Depression, anxiety and my PhD

Bio: Gemma is currently working as a postdoc within the Land Environment Economics & Policy Institute at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses upon the interactions between energy systems and the natural environment. You can follow her on twitter @G_Delafield.

Trigger warning- please note that this blog post may contain topics which some people may find sensitive.

In November I successfully defended my PhD. I am now officially Dr Delafield. However, if we rewind to December 2019, I was sat on a bench on campus crying on the phone to my partner discussing whether or not I should leave my program.

I have suffered from anxiety and depression for over 10 years and knew the potential threat a PhD might pose to my mental health before I had even started. It’s no secret that the culture of overwork in academia, alongside experiences of bullying and discrimination, contributes to 86% of PhD students reporting marked levels of anxiety.[1]

I am telling you my story to help tackle the stigma around mental health. If you are struggling, I want you to know that you are not alone. Seeking help is a strength, not a weakness and you should never feel shame in doing so.

Since starting my PhD I have actively tried to protect my mental health.[2] I disclosed my history of anxiety and depression to the university and my supervisor. I took the annual leave I was entitled to. I avoided working on the evenings or weekends. When problems arose I would approach my supervisor to try to work through them.

Despite my efforts, by late 2018 I found myself struggling. I was living apart from my partner and had taken on teaching work which I didn’t yet feel particularly confident in doing. I often felt a strong sense of imposter syndrome. I did not feel like I belonged and I started having difficult discussions with my supervisor regarding the direction I wanted to take my research in. I spent weeks at my desk getting very little done as most of my energy was going into trying not to cry.

I tried to access counselling through the university and my GP but had no success. The university’s counselling service was so oversubscribed at the time they had closed the waiting list and the NHS could not offer me the type of therapy I needed. I ended up using the money I was making through my teaching work to pay for private therapy (the irony of this situation did not escape me…).

With the help of therapy, I started to prioritise what I wanted to get from my PhD experience and took the pressure off of myself to achieve the ‘perfect’ piece of research. I started to reap the benefits of disclosing my disability to the university by attending Health, Wellbeing and Support for Study (HWSS) meetings and asking to be assigned a wellbeing mentor.[3] Most importantly I learnt the power of saying no and setting clear boundaries in an environment which (sadly) encourages overworking.[4]

All of these measures helped me considerably. However due to a lack of sick pay, I never actually took time off to fully recharge. By December 2019, a series of events culminated in me sitting on that bench, in tears, deciding whether I should leave my PhD program. I took Christmas to gather myself and be with my family. A stroke of good fortune occurred in January 2020 when I saw a tweet highlighting that UKRI had updated their sick pay policy which meant I was now entitled to 13 weeks paid sick leave per year. By February, I had made the decision to interrupt my studies.

In total, I took 15 weeks off from my PhD. For many weeks, my to do list consisted simply of: eat, shower, take my antidepressants and do some mindfulness or yoga. Some days I felt fairly content, other days I was plagued by feelings of guilt and shame. I was lucky enough to have a strong support network around me who reminded me that taking an interruption from (or even quitting) your PhD is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of great strength. At the end of the day looking after your mind and body is much more important than work. I started doing some volunteering which reminded me of the transferable skills I’d developed throughout my PhD.

Time away from the PhD allowed me to spend time looking after myself and put measures in place to ensure when I returned to my research I’d be better supported. I set out a clear plan for my remaining chapters, I brought onboard a new second supervisor, and arranged several HWSS meetings to check in on how I was doing. I started attending Shut Up & Write sessions with fellow PhD students to provide structure to my days. I felt empowered by my decision to put my health first and started campaigning to raise awareness of inclusivity issues within the university.

The final stages of my PhD were difficult, I cannot lie. I requested a 3 month COVID extension as lockdowns had heightened my sense of anxiety. In the last few months leading up to my deadline, I worked longer hours to ensure I finished on time. The physical symptoms of stress took their toll on me. Checking in with my wellbeing mentor every week however allowed me to note when I wasn’t taking good enough care of myself and put in place measures to manage my health. With the support of friends and family, I finally submitted my thesis. I celebrated by sleeping, sunbathing and listening to audiobooks for a solid 2 weeks.

I am proud of myself, not only for finishing my PhD, but for doing so whilst championing myself and my rights as a disabled individual.

I live in hope that the culture in academia will change. That more and more individuals will reject the expectation to overwork and fight for systematic change. That universities will work with the community to create an environment where everyone, no matter their disability, gender, race or sexuality, is supported to achieve what they are capable of.

Written by: Gemma Delafield (former PhD student in the Business School)

This blog post was written in affiliation with the Universities Disability and Chronically Ill network. The network is open to all and aims to provide a space for staff and students to connect, share experiences and information as well as provide support. Further details about the network can be found on their webpage.


We realise that through reading this article you may find some of the information distressing and/or may identify with some of the issues and therefore may need some support. Below is a list of support available to all PGR students at Exeter:

Wellbeing Support

  • Exeter based students- Speak to the University of Exeter’s Wellbeing team (available to all students on the Streatham and St Lukes campuses)
  • Cornwall based students- Speak to Fxplus wellbeing services (available to all students based on the Penryn or Truro campuses)
  • Speak to the PGR Education Welfare Advisor-
  • University Networks
  • Call Spectrum Life (available to PGRs and staff)
  • Speak to your GP
  • Call the Samaritans on 116 123
  • Details of all the support available to PGRs can be found on the Doctoral College website
  • If there is an immediate emergency please call 999. Further details about urgent support available please see the Wellbeing website.

Policies to support PGRs

References

[1] https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/news-and-views/postgraduate-researchers-are-positive-about-their-
experience-despite-high-anxiety

[2] You can read my previous blog about work life balance here.

[3] You can find out more about HWSS meetings and Disability Support Allowance funded wellbeing mentors here and here.

[4] A useful TED talk about setting boundaries.

Poster Session- College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences Conference 2021

Below are all the entries for this year’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences conference poster competition. Please look through the posters and vote on your top 3 here- EMPS Poster Competition 2021 vote.

Poster 1: Jets and instabilities in forced Magnetohydrodynamics flow

Click here to enlarge Poster 1
Twitter Link

Poster 2: Mechanical properties of PEEK filaments before and after Fused Filament Fabrication extrusion process

Click here to enlarge Poster 2

Poster 3: Fault Tolerant Control of a Dual –System UAV Using Sliding Modes

Click here to enlarge Poster 3

Poster 4: Supply chain network design with Sustainable supplier selection and order allocation under Disruption Risk and Uncertainty

Click here to enlarge Poster 4
Twitter Link

Poster 5: Comparison of State Estimation Performance of Nonlinear COVID-19 Model Using Extended Kalman Filters: Case Study in USA and India

Click here to enlarge Poster 5
Twitter Link

Poster 6: Two dimensional simulations of solar like models with artificially enhanced luminosity

Click here to enlarge Poster 6

Poster 7: Exploring the Dynamics of a Vibro-Impact Capsule Moving in the Small Intestine via Finite Element Analysis

Click here to enlarge Poster 7

Poster 8: Vibration Comfort of Pedestrians on Slender Footbridges

Click here to enlarge Poster 8
Twitter Link

Poster 9: Nanocomposite hearing overlays for next generation high performance/low emission internal combustion engine applications

Click here to enlarge Poster 9

Poster 10: Characterising Exoplanets with the James Webb space telescope

Click here to enlarge Poster 10

 

Outcomes of the PGR wellbeing and mental health survey

In June this year we (Andrew Livingstone and Anna Adlam, based in the Psychology department) conducted a survey of wellbeing and mental health among PGR students across the university. Wellbeing and mental health difficulties among PGR students are increasingly being recognised across the higher education sector, and the survey was a first attempt to assess their extent among PGR students at the University of Exeter.

The findings highlight how pervasive wellbeing and mental health difficulties are among PGR students, with the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms in particular being much higher than in the general population.

At the same time, the results of the survey also point to some key factors that may protect against poor wellbeing, focusing on how connected we feel with others, and positive and supportive experiences in relation to one’s research degree.

A recorded presentation of the early findings can be found here.

Background to the survey

The survey was open during the first three weeks of June. A link was sent to every PGR student at the university, and we received 633 complete responses.

Along with demographic information, the survey included three main sets of measures:

  • Wellbeing and mental health outcomes, including measures of depression and anxiety symptoms, loneliness, self-esteem, stress, and life satisfaction
  • Stressors, or possible causes of poor wellbeing, including negative workplace experiences, negative life events, and the perceived impact of the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Potential protective factors, including respondents’ sense of belonging with different groups, the experience of social support, and the extent to which they felt understood by others

 How prevalent are wellbeing and mental health difficulties?

 Overall, 52% of respondents scored above the cut-off for ‘moderate’ symptoms for either depression, anxiety, or both. This compares to general population rates of 5%-11% for depression and around 5% for anxiety. These symptoms were assessed with widely-used screening questions: the PHQ-8 (depression) and GAD-7 (anxiety).

Scores on these indicators of depression and anxiety symptoms were also strongly correlated with other wellbeing measures: scoring higher on depression and/or anxiety was also associated with greater loneliness and stress, lower self-esteem, and lower life satisfaction.

What predicts better or worse wellbeing and mental health?

Amongst a host of factors, two were consistently the most strongly related to wellbeing: the perceived impact of Covid-19, and the feeling of being understood by others.

Consistent with the findings of other published studies on mental health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the more severe respondents rated the personal impact of Covid-19 to be, the poorer their scores on wellbeing and mental health measures.

At the same time, believing that others understand us – what we term ‘felt understanding’ – emerged as the strongest protective factor. The more one felt understood by others, the more positive were scores on wellbeing and mental health measures.

What factors were in turn related to that feeling of being understood by others? The results suggest two key sets of factors: (1) positive experiences such as social support in the context of one’s degree/studies, and (2) a sense of belonging and collective identities. Especially relevant were a sense of belonging with other PGR students, and of belonging to multiple groups (including outside of academia).

Understanding the survey outcomes

How should we interpret these findings? On the one hand, they confirm the striking extent of wellbeing and mental health difficulties in the PGR community.

On the other hand, the levels of wellbeing and mental health difficulties revealed by the survey are most likely not specific to the University of Exeter, or indeed to PGR students in a university context. Instead, they fit an emerging pattern of wellbeing difficulties across the higher education sector as a whole.

For instance, levels of wellbeing and mental health difficulties were very much in line with other national and international surveys of PGR wellbeing. The results also echo similar findings from UK-wide research on wellbeing amongst undergraduate students, and amongst academic staff.

It is also important to stress that the findings do not in themselves show cause-and-effect relationships. For example, we can’t say for certain whether any of the factors assessed in the survey actually cause better or worse mental health outcomes.

Likewise, the findings don’t directly show that the PGR experience itself leads to poorer wellbeing, although aspects of individuals’ experiences during their studies are likely to be very important.

How can poor wellbeing and mental health be addressed?

The findings also point to some systemic and social strategies that may help to promote and protect PGR wellbeing. These complement more widely-known, individual-focused strategies (e.g., cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness) and the expanding support offered by the University of Exeter Wellbeing Services.

The importance of belonging and group identities comes through particularly strongly. Fostering a sense of community between PGR students, and with departmental colleagues, will almost certainly be a helpful part of a wellbeing strategy.

It is not the only part, though: it is also very likely that maintaining different sorts of group identities – both inside and outside of university – is a big protective factor for individuals too. Enabling PGR students to have a strong sense of self and identity outside of work and study is thus also important.

Finally, the importance of felt understanding – that feeling of being understood by others – suggests that we can all work to improve our everyday communication with colleagues at every level. In an environment in which we often feel defined by our work, and in which we also frequently receive (and give) critical evaluation, developing the skills to foster an empathic and understanding workplace culture may be one of the most important investments we can make in terms of wellbeing.

Dr Andrew Livingstone and Dr Anna Adlam
Psychology

If you have any concerns regarding your mental health and wellbeing, you can contact University of Exeter Wellbeing services in the following ways:

  • Exeter-based students can book a telephone appointment by emailing or calling 01392 724381 and leave a voicemail with your details.
  • Cornwall-based students can email or call 01326 370460
  • PGR students can also contact the PGR Welfare Support Office at . They can meet with you informally to discuss the Health Wellbeing and Support for Study Procedures (https://www.exeter.ac.uk/staff/policies/calendar/part1/otherregs/health/)

Other advice and resources for your mental health can be found at the following links:

The Joy of Posters! Designing a poster that your audience will want to read

Caroline Nye is a social science researcher at the University of Exeter, having completed her PhD in rural sociology at the Centre for Rural Policy Research. She holds an MA (hons) in Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh, a diploma in International Development from London School of Economics (with a focus on environment) and has several years’ experience working on organic farms and in environmental education. She has also spent several years working further afield on international development projects and in industry in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Caroline’s research expertise focuses on agricultural labour in the UK, examining the changes and challenges associated with farm labour in the transition to sustainable intensification. She is also currently working on a research project examining farmer motivations to participate in conservation-focused farmer clusters, as well as working on a project for Defra.

Academic poster presentations are an important method of sharing your research. But in an age where multiple stimuli are constantly competing for our attention, our brain usually decides within seconds if it wants to continue focussing on any one thing before shifting its attention elsewhere. Attracting a captive audience is, therefore, a challenge. Below are ten things to consider in designing a poster that will catch the reader’s eye. If somebody walks away having retained any information about your research, then your poster has had, yes it’s that magic word, IMPACT!

  1. Look upon it as an exciting opportunity. Here is a chance for you to exercise your creativity in a way you may not be able to during other phases of your academic career. Embrace your inner artist, leap outside of the box and brandish your metaphorical paintbrush with pride. Designing a poster should be a fun project which gets your research out there visually and assists you in defining the key points of your project.
  2. Know your audience. If designing a poster for a mixed audience, start by assuming that your audience knows nothing about either your subject or your discipline. Make it easy to understand and use language that won’t have your reader yawning three lines in. If your poster is for a specific event, a sheet stuffed full of technical jargon can still be overkill, so mix it up to ensure your reader is informed whilst being entertained at the same time.
  3. Before you even begin to add any text, play around with some images that might link your research to the rest of the world. Decide whether you want a backdrop image, images dropped between the text, or a combination. Make sure any pictures you use are relevant, interesting and fun. If a picture can tell your reader what your work is about as soon as they walk into a room, then you’re already winning.
  4. Don’t be afraid to go against the grain. Many students follow a set format which can often make posters look similar and difficult to remember. Innovative examples of poster design include the use of texture, colour or 3D materials (glasses included). One extraordinary design was completed entirely by hand. Be inspired and you will inspire others.
  5. What information do you want your reader to take away with them. What is NEW about your work and what message do you want to get across to your audience? This is your story. You can choose how you tell it.
  6. You cannot fit your entire thesis on to an A3 sheet. The ability to be concise is key here. Identify the principal goals of the thesis, your methods in brief, KEY findings and MAIN conclusions. This will ensure that your poster retains much needed space for visual aesthetics, making reading it a less daunting task for the innocent passer-by.
  7. Font is key! Don’t assume your reader has 20/20 vision. Try not to make the text any smaller than 24pt, and intersperse this with bigger titles and sub titles. It is fun to play around with font styles but many can be hard on the eye for a poster so plain styles can work better alongside good, strong images.
  8. Check sizing and margins before you print. These is nothing more frustrating than adding the final flourish to your masterpiece and then sending it to the printers and unrolling a mess. Text that pushes right up to the edges and poor quality images might reveal unpleasant surprises on print day.
  9. Print it before presentation day. Leaving the printing until the last minute is a common mistake for any student, be it your poster or your actual thesis! Try to print it at least a day early in case you see any glaring mistakes.
  10. Show up! Accompanying your poster with a smile and some enthusiasm will cast a happy, colourful light over your work as you both hang out there proudly. It is an opportunity to show passion for, and knowledge about, your subject on a friendly one-to-one basis. So enjoy!

Written by: Caroline Nye

Twitter: @curlystem

If you wish to enter PGR showcase full details can be found on the PGR showcase webpage. Deadline to apply is: Sunday 22nd May.

ERIC Conference 2018

On 21st March, the fourth Exploring Research in Cornwall (ERIC) Postgraduate Research Conference was held at the Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI), Penryn Campus. ERIC is an annual event supported by the Doctoral College but organised by a postgraduate researcher committee.

ERIC hopes to celebrate the quality and diversity of research across the University of Exeter and allows early-stage researchers to attend and become more familiar with a conference environment. It is also an opportunity for PGRs to deliver a talk or present a poster on their research. This year’s themes were: Creative Methods, Changing Worlds and Understanding Nature.

We were delighted to be able to hold ERIC in the ESI and welcomed Professor Juliet Osbourne, Director of the ESI and Chair in Applied Ecology for Exeter University to deliver an opening speech. Ten students then presented talks on their research throughout the day and the breaks provided an opportunity to network and browse the posters. It was fantastic to be able to accommodate talks and posters from students across diverse disciplines, from politics and geology to the Life Sciences.

We also welcomed two keynote speakers from the University. Dr Frank van Veen, Associate professor of ecology and conservation provided an insight into his research on conservation and tourism in Kruger National Park and illustrated how the research from the Cornwall Campus is far-reaching and helping to answer important questions internationally.

Professor David Hosken, an evolutionary biologist and Dean of Strategic Development of the Cornwall Campuses also explained his work on sexual phenotypes, and particularly those associated with sexual selection and sexual conflict. To close the day, David presented his ‘top tips’ for early researchers, including, perhaps most importantly, ‘enjoy it’!

The prize for the best poster was awarded to Mel Weedon: Effects of parental ageing on offspring body mass trajectories in wild European badgers.

The runner up for best poster was Silu Lin: An evolutionary explanation to fertility decline.

The prize for the best talk was awarded to Emma Lou: The home-ranging behaviour of reintroduced orangutans.

The runner up for best talk was Beki Hooper: Killer whales, yellow slime and spa trips: using leftover DNA to elucidate ecologically relevant information.

Overall, the day was a great success and we hope that ERIC can be held again next year. Thank you to all our speakers and to the students who attended or participated and to Sean Meadon and Katie Shanks for acting as judges and providing great feedback on student talks and posters.

Special thanks to Dr Chris Wood and the wider Doctoral College team for their support throughout. Thank you also to the ESI team for allowing us to hold the event in the ESI and their help in making the event a success.

ERIC Committee: Alexandra Gardner (Chair), Ben Phillips, David Sünderhoff, Shari Mang, Thomas Pownall, Angela Hayward, Amina Ghezal, Rachael Smith and Emily Carter.

How art can help communicate science

Anna Sowa is a documentary film producer with a strong background in international affairs policy and academic research. After completing her BA in Arabic with International Relations, Anna continued her professional and academic interest in international development at SOAS, University of London where she graduated with a distinction MSc in Migration, Mobility and Development. She is the co-founder of Chouette Films–  an award-winning production company committed to using film as a tool for social change. She is a PhD by practice candidate at the London Film School/ University of Exeter researching the role of the producer in collaborative documentary filmmaking.

A piece of advice that I remember from my school drama teacher years ago, is to always practice and test your acting by performing in front of a young child. If the child stays focused and interested, even without necessarily understanding the piece, then you have successfully achieved a genuinely engaging performance. At the same time, this teacher also used to encourage us to be authentic and to stay genuine to ourselves. I now understand how these two pieces of advice are interlinked. The teacher wanted us to find our own way of expressing each piece, to create a performance which both felt natural and was uniquely captivating. Rather than exaggerated or over-dramatic acting, simply for the sake of being shocking or different, innovative and heart-felt acting is the key to engaging an audience.

Although drama lessons may sit on a very different branch of the arts to academic posters, I still find my old teacher’s advice very meaningful to the process of design.

Firstly, testing your work is of pivotal value to poster design. It may seem like a peculiar choice to start with this focus on testing, because it is often under-estimated as a minor and latter part of the design process. However, from my experience it is crucial to continually test an idea from its conception through to its completion as a final product. Share your ideas with someone who works in your field; share them with a stranger; share them with a child. The more diverse the group, the more well-rounded the feedback. Show them your sketches and scribbles to see what catches their interests. Testing ideas gives you the tools to analyse, reshape and build on your design.

Secondly, authenticity is vital to the meaning and impact of a poster. So, make it personal; make it yours. My work investigates the very role that I play: that of the producer. Since the perspective of my study is self-reflective and my PhD is practice-based, it felt natural for the poster to depict myself in action at a film shoot. From afar, the poster’s graphics resemble a regular film poster. Visually, this creates an instant association of the poster with film, no matter how unfamiliar the viewer may be with the subject matter of my research. It is important to make sure that your individual vision for the project remains integral to your design. Pinpoint the key images that represent your work, and experiment with ways of building graphically around these concepts.

Thirdly, I believe that the golden rule of poster design is “less is more”. The busier the poster, the less comprehensive and compelling. Too many sentences can cloud its meaning. Instead, use headlines and bullet points and let the images speak for themselves. Clear and aesthetically simple designs can be the most powerful. Pick out the key words from your research and strip back any unnecessary jargon, so that your poster communicates to every viewer, even a child.

After all, the simple truth behind academic poster design is that art can support science. Far from being its antagonist, art can enhance the clarity of conceptual scientific descriptions.

Written by: Anna Sowa-  Film PhD by Practice Researcher

Chouette films website
Twitter: @ChouetteFilms

Interested in this year’s competition is open until Friday 20 April, full details about Postgradaute Research Showcase, the poster competition and our other competitions, 3 Minute Thesis and Tweet your Thesis can be found here.

3 Minute Thesis- What made me enter!

Elisabeth is a final year PhD student studying astrophysics. In her research she aims to detect planets orbiting other stars, and understand how these interact with debris dust – similar to the Asteroid and Kuiper belts in our own solar system. When not worrying about writing a thesis, she enjoys running and playing the flute.

 

 

 

I’m in the unusual position of having given three minute pitches of my PhD four times: twice with the University’s Three Minute Thesis competition, and twice through a similar Three Minute Wonder competition run by the Institute of Physics. I was lucky enough to compete in the Three Minute Wonder final, where we spoke at the Royal Institute in London. Having grown up watching the RI Christmas Lectures I was pretty star-struck by that experience – and it’s not every day that you get to speak on the same stage where Faraday and Dirac have delivered lectures.

I would definitely recommend this competition to anyone, since it’s a really unique and exciting way to be able to share your research. For me there have been several clear benefits.

Firstly, it’s opened doors: I’m passionate about science communication, and I’ve been offered science communication opportunities as a direct result of these competitions. In September the IoP invited me to spend a week touring the South West and visiting schools to deliver science talks: I delivered 16 talks, to over 1000 kids, and had a brilliant time in the process. I was also invited to give an academic seminar at Bristol by someone who had seen my 3 minute piece, which is of course useful for forging academic connections.

Secondly, it’s a huge confidence builder. The competition feels like a very high pressure form of presentation because of the precise time limit (and the huge clock!). The first time I performed a pitch, I literally froze in on stage and my brain went blank. That was pretty horrible experience – but by repeatedly going through the process I’ve become much more comfortable presenting my science, which has been hugely beneficial at conferences and when giving seminars. If I had to freeze somewhere, I’d much rather it be at a relatively low-stakes competition like Three Minute Wonder than at a conference where there might be potential employers in the room!

I love my research, and I love talking about all things exoplanets – and events like this have given me more understanding of what the public do and don’t know about my field, and how I can simultaneously make my subject accessible and avoid dumbing it down. I really value that this means I can speak about my work in a more casual setting, and that my friends and family can start to understand what I do with my time. I am also excited by research more generally, and watching the other competitors – and talking to them afterwards – was a fascinating overview of some of the diverse research happening across the university – from microchips to autism.

Finally, I recently had a postdoc interview where the opening question was “So how about you just give me a two minute summary of your research so far?”. Interviews terrify me, and this one was at a very highly ranked university so I was definitely feeling the pressure – but I think managed to get garble a decent two minutes out, and I’m sure that my Three Minute Thesis and Three Minute Wonder experiences helped me to do so. And you know what? I got the job.

Written by: Elisabeth Matthews

Images of Research: Tea Ceremony

In 2016, I was a Category Winner in the Images of Research competition with the photograph entitled “Tea Ceremony”, which came under the category heading, ‘Society and Culture’. My second entry, “A Life Left Near Behind”, was also featured in the public exhibitions, in the Sustainable Futures category.

Tea Ceremony- Anastasia Sommerville-Wong

“Tea Ceremony”, is an example of the ‘tangification’ of under-represented and often intangible heritages, such as the blended inheritances, experiences and identities of mixed race children. As a researcher (at the time in intellectual property law), writer and photographer, I combined these skills to create an image which would capture the power of visibility, dissemination and copyright when it comes to protecting cultures and peoples who are frequently under-represented or misrepresented in the mainstream media. I am pursuing an academic career in creative writing but my background is in history, and I remain deeply committed to rediscovering and promoting the understanding of lost and under-represented histories, through creative exhibitions and publications which can help to debunk myths, undermine stereotypes and open our minds.

I am therefore passionate about the imaginative creation and curation of digital cultural and heritage content for educational purposes. While editing my first novel, I am exploring in particular, how literary fiction may be engaged with in new ways, using the latest in digital technologies and design. I am also interested in how it can simultaneously entertain, enlighten and inspire us towards healthier and more sustainable cultures and environments. I am fascinated by the ways in which our received cultural heritage, including that which is conveyed in literary fiction, journalism and other forms of creative writing, gives us our sense of identity and purpose, resulting in our differing beliefs and visions of what constitutes ‘the good life’ or ‘the good society’.

A Life Left Near Behind- Anastasia Sommerville-Wong

Both images were originally taken for my research-inspired arts initiative, which aimed, through collaboration between researchers, independent artists and the creative industries, to communicate research data, discoveries, questions and insights in new and exciting ways that will have more impact on policy-makers and the wider public than traditional publications. “A Life Left Near Behind” is a photograph of an installation I created with a poem I originally wrote for my Poetry of Places project. The project explores the ways in which we interpret and are formed and transformed by the natural environments we experience. The project uses fusion art-forms to convey the value to be found in earth’s natural environments, particularly the value of these environments for our health and well-being, and frames this thinking from a human rights perspective.

During my three years at the University of Exeter, public engagement and impact were at the heart of my work. I was an Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter (2014 – 2017) in the School of Law, working on the Europeana Space Project. This was a high profile, international and multi-stakeholder project funded by the European Commission. I worked in close collaboration with 29+ partners in the creative industries, culture sector and across disciplines in higher education, as well as with independent artists and cultural entrepreneurs. We sought to facilitate the creative reuse of digital cultural content for educational and commercial purposes, job creation and economy boosting across Europe. I was also academic host to an artist in residence for the ACE funded Exeter Enquiries project, and I ran my own Culture-Makers Project in collaboration with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, which was funded by a Researcher-led Initiative Award and a School of Social Sciences and International Studies Strategic Discretionary Award.

I am now a researcher at the University of Plymouth, working on the AHRC funded project ‘Imagining Alternatives: Utopia, Community and the Novel 1880-2015’. Impact and public engagement are once again central to my role, as I am responsible for creating and editing content for the project’s webpages, and for organising the workshops, public lectures and initial ‘Feasts for the Future’, in collaboration with our partners at Regen SW, a not-for-profit social enterprise which helps local communities develop ambitious renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.

We tend to look at our communities in the light of the past and all the environmental challenges we face because of it. At the heart of the ‘Feasts for the Future’ project, is the idea that if we look at ourselves from the perspective of possible future communities instead, we will take more positive action in the present. By sharing a meal and telling stories about the ground-breaking renewable energy and energy efficiency projects taking place successfully in our region and around the world, we can develop a realistic and cooperative vision of what our communities could be like in the future. This vision may be more effective than the ever-present threat of destruction and disaster in motivating communities to take on ambitious projects that will transform the way we live. Our project web pages will be live soon, and links to these and further information about my research can be found on my blog at www.somervillewong.wordpress.com.

The Images of Research competition highlights the importance of using different forms of media to capture the interest of those outside your field; across disciplines, across borders, and across industries. Humans are creatures of five senses, and the reality is, no one will want to know about your research, let alone engage with the detail, if the exciting ideas and the potential of it are hidden behind a smokescreen of semantic quibbling and jargon. Academics are increasingly expected to enter into knowledge exchange with other professionals and to reach a wider audience with their research findings, in addition to fulfilling the requirements of traditional academic publications. I believe that if we maintain our accuracy and our integrity, this change can only be a good thing.

Written by: Anastasia Sommerville-Wong

If you are an ECR who wishes to submit an entry to this year’s Images of Research, the deadline is: Sunday 6 May- 23:59 (GMT). Full details about the competition can be found here: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/doctoralcollege/early-career-researchers/imagesofresearch/ 

Fisheries Fun in the House of Parliament

Hi! I’m Katherine Maltby, a PhD student in the Biosciences department here at the University of Exeter. I’m in my final year, working on a project looking at the impact of climate change on fisheries in the south west of the UK. So far, my project has involved producing future projections of climate change impacts on fish stocks, as well as interviewing fishermen to explore their perceptions of climate change and its potential impacts. As part of my PhD I decided to take a break and undertake a placement at the Houses of Parliament to find out more about how scientific evidence is used in policy and decision making. You can find out more about my research adventures on my personal blog: https://fishingforecast.wordpress.com/

For the past three months I’ve been fortunate enough to undertake a fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which was sponsored by the British Ecological Society. It’s been a whirlwind of interviewing, writing and all things fish! My fellowship finally culminated with a new POSTnote on UK Fisheries Management that was launched at a packed breakfast briefing attended by many MPs and Peers in Portcullis House on 21st February.

In case you’re wondering what POST or a POSTnote is, let me fill you in. POST is essentially Parliament’s in-house source of science advice, providing independent, impartial and balanced analyses of public policy issues related to science and technology. By doing this, it provides MPs and Peers with information in an accessible and timely way that can help to increase understanding and awareness on often-complex topics. POSTnotes are one of the main mechanisms through which POST provides this information, and these are four-page briefings that summarise current knowledge on a topic. To go about producing one is a well-formulated step-by-step process, normally starting with a desk-based literature review to help develop the scope of the POSTnote and get you up to speed on what topics you’ll cover. For my POSTnote, I had to cover how science advice is generated and used in fisheries management, the UK and EU fisheries management practices currently in place, and the opportunities and challenges for UK fisheries management in the future. With Brexit, a new fisheries policy is currently being developed and so my POSTnote has hopefully been well timed to help inform discussions and debate on these topics.

The next step of producing a POSTnote involves interviewing relevant stakeholders from academia, industry, government and the third sector to get their perspectives and essentially help flesh out the POSTnote. I really enjoyed this part and getting out and speaking to people, although this didn’t help with reducing the number of topics that I wanted to consider writing about!  Finally, and most importantly, after all of this information gathering the writing process begins. As a fisheries scientist myself this was something I struggled with at the start of writing as for me everything seemed important and I felt it needed to be included. As the writing process went on, I realised that this a) simply wasn’t possible and b) wasn’t entirely necessary – in order for people to understand a topic it doesn’t mean they necessarily need to know everything single thing about it. It was my job to tell them the key points, issues and concepts in the simplest and most logical way possible. The POSTnote has to go through numerous reviews before being published including an internal review, external review and final sign-off, in addition to all the drafts in between! It was a tough job but I think I learnt a lot of new skills about how to communicate scientific topics to a policy audience. I then finally launched the POSTnote at a breakfast briefing which I organised to provide an opportunity for MPs and Peers to discuss fisheries and the issues surrounding science and management.

Aside from producing the POSTnote itself, the fellowship was also a great way to learn more about how Parliament works and how evidence is used in decision making. I had a hall pass for the whole Westminster estate which meant I could attend events, debates and anything else that was going on (including getting a pint or two at the infamous Sports and Social Bar!). Some highlights included going to Prime Minister’s Questions, an evidence session for the EFRA select committee’s inquiry on ‘Fisheries’, being involved in a ‘fake parliament’ exercise that was held in a temporary chamber and also attending the annual fisheries debate in the main chamber.

Overall, working at POST was a brilliant experience and I can’t thank the British Ecological Society and POST enough for giving me the opportunity to work there. I would really recommend doing the placement to other PhD students – you can get funding through numerous research councils as well as learned societies. It gave me a whole new perspective on how scientific evidence is used within decision making and the need to communicate this evidence clearly, accurately and effectively. Here’s hoping that this new POSTnote will be useful in informing further debates and discussions on future UK fisheries policy!

Written by: Katherine Maltby (final year PhD researcher in Biosciences)

The Challenges of a Part-Time, Distance PGR Student

Passionate about languages, cultures and international affairs, Anne gained her Bachelors Degree in Modern Languages from Coventry University in 1997 and a Masters Degree in International Relations from the Instituto Universitario Ortega y Gasset in 2002.  In 2005 after four years studying and teaching English as a Foreign Language in Spain, Mexico and France, Anne embarked on a career in software sales.  Her roles involved working with multi-national clients across the EMEA region, predominantly in Europe and the Middle East.  Events in the Middle East over the past few years however, reignited Anne’s interest in this region and a desire to return to academia.   In 2016 therefore, Anne enrolled as a part-time, distance Doctoral Candidate in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, where she is furthering her research into the Kurds.  In her free time, Anne loves to play tennis, swim and read as much as possible about the world around us.

In 2015, aged 41, I was feeling unfulfilled. Despite having built a successful sales career in the software industry, I was stagnating from an academic and intellectual perspective. At this time, the Kurds were back in the news as the front line against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Since I wrote my Master’s thesis on the Kurds back in 2002, the resurgence of the Kurds in the international media piqued my interest and I started to think about doing a PhD.

It wasn’t the first time I had considered it, but at my age and this stage in my career, it seemed like a ‘now or never’ scenario. By now however, I had a mortgage to pay, so returning to full-time study seemed like an impossible dream. Nevertheless, I started researching PhD’s in Kurdish Studies and came across the University of Exeter.

Having emailed the PGR department, Zoe Humble arranged for me to meet Professor Gareth Stansfield, who suggested that I enrol part-time.  I had never even considered part-time study before. Not only were the fees lower, but also I could still work full-time, which meant I didn’t need to worry about funding or paying the mortgage. No need to relocate either (I live in the North Cotswolds), as only monthly contact is required and this can be via Skype.

I soon realized however, that getting accepted on to the Graduate programme was only the first challenge. Managing a stressful, full-time job that involved travel, combined with the demands of an aging Father and Father-in-Law, who live at opposite ends of the county, soon proved to be the bigger challenge. My job involved spending long hours in front of the computer if I wasn’t on the road. This meant tired eyes that didn’t feel up to more computer-based work in the evenings. On the upside, I got lots of reading done in my first year. As for the actual writing, well, let’s just say I’m playing catch-up and have to be extremely disciplined in my approach to writing.

The other disadvantage of being a distance student is that I often miss out on seminars and workshops. This in turn means that I miss out on the social side of university and don’t often get the chance to discuss my research with anyone. Attending more of the online webinars on offer has helped with this though. Since the sessions are interactive, you get to share your thoughts and opinions with others and hear theirs in return.

It was through one of Kelly Preece’s webinars that I ‘met’ Elsa, another student in a similar position. Together, we’re now starting a Facebook page for part-time, distance graduates to share their experience and make us feel more like part of the student community. You can join our online community Facebook community here. We’d love to hear from more of you about the challenges you face and how you’re overcoming them or if you need help that the university or the community can provide.

Written by: Anne Blanchflower- Middle East Politics PhD researcher

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