Putting Together and Taking Apart

A couple of my recent posts have looked at the needs of postdocs, their training (or lack thereof), aspirations and the need for them to take control of their lives. So it seems appropriate to spare a thought – or a post – for graduate students for a change. I spent a day this week in some relatively remote part of Cheshire at the student-organised meeting for the 3 Nanoscience Doctoral Training Centres (NanoDTC) based in Cambridge, Bristol and Manchester. These Centres are only in their second year, so that all the students involved were either in their first or second years of their PhD. This meeting brought around 75 students together to network, interact, present, listen, debate – and drink! Exactly what one would most hope to see at a conference and I certainly experienced it as a lively and thought-provoking meeting. (Although I could have wished the drinking might have taken place somewhere other than in the courtyard directly beneath my bedroom window, or stopped at a slightly earlier hour of the night. But that is my age speaking, and the fact that I had had a miserable cross-country train journey due to cancellations.)

These students had put the programme together themselves and between them they had come up with what appeared to be an excellent mix of ‘activities’. I was led to believe that the networking – other than that occurring in the bar or around posters – had consisted of some sort of It’s a Knockout look-alike event, involving amongst other things a bouncy castle, an obstacle course and too much sun. It certainly seemed to have had the effect of encouraging mingling of students from the 3 different centres; after all there’s nothing like watching other people being undignified for breaking down barriers. Beyond this and the standard diet of long talks by externals such as myself, there were many short presentations by the students themselves and a panel discussion, to which I will return. I only saw a handful of the student talks, as I was there for less than a day in total, but they were all of a remarkably high standard. I know it is invidious to single out individuals but nevertheless I will highlight two talks both (I think) as it happens from Bristol, one a first year, one a second year.

There was Michael Thomas, a second year, talking about his results on simulating gold nanorods dispersed in liquid crystals. He had some philosophical insights to share, as well as his results. Having set about his simulations with a clear expectation of what he was expecting, he got ‘what he didn’t want’; whereupon, instead of beating his head against a wall and getting miserable he declared instead this provided ‘unexpected opportunities’. I like that philosophy, it is something we all need to bear in mind when our research thwarts us. Although sometimes the unexpected really is the unmitigated disaster it looks at first sight, just occasionally it may kick-start a new and fruitful direction. Then there was Alex Robertson, a 1st year who (I would suspect) has not yet got a large number of results. At least, he didn’t talk about them. He gave a very thoughtful talk about interdisciplinary science, whether it was good or bad, should subjects be kept separate or badged together, what the implications of these questions are for nanoscience. He also flagged up my own hero Erasmus Darwin as an example of a Renaissance man who touched upon many fields and mastered so many (although Alex was more complimentary about Darwin’s poetry than I would have been). I was struck by this talk, not least because it fed very naturally into one of my own first slides, which I had called ‘Why I am not a Nanoscientist’. Just as I never wanted to call myself a food scientist, back in the days when I worked on foods, I have never felt a need to badge myself as a nanoscientist even if I work on nano-sized things in a particular project. As many chemists have pointed out previously, colloid science also largely deals with the nano-scaled and one could argue nanoscience is just one way of cynically rebranding some of that science.

Nanoscience/nanotechnology has flourished over the past decade, and has seen ring-fenced money directed towards it in the UK and elsewhere – hence the interest in rebranding. However, I have never been sure how productive this has been because the science of nano necessarily transcends different disciplines but still needs to retain them all. This topic formed a substantial part of the panel debate I took part in after lunch, along with David Tolfree and Peter Rodgers, chief editor of Nature Nanotechnology and chaired by fellow Cantabrigian Paul Barker. How useful would nanoscience undergraduate degrees be? At what stage is specialisation a good thing? As one might expect no overall conclusions were reached; it can of course be argued both ways, but the students engaged with it in a very mature way. (In passing I should note that it is a shame that my friend and colleague Richard Jones, erstwhile Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology to the EPSRC, wasn’t there for the discussion because he – more than anyone – has thought these arguments through, but he only arrived to deliver his talk the next morning. I suspect he would have disagreed with me, as it’s been an ongoing debate between us over the years…).

All the questions from the floor were admirably focussed and as I left the meeting afterwards I reflected on what an impressive atmosphere I had encountered at the meeting. Maybe this was a conference that the students felt they ‘owned’, as opposed to something they were passively attending merely to listen to old fogeys like me. In the organisation each of them had had some specific role assigned to them – something, which they can build on, something that may have helped them understand which ‘soft’ skills they possess or alternatively are never likely to be good at. Either way, the organisational roles will look good on their CV’s.

There was one final aspect that struck me, another side of the networking and dissemination coin and something that I can rarely recall having encountered in such a concentrated way at standard national and international conferences, namely the interactivity of the students – with themselves and also with me as the outsider. Firstly, this was demonstrated through the power of Twitter. Now that is something I never thought I would say, having started off a year ago seeing tweeting as rather silly; yes, I am eating my words. Having got in a temper about my outward journey I sent off a tweet moaning about the trains and stating where I was heading. A response came in from an interested prospective student asking me about the pros and cons of the NanoDTC’s, and enquiring if there was a blog about them. I mentioned this at the start of my talk and two students present subsequently responded to me through Twitter to be put in contact with the enquirer. I hope that led to a useful exchange (through the more lengthy medium of email). Secondly, having made some remark about the surprisingly low number of women in the audience, one of the more senior people present came up to me afterwards to discuss what they could do to attract more into the DTC. Thirdly, during the panel debate when we were discussing policy issues, I mentioned the internships available to work at POST, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology – two of my PhD students have taken these up, one of whom later went on to work in science policy. I subsequently got emailed (not tweeted!) by one of the students who wanted further information. And finally, in the panel debate I answered the question of what area of nanoscience I felt was under-rated by citing environmental issues such as water remediation; again, this was followed up after the meeting by a keen student emailing me to highlight an interesting website in the area.

So I salute the students. I would suggest this way of organising a conference is an excellent model for others to follow; I’d be interested to know if readers have experience of similar conferences, positive or negative. I hope the students enjoyed their conference as much as I did, and I wish them every success, whether they call themselves nanoscientists or not.

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9 Responses to Putting Together and Taking Apart

  1. Alex Robertson says:

    I was recently sent a link in the direction of this blog by the organisers of the CDT Nanoscience conference you talk about in this post. Intrigued, I have read several of your past posts in addition to this one and think it is absolutely fascinating; I shall be recommending it widely.

    I am glad you had what sounds like a generally positive experience of the conference, unreliable trains and overly boisterous students aside (two national institutes some would argue). From a student perspective I certainly found it invigorating, and it was interesting to see what research my collegues in the other centres for doctoral training are involved in. I certainly agree with the comment on the networking event; an excellent example of “unity through adversity”.

    On a personal note, I am pleased to see my talk was of interest. On the naming issue, I noticed a certain tension throughout the whole event on the part of the students as to exactly where they sit in the whole spread of science, whether it was relevant to unite such disparate research interests as were on display under a single banner, and where that might then lead us in our future careers. It will be interesting from my perspective to see how this develops as the CDTs mature.

    I would just like to thank you for your part in a stimulating and enjoyable conference, and I will be a regular reader of this blog from now on!

    p.s. I must confess I do enjoy the overwrought grandiose of Darwin’s verse, though no masterpiece it is perhaps very much “of its time”.

  2. Athene, so I can’t resist commenting now you’ve set me up to disagree with you! Actually, I’m not sure we do disagree on the point at issue – I don’t really think nanoscience/technology degrees are the right way to go (and we’ve never been tempted to do one at Sheffield). I do, though, think that, with a firm disciplinary background in chemistry or physics or EEE (say) it can be helpful either to do a masters degree in nanotechnology, or to do a PhD program with additional training of the kind put on by the DTCs, to get a sense of the breadth of the many disciplines that can contribute to research in nanotechnology and learn some of the language you need to work across those disciplines. As to what nanotechnology actually is, I conclude more and more that it is less a field of (techno)scientific research, and more a socio-political project. What I mean by that I’ll expand on in a book chapter I’m currently struggling to write!

  3. Shane says:

    On the subject of nanoscience degrees – I mentioned at the conference panel discussion where it came up that as of this year, the B.A. course I graduated from before joining the CU CDT was renamed to nanoscience – http://www.tcd.ie/Advanced_Materials/
    It would be interesting to see what people think of this kind of structure, From my own experience it seemed pretty focused on the fundamentals of physics and chemistry but with a few tailored courses in the 4th year on nanoscience, thin films and polymer physics/chemistry. My own opinion is that these fundamentals are crucial – we all need a good grounding in chemistry and solid state physics before contemplating and creating more exotic structures and systems.

  4. Paul Beales says:

    Athene, this is a very interesting debate on the branding and education in Nano-science/technology. Whilst I am sure there is an element of “impact” involved in rebranding and regrouping areas of science in this way in order to reinvogorate excitement in a particular area and attract funding – “cynical rebranding”, as you put it -, there may also be some less cynical benefits from doing this. Creating names for new interdisciplinary fields of research may help break down the barriers for collaboration between traditional research disciplines by uniting them under a common banner.

    Nanotechnology is certainly not a single discipline in itself, as Richard states above. In my opinion it simply refers to a common lengthscale. There is so much diversity under this banner from inorganic nanotechnology to bionanotechnology to polymer chemistry to soft matter and beyond, but these are not necessarily discrete disciplines and uniting ideas from these research themes helps blur the boundaries between them and create a continuum of scientific and engineering endeavour across this spectrum. This can only be to the benefit of the collective advancement of knowledge. I also don’t think that anyone could be particularly cynical about the advances that have been made in science and technology on nano- lengthscales over the past decade after the rebranding and increased profile of these disciplines under the nanotechnology banner.

    I think the question of nanosci/tech education is definitely a much tougher one. Can we really collectively educate nanoscientists without creating the archetypal “Jack-of-all-trades”? Will future nanoscientists need to maintain a solid grounding in a traditional, related discipline throughout their education? At what point in a science education should a student start to receive significant exposure to interdisciplinary science and ideas? I don’t have a clear idea about how to answer these.

    Nanotechnology isn’t the only rebranded field. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the more fledgling field on “Synthetic Biology”. This currently appears to me as simply the cynical rebranding that you describe for nanotechnology, bringing together biotechnology, biophysics, biological soft matter and aspects of bioengineering to create a new buzz around research areas where the interest and funding opportunities were perhaps past their peak and beginning to decline. Will bringing these fields together under the united SynthBio banner be as successful in advancing our collective knowledge and technological capabilities as Nanosci/tech has been?

  5. Alex, firstly I do admire Darwin (E)’s ability to put early thoughts about evolution into rhyming couplets, but it is indeed heavy verse. I am interested that clearly throughout the meeting the debate – explicit and implicit – about the wisdom or otherwise of badging nanoscience as a standalone ‘subject’ lurked. I can quite see – and this addresses part of Richard’s comments too – that bringing together diverse students under an umbrella of nanoscience is helpful for all of you, including the training in different strands of all the contributory subjects. It is clearly beneficial to get you all together both within your own universities during the year and at meetings such as the one last week.

    However, Richard, my suspicion you would disagree with me was not so much over the idea of an undergraduate nanoscience course, but the push for nanoscience as a stand-alone subject/funding stream. It, perhaps inevitably, has now essentially dried up (within the EPSRC at least) and questions will be asked if it ‘delivered’. In answer to Paul, there can be no doubt some exciting and stimulating science has come out of it, but I suppose the question is would it have been more or less likely to have happened without the badging, and is the long term health of the ingredient topics helped or hindered by the fact that there were a few years of ringfenced money? If you are now saying, Richard, that you see nanoscience as a ‘socio-political’ subject then that could be read as agreeing that dressing the science up in this way has had and has political rather than scientific objectives. Maybe that is not what you meant?

    I suppose, Paul, my underlying concern is that by grouping subjects together as nanoscience this year, and (yes, let’s be cynical) synthetic biology next – and some of the same people can play that particular game of switching allegiance – there is the danger that people learn a mishmash of things that isn’t actually robust enough to help them as they move into other jobs (let’s not assume all students are going to stay in HE). Let me give you a parallel. I have spent today working on various (school) education matters with the Royal Society. A very real concern for them, as for many, is the current pressure to ‘teach to the test’. In other words, school children are not being taught to think, use maths to solve problems for instance, as opposed to solving exam questions. The analogy might be that nanoscience students (undergraduate or, to a lesser extent PhD students) learn how to solve one set of problems at the nanoscale but don’t perhaps have the grasp of the underlying fundamentals to allow them to work in a processing plant at large lengthscales. Conversely, using ideas that Richard has been promulgating (one hopes with success) for many years in his book and blog Soft Machines, those people who are used to working with the macroscale may often fail to grasp how the nanoscale is different due to effects such as the relative importance of viscosity versus inertia. So, by all means have a nanoscience DTC, teach students stuff relevant to the nano world, but make sure their basics are firm so that if they happen afterwards to work in some other industry they have the wherewithal to use their brains to solve very different problems.

    During the debate I mentioned food science, an area I tangled with for a number of years. Here it was quite clear that undergraduates trained in food science really didn’t have a broad enough grasp of, say, thermodynamics to solve questions they would need to be able to solve even in their study of foods. Whereas if they had done a physics or chemistry degree and then moved on to study (I give a very concrete example to demonstrate what I mean) low fat spreads as an example of phase separation via – under different processing conditions –spinodal decomposition or nucleation and growth, they were better placed to do it.

    Yes, Paul, I do see synthetic biology as another rebadging exercise. It has all the virtues of bringing different interdisciplinary teams together who may create something new, and it has all the potential dangers of hype such as that produced by Craig Ventner. Money will be (and is) being thrown at it, and then at some point it will dry up again and the same questions will be asked about has it actually been worth it. What is important is bringing teams together; encouraging interdisciplinary working is very different from creating a big new label.

    Finally to Shane’s point, I guess the question I would ask him is does he feel that his Advanced Materials course, rebadged or not as Nanoscience, gives him the knowledge base and skills to move into other areas if he wants to.

  6. Shane says:

    My answer to Athene’s question would be that I THINK it does give me that knowledge base as much as a good physics degree does. Despite being a ‘marriage of physics and chemistry’ it didn’t qualify the student to work in synthesis. The first 3 years gave that grounding (as it should in any degree) while the final year saw me restricted to nanoscience and advanced materials relevant modules rather than the more exotic physics at the high-energy sub-atomic scale or the cosmological scale. If I had to pinpoint a weakness – we were never properly taught fluid dynamics!

    An interesting point was made about the danger of nanoscientists losing perspective on macroscopic systems of real scale. This is something the DTCs do better than the traditional PhD I reckon. There’s an onus put on us from the very start to consider how phenomena translate into the behaviour of macroscopic systems. The ‘How does this scale up?’ question is always there, even if I sometimes wish it wasn’t.

  7. Athene, I much prefer to talk about nanotechnology than nanoscience, as I think this emphasises the idea that nano should be goal oriented. So in this sense what’s different about nanotechnology, compared to the bits of physics and chemistry that contribute to it, isn’t so much the object of study but the aim of that study, which is less to get a fundamental understanding of nature, and more to make a construct that does (or holds out some promise of doing) something useful (and along the way, to understand the structure and functioning of those constructs – this is what the STS people are talking about when they refer to technoscience). You may think that some people cynically rebadged what they did to take advantage of a funding stream, that may be so, but I don’t think it reflects well on them that they did.

  8. In response to Paul, I think there are some very interesting parallels between nanotechnology and synthetic biology – I tried to highlight some of these in a recent post on my own blog – Three things that Synthetic Biology should learn from Nanotechnology.

  9. Richard, I just checked to be sure I was right: this was definitely billed as a Nanoscience conference. In which case I suspect you and I are not so far apart. Nanotechnology is certainly different from what I was describing, the ‘bits of physics and chemistry’ as you put it. But in that case I wonder what beyond the pure science you would wish to see in a masters or PhD programme to encourage the goal orientation you favour for Nanotechnology?