And May All Your Dreams Come True

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer.

As a child, I filled endless notebooks with my stories. They were mostly stories about animals, or thinly veiled replicas of Lord of the Rings. I may even have tried my hand at the odd love story. At school, I kept a private tally of how often my essays were read aloud, or made a teacher cry. I love the written word.

When I was 29 years old, an editor approached me and asked me to write a book. That book, Animal Personalities, is currently available for pre-order.

Of course, when you achieve your childhood dreams, a weight lifts from your heart, a divine confidence settles in your soul, and you never again doubt yourself or your abilities. You become as happy as you always believed you would be . . .

I recently wrote a short case study about being a postdoc for Edinburgh’s “Thriving in Your Research Position” document from the Institute of Academic Development. In the case study, I talk about a spectral figure who has haunted me throughout my whole career: the Perfect Postdoc. She is always better than me. When I wrote my book, she somehow wrote a better one. She’s like a funhouse mirror version of me, and when I change, so does she. I’ll never be able to outdo her.

If you’re a long-term reader of this blog, you’ll know I’ve been thinking about failure lately. I explored my failures as an animal trainer, and meditated on how academia breeds an anti-failure culture. I’m also critical of the idea that all scientists have to be specialists – I’m not a specialist. I’m interdisciplinary and I love it. This leads me to another area of my academic life where the Perfect Postdoc is always one step ahead of me.

The Perfect Postdoc understands R much better than I do. I’ve spoken before on this blog about my frustrations while trying to learn R. While I have taught research methods and statistics for several years now, I’ve always hesitated to teach R. I’ve hesitated because, well . . . because I’m not brilliant at it. My code is ugly and often cobbled together, and I often find the community around R, places like stack exchange and stack overflow, are hideously unfriendly.

I’ve been lucky enough enrol on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s woman-only Aurora programme this year. The first session was called Identity, Impact and Voice, where we explored how we can make a difference in our workplaces and communities. There were two-hundred plus women at the Aurora event in Edinburgh this month, and so many of us spoke about being afraid of ‘not being the best’.

The curious thing is, when I was listing my strengths, I never said I was “the best at [thing]”. My strengths are my communication skills, the fact I’m approachable, and my willingness to try new things. I firmly believe that in five years time anyone who doesn’t have R skills is going to find it very difficult to get a job in academia. Hiding my bad code means I’m not contributing to the R conversation happening right now. I have a voice. And I can have an impact too.

Hadley Wickham, who wrote some fabulous R packages, says:

So with that in mind, I’m going to start sharing my own R teaching materials more widely.  You can find my resources on Github (scroll down to find direct links to the exercises). The worst that can happen is that someone tells me my code is ugly. The Perfect Postdoc’s code is of course much prettier, but do you know what? Just like writing my book, writing that exercise was pretty fun.

Glory in your bad code. Glory in saying “I don’t know how to do that” in your local programming club meetings. Glory in your voice. There is nothing else like it.

 

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The Academic Place

Have you been watching The Good Place? For UK viewers, it’s on Netflix, and it’s a very funny and sharp comedy based on exploring ethical points of view about what ‘goodness’ really is. I love it. The latest episode focussed on the Trolley Problem, which I have a particular soft spot for.

I’m a utilitarian, as I’ve said many times on this blog, and for me the trolley problem has limited discussion value. It’s also one of my favourite examples of a flipped classroom (you can use my flipped classroom here on TES Blendspace).

I was really lucky with this classroom that I had great engagement from my students, and there are a few elements of this that have really stuck with me. One of them was one of my students who flatly said no, she could not pull the lever to move the trolley. She could not bear the thought of causing a person’s death. The class had a brilliant discussion, and a truly equal one as well, where I walked away from the class feeling as though I’d stretched my understanding of ethics as well.

The trolley problem hinges, in my opinion, on the fact you know your inaction will result in five deaths. When you know the outcomes, does inaction hold equal culpability as action? I firmly believe that it does, and this is partly an outcome of my atheism. I don’t believe there is a final tally of good acts or evil acts, and the only ‘worth’ is how much you helped other people. It’s my ethical position, and informs my actions, and how I value other peoples’ actions as well.

This brings me to a less happy topic. The #MeToo hashtag has been spreading over social media, a visible way for people to say they had experienced sexual harassment or assault. Eventually, I posted too.

There was so many feelings swirling around before I made that post, but in fact it was walking away from a student engagement event that made me think about it. I have said in our Digital Footprint MOOC that I believe my Twitter (and indeed this blog) are a way for me to widen participation in academia, to help engage the public and students with the kinds of science I do. The fact is, I have been sexually harassed in my role as ‘student’, more than once. My feelings on this are very mixed. I feel ashamed. I feel guilty that I ‘brought it upon myself’. I feel relief, and a sense of fraudulence, that these incidences of harassment only made me uncomfortable and shaky, and didn’t physically harm me.

Ultimately, I feel that if a student under my care came up to me and told me they had had a similar experience, I would be furious. I would not be asking them what they’d done to bring it on themselves, even though I ask myself that. I would support them.

Saying #MeToo was deeply uncomfortable. It was frightening. I know other scientists who chose to disclose, and others who didn’t. No one owes someone their disclosure. For me, I wanted to say something because I knew it had happened, and staying silent felt a little like not throwing the lever and changing the trolley’s tracks. As uncomfortable as it made me, staying quiet was worse. It’s my personal ethical stance, and I don’t demand that everyone follows me.

But there’s still more. With the news that Oxbridge is less diverse than it was seven years ago, and the mental health challenges associated with postgraduate study are a terrifying read. I fundamentally think that we are all in this together, and we have to talk about the things that go wrong. We also have to help the people who contribute to harassment, to the stressful culture, who make the choices about who comes in. We’re them too.

Changing an individual person’s behaviour is hard, trust me, I know. Changing a workplace culture is even harder. But it’s worth it. By having the conversations, we might just be able to make the Academic Place . . . the Good Place.

The Finnish Lesson

For the record, I managed two whole plenaries in AMEE before I was overcome with opinions and had to blog about it.

First things first, AMEE 2017, an International Association for Medical Education, has been a bit of a revelation for me. Sitting in a crowd of 3800 medical educators, when you’ve only been on the job for fourteen months, is a bit overwhelming. But this has been one of the friendliest, most accessible conferences I’ve ever attended. It’s been a delight so far.

But I want to talk about the Finnish Education system here. Our second plenary of the conference was by Pasi Sahlberg, whose talk was titled “What can medical education learn from the Finnish experience of educational change?

First off, it’s important to talk about the conference crush. It’s a thing that happens when you hear another researcher talk and their passion and excitement, and their insight into a topic, just sets your heart racing and before you know it you’re having idle fantasies of working in another research group. It happens to me about ten times a conference. I got a case of it listening to Sahlberg talk about the Finnish education experience. In about 15 years they managed to make massive improvements, and top the global league tables in many arenas of literacy. They improved so much they surprised themselves.

I think Sahlberg will be posting his slides on his website, but I quite enjoy taking my own things away a talk. The highlights to me were:

  • Teaching must be respected (in Finland you need an Masters degree to do any kind of teaching)
  • School systems should not be competitive with one another for ‘clients’
  • Value play and failure
  • The society you teach in needs to have high equity

 

Whether or not this is what Sahlberg intended to communicate, this is what I walked away with. There are so many questions that come tumbling out when I think about this. For us in Scotland, I really worry about the equity in our educational society. Any three students in my lecture could have paid three different fees to hear the same material. That worries me greatly. With the changing politics of the UK, we risk losing many of our hard-earned gains in society.

Sahlberg presented a slide which talked about ‘Global Educational Reform Movement’, and how it had spread (like a g.e.r.m.) from the UK in the eighties, and moved forward. I can’t be the only person in the room who was thinking about dear old Maggie Thatcher. Whether education must always be political is an interesting question (one opinion, one more). I have always been a political creature, and I believe there is politics in all we do. I found Sahlberg’s slides very convincing that we must create certain kind of systems in order to promote better educational outcomes.

Sahlberg also highlighted the value of play, briefly, and the value of what he called ‘small data’. These are subjects close to my heart. As someone with a big-data PhD, I now spend a lot of time on small data, and explore qualitative ways to evaluate what we do, because sometimes that’s the best method you can use to answer the question you’re interested in. I like these two elements because they are both things that are sometimes frowned upon in the environments I work. When I did my M.Sci, I had this feeling that I wasn’t allowed to get emotional about the animals, I wasn’t allowed to have fun in my job. Where did this come from? No one ever told me this, but it was part of my culture nonetheless. I still struggle a little with this.

This blog is called ‘Fluffy Sciences’ because I want to kick back against the ideas that ‘soft’ things, play, small data, feelings, are less valuable. What we do is massively complicated, asking questions like “how do we change a whole community in order to improve our education”, and not recognising how valuable that is results in any old person doing teaching, being given no support, and students who are treated as commodities, not people.

Here at AMEE, it’s incredibly empowering to be around so many people who recognise the importance of education research. Let’s hope that we can all take that confidence back with us to our schools as a beacon.

Reflections on Being a Terrible Trainer

I am terrible at training animals. No, really, I am. Any good behaviour my animals show is mostly entirely accidental. I understand the theory, I can correctly distinguish between continuous and variable reward schedules, but I lack patience, and I lack consistency, two of the key aspects of animal training.

There are loads of resources on how to train your pets, and loads of blogs talking about it, so this post doesn’t want to teach you how to be a better trainer.

This post wants to talk about reflection.

 

See, in education research we talk a lot about self-reflection and how important it is to the process self-development. In my experience, scientists and clinicians (and I include myself in this) are rarely as good at self-reflection as they think they are.

Last week I decided I was going to train Athena to give me her paw. I had three main goals:

  1. My big overall goal is to relax Athena. There has been a lot going on this year and her anxiety around people has gotten worse. By giving her something to think about and a ‘job’, I hope that she’ll start to feel more in control of her environment.
  2. My specific reason for teaching ‘paw’ first is that Athena is phobic about her paws being touched which means clipping her claws is a hassle. She’s also had occasional contact dermatitis on her paws when she gets into places she’s not supposed to, so getting Athena comfortable with presenting a paw would be a great help down the line.
  3. Training is a bit of fun for both of us!

 

Here is a short montage of nine days of paw training with Athena.

 

I’m going to use Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle to talk about this training experience.

 

Description

What we have here is continuous reward (Athena is being rewarded with a treat every time she performs the behaviour), with some less-than-ideal shaping of the behaviour. To encourage her I would take her paw in my hand instead of waiting for her to lift her paw spontaneously. Overall I was not using best practice training methods. Why? Well, impatience for one thing. I knew it would take far longer to shape the behaviour properly, and while I know continuous reward is a problem, I felt like she needed to be very motivated to sit and train (see the earliest session where she walked off after I annoyed her!).

 

Feelings

Overall I’m pretty delighted with Athena’s performance. I think she picked up the behaviour very quickly and all of our sessions were short and enjoyable. Watching the videos back I’m also surprised by how quickly she learned to sit patiently. I didn’t start out to teach the ‘sit’ but that behaviour became part of the game very quickly. Keeping the sessions short meant that even when things went a bit wrong, I wasn’t frustrated.

 

Evaluation

Doing one to two short (less than 10 minute) sessions a day was great for both of us. I typically did one in the morning and one at bedtime. They feel like just the right amount of work for both of us.

There are three things that could be improved: a variable reward ratio, shaping the behaviour more naturally, and for me to stop rewarding other behaviours. Of these, the third one is the big thing for me as a trainer, and always has been. I’m the type of fidgety, unpredictable person that is just generally bad at training, so keeping myself controlled in these sessions would be a big help to Athena.

 

Analysis

I explored a lot of dog training blogs when writing this post, not before starting (remember, patience is not one of my virtues). I found surprisingly few cat training discussions, with a few from Catster.  That very link was highlighting the importance of shaping behaviours without forcing the cat into doing anything. My two big mistakes during training (variable ratio reward and shaping behaviour naturally) are definitely things that the literature doesn’t like, but they are both extremely tricky skills to master. I knew about both, and yet diving in to get to my end goal I conveniently put both out of my mind.

 

This was what got me thinking about failure, one of my favourite topics at the moment. I hate failing, and yet there would have been nothing ‘wrong’ with waiting for Athena to do these behaviours herself. I wouldn’t have failed at anything unless I’d stopped training altogether.

 

Conclusion

What else could I have done? I could have thought about Athena a bit more during this whole thing. One of my initial motivations was for her to be less phobic about her paws being touched, and you can see in the video she’s still not 100% happy about it. There’s a huge value to the natural shaping of behaviour and it’s Athena’s affection for me that kept her willing to engage (and at least when she did walk away I let her!).

On the other hand, I’m really impressed at Athena’s demonstrable ability to be trained. With all the affection in the world, I don’t think she’s a particularly biddable cat. I hope that means she enjoyed the training sessions and found them rewarding. Establishing whether animals find training rewarding or not is a sometimes controversial topic, so I’d like to look into that in more detail.

Overall though, I’m really pleased she’s picked up the training, and I think I showed a lot of progress in the video too.

 

Action Plan  

We’re going to continue this training and move onto a differential reward reinforcement schedule, where Athena gets different type of reward depending on her performance. An ok performance will get a verbal reward, a good performance will get an ear stroke, and an excellent performance will get a treat.

Once we have a clear, clean lift of Athena’s paw into my hand on vocal command, I’ll start raising my hand and maintaining the differential reward schedule with the aim of Athena raising her paw above her head to hit my hand. I expect this will take a month or so to be achieved reliably if I stick with the current 1-2 training sessions a day.

I’d also like to introduce another trick, perhaps in a few weeks. While I’d like Athena to give both paws on command, I feel like it would be good to start with some more active behaviours (as she is a bundle of energy). I think consolidating her ‘up’ command would be a great one to start, which could maybe move on to a ‘jump over’ command.

 

 

 

Why is Reflecting Important?

I know I’m not a very good trainer, I don’t need the structure of a reflection cycle to tell me that, I have Athena who has successfully trained me to do several behaviours, while I still struggle to get her to do ‘up’ on command. What the reflection cycle lets me do is identify the weaknesses, and identify why they exist. One of the reasons I like the Gibbs cycle is that the analysis allows you to contextualise the ‘why’.

I find this very useful, especially with teaching. In my experience, many of my teaching ‘failures’ have come from my own problems, either my own desire not to fail, or not being clear enough about what I wanted. And yet this impacts on my students more than it impacts on me.

For example, here I was rushing to get to the paw touch phase of Athena’s training, even though one of my main motivations was to have Athena relax about paws. I was focusing on my feelings about what was going on, and not hers. Despite being pretty damn familiar with all this theory, in practice I was making the same mistakes that many others do simply because I wanted to feel better about myself. Vanity in teaching is a dangerous thing!

 

Teachers should not be afraid of mistakes or failures. They are a natural consequence of learning. This is not a good training video, I make many mistakes, and that’s precisely why I’m sharing it. Please feel free to make use of it (the YouTube link is here, there is also a copy on the University of Edinburgh’s Media Hopper service) without fear of hurting my feelings, or Athena’s! Being bad at something makes it a lot easier to learn from it!

Reasons Why Twister Is The Most Pro-Science Blockbuster

Twister is one of my top five films of all time. If it’s not in yours you need to rethink your priorities. Now it’s not necessarily the most scientifically accurate movie of all time, but I think it’s one the most positive depictions of science, and one of the best depictions of science community I’ve ever seen.

Here are the main points of my thesis:

  • The research group fights about what music they listen to when they drive, with one group favouring showtunes and the other favouring rock.
  • Dustin (Seymour Hopkins‘ character) is the the token “good at emotions” character, always rushing to make sure everyone’s okay
  • There are (repeated) arguments about how to store equipment
  • There is one who is always on the phone fixing problems (Jami Gertz’s character). Every research group has one of these people.
  • Someone in the team has a family member really good at cooking and the whole team adopts them.
  • There’s a lot of bitterness about that one person who went after the money instead of the science.
  • Nobody has a particularly good work-life balance.
  • No one can decide whose responsibility it is to write up the papers.

 

And to conclude, the true reason Twister is the best depiction of science culture ever:

Revised gunshot and knife wounds guidance: my view from A&E

Disclosure is a fraught issue – and this is a really useful take on the updated GMC guidelines

Medical professionalism and regulation in the UK

Dr Adrian Boyle, Consultant Emergency Physician and Caldicott Guardian at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, and Chair of the Quality Emergency Care Committee at the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, reflects on the practical application of our revised guidance – Confidentiality: reporting gunshot and knife wounds (2017).

The GMC guidelines on confidentiality have recently changed. This is a potentially fraught area for doctors who treat victims of intentional injury. Research has consistently shown that doctors care for many assault victims who the police are simply unaware of, despite the severity of injury. Over 70% of assaults treated at emergency departments are never recorded by the police [i].

Patients may have many reasons for not disclosing their assault to the police. They may be too frightened of reprisals, they may not want their own behaviour scrutinised and they may make a judgement call that the police won’t take action. Wherever possible…

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My Name is Jilly, And I’ve Been Book-Free For 1 Week

Hello, my name is Jilly. I’m proud to say I’ve been book-free for one week.

Yes – it is true. Last week (in fact, Thursday 25th May), I sent the book off to the editors and received a lovely email in return thanking me for following the preparation guidelines so thoroughly.

Of course, the paper I submitted this week was missing a figure heading.

Writing the book has been an amazing experience. Even my PhD didn’t give me so much freedom to really dive into a subject and (forgive how academic this sounds) think about a subject.

So what happens when you write a book?

  • That quip about it being another, longer PhD on top of your full time job was absolutely true
  • You will lose all sympathy for PhD students, which is wrong, because you brought this on yourself.
  • You will swear you’ll never write another (and secretly really hope the second is easier)
  • The “I should be writing” guilt is real. It follows you around pubs and parks, a spectral apparition lurking at the corner of your vision of yourself hunched over a laptop.
  • It’s amazing how much more energy you have when the spectral apparition is gone – I suddenly feel capable of painting the living room
  • Somebody will publish an inflammatory paper before you submit your book. You will have a little cry.
  • The weakest part of your creative process (for me that’s always been editing) will improve – but it’ll still be your weakest part. By far.
  • You’re going to be really nervous about whether or not people actually like it – a nice email from your editor will make you burst into blubbering tears.

The next part of the process will take about eight months, I think, so expect to see the book early in 2018. I am very excited, and very nervous about how it will be received. I really hope people like it. I might even quite like the opportunity to do this again at some point (something about science literacy in general . . .)

But right now I’m really enjoying having absolutely nothing to do at evenings and weekends. This is fun.

All Scientists Are Awesome

There are weeks in science when even your successes feel like a failure.

That is, if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky there will be months of it. The criticisms will stretch out before you and though they may be paired with encouragements, you’ll only see the words:

  • “We’re sorry to say your application was unsuccessful”
  • “We cannot recommend this paper for publication”
  • “This was interesting but I didn’t quite understand this bit . . .”

We think the praise is there to soften the blow, because it’s how we pull our own punches when we’re trying to help.

You’ll be scored on your teaching, or on a job application, or a grant proposal . . . 3/5 they’ll say and instead of concentrating on the 3 points you got, you’ll stare at the 2 you didn’t. You’ll be given feedback on a paper and you’ll gloss over “this is interesting” and jump straight to “I disagree with this conclusion”. They’ll tell you they wanted a range of subjects on offer, you’ll hear “you weren’t good enough”.

Sometimes you might think about leaving, working for an NGO, or industry, and you’ll wonder if you’re weak, if you just can’t hack it. Maybe, sometimes, in the dark of night, you might even think that about your friends who got out, but I guarantee you won’t think it for long because you know it’s not true.

Be kind to yourself. You work in a very stressful field, one that is under unprecedented threat, and it was never that stable to begin with. You put too much pressure on yourself, and you always have.

You are awesome.

You were awesome when you stopped what you were doing to explain that thing to your colleague. You were awesome when you pulled a bunch of slides together and stood up to talk about thing no one in that room had done. You were awesome when you listened to their opinions. You were awesome when you cried because it hurt and you were awesome when you were able to shrug it off and you were awesome when you reined in your training and left good feedback for the next person.

You are awesome, and you will continue to inspire awe in me no matter what you do.

Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse

Very important stuff when it comes to measuring academia.

Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week

I’ve been on Twitter since April 2011 — nearly six years. A few weeks ago, for the first time, something I tweeted broke the thousand-retweets barrier. And I am really unhappy about it. For two reasons.

First, it’s not my own content — it’s a screen-shot of Table 1 from Edwards and Roy (2017):

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And second, it’s so darned depressing.

The problem is a well-known one, and indeed one we have discussed here before: as soon as you try to measure how well people are doing, they will switch to optimising for whatever you’re measuring, rather than putting their best efforts into actually doing good work.

In fact, this phenomenon is so very well known and understood that it’s been given at least three different names by different people:

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