Plan of action!

Crikey, it’s been 3 months already?! *panics* At Imperial College, new PhD students have to produce an initial plan of study within the first three months of setting off, and submit it for independent assessment. Having uploaded mine just now (not in the slightest bit late..), I figured I’d share it here! It’s a broad outline of what I’m aiming to do for the next wad of months – any comments or feedback will be massively appreciated!

Proposed title of thesis: Diversity crash at the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary: a forgotten mass extinction?

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SpotOn London – a global conference

SpotOn London was held this weekend at the Wellcome Trust, shockingly, in London. The name stands for Science Policy, Outreach and Tools Online, with each of these representing three individual but strongly interwoven strands during the two days. As far as conferences go, it was pretty interactive. Each session was live-streamed, and through that and the power of Twitter –many people in each session either had an ipad, laptop, or mobile phone out tracking the online conversation, and drawing in additional comments from those who couldn’t be there in person.

It was also nice to briefly meet Barbara and Edvard of the EGU network (*waves at*). Apart from the small geo-cadre, the rest of the delegates represented in total the entire scientific discipline, from PhD students to BBC science reporters, communications managers, and those who work in science policy. When you consider science as being an interactive process, pretty much everyone present can be classed as some brand of scientist, representing the huge social range of the field. That’s intended as a compliment to any attendees who read this!

Typical attendee at the conference

So, why as a PhD student and palaeontologist, did I go to this conference? The primary reason is that I was actually invited to co-co-ordinate a session with Michelle Brook, the Head of Policy at the Physiological Society. As well as this, the ‘science communication network’, consisting rather loosely of those who do various outreach initiatives, work in science policy, reporting, editing, publishing, are an insanely valuable resource for personal development as an early career scientist. I only ‘joined’, or became aware of, this community around a year ago, and since then have begun to learn about issues such as gender bias in science, the open access movement, the role of science in government, the role of learned societies, as well as the value of blogging, and various other forms of communication, among other things. This has largely been fueled by being pretty active on Twitter, which is a pretty awesome way of staying in touch with the world beyond the desk/lab, and made a whole lot easier by living in London, which is undoubtedly the UK’s hub of science communication-relevant events, people, and organisations (ranging from CaSE to BioMed Central’s publishing house, and everything in between).

So yeah, the session. We decided to strike for the pretty hot topic of increasing engagement between scientists and policymakers. The panel consisted of Nic Bilham, Head of External Relations and Strategy at the Geological Society (and my old boss, who taught me everything I know about geoscience policy), Julian Huppert, the MP for Cambridge, and strong supporter of science within government, and Anna Zecharia, a post-doc at Imperial College, Head of the Science Communication Forum there, and someone with pretty big ideas for science communication and policy in the future. Michelle chaired the session. You can see their discussion here:

As well as this, we also organised a workshop to follow on from this discussion. If you want to see what any of this was like on Twitter, check out the #solo12sp hash tag. The video feed for this session was a bit fuzzy, seeing as how we had several discussions happening at the same time, based on the format idea of a ‘marketplace of discussion’, with the three panelists fueling debate and conversation by acting as focal areas of expertise. The idea is to take the notes and ideas made during this session, and collate them into some sort of guide document that scientists and policymakers can use to increase reciprocal engagement between the two. That’s not to say the two ‘sides’ are mutually distinct, and that interaction doesn’t happen already. It’s just that there could be more of it, and if some sort of strategic framework were established whereby communications between the two fields increased, for the benefit of both, then it would be mutually beneficial in terms of having more evidence-informed policies, where needed, and more policy-aware scientists. As far as how geology/geoscience fits in to this, I think, and I’m sure many would agree, that in times of issues such as climate change, energy security, natural hazards, radioactive waste, the more geoscientific input we have, the more informed we can be when it comes to tackling these. Where does palaeontology come in to all this? I’ll let you know when I’ve figured that one out.

For sticking with it, here’s an image of the dinosaur Tenontosaurus tilletti that I played with a couple of years ago.

[This was initially blogged at http://blogs.egu.eu/palaeoblog/2012/11/13/210/]

Relocation, and a chance to try some open science-ing

Shortly, this blog will be moving to a new home within the European Geosciences Union blog network! Somehow, they get the idea that a blog with the url ‘fossilsandshit’ would be appropriate for their needs. Anyway, as part of this, the blog needs to become more focussed. That means no more miscellaneous rants, no more diversions on to drugs policy, and much to my dismay, no more swearing*. Bollocks. What it does mean, is loads more Palaeontology! Possibly with some ranting (according to my tags, this is what y’all like the most anyway? How cynical.)

As such, it seems like a perfect opportunity to try something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’m sure many have done it before, or at least had the idea, but screw it I’m doing it anyway. In about a month, I’m starting a PhD in London! I’ll be investigating the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary to see if there’s a ‘hidden’ mass extinction in terrestrial organisms, as well as looking in detail at some groups such as atoposaurid crocodylomorphs. This is to feed into a much larger ongoing project to reconstruct the patterns and processes of vertebrate biodiversity from their origins on land to now. Neat eh!

This is what I think it’s going to be like..

So, with this in mind, and the impending relocation (although I’m not 100% clear on the details yet), I figured I’d try and sort of live-blog my PhD, from day 1 to day 1000, or however long it’s going to take. The idea is to open up the PhD process, by going into what exactly a vertebrate palaeontologist does nowadays, as well as the more general aspects of PhD life. This means going into the details of the processes, not just ‘hey look I didz a graph’, but ‘here’s how you can replicate this analysis 100% if you wanted, and here’s why it’s awesome/I’m doing it’. I’m still expecting this PhD to be an awesome ride, as opposed to some of the more negative stories floating around the interwebz recently, and hopefully will be able to convey this and show that doing a PhD is something pretty damn awesome still. Of course, it could be shit, and you might just read weekly posts of “added some data, computer died, beat up undergrad, ate soup made from cold water and ketchup”, and the like, but hopefully it’ll be a bit more of a dynamic insight than these delights.

Rationale: If I’m doing something I love, why wouldn’t I want to write about it, and if it’s something I think is awesome, why wouldn’t I wouldn’t to tell everyone else about it?? I wouldn’t be doing a PhD otherwise. Also, my memory is pretty naff, so it’ll be nice to have a record of the experience.

Some of you are probably thinking, ‘but if you open up your PhD, won’t you just get scooped on the idea you’re investigating?’ This thought has crossed my mind, but frankly, I’m not going to be doing anything that isn’t theoretically beyond anyone else’s reach anyway, as the data is all openly available, as is much of the software I’ll be using too. Naturally, I might have to keep some of the conclusions slightly secret, until I publish them in an open access journal anyway. Every publication I’m first author on in future is going to be fully available, as far as it’s possible for me to make in terms of content and data. Taxes paid by you all are allowing me to conduct this research, so I’ll be damned if a single aspect of it will be paid for again.

I’ll post weekly updates on here, and using Twitter under the #OpenPhD hash tag, when the time comes. What I hope this will achieve is some sort of dialogue were people can see not just the end result of research, but query the processes, and gain some understanding of the scientific process at the same time. And of course, opening up the discussion means that I might be able to crowd-source some valuable points of view from you great peeps!

Any feedback on this idea will be greatly appreciated, and if you want to join in then go ahead! The more the merrier!

Stand back, I’m about to try a science..

Source: Probably XKCD

*A separate outlet may have to be found for this, if (=when) needed