Science, scicomm and vlogging – Martijn Peters

Science, scicomm and vlogging – Martijn Peters

I’m very excited about the first Scientist Showcase of 2018! I’d like to welcome you to Martijn Peters, a scientist and very talented science communicator living in the land of beer, chocolate and French fries – Belgium! Over to you Martijn…

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So, why science?!

The origin of my spark for science can be traced back all the way to my early childhood. My grandfather took me on many hiking trips and explained everything he knew about nature. As a consequence, I developed an intrinsic need for wanting to understand everything that occurred around me. This eventually resulted in me studying the awesome science field that is Biomedical Sciences at university, I then specialized in Bioelectronics & Nanotechnology for my Master’s degree, and recently completed my PhD.  

“The human body is one of the most amazing accomplishments of nature and I really wanted to learn how it works and interacts with its environment.”

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Congratulations on getting your PhD just before Christmas! Tell us about your research!

Thank you! My PhD research revolves around a specific aspect of our brain. Our brain is one of our most precious treasures, one that requires protection at all costs. Therefore, nature safeguards it behind an impenetrable wall, called the blood-brain-barrier. This fortress keeps foreign invaders, like diseases, out but also makes it very hard for us researchers to investigate the brain when something goes wrong. As a results, to this day the working mechanisms of many brain diseases are still shrouded in mystery.

During my PhD I designed novel visualization probes that enable us to study the brain and diseases that wreak havoc upon it. These visualization probes are nanoparticles, small spheres one million time smaller than the width of a human hair, that consist of semiconducting polymers. Most people know these polymers from applications like solar panels or OLEDs that reside inside your smartphones and TVs, but they are also fluorescent and non-toxic. I covered the nanoparticles with special structures, which ensure that they will target specific cells, like a guided missile system. On top of that, they are small enough to cross the daunting blood-brain-barrier! This type of novel visualization probe will help us shine a new light on brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s.

Martijn - PhD defence

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For other current/soon-to-be PhD students, what are your dos and don’ts?!

Persistence is the key! If you’re persist you will get there.

However, don’t lose yourself in the process and don’t focus too much on the accomplishments of others. It can be quite stressful working in an environment that consists of nothing but top students. You often wonder if you are good enough. But rest assured, you are. You are also one of those students. You can do it! So work hard for your passion but also don’t forget to take a break now and then. You need and deserve them!

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Why is science communication important to you?

To me, science communication is important because it is all about building bridges. We often forget that we are the expert in our own research topic, and everyone else (even fellow scientists) are a lay audience.

“Learning how to communicate will not only help society but also science. A good scientist is a good communicator.”

Throughout my PhD I discovered that I could combine my creative side with my technical side through science communication, which has been an eye-opening experience for me. I am rather proud of my science communication achievements (especially since I managed to achieve them without losing any quality in my science work) and it has become a passion for me.

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So you’re an award-winning science communicator? Tell us about OMGitsScience!

OMGitsScience is a project that I started to show the human side of science. Too often we just shower people with nothing but facts. Yet we do not provide them with insights into who we are or how science works. Because these aspects are missing, people have a hard time making a connection of trust with scientists and distinguishing between “science facts” and “fake facts”. To counter this movement, I started communicating science on Twitter and a YouTube channel called OMGitsScience on which I show the life of a scientist through vlogging. I’ve also embarked on an Instagram journey recently (I really love editing pics and combining them with a story).

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Check out this fun vlog which showcases a day in the life of Martijn! Enjoy!

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Finally, how do you balance work and personal life?

I think a healthy work-life balance differs for everyone. Some weeks were really hectic during my PhD with zero free time during the day, and some weeks were rather “chill” with lots of time to do things not revolving around my PhD. You have to listen to you own body and discover what works best for you. I have used most of my free time for science communication projects (from speaking assignments to competitions to organizing a TEDx conference to starting a YouTube channel). I love being creative and it gives me an outlet to combine science with creativity. I also really enjoy reading, watching series/movies and running.

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Thank you to Martijn for being part of my blog! I absolutely love to hear about the lives of others. He’s a brilliant science communicator so please go and follow him on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and of course him awesome YouTube channel!

 

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A grad student’s Christmas guide

A grad student’s Christmas guide

It’s the last working week before the holidays and only six days to go until Christmas Day! Some of you may already be winding the work down for Christmas, but for some of you it’s a mad stressful rush to get all those things ticked off of your to-do list!

So, to try and help you manage that pre-holiday stress, here’s a few tips from me to you…

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Don’t panic! Yes, easier said that done. Do all of those items on the to-do list NEED to be done by Christmas? Take any self-imposed pressure off of yourself.

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Set goals, make a plan. Make a realistic plan for the next few days. Set small goals for each day and stick to them. Making a plan also helps you to think through the most time-efficient way of working. No faffing!

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Take control. If you’ve had a meeting with your supervisor and they’ve piled on a few more items to your to-do list, ask yourself the question in tip #1. Does it really need to be done this side of the holidays? Be in control of your plan and your week.

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Don’t open emails first thing. Opening emails first thing can really derail your plans. Are they really that important they can’t wait?! Perhaps add “Check emails” to your plan for midday. It means you start work and attack your daily plan head on!

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Think smart, act smart. Plan your days wisely to make the week easier. Set time aside around your work for those extra tasks e.g. last minute Christmas present shopping, doing the Christmas food shop, wrapping presents, writing cards, packing to go away. You don’t want a last minute panic.

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Look after yourself. As always, sleep well, eat right (I know it’s hard with all those festive treats!) and hydrate. They all help with work productivity, brain function and general feel-good positive vibes.

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Make the start of 2018 easier for yourself. Make a list of any work you need to do straight after the holidays whilst your brain is in work mode. It will make coming back to work slightly easier after a (hopefully) very relaxed time off.

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Don’t ban yourself from festive fun! Right, I want you to revisit tip #1 again (yes it’s an important one). It doesn’t have to be all work! Get the work for that day done then join your friends/colleagues for a few Christmas drinks!

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Take time out. Even if you are going to have to work over the holidays (like me – bad time for thesis deadlines!) make sure you take a few solid days off to properly unwind. Relax, don’t even think about work over those days and just have fun. Embrace this time with family and friends.

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For more PhD tips and advice, check out my other PhD SOS posts.

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Have a wonderful Christmas!

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PhD self-care tips

PhD self-care tips

Working in the world of academia as a PhD student can be very demanding. We don’t get awarded the title of Dr for simply generating some good data or coming up with an awesome idea, we work hard to earn that PhD. Hard work comes with stresses and sometimes a few road bumps along the way.

One thing a lot of us can forget is that all important self-care. A PhD is like an endurance event, it’s a long and rewarding journey, but we need to take care of ourselves to get to the finish line.

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So how can we look after ourselves? Here are my top 10 PhD self-care tips:

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Stop comparing yourself to others

You may start your PhD the same time as other students but everyone’s PhD is different. Comparing yourself to others on occasion can be a healthy kick up the backside if you’re slacking. But trust me, for the most part it’s unhealthy and causes unnecessary stress and unhappiness. Focus on you and your PhD.

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Need help? Ask!

Whether you need help with a protocol or you’re having a few struggles with mental wellbeing, seek help. We all need help at times no matter how big or small the problem is, and there is a wealth of support out there for you. Know the right people to ask for help in the lab, find out what support services your university provides, and read blogs to help with issues related to the PhD life.

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Don’t just live for the weekend

Looking after yourself is not just for the weekends. Working 12-hour days during the week with those fun things left to the weekend is going to lead to burnout. Be honest with yourself, how productive are you after the normal 8/9 hour working day? Probably not very. So take time for you in the evenings, whether that’s just relaxing, going to the gym or seeing friends. Living for the weekend can lead to you associating the week with negative thoughts, that’s not exactly a great way to live.

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Emails. You don’t have to be attached 24/7.

Does your phone notify you as soon as you get a work email? If yes, I really suggest turning them off. Having them on means you never have a true break from work and in some situations this can lead to anxiety. Also, try not to check emails fist thing. Checking emails as soon as you get to work can lead you off track from your original plan for that day. Try opening them up a couple hours into work so you start your day off well. Are they really so important that they can’t wait a few hours?

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Sleep well, exercise regularly and eat right.

Being mindful of the foundations to leading a healthy life (mentally and physically) is so important. Getting those 7-9 hours sleep improves brain function. Regular exercise keeps you fit, allows you to focus on something non-work related and is a great stress reliever. Eating a balanced diet and not relying on sugar to keep you awake whilst working gives your brain and body the right fuel to function well. Being and feeling healthy helps to keep a positive mindset.

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Be organised

The deeper into the PhD journey you get, the more studies you’re juggling and the more items you have on that to-do list. Being organised is key to keeping yourself on track, focussed and motivated. These all lead to reductions in stress levels. Set short terms goals. I advise making daily goals at the start of the week or the day before and tick them off as you go along. Small steps make big progress.

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Play to your strengths

PhDs come with a degree of flexibility in how you work. If you are most productive in the morning, then start and end your working day earlier. Maximise that time you work well. If you aren’t a good multitasker then set aside blocks of time in your week to do your research, reading and the other odd jobs. There’s no point trying to tackle everything in one day if you know your brain doesn’t function like that!

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It’s ok to say no

You can’t take on everything your supervisor and others want you to. Saying yes to everything will lead to burnout. Be aware of the work you can take on without compromising your work/life balance. Developing this awareness does take time but it allows you to then manage the expectations you have of yourself, and enables you to manage your supervisor’s expectations of you.  

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Celebrate successes

We work hard so reward yourself when you’ve reached a goal. Allowing yourself treats will help you to stay motivated. For the smaller goals treat yourself to something little like your favourite dinner, and for the bigger milestones reward yourself something super fun like a trip to the pub/cocktail bar or a day trip to the beach.

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Time off

Remember we are entitled to time off, everyone needs a break. Taking time off helps us to relax, unwind and gives that overworked brain some nice relax time. It helps us to come back to work energised and proactive. If a certain phase of laboratory work means it’s hard to take a whole week off, make sure you’re planning in some long weekends.

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Are you mindful of putting self-care into practice? Any other tips you can enlighten us all with? As always, I love to hear from you! Just comment below.

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[ I originally wrote this blog post as a guest contributor for Let’s Talk Academia. Check the website out here! It’s full of brilliant advice and experiences about life as a postgraduate student and working in academia. ]

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Scientist turned comedian – My Bright Club experience

Scientist turned comedian – My Bright Club experience

Since I’ve been blogging and exploring the world of science communication, I never expected to do some of the things I’ve done. Nearly a month ago I performed my first stand-up comedy set. Who would have thought it!

The event was called Bright Club. It’s where researchers become comedians for the evening, something I never imagined I’d be part of, other than in the audience! One of the organisers approached me through my blog and asked if I’d be up for performing. My heart skipped a few beats as I read the message but in a moment of pure madness, I thought I’d be brave and accepted. 

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September 9th: Training session

The reality that I was actually going to attempt comedy on stage hit. We had our first training session. This was a great opportunity to ask questions, get some tips and to meet the other performers. At this point we were two weeks out. I had two weeks to make a script, and most importantly, make it funny. No pressure.

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Brainstorming ideas

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September 16th: Rehearsals

With one week to go it was rehearsal time. In my head the jokes I planned to say were funny, but were they to other people?! Thankfully I got some laughs which put me at ease. We all shared tips on how to improve the content/wording of our sets so I came away with some worthwhile changes. It was definitely a boost for us all. So a few tweaks, and time to practice with my pretend microphone.

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September 22nd: The day of Bright Club Southampton #9

At 5.30pm we all rocked up at the venue to do a mic test and settle down for the evening. Not going to lie, the nerves started to kick in!

After the first researcher performed, I was second to take to the stage. My set was titled “A PhD: The trials & tribulations“. I spoke about my research, the moment I was asked to perform, my failings in trying to inspire the younger generation and what being cooped up alone in the lab for 18 hours a day does to you. I wrapped the set up with my top 5 tips for surviving a PhD. They may not be tips you were expecting, you’ll just have to click the image below and watch it for yourself to find out!

My set

My jokes were well received and getting the first lot of laughs calmed my nerves. My aim was to get one laugh and I accomplished that, so I was one happy girl. The audience were fantastic, and I had lots of support from my friends who came to watch. Of course the event attracted other researchers, but what was awesome is that many members of the audience were outside the world of STEM from all sorts of career backgrounds. People’s friends and partners came to watch, and members of the public got involved too.

I signed up to something totally out of my comfort zone, I put myself out there, I accomplished the task, and celebrated with a gin. Happy days.

Can science and comedy go hand-in-hand? Could comedy be a useful tool in engaging more of the public with research? Would you consider giving stand-up comedy a go?

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All the other researchers did an awesome job talking about climate change to being a stem cell detective, from the internet to embracing your weird identity! You can watch their sets by heading over to Bright Club Southampton YouTube channel, as well as all previous performances. Keep up-to-date on upcoming performances and new podcast episodes by following the Bright Club Southampton Facebook page.

Thank you to Nikhil and Dave from Bright Club Southampton for asking me to perform, it was a fantastic experience!

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The PhD slump

The PhD slump

Everyone’s PhD is different and we all go through highs and lows. What I call ‘the PhD slump’ is that period many of us experience where we severely struggle with motivation, focus, belief in ourselves and passion for what we’re doing. Being in this negative phase is tough, and something numerous people I know (as well as myself) have been through.

I’d say it’s most common when students are halfway into their PhD. They start to question “will I have enough data to get this PhD?” and “will I be able to get it all done in the remaining time?”. An unsupportive supervisory team also makes it harder and some may experience the PhD slump due to burnout.

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PhD Comics

I share my experiences and advice on my Instagram account where I strive to give an honest and real feel about the PhD journey. Recently numerous people have reached out to me through social media and in person asking for help with their struggles, so what better time to share some tips…

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My 10 top tips:


1. Acceptance

Accepting you are going through a tough phase weirdly helps to relax into it. It will help you to gain some perspective on your situation. Having this self-awareness enables you to help yourself and find ways to work your way out of it.

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2. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness

Friends and family are wonderful, but also seek out support from your university. What support systems do they have in place? Is there a mentoring scheme where you can chat to another academic in confidence? Having an outside perspective who understands the academic system can be really useful. If you can speak to your supervisor about your troubles, then great! Having an open and honest conversation can take a big weight off your shoulders.

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3. Focus on each day at a time

Set daily goals. Tick them off one-by-one. This will help you be productive and in turn become more motivated. It’s all about the positive feedback loop! It may take time, and it might be tough, but stick at it.

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4. Do little things you love to stay positive

Balance out those daily tasks with rewards. It makes the working day that little bit easier. Self-care is especially important during this time, so make sure you treat yourself whether that’s with a glass of bubbles, watching your favourite movie or chilling with friends.

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5. Exercise, sleep and eat well

Mental and physical health is so important. Be mindful of the fundamentals in leading a healthy life. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating the right food helps us to be more positive and productive.

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6. Manage those expectations of yourself

So you’re finding things tough right now? Don’t expect yourself to be able to work like crazy! Don’t even put that pressure on yourself. Understand you, what you feel like each day, what you can realistically get done, and go back to point #3, plan each day to as you feel.

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7. Don’t panic, think logically

Too much work, not enough time? Don’t panic, it’s not constructive! Make a list of your top priorities, your secondary priorities, and the less important ones. Plan when you’ll get the top priorities done and fit the others around them if realistically possible. Remember, a thesis is barely ever a finished story.

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8. Stay accountable

When you’re in a rubbish phase, self-motivation is a lot harder. Let a friend know your work goal that day or week so you are accountable to someone. I recommend setting a weekly meeting with your supervisor(s) so you can discuss your plan and you don’t go off track.

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9. Time out

We all need time off, especially if you are feeling burnt out. Take a break to go on holiday or even a long weekend. Like I said, it’s all about the self-care. It will help you to recuperate, get some energy back and give you that motivation to push out of this PhD slump.

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10. Keep going!

I know this isn’t what people like to hear, but put all of these points into practice and really try to stick at them. Little steps each day make big progress and will really help you to feel much more positive about your PhD and your day-to-day life!

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Exploring Iceland after submitting my upgrade thesis

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Are you in this slump right now? Have you been in it and climbed back out? What tips do you have to go from being negative about your PhD to positive? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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