From idea to project

Although the Newton Bhabha Fund workshop on Clean Energy Research for Rural India is now over there are still a few outstanding posts I want to complete. Our plan is to turn these into a guide for others running these kinds of workshops once we’ve given the participants a few weeks to settle back into their usual routines. Today’s post looks at the theme we covered on day 4 of the workshop when we looked out the resources which facilitating turning ideas into projects.

Clearly a significant factor here is the availability of funding, but we also heard from Stuart Govan, from the Royal Society of Chemistry which co-funded the workshops with the British Council. I’m going to comeback to some of the points that Stuart made in a future post, but to be efficient, here is a link to his slides from the workshop which make it clear how many benefits there are to being an engaged and active member of a professional learned society.

Again, we recognised that the expertise on this topic lay in the group rather than solely with the organisers, so we gave a brief introduction to the general  funding and opportunity map  as we know it in the UK (with a healthy warning that this is currently in a state of flux). This presentation was based on others I’ve previously given in funding workshops but didn’t focus on international development research opportunities. For this we handed over to the group, first creating 5 headings for them to cluster their knowledge of funding schemes :

  • visits and exchanges
  • proof of concept/initial studies/seed funding
  • workshops and networks
  • project funding
  • programme funding

The group produced a wealth of information from both the UK and India. Finding links for all the schemes is going to take some time, but here are a few key funders.

UKIERI – the UK India Education Research Initiative

The Universities themselves  – almost all of those represented at the workshop from both UK and Indian institutions had internal funds which were available for visits.

RCUK – the UK’s cluster of research funding councils have a range of schemes. Coincidentally, the BBSRC launched its India Partnering calls today.

Indian Council of Social Science Research

Although currently closed, the SAGES/PECRE funds from the Scottish Funding Council were mentioned.

Participants were also encouraged to use the “Pathways to Impact” section of RCUK proposals to cost visits and exchanges if international development was a relevant impact area.

Another Indian funder mentioned was the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

I’m just scratching the surface here of the schemes and funders that the group were aware of – the point is that there is a significant and flexible funding landscape but it is complex – for many schemes you will need partners, so a good starting place is to attend workshops (such as ours) and to ask these questions of your fellow attendees.

For our group the next steps will be a mix of student exchanges, visits and proof of concept funding. If you are interested in engaging with this kind of research, Newton Bhabha (and other Newton Fund iteration) workshop are a great starting point. In the next blog I’ll look at how our attendees became aware of the workshop and why they chose to attend.



The Groan Zone

Our Newton Bhabha Fund workshop (remember, we’re tweeting about the workshop using #CERRI) was carefully planned with the challenges of international development in mind. We began with a trip to rural villages, spent a day debriefing the visit and ensuring everyone understood the ethos of this type of funding. On the third day, when we stimulated idea generation, we spent the morning listening to people who had a wealth of experience linked to our theme of clean energy and rural India. Then it was time to see what this had prompted from our group.

The night before we did an initial “brain dump” in mixed groups so that people could share initial ideas and I encouraged them to be as creative and open as possible. In planning the workshop, we had in mind a framework for the week. At first we would broaden the perspectives of the participants through the visits and early discussions. In the second half of the week we would try to guide them to find a focus and begin to develop some project ideas. (This is explained as part of an interesting blog on Design Thinking and Social Innovation from Elon University.) When I explained the idea to the workshop PI, I added in an area at the point when you switch from Divergent to Convergent thinking – the “Groan Zone”.


I happily introduced this model and told everyone that we expected them to be uncomfortable and that it was fine and all part of the process. We then asked them to start thinking about what their initial ideas were and asked them to put them onto post-it notes so we could find clusters and overlaps.

The ideas flowed – we quickly filled the wall with possibilities. We merrily grouped them into themes and then stood back. People began to cluster and started to develop their ideas into project outlines with enthusiasm. And all the organisers and guest watched with discomfort, as we realised that despite the exposure to the village environment and a morning of hearing from experts, the group had instantly fallen back into their comfort zone. The projects that were emerging were solution led. The board of ideas was polarised into science problems and social science problems. One of the participants noticed this and everyone agreed that it wasn’t why we were here, but people hesitated to move.

A couple of our speakers intervened and said that the research had to start with the need. They stressed that the need was usually caused by complex, overlapping issues which weren’t respecters of disciplines. They urged the group to go back and start with the need of the villagers and communities.

To help, Neil quickly drafted a set of questions:

  • Who are you helping?
  • What is your impact?
  • How will you do this?
  • How will you communicate and engage people in your project?

Everyone went back to their ideas. Slowly, and with some inital difficulty, the need became the priority. The projects were set to one side as the group used the expertise of the guests and the personal experience of village life in the room to deepen their understanding of the need. We nudged one or two groups to take a look at their constituents – we’d noticed that one was devoid of social scientists and another had only one physical scientist. In one of my favourite moments of the workshop so far, a social scientist was “kidnapped” by one group who needed her skills and perspectives. We finished the day with a quick overview of each project and suddenly we started to get excited about what was emerging. Clearly these ideas have the potential to grow in proposals so I won’t share details here but they are now strongly aligned with the principles driving GCRF.

I wanted to write the post about our “near-miss” because there is so little information about the workshop running process that it can be easy to think that they all run like clockwork. We are spoilt here by having someone (me!) who’s only focus is the workshop facilitation and it was still challenging to work out how to intervene and to understand what had caused the slight deviation from the path we’d tried to set up.



I think what happened is that the complexity of the rural environment is such that we all felt a little overwhlemed by the scale of the challenge. Faced with so many unknowns, people retreated a little from the “groan zone” into the comfort of their expertise and disciplines.


img_5143The problem with this is that the really beautiful ideas were past this point. We pushed the group out of their comfort zones and better ideas emerged. I’ll be honest about how surprised I was that this didn’t happen naturally, but it’s important to share this to give future workshop leaders an insight so they can look out for the same moment with their groups.


Some advice is to “shine a light” onto the idea generation and development process regularly in the early stages. We had three separate whole group idea sharing slots so we picked up on the limitations of the early projects quickly. We got everyone to put all their ideas onto the wall (using post-its) so the clustering of ideas around disciplines was immediately evident. Neil and the guest experts kept sitting in with the groups whilst the ideas were forming to challenge and guide them. Without these interventions it would have been difficult to spot the issues.

Overnight, the ideas have developed and new ones have emerged. There are now six ideas in development and they are all truly needs-led so the principles of ODA-compliance are embedded from the start. (In the next post I’ll talk a little about the ODA compliance that we discussed as well as sharing some of the resources we’ve found to fund the network and ideas in future.)

Today the group are expanding on their ideas and we’ve given them some new questions for guidance:

  • What are the gaps in the idea/stakeholders or team’s skills base?
  • What are your first steps?
  • Who needs to be involved?
  • What resources will you need?
  • What else is happening in this space? (Do an initial literature search)

Tomorrow is our final day. The focus will be on building ownership of potential projects so everyone leaves with a clear plan and we’ll also think about the best strategies for maintaining the network. And I may cry a little as this has been a very special experience.


Time and Space – collaboration seeds

This post comes from the beautiful campus of IISER, Pune where we are running the Newton-Bhabha Fund workshop this week. After travelling for 20 hours we arrived in darkness so this afternoon ( we were asleep all morning as the transition from UK to India time is in progress…) was our first chance to look around.  After a quick check of the training rooms we’ll be using later in the week (which are perfect) a few of the early arrivals took a wander around the campus and a conversation in one of the coffee bars prompted today’s post.

Cricket on campus at IISER, Pune. Photo by Sara

IISER, Pune is a campus based institute with accommodation so it’s reasonable to expect that there will be people around at the weekend, but we came for coffee in one of the academic buildings. We may return to the topic of working hours later in the week when I write up some reflections on the various facets of cultural difference which a workshop like ours will throw up.  Aside from this, what struck me was the contrast with an afternoon earlier in the week when I attempted to get a coffee on our Kings Buildings campus. There are a number of cafes but it took three attempts to find one which was willing to serve me at the totally unreasonable time of 3.45pm on a Tuesday. The restrictions on catering when the undergraduates leave reduce the opportunities to meet people from other schools and institutes either by chance or design.

I don’t have anything against departmental cafes. I “grew up” in one which had its own tea-room open for 2 hours a day. This restriction meant that during these times, the whole community mixed – students, researchers, academics, technicians and administrators. I still maintain that the loss of said tearoom was instrumental in the closure of that department some years later and it must have had a pretty instant impact on communication between different communities.

The common thread between these two reflections is that with a small investment of time and a dedicated space which isn’t someone’s office, it’s possible to have a different kind of conversation. Getting to know someone in broader terms than their research interests will help you make decisions about working with them (and in some cases the type of person they are can be a more important consideration than the skills they bring.)

The coffee room we found here was in a building shared by Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology and there were a number of groups chatting and working together. Our tea-time (chai-time?) conversation began with an inevitable winge about access to catering out of undergraduate term time, then overlapped with a chat about new university buildings and sites and the migration of departments to new locations. Both of these situations link to our theme this week because a lack of shared social space and the geographical isolation of part of a university’s community are both detrimental to developing new links and collaborations because they take away chances for us to gently get to know people who are different from us.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, the programme for the workshop includes a lot of time where the attendees will be discussing ideas and developing possibilities. We’ve kept invited speakers to a minimum for a five day workshop and selected those who can also provide a mentoring role whilst they are with us. As well as allowing the participants to talk about their research interests, we’re also trying to create a relaxed and open atmosphere where more wide-reaching topics are covered. An initial decision to have an evening programme of formal activities is currently on hold – our hope is that we won’t need to nudge people into finding things to talk about and that our problem will be ensuring they get enough rest!

The projects that are likely to develop from the connections made this week will be complex and challenging. Success will depend on many factors, but those involved are only likely to commit to this challenge if they trust the people they’ll be working with. Building trust takes time. Isn’t just about complementary skills and experience, more about finding common ground whether in terms of interests, values or outlooks to life. These things can’t be expressed in a 2 minute introduction in the way people will describe their research at the start of the week. We need time and space to discover new people and then more time and space to decide if they are a good match and balance for us before we invest even more time and space in building links.

I’m not naïve about the complexity and tensions involved in estates planning and aren’t suggesting that decisions are made with the objective of undermining collaboration. Everything is a compromise in university management, but this week I’ve been aware that the seeds of future projects lie as much in the random conversation about university cafes that close at 3pm (and where that takes us) as they will in the conversations about whether your data and my methodology are complementary. When we meet for dinner later I suspect much of the chat will be about the journeys we’ve had here and what attracted us to the workshop and in listening to people’s stories we’ll start to get a sense of their attitudes to life.

Here are some facets of peoples’ outlooks which may emerge in these general ice-breaking chats.

Attitudes to risk – are you someone who always see the problems and potential disaster around every corner or do you generally accept that everything will be ok and even if it goes wrong you’ll probably work out a solution?

Attitudes to rules – is it all about doing things the right way with tried and tested procedures that are familiar, or getting to the right end point whilst not worrying too much about what path is taken?

Attitudes to other disciplines – are you interested in other topics and open to developing research ideas which are influenced by others (do you welcome trespassers?) or do you want to do more with your own research in partnerships where everyone has a defined roles (and doesn’t cross the fence)?

So, if you aren’t priviledged enough to come to a Newton Fund workshop (and a post later in the week will explore why people do), try to find a little time this week to talk to someone different and let them get to know you. My conversations in the last few months have brought me around the world. Where might yours take you?

Sharing expertise – briefing the speakers

An important part of any workshop which seeks to inspire emerging research leaders to do great things are the messages from more established researchers. We have invited a range of speakers to the Newton Fund workshop running in Pune, India this week  and this blogs will explain how we briefed them as well as sharing some of the insights I’ve gained from watching previous speakers at collaborative building events.

Photo by cohdra ( at MorgueFile

The first step is to make it clear that the event is not like other research conferences or meetings. The audience does not sit relatively passively through each day, engaging with the speaker through questions and breaks, but largely sitting and listening. On this programme the attendees will spend a significant proportion of their time developing links, exploring ideas and developing projects. Given that these projects will be both interdisciplinary, involve far distant collaborators and have an international development focus, and that each of these aspects presents additional challenges, one role of the invited speakers is to ensure that researchers learn as much as they can about how to manage these kinds of projects, as well as being inspired by what others have done.

We’ve therefore briefed the speakers in a different way, making it clear to them that the “how” is the focus whilst the “what” provides context, and also asking them to stay with us for an entire day and provide mentoring during the initial idea generation stage. We’ve also asked all the guest speakers to complete the same summary slides as the participants (as described in the previous post where you can download our template) and added these to the course booklet.

This is an excerpt from the email Neil sent to the guest speakers:

The aims of the workshop are to bring together a variety of physical and social scientists from India and from the UK to stimulate new ideas and to build new connections in rural energy research. The talk/discussion on the 6th is an opportunity for the participants to learn from some experts who have already worked on successful projects in rural India. So for your contribution, I would suggest the following…

(i) Basic description of a prior project or projects you have worked on

(ii) Select and highlight whatever you think is most important from the following points: insight into practical considerations, unexpected pitfalls, learning from failures, things you would like to have known before starting, what kind of people are needed in a successful team and how do you build that team, how to get funding, other important points.

(iii) Answering questions and discussion.

My suggestion would be to keep (i) and (ii) to around 20 – 30 minutes maximum so that there is plenty time for (iii). It’s difficult to know in advance exactly what the group will be most interested in, hence making sure there is plenty of time for questions and discussion. Clearly some outline of the project itself is important to set the context and give an example of what can be achieved, however the participants will be particularly looking for ideas and insight that they can use in their own project ideas. This means that generic issues that might be relevant to any project will be of particular interest.

The number of external expert speakers that day now looks to be five. As well as the presentations/discussions from the experts, we also plan to include you in some of the ongoing project idea generation so that the participants can benefit from your insights and feedback on their own ideas. We would therefore hope that could join us for the full day.

My plan is to write a post based on the advice and expertise we hear next Wednesday and I’m really looking forward to learning about international development themed research as well as gaining some insights into the research culture in India. I can’t exaggerate how influential an experienced researcher can be when they give honest and constructive advice tailored for researchers who are just starting to collaborate or lead projects.

As an example, this is a blog on confusion I wrote in my previous role about a talk from Professor Barry Smith  at Welsh Crucible, where he spoke about leadership in collaborations in his capacity as the AHRC‘s Leadership Fellow for the theme of Science and Culture. Barry’s insights have subsquently inspired me to develop a workshop on this theme which I’ve run repeatedly. Although Barry’s talk stands out for me as we are talking about collaboration, I’ve heard from many, many researchers over the years on this theme and distilled some of their wisdom elsewhere into advice on first steps in collaboration.

The next blog post will hopefully come from Pune as we get ready to start the workshop!

Building connections – briefing the participants

As part of the series of blogs documenting the Newton Fund workshop I’m involved in, today we’re looking at how we’ve briefed the speakers who will be visiting the event and the participants who will be introducing themselves at the start of the workshop. As I’ve written this it’s expanded beyond a single blog so I’ll start with the participant introductions and add in the speaker briefing later.

Photo by Sam Hakes ( at

This is a critical part of the preparation for the workshop as the energy and momentum we will need to make progress towards collaborative discussions will evaporate if everyone has to sit through lengthy and detailed descriptions of the minutiae of people’s research interests. With multi-disciplinary groups (as we will have) the purpose of the participant introductions is to provide an overview of skills, experience and interests that will accelerate the “getting to know you” stage and help us all start to see potential connections. I’ve seen these introductory presentations run at Crucible* events over many years and they work really effectively when the following principles are understood

  • Convey the essence of what you do in a single phrase (if you don’t control this, others will do it for you when they say “you should talk to the soil guy” or “the laser woman might be interested in this as well”)
  • Don’t make ANY assumptions about people’s understanding. LIDAR, ELISA and SSRI might roll off your tongue but they will either distract or disengage listeners from outside your field. (And don’t assume that disciplines far from yours are particularly guilty of this, whereas all the terms you use are in common parlance – you ALL do it and no, they mostly aren’t)
  • Similarly, make sure you explain your research so that those in other disciplines can see connections with their own work. Even better, talk about what limitations could be overcome through collaboration and how your work might be of value in partnerships.
  • No-one can cope with more than about 45 minutes of introductions, so stick to the time you’ve been given, however challenging that is. You might think that it won’t hurt to overrun by a minute or so, but the accumulation of these will eat time allocated for other things AND your audience may not take kindly to you ignoring the instruction that they followed.
  • Be as visual as you can. People generally remember pictures and schematics rather than text. If you need to animate a diagram or scheme, you can, but…
  • Don’t put too much information on your slide/s. If you’ve been asked to introduce yourself using a single slide that’s because this is the level of detail we want to hear. It’s not an invitation to use 12 font and cram every corner.
  • Be enthusiastic about your research – I’ve put this as a final point but it is the MOST important aspect. If you love what you do and think it is vital, then that energy will be evident and people will invest their own energy and time in you. If you appear to barely be able to get out of bed to talk about it, some might think twice. This doesn’t mean you have to jump around like a children’s entertainer – just let us see how much your work matters to you.

The introduction that you give at events like this is very different from talks you might give at conferences or seminars. To help our participants deliver the type of introduction we think the event needs, we’ve put together a slide template which we sent in advance. If you are organising this kind of event, we’d recommend you do the same and we’re happy to share our template here.

Newton Fund Edinburgh IISER intro slide template

To help people start to prepare for the workshop we’ve collated all these slides in advance and they form the heart of the workshop booklet which was circulated electronically in advance. Printed copies will be available when we arrive so people can annotate as they listen to the introductions and we hope the conversations will flow!

Promote yourself

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Pavel Iosad and Warren Maguire at

A crucial part of research involves promoting yourself. Self-promotion in academia can allow you to gain recognition for your work, increase your research impact, secure funding and create networks in your field. Self-promotion can be difficult for postdocs because of the power difference between them and their PI, they may be relatively new to the field, have few connections and working on a relatively isolated project.

The ways to promote yourself varies depending on discipline and country, so you need to understand what is acceptable and won’t come across as obnoxious. The best way to do this is to talk to people in your department – ask them how they got on a review panel and how they were invited to give a talk. In this post, I suggest some steps you can take to promote yourself.

In your department

The first step you should take is to make sure everyone in your department knows what you are researching. If your department does weekly lunchtime seminars, this is a great way to get your name out there and tell people what you are doing. You are also likely to get asked questions and be given feedback, which may be very useful.

Also, if you do a task for someone else, own up to it. Put your name on it if you can. This will ensure you are recognised for your work in your department.

Staff Quote:

Recognise your achievements…The perfect postdoc would have the fawning admiration of all her peers, but the real world doesn’t work like that. In academia, you can’t expect your colleagues to magically divine the amount of effort you’ve put in to something. If you receive a compliment, say thank you, but never be afraid to take ownership of your work.” (Postdoc Researcher at the University of Edinburgh’s Veterinary School).

Outside of your department

Conferences are a great way to raise your profile and make sure people know about your research. Networking at these events may provide you with new contacts with people who are interested in your work.

Giving talks at different institutions is also a great way to get your name out there. Ideally, you’ll be invited to give a talk, but this is uncommon unless you have had a few major papers. It might be appropriate to mention that you are interested in giving talks to your PI, as they may recommend you for talks they have been invited to but can’t attend.

Use you connections. If you are spending a few days in a city for a conference, ask someone in a local university whether they’d like you to talk. It’s unlikely that they will say no (departments are always looking for cheap speakers and they may even pay for your accommodation).

I’m aware that these methods all involve you ‘putting yourself out there’, which may be a nightmare for some people. Social media is also a great way to increase your online visibility inside and beyond your department. It can be useful to:

  • Make new networks and communicate with someone instantly
  • Collaborate internationally
  • Feel less isolated
  • Get your next job
  • Maintain networks and connections

An increasing number of researchers have their own websites including their current projects, research interests, CV and description. If someone googles your name, this would be the site that comes up first. It’s also important to ensure that your details on LinkedIn profile and your institution’s website are up to date.

If you use social media, make sure you make it very clear which sites are professional and personal. On your professional account, tell people about your current research and share new ideas. For example, the photo above shows how two linguistics researchers at the University of Edinburgh are using twitter to allow the public/students/other researchers to engage with their research. Social media is being used to promote research, so you should too. Some social media platforms will also allow you to receive comments, which people can use to give feedback and mention further ideas.

Blog by Andy Miah at LSE Top 5 social media platforms for research development

I hope this post made you think about what you have done so far to promote yourself and what you can do now to broaden your networks and increase your impact. Next week is the last week of my internship, so I’ll give you an overview of the exciting things I’ve been doing over the past 10 weeks!

Postdoc transitions



Photo by Abby Shovlin at

This week, I have been developing a new resource for new postdoc staff to guide their transition. This includes links to practical information along with a ‘transition guide’ to encourage a smooth and reflective transition to Edinburgh. Here I will go through some of the background literature that helped me structure and design the resource.

Transitioning into postdoc positions are particularly interesting due to the variety of different paths getting here (e.g. traditional academic path or coming from industrial/clinical/teaching positions) and the varied nature of the postdoc positions themselves (independent research vs. PI’s project and different levels of teaching/supervision). These differences mean that postdoc transitions are a personal and unique journey.

This need for individualised transition support has also been highlighted in research investigating student transitions from school/college to an undergraduate degree. For example, as part of the Scottish Higher Education enhancement themes, Abby Shovlin (Academic Transitions Advisor at IAD) developed a 5 element model for student transitions. This workshop was very successful as 96% of the students found it helpful or very helpful.

On top of this individual support, postdoc transitions should focus on ways to allow researchers to grow and succeed in their position. According to Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2002), there are three requirements to achieve this:

  1. Competence: feeling able to successfully complete tasks and fulfil goals. This is crucial for people to overcome insecurity, make risks and develop in their career.
  2. Relatedness: feeling connected to others
  3. Autonomy: ‘being the perceived origin or source of one’s own behaviour’

New postdocs in Edinburgh may not feel competent straight away. To increase competence, postdocs need to:

  • Have easy access to practical information (e.g. where things are who can support them)
  • Be aware of workshops, training and support to develop skills
  • Clearly understand the expectations and goals of their PI and the planned timeline/outcomes of their project

To facilitate relatedness, postdocs need to be learn about the people around them and get involved in activities in Edinburgh (e.g. peer support, sport, social events and department seminars). This also involves combatting issues such as overworking and insecurity, as they may prevent staff from engaging in activities.

Gaining autonomy requires researchers to feel as if they are following their own research interests and values (e.g., they are researching something because they want to). This is more difficult for the transition guide to address because postdocs will have already applied for their research position, which usually states the research project. However, taking control of their career will help gain autonomy (e.g. by thinking about what they aim to get out of their postdoc and how they will achieve this)

From this research and feedback from postdoc staff, I have begun to develop a three-step model for postdoc transitions. This aims to be relevant for all new postdocs/ early research staff at the university, but is likely to be particularly useful for people beginning their first postdoc. The steps are:

  1. Learning

This section aims to increase competence and relatedness. By learning about the working environment, project and institution, they will gain awareness of what is expected of them. Also, by reflecting on discrepancies between their prior-expectations and their experiences in the position, they can identify issues that they should find support to resolve and skills they can improve by attending training/workshops.

Learning about their principal investigator and networks in Edinburgh will increase a sense of relatedness.

2. Working

This is based on an element of the undergraduate model: reflecting on your own assumptions and own academic orientation. Reflecting on previous working habits, identifying whether any of these are unhealthy and learning some strategies that could help will allow staff to work sustainability.

Learning about the importance of work-life balance will also increase competence and productivity at work.

3. Developing

The focus of this section is autonomy. Thinking about how they can get the most out of their postdoc and work towards their next position will allow them to gain direction and focus.

By including these three requirements, I hope that this guide will be a succinct and user-friendly way for postdocs to reflect on their experiences and give them the tools to succeed in their postdoc!