eBooks a go-go baby!

I’ve always been a big fan of reading, I couldn’t have got my degrees or survived the first year of my PhD without a love of the written word. Back in April 2010 I wasn’t sure how well the iPad would function as a device to read extended works on. E-Ink was all the rage, and the Kindle was thought to be the potential saviour of the publishing world, albeit a bulky beige saviour with very slow refresh rate. It was also thought at the time that no one would prefer to read books on a digital device, and especially not a colour LCD display, and that the kindle ver1.0 was just for business men and power-readers. A monochrome display is near useless for reading biological journals on so I skipped the kindle and eventually got an iPad when I started my PhD.

It has been used primarily for reading comics in full colour (nur-nur kindle fans), and for saving me having to carry round a stack of papers, getting crumpled and dog-eared in my bag just in case I fancied reading up on some biology during a commute. I hardly had time for reading non-fiction, until I watched the HBO TV adaptation of A Game of Thones by George RR Martin. WOW was it such a good series.

After the finale concluded I hit the iBooks store, desperate to learn more about the world and the characters that populated it in the most colourful of ways. After seeing the book available for just £4 it was an insta-buy, and I started reading it on my commutes and before bed times like a good lad. This afternoon I have finally reached the end of it and thought I’d share my feelings about the world of eBooks.

The biggest benefit I found of using the iPad versus a physical book is the size difference, and lack of fear of damaging it. I can just chuck my iPad inside my bag and not worry about it getting crumpled by my laptop or camera, or it getting bent and dog-eared. I find holding a thin slab of aluminium a lot more comfortable than dealing with a book in two halves as I try not to bend the spine too much for fear of breaking it. The next big benefit I found with using iBooks was the syncing between devices such that in the morning I could read on my iPad, and in the evening, when I got a packed meat wagon home, I could just pull out my little iPhone and carryon reading it form where I had left off. I found the page animations to be very satisfying and that it made iBooks more enjoyable to use. Eye-strain hasn’t been an issue really, no more than reading in general anyway. And I’ve found the back-lit iPad display extremely useful, where the Kindle would have failed me.

In summary, I enjoyed reading the book so much I now have the rest of the series sitting on my iBooks bookshelf just urging me to hurry through and devour them whole, and where as if I had the physical copy I’d be struggling to bring the book with me let alone hold while standing on the tube, I have no fears with iBooks allowing me even more opportunity to read. I can also carry round the whole series with me without a worry that I may have to carry two large books for a few days incase I finished the first book. I love my iPad, and while at first I wasn’t sure of its potential as a reading device, today I’m sold and I’m making time to enjoy reading once more.

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Posted by on 04/09/2011 in gadget, PhD, Review


Breakdown earphones

In the past two weeks I’ve had three friends stop speaking to me and decide they want me out of their life for reasons ranging from a misunderstanding to plain childishness. Two other friends have ignored me when I was trying to talk to them and needed someone to listen to me and give me a slap/advice. This REALLY pissed me off. I mean, why call yourself a friend when you’re only interested in who you may or may not hook up with on recon or grindr, and ignore the person who is sat across the fucking table from you having lunch, trying to do something they find very hard to do?!?! I’ve always been a closed person, I deal with my own shit and bottle up emotions like it’s going out of style. But when someone pleads you to open up to them, and you start doing that, you kind of expect them then to not totally ignore you and make you feel like shit by preferring to talk to random fucks then give you their attention. What’s the solution to this problem? One solution would be to cut this person out of your life totally. A bad move in my opinion, the world is tiny and the gay world even more so. It’s far better to keep the person as an acquaintance, one you don’t make a special effort to see or divulge sensitive information to.

These social fuck-ups have been combined with an increased workload and demands made by my supervisor and things generally messing up in the lab. Happily, after investing a lot of time and energy I’m starting to sort out these hiccoughs. Result being that I’m a bit more loopy then usual, a bit more bi-polar-esque, and in need of as many hugs as the people I still call friends can spare.

However, not all is doom and gloom. I’m moving soon, form Clapham Common to by Ealing Common. Longer commute which will mean more time to myself where I can actually force myself to read a journal article, or just have chill out time to myself. I’m moving in with two very lovely, very intelligent friends which will be a big change from my current situation. No pets = win as well. Smaller room, but bigger, nicer living room/kitchen combo. And it’s going to work out a slight bit cheaper than my current set up. Downside is that I have to move all my crap 10 miles or so. I’m sure I’ll work out something 😛

Also on the upside: I have new earphones!!! I accidentally washed/tumble-dried my old V-moda’s I bought when I came to London in September and have been making do with the FUCKING SHITE Apple iPhone earphones for the past 6 weeks. Can I just say that it is impossible to not go insane if you have to use the tube daily and only have leaky, cheap earphones to protect you from the screeching, rumbling, and general natter of the London Underground. I sent for the Klipsch S5i’s, only £80 on Amazon at the moment. They’re basically the same as the S4i’s only they have a more rubberised exterior and the remote is waterproof. They’ve recently won a recommendation from the Engadget Back to College series as the best entry level (sub £150) earphones. For me they’re pretty bloody good. Sound quality is what you’d expect for the price and the noise isolation is good too. The only issue I have is that the clip that comes with them is crap at actually staying attached to your clothing.

Thanks to the earphones and the prospect of moving in with some lovely smart kinky guys, I’ve been able to hold onto some semblance of sanity, rather than breaking down in tears at random points and feeling lost in general. It’s very, very easy to feel isolated and like you’re being pulled along by the current in London. Dealing with this is the challenge I face over the coming months. But it should work itself out. Things do that mostly because you can’t stop time 😛

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Posted by on 20/08/2011 in Uncategorized


Expectations versus Reality


Recently, I’ve been overwhelmed with work but also, overwhelmed with a desire to meet expectations and exceed them. I got my PhD place through a very competitive process where over 20 applicants selected this project as their first choice. My supervisor selected me over the others for some unknown reason and therefore I feel that I have to perform very well, and deliver on the potential that my supervisor clearly must have saw in me.

Hitting stumbling blocks and brick walls are normal in science, but just as I think I’m about to get started again, something bad happens and I’m back to square one. This is all leading to a lot of stress. Previously, I’ve handled stress pretty well but with all these expectations or perceived expectations flying around I’m finding it really tough to deal with. My colleague pointed out to me last night that most people in my division doing a PhD are on average 2 years older than I am, and she herself is 3 years older than me and we’ve both started our PhD’s at the same time. She was saying that she has had the time to mature, to have fun, learn the skills she needs to be able to gain perspective and focus without being dragged down too far when something fucks up or doesn’t go as planned.

This PhD has so far been one HUGE learning curve. Learning to function in a new lab, in a new city, with new cells, doing new assays, new ways of doing things, figuring out how to use new equipment and new methods of analysing data all adds to the difficulty. In addition, I’m having to take control of my project now to an extent I haven’t previously and balance work/life and lab/reading time. So yeah, it’s been tough! Hopefully I’m just in a trough and I’ll be steadily climbing out of it soon, to continue this roller coaster of a degree. I just need to remember that it’s a learning experience and that not getting good data by the end of the week is going to be the norm for a while. Managing my own expectations against my reality is proving to be one tough cookie.

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Posted by on 08/04/2011 in Personal, PhD


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Productivity Tips


This past weekend I have been fine tuning my life, getting all the tasks that were given to me during my weekly meeting with my supervisor into OmniFocus, and just in general trying to up my productivity so that I can handle both my life, and my PhD without having a breakdown as previously alluded to. During this process I’ve hit on a few things which may be useful if you yourself are trying to grapple with too much to do.

First, you need to understand that being productive is not just about ticking things off of a list, it’s about being able to quickly focus on one task before then focusing on another. This is one of the goals of GTD but it still needs to be understood. GTD lets your mind relax while it’s doing whatever you want it to do, without worrying that something is going to blow up.

Second, treating personal internet browsing as a coffee break. This way you’re not quickly sidetracked when you feel you ought to be doing work. Using full screen mode in a few browsers really helps one to focus on that one webpage, without being distracted by Twitter or your email. For this reason I have my dock hidden as I don’t need to know right now that I have 9 new emails. This would only serve to distract me from what I actually want to focus on. Also, turn off the sound notification for when you get a new IM/Skype message/email/tweet etc. If possible only check mail twice a day, once at the start, and once an hour or so before you leave.

Next, and a extension of my previous point, when writing text USE SCRIVENER. The most perfect writing environment for just getting text down before allowing you to compile the file and format it in Pages or Word. Using the full screen mode is key as it blacks out the rest of your desktop. You should also consider breaking up whatever you’re trying to write into separate subheadings in the form of new ‘pages’ in Scrivener. This will allow you to just focus (there’s that word again) on the one section of the essay/thesis/book/novel at a time. This will make starting each section a lot easier as you wont be concerned with the other parts of the piece, you’ll just be focusing on getting words on the virtual page which is of relevance to that particular section.

Finally, tidy your work area. Remove distractions and clutter to other shelves or into drawers. Only keep on your desktop what you need very quick access to eg. pen, pencil, post-its, highlighters, notebook. This way you’re not faffing about trying to find these items when you want to make a quick note, or jot down a thought which randomly strolled into your mind. Keeping your desk as tidy as possible will also allow you to focus on what you’re doing.

I hope this has been useful for you, and may make implementing GTD or just doing your work more effortless and productive.

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Posted by on 04/04/2011 in Personal, PhD


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The Blob!

WOW, PhD’s are HARD! Who’d have thunk it?! In recent months my life has taken on a new form, one which is akin to the ‘amorphous blob of stuff’ David Allen always mentions when trying to espouse the benefits of GTD. Nowadays I feel a bit like a tree branch floating down a stream as it joins other tributaries before forming a huge, tumultuous river, and much like that tree branch I fear being snapped in two.

The PhD has really picked up pace, things still aren’t working but they aren’t working faster than they were before. This seems to be a common feature of many PhD projects and may explain why charities are very selective over who they fund. Having the patience and enthusiasm to keep doing science, trying to optimise a previously optimised method or try and midi-prep some damn plasmid for the 19th time can get rather disheartening. It is in this state of re-runs that I currently find myself.

Getting back to The Blob, I’m trying to figure out a way of dealing with him. The first weapon in my arsenal is OmniFocus, a GTD list manager which when properly implemented will allow me to have ‘downtime’ without worrying that something is blowing up, or that I need to do anything RIGHT NOW. I won’t go into the details yet again, suffice to say it’s not the easiest of tools to implement and can take time and effort to get it to work for you. But when it does it really does help you feel more in control and less like that branch about to ripped apart by the rapids.

The next weapon I’m training myself to use is the power of ‘No’. Learning to be realistic with your supervisor at your weekly meeting about what you can actually get done is an art form. While it may be useful to discuss with your supervisor what you would like to do, you need to tell her what you WILL do first before talking about the harebrained ideas you’ve come up with. This way she isn’t having unrealistic expectations for your next meeting when she’s expecting 8 Western blots, stripped and probed for equal loading and several Excel spreadsheets detailing the quantification data for the assays you said you’d do, when what you ACTUALLY have is just a smile and a couple of failed attempts of midi-prepping that damn plasmid!!!

The PhD side of a PhD student’s life is enough of challenge without having to manage a family-life, love-life and social-life. One tip which I’ve learnt from many post-docs is to treat your weekends as sacred. This is your down-time, when you step away from the bench, free your mind and try and relax. In theory this sounds ideal, in reality your other life-demands can end up making you feel like you’re working weekends. It’s here where I mention GTD again. GTD can help you stay on-top of all of your commitments, both in the lab and in your social life, and using it correctly combined with the ability to concentrate only on the task in hand will allow you to manage all aspects of your life at the same time. It is in this way that you can keep your weekend sacred and give yourself time to do what YOU want to do, rather than what you committed to 3 weeks ago when you drank a bit too much at that awful housewarming.

In summary, I’m keeping my head above water barely. Hopefully, through the use of the above methods I’ll be able to deal with whatever comes up without feeling like I’m about to breakdown and needing to lock myself away from the world for a month.

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Posted by on 16/03/2011 in Biology, Personal, PhD


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Thoughts on Fees


Today the Con-Dem coalition government will vote on and likely pass their proposals for higher education funding, and rather than rehash the facts I will here discuss my opinions of the system.

Higher Education is in a funding crisis, too many students, too many universities and too many subjects forced the previous government to invest more money into HE while asking students to pay a single flat-fee for each year of study. They combined this with a relatively simple grant/bursary scheme to enable people from poorer backgrounds to be able to stomach the debt and better themselves through education. Again I emphasises the beauty of the single flat-fee regardless of person, class, subject or university.

Now the government is proposing a two tier system which would for the first time see better universities charge more than others. This is flatly wrong in my view. This begins the slippery slope to further increases and a future market in HE whereby people from richer families are more able to pay-back and stomach the burden of debt which will be forced upon them by going to a good university. Poorer students who would have aspired to an Oxbridge education would be put off and feel that it is better for them to get a degree from a worse university where they wont be saddled with as much debt. People don’t seem to realise that these numbers DO make a big difference to college students when considering which universities to apply to.

Now, the government is claiming that it is necessary to tripple the cap on tuition fees. Why? Because the Tory agenda of cuts has resulted in an 80% cut to HE teaching budgets. Students are now being asked to plug this massive gap. I don’t really have a problem to a rise in tuition fees to say 5k/year, if this money was going to increase the HE spend, alas it is not. Students are being screwed over to simply maintain the current level of spend. This is pathetic.

Another point to raise is that we are in a group of only two countries which are cutting investment in HE and research in real-terms. This again is pathetic and short-sighted. The US, Canada, Australia, Germany, France and almost every other country affected by the global financial crisis has invested massively in HE and research as they rightly see it as an investment in their post-industrial economy and in the future of their countries. It is ridiculous that the government is making these dogmatic cuts without much thought on their long-term effects. If we don’t invest in our countries future by investing in education and research, what the fuck is the future British economy going to be now? Reliant on financial services again?! The very same sector which caused this crisis?!

Now, if we accept the cuts programme and the 80% cut in HE spending, what other methods could there be to alter the HE landscape to make things better. A simple option is to cut the number of places, not by enforcing a cap, but by selectively limiting funding for non-vocational subjects which do not have a clear roll in increasing the countries prosperity. Limiting the number of history and English students, closing down degrees in business management, travel and tourism, media studies and others would enable the universities to save some money which will help them maintain funding on other courses which directly help the economy such as science, engineering, maths and health sciences which all demand a university education.

Another option is to change ‘New’ universities back to polytechnics where their courses are vocational and funded by private business in order to generate a highly-skilled work force with near-guaranteed jobs.

People also fail to realise that up to £9k a year is just for the fees, students then need an additional £6k a year in order to live, rent accommodation and have money for transport. This would result in someone doing a 3-year degree having a nice bill upon graduation somewhere in the region of £45,000. If people think that this really wouldn’t put off poorer and middle-income families they’re delusional.

Now, people from the poorest families will have lots of different schemes and methods of applying for assistance in the form of grants and bursaries to be able to afford an education, however this system is convoluted and complex, the result of last-minute appeasement amendments being made to make the bill stomach-able for Lib Dems. If the government really believed in this system they’d have worked these amendments into the original bill.

In summary, the bill being pushed through parliament tonight begins the Tory dream of a market in higher education whereby people who can pay more, go to the better universities and those who can’t, don’t go to university at all or go to worse ones. Those who do manage to get into a decent university enter a university system where no new money has been invested in teaching for a long time, yet these students will be paying more for it, for longer. A two-tier system simply is wrong and penalises poorer people. And all this media attention is masking the huge cuts in HE teaching, which this fee increase is trying to remedy.

If this government really believed in Higher Education they would maintain funding whilst asking students to pay a flat tuition fee to enable Universities to provide a better education for them. This would be fair, simple, and a chance to give the Universities the money they want ending with everyone equally investing in the future of our country.


Posted by on 09/12/2010 in Politics


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Starting a new PhD: What is a PhD

Ooo this is my first blog post written entirely in my iPad – be sure to forgive me any typos. The typing isn’t too bad in landscape mode – anywaaaaaay . . .

It’s been a while since my last blog post and this has been because I’ve been spending soo much time with Gari (my lovely boyfriend) and anytime I’ve not been with him I’ve been in Uni, growing cells and reading journal articles. So please forgive me!!

I just thought I’d tap out a quick series of blog posts to let you know about what it’s like to start a PhD.

I have just started my PhD at the Randall Division of Cell and Molecular Biophysics at King’s College London (University of the Year according to the guardian or the times according to the head of the graduate school).p

First i should probably explain what a PhD actually is. It’s normally a three year research degree which starts off as an MPhil degree course and after 9 months or so you submit a report and have a viva (like a scary interview on your work and the field of interest) which if you pass then allows you to progress onto a PhD program. PhDs are usually 3 years long with an additional year before you HAVE to submit your thesis. A thesis is essentially an extended piece of academic work which contributes something new to the field and proves that you can carry out research in the proper manner.

4 year PhDs come in a number of flavours. The first is a 4 year PhD with a rotational first year where you conduct a short project with 2 or 3 supervisors before finalising on one specific project and supervisor which you then do a 3 year PhD with. Here you get an additional year to submit your thesis as the first rotational year isn’t counted. Also sometimes you may get awarded an MRes following the rotational year depending on institution and programme.

My kind of 4 year PhD is arguably the best kind. I get a full stipend (funding for living expenses) in addition to having my bench fees payed (for reagents etc) for 4 full years. The advantage is that most PhD students tend to have to self fund and take on part time jobs after their third year as they have no money to perform experiments and have yet had chance to ‘write up’ their thesis. So I’ll get paid to sit at home and type out my thesis up until the point i submit it (which can be no later than 4 years from when i registered with the university. And that’s the downside, although i could do experiments right up until the last month in the 4 year programme, i MUST submit by the same date as any 3-year PhD who enrolled at the same time as me.

All in all i haven’t got a bad deal out of this ^_^

If you are failing badly, or things aren’t working out, you can leave the degree with an MPhil after the first year. Oh and I should probably clear up that once you have a PhD you are a proper Dr!! Medics are only honorary Drs =P hehe

That’s a brief overview of a PhD – throughout the PhD you submit various reports and have meetings and such but it is all just trying to make sure that you will be able to submit your thesis on time and that you will pass.

I hope this has been of use. Next time I’ll write more personally about MY PhD and his my first couple of weeks have gone. See ya!!!

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Posted by on 13/10/2010 in Biology, Personal


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