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Going rogue on the Bogue: my Bogue Fellowship at SickKids Hospital, Toronto

melanie.koelbel.157 November 2019

Written by Daniyal Jafree a MB/PhD student, supervised by Dr David Long and Professor Peter Scambler in the Developmental Biology and Cancer programme, studying how lymphatics in the kidney develop. Lymphatics are specialised tubes which clear debris, excess fluid and immune cells from organs. They have important roles in kidney disease, but how they appear and grow in the kidney in the first place has been a complete mystery.

The first year of my PhD was spent characterising how lymphatics normally grow in the kidney. Based on experiments I did, we had a strange idea about precisely where the cells that make lymphatics in the kidney might be coming from. However, we faced a major roadblock, as we didn’t have access to the right techniques to test our strange idea. Actually, no one in the UK did. With 2-3 years of my PhD left, a unique problem to solve and no way to solve it, what am I to do?

A few Skype calls, a short application form to UCL’s Bogue Fellowship scheme (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/prospective-students/scholarships/graduate/UK-EU_Res/bogue-fellowship) and a 7-hour flight featuring two screaming babies later, I found myself at the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning (PGCRL) at SickKids Hospital, Toronto. PGCRL is the equivalent of GOSICH in Canada, and SickKids is the largest centre dedicated to improving children’s health in the country. After acclimatising to Toronto’s skyscrapers (my apartment was on the 37thfloor), the team of Professor Norman Rosenblum (my supervisor in Canada) and I tried to tackle the mysteries of kidney lymphatic development using gene editing strategies to trace stem cells in mice.

Thanks to tremendous luck, an extremely supportive team and a mouth-wateringly fancy microscopy facility at PGCRL, it took us 9 weeks to test our strange idea of where lymphatic cells in the kidney are coming from. What we found was really surprising, and challenges what we thought we know about how lymphatics develop. The next trick will be to test whether we can exploit this to target lymphatics in kidney diseases; an ongoing aim in David’s laboratory.

I’m grateful to David for facilitating the trip, the GOSICH team and the MB/PhD programme for allowing me to go and Norm in Toronto for getting me involved in the amazing environment at SickKids. Whilst out there, I even got some time to travel, visit family and explore the Canadian wilderness.

Bottom line – if you’re a PhD student with an interesting idea and some time left till your thesis is due: go rogue. Go Bogue.

UCL Grand Challenge (2018- 2019): What are you looking for? Development of a novel spatial memory test for children.

melanie.koelbel.1516 October 2019

Written by Melanie Kölbel, 3rd year PhD student at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (GOSICH), researching sleep in sickle cell anaemia and Mina Jeon, 3rd year PhD student in the department of Psychology and Human Development at the Institute of Education (IoE), researching sleep and cognition in neurotypical and autistic children. Both are part of the Lifespan Learning and Sleep Laboratory (LILAS) at UCL.

Logo of the Visual Spatial Memory Task for children (VISMO-C) at the ages of 5 – 16 years old.

 

Tweet:

UCL Grand Challenges: @UCL_GC

Lifespan Learning and Sleep Laboratory (LILAS): @LILAS_Lab

Mina Jeon:@MinaJeon12 


Think about the following. How many times have you asked yourself or your child(ren)?

  • “Where is my/your […] ?“ (<- insert any objects that you or your child(ren) misplace frequently in the brackets).
  • “I know I put […] here?” or “Don’t you remember where you put […] ?”(<- insert any objects that you misplace frequently in the brackets).
  • “Am I lost again?” I could swear it was that way.

How does a better spatial memory help children? Certainly, it helps them to be successful in STEM.

In the early years, motor development enables a child to explore the world around them. Exploration of the new world helps the child to develop the relationship between objects and places and, therefore, the maturation of spatial cognition (Postma & Ham, 2016). Already at the age of 3-months, young children show an understanding of object misplacement (Hayne et al., 1991). At 4-years of age, children are able to use landmarks as clues to find their way around (Waismeyer & Jacobs, 2013). Spatial cognition has been shown to play an important role in the development of creativity and aids successful expertise development in the domains of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) (Kell et al., 2013; Lubinski, 2010; Wai, Lubinski & Benbow, 2009). Unfortunately, it is often neglected in educational assessments (Kell & Lubinski, 2013).

Have you seen my dots?

Have you or your child looked for dots recently? One of the tests available to assess spatial memory in children is the Dot Locations Test in the Children’s Memory Scale (CMS) (Cohen, 1997). The child has to remember the locations of either 6 or 8 dots over three trials. After a learning stage, the dots need to be recalled on two occasions: (1) immediate after a distractor was shown and (2) after a long delay (20 ~ 30 minutes) to assess the child’s visual spatial memory abilities. The test appears to have a low ecological validity, since it is less generalizable to a real-life setting. From our current experience the test does not seem to be as useful for typical developing children as for children who have an obvious visual or spatial memory difficulties and therefore might underestimate a child’s true performance, especially during the early years.

Pictorial representation of the Dots Location Task for children at the ages of 5-8 years (6 dots) and 9 – 16 years (8 dots) in the Children’s Memory Scale (CMS).

 

Why not develop a new spatial memory task that is more ecologically valid?

We applied for the UCL Grand Challenges Doctoral Students Small Grants Scheme to receive funding to create a fun, ecologically valid and easy to administer test for children to assess their spatial memory. We decided to create a booklet that shows two scenes of an organised and disorganised bedroom with different objects in it. The test follows the Dot Locations principle, whereby the child has to remember the locations of 7 target objects over three trials. After a learning phase, the objects need to be recalled on two occasions: (1) immediate after a distractor was shown and (2) after a long delay (20 ~ 30 minutes). The reason behind our choice of organised and disorganised bedroom scenes is that the bedroom is a place where children keep their belongings/possessions and are generally most familiar with. The organisation of the bedroom could give us a better understanding on how objects are best remembered depending on the environment they are in. The CMS lacks this kind of information. An important implication of the newly developed visual spatial memory test is that by knowing how a child can remember things in either an organised and/or disorganised way, it can help us to create targeted future interventions.

(1) Top left: VISMO-C with Manual, stimulus, record form and consent form; (2) Top right: Mina and myself after receiving the first copy of the test; (3) Down left: A child taking part in the assessment and (4) Down right: VISMO-C organised bedroom scene.

 

Challenge accepted: The challenge within the challenge. 

The first challenge we encountered was the design of the test. We had the idea and framework drafted, but we had no artistic knowledge and skills. Having the ability to draw like a 5-year-old clearly does not help. Certainly, it is great to have lots of ideas, but if you are missing the skills to bring these to life, it really puts a break on your work. We didn’t have time to spend hours learning the methods to design the room professionally. Luckily, a great friend and colleague, who is working as a freelancer in design, was able to help us out.

Once this was sorted, we faced the challenge of recruitment. We made flyers, which we handed out on high streets, parks and shopping centres, we even contacted schools, but responses were low. Often kids would be excited if we approached families and were willing to take part, but parents were more reluctant and never got in contact with us. What really helped in the end was the willingness of colleagues and families we work with to spread the word and to engage their friends in this research. Part of the research also assesses their children’s sleep and general cognitive abilities and parents were interested in finding this out too.

Recruitment flyer for the study.

The challenge that still persists is the assessment of a child’s spatial memory skill in a real-life setting. It was our goal to take children to the British Museum for an hour and to walk a maze with them to find out if they can retrieve the way to get to the targeted masterpieces. However, parents often could not find the time to come in. Unexpected closures of our planned routes within the museum and crowdedness made it impossible to fulfil this part of the challenge. In psychology, history taking is very important and can aid the understanding of underlying problems (Postma & Ham, 2016). Therefore, we aim to ask parents specific questions regarding their understanding of their child’s daily spatial memory performance. Working together on this project has shown us that one should not be afraid to ask, and that teamwork can combine multiple skills and make something incomplete complete. We are excited to start analysing the data soon and hope that the VISMO-C will be a useful measurement to test a child’s spatial memory performances in the future, especially in the early years.

The recruitment is still ongoing and your child will receive a £10 voucher for participation.

Please get in contact with Mina Jeon (mina.jeon.12@ucl.ac.uk) and Melanie Kölbel (melanie.koelbel.15@ucl.ac.uk).


Acknowledgement:

  • UCL and the UCL Grand Challenge Scheme for providing us with the funding to make the project possible.
  • Special thanks to the continuous support of our supervisors Professor Fenella Kirham and Dr. Dagmara Dimitriou
  • Katja Dallmann for helping us designing the rooms and objects for VISMO-C.
  • Celia Brenchley, for her advice and valued experience in educational psychology.
  • Special thanks to all the families and children who have played the game with us.
References:
Cohen, M. J. (1997). Children’s memory scale. Administration manual. San Antonio, Texas: The Psychological Corporation.
Hayne, H., Rovee-Collier, C., & Borza, M. A. (1991). Infant memory for place information. Memory & Cognition, 19(4), 378–386.
Kell, H. J., Lubinski, D., Benbow, C. P., & Steiger, J. H. (2013). Creativity and technical innovation: Spatial ability’s unique role. Psychological science, 24(9), 1831-1836.
Kell, H. and Lubinski, D. (2013). Spatial Ability: A Neglected Talent in Educational and Occupational Settings. Roeper Review, 35(4), pp.219-230.
Lubinski, D. (2010). Spatial ability and STEM: A sleeping giant for talent identification and development. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(4), pp.344-351.
Postma, A. and Ham, I. (2016). Neuropsychology of Space Spatial Functions of the Human Brain. Amsterdam: Academic Press, pp.309-352.
Wai, J., Lubinski, D. and Benbow, C. (2009). Spatial ability for STEM domains: Aligning over 50 years of cumulative psychological knowledge solidifies its importance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(4), pp.817-835.
Waismeyer, A. S., & Jacobs, L. F. (2013). The emergence of flexible spatial strategies in young children. Developmental Psychology, 49(2), 232–242.

It’s (Still) a Mans World!

Kerry A Kite24 April 2019

Written by Rachel Pearson, 1st year PhD student in the Child Health Informatics Group at GOS ICH, researching unmet healthcare needs among mothers involved in care proceedings. Outside of my PhD I enjoy getting out of London and climbing, biking and hiking (not all at the same time)

A few weeks ago it was International Women’s Day – a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and to raise awareness about issues that affect equality. International Women’s Day was born out of the early women’s rights movement of the 20th century and was eventually adopted by the UN in 1975. Celebrating this day each year helps to spark important discussions about gender-equality, from sexual harassment (in 2017, a YouGov study found that 52% of British women between 18-24 years had experienced sexual harassment in a public place in the last 5 years) to gender imbalance in the workplace (women hold only 10% of executive roles at FTSE 100 companies).

Working in UCL’s Faculty of Population Health Sciences, you may be forgiven for thinking that gender imbalance among UCL’s academic staff is a thing of the past (in fact, we have only two male researchers in our research group of more than 15). Indeed, go up UCL’s departmental hierarchy once more and you’ll find that over 50% of staff in UCL’s School of Life & Medical Sciences are women – so far so good. However, women only make up 37% of grade 9/10 posts in SLMS and just one glance at UCL’s descriptive analysis of the academic pipeline for female researchers in SLMS is enough to see that there is still work needed to combat barriers to career progression for female post-docs (the proportion of female academics drops by more than 50% from post-doc positions to professorships).

UCL Female Academic Pipeline

Source: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/human-resources/sites/human-resources/files/kwi_april_2018_kwi_report_final.pdf

I’m a statistician by training so, to mark International Women’s Day, I attended an event held by the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) – Women in Statistics: Past, Present and Future.

Dr Linda Wijlaars (a senior researcher from the Population, Policy and Practice programme here at ICH) kicked off the event with an engaging talk about Janet Lane-Claypon – the first person to attempt to correct observational data for confounding, to conduct a case-control study and to use a t-test in health research (the t-test was developed in 1908 by William Sealey Gosset, a chemist at Guinness, to compare batches of hops). Lane-Claypon was also one of the first people to hold both an MD and a PhD (making her a Dr-Dr) and used many novel statistical methods for the time such as survival analysis life tables and the Pearson’s correlation coefficient. Despite having studied an MSc in Medical Statistics, where I routinely heard the familiar names of Austin Bradford Hill and Richard Doll in epidemiology lectures (and one of our lecture theatres was named after John Snow), I had never heard of Janet Lane-Claypon’s work before meeting Dr Wijlaars (it’s particularly disappointing as we had lectures solely on case-control studies and confounding – the perfect opportunities to talk about the person who pioneered these concepts). You can learn more about Janet Lane-Claypon in Dr Wijlaars’ article for the society’s publication ‘Significance’ (https://www.statslife.org.uk/history-of-stats-science/462-can-you-name-a-female-statistician).

Left: Dr Janet Lane-Claypon. Right: Her landmark case-control (and multi-site) study in the field of breast cancer for the Ministry of Health (1926).

The next talk of the evening was given by Professor Deborah Ashby, the current RSS president. Prof Ashby is one of only four women who have held the title (despite the RSS being founded in 1834); she is also the chair of Medical Statistics and Clinical Trials at Imperial College London, the co-director of the Imperial Clinical Trials Unit and the deputy head of the Imperial School of Public Health. She highlighted that more men named David (and William… and probably a few others) have been RSS president, than women of any name. For the rest of her talk, Prof Ashby took us through her career as a statistician – from getting her undergraduate degree in mathematics to her appointment as the RSS president. Concurrent to her appointments at various universities, institutions and committees, she highlighted the blatant inequality among the recipients of many of the society’s awards (such as the Chambers Medal, the Bradford Hill Medal and the Barnett Award – each with only 20% of awards ever having gone to a woman) and among the society’s current fellows (<10% are women). The Guy Medal in Gold, the RSS award for “lifetime achievement” that has so far had 38 recipients, has never been awarded to a woman, and yet there is no lack of women with expertise in statistics and data science – nor in academia.

 

Former Royal Statistical Society presidents

The remainder of the event was spent discussing the future of women in statistics and data science. Several women gave short talks about their experiences working as a statistician and highlighted several groups that have been created to provide a peer support network for women in statistics and data science. Peer groups are a valuable way to network, spark new ideas and to share advice. Female-only peer groups can also provide a safe space to discuss gender discrimination and issues around equality in the workplace and can be a positive tool to narrowing gender gaps in senior leadership roles. However, women are not a homogeneous group and not all women experience the same obstacles in the workplace. It’s important that peer groups are intersectional and recognise that there are barriers associated with overlapping social identifiers such as race, age, disability, religion and sexuality that can be compounded by those related to gender. Effective peer groups work to boost confidence and, therefore, female-only peer groups can be a positive tool to support more women into senior roles. A few groups mentioned on the night include:

Some other groups that are worth a mention:

For anyone interested in seeing the talks for themselves, the event was filmed and can be found at https://youtu.be/NMAIvv-5z40).

PhD: a road to success but make sure you stop for fun along the way!

Emma J Butcher8 April 2019

Authored by Melanie Kölbel, a 2nd year PhD student at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (GOSICH) researching sleep and sickle cell anaemia. Loves outdoor activities and travel. Lead organiser for the GOSICH Postgraduate Society.

Tweet the GOSICH Postgraduate Society at: @ICH_PGsociety

 What does PhD REALLY stand for and why should you (the GOSICH PhD students) follow the Postgraduate society?

 

While you are going through the Promised hell Down-the-road and Patiently hoping for your last Degree, why not join the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (GOSICH) Postgraduate Society (PGS)? They will help you through the journey, which we all know is Pretty hard to Do, because PGS also stands for PhD Group Support.

 

The PGS was formed in 2008/09 by a few enthusiastic students – Pascal Odent, Kirsty Little, and Suzanne Bartington. It was set up because students felt isolated from each other within GOSICH and wanted a social club that would allow them to come together to share academic and social interests. Since then, the Society has been very successful, offering events such as academic talks, pub quizzes, BBQs, a film club, ice skating at Somerset House, and a Mindfulness Workshop.

Our events help you form friendships, find long-term collaborations, and get advice (research-related or otherwise) to make the rocky road during your PhD smoother and more enjoyable. This will improve your work-life balance and support your mental health, which is needed as a recent study estimated that 32% of PhD students experience depression – much higher than the prevalence in the general population (Levecque et al., 2017).

We have just created a monthly Writing Club to encourage goal setting and productivity, starting on the 5th of April from 1-3pm.  Also upcoming, we will have a summer picnic in the park with lots of free fresh food and drinks for students to socialise, connect, and enjoy time away from their usual office work.

Students are encouraged to suggest and organise event ideas, so get in touch by Facebook or Instagram (or any other method) if this article has inspired you. We are happy to bring in speakers from outside UCL or would love to hear about our own students’ work, so bring along a presentation to practice your speaking skills. Previously, we have organised successful events with a GOSICH early career researcher group, including a student networking event and a recent book presentation by Mary McClarey on how her nursing and research skills helped her to write a successful novel.

We know that the journey of a PhD can be challenging and it is therefore very important to us that students feel connected and informed at ICH. Please get in contact if you have any questions during your time here at ICH. Come forward if you have an idea about a new educational or social event or if you would like to meet new people.

Most of all, remember that PhD also stands for Passionate, hard-working, Dedication. Keep up the good work!

You can follow the GOSICH Postgraduate society on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter:

Reference: Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy46(4), 868-879.

Writing retreats and groups

Kerry A Kite15 March 2019

Written by Caroline Fraser

I am a final year PhD student in the Child Health Informatics Group at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. In my project, I am using data linkage to evaluate rates of neonatal bloodstream infection in England. In my free time, I enjoy art, cooking and volunteering.

Twitter: @cfraserepi

What is a writing retreat?
A writing retreat is a great place to write without distractions and though the word retreat might sound very luxurious, unfortunately all the ones that I have attended were in UCL meeting rooms. Mostly they follow the format of a “shut up and write” group where you… shut up and write. They can vary in structure and length – some are a few hours, others a whole day and sometimes even spanning multiple days. At the more formal writing retreats (and usually the longer ones), you sometimes set a goal at the beginning of the day. You can then “check in” with your goals throughout the day to see how you are progressing. PhD students can use writing retreats to work on their upgrade reports, thesis chapters or papers. It is useful for writing from scratch, working through comments from your supervisor on a draft, or even reading papers and making notes.

Why should you consider attending a writing retreat?
There are some real benefits to a writing retreat compared to trying to write at your desk in the office or at home. First, there are no distractions – it is best to avoid opening email and to keep your phone on silent in your bag. There will be nobody asking you if you want a cup of tea or popping in to ask you a favour. Second, everyone else around you is also working in silence. There is definitely something to be said for the social pressure when you can see everyone else typing away. You don’t want to be the one person sat staring into space or scrolling on your phone.
All the retreats I have attended use a time schedule that helps ensure you take breaks and that you return to your work after a break. The schedules vary – some use a variation of The Pomodoro Technique – write for 25 minutes at a time with short breaks in between. Others have longer writing blocks, maybe 60-90 minutes with longer breaks in between. Either way, the structure helps if you know you will have a break in 20/40/60 minutes it is easier to just keep writing until that point. Also everyone breaks at the same time so you are not distracted by people chatting next to you while you are working. Another benefit, less academic but still appealing, is the promise of free lunch, snacks, or hot drinks. Depending on who is organising the event and the length of the event, but most at least have free hot drinks – and what student does not appreciate a freebie!
Even though I have not finished my analysis and I am not yet in full “writing mode”, I have found it useful to have some time set aside to write up what I have done so far so I won’t have to do it all completely from scratch at the end. Because my main focus is still my analysis it can be hard to find motivation to write while I’m sat at my usual desk. Having time set aside a few times a month has been incredibly valuable to me to get started and my thesis. As I am currently at the stage where I just need to get words on paper and I will worry about editing later. I have found that I can write at least 1000 words in a 2-3-hour session and I don’t believe that would be possible sat at my desk.

How can you find a writing retreat?
The ICH postgraduate society in collaboration with the PPP early career researchers group organise 2-hour writing sessions that include 3x 30-minute writing blocks. These are usually organised twice a month, subject to demand. Outside of ICH, the Doctoral Skills Development programme are running a “writing co-op” with 2x 1 hour 15 minute writing blocks – you can sign up as you would for any of the other PhD courses. There are also opportunities elsewhere, for example, I attended one organised by the Early Career Network that was advertised via email. You could also ask around if you have friends in other departments as they may know of groups that you might be able to attend.
Otherwise, organise your own! If there are a few of you in your team/programme/friendship group who need to write and you can’t find anything suitable then get together and organise your own. All you need to do is decide on a time, a quiet place with plugs and preferably some access to tea and coffee facilities, and set up a schedule.

How to prepare for a writing retreat?
One of the most important things to do before your writing retreat is to plan! If you are planning on writing your thesis or a paper, you can find great writing courses through the Doctoral School Skills website organised by a company called Think Write. One of the most useful takeaways for me from the thesis writing course was to plan your headings, sub-headings and paragraphs. It is a lot easier to write when you have this planned out. You don’t have to have planned the whole thesis beforehand but having an idea for the section you want to write is really useful.
Another key part of preparation is reading. I find it most productive to just write at the retreats and not waste ages looking up references. If you have a reference manager this should be fairly easy as long as you have already done the reading and saved the references. I also have a spreadsheet of papers I have read briefly summarised and separated into categories so if I want a reference and I can’t remember which papers are suitable, I can look it up in there and not do any extra searching.
It is also useful to have some goals to achieve in mind for the day. I find these are best if they are quantifiable, for example specify “add 1000 words to chapter 2” not “work on chapter 2”. If you are unsure of how many words you can estimate based on what you write in one session. For example, if the day is broken into four 1 hour sessions, note how many words you write in the first session then multiply it by 4 for your goal for the day. Inevitably, I find I write more in the earlier sessions than the later ones but I think a challenging but achievable goal is really useful. Personally, I find 500 words in one hour is a good ball-park figure – but more is definitely doable. Of course if you are editing a document it is much harder to have a goal. If you are working through comments from a supervisor or co-author you could aim to address all the comments.

Bonus: who to follow on twitter for writing tips and motivation

I have found two really useful accounts on twitter that give tips with regards to academic writing that I want to shout out
1) Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco)
2) Academics Write (@academicswrite)
They both post tips and tricks for academics, particularly PhD students, so I would definitely recommend checking them out.

Child Health Informatics Group website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/child-health/research/population-policy-and-practice/child-health-informatics-group

Talking science: my experience of speaking at TEDx

Emma J Butcher28 January 2019

Written by Laura Katus, PhD student and soon to be post-doc at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. In my free time I enjoy making music and colour-coding things . Tweeting @Laura_Katus.

A few months ago, an email popped up in my inbox, containing an invitation to give a TEDx talk. I quickly scanned it, the cursor of my mouse hovering over the ‘delete’ button, convinced that this could only be spam. However, reading more closely, I remembered meeting one of the organisers a few months earlier and chatting to her about my research.

As I’m sure is true for many scientists, I liked the idea of having done a TED talk in the past. However, in this fantasy TED talk world, all the painstaking and nerve-wrecking preparation had already happened. Plus, my future self would already be a well-established researcher with loads to say, rather than a student in the middle of thesis writing.

Ultimately, the offer turned out too tempting to resist, and I agreed to give the talk. As the weeks went by, my anxiety levels rose. The process of preparation was fortunately well-guided. The organisers checked in regularly and provided encouragements and guidance on the talk outline. Despite these useful nudges, it wasn’t until arriving at the venue on the event morning and seeing a big red carpet dot that it sank in that this was happening.

When my slot came up, I was glad I had decided to start out by talking about the topic that I most enjoy: the human brain. In the rest of my talk, I explained how I had come to do (and love!) my PhD research (to find out what I do, watch the talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkHY63rD_nc)

Reflecting back on the experience, I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in TEDx. It was great to see speakers from all disciplines and chat to a receptive and lovely audience. Personally, the talk preparation provided just the right level of distraction from thesis writing, and it was encouraging to see other people appreciate the value in my research.

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

Ups and downs: getting the upgrade report done

Emma J Butcher14 December 2018

By guest blogger Carlos A. Valencia-Hernández (@cavalenc). A 3rd year PhD student in epidemiology of ageing and cardiovascular disease (Whitehall II study, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health). He is an advocate for urban cycling and a music lover wandering around London looking for vinyl records.

So here you are. Trying to pass the upgrade from MPhil to PhD. But first of all, what is it? According to UCL guidelines, the upgrade is the process through which “the student’s progress and ability to complete their PhD” are assessed. It includes giving a presentation, having a viva, and submitting a written report. This blog entry will only focus on the upgrade report.

In this report, you must write about all your work and plans for your PhD thus far.  In other words, this is the first organised writing experience of your PhD. You started your journey some months ago. It is time to show everyone your amazing review, future plans, and perhaps some statistical analysis results. You are proud of your accomplishments and want to share them with everyone! But there are some barriers in the way and overcoming these can be frustrating. There is no magical formula and, whilst there are outliers for whom the process flows naturally, for others it can take more time. Do not compare yourself to others, or you will despair. Here are a few do’s and don’ts.

 

You cannot be 100% productive 100% of the time. Find your golden hour!

 This applies not only to the upgrade report, but to the whole thesis and other processes. Each person has their own times when they are most productive. There are early risers and night owls. Or perhaps just specific times when you are least likely to be disturbed. Identify the best hours for you and make the most of them.

 

Set a realistic time scale

You are a responsible, committed, and detail-oriented person, as well as a keen researcher. We all know it and it explains why you were admitted to a PhD. Despite this, meeting your writing deadlines can be challenging. Try to break the upgrade report into specific parts and calculate how much time you need to complete them. Include additional time for unexpected events.

 

Fast but not furious

 All (or most) of the knowledge is already in your mind. You have done the review and run the statistical models, so if you just write non-stop, what could go wrong?

Well, many things. Quantity does not always equal quality. Conveying a scientific message is challenging. You have been familiarising yourself with the topic of your PhD and the jargon related to it for months. This might not be the case for everyone who reads your upgrade report, including your supervisors, proofreaders and examiners. Take one idea at a time and develop it.

 

From failure to failure without losing enthusiasm

 Writing the upgrade report is a lengthy process with no immediate positive feedback. You can be so excited about all your ideas in the draft report sent to your supervisor(s) for comments. Then, after some hours or days, your supervisor(s) returns a sea of text highlighted with radioactive yellow or glowing cyan track-changes. All the negative thoughts about your writing skills and other abilities sweep into your brain. Keep calm. Even the best scientific writers need to be critiqued. Your supervisor(s) are helping you to make the upgrade report clearer and more understandable. They have been doing this process for quite a while. Trust them!

 

Keep the momentum: find a writing partner or look for writing retreats

 Your surroundings affect what you do and how you do it. Finding a writing partner who encourages you to keep writing is a good idea. Also, departments across UCL regularly organise writing retreats that you can attend. Peer pressure can be useful sometimes, as can the availability of a quiet environment where you can focus on quality writing.

 

Check the consistency of your document

Upgrade reports are written over the course of weeks and months. In an ideal situation, the report would be written from the introduction to the conclusion in a logical and sequential way. Real life can vary though. After finishing the first draft, you may find a newly published piece of evidence to include in the discussion, or run additional statistical tests for your results. This could mean you have other sections or sentences that are no longer relevant. Keep an eye out for this.

 

More isn’t always better

 You have worked hard on the upgrade report and may think that adding extra figures and tables would demonstrate all your time and effort. Not necessarily. Redundant tables or unclear figures could mislead the readers and suggest poor knowledge of your topic. Plus you are wasting precious space.

 

Extra help

 There is an overwhelming quantity of resources out there. You could start with UCL student psychological services, who have tips on how to get writing done.

Also try Hugh Kearns’ website and The thesis whisperer. Both have good inputs on the PhD writing process.

Bringing Cystic Fibrosis research back to the patients

Emma J Butcher29 November 2018

Written by Afroditi Avgerinou, 3rd year PhD student in the Francis Crick Institute/Institute of Child Health.

In September 2018, for the 3rd year in a row, the UK Cystic Fibrosis (CF) Trust organised the “CF’s got talent!” competition. This involved 5 young CF researchers presenting their work in layman’s terms to improve engagement with patients. I have been working on my PhD project, which is funded by the CF Trust, for 2 years and I was one of the five researchers that presented in the 2018 competition.

When I found out I had been selected to present in front of a few hundred people in a lecture theatre, and possibly thousands more online, I was terrified! At the same time, I felt honoured and a deep sense of responsibility. I did not want to let down people affected by CF, as they are putting their hope in researchers such as myself to deliver a cure. I also did not want to disappoint my supervisors or family and friends, who have been supporting me throughout my PhD.

For this reason, and because I had never delivered a public engagement talk before, I spent a whole month creating a presentation and perfecting my speech. Thankfully, the CF Trust arranged for me to share my ideas with a person with CF, who would tell me whether I had managed to get rid of the science jargon. During our two talks, she offered great help and feedback that allowed me to produce a presentation we were both satisfied with.

On the day of the presentation, my nerves returned. Even though my voice was a bit shaky, I was able to carry on and not forget my words, thanks to the number of times I had practised my talk.

During my presentation, I explained how in CF a mistake/mutation in the CFTR gene causes problems in the lung. For my project, I hope to show that the lung cells with the genetic mistake can become the solution and offer a cure for CF. To do this, I am using ex vivo gene therapy, which means gene therapy that happens outside the body. The first step of this approach is to take some of the diseased lung cells from the CF patient through nasal brushing. After this, the cells are kept in the lab and allowed to multiply. Next, a correction mechanism, called CRISPR/Cas9, is inserted into the cells, to correct the mistake in the CFTR gene. The corrected cells undergo quality control to check if they are safe and finally returned to the patient’s own lung where they will function as healthy cells and treat CF.

I felt I was successful in explaining my project to everyone in the lecture theatre. Later, I found out that many people had left very positive and kind comments on the Facebook live stream of my presentation. People watching from home also had the opportunity to vote for their favourite presentation. To my surprise, when the time came to announce the winner, my name was called. I was excited and very pleased with the result! The prize was an all-expenses paid trip to the North American Cystic Fibrosis Conference (NACFC) 2019 in Nashville. There, I will communicate the results of my work to a wide audience.

Winning the competition gave recognition to my work and all my team’s efforts. I am thankful to the CF community for voting for me, but irrespective of the win, the whole experience was very rewarding. Working in the lab, it is easy to get lost in the experiments and science, forgetting the reason why you are doing them. Being able to connect with the people that benefit from your research is inspiring and helps you refocus when things get difficult. In return, by communicating your research to patients, you are giving them hope and a promise: that you will do your best to help them and their families live a life unlimited by CF.

The full facebook stream of the event is shown below:

Original link: https://www.facebook.com/cftrust/videos/532549270526241/