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.