Early Career Climate Researchers: Why Our Voice Matters

On the 22nd and 23rd June 2021, a group of Early Career Researchers (ECRs) from GW4 universities organised a Symposium on Climate Change. After two days of insightful presentations and stimulating conversations, the organising committee and conference attendees gathered for a final roundtable. They discussed the roles ECRs should play in the next ten years of climate research, and why their voices should matter in this endeavour. The statement presented below is the outcome of this roundtable.

As humanity rounds off the first quarter of the 21st century, the effects of anthropogenic climate change are becoming increasingly pronounced, disproportionately harming the most vulnerable. These impacts will grow exponentially in the decades to come. In this context, academic research has a critical role to play in developing ideas and strategies that can help mitigate this crisis and adapt to its consequences.

As climate researchers in Ph.D. or postdoc positions, we are willing to contribute to this endeavour. In this statement, we present three reasons why ECRs are uniquely well-positioned to take part in this conversation, and why they ought to be listened to.

3 key commitments from ECRs to produce impactful climate research:

  1. We commit to adopting an interdisciplinary approach to understand and tackle climate change.
  2. We commit to place global ethics at the centre or our work, and to make research processes more participatory.
  3. We commit to communicating our research broadly and creatively to reach different audiences.

Primarily, ECRs tend to be newcomers to their respective disciplines, allowing them to position themselves more easily between disciplines, or offer fresh perspectives on their home discipline. This position allows ECRs to develop the interdisciplinary networks and skill sets necessary to tackle the next generation of climate research. In fact, while facing “wicked problems” such as climate change, siloed perspectives limit the creation of  holistic and long term solutions. An example of this interdisciplinary approach was the Climate Symposium we recently organised. The symposium’s organising committee members possess highly diverse backgrounds including ecology, engineering, combustion science, history, epidemiology, education and management studies. Capitalising on this opportunity to work with a breadth of experiences, the organising committee put together a symposium that foregrounded our common passion to address climate change, associated issues and improving society, rather than putting forward a specific discipline.

Furthermore, on average, ECRs belong to the generations who have lived and will continue to see the increasing effects of climate change and its social and economic consequences. Consequently, a central motivation is to elaborate concrete alternatives that can benefit society as a whole. However, although climate change is global, it is fundamental to mention that its impacts are not equally distributed. In the course of our conversation, we stressed the need to acknowledge our positionality and privileges as researchers based in the Global North. This requires us to adopt a global ethics approach and to put climate justice at the centre of our work. Another approach rests on the creation of global collaborations and networks with a variety of stakeholders, including civil society organisations, businesses and policy-makers, to ensure that our work is inclusive and impactful, in line with participatory research approaches.

Finally, we are keen to communicate our work beyond academia using a variety of tools. This includes social media, blog posts, policy-briefs and artistic productions. The Climate Symposium 2021 sought to develop such skills. In addition to providing a platform for ECRs to present their work, we partnered with Protect Blue, an ocean focused creative agency, who delivered a workshop on research communication. This gave us some critical tips on how to communicate our work more effectively and engage with a wider audience. Our key takeaways included the need to frame our message based on our audience, being solution-focused and to present challenges as opportunities, in order to give a sense of optimism about the impact of our projects.

If you are at the early stage of your academic career, and the arguments we brought forward in this text resonate with you, we would like to encourage you to speak up, now, because your voice matters.

Exploring the Key Components of Public Engagement

Megan Maunder is a third year PhD student in Mathematics, CEMPS at the University of Exeter. She is the beneficiary of an STFC studentship for a “Multi-Spacecraft Investigation of Solar and Heliospheric Plasmas”.  A strong believer in engaging the wider public in the scientific process, she runs a variety of outreach and public engagement sessions with the University’s Widening Participation Team and external groups. She is currently the Advocacy Team lead for the Royal Astronomical Society’s Early Career Researcher Network, working to creating more inclusive and accessible environments within Astronomy and Geophysics.

Throughout June the Researcher Development and Research Culture team ran events as part of a new series funded by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, exploring the key components of Public Engagement:

  • An Introduction Public Engagement and Evaluation for Engagement
  • Creative Engagement Methods
  • Co-production in Research
  • Impactful Public Engagement with Research

The four sessions were led by public engagement experts from across the University and showcased a range of disciplines, activities, and approaches including multi-disciplinary and co-produced public engagement case studies. A variety of career researchers attended, from those getting started to those looking to develop new projects and hone their expertise.

Here are some Top Tips from our sessions to help guide you:

  • Make sure to have an ‘elevator pitch’ Prepare a few sentences to describe your research in jargon-free language for a non-specialist audience. Having this ready to go is a good foundation for starting your public engagement journey.
  • Ask around, find out what projects already exist, and talk to those already involved. There are often meaningful funded opportunities for early career researchers to start their own projects or get involved in existing ones. Learning about what others are doing can be a source of inspiration and advice; there may be existing projects you can get involved in.
  • Focus on your audience. The ‘public’ is not a homogenous group; there are different types of publics, think about what group you specifically want to target, what you already know about them, and why they might interested in your research and how that fits in a broader context. Your sessions and plans should be aimed at this group. This is key to developing meaningful engagement.
  • Think about your motivations. Why you want to get involved in public engagement, what you hope to get out of it? You may even focus on working with a group that can help you with your work and focus on creating co-produced research creating a clear two-way dialogue with your target group. Using Logic Models may help with this as you develop your plan.
  • Think about the logistics, not just costs, locations but evaluate how much of your time you can commit to a project. How much time is involved in preparation and development, delivering content and hosting events, and then time spent on post-production like editing and impact evaluation?
  • How are you going to evaluate the impacts of your activities? Think about what evidence you might need and how you are going to store and analyse any data, especially if this is required by your funder. Remember to check if you need ethics approval!

A huge thank you is extended to all our session presenters and to those who presented their work and case studies.

A suite of resources exploring these concepts in more detail, developed by Megan, will be available on our ELE page in the coming weeks.

How to survive a viva: new online resources coming soon

Edward Mills (@edward_mills) is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, working on the AHRC-funded ‘Learning French in Medieval England’ project. He completed his PhD at the University of Exeter in 2020, where he was an active member of the PGR community.




Regular readers of this blog will likely already be familiar with the range of workshops, and webinars that the Researcher Development and Research Culture team offers to PGRs. During the pandemic, a number of PGRs have been working with Researcher Development to add an asynchronous element to this suite of offerings, and have put together a wide range of resources for the Researcher Development ELE page on all aspects of the doctoral experience. These range from advice on working with your supervisors specific tips for writing journal articles; and as I write this, ten of these resources are available, with more to follow in the near future. All of these resources are built around the principle of being ‘by PGRs, for PGRs’; that is, they draw on our own experiences to ensure that they are as relevant and precise as possible. While (much to my surprise) I’m no longer a PGR myself, I have been delighted to be able to be involved with the project in a related capacity, and one that also draws on my own experiences: over the past few months, I’ve produced a virtual ‘workbook’ on the topic of the viva.

The resources will soon go live on the Doctoral College’s ELE site, and I’m really pleased with how they turned out. In putting my resources together, I tried very hard not to reinvent the wheel: since the viva’s such an established part of any research degree journey, there’s an enormous amount of fairly generic advice out there that can be found with even a cursory Google search, which didn’t need repeating in another format. Instead, I decided to focus in on the multimedia potential of resources on ELE, and chose to structure much of the resource around interviews with three experienced supervisors and examiners, interviewed by a recent ‘viva survivor’. Each of these academics — Bice Maiguaschca, in Politics, Jon Blount, in CLES, and Michelle Bolduc, from Modern Languages and Cultures — was incredibly generous with their time, and the end result is three fascinating conversations that really illuminate the more commonly-overlooked aspects of the end-of-thesis period. Is it possible to pass a viva if your examiners disagree with you? Does publising extracts of your thesis prior to the viva render you ‘intouchable’? How can you best handle in-viva nerves? Answers to all of these questions, and more, await your ears, and are available both as excerpts scattered throughout the the resource and as full episodes three episodes of Kelly Louise Preece’s podcast, R, D, and the In-Betweens.

I really hope that you find the resources useful, and that the podcasts make for interesting listening. As ever, feedback is more than welcome, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions, comments, or musings on all things viva-related!

Writing non-academic job applications

This post is written by Cate Bennett, Researcher Development Manager (ECRs) and is part of our new PGR Career Planning Guide.

Just like your CV an application form is your personal marketing document. It is your opportunity to introduce ‘you’ to a potential employer and therefore your first opportunity to showcase the relevant skills, experiences and personal attributes that you have and that they are looking for.  Your key focus must be to tailor your application to the role.

Before you compose anything, have you …

1.    Carefully read the form, accompanying documents and instructions through from start to finish? Ask yourself: do I have all the information to hand that I will need to complete this form successfully?

The above may sound obvious, but you’ll be amazed at how many people don’t do this and then find they are wasting time hunting for key pieces of information, for example; key dates, names of qualifications, examining body details, employers’ addresses and strong examples to showcase evidence. Remember, follow instructions to the letter and don’t leave sections blank, unless you really have nothing relevant to say.

On top of all of this, many forget to seek the permission of their potential referees. It is vital that you ask whether they are happy to be your referee; if you don’t, you may find that a reference won’t be forthcoming!

2.    Carried out your research? Ask yourself: what do I know about this organisation and the sector it operates within?

Your research should not be limited to the organisation’s website and application materials. Often you can find out a lot about an organisation through following them on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook etc. Read the press and sector specific magazines and journals.

You may, through reviewing your own network, identify individuals who have knowledge of your organisation of choice. Using LinkedIn Alumni may help you identify graduates from the University of Exeter who are working within the sector you are trying to break into and even the company you are applying to. Why not use your common experience of studying/researching at Exeter as a way to connect through LinkedIn and start a conversation!

Attending employer events and fairs run through the University and elsewhere will also provide you with opportunities to have key conversations with recruiters.

3.    Identified the key elements your potential employer is seeking? Ask yourself: if I was the recruiter what would make this application form stand out for me?

Pay very close attention to the advert, job description and person specification.

If, in the advertising materials for the post, you are offered the opportunity to find out more about the role before applying, embrace it! Make contact with the person listed and prepare for your conversation in advance. Don’t ask questions for which the answers could be easily found through the website, or application materials. Think about what you need to know to support your decision making around whether the role and the organisation are right for you and to help you target your application further.

4.    Explored and understood the language of the sector and organisation? Ask yourself: does this organisation use an applicant tracking system (ATS)?

An applicant tracking system helps companies organize candidates for hiring and recruitment purposes. These systems allow businesses to collect information, organize prospects based on experience and skill set, and filter applicants’. 

Although you may not be able to find out whether an ATS is used (currently, it appears to be large organisations that utilise them), taking time to do your background research and looking at the language in the recruitment literature and on the organisation’s web pages will give you the opportunity to use the language that an ATS will be looking for. Try to weave this naturally through your application form and remember:

  • No spelling mistakes! The ATS will miss important keywords if misspelled.
  • Consider the keywords, buzzwords, technical terms, experience and skills used in the organisation’s recruitment material and in the industry
5.    Identified your skills and personal attributes and the experiences you will use to evidence these? Ask yourself: what are the essential and desirable criteria for this role? What else have I learnt about this role through my research and discussions? What experiences will therefore allow me to evidence my most relevant skills and personal attributes?

Don’t just consider standard work or study based examples; what other things have you done or do you do that makes up who you are? Always keep in mind relevance; you are looking for examples across your various experiences that will allow you to evidence skills, experience, enthusiasm and potential. Don’t forget that some experiences that, on the one hand, may not seem related to the role, on the other may be ideal for showcasing the development of key transferable skills that you can’t showcase from more directly related examples.

6.    Considered the language you will use to confidently convey your potential and enthusiasm through the examples you use?

Make it positive, for example, don’t use ‘I feel’, ‘I think’, ‘I had to’. You need to confidently convey your actions using ‘power verbs’. You may find the information found via this link will help you get into the swing of this technique:#.


Now that you are ready to start composing your personal statement and/or answer questions posed by the employer on the application form, consider the following …

1.    If the application form comprises a personal statement section i.e. the blank box which gives you the opportunity to explain why you are applying for the role and why you are suitable, how will you design it so that it’s easy to see how you match the key criteria laid down?  Below is just one approach you could consider:

  • An introductory paragraph that sets the scene i.e. explains why you are interested in the organisation and role;
  • Followed by a themed approach to showcasing how you meet the essential and desirable criteria. i.e. can you theme the elements of the desirable and essential criteria into simple headings and then provide the relevant evidence as to how you meet the criteria? Although theming may not always be possible, where it is, it will may make it much easier for the recruiter to spot how you meet their requirements, rather than trawling through long paragraphs of text trying to identify them. Unless instructed otherwise, it is often suitable to break-up paragraphs with bullet points, allowing you to highlight the key elements you want to stand out. When providing an example to showcase skills and experience, consider using the STAR technique (see section 2 below for details);
  • Brief summary, but not a repetition, of your interest in the role and organisation.

Remember: make the recruiters life easy, don’t write a novel, use a logical structure, be succinct, to the point and provide evidence to back-up your claims. Follow instructions, including those relating to word count or number of pages! If there are no such instructions, often 2-3 pages of A4 is suitable, but if in doubt you can always contact the organisation for clarification.

2.      You may find that the application form contains competency based questions. To answer these successfully you’ll need to identify the specific competency/competencies sought. Where this/these may not be obvious, you may find it helpful to refer back to the person specification and job description. Your next step is to pick a strong example from previous or current experience that will help you evidence not only the skill, but the level of your competence in using it. Read the question carefully, if you are being asked for ‘an example of a time when you …’ use one example only.

To help you with structuring your answer and writing succinctly, try using the STAR technique:

S – briefly describe the Situation

T – briefly describe the Task (often you can combine the S&T)

A – clearly explain the Action you took. This is the section in which you provide the detail of what YOU did. Here you must talk about ‘I’. The recruiter needs to know what you did to be able to identify your skills and personal attributes. This is the part of your answer you spend the most time on.

– explain the Result/s of your action/s. Most people forget to include the outcome of their actions. Don’t skim over this!

Sometimes it may be appropriate to add a second ‘R’ = Review to explain what you’ve learnt or done differently since this experience to showcase your development.

Often competency questions are word limited – remain within the word count!

An infographic of the STARR technique - Situation, Task, Action, Result, Reflection











3.      Strength based questions are more commonly asked at interview but may sometimes be asked on application forms. These questions are used to identify candidates whose own strengths and preferred working style matches the job role, therefore trying to ensure higher motivation and performance in successful candidates.

  • Utilise strong examples of when you have used the specific strengths asked for and     articulate, where appropriate, how they could be of benefit to the organisation
  • Make sure you draw on experiences from all aspects of your life – academia, voluntary work, clubs/societies, paid employment, gap year / travel etc.
  • Just like every other aspect of the application process make sure you answer honestly. If you pretend to be someone you’re not and are successful in securing the position it may not be a good fit for you. 


Final Words of Wisdom

  • Wherever possible, give yourself plenty of time to carry out the background research and the drafting of your application; it can take hours to write, so don’t put yourself under pressure. It is wise to take a break, once you’ve written your first draft, and then come back to it to read it afresh, you’ll often find that you can hone it further.
  • Whether the application requires a personal statement or answers to specific questions which are word limited, draft in Word first, then spell and grammar check; not every online form has a spell checker.
  • If you decide to copy and paste from a previous application form be very, very careful that you are copying the right information! It is more common than you think for applicants to copy across the wrong information, including the name of the previous organisation. It is often better to re-type than copy and paste from an old application form.
  • In Word use the word count checker for the elements of the form that are word limited, not every form will cut you off when you have reached the maximum words allowed. Anything written in excess of the word count is unlikely to be read!
  • Be aware that when copying and pasting into the online form, formatting may change. Make sure you give yourself time to go back through your text to reformat where necessary – visual impressions do count!
  • Don’t lie, be positive, clear and concise.
  • The careful use of bullet points can help draw the eye to key elements of your experiences. They can also help you stick to the facts rather than writing a novel. They help breakup blocks of text which are onerous to those who have very little time to read your application.
  • Proofread – you first then others.
  • If you would like to find out more about disclosing a disability at application stage, please visit the following web pages and listen to the podcasts.
  • Without fail, tailor your application and always follow instructions!

Benefits of the ‘Researcher Development Programme’ – an ECR perspective

Marco Palomino is currently a Senior Lecturer in ‘Information Systems and Big Data’ at the School of Computing, Electronics and Mathematics at the University of Plymouth.

Before this, Marco was a Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School, based at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health in Truro. His research and teaching focuses on the acquisition and analysis of real-time, web based information and emerging trends, opportunities and constraints that might affect the probability of achieving management goals and objectives. Marco had previously worked at the University of Westminster as a Visiting Lecturer after he gained his PhD in Computer Science from Downing College at the University of Cambridge.

One of Marco’s publications for work conducted whilst he was at the University of Exeter was selected by the publishing house’s editorial team as highly commended. He puts part of his success with publications, public speaking and his career progression down to the training he took place in, whilst at Exeter.

Whilst at Exeter Marco took the opportunity to engage in as much development as time would allow and came to several of the Researcher Development Programme sessions that are tailored towards Early Career Researchers (ECRs).

The training courses for early career researchers at Exeter are brilliant – entertaining, informative and applicable

I found the sessions on giving presentations and visualising data particularly useful. Indeed, one example which has stayed with me to this day, used the London Underground map as a reference point. It was a perfect way to demonstrate how information visualised for a particular audience, should often be adapted to suit the needs of a different group of users, even if the underlying data is the same.

The training and development sessions at Exeter were also immensely useful when I subsequently went to conferences to give presentations and now for giving and preparing my lectures. Things that I learned from the Researcher Development Programme keep coming back to me on a daily basis and have really enhanced the way that I work. They were also fun to take part in and highly applicable.

Sometimes these are simple things like ensuring that my slides are being understood by the audience by reducing the amount of text, maintaining clarity and simplicity. This is advice has also been of equal use for when I prepare my online teaching materials.

However, some advice I gained has been fundamentally more important to my career, in general. I was always quite nervous speaking at conferences, but the advice I received whilst at Exeter about how to start a presentation, introduce myself and the content of the talk has proved essential. I use this now every day when I start my lectures and it has also aided in my preparation. Moreover, I used the technique for the interview for my current role, so it seems to work well.

My advice to current ECRs at Exeter is to make as much use of the training on offer from the Doctoral College as you possibly can, it really is excellent and can make a difference to your research activities as well as securing future roles. Finally, I am really happy to hear the plans for the future of ECR development at Exeter. The ‘ECR Hub’ and more bespoke training in the form of ‘Researcher-led Initiatives’ sounds like they are excellent additions.

Written By: This blog article has been compiled by Dr Chris Wood, Research Staff Development Manager in the Doctoral College, based on a discussion with Marco Palamino in February 2019.

What Next? Finding the right workplace for your needs and skills – a personal career journey

Cap’N Kelly

Kelly Louise Preece is the Researcher Development Manager for PGRs in the Doctoral College. You’ll recognise her face from workshops, her voice from WEBINARs, and her jokes from the 90s. You can follow her on twitter for musings about Researcher Development and the PGR experience…interspersed with tweets about superheros and sewing.




Last week I was delighted to present at the SWDTP Conference at the SS Great Britain. I was asked by organisers Anastasiia Kovalenko and Debbie Kinsey to talk about careers beyond academia – and more specifically about my career ‘side-step’ from an academic to a professional services role. The ‘personal’ aspect of the presentation resonated with people, so I tweeted a version of the presentation. Here is the twitter thread if you’re interested in what my 5 year old desire to be Queen, and my current job in Researcher Development, have in common…

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/ 

Soapbox Science: a celebration and cheer for female scientists, and one of the best experiences I had during my PhD

Isabel is a PhD student in the Complex Disease Epigenetics Group as part of the Alzheimer’s Society Exeter Doctoral Centre. Her PhD focuses on evaluating genomic consequences of Alzheimer’s Disease pathology.



It all started with an application…

I was introduced to Soapbox Science in 2016, a few months after I moved to the United Kingdom to join the University of Exeter as a PhD student. When I first heard about it, I was very happy to find there was such an initiative in place, immediately feeling very enthusiastic about participating in it. Although I was not very confident I would be selected, and was afraid it would be too early in my career to do it properly, I still decided to turn my enthusiasm into an application to be a speaker anyway. To my surprise, my application was successful. I could not put into words my excitement when I read the email telling me I was selected to be a speaker at Soapbox Science Exeter, and little did I know then that it would turn out to be one of the best and most fun experiences I had so far as a PhD student – from the preparation, training, interviews, networking, inspiration from other female scientists, to actually standing in the soapbox per se. From that moment on, Soapbox Science won a very special place in my heart. Even after my involvement as a speaker came to an end, I remained accompanying Soapbox Science closely, always wishing to return and continue being involved. Two years later, Dr Safi Darden and Dr Ana Neves challenged me to join them as organizer of Soapbox Science Exeter and my answer could not have been other than “yes”. The three of us are looking forward to receiving enthusiastic applications for Soapbox Science Exeter 2018 from inspiring female scientists, which can be submitted here.

Exeter Soapbox Science organising team. From left to right: Dr Ana Neves, Dr Safi Darden, and Isabel Castanho.

About Soapbox Science…

Soapbox Science was co-founded by Dr Nathalie Petorelli and Dr Seirian Sumner to increase the visibility of women in science and challenge gender stereotypes about the ‘typical’ scientist. The first Soapbox Science event was held in London in 2011, reaching Exeter for the first time in 2015.

Even today, the public perception of ‘a scientist’ is still that of the male researcher, so initiatives such as Soapbox Science are irrefutably vital to change misconceptions and highlight that women can be (successful) scientists as well. Moreover, science, as many other areas, is still male-dominated, particularly in higher positions. An example of this is that less than 10% of all professors in the UK are women. And the problem does not seem to be related with attracting more girls to science. Although some fields are more unbalanced than others (Maths, Physics, Computer Science, and Engineering, as a few examples of scientific areas with a higher percentage of males compared to females), the major problem seems to be related to career progression, particularly when it involves balancing a successful career with building a family, which can become quite challenging and often impossible for some women. By having an all-female group of speakers, Soapbox Science events aim to raise these issues and promote and encourage female scientists and the science they do. Needless to say male colleagues are more than welcome to join as collaborators and volunteers.

Join us!

Soapbox Science is open to any enthusiastic female scientist, from PhD students to Professors, from academics to industry researchers. Come bring your work to the streets and help us inspire and encourage the next generation of scientists.

Soapbox Science Exeter: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/research/events/soapbox/
Soapbox Science Exeter on Twitter: #ExeterSoapbox
Soapbox Science website: http://soapboxscience.org/
Soapbox Science Twitter: @SoapboxScience

Written by: Isabel Castanho- PhD student in the Complex Disease Epigenetics Group as part of the Alzheimer’s Society Exeter Doctoral Centre




What actually happens at Write Club?

Kelly Louise Preece is the Researcher Development Manager for PGRs in the Doctoral College. You’ll recognise her face from workshops, her voice from WEBINARs, and her jokes from the 90s. You can follow her on twitter for musings about Researcher Development and the PGR experience…interspersed with tweets about superheros and sewing.


Last week I wrote about our new Doctoral College initiative to support PGR and ECR writing – Write Club. I talked about our aims and objectives, and the importance of talking about writing and building an engaged community. But what actually happens at Write Club?

Write Clubs so far have been led by myself and Dr. Sally Flint, who is a writer, poet, tutor and editor Riptide journal and Canto poetry. We start with a creative writing task – based on Sally’s work, and the session she deliver for us Creative Approaches to Writing Your Thesis. The aim is to write freely for 5 minutes – in response to an image or object that we provide – and without judgement.

These creative writing tasks are a great way to warm-up those synapses for writing, and to think storytelling, imagery and prose. When 5 minutes are up, we ask the group to share their aims and goals for the session. Sharing goals is an integral part of Write Club. It can help focus your writing time, act as a commitment to a task, and make sure you are working towards something achievable.

And then we do some (academic) writing.

Although we knowingly stole the idea for Write Club from Dr. Sarah Dyer in Geography [link], we are currently following a slightly different model. Sarah’s group uses long, intensive writing periods – as in Rowena Murray’s writing retreats [link]– whereas we alternate  between writing for half an hour, and stopping for 10 minutes of discussion. Approaching writing in short bursts is ‘borrowed’ from another colleague Dr. Siobhan O’Dwyer in the Medical School. Siobhan is the founder of the international twitter community/write club Shut Up and Write Tuesdays, which uses the podormo technique to structure writing time in to 25 minute blocks. We combined SUWT’s shorter bursts with Murray’s discussion breaks to create the initial format for Write Club.

There are two important things to point out.

Firstly, we take the concept of writing quite loosely. It could be writing new prose, editing, reading, thinking – anything that moves the work forward.Secondly, the format and model for Write Club is developing. We are working PGRs and ECRs to continually reflect on and develop the writing space and support we are providing, to make sure it matches the needs of our PGRs and ECRs. That’s why we value the feedback of attendees so highly – and it has been great to see so many engaging with us on feedback forms, by email, and on twitter. On top of feedback, it has been great to hear about the achievements that have come out of Write Club so far. Our resident baker Edward Mills completed the abstract for this upgrade document in our first session.

So there you have it – a brief snapshot of Write Club. Why not join us on 18th January? PGRs can book through My Career Zone, ECRs through Trent!

Do you want to start-up your own writing group, or facilitate one of our Write Clubs? We already have a Shut Up and Write Tuesday group that meeting every Tuesday in the Old Library Computer Cluster! We are happy to provide support and training to anyone interested, so please get in touch with my on k.preece@exeter.ac.uk!

Dementia Researcher’s cycle to Paris fundraising for the Alzheimer’s Society

Eilis Hannon is a Bioinformatician in the Complex Disease Epigenetics Group in the University of Exeter Medical School. Eilis’ research focuses on improving our understanding of the molecular processes involved in the development of schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric disorders. She has an interested in the dynamic nature of human brain development and the way genetic variation influences this process.


About a year ago, 6 researchers from the University of Exeter signed up for the Alzheimer’s Society London to Paris fundraising cycle ride. We all work on different aspects of dementia and have benefited from funding from the Alzheimer’s Society, so this was our opportunity to give something back whilst pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone of sitting behind our computers, or in our lab coats.

In the spirit of the ride we combined forces when it came to the fundraising and therefore set ourselves an ambitious target of raising £12,000. A few posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media got us off to a good start but we knew we would need a few traditional fundraising activities to maintain the momentum and interest in our efforts – so we geared ourselves up for a few cake sales. All the cyclists (and many colleagues) got involved with the baking and we offered a wide range of cakes, biscuits and some bespoke themed delicacies including neuron cupcakes and the main event – the brain cake. A classic 3 layer Victoria sponge on the inside, covered in fondant worms and glazed with raspberry jam. It worked well as a centrepiece to draw passers-by in to the stall with some people even willing to try a piece. Across a coffee mornings and 2 cake sales held in the Forum at Streatham, St Luke’s campus and the RILD building we raised more than £1000 towards our total.

With the fundraising in hand, our attention turned to training for the actual cycle. In addition to commutes, quick spins before or after work and extended weekend rides, we also tackled some local Sportives such as the Dartmoor Classic, Jurassic Beast and the Nello. There were sore knees, thighs, close calls with tractors, flat tires, lots of energy bars, jelly babies and unfortunately one broken wrist which meant our six was down to five for the actual event.

The start point was Blackheath Common in South London and early on Wednesday morning, along with 100 other cyclists all raising money for the same cause, we set off to Paris via Dover, Dunkirk, Cambrai and Soissons. The first day was arguably the hardest; busy roads through London, windy lanes with steep up and down stretches through Ken,t and the added pressure over getting to the Ferry on time! Once in France the main challenge was the distance (70-100 miles per day) and hours in the saddle. Personally, I suffered tightness and an ache between the shoulder blades from hunching over the handlebars, although this did distract somewhat from the other side effects of cycling for 8-10 hours. The “hills” in the route were no match for those we had tackled over Dartmoor, Exmoor, Blackdowns hills and Quantocks in our training, and in some ways were the most enjoyable bits. As promised, France truly was a joy to cycle through, with far fewer cars, and the wider more open roads across rolling terrain making for pleasant viewing.  After four days in the saddle, covering 250 miles in the sun, wind and rain, we cycled the final few miles across the cobbles (!) around the Arc de Triomphe and up towards the Champs D’Elsysee en masse, all wearing our blue and red Alzheimer’s Society Jerseys.

Most of the other participants were taking part because someone close to them had, or has Alzheimer’s Disease. The Alzheimer’s Society not only funds scientific research but also helps support patients and their families with small grants, Dementia Cafes, Singing for the Brain® sessions, and Dementia Advisers, Dementia Support Workers and Side by Side volunteers. Most of our fellow cyclists were more familiar with the support and information services that the Society provides, and while they whole heartedly support the research aspect, it is an area they are less familiar with. I think it was mutually beneficial, therefore, for us to hear about individual experiences, spend time and discuss the work we do. As scientists rather than clinicians, we perhaps forget all too easily the reality of having Alzheimer’s for both patients, family and friends. We know the statistics on the numbers affected and the cost to the economy, but this experience, more than anything, renewed our perspective and focus on the ultimate goal of what we do day-to-day. With the proof of our exploits posted on social media, the final donations came flooding in. Combined with all the other riders we raised an incredible £321,066, showing the value of these group efforts in generating momentum and enthusiasm for the cause, which ultimately leads to more donations.