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Making the most out of your PhD by combining it with travelling

Emma J Butcher14 January 2019

Written by Leevi Kerkelä, PhD student in Developmental Imaging and Biophysics Section at UCL’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, and an outdoors enthusiast

Check out the Champalimaud’s Neuroscience Programme twitter@Neuro_CF

When I moved to the UK to start my PhD project, I was eager to begin my studies in a university that prides itself on being London’s most international university. Having done my MSc in a department where PhD students were expected to visit an overseas lab to conduct part of their research, I was interested in gaining some experience abroad. At UCL, networking with international peers during conferences is common, but visiting labs overseas for actual research is rare. Students are free to go assuming they can do relevant work and get their supervisor’s approval. I spent four months of the second year of my PhD abroad and would like to share my experience to encourage others to do so.

I came up with the idea of visiting a lab abroad on a cold and rainy afternoon in Cornwall. I had spent a week surfing just to have to leave the ocean the very day I started to feel comfortable in it. The previously elusive bottom turn had started to feel natural, and I was not happy having to travel back to landlocked London. Dreaming about being able to surf on a daily basis, I searched for relevant research groups in Portugal. I was delighted to find a group in Lisbon working on MRI methods that perfectly matched the scope of my PhD project. After receiving an approval from my supervisor, I approached the principal investigator in Lisbon via e-mail. After a few e-mails and a Skype call, we agreed that I would visit the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown for four months to work on double diffusion encoding methods for quantifying brain tissue microstructure with MRI.

Portugal has been blessed with over a thousand miles of truly magnificent coastline. This surfing gem of Ribeira d’Ilhas in Ericeira is less than an hour away from central Lisbon

During the first week of my placement, I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of my new temporary home and the quality of the research at Champalimaud. The powerful equipment allowed me to perform interesting experiments that would not have been possible at GOSH. This freedom with experimenting led me to develop a deeper understanding of MRI which has greatly helped me to make progress with my PhD project. Combining the stimulating work environment with living at the beach and enjoying the fantastic weather made these four months an unforgettable experience.

A motivated student on my first day. The Champalimaud building is an architectural masterpiece that attracts visitors for its design. Most working spaces overlook this garden in which researchers can have a relaxing break under the palm trees.

For anyone interested in visiting a research group overseas, I would give the following advice.

1) Find a research group that is relevant to your PhD project. Three or four years is a short time for finishing a PhD project, so it is crucial that your time abroad is not wasted.

2) Decide whether to briefly visit in order to learn something new or to visit for a longer period of time to conduct a short research project.

3) Speak to your supervisor and the foreign PI only after you have a good idea of what you would like to achieve with the visit.

Post-graduate studies can be a period of time filled with exceptional individual responsibility and freedom, so I strongly recommend making the most out of this time of your life.

Postscript from Faculty Graduate Tutor (Research): note that any student can also apply to take a funded research period in the USA and Canada through the UCL Bogue Fellowship Scheme.

How to Put the Pro in Conference

Emma J Butcher3 January 2019

Written by Birgit Pimpel, PhD student at UCL’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, and coffee lover

In August this year, I attended the 13th European Congress on Epileptology. The 5 day congress offered a broad spectrum of topics related to epileptology – from basic to clinical research – and was organised into four main themes: Adult Epileptology, Basic and Translational Science, Childhood Epileptology, and Pharmacotherapy. It took place in Vienna, the capital of Austria.

I would like tell you why I always enjoy conferences and what I liked about this one in particular.

Let me start with a non-academic benefit: conferences offer a great opportunity to get to know new places, sometimes in locations you would not otherwise visit. In the case of the Epileptology congress, rather than discovering a new place, the conference gave me a chance to visit home. Before moving to London to pursue a PhD, I lived in Vienna for about 10 years and I was pleased to return. All the more so at the end of summer when the city is not too hot, it is still sunny, and there is a relaxed atmosphere all around.

One of my favourite things that Viennese people do is have schnitzel with noodles coffee and cake. They can spend hours on it at a time. This pastime is precisely what I enjoyed before the conference started (exhibit A). To my delight, more of my favourite beverage was served during the conference at a tiny mobile café that offered delicious coffee, foam art included (exhibit B). Conferences offer you the chance to try out new traditions and temporarily immerse yourself in the culture of the place.

 

Exhibit A: coffee time

Exhibit B: fancy foam art

But let’s talk business. A great plus of conferences is that one has the opportunity to showcase academic work. Abstract submissions and conference presentations entail deadlines, which always help me focus my ideas and reassess the objectives of my research. Puzzling over how to best present my data and make it understandable to a broad audience aids my own understanding and sometimes leads to further questions and ideas for analysis. Conferences commit you to delivering presentable work and thus can help you keep you on track with your PhD in terms of time.

I was informed prior to the conference that a poster I had submitted was shortlisted for one of the ‘Best Poster Awards’. This provided more motivation to prepare a great poster. Spoiler alert: I did not win the prize. However, knowing that over 800 posters were presented during the conference, I was happy to make it into the shortlist. Furthermore, a number of interested conference participants came to see my poster during the poster session and I had great discussions about mine and others’ projects – a rewarding experience, which helped me see the value in my research. Disseminating findings, whether through a poster presentation or a talk, is also a great opportunity to build networks for future collaboration.

Exhibit C: a poster and its happy creator

Last but not least, I really enjoyed this conference because there were two oral presentation sessions closely related to my PhD. Both sessions were stimulating, with top researchers giving talks. In this way, conferences can be a perfect way to get up-to-date about the most recent advances in your field.

To sum up, attending the conference was a really rewarding experience. Not only did I get to immerse myself in the local culture, but I got a chance to focus my ideas and reassess the academic work I was doing. I got an update about recent advances in a highly specialised field of research and I shared my own preliminary findings with like-minded participants.

Finally, a word of caution. I suggest you do not – as I did – offer to too many colleagues to take along their posters to a conference because you happen to have a cool poster tube. It’s easy to cram posters into a tube – the tricky part is getting them out.

Exhibit D: surgical removal of posters from a poster tube