All posts by Cristobel Soares-Smith

23Sep/20

Organising a virtual conference during a global pandemic!

Virginia Apostolopou, PhD student, Soft Matter Group, University of Surrey, shares her experience of organising a SEPnet Student-led Conference: “Soft Matter: the unseen science all around us”, during challenging times.

In my first year as a PhD student at the University of Surrey, I heard about SEPnet and the exciting activities they organise for postgraduate students. Previous institutes that I have attended didn’t have these opportunities for training and networking and so I was very excited to take part in the workshops and the activities organised by the network. One of the activities that caught my attention from the beginning was the student-led conference. I loved the idea of a conference organised by postgraduates and I kept it in the back of my mind as something I will love to try in the future.

At the beginning of my second year of my PhD, I started discussing with people from my group at Surrey, the idea of submitting a conference proposal. Our motivation was the diversity of our projects; although we were all in the Soft Matter group, we worked in different projects, from industrial applications to applications of nano materials. We wanted to translate this diversity and multi-disciplinary nature of Soft Matter physics into a conference that will bring together students working from seemingly different projects, but in the core, the physics of their research is very similar. Our initial intention of a multi-disciplinary conference was reflected in the speakers we chose to invite: a group of six, well-established researchers from different fields of soft matter physics and different institutes agreed enthusiastically to support our conference by presenting their work.

By late February everything was ready for the conference: the schedule, the website, speakers, accommodation and the catering requirements. It was to be held at the University of Southampton, on the 25th-27th March. At the same time, more and more news started to emerge about a concentrated epidemic in a region in China, now spreading rapidly to the rest of the word. One after the other, big conferences and scientific meetings began announcing their cancellations. By early-March we were still hopeful that since we were going to be a small conference we would be able to go ahead. As we were getting closer to the dates we realised that we should face the situation sensibly and cancel the conference until further notice.

We initially decided to reschedule the conference for early September. Our decision was based on our belief that the main purpose of the conference was for the students to share their work and create future collaborations. We thought that having a virtual conference instead would dismiss that purpose. Technology is an essential tool in these weird times but still, it cannot entirely replace personal interactions among scientific communities. However, eventually, we had to face the reality of our times and rather reluctantly had to move the conference online.

To our surprise the conference was well-received! We managed to book all our invited speakers and almost all the original delegates were able to participate. Some of our speakers suggested opening the conference to students outside SEPnet. We thought that during these difficult times, it is important to open this kind of opportunity to everyone in the scientific community. We were delighted to see delegates from all over the world joining our virtual conference.

I think that overall the conference was a great success. It definitely exceeded my expectations regarding networking and engagement. I am very proud of the scientific programme that we managed to put together and the discussions that took place during the conference.

It was all the result of an excellent collaboration with a group of extremely talented people: Katrin Elidottir, Louie Scott, Malin Schulz, Mireya Borg, University of Surrey, Rhiannon Harries, University of Sussex and of course, Cristobel Soares, SEPnet Graduate Network Manager, who helped and guided us along the way.

It is very impressive to see what a team of creative and passionate people can accomplish in a these very challenging and uncertain times!

 

16Sep/20

Organising my first conference during a pandemic!

Tomás E. Müller Bravo, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Southampton gives his perspective on organising and delivering a SEPnet student-led conference during a pandemic!

Every year SEPnet provides an opportunity to a group of postgraduate researchers to organise a two-day student-led conference at the University of Southampton. I first came to know about this when I applied for a talk at the Astronomy conference from 2019 ( From Infinity to Zero: the history of the Universe in redshift). These types of conferences are perfect for early career researchers as it is organised by students, for students, although a few academic speakers are also invited. You do not feel the same pressure as with the big international conferences where you find all the “big names” from your research field. In addition, you also get to know lots of people in the same career stages as you and share experiences.

After the 2019 conference I attended was over, I was very interested in organising one of my own. I talked to Elizabeth Swann, University of Portsmouth, the lead organiser to ask her for advice (this was really helpful!). I got very excited with the idea, so I decided to ask around in my Astronomy department for fellow PGRs who might be interested in organising a conference and started writing a proposal. At the same time a group of PGRs from the University of Hertfordshire were writing one of their own. They kindly suggested to work together instead of competing, so we started collaborating on a single proposal (after all, isn’t this what research is all about?).

Choosing the topic of the conference was relatively easy. As many big telescopes and surveys are coming in the near future, we thought it might be a good idea to focus on big data and machine learning, thus, the title of the conference: The Big Data Era in Astronomy. Finding academic speakers wasn’t too hard either. As several of us in the organising committee work on different fields, we quickly came up with a list of candidates. Cristobel Soares, Graduate Network Manager, was in charge of the logistics and  funding and very helpful with her advice and support.   We mainly had to focus on the structure, science and social events (eg, a conference dinner) at the meeting. Everything was going according to plan as the conference date was approaching, however, everything changed when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Many things were quite uncertain at that time. We didn’t know how long and how much this pandemic would affect everyone, so we had to postpone the conference. As time passed, we grew impatient. We didn’t know if we were going to have the opportunity to host the meeting or if we would have to cancel it. Eventually, we decided to do what many other conferences, schools and workshops were doing, choose a new date and go virtual!

This was full of challenges. We didn’t have to worry about funding, conference dinner and other logistics, but we did have to think about the proper platforms to host our virtual conference on. Thankfully, all SEPnet universities have access to Microsoft Teams, so we chose it as our platform for hosting the talks. In addition, Slack is widely used in academic environments as it is perfect for asynchronous discussions, questions, announcements, etc. We also decided to use Slido for the questions at the end of each talk, which was quite new to all of us.   I actually got to know about Slido during an ESO conference I attended in June.

Unfortunately, as things were still uncertain close to the new date of the conference in September, many of the students were unable to attend. Therefore, we had to shorten the length of the conference from two days to one and cut the number of sessions by half. However, the conference turned out better than expected.

From the feedback from the participants we learnt that the length of the conference (including the length of talks, breaks, etc.) worked well. Furthermore, the platforms used (Microsoft Teams, Slack, Slido) were really useful and the attendees found the conference was worth attending. Nonetheless, most of them, given the opportunity to choose, would prefer an in-person meeting instead of a virtual one.

Fingers-crossed for the 2021 Student-led Conferences!

28Aug/20

Pros and cons of attending virtual GRADnet summer school

This year’s summer school at Herstmonceux Castle was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. GRADnet in collaboration with Skillfluence was swiftly able to offer the Careers Accelerator Online Masterclass in August.

A Southampton final year PhD student gives his perspective on attending both and the pros and cons.

Why I decided to attend the Careers Accelerator Online Masterclass: As I am coming to the end of my 3rd year as a theory PhD from the University of Southampton theory group I now have a little over a year left of my PhD. I am now looking at what to pursue post my PhD. I had little to no idea what I want to pursue as a career and I was interested in the Skillfluence online course as it covered a lot of different aspects of choosing a career and how to transition into work in industry successfully.

How was this year’s online masterclass?: The course was very enjoyable and gave a good introduction to a lot of different aspects to consider when finishing a PhD and starting a non-academic career. Some parts such as the importance of networking and how best to prepare a presentation of a task for an interview were things I had not considered in so much depth and the course covered them well. I also enjoyed the regular Q&A sessions with employers as it gave me the opportunity to ask the exact questions I wanted to ask and get more information as they were former SEPnet PhD students. This included the relevance of Graduate Schemes for PhD graduates and the role/importance of coding for different sectors. I would definitely recommend the online course for the future if GRADnet offer it in 2021 due to the current coronavirus restrictions.

Physical summer school versus virtual: I attended the 2018 SEPnet summer school at Herstmonceux Castle at the end of my first year as I felt at the time it was good to explore all these options early in my PhD when I had fewer commitments and more ‘free-time’ as it were. Given the Careers Accelerator Online Masterclass was so different as it was online as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, I felt it was worth attending as being closer to the end of my PhD, there were different questions I wanted ask employers this time around.

There are pros and cons to hosting the course online and ‘in-person’ (for want of a better term). Attending the course in person gave me a better opportunity to meet other young PhD students and network and also it was exciting to stay at Herstmonceux Castle with the Observatory Science Centre on the doorstep. As the in-person conference was over several days the amount of time working on the subject of careers was a lot more intense than the weekly 1.5 hour sessions of the online course. However, as the online course was spread over four weeks I found it gave me the opportunity to really focus during the 1.5 hour sessions and also read through the online material on the Skillfluence learning platform at my own pace and remain focused.

Given the online courses were ‘attended’ at my PC it also meant that I could complete assignments and joint tasks using my PC which I feel is probably more relevant to actual interview preparation and general careers-related tasks.

I feel both are definitely worth attending and I have encouraged my younger PhD colleagues to attend the SEPnet professional skills schools in their first year if they can.

26Aug/20

Turning a negative into a positive!

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic this year’s GRADnet summer school in July at Herstmonceux Castle was cancelled. I was hugely disappointed as it had taken over six months of planning and organising the 4-day programme with employer-led workshops and talks.

I was determined to offer our final year PhD students an alternative with interactive online activities. By chance during lockdown I attended a webinar delivered by Skillfluence on “turning science into business”. I saw an opportunity to collaborate with Skillfluence and provide an innovative and novel online course over four weeks in August via Zoom: the GRADnet Careers Accelerator Online Masterclass!

From my employer network I invited former SEPnet PhD students with amazing careers and from diverse backgrounds to participate in this live online event and provide career path videos as a resource on the learning platform.  The course included interactive sessions:  Be a problem solver – learn how to ace interview challenges!; Understanding and communicating your value to industry; Your network is your net worth; an industry challenge on “the future of space travel” and a live careers panel.

One panellist said they were delighted to participate because the panel included “some fascinating guests” and they “really enjoyed listening to what they had to say” as they had “such cool jobs!”.

Over 60 postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers registered for the masterclass which is great engagement during these challenging and uncertain times.

Thank you to the employers: 4-Delta Group; Airbus; BBC R&D; Deloitte; GEOptic; InCrowd Sports; Kindred Group; NPL; QinetiQ; Reaction Engines and Santander and last but not least Zach Sorrells and his team at Skillfluence.

Cristobel Soares
SEPnet Graduate Network Manager

18Jun/20

Careers Accelerator Online Masterclass – Register Now!

Who: SEPnet Physics-related PhD students and postdoctoral researchers.  Free to attend.

Where: 4 live online sessions (1.5 hours per session) via Zoom

When: 11:00 on Tuesdays, 4th, 11th, 18th and 25 August 2020 (Attendance required at all 4 sessions)

Numbers: 45

GRADnet is pleased to announce a live online workshop series to explore opportunities beyond your PhD to widen your future career options.

There will be four sessions looking at what’s important to PhD graduates and postdocs now:

  • Opportunities for physical sciences in industry: Find out what’s important to industry, what industry relevant skills physics-related PhD graduates possess and how to articulate your research, skills and experience to add value to a future employer and to give you the edge/impact.
  • Be a problem solver – learn how to ace interview challenges: Learn how to demonstrate your problem-solving capability to potential employers. Practise delivering tangible solutions under time pressures and learn specifically what employers are looking for when hiring PhDs.
  • Understanding and communicating your value to industry: Understand and convey what you can offer business and industry. Develop a pitch to a company you would like to work for, articulating your research, skills and experience and how you can add value to that employer.
  • Connecting with industry: Actively explore different possibilities and better understand the steps/actions you need to take to achieve your next-step career goals.

Preparatory Work: Each module will include maximum of 1 hour (video, audio, reading, writing, thinking, etc.)

Live Session Online: 4 live online masterclasses (1.5 hours each) delivered in coordination with Skillfluence, SEPnet team and industry
partners.

Application: Apply key concepts from the preparatory work and live sessions. This may be individual activity and/or small group work following the masterclass. Maximum of 1 hour per participant.

Register here: (places limited to 45 participants)

Registration deadline: 13 July 2020

Industry partners: 4-Delta Group, Airbus, BBC, Deloitte, Formula-E, GEOptic, Kindred Group, National Physical Laboratory, Reaction Engines and WP Thompson.

28Feb/20

Benefits of attending a GRADnet Winter School as an ECR!

An ECR  from the University of Portsmouth recently attended the GRADnet Winter School, 17-19 February 2020 at Cumberland Lodge and highlights the benefits of attending:

“I attended the GRADnet Winter School at Cumberland Lodge, which was focused on developing soft skills like communication, management, leadership and team dynamics/structure.  As a postdoc I found the school to be useful, particularly in helping me to reflect on my own behaviour and approach to research projects. I work in a field where project teams range from a handful of people to teams of hundreds, so being able to better assess my own performance and that of the teams I work in will be valuable to me.

We covered a wide range of skills and topics. Although as a postdoc I have had many opportunities to practice some of these, such as presentation skills, I found it beneficial to cover all of the subjects within a relaxed and supportive environment. As a result, I will feel more confident taking on leadership roles in the future. In addition, the school was a fantastic networking opportunity allowing me to mix with other ECRs and the session leaders from across the South East.”

If you are a SEPnet ECR and have considered attending either the GRADnet Winter or Summer School, you are very welcome to sign up.  Look out for our 2020-21 GRADnet Training Programme which will be published in September.

20Feb/20

Selfie Shoot and Spaghetti Challenge at GRADnet Winter School

The GRADnet winter school took place on 17-19 February 2020 at Cumberland Lodge, Great Park Windsor for SEPnet postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers.

This 3-day residential course was designed by Mark Horner, Performance Pathways to develop essential skills for successful collaboration including motivation and management of both self and others.

Delegates built spaghetti and marshmallows structures to develop an understanding of team dynamics.  L-R:  Callum Grove, University of Surrey; Caitlin Walsh, RHUL; Dr Brianna Smart, University of Hertfordshire; Yannick Kluth, University of Sussex and Leon Schoonderwoerd, University of Kent.

The “Selfie Orienteering Project” involved 5 teams running around the Great Park Windsor, taking selfies at 20 key points armed with a map and description of the key points. Delegates had 20 minutes to plan their strategy and route.

Selfie at the “Twisted Tree” from the top:  Shing-Cheung Lee, Dr Giovanni Mirouh, Gabriele Parisi, University of Surrey; Benjamin Man, University of Sussex and Florence Roberts, RHUL.

Part of the programme included a real non-technical challenge from BlueOptima, who monitor software development productivity, quality and cost to understand global positioning.  Delegates had to convince, pitch and present their solution to the challenge.

Congratulations to the winners of the BlueOptima challenge. L-R: Mark Horner , Performance Pathways with Dr Andrew Williamson, University of Portsmouth; Duy Bui, BlueOptima; Giri Man, RHUL; Stephanie Biddlecombe and Matt Brunet, University of Surrey.

Attendees welcomed the opportunity to meet potential employers and pick up employability skills. Dr Joe Allen, RBA Acoustics and Jenika Karsan, 4most, gave insightful advice on transitioning from academia into industry.

Delegates enjoyed networking with people from other institutions and said the event was “fun, informative, helpful and enjoyable!”

The next Winter School will be15-17 February 2021 at Cumberland Lodge.

27Jan/20

Students learn how to commercialise their research at Turning Science into Business Workshop

In collaboration with the National Physical Laboratory, SEPnet and Julia Shalet, Product Doctor,  a highly interactive and enjoyable two-day workshop was held in December 2019 for postgraduate researchers at Bushy House in Teddington.

The mission was to practise a commercial way of thinking and see how ideas arising from science can be turned into viable business propositions. Working with real case studies, delegates wrote hypotheses, identified their riskiest assumptions, wrote questions they needed answers to, thought through how to find customers to ask, set measures for their responses, practised conducting interviews and worked through how to analyse research output.

Delegates were then asked to map the whole business up using a tool called the Business Model Canvas (from Strategyser) to see how to create sustainable business models.

Linden Fradet, University Liaison Manager at NPL invited Mason Rowbottom, a PhD student living and breathing the experience of making a business out of his research ideas.  Mason gave delegates an insight into how he has co-founded several companies in 3D printing while doing his PhD at the University of Sheffield.

Participants said the event was: “very informative and practical”; “interactive with useful tools”; “very clear, concise delivery of all the business elements” and “a very useful introduction to business… great networking…”

Prof Sean Ryan, SEPnet Executive Director, said: “the event ran extremely well, with all participants scoring it higher than 8/10 and five participants giving it full marks at 10/10.  SEPnet has worked with Julia on several similar but shorter events before.  This was the first time we used a two-day format and that seemed to work very well as it gave more time for participants to apply what they were learning at each step to their case studies; time to learn from critique given to other groups and it meant that they had a chance to practise and improve on their own research interview skills.”

SEPnet looks forward to collaborating again with NPL and Product Doctor in the next academic year.

20Jan/20

GRADnet Machine Learning & AI Workshop: Great interactive sessions!

The GRADnet Machine Learning and AI workshop was attended by over 40 PGRs and postdocs on 15-16 January 2020 at QMUL in Mile End Road, London.

Delegates were interested in learning about AI and ML techniques and the potential ways they can be implemented in their own research.  The diversity of talks and tutorials was welcomed by everyone and the support available from all the speakers.

“Data wrangling was great because we got to learn how to use R, Python, SQL” ; “hands-on tutorials and exercises with support were the best aspects of the programme” and “speakers were engaging” were some of the comments from delegates.

SEPnet would like to thank all the speakers and QMUL staff who contributed in making this workshop a success and thank you QMUL for hosting the event.

Joe Davies, PGR at QMUL who kindly ran one of the sessions said: My first time running my own tutorial/talk using my own coding examples and it went so well! Managed to get people finding pulsars using Machine Learning and had such an interesting discussion afterwards #datascience #machinelearning #GRADnet” .  See here for further information.

GRADnet would like to offer this workshop again as part of their training programme in 2020-21 as many PGRs are interested in data science as a career.

Dr Adrian Bevan, Deputy Director of the Institute of Applied Data Science, QMUL introducing Dr Alkistis Pourtsidou, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow and Reader in Cosmology, QMUL,  before her talk on “Reinforcement Learning”.

 

 

 

 

 

05Sep/19

Physics outreach project nominated for Times Higher Education Award

A Queen Mary outreach project which takes physics research into schools has been nominated for a Times Higher Education Award 2019.

The School of Physics and Astronomy’s ‘Physics Research in School Environments’ (PRiSE) programme is shortlisted for the Widening Participation and Outreach Initiative of the Year for the event known as the ‘Oscars of higher education’.

The award will go to the most imaginative and innovative project that promotes diversity and encourages people from non-traditional backgrounds to enter higher education or extends the reach of the institution to new areas of activity.

PRiSE enables underrepresented students across London to experience cutting-edge particle and astrophysics through 6-month-long independent research projects.

As part of the programme students and teachers receive introductory workshops and school visits from researchers, helping them undertake a piece of research which they then present at a conference held at Queen Mary. Around 30 schools take part every year.

It has overwhelmingly built students’ confidence in science, developing skills not typically encountered within school, and has had lasting impacts on their physics and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) aspirations.

The programme has also resulted in a peer-reviewed paper, with student co-authors who successfully identified sounds caused by solar storm.

Dr Martin Archer, PRiSE project lead from Queen Mary’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “I have been developing PRiSE over the past five years and it’s been wonderful to not only see the long-term effects these projects are having on young people and their teachers. For this to be recognised nationally through the nomination is utterly fantastic”

PRiSE has developed teachers’ practice through the relationships forged with Queen Mary. As a result, teachers develop new lesson content, skills and mentoring; gain confidence in discussing research; and share students’ work raising their school’s STEM profile.

It is also informing the sector, with SEPnet and Ogden Trust adopting it into their strategies, Royal Society recommending it to their teacher network, and USA’s National Oceanic and Space Administration encouraging other researchers internationally to adopt it, with take-up from some universities already.

THE editor John Gill said: “I am delighted to say that the ‘Oscars of higher education’ go from strength to strength. With 23 categories this year, we’re also showcasing more exceptional stories than ever before, and it’s a real honour for us to shine a spotlight on all those who have made it as far as these shortlists – their stories deserve much wider circulation.”

These are the 15th annual THE Awards, and the first to feature a range of categories covering all university activity under one banner – excellence will be recognised both in academia and across the professional services.

The Awards ceremony is the biggest night of celebration in the UK HE calendar, and will take place at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in London on Thursday 28 November 2019.

A student presents his poster at the PRiSE student conference