Like most non-essential work places, academic research in the UK was paused during the first stages of lockdown back in March 2020. In the months following, building management, health and safety officers and senior lab members would meet and try to bring the research spaces to COVID-secure standards. From one-way systems to temperature checks at the entrances and occupancy limits per room, it seemed to be major setbacks for research.
I went into the PhD thinking it was going to an easy experience. Thinking back on it, I wouldn’t necessary say it was hard either. I think the hardest part of it was accepting that there is a learning curve and an aspect of personal development. I started a PhD directly after finishing my undergraduate degree, and having completed a successful final year project, I felt I was ready to continue academic research. I wouldn’t say that I was scared about starting a new degree. To me, it felt like the next logical step in my education. I briefly considered doing a Master’s degree, but the mere issue that it would have involved going to lectures and taking exams, deterred me from it.
Do you ever the feeling that you’re being watched? Judged? Isn’t that what we scientists do most of the time? We selfishly study areas that intrigue us, searching for new problems and explanations so that we feel that we reach understanding. We take a living thing, like a plant or a cute rodent, and destroy it; break cells open so that we can study what’s inside. We play with reason and rationale to justify our methods, and for what? To write a paper that may or may not be published? To build libraries of information which are never reviewed?
As students, we are constantly being tested. We can be assessed by the way we approach a task, complete a task or report the information we have gained from a study. Our hard work is rewarded by high marks, but sometimes it’s also about the reward of completing the assignment. Institutions, universities and companies need a measurement that indicates how competent a candidate research student, academic researcher or potential employee is for a given position. As a scientist, we are also being assessed, but in a different way. While we are given more freedom in our research and how we get to answer a research question, we are expected to be able to present our data to an audience and make the effort to ensure that the research will move on forward, be funded and go beyond what was originally planned. At the core of it, it’s ticking boxes of small accomplishments during the duration of a long term project and providing sufficient evidence of progress being made. We aren’t necessarily being graded, but instead pushed forward by supervisors, the university or our own uninhibited desire to do more research.
Communicating science amongst researchers and university students is something that we are aiming to improve. But there is another age group that we must not forget. Anyone who has taken biology during early school years can remember how different it was from any other class, that is if you allow me to not call physical education or lunch, a class. Sometimes even referred to as the fun class, or is it just me? Well anyway, the reason why I recall it being more fun than another subject was because of the opportunities to do hands-on experimental work. Not every school has a Large Hadron-Collider to aid in the teaching of physics and young children and volatile chemicals don’t mix well—literally. But never mind these extreme cases; biology had the fairest range of experiments that were safe, fun and interesting.
Every story needs a beginning, but I am not sure where my story begins. I guess we can trace it back to my early days when I was diagnosed with a case of attention deficit disorder, after showing interest in several toys during a psychological assessment. A toy was given to me every five minutes and apparently it would have been normal to finish playing with one toy before moving on to the next. I have always argued that if the doctor handed me a toy to look at, I would look at it, regardless if I already had one to play with. I felt that they rushed their diagnosis and defined me into a category.