A Day in the life…

I am now entering the 4th and final year of my PhD at Rothamsted Research and the University of Reading. My research, which is funded by the BBSRC and Lawes Agricultural Trust, aims to develop a model that will predict areas of a farmer’s field that are vulnerable to weed, in particular black-grass, invasion, and establishment. This work will contribute to the knowledge, and innovation, needed for more efficient use of herbicides.

Find out more in this short video:

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When things don’t work

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Sometimes in research, it is easy to get angry when things go wrong and trust me they go wrong a lot! However, maybe this is not the right way to think about things. Anger is a typical response to annoyance and when things don’t go to plan it certainly can be annoying but does anger ever really help?

Perhaps, instead of being angry that an experiment didn’t work properly, or there is a bug in your code, it would be better to question why it annoyed you? If it was because you did something wrong, then learn from that mistake and do it differently next time. If it was because the system behaved in a way you didn’t expect then why not investigate further? Perhaps what started out as an annoyance could be your biggest breakthrough

Achievements

2016-05-12 10.16.56Sometimes, when you are working on a project for 4 years it is very hard to measure your achievements. Each day you creep slowly towards the goal of your work but weeks can go by and it may seem like you are making little progress.

This is something a lot of PhD students, myself included, struggle with. The end can sometimes seem a very long way away and so it is important to celebrate the achievements along the way. After all, a PhD is about learning and developing your skills as a researcher, not just the thesis you produce at the end.

Some of the work I do is very continuous in nature. I study field sites continuously for a year and so whilst this is a shorter period than the whole 4-year project it is still a long time to wait for an end point. I am also building a model which is continuously changing and being improved upon. Sometimes when you have been staring at the same piece of code for a week and you eventually spot the bug there can be a real sense of achievement, but generally the process is one of small incremental steps.

Sometimes, however, it is the little things that can bring the biggest sense of achievement. This week I took an experiment that has been running for a while and potted the plants up into larger pots. Together with some colleagues we spent two-days of back-breaking work mixing various soils together, filling pots, moving them and potting up the plants. By the end of the week the achievement was obvious.

We hadn’t made a great scientific break-through or even learnt anything new about the system we were studying but we did have 270 pots right there in front of us and sometimes that is just what you need.

Visual proof you achieved something.

Project titles

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My PhD project, as with most PhDs has a long and cumbersome title but here goes…

Modelling the spatial variation in Alopecurus myosuroides for precision weed management

In order to understand what this means I find it is often easiest to break this down as it is only then that I can easily explain what I do.

Lets start at the beginning, shall we?

Modelling

No, I don’t strut around having my picture taken all day. I am talking about mathematical modelling. The sort where I take biological processes and describe them in a mathematical way and then using a programming language tell a computer how it can recreate those processes.

In order to do this I need data. Lots and lots of data. This means that whilst my main aim is the modelling I don’t just sit at my computer writing code. Instead I spend the bulk of my time out in the field or in a glasshouse conducting experiments to give me all of that data that I can feed into the model so that it provides realistic results and can simulate realistic scenarios.

the spatial variation

Many biological populations are not uniform and my study species is no exception. It forms patches of varying size and shape within fields and so I am studying the spatial variation in population density. I am also looking at how that variation relates to environmental properties which also vary in space.

in Alopecurus myosuroides

Alopecurus myosuroides is my particular study species. It’s common name in the UK is black-grass but it goes under many pseudonyms depending on where in the world you are. It is a particularly problematic weed of winter cereals in the UK and often has a patchy distribution within fields

for precision weed management

This is why I am doing the other stuff. It is the goal. If my project works and I find out some useful information it will be used for precision weed management. Simply put, this means changing your management practices according to where you are in the field.


So that is a breakdown of my title. I often find with research project titles, or journal article titles, that whilst they are rarely very catchy they do explain a great deal as to what will be covered in the following text. This is great when deciding whether you want to invest your valuable time in reading the thing but not so great if you want to draw people in who weren’t interested in the first place.

Recently I was asked to come up with a fun and catchy title to summarise my project to help advertise I talk I will be giving soon in a local pub. That’s when, after a lot of deliberating, I cam up with “Where the wild weeds are”. I feel like this is a much catchier title, and it is a lot more fun. Yet it still encompasses the essence of what I do. Why can’t all scientific titles be like this?

Next time: My talk in the local pub. How I convey my research to non-scientists

Helen

Hello World

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As a PhD student today there are many conflicting pressures on my time. First and foremost, I have to conduct my own independent research. To most people this is the definition of a PhD it is a 3-4 year training exercise in which you learn how to “do” research. However, it can be so much more than that. There is a big drive in today’s research to be increasingly interdisciplinary. This means that as a PhD student not only do you have to know your own topic inside out but you have to understand where it fits in with the research landscape and how you could work across disciplines to achieve a greater goal. Todays PhD student also has to be able to effectively communicate their work to a large number of different audiences. Academic conferences are the traditional forum for discussion of research topics. Yet, today there is an increasing need to be able to communicate your work much more widely than that – to the local community, key stakeholders, industry partners, schools and the press to name but a few. With all these different pressures on my time, what could I do but add another one.

I decided to start this blog, not to punish myself further by adding another demand on my time, but to provide an outlet for my thoughts on life as a PhD student, to share my opinions on scientific topics of interest and most importantly to write. Writing is hard. However, the more you write the easier it becomes. So, by writing here I hope to improve my writing and develop my communication skills.

My PhD is in agriculture, but my work spans across the fields of ecology, statistics and soil science as well. As these are my main areas of interest this is where the bulk of the science I discuss will be drawn from but my interests lie far and wide across the sciences (well maybe excluding physics!). I also hope to discuss the trials and tribulations of doing a PhD. I am now over half-way through my studies and there have been some ups and downs along the way. Luckily for me it has been mostly ups but as I enter the final 18 months and the thesis deadline looms ever closer I think there may be some more trying times to come.

So if you are a fellow student, researcher, academic or just interested to learn a bit more about science I would love it if you would join me for this journey.

Helen

Next time: my project – what is my PhD all about?

 

 

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