Departmental Tea Rooms – A Silver Bullet?

Edinburgh Chemistry’s Wall of Purest Green

Last week, whilst talking about practical strategies to support researcher mental health, I faced a tricky question about what I would do to make things better. The question has been bouncing around my head and prompted reflections about my own time as a researcher and why there used to be less talk about stress. I suspect this is partly down to shifting attitudes which make it easier for us to talk about our mental health, but largely down to the fact that academia was a less stressful environment in the 80s and 90s. So much has changed in the 30 years since I started as an undergraduate, but when I consider the differences, one idea persists in my thinking. Much of the stress associated with research was dissipated because I worked and studied in a department with a tea room (Chemistry at Swansea University).

It’s surprising how often I come back to that tea room when I consider what would make things easier for researchers (collaboration, equality and mentoring are all facilitated by shared spaces). It was open from 10-11 and 3-4 each day and always busy in these times with PhD students, postdocs, technicians and academic staff. We all sat together and talked about all sorts of things – research problems, social activities, uncertainty about our futures, upcoming conferences, stories from demonstrating in labs, our successes and our failures. There was a strong community in the department and although we sat in the familiar silos of organic, inorganic, physical and analytical chemistry  we mixed thoroughly twice a day. As the only woman in my research group, it was also a fantastic way to connect with other women each day, eliminating any sense of isolation.

People noticed if you missed a few tea breaks and would often seek you out to check all was well. It was a place where you could be honest about problems which helped you prepare to discuss them with a supervisor. We were able to tap into each other’s expertise or just share the frustrations of research. We got used to seeing other people fail, then triumph – invaluable reminders of the fact this is part of the job when it was your research that started to falter. It gave us an identity – we were part of the Department of Chemistry.

The tea-room was closed not long after I left that department in the mid-90s – victim of changes to estate management that saw departments having to justify every square inch of floor space. The department gradually lost more space (the library went next) and eventually closed. I’m not claiming that the closure of the department was caused by the loss of the tea room, but I suspect it took a lot of the heart away and weakened the ties between people.

In most of our universities there is a space crisis and I suspect dedicated tea rooms are a rarity although there is a fantastic flexible, communal multi-purpose space in the School of Chemistry at Edinburgh (I hesitate to call it a tea room as they probably aren’t allowed anymore). As with most things related to inclusion, I can’t back up my claims about the benefits of tea rooms with any evidence, but a caffeine-supplemented common room was mentioned in the RSC report on inclusion written in 2004 (read page 4, the University of Utopia.).  It would be interesting to see if anyone reading this shares my views and has their own examples of the positive impact of these spaces.

Chemistry has now reopened at Swansea. I hope there’s a tea room.

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Walk in my shoes (or at least see my shoes)

As I mentioned in the last post, as part of our  Newton Bhabha Fund workshop, taking place in IISER, Pune  (remember, we’re tweeting about the workshop using #CERRI) we visited a number of rural villages to meet villagers, community leaders and officers from Maharashtra Arogya Mandal (MAM), an NGO. Yesterday we ran a debrief and Q&A session to help maximise the value of the visit and as part of this I asked the group to share the value the trip had had.

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Welcome, Maharashtra India

This is a short summary of those discussions. As the workshop goes on I’m sure the value will be felt in different ways, but for now here are the intial reactions. Please note that we only spent a few hours in the villages so no-one is claiming that we’ve got any depth of insight into the experiences of the villagers. However, even though we haven’t walked a mile in the shoes of the people we met, we have perhaps “seen their shoes”.

We asked these questions about the key influences of the visits:

  • what sights and conversations have had particular impact?
  • what key moments have changed or developed your thinking?

(People discussed this in groups so I’ve left the summaries in this format – I’m aware that some will need some clarification or expansion so I’ll add these as I get more information from the groups)

  • I’ve got a real picture of life in an Indian village
  • recognise the food-water-energy nexus
  • seen their low expectations from life
  • need for low cost and maintable technology
  • seen the gap between the rural schemes launched and how they are implemented
  • seen a lack of awarness and priority setting

 

  • importance of a holistic approach – need to blend technology + skills + business plan
  • importance of working with teachers and education
    • develop a proper syllabus on corruption
  • each village is different and one size will not fit all
  • can we find a fine balance between providing development in a culturally balanced way, yet still providing an acceptable minimum?
    • do we need to define a minimum acceptable “village standard”?
  • equity and participation (gender/caste etc)

 

  • awareness
  • demand driven technology
  • exploring opportunities for development
  • empowerments

 

  • to look at energy beyond electricity access
  • LPG stoves – differential adoption
  • villagers interviewing the researchers
  • lack of water for irrigation and sanitation
  • health situation and awareness

 

  • one graduate, religious festival
  • Chullahas
  • challenge for maintenance of tech
  • toilets (as store house)
  • self help groups

In the next post I’m going to share some of the advice we get from the experts who are coming along to the workshop to speak on day 3  (a previous post looked at how we briefed them.)

Rural Development and Cold Spaghetti

(If you’re mystified by the title of this post I explain it below.)

This blog is part of a series on the Newton Bhabha Fund workshop, taking place in IISER, Pune September 4-8th (we’re tweeting about the workshop using #CERRI)  On day one of the workshop we visited a number of rural villages to meet villagers, community leaders and officers from Maharashtra Arogya Mandal (MAM), an NGO. I’d like to take a moment here to thank Sagar Mitkari from MAM for his time on Monday explaining the role and history of his organisation and for helping to arrange the visit to the villages and the Muktangan Tribal Girls Hostel.

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You can read more about MAM here:

http://www.mam.org.in/

The connection with MAM and the visit was organised by Dr Priyadarshini Karve, one of the workshop organisers and the Director of Samuchit Enviro Tech. Priya’s additional role today was to help us to debrief the group, combine experiences (we split up to visited different villages and there is wider experience in the group of other parts of India) and help us begin the process of idea generation. The debrief was an essential part of the early stages of the workshop, as the village visits stimulated a lot of thinking but also some areas of confusion. We spent the afternoon with Priya identifying our new questions and taking advantage of her huge experience.

We split the group into three subgroups taking care to mix people from the four constituent groups on the course (UK/India/Social Science/Physical Science) and from the three visits. We worked for an hour on the following questions, then Priya answered the emerging questions.

  1. Broaden and Share your Perspectives (this was discussed in the groups)
    • within your group, what else do we know about rural India?
    • what do you think we need to know?
    • what was different about the villages visited yesterday?
    • …and what is different about other rural Indian places?
  2. Seek Clarification (this was the basis of discussion with Priya)
    • what is missing from your understanding?
    • what needs clarification or expansion?
  3.  Identify Key Influences (this was captured at the end to gauge the value of the visits)
    • what sights and conversations have had particular impact?
    • what key moments have changed or developed your thinking?

Rather than give a detailed overview of the problems and ambiguities identified I will select a few and share Priya’s advice. I’ll group some of the questions as they were covered with a single answer.

What do you see as the barriers?

The human element – they may say XYZ when they mean ABC. Problems which are categorised in one way may be something very different = social and economic barriers are easily confused (people can say they can’t afford something rather than admitting they are intimidated or uncomfortable with it). People need to have better understanding of the implications of their decisions (i.e. health impact of cooking with wood fires indoors). Superstitions are still influential, but mobile and television is building awareness of modern lifestyles.

How do we ensure things keep on working when India is changing so quickly? And what if our work impacts in others ways – perhaps by creating conditions which mean people are more likely to leave their villages?

There is rapid urbanisation which is affecting village communities but we also see reverse migration with people preferring to return to village life. Don’t think too much about the how specific individuals might act. Think about how whoever will be living in the village in the future – focus on creating liveable conditions. Also recalibrate your description of yourself – I moved from thinking of myself as someone in rural development to thinking about how I support people to deal with climate change using technology. This reframing can help you focus on what’s important. 

There’s so much diversity, even in the three relatively close villages we saw. How do we come up with ideas which can be widely applied?

Don’t try to – there will never be a single solution, but there is more scope to think in terms of a menu of options for people and to put effort into developing methodologies which will help people identify the right solutions or develop their own.

Why aren’t there more skills development programmes to help people use technology more effectively? Why don’t they use the skills they have to engage with technology? (This was prompted by a trip to a village which had broken technology but there were engineers in the village.)

Must take their aspirations into account. Sometimes programmes are offered but not taken because seen as low status – seen as poor relation to university degree or type of training available in cities. Once people are trained to be engineers and start being paid well for this, they are unwilling to work for nothing in the villages. Think about whether you would do your job for nothing when you get home from work…

There is a need for awareness raising, but in some cases there seems to be awareness but no change in behaviour. What can we do about this?

Villagers are people, just like us. We all know what we should do and what is good for us, but do we do it all the time? No! The same psychology applies. We stick with our habits and so do they. Don’t judge them.

Why do so few government schemes work?

They are conceived in Delhi, sent to state capitals, then to districts then to the block level. At this level they make decisions about what to do and then the village leaders decide how to implement. This is a long chain and the initial decision is far removed from the people affected. There can be social pressure from the villagers to keep the decisions on track, but incompetence and issues like caste will derail things.

Having said this there are examples of things being turned around in villages by people pressure. If word of this could spread, people might be inclined to apply similar pressure. Finding local champions who are respected and influential will also help. Teachers can be very powerful.

What is the energy consumption behaviour in the villages?

There is some data about this in limited projects – I’m involved in one to assess this and the way energy is imported and exported to and from the villages. Some of these studies have uncovered important information which show that villages create more wealth for India than they receive in support and benefits.

Shouldn’t we be tacking the bigger societal problems, particualrly around gender and caste inequalities? 

Although these have a negative impact on our work it would be a HUGE job to change them. You need to focus on what you can change and can do. I can’t see this or many other barriers going away. Work around them.

How far to people plan ahead? Can we get them to see the benefits in the long-term of some of these developments?

Depends on nature of their lifestyle. If agricultural will think in terms of farming cycles – until the next harvest. If “hunter-gatherer” will think about where next meal is coming from. It’s difficult to change unless their lifestyles start to be affected.

It feels like there is a need for more data and better access to data that exists. (Questions about soil and water testing, information on energy usage, geomapping and other data sources.)

There is a need for this particularly if it would be produced with a visual summary to help people engage with it. Pilot projects on soil and water testing have happened but it’s patchy – led in one case by a teacher who gathered and analysed samples from students when they returned to their home villages. Over 5-6 years this has built into a map of a region. Engaging people with the data is a key issue as this will help drive better data in future. 

To paraphrase Priya, she encourages our researchers to focus on what they can do and not be disheartened by what they can’t change. She has learnt that a lot of developments and initiatives come and go, but if you stick to what you see working, you will make progress. She uses the local influencers effectively and she’s defined herself in terms of what is needed and what she can do, rather than what she she was initially interested in.

In the next post I’ll summarise the value of the village visits.

*Finally, thanks to Andrea Buck at Swansea University for the title of this blog. Andrea and I had a conversation about how to drive change in universities and she described it as being a little like a bowl of cold spaghetti. You see the one strand that you want to pull out, but as you tug you realise it’s all stuck together and if you pull really hard it jumps out the bowl and hits you in the face… I love this metaphor and the expression “cold spaghetti” enters my head on a fairly regular basis. Of course it doesn’t imply anything about either Swansea or Edinburgh Universities which are both paragons of effective and efficient decision making…

International Researcher Development

On Saturday I’ll be joining Professor Neil Robertson from our School of Chemistry to travel to Pune, India and deliver a workshop funded under the UK-India Researcher Links scheme funded by the British Council and Royal Society of Chemistry. Entitled “Translating Clean Energy Research to Rural India” the workshop will bring together researchers from the UK and India, working in social and physical sciences to understand the challenges of bringing clean energy technology to rural villages and introduce them to a range of experts who will explain how they have overcome these challenges. My plan is to blog throughout the week on what we’ve done, sharing the good practice that emerges and making the process as transparent as possible to support other researchers and researcher developers. I’m grateful to Neil and other colleagues at Edinburgh for being so open to this idea.

This initial post will share how we planned the workshop and what we’ve done to get to the point of departure. I should make it clear that I came into the organising team very late – the funding had already been awarded. Neil and his co-applicants Dr. Jamie Cross (University of Edinburgh), Prof Satish Ogale (IISER, Pune) and Dr. Priyadarshini Karve (Samuchit Enviro Tech) developed the concept and aims of the workshop; my role has been to think about how these can be successful achieved.

Drawing on my experiences from Scottish, Welsh and other Crucibles as well as workshops on collaboration and intercultural working, I started with the aims from the proposal:

  • To introduce physical scientists to the real-world use of energy technologies in rural India. (A visit to selected villages in Maharashtra at the start of the workshop to inform the subsequent presentations, discussions and problem-solving activities of the workshop.)
  • To introduce social scientists to the latest progress in emerging technologies to raise their awareness of immediate and future technological approaches to pressing problems.
  • To facilitate communication and network building between physical and social scientists.
  • To identify short-term projects for immediate impact to consolidate new partnerships that develop during the workshop.

Although an outline for the workshop formed part of the application, I made a couple of changes – principally building in more time for participants to explore and develop ideas and bringing forward their presentations to each other by a day.  It’s worth noting that Neil and his co-organisers have built the whole concept of the workshop around an initial day spent visiting a number of villages in Maharashtra so that the researchers on the workshop can truly appreciate the context in which their ideas need have have impact and the challenges presented by the environment. I think this will have a dramatic and positive impact on the outputs of the week, and I suspect a very personal impact on all of us. If you are reading this and planning your own international development workshop look out for a blog at the start of next week where I’ll try to capture the day and what it meant to us all.

Back to my planning – I structured the workshop around a set of daily themes which helped me to ensure we had a clear flow to help with briefing speakers and attendees:

  1. Setting the scene and understanding the context
  2. Getting to know fellow participants
  3. Generating ideas, learning from experts
  4. Selecting and developing ideas
  5. Reviewing ideas, the programme and sustaining the network

Having done this and produced a brief outline programme I sent it to a few people who had previously attended Researcher Links workshops (many thanks to Dr Ankush Aggarwal of Swansea University and Dr Hu Du of Cardiff University for their feedback) and made further adjustments to maximise the time for participants to understand each other and start developing their ideas. I wanted to minimise the danger of the momentum that will grow during the workshop being lost once people returned to home institutions and their considerable responsibilities. Although they will be at an early stage, I’ve also included a day where we review the ideas so that further work on them is done with a clear understanding of how they will be evaluated.

The outline programme is here but this is a flexible starting point which we expect to develop during the week once we get to know the participants, hear from the speakers and gauge the demands that the course is making on those attending. In the next blog I’ll explain how we briefed the speakers and attendees.

Translating Clean Energy Research to Rural India Initial Workshop Schedule

 

Reduce Confusion, Manage Expectations

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Photo by amann at Morguefile.com

Last week I was involved in two events which on the surface looked different, but actually covered some very similar themes. The first was the launch of a new PhD supervisors’ network here at Edinburgh. This is part of the Supervision workstream of the Excellence in Doctoral Education and Career Development Programme and was a chance for us (principally my colleague Dr Fiona Philippi, Head of Doctoral Education who leads the project) to share some initial ideas and ask the supervisors present how they would like the network to operate.

As part of the discussion, Fiona illustrated an example of the resources available to support supervision by sharing a version of the Griffith University Expectations in Supervision questionnaire. I’ve used this for many years in PhD induction and “getting started” events so it was interesting to see the reaction of supervisors to the tool which is a series of paired statements which demonstrate the dichotomies possible in PhD supervision. The response was very positive, with all those present seeing the value in having a tool to prompt discussion but also clarify the details of their supervisory approach. No one wants to impose a single, cookie-cutter model on doctoral supervision as the questionnaire demonstrates. People talked about the value the discussions would have to students coming to the UK for their PhDs as it might uncover any assumptions they might have. Most importantly, used well, the discussion will reduce uncertainty and the resulting anxiety for students.

During more detailed discussions, the topic of co-supervision emerged as a key area which needed more scrutiny so we are planning to develop the questionnaire further to help students and supervisory teams work together with more transparency and clearer responsibilities.

Co-supervision is now pretty universal at Edinburgh, both as a means of quality assurance but also often reflecting the multi- and inter-disciplinary nature of many PhD projects. This links us to the second event of the week – the Digital Economy Crucible. I was a speaker at the second Crucible “lab” in Edinburgh last week and decided to speak on the topic of Confusion in Collaboration. This is a interesting idea to explore but I can’t take the credit for the idea which came from Professor Barry Smith at Welsh Crucible when he spoke about the steps to really effective collaboration as being Contact, Communication, Confusion and Conflict.

Barry was one of three “heroes” of collaboration I mentioned in my talk, the others being Professor Catherine Lyall from Edinburgh who’s established a deep understanding of models of collaboration as well as producing a series of incredibly useful practical guides to help people in the interdisciplinary space work more effectively.

Catherine was the “critical friend” for a guide to collaboration I wrote for the Institute of Physics in 2015 which featured my last hero, Professor Tom McLeish. Tom is a physicist so has had a career collaborating with with other scientists in academia and industry, but in recent years has worked within the Durham Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (IMRS) reexamining scientific thinking in the 12th-14th centuries on The Ordered Universe project. A collaborative close reading of works by teams of medieval scholars and scientists is generating new insights into the vital but overlooked foundations of modern science.

The slides from my talk are below, but the key activity in my slot was to get the Cruciblists to talk to someone from another discipline about the assumptions that people made about their discipline or area. Some fascinating conversations followed but I moved them promptly on to try to come up with some new questions to reduce confusion. Their list complements one that was produced by a Stirling Crucible group a few years ago which I blogged about in a former life (Confusion in Collaboration).

Confusion in Collaboration <- The Slides

The questions generated by the group:

DE Crucible Confusion June 2017
DE Crucible 2017 Confusion in Collaboration

My final act was to share the Griffith questionnaire with this group as a final test of their understanding of each other’s research models.

What questions could help you avoid future conflict and bring confusion to the surface?

 

 

Greater than the sum

Collaboration in research is more and more important as the funding models shift towards topics which sit across disciplines and to problems on a scale which require a multi-partner approach. A challenge for researchers is to find potential partners with complementary expertise, an open-minded approach and a curiosity which stretches beyond their own field. Perhaps even more importantly, they also need to be people that you feel energised by and want to spend time with.

crucible-logoResearchers at Edinburgh who are senior postdoctoral fellows, academic fellows or in the early years of a lectureship are eligible to apply for Scottish Crucible – a programme which aims to connect you with a network of potential collaborators, but also offers far more.

The Crucible programme has run across the UK for around 15 years and been particularly successful in Scotland where it launched in 2009. Since then almost 250 researchers have discovered what you can do “when you put your heads together”.

Crucible is one of those programmes which is hard to describe without it sounding a tiny bit like a sinister cult (“it will change the way you think about research”, “it changed my life”, “the people were the best thing about it”) but in short it is designed to create a community of high achieving and innovative researchers who are open to the idea of collaboration and interested in considering their research in a wider societal context.

I’ve been involved since 2005 as a facilitator and I’ll be there this year at the second lab (as they call each residential workshop) in Stirling. Of all the programmes I’ve worked on over the years, Crucible has been one of the most inspiring and prompted me to build my expertise in researcher development for research collaboration.

Applications for Scottish Crucible are open until the end of the month and if you are intrigued by what you read and want to know more, please get in touch – I’d be happy to talk to you about the programme and your application.