Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Isobel Hirst

Isobel Hirst is a third year Biochemistry student who completed her year in industry last year. She is one of the students who was selected to represent Bristol University at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research, which has been postponed. I caught up with Isobel to chat about how she feels her experience in industry, and learning through research methods, has helped her in her undergraduate degree.

The first question is, how did you choose the project you were researching?

I applied to it – it was already planned out by my research group that I joined. And I applied to do that project at that place for my year in industry. I basically chose the project because I thought it’d be a cool place to do a year in industry, and then this project was the one I could do with a Biochemistry degree.

So where did you do the project?

It’s called Diamond Light Source and it’s a synchrotron, it’s the UK’s only synchrotron. It’s a little bit like CERN, the Hadron Collider. So it uses electromagnets to accelerate electrons around a big ring that’s hundreds of meters in diameter. And the electromagnets bend the path of the electrons so that they go in a circle as opposed to a straight line. Every time they turn a corner, every time they’re bent, they lose a bit of energy and they release it as x-rays which are really, really bright. Then you can use those bright x-rays to do all sorts of structural things. For example, I was firing the x-rays at protein samples. When they interact with the sample, they get scattered, well diffracted, so you get a diffraction pattern. Then you have a detector which records this pattern as lots of dots and then people, and computers, can do really complex maths with the dots and figure out which atoms were where in the protein sample. In that way you can use the diffraction pattern to find out the structure of proteins. My project was trying to find the structure of one specific protein.

What skills do you think conducting a research project has given you?

Loads! It sounds a bit basic but time management, but next level time management! Because everything’s really time sensitive. If you accidentally leave something for like 40 minutes, that’s supposed to be half an hour, then it doesn’t work. But then also, you don’t really have enough time to only do one thing at a time. I’ve learned how to do lots of things at once. And also to keep track of all those things so that I don’t forget about them.

Definitely being more confident, because at the beginning, I would literally never want to do anything without asking someone ‘Oh, do you think this will work?’ Or ‘if I do this, will it be okay?’ But it’s really annoying for people if you keep doing that. And, they don’t generally know either, they’re like ‘yeah? Probably?’!  So, I definitely learned to just do it. I would always have that gut reaction that I should ask them first and then I’m like, nope, just do it and it might be fine!

Oh, and scientific writing as well. I had to write a report, and I’ve done another research project this year. So now I’ve written two proper, research paper style reports. And I made a poster, and I’ve done two presentations. It’s helped my scientific literacy, giving me chance to talk about my research in lots of different formats.

That’s great! What did you enjoy about your research project?

I really enjoyed most things about it. Where it was, Diamond, because it’s the UK’s only synchrotron, people use it for biochemistry, but they also use it for engineering, physics, chemistry, archaeology, even art history, because they can date paintings with it. And people come from all over the world and from lots of different disciplines to use it. It feels like quite a futuristic and exciting place to be and you are surrounded by lots of different academics all the time. I felt like I was literally in the world of science, which was really cool. I think what was great was all the opportunities – I got to go to a music festival. Diamond had a science stall where people could come and put marshmallows in vacuums and look at little soft toy microbes and things like that. I got to hear Richard Dawkins speak at that festival as well. Sorry, this is not a very science-y response, I more enjoyed meeting all the people!

No no, it’s good to hear all the different benefits of doing a research project. Learning through research methods isn’t just about getting better at your subject, it’s also about gaining different practical and transferable skills. Next question – what challenges did you face in your project?

Ooh, well, actually, I think my supervisor had a plan of what she wanted my project to be when she applied to have a student, but it wasn’t super detailed. She sort of had the beginning of this plan and she thought it would probably work, so I was supposed to be working on one specific protein. But that turned out to be a lot more complicated than she thought. I spent about 9 months out of 12 trying to do the first part of this project. Then in the last few months it actually started working, but that was doing something slightly different. So, for most of my project, the difficult thing was dealing with the fact that everything I tried didn’t work, or didn’t do what I wanted it to do. I was trying to sort of purify a sample of a protein, and I wanted it to be stable and dissolved in the solution. And so I spent months trying to do lots of different things to the protein and to the solution it was in to make it stable and dissolved. And everything I tried didn’t work or it would like work a little bit and then I’d get a little bit further on and then it would not work.

So you definitely learned perseverance then!

Yeah, my supervisor kept being like ‘oh well, this is what real research is like, you’re learning about resilience!’. I also had to get more confident. I had to deal with the fact that things going wrong was making me even less confident. I didn’t really trust that things going wrong is just the way it is, I thought I was doing something wrong. Even though my supervisor was reassuring me, in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘oh but I did that wrong and I did this wrong’. I do think a more experienced researcher would have got results faster, but I was basically doing the project to learn anyway, so it really was fine. I think the hardest thing was dealing with my own insecurities and just keeping going, even when it wasn’t working, and I thought it was my fault.

But you overcame these difficulties?

Yeah, it did turn out to be quite a good lesson because for my research project this year, I was way more okay with things going wrong. And I learned that a lot of the time when things go wrong, it’s because people have made mistakes but people make mistakes all the time and that’s okay. So before, I used to beat myself up a bit when I would make mistakes, but then this year, if I made a mistake, I would just be like, ‘Oh, whoops.’

Sounds like a healthy way to deal with mistakes! Did you find conducting a research project beneficial to your learning, and why?

Definitely. Having done my year in industry and applied a lot of what I learned previously in lectures to real life, coming back and doing lectures and exams again this year, I found the stuff so much easier to learn. It’s much easier to remember because I can actually imagine doing it in a real lab. And it’s much easier to understand why people do certain things. In our exams, we sometimes get given a hypothetical situation such as, ‘this protein of this size has been discovered and like, what do you think it might do? How would you find out what it does?’ That was one of the essay questions I had to do in my January exams, and I didn’t really know what lectures it was supposed to be related to. Maybe it wasn’t any. But I could imagine being in a lab and figuring out what to do and I remembered conversations that I’d had with other people where they were speculating about how to solve certain problems. And I feel I can apply my knowledge a lot better now because I have a bit of a context to do it in. I guess, giving real life context to teaching makes it way more interesting and way easier to remember. I got all of that from doing research-based teaching.

Do you prefer being assessed through research projects or exams, and why?

I think I actually prefer being assessed by exams because I’m better in exams than in coursework, because you just sort of go in and do it. Whereas with coursework, I faff about a lot and the way you end up being assessed for research projects is to write up a report. Maybe if it was a presentation, that would be okay because that’s a one-time thing like an exam. I have been assessed by reports I’ve done for research projects, and I’m glad I did them because the process of writing it all up is quite interesting and fun, and I’ve learned a lot from it. But I think being assessed adds quite an element of stress to your research project, because if you know you’ve got to produce a report for a mark then you’re like ‘oh what if I don’t get the results, will I fail?’. So I think I prefer a mixture. In terms of how well I do, I probably prefer exams, but then in terms of learning experience, then probably both.

Fair enough. Last question – do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share about conducting research projects as part of your degree, or using research projects as a method of learning?

I think that they’re really, really good. I learned more in my year in industry than I did in the first two years of my degree. It’s also made me enjoy my third year more as well because I am better at it. I’m more confident. And also, it was cool to be back at uni again because working full time was hard. I can just go climbing in the middle of the day again! But that’s not about learning. There’s some stuff you have to kind of learn by yourself, rather than being taught or told them. And I think it’s really valuable to be able to learn those things for yourself in the context of an undergraduate degree, where everything is quite safe and there’s a lot of support. Because the alternative is learning those things when you’re in a PhD or a job, and there’s much more riding on it and there’s less supervision. It’s valuable to learn the basics in your undergraduate degree through research projects.

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Billie Gavurin

Billie Gavurin is in her third year of studying for a PhD in English and History. Billie is on a Teaching Scholarship and has been at Bristol since her undergraduate degree in English and Classics. I met up with her to talk about the transition between undergrad and postgrad, her scholarship and teaching as a PhD student. 

Do you think there’s been a difference with how you’ve interacted with the university as an undergraduate and now as a postgraduate? 

Oh yeah. And it’s been strange in some ways. Obviously, the dynamic between you and the department really shifts as you move into a research degree and start becoming more active in your own research. You’re treated more as a colleague, and it feels really strange to make that shift to working alongside academics who lectured you when you were an undergrad. It’s quite funny, but I love the department and it’s been really nice spending more time here. 

Do you feel like as you’ve become more of a researcher than a student, you’re now more on the same level with the staff? 

Well it doesn’t feel like that exactly, no. I don’t feel like that about my own research yet, but they’ve certainly been very gracious and they definitely make you feel like they respect the work that you’re doing and regard you as someone who is working as a researcher in their own right. 

You say you feel like you’re on a similar level to staff now, does that mean you didn’t feel like you were a researcher when you were an undergraduate? 

I think it’s something that came more and more as I moved through my degree. When I very first started, I didn’t see myself as a researcher at all. And I think probably however I had been treated, I wouldn’t have seen myself as a researcher because I still felt like a kid. But by the time I was in my third year, I had to do a dissertation. It wasn’t optional, because of the way the course was structured at the time. I really didn’t want to do one, but I had to and I think it was actually one of the best things I could have done. I was so glad I was pushed into doing a dissertation because that was the first time I was doing independent, really independent, research and it completely led me into what I’m doing now and I’m so glad that I did it. So that shift really showed me that academia was really what I wanted to be doing. 

That’s really interesting because in certain parts of the university dissertations or extended projects aren’t compulsory. So, for English, when I was an undergraduate, the dissertation was only 6,000 words and it was optional. 

Yeah, it was optional for English then too. The only reason mine wasn’t was because I was a joint honours student and we had to do them. I was really angry at the time that I had to do one, but I’m so glad that I did. I actually do think everyone should have to do a dissertation in English now, after all, it’s an English degree. It doesn’t have to be a long one, but I do think everyone should have to do some kind of more extended research project 

What do you think the other benefits of doing a dissertation or an extended piece of research are? 

I think having the ability to do independent research is so applicable beyond academia. Obviously, academia is not what everyone wants to do, but I think having that ability to go off and do your own research is going to be helpful in pretty much any career that you go on to do. That kind of independence should really be fostered I think. 

Definitely, I agree. So, I wanted to ask you about your teaching scholarship. Could you just explain what it is? 

Yes, I am on a teaching scholarship whereby I teach 3 hours a week across the year. Sometimes that’s front-loaded so that I do more in the first half of term. For example, last term I did six hours a week and now I’m not doing any this term. But it works out as 3 hours a week and as a result of that teaching, my fees are waived. So, I don’t pay tuition fees for my PhD’ 

How much would your fees have cost a year? 

I think just a bit over £4,000 a year, so a significant saving across the three years of the PhD. Obviously it also means I’ve had a lot more teaching experience than you might expect for a PhD student at this stage, which is good, but it has been hard to balance my research degree with the amount of teaching I have to do, it has been difficult. 

Just to be clear – you don’t pay any fees, but you’re also not paid anything else, like a stipend? 

I’m not paid anything else, no. Which means that I am reliant on my family, they are great about it, but it’s something that I have very mixed feelings about. I have mixed feelings about a scholarship that only really works if you have external support, it’s not going to work for every student. And I’m very aware of how lucky I am to be in this position.  

It must put you in a difficult position because if you’ve got your research degree, and then six hours of teaching, you don’t also have the time to have a part time job. 

Exactly, exactly. So, I have very complicated feelings about my scholarship. I love teaching, I really love teaching. And it’s shown me that, and I’ve become much better at teaching than I would have if I’d have had limited experience of it. I love working with my students. But I have very mixed feelings about the scholarship itself, even though I’m glad I’m on it. It’s complicated I think. 

Do you think teaching has helped you to learn more about your subject? 

Yeah absolutely I do. I think because it makes you consider it all in a totally different way, and I think ideally, academia should be aiming to talk about complex things in the clearest and simplest way possible. In order to be a good teacher, you have to be able to put complex ideas into clear and simple language. I think it’s a really good thing to be forced to do. I think there can be a bit of a bubble where things get a bit overly complex in academia, and having to go back to explaining things clearly to people and making sure they understand, is really good for me as a researcher as much as it helps me as a teacher. 

 How about your wellbeing, as teachers? Are you offered support? Because obviously you’ve got a lot to balance. 

I do have a lot to balance. I feel very supported by the English department, I’ve always felt like there are people I can go to. But perhaps relying more on the kindness of individual tutors who I’ve developed a relationship with over the time that I’ve been here rather than a sense that there is a really strong support network through the university as a whole.  I think there should be support specifically for Early Career Researchers who are teaching and the stress that can come from that. Given that so much of teaching is done by hourly paid tutors or people on scholarships like me, there should be provisions made for it really. 

 Do you think that other PhD students who teach are in a similar situation to you in regards to wellbeing? 

I know that others have definitely come across problems of really wanting to support their students when they came to them with more emotional issues, as have I, but we don’t always know how to do that. Obviously, we do have the recourse to say you should see your personal tutor or your senior tutor about this, but sometimes students then say ‘I don’t really know my personal tutor’ or ‘I want to talk to you about this’. And while I’m really happy to do that, I want to make sure I’m in the best position to give them guidance and I think my fellow PhD students probably feel the same in many cases. 

Of course. Finally, what do you think is the highlight of teaching during your PhD, and doing a teaching scholarship? 

I really, really enjoy teaching. I just I love working with my students. I care a lot about what they get from their degrees. And when I occasionally hear from someone that they’ve really enjoyed the course or that it’s been really interesting to them that that’s hugely rewarding. And I really like hearing their ideas. And I just love teaching seminars. I like facilitating discussion and it’s great to give students a prompt and see them take that and go to interesting places. It’s just a wonderful thing to do. 

Thank you to Billie for having this chat with me. It was great to discuss the benefits of extended research and see her passion for teaching. It was reassuring that her department has been so supportive, but there is certainly space to reflect on how the university could better support postgraduate teachers. What struck me the most was how we often focus on students struggling with wellbeing and access to support and can forget that teachers, who are sometimes students themselves too, struggle with their own wellbeing and their responsibility to help their students.  

Emily Kinder – Student Fellow