Archive for research

Athena SWAN Bronze for Physics & Astronomy at Sussex

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on September 25, 2014 by telescoper

Athena Swan

Only  time for the quickest of quickies today, but I have some very good news to pass on so, without further ado, here we go. Today we learned that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex has received a the Athena SWAN Bronze Award in recognition of our commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research. The Athena SWAN charter has been running since 2005, recognising the commitment of the higher education sector to address gender inequalities, tackle the unequal representation of women in science and to improve career progression for female academics.

This award has been the result of a huge effort led by Dr Kathy Romer but also involving many other members of staff in the Department and across entire  the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences generally. The Department scored at or above the national average in all key areas: student intake (UG, PGT, PGR), research staff, academic staff, REF submissions and so on. That said, the Athena SWAN process has highlighted several areas where improvements can be made, such as in the mentoring of female postdoctoral researchers, and enhanced levels of training in equality and diversity matters such as the influence of unconscious bias. We are very pleased to have received the bronze award, but there is still a very great deal to do. Many other institutions and departments have already progressed to the Silver or even Gold award, but our Bronze is at least a start!

 

 

Life, Work and Postgraduate Research

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Education with tags , , , , on September 21, 2014 by telescoper

A very busy Freshers’ Week at the University of Sussex is now behind us and lectures proper start tomorrow morning. As far as I was concerned all the Freshers’ events were superimposed on a week that was already filled with other things, some good (of which more anon), and some not so good (of which I will say nothing further).

After welcome receptions at the weekend, Freshers’ Week for me began with an induction lecture with all the new students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) or at least as many as could rouse themselves for a 10am start the day after a big welcome party. In the event, the turnout was good. I then gave another little speech at a much less formal event in the Creativity Zone (which is situated in the building occupied by MPS. I then had to dash off to a couple of meetings but when I returned a couple of hours later the party was still going, so I helped myself to a beer and rejoined the socializing.

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Welcome to the new students in MPS!

And so it was for the rest of the week, dominated by meetings of one sort or another including one in London, until Friday and my last formal induction task in the form of a session for new postgraduate students in MPS. Since this happened at the end of Induction Week there wasn’t much of a practical nature say to the students that they hadn’t already heard during the School-based induction sessions that preceded it, so I decided to scrap the Powerpoint I had planned to use and just give a general pep talk. Doing so was quite an interesting experience because it reminded me of the time I started my own postgraduate education, here at Sussex.

As a matter of fact it was on the corresponding day in 1985 (Sunday 22nd September) that I moved down to Brighton in advance of starting my DPhil (as Sussex doctorates were called in those days). It’s hard to believe that was 29 years ago. As it turned out, I finished my thesis within three years and stayed on here at Sussex as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Astronomy Centre until 1990, whereupon I left to take up a teaching and research position at what is now Queen Mary, University of London. That was the start of a mini-tour of UK universities that ended up with me returning to Sussex last year as Head of the same school in which I started my research career.

This morning I noticed a story in the Times Higher about the loneliness and sense of isolation often faced by postgraduate research students which often leads to a crisis of confidence. I can certainly attest to that, for reasons I will try to explain below, so tried to reassure the students about it in the induction session on Friday.

The point is that a postgraduate research degree is very different from a programme of undergraduate study. For one thing, as a research student you are expected to work on your own a great deal of the time. That’s because nobody else will be doing precisely the same project so, although other students will help you out with some things, you’re not trying to solve the same problems as your peers as is the case with an undergraduate. Your supervisor will help you of course and make suggestions (of varying degrees of helpfulness), but a PhD is still a challenge that you have to meet on your own. I don’t think it is good supervisory practice to look over a research student’s shoulder all the time. It’s part of the purpose of a PhD that the student learns to go it alone. There is a balance of course, but my own supervisor was rather “hands off” and I regard that as the right way to supervise. I’ve always encouraged my own students to do things their own way rather than try to direct them too much.

That loneliness is tough in itself, but there’s also the scary fact that you do not usually know whether your problem has a solution, let alone whether you yourself can find it. There is no answer at the back of the book; if there were you would not be doing research. A good supervisor will suggest a project that he or she thinks is both interesting and feasible, but the expectation is that you will very quickly be in a position where you know more about that topic than your supervisor.

I think almost every research student goes through a phase in which they feel out of their depth. There are times when you get thoroughly stuck and you begin to think you will never crack it. Self-doubt, crisis of confidence, call it what you will, I think everyone who has done a postgraduate degree has experienced it. I certainly did. A year into my PhD I felt I was getting nowhere with the first problem I had been given to solve. All the other research students seemed much cleverer and more confident than me. Had I made a big mistake thinking I could this? I started to panic and began to think about what kind of job I should go into if I abandoned the idea of pursuing a career in research.

So why didn’t I quit? There were a number of factors, including the support and encouragement of my supervisor, staff and fellow students in the Astronomy Centre, and the fact that I loved living in Brighton, but above all it was because I knew that I would feel frustrated for the rest of my life if I didn’t see it through. I’m a bit obsessive about things like that. I can never leave a crossword unfinished either.

What happened was that after some discussion with my supervisor I shelved that first troublesome problem and tried another, much easier one. I cracked that fairly quickly and it became my first proper publication. Moreover, thinking about that other problem revealed that there was a way to finesse the difficulty I had failed to overcome in the first project. I returned to the first project and this time saw it through to completion. With my supervisor’s help that became my second paper, published in 1987.

I know it’s wrong to draw inferences about other people from one’s own particular experiences, but I do feel that there are general lessons. One is that if you are going to complete a research degree you have to have a sense of determination that borders on obsession. I was talking to a well-known physicist at a meeting not long ago and he told me that when he interviews prospective physics students he asks them “Can you live without physics?”. If the answer is “yes” then he tells them not to do a PhD. It’s not just a take-it-or-leave-it kind of job being a scientist. You have to immerse yourself in it and be prepared to put long hours in. When things are going well you will be so excited that you will find it as hard to stop as it is when you’re struggling. I’d imagine it is the just same for other disciplines.

The other, equally important, lesson to be learned is that it is essential to do other things as well. Being “stuck” on a problem is part-and-parcel of mathematics or physics research, but sometimes battering your head against the same thing for days on end just makes it less and less likely you will crack it. The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it can get stuck in a rut. One way to avoid this happening is to have more than one thing to think about.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on the last clue in a crossword. What I always do in that situation is put it down and do something else for a bit. It could even be something as trivial as making a cup of tea, just as long as I don’t think about the clue at all while I’m doing it. Nearly always when I come back to it and look at it afresh I can solve it. I have a large stack of prize dictionaries to prove that this works!

It can be difficult to force yourself to pause in this way. I’m sure that I’m not the only physicist who has been unable to sleep for thinking about their research. I do think however that it is essential to learn how to effect your own mental reboot. In the context of my PhD research this involved simply turning to a different research problem, but I think the same purpose can be served in many other ways: taking a break, going for a walk, playing sport, listening to or playing music, reading poetry, doing a crossword, or even just taking time out to socialize with your friends. Time spent sitting at your desk isn’t guaranteed to be productive.

So, for what it’s worth here is my advice to new postgraduate students. Work hard. Enjoy the challenge. Listen to advice from your supervisor, but remember that the PhD is your opportunity to establish your own identity as a researcher. Above all, in the words of the Desiderata:

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

Never feel guilty about establishing a proper work-life balance. Having more than one dimension to your life is will not only improve your well-being but also make you a better researcher.

Talking About Undergraduate Physics Research…

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on July 2, 2014 by telescoper

One of the courses we offer in the School of Physics & Astronomy here at the University of Sussex is the integrated Masters in Physics with a Research Placement. Aimed at high-flying students with ambitions to become research physicists, this programme includes a paid research placement as a Junior Research Associate each summer vacation for the duration of the course; that means between Years 1 & 2, Years 2 & 3 and Years 3 & 4 . This course has proved extremely attractive to a large number of very talented students and it exemplifies the way the Department of Physics & Astronomy integrates world-class research with its teaching in a uniquely successful and imaginative way.

Some time ago I blogged about  some very good news about one of our undergraduate researchers, Talitha Bromwich, who is about to graduate from her MPhys degree, after which she will be heading to Oxford to start her PhD DPhil; she is pictured below with her supervisor Dr Simon Peeters:

Talitha Bromwich with her JRA supervisor Dr Simon Peeters at 'Posters in Parliament' event 25 Feb 14

Talitha spent last summer working on the DEAP3600 dark-matter detector after being selected for the University’s Junior Research Associate scheme. Her project won first prize at the University’s JRA poster exhibition last October, and she was then chosen to present her findings – alongside undergraduate researchers from 22 other universities – in Westminster yesterday as part of the annual Posters in Parliament exhibition, organized under the auspices of the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR).

A judging panel – consisting of Ben Wallace MP, Conservative MP for Wyre and Preston North; Sean Coughlan, Education Correspondent for the BBC; and Professor Julio Rivera, President of the US Council of Undergraduate Research; and Katherine Harrington of the Higher Education Academy – decided to award Talitha’s project First Prize in this extremely prestigious competition.

We held a small drinks party in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences to congratulate Talitha on her success. Here are a couple of pictures of that occasion:

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From left to right you see Simon Peeters, myself, Talitha and Prof. Michael Farthing (the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sussex); the winning poster is in the background. Here’s me presenting a little gift:

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More recently still, the MPS Elves have made a little video featuring Talitha talking about her research placement:

We take undergraduate research very seriously here at the University of Sussex, and are now extending the Research Placement scheme to Mathematics. Many Departments talk about how important it is that their teaching is based on state-of-the-art research, but here at Sussex we don’t just talk about research to undergraduates – we let them do it!

 

Sussex University – the Place for Undergraduate Physics Research!

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on February 27, 2014 by telescoper

One of the courses we offer in the School of Physics & Astronomy here at the University of Sussex is the integrated Masters in Physics with a Research Placement. Aimed at high-flying students with ambitions to become research physicists, this programme includes a paid research placement as a Junior Research Associate each summer vacation for the duration of the course; that means between Years 1 & 2, Years 2 & 3 and Years 3 & 4 . This course has proved extremely attractive to a large number of very talented students and it exemplifies the way the Department of Physics & Astronomy integrates world-class research with its teaching in a uniquely successful and imaginative way.

Here’s a little video made by the University that features Sophie Williamson, who is currently in her second year (and who also in the class to whom I’m currently teaching a module on Theoretical Physics:

This week we had some very good news about another of our undergraduate researchers, Talitha Bromwich, who is now in the final year of her MPhys degree, and is pictured below with her supervisor Dr Simon Peeters:

Talitha Bromwich with her JRA supervisor Dr Simon Peeters at 'Posters in Parliament' event 25 Feb 14

Talitha spent last summer working on the DEAP3600 dark-matter detector after being selected for the University’s Junior Research Associate scheme. Her project won first prize at the University’s JRA poster exhibition last October, and she was then chosen to present her findings – alongside undergraduate researchers from 22 other universities – in Westminster yesterday as part of the annual Posters in Parliament exhibition, organized under the auspices of the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR).

A judging panel – consisting of Ben Wallace MP, Conservative MP for Wyre and Preston North; Sean Coughlan, Education Correspondent for the BBC; and Professor Julio Rivera, President of the US Council of Undergraduate Research; and Katherine Harrington of the Higher Education Academy – decided to award Talitha’s project First Prize in this extremely prestigious competition.

Congratulations to Talitha for her prizewinning project! I’m sure her outstanding success will inspire future generations of Sussex undergraduates too!

The Dark Side of the REF

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2013 by telescoper

There’s a disturbing story in the latest Times Higher which argues that the University of Leicester has apparently reneged on a promise that non-submission to the forthcoming (2014)  Research Excellence Framework (REF) would not have negative career consequences. They have now said that except in exceptional circumstances, non-submitted academics will either be moved to a teaching-only contract (where there is a vacancy and they can demonstrate teaching excellence), or have their performance “managed”, with the threat of sacking if they don’t meet the specified targets.  I’d heard rumours of this on the grapevine (i.e. Twitter) before the Times Higher story was published. It’s very worrying to have it confirmed, as it raises all kinds of questions about what might happen in departments that turn out to have disappointing REF results .

There are (at least) two possible reasons for non-inclusion of the outputs of a researcher and it is important to distinguish between them. One is that the researcher hasn’t enough high-quality outputs to submit. In the absence of individual extenuating circumstances, researchers are expected to submit four “outputs” (in my discipline that means “research papers”) for assessment. That’s a pretty minimal level of productivity, actually;  such a number per year is a reasonable average for an active researcher in my field.  A person employed on a contract that specifies their duties as Teaching and Research may therefore be under-performing  if they can’t produce four papers over the period 2008-2013. I think some form of performance management  may be justifiable in this case, but the primary aim should be to help the individual rather than show them the door. We all have fallow periods in research, and it’s not appropriate to rush to sack anyone who experiences a lean time.   Andrew Wiles would have been considered `inactive’ had there been a REF in 1992 as he hadn’t published anything for years. Then he produced a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Some things just take time.

A second reason for excluding researcher from the REF is that the institution concerned may be making a tactical submission. As the Times Higher article explains:

The memo suggests that academics would be spared repercussions if, among other reasons, the number of individuals submitted is “constrained” by the volume of case studies their department intends to enter to demonstrate research impact.

Institutions must submit one case study for every 10 scholars entered.

Maria Nedeva, professor of science and innovation dynamics and policy at Manchester Business School, said the tactic of deciding how many academics to submit based on impact case study numbers was “rife”.

(Incidentally, the second paragraph is not quite right. The number of case studies required depends on the number of staff submitted as follows: for fewer than 15 staff , TWO case studies;  for 15-24.99 staff it is THREE case studies – and then for each additional ten members of staff entered a further case study is required.)

e case study for every scholars included plus one, i.e. forThe statement at the end of the quote there is in line with my experience too.  The point is that the REF is not just a means of allocating relatively small amounts of so-called `QR’ research funding . Indeed, it remains entirely possible that no funding at all will be allocated following the 2014 exercise. The thinking then is that the number of staff submitted is largely irrelevant; all that will count is league table position.

This by no means the only example of the dangers that lurk when you take league tables too seriously.

If a department is required to submit, say, four impact cases if all staff are included in the REF submission, but only has three viable ones, it would not be unreasonable to submit fewer staff because their overall would be dragged down by a poor impact case even if the output quality of all staff is high.  There will certainly be highly active researchers in UK institutions, including many who hold sizable external research grants, whose outputs are not submitted to the REF. As the article points out, it would be very wrong for managers to penalize scholars who have been excluded because of this sort of game-playing. That’s certainly not going to happen in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University.  Not while I’m Head of School, anyway.

Moreover, even researchers whose “outputs” are not selected may still contribute to the “Environment” and/or “Impact” sections so they still, in a very real sense, do participate in their department’s REF submission.

My opinion? All this silliness could easily have been avoided by requiring all staff in all units of assessment to be submitted by all departments. You know, like would have happened if the system were actually designed to identify and reward research excellence. Instead, it’s yet another example of a bureaucratic machine that’s become entirely self-serving. It exists simply because it exists.  Research would be much better off without it.

Your PhD Questions Answered (?)

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on March 10, 2013 by telescoper

As I mentioned last week, one of the main items on the agenda at the moment is recruitment of new PhD students. As usual, this finds me having to operate on both sides of the fence,  playing a role in selecting students whilst also trying to advise students on how to target their applications, prepare for interview, and choose between offers (for those who manage to get a place).

In my field (astrophysics), the primary route for funding a PhD comes through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which operates a national deadline (31st March) before which candidates can not be required to make a decision. This deadline sets the timescale for departments to decide too, as we clearly want to make sure all our first choice applicants get their offers before the cutoff date.

The national deadline prevents students from being pressured into making decisions before they have heard back from all the institutions to which they have applied, so in that sense it’s a good idea. On the other hand, it does mean that there’s often frantic activity on deadline day as offers are accepted or declined. Reserves have to be contacted quickly when a favoured candidate withdraws to go somewhere else and not all of them may still be available. A student who has been waiting anxiously without a first-choice offer may suddenly receive a lifeline on deadline day.

Getting offers is one thing, but deciding between them is quite another. There are many things to take into account, and the criteria are by no means clear. I’m not the only person to have been thinking about this. There are personal matters, of course. Is it a nice place? Are the people friendly? Do you think you can get on with your potential supervisor? That sort of thing. But there’s also the actual research. Is the project really what you want to do? Is is likely to open up a future career in research, or just be a dead end? Is the mixture of theory and experiment (or observation) what you would like?

One of the issues that often arises when I discuss research with potential PhD students is how structured the project  is. Some projects are  mapped out by the supervisor in great detail, with specific things to be done in a specific order with well-defined milestones against which progress can be measured. Others, especially but not exclusively theoretical ones, are much more of the nature of “here’s an interesting idea – let’s study it and see where it leads”. Most PhDs are somewhere between these two extremes, but it’s probably true that experimental PhDs are more like the former, whereas theoretical ones are more like the latter. Mine, in theoretical astrophysics, ended up evolving quite considerably from its starting point.

I’ve always been grateful to my supervisor for allowing me the freedom to follow my own curiosity. But I think it was essential to be given an initial focus, in the form of a specific project to cut my teeth on. Getting a calculation finished, written up and published gave me the confidence to start out on my own, but I did need a lot of guidance during that initial phase. We a;ll need to learn how to walk before we can run.

Another aspect of this is what the final thesis should look like. Should it be a monolithic work, focussed on one very specific topic, or can it be an anthology of contributions across a wider area?  Again, it’s a question of balance. I think that a PhD thesis should be seen as a kind of brochure advertising the skills and knowledge of the student that produced it. Versatility is a good quality, so if you can do lots of different things then your thesis should represent that. On the other hand, you also need to demonstrate the ability to carry out a sustained and coherent piece of research. Someone who flits around knocking out lots of cutesy “ideas papers” may get a reputation for being a bit of a dabbler who is unable or unwilling to tackle problems in depth. The opposite extreme would be a person who is incapable of generating new ideas, but excellent once pointed in a specific direction. The best scientists, in my opinion, have creative imagination as well as technical skill and stamina.  It’s a matter of balance, and some scientists are more balanced than others. There are some (scary) individuals who are brilliant at everything, of course., but us mere mortals have to make the most of our limited potential.

The postdoc market that lies beyond your PhD is extremely tough. To survive you need to maximize the chances of getting a job, and that means being able to demonstrate a suitability for as many opportunities as possible that come up. So if you want to do theory, make sure that you know at least something about observations and data analysis. Even if you prefer analytic work, don’t be too proud to use a computer occasionally. Research problems often require  you to learn new things before you can tackle them. Get into the habit of doing that while you’re a student, and you’re set to continue for the rest of your career. But you have to do all this without spreading yourself too thin, so don’t shy away from the chunky calculations that keep you at your desk for days on end. It’s the hard yards that win you the match.

When it comes to choosing supervisors, my advice would be to look for one who has a reputation for supporting their students, but avoid those who want to exert excessive control. I think it’s a supervisor’s duty to ensure that PhD student becomes as independent as possible as quickly as possible, but to be there with help and advice if things go wrong. Sadly there are some who treat PhD students simply as assistants, and give little thought to their career development.

But if all this sounds a bit scary, I’ll add just one thing. A PhD offers a unique challenge. It’s hard work, but stimulating and highly rewarding. If you find a project that appeals to you, go for it. You won’t regret it.

Emotion and the Scientific Method

Posted in Biographical, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 10, 2013 by telescoper

There was an article in today’s Observer in which four scientists from different disciplines talk about how in various ways they all get a bit emotional about their science. The aim appears to correct “the mistaken view that scientists are unemotional people”. It’s quite an interesting piece to read, but I do think the “mistaken view” is very much a straw man. I think most people realize that scientists are humans rather than Vulcans and that as such they have just as many and as complex emotions as other people do. In fact it seems to me that the “mistaken view” may only be as prevalent as it is because so many people keep trying to refute it.

I think anyone who has worked in scientific research will recognize elements of the stories discussed in the Observer piece. On the positive side, cracking a challenging research problem can lead to a wonderful sense of euphoria. Even much smaller technical successes lead to a kind of inner contentment which is most agreeable. On the other hand, failure can lead to frustration and even anger. I’ve certainly shouted in rage at inanimate objects, but have never actually put my first through a monitor but I’ve been close to it when my code wouldn’t do what it’s supposed to. There are times in that sort of state when working relationships get a bit strained too. I don’t think I’ve ever really exploded in front of a close collaborator of mine, but have to admit that one one memorable occasion I completely lost it during a seminar….

So, yes. Scientists are people. They can be emotional. I’ve even known some who are quite frequently also tired. But there’s nothing wrong with that not only in private life but also in their work. In fact, I think it’s vital.

It seems to me that the most important element of scientific research is the part that we understand worst, namely the imaginative part. This encompasses all sorts of amazing things, from the creation of entirely new theories, to the clever design of an experiment, to some neat way of dealing with an unforeseen systematic error. Instances of pure creativity like this are essential to scientific progress, but we understand very little about how the human brain accomplishes them. Accordingly we also find it very difficult to teach creativity to science students.

Most science education focuses on the other, complementary, aspect of research, which is the purely rational part: working out the detailed ramifications of given theoretical ideas, performing measurements, testing and refining the theories, and so on. We call this “scientific method” (although that phrase is open to many interpretations). We concentrate on that aspect because we at have some sort of conception at least of what the scientific method is and how it works in practice. It involves the brain’s rational functions, and promotes the view of a scientist as intellectually detached, analytic, and (perhaps) emotionally cold.

But what we usually call the scientific method would be useless without the creative part. I’m by no means an expert on cognitive science, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s a strong connection between the “emotional” part of the brain’s activities and the existence of this creative spark. We’re used to that idea in the context of art, and I’m sure it’s also there in science.

That brings me to something else I’ve pondered over for a while. Regular readers of this blog will know that I post about music from time to time. I know my musical tastes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but bear with me for a moment. Some of the music (e.g. modern Jazz)  I like isn’t exactly easy listening – its technical complexity places a considerable burden on the listener to, well, listen. I’ve had comments on my musical offerings to the effect that it’s music of the head rather than of the heart. Well, I think music isn’t an either/or in this respect. I think the best music offers both intellectual and emotional experiences. Not always in equal degree, of course, but the head and the heart aren’t mutually exclusive. If we didn’t have both we’d have neither art nor science.

In fact we wouldn’t be human.

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