will do a teardown of what I wrote and how I could improve it, and compare it to some of the other entries.

On a more personal note, we – my partner and I – have had a friend staying with us, as she split with her partner and needed somewhere to stay while she finds a new property. She is occupying the room where I keep my gaming PC, and as a result, I have not been playing games all week. This might be the solution I needed to the time suck, that is video games. It has been quite refreshing to have a flatmate; I have not shared accommodation with anyone other than my partner before – except holidays – so this should be an exciting experience, and might stop us becoming too comfortable and predictable with our lifestyle.

The most significant lesson I learnt, or re-learnt this week is how important networking is. I shall ensure that I keep it at the forefront of my mind when considering what I should be doing with my time. I hope you all had a great week, please let me know what you’re up to, maybe link your blog?

(1) – I ended up going through with that guest blog post which you can see here

A profound title – Week seventeen as a PhD student

Well, I did it, I have made a website where all of these posts will be open to comment. Of course, you already know this, as you would not be reading this if I hadn’t already done so. My experience so far is that there is a large number of people that have fitness-related blogs. I know this because as soon as I posted my ramblings, many fitness bloggers clicked ‘like’ on my post without even reading the post. I am excited to see what comes from this little online experiment.

In PhD student news, this week, I had to stop with one of my experiments as it was not working as intended. I measured the ion leakage from membranes of spinach leaves as a potential marker for shelf life; the problem was, that it took a long time after the best before date – two weeks until there was any useful difference. What I mean by this, is that I could distinguish day fourteen from day one, but not day seven from day one; as the date on the pack ended at day four, this is not ideal. From this experiment, I believe that the shelf life of spinach – from this season (Italian winter), is far too conservative. My take home from this is that you should use your judgement when assessing if your product is good for eating.

One big thing I have learnt this week is that networking, and actually talking to people are very close to the top of the skill tree. At the beginning of last week, I did not know where I was going with my next experiments. I got talking with one of the postdocs1, and he suggested I ran the same experiment he was running on my samples. This is great for me for many reasons: firstly I will learn a new technique; secondly I have something to do, thirdly I have made a new contact, and hopefully, he can be an ongoing resource for me. So, there we go, the power of networking.

It feels as if I have been preparing and presentations for two different events I have coming up exclusively this week. If you think my writing is weak, you should see my speaking. I am hoping that if I become a better writer, my speaking will improve along with it. After the next two weeks, my speaking engagements will be over for a while, and I can concentrate on my research more. One thing you should know about being a PhD student is that you will almost certainly have to give a presentation every few months, so you may as well get good, that is my thought on the matter anyway.

I had a lab-group meeting this week; I am getting much more confident speaking within the group. I think I am starting to relax into being in the position I am: progress! I am desperate to not be in the seventy-percent of people who experience mental health issues during a PhD. My approach to this is to try and balance my life as much as possible: no all-nighters. This should be an enjoyable time, and I will optimise my life for happiness and not ‘being successful’. I think this is the only logical way to live.

I have a question with regards to my writing. Do you like this style of post? Or, should I do less of this bloggy stuff and more informative articles related to my field?

1. Post-doctoral researcher.

Learning to write – Conjunctions

This is last post of this mini-series on the basic elements of English. Next week I have an epic I have been working on about the dark arts of driving traffic to your WordPress site.

Conjunctions

Conjunctions allow us to create complex sentences.

Without conjunctions. Our sentences. Would be short, jarring affairs.

As we have come to expect from this series of post on different parts of speech, conjunctions have a few different categories. These are, coordinating, correlative and subordinating conjunctions.

FANBOYS – coordinating conjunctions

This is the mnemonic you should remember for the coordinating conjunctions. For, And, Nor, But, Yet and So.

Coordinating conjunctions connect two or more independent clauses of equal grammatical rank.

By equal grammatical rank I mean that both sides of the coordinating conjunction should be main clauses (can stand alone). For more information on this look here.

If the conjunction separates two main clauses there should be a comma before the conjunction.

If the conjunction separates two items there is no need for a comma.

Incorrect: A, and B.

Correct: A and B.

I think you can come up with your own example sentences, so I shall move on to the next classification of conjunctions.

Correlative conjunctions

correlative conjunctions are pairs of conjunctions that work together.

I am writing, but I’m also listening to music.

He writes not only a blog but also a newspaper column

subordinating conjunctions

subordinating conjunctions connect independent and dependent clauses (a clause that can stand alone and one that can’t).

I feel tired because I did not sleep well last night.

I fell hungry as I skipped breakfast.

subordinating conjunctions do not have a comma separating them unless the subordinating clause comes first.

Correct: I feel tired because I did not sleep well last night.

(Independent clause) (conjunction) (dependent clause)

Correct: As I did not sleep well last night, I feel tired.

(dependent clause) (comma) (independent clause)

look here for a full list of conjunctions

Bonus category!

Compound conjunctions

Compound conjunctions are several conjunctions that act together.

I will keep writing so long as you keep reading.

Learning to write – Determiners

What is a determiner? Determiners are a class of words which include: articles, possessive adjectives (my, his, her, its, our, your, their), demonstratives (this/that, these/those) and quantifiers.

The essence of determiners is that they tell us if a noun-phrase is specific or general. Therefore they must come before a noun.

As we looked at articles last week in this post, we will not go over them again here.

Possessive adjectives

Possessive adjectives show what belongs to, or is related to something else.

my, his, its, our, your, their etc.

My writing is improving.

The man jumped out of his skin when a spider presented its fangs.

Demonstratives

demonstratives differentiate between things that are near and far because that is important to have a category for words that do this…

Near: this, these. Far: that, those

It seems that that doesn’t necessarily indicate Far. What is that on your face!

What shall we do this weekend? (close)

Do you recall what the weather was like that weekend we went to France? (Far)

Quantifiers

From the name, it should be easy to guess what these do.

They come before a noun and tell us about the number, or quantity of the noun in question.

No, none, either, neither, any, both, few, little, etc.

How many new followers will I gain due to this post? Any? None?

As Bilbo Baggins said: ‘I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve’

The above is an example as to why the English language is so complicated. I am a native English speaker and do not understand anywhere near all of it. It seems as if there is a lot of overlap in these categories.

For example that could be a pronoun, demonstrative, adverb and a conjunction. The key would be where it appears in the sentence and what it precedes as to what category of speech it would fall under.