Telling tales of multiple Ps – Dr Lydia Cole

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity* to talk, twice, about a topic related (slightly tenuously) to my research and very close to my heart.  On the evening of Wednesday 19th September I stood on the stage at Leaf, facing the Ignite Liverpool crowd, to present on “The Three Ps”; and on Saturday 22nd September I stood on a soapbox in Sheffield’s busy shopping district, to shout about “Peanut butter, palm oil and peat; getting un-stuck in the mud” to a bunch of slightly bemused passers-by.  They were quite different forums with which to share my knowledge and passion, but I learnt a good deal from preparing for and presenting at each.  Here’s a quick low-down of each event, which might hopefully inspire you to get involved in the future.

Ignite Liverpool is the brainchild of a community organisation that runs quarterly events, providing a platform on which anyone can talk for a whistle-stop five minutes about a subject they are passionate about.  The challenge is to convey a coherent story in five minutes, in synchrony with the visuals on your 20 slides which flash up for five seconds in a continuous reel.  I managed to mumble in time to the slides until the penultimate one, where my dialogue turned to dust!  It was a fun experience though, and useful in considering how to design succinct propaganda.  If you’d like to know more about the tale of The Three Ps, you can watch my performance here.  I would recommend giving Ignite a go if you live in Liverpool, or any of the other cities where it’s held (e.g. Sheffield); it’s a great opportunity to practice your public speaking and communication skills on any topic of your choice, in front of a very supportive, slightly tipsy crowd.  The most hilarious talk at the last event was entitled Any Colour you like, where all of the slides where shades of black!

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Reeling off about peat at Ignite Liverpool!

Soapbox Science proved a less well-polished, more chilled-out and slightly chillier event!  The initiative was started eight years ago by two female Biologists, with the goal of creating a public outreach platform on which female scientists could promote their science, whilst simultaneously increasing the profile of women in the STEM sector.

I chose to talk about the same issues on the soapbox as I did on the stage: a narrative around the prolific commodity, palm oil, which links our consumption behaviour in the UK to the draining and deforestation of peat swamp forests in Southeast Asia.  Orang-utans, the people of the forest, were the protagonists, of course.  As part of my PhD research (a few years ago now!), I explored the long-term ecology and contemporary management of the coastal peat swamp forests of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, and have since been monitoring their declining condition and the ever-expanding state of industrial oil palm plantations across the region.  Though my Soapbox performance was not as succinct as I’d hoped (more prep required next time to catch the attention of a transient audience), I managed to have an interesting discussion with several members of the general public on topics of environmental sustainability and the RSPO.  The conversation with one chap, as engaged as he was disillusioned, only concluded when we decided that capitalism needed to be scrapped.  Unfortunately, I didn’t feel qualified to propose an alternative solution.

Illustrating the link between peatlands, palm oil and peanut butter

I found both experiences hugely valuable, primarily because I gained some idea of the level of knowledge amongst the general public on some everyday consumer issues.  People were less aware than I’d realised.  To place your science into a ‘real world’ context, to understand how it might fit into the lives of your neighbours, and to learn how you can inspire people to care as you do, I would recommend standing up on as many platforms as you can.

*The opportunity was created by me through signing up to two events without realising they were in the same week!  I questioned my life choices many times when preparing for them into the wee hours of the morning …. though as per usual have no regrets, in retrospect.

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Dementia Public Engagement Day

On Wednesday 23rd May, scientists from Team Madine and Team Turnbull went on a mission to educate the public about dementia research as part of dementia awareness week, at the Alzheimer’s Research UK North West public engagement event hosted at the Institute for Dementia (University of Salford). The event was a hive of activity and a cornucopia of fun! Through the media of Lego®, giant KerPlunk!, cells and real brains members of the public were introduced to all things dementia, including how diet can affect your dementia risk, the development of novel inhibitors of dementia-associated proteins and the links between dementia and other diseases.

Kiani Jeacock, James Torpey (Madine group) and Scott Guimond (Turnbull group) showcased the fantastic research happening at the University of Liverpool through informative posters and a ‘Draw for Dementia’ activity. People were invited to draw the first thing that came to mind when they heard the word “dementia”, which resulted in some really interesting and thought-provoking work!

On the day, they also met people who had dementia themselves or who had friends or family with dementia. This was an educational experience for the scientists too, as it highlighted the translational aspect of their work and emphasised the importance of research into these poorly-understood conditions.

Overall it was a well-organised and enlightening day, and events like these are fantastic for both researchers and the general public alike.

Thanks to ARUK and the Institute for Dementia for hosting!

 

Build My Future Festival

by Meriel Jones

I’ve given many talks about careers in the Life Sciences following from a degree, but this one was rather different. It was in the Baltic Triangle region of Liverpool, an area listed in March 2017 by ‘The Times’ newspaper as among the coolest, hippest places to live in Britain. The Northern Schools Trust were holding their two day Build My Future festival where 400 young people explore future career options. However, using 15 sites in the Baltic Triangle and including many personal stories about careers is distinctly different from usual.

The first day was given to keynote speakers (such as local MP Alison McGovern and local entrepreneur and chair of the Baltic Triangle CIC Liam Kelly) and introduced career pathways, including the Life Sciences.  The second day included people’s tales of their careers for explanation and inspiration, as well as more general talks, practical motivation and finished with a social event.

When I arrived at Baltic Creative on the 17th of November 2017, I walked into a coffee shop in a warehouse-style shed, and wondered where I’d be speaking. All was soon revealed through a door in the trendy chipboard wall which concealed a meeting room. While waiting, I was recognised by one of the teachers hosting the event, because, as a graduate in Genetics from the University of Liverpool, I’d taught him.  He’d followed his degree by working in biomedical research and then entering teaching.

My audience of about 30 young people had already listened to two speakers about their own careers in the Life Sciences. However, they were very attentive and several took notes. At the end I was asked thoughtful questions, including about opportunities for study abroad during a degree. I anticipate that in the future, members of today’s audience will return to share their career experiences with future young people.

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My experience of the Aurora Leadership Programme

by Klara Wanelik

In March this year I embarked on a leadership training course for women in higher education, called the Aurora Leadership Programme. You might be thinking, why would I go on a course like this? Well, as an early career researcher (ECR) in this sector, I am very concerned by statistics like this:

“The proportion of female students (55%) and graduates (59%) in the EU exceeds that of male students, but women represent only 18% of grade A (professorial) academic staff”1

The aim of Aurora is to take positive action to address this under-representation of women in leadership positions in the higher education sector.

I attended four development days at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds (quite appropriate really!) and met hundreds of women from the higher education sector. It has taken me a while to digest all of this but I think I am finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I include some of my thoughts in this blog post with the hope of inspiring other female ECRs, and more generally inspiring others, to start questioning what it means to be a good a leader. I focus on two aspects of the programme that I found particularly useful. This choice is personal, and I’m sure that other women attending the programme would choose differently. But here goes…

Exploring core values

In one of the sessions, we were given a list of universal human values and asked to circle those that were most important to us: our ‘core values’. At the end of the session, each group pooled their results together on a kind of ‘value map’, where values were grouped under terms like universalism, benevolence and power. What I found particularly striking was that our table had circled lots of values in the former two groups (like equality, honesty and loyalty) but the power section of the map (with words like social recognition, public image and authority) was completely empty. And it wasn’t just our table, a colleague of mine who attended the programme in London, told me the same happened there.

How could this be? How could these women who had come together for the sole purpose of developing their leadership skills (some of them already in senior leadership positions) not feel that they identified with any of these values? There are two possible answers: 1) they didn’t feel comfortable sharing these values, or 2) they genuinely didn’t prioritise them. Given the spirit of openness that Aurora encourages, I assume that the second answer is the most likely. This isn’t a gender-specific phenomenon – we heard that men in leadership positions who completed this activity also highlighted the non-power-related values. This, I think, calls into question what we think a leader should be. Many of us still hang on to a traditional view of a leader being a dominating individual, with full authority, who is driven to do what he/she does for the recognition, wealth and/or the power they receive in return. This is a view we really need to shift. By doing this activity, we were being encouraged to consider the individuality of leadership and the importance of authenticity; staying true to your values, while leading. As one of the facilitators suggested, the best leaders are those that create the next generation of leaders. I think this is perhaps a more useful (and interesting) view of leadership than the traditional one.

Importance of storytelling and leading with “why”

In another session we learnt about the importance of storytelling in leadership. This sounded a bit odd to me at first, I’d never really put the two together but then I got talking to a woman on my table who proceeded to tell me about some charity work she was doing, somewhat connected to her work as a lawyer. The way she created a narrative about the people she was helping and what she was doing to help them captured my attention. I wanted to sign up straight away, even though I would have been of very little help (I’m a biologist not a lawyer!) It was at this moment though, when she was masterfully telling her story, that I realised how powerful storytelling could be in getting people to do what you want them to do.

The tables were turned on another occasion, after I watched a TED talk by Simon Sinek, which was recommended as part of the pre-work for an Aurora session. In his talk, Simon Sinek talks about inspiring action by leading with why we’re doing something, rather than how or what exactly we’re doing: “people don’t buy what we do, they buy why we do it”. Soon after watching this talk I had the opportunity to re-formulate my ‘elevator pitch’ about the research that I do. There is a real diversity of women on the Aurora programme, from professional services to academics, and from all different fields. On this occasion, I happened to be sat next to (another) lawyer, and to be honest, I was pretty sceptical about being able to really (genuinely) get her on board. To my surprise, my pitch did get her genuinely excited about my research and asking multiple questions. I still remember the look on her face! I’ll be trying my best to lead with “why” from now on.

Thank you

I would like to thank IIB for funding my place on the Aurora programme, all the inspirational women I met during my time on Aurora and my colleagues in IIB for supporting me along the way. Special thanks to Zen Lewis, who provided much needed encouragement and support and pushed me to re-apply for Aurora after I was initially unsuccessful in securing a place.

If you are a female ECR like me, I hope this post will encourage you to give the Aurora programme a go and to start thinking of yourself as a leader!

  1. Morley, L (2013) Women and Higher Education: Absences and Aspiration

AEC Outreach at BBC Gardeners’ Question Time

The BBC Gardeners’ question time event at Ness Botanical Gardens on the 16th of September was a great avenue for Researchers from the Department for Evolution, Ecology and Behaviour to showcase how the nature of gardens is underpinned by ecology and evolution.

Gardens are much more than the plants they contain. Georgia Drew, Jo Griffin & Louise Reynolds introduced visitors to the fascinating world of bees, butterflies, fruit flies and the ecosystem of microbial symbionts that these organisms host. Visitors were fascinated and horrified, in equal measure, at the case of male-killing bacteria in a population of tropical butterflies. Many were eager to know the potential applications of such information, including the fascinating role of symbionts in the control of aphid and other plant pest populations. Jo talked to the BBC producers about the use of symbionts in the prevention of insect-borne disease.

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Meanwhile, Franziska Brunner, Stew Plaistow & David Atkinson gave tours around their newly-renovated experimental ponds at Ness, and introduced visitors to their work on climate change impacts on aquatic ecosystems and pond life. Many were very impressed by the experimental ponds, and the logistics and methods needed to carry out this kind of study. The group’s pond-dipping tour gave visitors a chance to reconnect with their “inner child”, and come face-to-face with the incredible biodiversity concealed just beneath the surface of the garden pond. Catching sticklebacks turned out to be a major attraction during these pond-dipping sessions!

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Last but not least, visitors attended guided tours of an ongoing long-term experiment investigating how grassland plants cope with climate change, given by Raj Whitlock, Christoph Hahn, Di Yang, and George Airey. Visitors learned of the vital importance of grasslands for conservation and for providing crucial services to people, and of the threats posed to grasslands by climate change. The tour introduced a large drought manipulation experiment comprising 1,952 model grasslands, which assessed the potential for climate-driven evolution within plant species. After some hands-on botanical training, almost all of the visitors were able to identify all of the plant species in this experiment (although there were none keen enough to taste the delicious salad burnet [Sanguisorba minor] or sweet vernal grass [Anthoxanthum odoratum] on offer).

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All of us were impressed by the depth of questions that visitors asked, and by their enthusiasm for the underpinning science. It was a rewarding day, and we are looking forward to our next visit to Ness!

Jerry Turnbull helps raise dementia awareness at charity walk

IIB’s Prof Jerry Turnbull joined 3,000 people this weekend to unite against dementia at a charity walk in the city. He was accompanied by teenager Jay Stout, whose father was diagnosed with dementia just a year ago, at the start line of this year’s Memory Walk in Croxteth Country Park, along with the “Only Men Aloud” singing group (see picture). It is one of two major walks in the city organized by the Alzheimer’s Society to raise funds to fight dementia.

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The Turnbull lab is developing drug candidates based on the blood thinning drug heparin designed to prevent or slow down the development of Alzheimer’s and treat the major underlying cause of the disease for the first time. The work is supported by a £260,000 grant from the Alzheimer’s Society. He said: “This funding was vital for extending our translational studies on safety and efficacy in mouse models, and it was fantastic to see the support by so many people at the Memory Walk.”

 For further information, click here.

Pinfold Junior School day at the Millennium Wood

by Meriel Jones

Getting children out of the classroom to connect with the natural world should be a feature of primary education and is also an excellent way to introduce science.  This is why, towards the end of the summer term on July 5th, children from Pinfold Junior School in Scarisbrick near Southport found themselves in their local Millennium Wood for the day.

Along with building dens, hunting for treasure and making mini scarecrows with their teachers, they went on a bug hunt with Dr James Davies, a postdoctoral associate in the Institute of Integrative Biology.  Extracting creepy crawlies from the undergrowth and then admiring dragonflies and butterflies as they flew past kept the young hunters, and James, very busy.

In addition, Patrick Hamilton, Lois Ellison and Kelly Roper, undergraduate students from the School of Life Sciences Student Outreach Society, were on hand with activities in the local church hall that was the base for lunch. Kelly said ‘We all really enjoyed the day and it has sparked some new ideas for outreach activities we can develop further. Therefore it was a beneficial experience for us as well.’

‘I would say the main thing I took away from the day was how much fun the children had applying what we had told them about adaptations, to the creation of their own creatures which had a whole range of creative/imaginative features.’

This event is the most recent in the Institute of Integrative Biology’s relationship with Pinfold School that began in 2010 and has included a project that won the annual national Rolls-Royce Eden Award for the best implemented environmental project meeting the needs of a school in 2013.

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