Wednesday, August 26, 2015

HMAvl: A year on film

As everything that happens in the university of Exeter's astrophysics group; it all started with coffee time. 
My very good friend and colleague, Moncho Rey Raposo, had asked if I wanted to try a video series, and being like minded with regards to public engagement and the role a scientist has in passing on our knowledge, I thought; why the hell not! Even though I was then in my final year of the PhD and should really have been focusing on something else, hmmmm. Well never mind that. This is my year on film with Moncho and the Hannah & Moncho Astro video log (HMAvl). 

A year before I had briefly entertained the idea of creating my own science show with the universities tv channel, XTV, but the vast amount of time and technical support needed for production put me off due to the time I could put towards anything (we lasted 1 episode). I needed something quick, fun, and informative. So, who better to embark on this adventure with than Moncho, and he came up with the idea so that saved time too.

The plan was to discuss fun and interesting science each week, while sharing with the audience what PhD life was like at the University of Exeter. Over the course of our year in film we covered so many different topics.

We covered so many random things across physics
but it was also important to cover what it was like to be
doing a PhD and the life that we had at the University.

Introduction - ET - Rubik's cube - Halloween special in the Astrophysics group - Turbulence - Getting an astrophysics paper published - Exponential growth - Exeter's supercomputer - Hannah & Moncho's elevator pitch - Behind the scenes of HMAvl - Astrophysics christmas party - The Star of Bethlehem - Winter solstice - Maria's elevator pitch - Waves and interference - Weather - Why do a PhD? - a personal account - Alex's elevator pitch - A career in academia: interview with Pete V - The butterfly effect & yoga? - Exoplanets - Women in Astrophysics - Pablo's elevator pitch - Solar Eclipse 2015 - Blackbody radiation and CMB - Hannah turns in her thesis - Cryogenic dieting - Boyle's law - Alice's elevator pitch - Hannah's thesis defense - The big bang - Quantum meerkat - Conferences and posters - Tiffany's elevator pitch - Hubble deep field - Hannah's graduation

I think my favorite episode is still probably the Behind the scenes of HMAVL. Perhaps prematurely in episode 10 we made a behind the scenes episode, and I loved it and still do because I got to pretend like I was on a real TV show. If you know me you know I love TV and especially when you get a behind the scenes look at how it is all done. I even listen to all the audio commentaries if they make them, so I reveled in the chance to make one of my own.

Another reason why this was great is it explains everything I have been trying to put down in this blog, but with the added joy of moving pictures.

I am going to miss being able to write of a section in my diary for filming each week. I will miss the random topic to research each week. There is always room to learn more about science and relearn things long forgottten. There was a point where we were having issue with coming up with a topic to cover in 3 or 5 minutes, and i remembered that years ago for my scuba diving instructor exam i was tasked to teach boyles law to my divers. The examiners thought that i would find it difficult to convey what can be a complex topic to scuba divers who would range fro 14 up and from all manner of backgrounds. The topic itself was perfect for a HMAvl. So on the day that Moncho was able to film we met at my apartment and filmed it in the bathroom then and there with my dive kit as the backdrop.

But most of all I am going to miss working with Moncho on all of these crazy ideas. Anything went and we tried to not be worried about how it would look. So thank you for all the fun. Enjoy the playlist of our year on film and let us know what you thought.

Moncho and I during the filming of episode 2

I personally would not recommend starting such a project in your last year, while writing up and defending your thesis. But if you love doing something then go for it. If you play it right there is always time for fun.

Monday, June 8, 2015

My Science Hour Adventure

Hannah at the Xmedia Awards 2015
with The Science Hour's
2 awards of the evening
My adventure with The science Hour on XpressionFM has sadly come to a close. But boy did we go out on a high. At this years Xmedia Awards The Science Hour won two awards. Our 1st from XpressionFM for the stations Best Show, which was a beautiful surprise on the night and I'm so proud of the recognition within a music and sport heavy radio station that a talk show about science captured people and entertained them. Our 2nd came from the Best Innovation category, something myself and Simon entered with our Top Female Scientists card game, which we launched on the show in February this year. You can listen to the Award entry below.

The Science Hour has developed into a fantastic entertaining and diverse radio show over the seasons. I think this year we really hit our stride with the format and content to keep a loyal and far reaching audience. Who also appreciated some of the worst music segues in history, I am talking Alan Partridge levels and worse. Over the seasons I have been joined by some amazing and thoroughly intelligent co-hosts and none of the show would have been done without their amazing support and conversation. So, thank you Gareth Jones, Alex Pettitt, and Simon Clark for taking your time and putting yourself out there with me each week. Also to all of the guests throughout the first season who gave us their time to talk about their work.

But I thought now was as good a time as any to share how The Science Hour on XpressionFM came to be and how it has positively influenced my PhD journey here at Exeter.

Our Xmedia Award for
Most Innovative
Way back in late 2012 while I was on holiday in the US with my sister I received an email from a professor in the Astrophysics group at Exeter where I was in the 2nd year of my PhD urging me to apply for a workshop being run by the BBC Academy for expert women in their fields. At the time I was just finding my stride within academia, attempting to work out if I knew anything at all, let alone calling myself an expert at something. But as with most things that have worked out in my life I went with my philosophy of "what can I loose if I apply for this?" As always the answer was nothing of significance. So, I went for it. I filmed two short pieces to camera about my work and some of the things I thought needed to be highlighted in the media, and sent it in. A few months later I found out that I was selected in the top 60 out of over 2000 applicants and that in March the following year I would be heading to the BBC Academy for 2 days of media training and advanced training with 30 other applicants.

But why am I giving you all of this back story, what has this got to do with a student radio show?
Well, what this experience taught me was little to do with the technical side of TV and Radio, or even the way that you need to present yourself, I had learnt most of that from watching behind the scenes documentaries growing up and seeing my father giving copious numbers of talks around Surrey where I grew up. No what these few days taught me was, it does not matter who you are or how good you might be at what you do, no one is going to out of the blue ask you to do anything. You have to go out and get it, or do it, or ask for it yourself before anyone will take notice and start asking back.

While at the BBC Academy on these two days I did meet a number of other astronomers who were already post-docs in their fields and have kept in touch with them since. One, Emma Bradshaw, was the host of a science show on student radio at Nottingham, which is a well respected student radio station in the student radio circuit. It was later in the summer of 2013 when I met her again at a UK wide astronomy conference that she gave me the best advice. "Just go for it!"

Launching our Top Female Scientists card game LIVE on
By now I was starting my 3rd year of the PhD and well out of the loop of student societies at university and anywhere. Let alone putting myself out there on the radio or TV. Luckily the University of Exeter has a fantastic and diverse media team from TV (XTV Online), Journalism (Exepose), and Radio (XpressionFM). In freashers week I stood out awkwardly at the introduction weeks and group meetings  making me want to flee. But I kept chanting to myself "What have you got to lose?" "Just go for it."

The leaders of XpressionFM at the time were Hazel Morgan, a wholly wonderful individual excited about the prospect of some BBC Radio 4 style programming, and the ever encouraging Matthew Bate who later became the VP of Activities sabbatical officer for the Guild. It was Matthew who put me in touch with some new people and I was tenacious in getting a full show on the air as soon as possible.

The first Science Hour show was broadcast LIVE at 11pm right in the middle of a 30-hour Children in Need broadcast for the station. I was given lees then a days notice to put something dynamic and entertaining together which would involve the two champion hosts for the full broadcast. I managed to rope in the Gareth Jones a new PhD student in Physics who had previously hosted on XpressionFM and was not serving as part of the station committee. The whole launch of the show could never have happened without him, and for that I am very grateful.

In January of 2014 we kicked off the term with our regular show and time on Tuesday evenings, and have not stopped since. By half way through the term I had been fully trained as a radio presenter and was able to run the show myself. In our first term run we welcomed 12 scientists into the XpressionFM studio, and shared the research from over 5 departments at the University of Exeter.

The Science Hour time wheel
Each episode of the show requires varied levels of preparation, depending on prior knowledge of the subject. At the beginning of each term I would sit down with my co-host and we would write a list of the different topics that interested us and we wanted to talk about. We would then look at the shows calendar and make a balanced and ordered timetable. As each show on its own follows the same format a time wheel of the show is simple to fill in, and is a great practice to have if you want to set up your own show of any length. For each episode we find 5 songs with a connection to the topic, though sometimes the most tenuous of links is made between the discussion and the song of choice. We will also try to find the most unsung or unheard of scientist in the field of study to place a spotlight on. The ultimate goal of the show is to provide new and interesting information in an accessible way to our audience. I think the best compliment for the show I have heard is someone coming up to me and telling me a story about a science topic and then finishing the story with, 'oh wait I think I heard that from your show'. Almost all of our listeners within XpressionFM have told us they don't like science, but love the show. That is good enough for me! They don't really hate science, they live in a world based on it (especially on the radio), they just need the best way to hear about it. I hope we were able to provide that.

Without the science hour I am certain I would not be as confident in myself or the science I have been working on. It has not only improved my interview skills, but also the way in which I respond when being interviewed. I love communicating my science, and hope that I can continue to do so through all types of media throughout my career.

I am also now so much more aware of how little music I know.

You can check out our full archive on Mixcloud and please leave any comments below or on our show pages (Mixcloud, Facebook).

Sunday, May 3, 2015

My PhD thesis through the quotes

"Well, I suppose now is the time for me to say something profound… nothing comes to mind."
General Jack O'Neill
Stargate SG1

"I tend to go with what you know. Until something better turns up."
Admiral William Adama
Battlestar Galactica

Outlining the method
"You know what the issue is with this world? Everyone wants some magical solution for their problems and everyone refuses to believe in magic."
Jefferson/Mad Hatter
Once Upon A Time

Applying the method
"If nothing else works, then a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through."
General Melchett
Blackadder Goes Fourth

Some results never change 
"There’s just nothing new in the universe is there? It’s the same everywhere, good cop, bad cop."
Commander John Crichton

Where to look for the next answers
"The answers are there, you just have to know where to look for them."
Agent Dana Scully
The X-Files

"We've done the impossible, and that makes us mighty."
Captain Malcolm Reynolds

Future work
"What's Next?"
President Josiah Bartlet
The West Wing

Monday, March 30, 2015

Writing my PhD thesis

Handing in my PhD thesis to the University of Exeter
Over the years I have found that saying you are doing a PhD can be taken one of two ways by people; 'that sounds fancy you must be a genius or something' or simply 'why?'. The former are never trying to put you on a pedestal, and the later are not trying to get you on the defensive, but the dichotomy is sometimes difficult to deal with.

During the course of a PhD you are continuously finding out things that you, or anyone else, never knew before. That is the point, to present unique and new research at the end of it all. But this simultaneously puts you in the state of not knowing anything with impostor syndrome playing a big role in academia. No where does this become more evident to you than when you have to write it all up in your PhD thesis.

It is an all consuming process, even if you try very hard for it to not be. It is now the end of March and I have just handed in my PhD thesis titled: 'cloudy with a chance of water'. It is a short 181 page document outlining a majority of the work that I have conducted as a scientific researcher at the University of Exeter over the last 3 1/2 years. A PhD in the UK is a very learn on the job kind of endeavour, and it is an experience that seems remarkably unique to each person considering we are all going for the same thing.

A PhD is so different for different people, this is not intended as a formula to writing a thesis, nor is it to say that you should be able to work this way as well. Merely a document of my experience and process through it all and I hope that in a little way it can be reassuring or simply informative to people going through the same process now or in the future, and perhaps a little nostalgia kick for people who have already gone through this all before.

The write-up, I suppose, officially started November 2014, giving me five months to complete and hand-in. That seems about normal. Though some people if needed have been able to write up in less than three weeks, or take over a year. The write up is a weird process and it really depends on the work you have done as to the final format that process takes. Some people have one large project that takes the whole PhD to complete and no papers can be written before the whole thing is done, so the write up is one long detailed story. Others do lots of little projects that form multiple papers as they go through their PhD which can then be stapled together in a vague order to be examined on. My fell somewhere in the middle of these two.

My makeshift desk at my parents place over  Christmas
with the obligatory bottle of wine
Over the course of my PhD I have worked on a fair few projects all focused around one thing. Because my work looked at observational data (experiment) and analytical studies (theory) the hardest thing for me felt like the definition of the narrative that would bring these together. It was a long time before I could work out where my first observational paper would slot into the whole story as most of the first part of my thesis would focus on the new technique we were using which was developed after the first paper went out. I wanted it to read more like a book where the introduction to each thing appeared as you went along rather than all lumped into the introduction where you would have to flick back to remember what you had read. Once this was all in place it just took a little bit of work to get the right words in place. The section and sub-section headings changing right up to the week of submission. I just had a look back through my files and it appears the first figure created specifically for the thesis was made on December 8th so it was a least a month in before I had any idea where I was going with things.

'Write drunk, edit sober.'

All of your writing will be crap the first time you put it together. The important part is that you let your mind relax and spill onto the page all of the different ideas you want to incorporate into the work. The sentences don't need to make sense at this point you just need a vague idea of what needs to be there. I can't even count the number of bottles of wine I drank over the Christmas break working at my parents place on the makeshift desk they set up for me in the front room so I could work whenever I had a spare minute. In fact on new years eve my Father and I were child sitting round my sisters house watching The Newsroom drinking a LOT while I was typing up the analysis process I go through for each of my observations. Unfortunately for the wine industry the drinking tailed off considerably for the write-up towards the last few months as I edited the structure and formed slightly more coherent sentences from the waffle.

But I cannot stress this enough: just because you are writing up does not mean that life has to stop and you cannot take time for fun. Go out with your friends, take an evening to do nothing but watch Netflix, celebrate birthdays and holidays when you can.

The majority of comments I have had over the last few months are along the lines of 'you seem so calm', 'she is the calmest PhD student I have ever met', and 'it's annoying that you not panicking right now'. That last one came from my friend and housemate who handed in his PhD thesis in Feb and passed his viva in March. There was a distinct moment when his brain went into panic mode over the write-up and a point a month before hand-in that a constant state of stress seemed to kick in, so everyone was just waiting for me to go nuts I suppose.

Top Female Scientist Card Game 
Now I am not saying that I was calm all the way through. There were definitely some bouts of absolute panic and immense amounts of self doubt, but I did what I always do and gave myself something else to channel my worry and stress onto. If you know me or have seen me at work you will immediately notice the slight air of chaos surrounding my desk. It is not just the piles of post-it notes of every color, or the piles of papers and pens all over the place; it is the tiny person sitting there arms flailing looking for something or running off to one meeting or another grabbing something seemingly random as she ruses past you. I only wish I had gotten a picture before I decided to clean it all up after hand-in, but it seems every photo I have has been carefully framed to minimise the amount of mess visible.

I need to be constantly distracted to get anything done. I know it seems strange, I find it strange too. But you know how it helps to have the background noise of a coffee shop to get work done? Well I need that ten-fold. If I do not have people moving around me and talking or something playing on the TV or a series of tasks to complete I will find it very hard to sit down and get one single thing done. There was one point where I had my two laptops playing different things with two separate sets of headphones in and a video on mute on my monitor just so I could concentrate and remember what I was working on. And the only reason I was allowed to have two laptops from work in the first place was that my first laptop, Louie, decided that it could not cope with the multitude of tasks I require to perform simultaneously any more.

Photos from the Solar Eclipse Viewing Party 
on March 20th at the University of Exeter
That said a lot of my normal routine fell to the wayside during the final few months. I have not kept up with any of my TV shows, save one or two, and a week for me is normally set around which ones I need to watch next. I have little to no idea what movies are out, have been out, or are coming out. All of my departmental 'social secretary' roles were handed out to other, younger people to take over, I relinquished my keys to the boathouse and passed on my turn on the bar rota at the local scuba diving club. But saying all of this makes it sound dramatic. I did make sure to hold onto some things, Simon and I kept producing The Science Hour on XpressionFM right up to the last week before hand-in. We also created a Top Female Scientist Card Game that went viral and are now mass printing sets to send to schools. And for some strange reason I decided that it would be a good time to organise a Solar Eclipse Viewing Party at the university. Well that one is not entirely my fault on the timing as I have no control over such celestial events.

All of these served as happy distractions so that my thesis work became the thing I did when I was taking a break rather than the other way round.

It is strange but since the write-up life has got fuller not emptier. I spend more time with my friends happy to do nothing for a while, I am more relaxed and content than before. I just hope I can find something to distract me in the next month so I don't freak out about the impending examination viva.

The following are my Acknowledgements from my thesis, and in sharing them here now, I think it sums up what I was trying to explain above.

"None of this would have been possible without the financial support of the UK Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The research leading to these results has also received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement no. 336792. 
Okay, now that we have the formalities out of the way it is time for the juicy bits. I have so many people to thank for their support throughout this doctoral endeavour so I shall attempt to do so here. This is for the people who will likely not read any further, save scanning the witty quotes marring each new chapter. Yet, for all of you I am still profoundly grateful.
To all who have ever shared an office with me, sorry, but I do believe that I warned each and every one of you in advance. I am especially thankful to Emily who stopped me from freaking myself out by allowing me to worry about her. Also, to Paul, the time vampire that he is, Tom Evans and Tiffany whose knowledge and patience far exceed that of my own. 
To all the goofballs in the Astrophysics group who for some reason allowed me to take over and dictate their lives for a few nights a month/week. It has been a fantastic few years and for the most part it kept a smile on my face. 
To Alex Pettitt, Moncho, and Simon who aided in my productive procrastination and helped me shout science to the world, I am definitely going to miss it. I am also thankful to Matthew Bate who gave me the confidence and belief that I could get away with it in the first place. 
To Andrew for enabling the crazy, Jon for joining in with the crazy, and Tom Wilson for embracing the crazy, I am sure he is still trying to convince himself that he knew what he was getting into. To David Amundsen who has been there through it all and even had to live with me to boot, I (and my family) cannot thank you enough so I will just say `Well done sir, well done'. 
My penultimate thanks goes to my supervisor David Sing. The freedom and genuine support that you have given me over the last few years taught me how to be a scientist and for that I cannot repay you, I only hope to one day pass it on down the line. 
Finally, to my family who always encouraged me to do whatever the hell I wanted, within reason of course, and never wavered in their support and pride. That, and our shared love of Stargate, could not have done this without Stargate. "

Monday, March 2, 2015

Solar Eclipse Viewing Party

It was an amazing event. Thank you to everyone who came along you were all perfect (only got a minor shout down from the health and safety team for how many of you there were). Here are just a few of the photos taken on the day. I may put an album together at some point.


On March 20th the moon will pass almost directly between the Earth and the Sun causing a Solar eclipse, which will be visible from the UK, with the moon obscuring 90% of the Sun between ~8-11am

Here at the University of Exeter, we are holding our own Solar Eclipse Viewing Party for the local community, from 8-11 near the Forum on the Streatham Campus.  It has a fantastic view south, which offers the perfect view of the morning sun.  At the event there will be a big range of ways for everyone to safely view the sun with a range of different cameras, projections, and glasses, provided by the Astrophysics Group which is helping run the event. They will even have their radio telescope pointed at the sun to record the signal from the Sun as the moon steadily blocks it out. If you are not able to come along yourself you can tune into the XpressionFM, found at 87.7FM, who will be broadcasting live throughout the morning and have compiled a special eclipse playlist with The Science Hour team taking you through the events as they unfold. 

We have a huge number of ways that you can safely view the eclipse event so come along and get involved in this unique opportunity.
 Facebook event page