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A Tour Through Italy with Societi Bistro

May 12, 2014

On Saturday I got a well deserved break from science to overindulge my foodie whims after I was invited to the launch of the Societi Bistro “Tour through Italy”. I have big love for Societi and it’s sister restaurant, The Brasserie mainly because of their executive chef, Stéfan Marais, who you may remember from my recent post on some sustainable seafood events I’d attended. Stef is a long term supporter of WWF SASSI, an initiative close to my heart as a marine scientist. He is also passionate about free range meats and supporting local producers, so all round is a bit of a winner. And he’s not half bad behind the stove too!

The Tour through Italy has been running for a number of years now and consists of 10 special 3 course menus over 10 weeks, with each taking inspiration from a different region of Italy. It’s been a long held ambition of mine to take a food inspired road trip through Italy and as that particular pilgrimage is unlikely to happen in the near future, saturdays launch was a perfect stop gap.

We got to try a dish from each of the menus, paired with a local but Italian inspired wine, which has been picked to compliment the menu each week. We also got a lovely goodie bag, which was filled with gifts as the afternoon progressed; including wine, all the ingredients for Spaghetti alla Puttanesca and some great vouchers for discounts on Richard Bosman charcuterie and wine tasting at Spice Route – a place I’ve been keen to try for a while.

First up was Cape Fish (for the launch – green listed tuna) with caponata. This was one of our favourite dishes and will feature on the Region 1 Sicilia menu. It was served with Terro del Capo Pinot Grigio, which we loved and also got to take a bottle home. Other highlights from the menus, which will come over the next ten weeks included Cozze alla Tarantina (mussels with tomato, white wine, garlic and chilli – Region 3 Puglia), with a flat roof manor Pinot Grigio and Tiramisu, with De Grendel Pinot Gris (Region 10 – Veneto & Fruili, Venezia Guilia).


I was excited to see one of my favourite recent vineyard finds represented on the Tour through Italy menus. The Idiom Collection first impressed me during a brief stop at Peregrine farmstall, where a taster of their zinfandel is a very clear rosemary scented memory. We chatted extensively to them at Taste of Cape Town, and left with a Barbera, Zinfandel and SMV blend for our collection. Idiom are the wine of choice for weeks 5, 6, 7 and 8 of the Tour and on Saturday the zinfandel was paired beautifully with a spaghetti all’ aglio olio e peperoncino (a delightfully simple pasta with olive oil, chilli and garlic – Region 5 Molise, Abruzzo and Marche) and the sangiovese accompanied a Bistecca alla Fiorentina (T-bone steak with lemon – Region 8 Tuscany and Liguria), braaied there and then with Stef as braai master.



I was also delighted to learn that Idiom have some great value blends, the Rosso di Stellenbosch was particularly good and was paired with a stunning charcuterie selection courtesy of Richard Bosman (Region 7 Emilia – Romagna). The Steenberg Nebbiolo was another wine highlight although I was too full by this point (I blame the Bistecca) to indulge in the Chocolate and Hazelnut gelato it was paired with (Region 9 North West Italy).

We’re hoping to go to Societi later this week for the Sicilia menu (available from Wednesday) and I’m particularly keen to try the Salami di Fichi gelato (fig, almond and walnut ‘salami’ crumbled in to gelato) from region 5. You can check out all the menus for the next 10 weeks here. Thanks to all at Societi and the event sponsors for a delicious afternoon.



Finally cooking again: Sustainable calamari and warm pepper salad

May 1, 2014

This year has been a pretty tough one so far. I’ve had my first paper accepted (and endured the peer review process for the first time – more on that later) and written 4 of my 7 thesis chapters. I’ve also converted my satellite data processing code to run on a high performance computing system. This might not mean much to those of you not working in that kind of research…but imagine trying to translate an English A Level maths text book in to French when you don’t know French, and only knowing if you’ve done a good job when some French kids you’ve never met pass an A Level exam. That’s kinda how it feels.

It’s been a stressful few months, but I’m starting to have better days where I can see things coming together and get a few twinges of pride looking at my now quite substantial thesis document. And as of today 10 years of satellite data are being processed to provide entirely new data for marine scientists interested in the Benguela – I’m pretty stoked about that :)

So last night I managed to get back in the kitchen, inspired to respond to a call from one of my favourite organisations – WWF SASSI to share some favourite sustainable seafood recipes. We’ve been joined by a new Italian housemate this year; she’s cooked some amazing Italian recipes and bought me a beautiful book on Italian cuisine. Drawing on flavours from a few of my favourite Italian dishes – Panzanella, caponata, bruschetta and stuffed peppers, I created this little dish.

Polenta dusted calamari with a warm pepper salad

For 2 quite large portions…


For the calamari:
250g calamari (I used rings, but tubes and steaks will probably work fine too)
1/2 cup (125g) of flour
1/2 cup (125g) of polenta
1 egg
Salt and lots of pepper (you can add a dash of cayenne if you like spice)
Frying oil of choice for shallow frying

For the warm salad:
8 tbsp of precooked rice (good for using up the leftovers)
2 tomatoes
1 onion
2 tsp chopped garlic
2 bell peppers or 4-6 smaller peppers (we are getting beautiful little peppers at spar at the moment)
Half a lemon
A handful of basil
A handful of parsley
2 tbsp of capers (some green olives would be delicious too)
A little olive oil for cooking with (save the good stuff for dressing)

To serve: balsamic drizzle and some good extra virgin olive oil


First prepare your warm salad. Cut your peppers in half/in to pieces – it’s really just a matter of presentation. Arrange on a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in a hot oven (around 180 degrees celsius) for 20 mins or so until soft and slightly charred at the edges.

In a frying pan, soften the onions and garlic and add the rice. Add the tomatoes to soften slightly. Leave aside and move on to the calamari.

Make sure your calamari pieces are at room temperature, pat dry/drain to remove any excess liquid. Beat the egg and coat the calamari, making sure to drain any excess liquid again, else you will end up with clumps of coating. Mix the flour, polenta and seasoning in a bowl and toss the calamari in this mix to coat. Frying in hot oil for 4-5 mins until crispy. Drain to remove any excess oil.

Briefly reheat your frying pan with the rice mix and add the juice of half a lemon, capers/olives and chopped herbs (you want to keep these flavours fresh and not cook them too much). Arrange the roasted peppers and rice mix on a plate, top with the calamari rings. Finally, add a drizzle of balsamic and extra virgin olive oil to serve.

This would be great with a chenin blanc or lightly wooded chardonnay…though we had it with our favourite everyday craft beer – Bostons Whale Tale ale.

Polenta Calamari 1

Polenta Calamari 2

A double serving of sustainable seafood: WWF SASSI trailblazer chefs and Taste of Cape Town

April 7, 2014

Nothing makes me happier than when my two great loves of marine science and food come together. Ok maybe wine, wine makes me pretty happy too! So I was understandably very excited to be invited to the recent WWF Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) trailblazer awards at Harbour House, with wine supplied by Biodiversity and Wine Initiative partners.

I’ve been a long time supporter of SASSI, because of my love of the sea and of great sustainable food. Support for SASSI has lead to me explaining the dire state of our global fisheries resources and how to make more sustainable choices in the desert, at local markets and even on stage! As a result of this great initiative, I’ve made a commitment to only cook with green listed seafood – the most sustainable choice that you can make (made easy thanks to a lot of research from SASSI).

I don’t find this a particularly hard promise to keep, after all there are many great options available here in SA, and they fit really well in with my student budget. But I’m not trying to please the global market that visits Cape Town every time I step in to the kitchen. Now in their second year, the SASSI trailblazer awards were initiated to celebrate chefs who make the same promise I have; to only use green listed fish, and to champion sourcing and consumption of sustainable seafood by suppliers and customers alike.

This year a bunch of new chefs have been added to the trailblazer ranks, joining some of my favourite chefs and restaurants in what I would consider a must list for restaurants to visit in Cape Town. This years trail blazers are:

- Christiaan Campbell (Delaire Graff Estate Restaurant, Stellenbosch)
- Gregory Czarnecki (The Restaurant at Waterkloof, Somerset West)
- Franck Dangereux (The Food Barn, Noordhoek)
- Geoffrey Murray (Conrad Pezula Resort, Knysna)
- Christo Pretorius (Twelve Apostles Hotel, Cape Town)
- Ryan Shell (Haute Cabriere Restaurant, Franschhoek)
- Leigh Trout (Birds, Cape Town)
- Kobus van der Merwe (Oep ve Koep Kitchen, Paternoster)

The evening was great fun, with delicious food, amazing wine (my favourite Hamilton-Russell Chardonnay was a feature!) and many opportunities for networking. I caught up with some food blogger friends and discussed everything from rockets to school water quality projects with adventurer Ray Chaplin. All in all a fantastic evening and I would like to send a big thank you to WWF SASSI and everyone involved for the invite, I will definitely be visiting some of the trailblazers soon!

The trailblazer awards were followed this week by another opportunity to learn about cooking sustainable seafood at the annual Taste of Cape Town event. This year my good friend and SASSI manager, Janine Basson (you may remember her from my Women in Science feature) teamed up with one of last years trailblazer chefs Stefan Marais in the Pick n Pay Chef’s theatre. Stef is the chef at one of my favourite restaurants, The Brasserie and at Cape Town favourite, Societi Bistro. For Taste, he cooked up a delicious yellowtail fishcake with thai flavours, whilst Janine shared the SASSI message with a full audience. The fish cakes were delicious, and I particularly liked the use of papaya in a salad to accompany the fish. Stef had some great tips for the audience – use chunky bits of yellowtail to get the most flavour in your fish cakes and use local olive oil, you’ll get the best flavour and value for money! I will definitely be trying Stefs fishcake recipe for myself.

For more information on SASSI and their seafood lists (red, orange and green like a robot – it couldn’t be simpler) check out their website, SMS the name of a fish (0794998795) or download their app (available for android, blackberry and iOS)!

For great ideas on cooking with sustainable fish, check out these great recipes by local chefs, or have a look through my “Plenty more fish in the sea” tag here.

A long time away and #WhySciComm is important

November 12, 2013

I’ve not posted in a few months now. This is pretty rare and pretty sad for me, given that I love writing and thoroughly embrace science communication as a worthwhile pursuit for my own personal gain and for the benefit of others.

But a few lunch time chats today have inspired me to give up that excuse I was telling myself, one that is all too common as a reason not to partake in science communication work – ‘I don’t have time’. I do today, it might be 1030pm, after a 12+ hour day working on my first, first author paper but today I’m compelled to share some experiences about why science communication is important.

I’ve been working away from my university office lately, with some colleagues who work at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. I’ve really been enjoying working there, finding that the close proximity to my supervisor and others in my field has really stimulated the analysis that’s going in to my final thesis write up and first paper. They’re a pretty awesome bunch, and so conversations away from our optics work are usually always fun and interesting too. Today at lunch we got on to a conversation about interactions between science and policy makers and eventually digressed to the topic of social media.

I’ve seen a sceptical response to social media among many senior scientists I’ve worked with, usually justified with a variety of pretty compelling reasons: “But emails alone are stressful enough”, “I already spend enough time on my computer”, “Im too busy”, “I think I’m too old for this”. Though our discussion was entirely pleasant and everyone listened with interest to my experiences around science and social media, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed that I couldn’t adequately instill the passion I have for science communication (especially via social media) in them.

My lunch companions had asked a variety of questions but mostly focussing on “does it work?”. It’s a pretty broad question, very much depending on what you consider the goals of science communication to be. But I decided to do something proactive, and turn to the online community that I value so much to help me answer this question. I started my first hashtag!

After chatting with my good friend Liz (@esargent184), another passionate scicomm-er with whom I stayed recently in Southampton and @matthew_vdh, it occurred to me to just ask the wider twitter community #WhySciComm?

In a typically beautiful fashion that only seems to happen through twitter, numerous responses started appearing, my iphone buzzing away crazily next to me whilst I tried to understand my single scattering albedo results…

As well as provoking me in to really thinking about why I like #scicomm, scientists and other tweeps from around the world provided some fantastic insight in to why they think science communication has value:

And they are still coming, with secondary discussions popping up about what the limitations are for conducting science communication. I’ve made about 30 new connections today alone on twitter through people I’ve followed/who’ve followed me.

I’m hoping over lunch tomorrow, I can show my colleagues this response and maybe it will help inspire them the way it has inspired me.

Pop over to the #WhySciComm hashtag and join in the conversation!

International travels: Winemakers dinner at Tanners with St Clair wines

June 6, 2013

I’m currently in the UK having been awarded a fellowship grant to do some collaborative research at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. I’ll be in the UK for three months, so I have plenty of time to find some foodie gems!

Tanners was probably my first fine dining experience. My family hosted a beautiful celebration there for my 21st birthday and the Tanner brothers are now frequent features on food programmes in the UK. My mum decided to randomly book us in to attend their first Winemaker dinner last week and I was more than happy to make the journey from Southampton to Plymouth for the occasion.

The winemaker in question was Matt Thompson of Saint Clair Family Estate in Marlborough, New Zealand. Living in South Africa, I’ve had relatively minimal exposure to New Zealand wines, with the exception of a few Pinot Noirs and Bens insistence that even he could enjoy a Chardonnay from NZ. Coincidentally though I had tried the Pioneers Block Pinot Noir from St Clair a few weeks ago, in Oxford. At the time I’d found it really lovely, though a little underwhelming, possibly as we’d just given all our attention to a bottle of the Chard Farm Pinot Noir without any food distraction. Anyway, I’ve mostly been in to white wine lately (blame the stunning South African summers), particularly Sauvignon Blanc, which our local Constantia wine region is famous for. As a Sauv. Blanc fan I’ve obviously heard about the success of this varietal in Marlborough, so I was excited to try St Clairs and compare with my South African experiences.

Each course (of 7) was paired with a different wine from St Clair. We started off with a glass of the 2011 Omaka Reserve Chardonnay in the courtyard. I should mention that Tanners is located in the gorgeous, grade 1 listed, Prysten House (built around 1490) on Plymouths Barbican – a suitably glamourous setting.

The gorgeous courtyard at Tanners restaurant

The gorgeous courtyard at Tanners restaurant

Paired with the Chardonnay was a selection of canapés including a squid ragout, fishcake with parsley mayonnaise and a cauliflower and cucumber shot. These little nibbles paired fantastically with the Chardonnay, which is definitely another of my favourite varietals. Flavours were a mix of the classical citrus, oakey and butterscotch flavours, though I found this wine less buttery than I would typically go for in a chard, nonetheless – delicious…I had two glasses, which I would later come to regret somewhat as our glasses were generously filled all evening!

Enjoying a glass of Chardonnay

Enjoying a glass of Chardonnay

Courtyard canapés

Courtyard canapés

With James Tanner in the kitchen and Matt giving us a fantastic introduction to each wine, it was shaping up to be a wonderful evening. The second course was to be paired with the first of two Sauvignon Blancs, the 2011 Pioneer Block 18 ‘Snap Block’. With great excitement I took my first overly enthusiastic sniff of this wine and was met with a massive smack of passion fruit. I’ve never had a wine that smelt anything like this one. I’m usually averse to tropical fruit flavours in Sauvignons, preferring the crisp, green flavour often found in the cool climate Constantia Sauvignons that are my usual go to summer wine. So naturally I was a little apprehensive that, despite the amazing scent, I wouldn’t like this wine. I was totally wrong, though the passion fruit flavours continued in to the taste, there was none of the cloying sweetness I would usually associated with these tropical type Sauvignons. The wine had a wonderful acidity, with plenty of those green notes I love. This complimented our second dish of seared scallop, asparagus and lemon really well. Mum found the flavours a little contradictory – the sourness of the lemon vs the sweeter fruit flavours of the wine, but I really liked it, thinking the flavours of the dish were balanced by those of the wine. Matt was more than happy to take questions, so I felt I had to ask why, despite similar climate, the flavour and perfume of this wine were so different to those of Constantia. Matt explained that there is a lot of variation in geology throughout the farm and this may be responsible for these differences and indeed, the differences with our third wine…

photo (6)

The Wairau Reserve is made with grapes from a combination of vineyards, in contrast to the single vineyard ‘Snap Block’. This wine represents the best of each years Sauvignon Blanc harvest. It was more subtle than the previous wine, with the salty and chalky soils imparting less fruit and more fresh green flavours. I think this wine and the food paired with it were possibly my favourite course of the evening. I’ve never eaten bone marrow before, but crumbled over the top of a whipped goats cheese and complemented by sweet peas, made for a spectacularly simple yet incredible dish.

photo (10)

By now mum and I were well on the way to the far side of sobriety, and you can tell from my little notes made in the great little tasting book we were given with the meal. Next up, was a Pinot Gris Rose (2012), which I have to say is not my favourite varietal/style. However when paired with a line caught bass, with tomatoes, wild fennel pollen and creme fraiche, the pear/strawberry and creamy flavours of the wine really came out. Not a wine I would have on it’s own, but very pleasant with the food. The fish was cooked perfectly, I don’t normally eat fish skin, but this was so crispy and, with the pollen, really, really delicious.

Best fish ever?

Best fish ever?

Our fifth course was paired with the 2011 Block 14 ‘Doctors Creek’ Pinot Noir, which I had tried in Oxford a few weeks previous. To be honest, this tasted like a totally different wine this time! Much richer and powerful flavours than I remembered. Asking the Maitre d’, they had allowed this wine to breathe for several hours – which may have been our mistake before and something I will definitely bear in mind in future. The wine stood up really well to the rich rump of lamb and sweetbreads served with broad beans, turnips and pearl barley. This was a really classic dish, with lovely ingredients – particularly the delicious sweetbreads, though I did not like the dark sauce/puree it was served with, which was a little bitter.

photo (11)

A big plate of cheese arrived next, with such variety that mum and I in our slightly(!) tipsy state continually forgot which ones were which! The cheeses were mostly from around Devon and Cornwall and the soft Sharpham Elmhirst, Sharpham brie and nutty Haytor proved favourites with us. A second Pinot Noir accompanied the cheese – the Omaka Reserve 2009. Matt suggested this wine was a little young and could do with a few more years, I would agree, although delicious, it didn’t thrill me as much as the previous Pinot Noir.

Dessert was a very pretty little dish with Yuzu curd and sorbet, compressed mango and coconut meringue – paired with the Awatere Valley Reserve Noble Riesling 2009. The meringues were fantastic – the addition of the coconut was lovely and they were perfectly cooked – chewy in the middle. However neither mum or I liked the Yuzu which was quite sour/bitter – though this was tempered by both the sweet mango/meringue and the sweet wine. I struggle with dessert wines, I actually prefer to have them with savoury foods (at christmas we made chicken liver pate and pork belly and mincemeat chutney pies to go with our Vin de Constance), so perhaps I’m not best to judge this wine. I liked the flavours of honey and orange peel, but I think I would need to taste it again and give it some proper attention to get the best out of it.

photo (2)

A coffee, some cute petit fours and a pic with James Tanner ended our evening. On the whole I think this sort of event is great – it’s always good to be able to chat to people about wine, especially if you are fairly new to it all (like me) and can ask (perhaps dumb) questions. I’d highly recommend booking in if Tanners does another event like this.

A slightly blurry picture of some slightly blurry ladies...and our chefs for the evening!

A slightly blurry picture of some slightly blurry ladies…and our chefs for the evening!

I’m a scientist, get me out of here!

March 24, 2013

For the last two weeks I’ve been taking part in an event called “I’m a scientist, get me out of here!“. It’s a free event where students from schools can interact with scientists online. The students get to ask questions on a discussion board style web page and also have scheduled live chats with the scientists in a chat room. The students get to vote for who they want to win as their favorite scientist and that scientist wins a 500 pound grant! Each event (they run several times a year) is made up of different zones, each with 5 scientists battling it out to be crowned the winner by the students.

During the event in the last two weeks I was one of the scientists in one of the general zones – the ‘Ruthenium Zone’. I’m really trying to up my skills as a science communicator and I thought answering questions from the students would be a great way to really learn how to simplify complex concepts quickly and accurately. The students can ask almost anything, so seeing what they thought were important questions in and around science and being a scientist was most enlightening!

All the scientists had to create a profile detailing our work, education and interests, so quite a lot of questions related to topics close to our hearts…

(All questions are as written by the students)

“How come from space water on earth looks blue when it is actually clear?”

“If water is transparent, why does the ocean look blue? But sometimes it looks other colors too like green or red, why?”

“What causes the red tide?”

“Wouldn’t s(h)allow seas, coral reef and dumping areas effect your work; those do change the colour of the ocean from space?”

“Hi Hayley…can you find old under water islands and volcanoes using a radar?”

“if yellow stone erupts (volcano) would it bring down global warming?”

“Do you think the polar ice caps melting will effect the w(h)ales migration?”

“why is sea water salty ??????????????”

…but some were right out of usual area’s of expertise!

“what is quantum physics?”

“why do men lose their hair?”

Some were about day to day life in general…

“Hayley do you have any brothers and sisters? how did you bercome a scientist? how old are you if you dont mind me asking? I voted for you to win bye your awsome xxxxxx” (<—how cute is this?! :))

"What are you having for your tea?"

"is the university you go to near any beaches or the sea and do you do any practical experiments down there?"

“you dont have to dissect little rabbits or anything do u ???????”

…and some were about how to follow in our footsteps!

“Im a year 7 student and i want to be a marine biologist when im older. do you know any facts or tips to help me out. i want to focus on sea mammals and turtles”

“i would love to become a scientist and i my level in science is 5.5 if i keep it up do you think i have a chance of becoming one? thank you”

Space was a very popular topic…

“would your head explode in space?”

“what is the coldest planet ?”

“Why is jupeter a planet when it is nothing but gass?”

“I’ve heard the universe is getting bigger,but how can you tell? And can it ever get too big?”

“Do planets ever get smaller?”

“Can a human being go to Jupiter ??”

“when we go further up to the universe why does it get colder?”

“Can you crack your knuckles in Space?”

“How does space smell like?”

“How long will it take for a person to die without oxygen or a space suit in space?”

“In space why is the universe black when there are millions of stars (including the sun) that lights up everywhere?”

“why is the sun so hot (warm)?”

…as was health…

“Is there any way a person can come back to life after die?”

“What is the most un-healthy food in the world?”

“my little brother had a stroke (at the age of 2) :( . my question is why do kids get stroke at a young age, without any reasons how they got it?”

“Can cancer be genetic?”

…and the world ending/the apocalypse!

“will a meteor destroy us?”

“Will there ever be a zombie apocalyspe?”

“…my question is could we ever live on another plant if the world ends?”

Some questions really made us think…

“what was the first country?”

“why are some people left handed and some people right handed? and what does it depend on? also why is most of the world right handed?”

“why does your hair look like its dry under water??”

“if you travelled 60 kmph how long would it take you to travel a light year?”

and others were very philosophical!

“Is it possible to stop time? If so what would you do?”

“Why are people busy studying space and dark matter and fighting in wars and stuff when illness’s and Cancer tumers are harming so many people?”

“is it right to eat animals?”

“Can you ever prove/disprove that ghosts are real?”

“Is an ant more free than a school child?”

“how will people help the enviroment ?? because people say they willl and they dont!”

“why is there suffering and death?”

There was the hilarious…

“Who’d win in fight Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin?”

“why is number pie called pie like the food?”

and the ridiculously profound.

Why is Science split into 3 parts (physics, chemistry and biology) when we all of them already, in normal day life, in science? Why choose 1 when you can do it all ?

“Are you ever worried that your work isn’t effective because people don’t listen?”

“Is it more important for a scientist to ask the right questions than to have the right answers?” (my favourite :))

It was a great two weeks. Although in research you’re often over-subscribed and can find it difficult to make time for outreach and communication, the online format of this event made it really easy for me to take part (even from overseas!). There are relatively few chats (maximum one per class) so it’s not too hard to find time for those, although I did find myself wanting to do more and more as the evictions happened.

I think the format probably gives the students more confidence to ask the questions they’d really like to ask. The partial anonymity of the online format possibly makes things a lot less scary/intimidating and something I think that might work quite well in South Africa, where students often seem reluctant to ask questions. At the moment the event is UK based, but I’m hoping to talk to some people about getting a Cape Town class to potentially participate in a future event and I think it would be wonderful if the funding and drive for a similar event could be found in South Africa. The lack of internet would be an issue for reaching a lot of schools, however I think lessons from this project could be applied in a low bandwidth/low technology environment with a little creativity.

Anyway…after answering lots of questions, frantic live chat and 3 rounds of evictions, I was declared the winner of my zone! (Cue much bouncing around my living room and squealing). So I now have a 500 pound grant to use for science communication! I’m thinking of running an ocean-themed day for some bright kids from a local school, or perhaps using the prize to help get them involved in the next “I’m a scientist” event – but I’m open to ideas and volunteers to help would be massively appreciated. More than the prize, being voted for by the students feels like the best validation of my science communication skills yet.

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 5.20.21 PM

I’d like to thank the event organisers for a fantastically run event, the scientists in my zone for being great competition and mostly the students, for voting for me and making me work hard for it! Whether you are a teacher, a scientist or even a school student, I thoroughly recommend checking out the I’m a scientist website for more information.

Effective teaching (and learning!)

March 10, 2013

I’ve written before about how teaching and tutoring have greatly enhanced my own understanding of my subject. Teaching is something I really enjoy and the longer I spend in academia the more I see the value in having, and now being, a great teacher. So I was very excited to hear that this years Deans visitor for the Faculty of Science is Professor Saundra McGuire from Louisiana State University in the USA. Professor McGuire gave several talks during the last few weeks and I attended a morning workshop aimed specifically at tutors like myself.

I’ve come away from the workshop feeling thoroughly inspired and decided I had to share a few insights from her talks. I feel like I’ve gained not only an array of new ideas to help the students I work with but also a better understanding of how I’ve learnt things during my time at University.

We started off our workshop by examining what it is to learn something, and asking what do students really need to get out of their university education? Whilst school may be the time to memorise and repeat facts, university makes very different demands on learners. It is no longer enough at university to remember facts, students have to progress from knowledge to understanding and application of concepts. This can be a bit of a blow for many students, who’ve recently been successful at school and achieved a coveted place at a top university.

Teaching at this level, and tutoring in particular, becomes more about equipping students with the skills to learn, understand and crucially, apply concepts to problems. And mostly, teaching the students that this should be their motivation. Professor McGuire showed us that students know a lot of this already – they know that you have to understand a subject better to teach it, than to get an A on a test, but they also recognize that if you know a subject so well that you can teach it, you’ll probably get that A!

Professor McGuire introduced us to blooms taxonomy as a way of understanding how learning changes through high school in to higher education. The taxonomy is basically a hierarchical triangle with the following sections (starting at the bottom):

– Knowledge
– Comprehension
– Application
– Analysis
– Synthesis
– Evaluation

According to the taxonomy, undergraduate students should progress from the knowledge and comprehension skills gained at high school on to application and analysis (synthesis and evaluation is the domain of the researching graduate student, an equally difficult jump I’m sure many of my fellow PhD candidates will agree!).

Here are a few other tips Professor McGuire shared which I think will be very useful for me in future:

- Don’t use textbooks to work example problems. Have a go first then check the answer and try to work out where you went wrong BEFORE looking at the books method! Take home message: Making mistakes is a great learning experience. I personally think this is the only way you ever learn how to code.

- Use a study cycle:
– Preview – Prepare your mind for what its about to learn about.
– Attend – All the lectures.
– Review – Move new knowledge from to long term memory.
– Study – 2/3 short intense sessions during the day, 2 at night.
– Assess – Consider: Am I learning well? Be aware of the process.

- Use reading strategies:
– Get the course materials – textbooks etc
– Give an overview – make a big picture – spider plan etc based on chapter structure. Summarise from bold print/italicized text, graphs etc.
– Think about questions you might want answered.
– Consider differences between concepts and importance to other topic areas.
– Read paragraph and put in own words/translate in to your home language.

- Remind students that their mindset determines their reactions. See challenges as something to embrace rather than avoid; see difficult tasks as the path to mastery, rather than being fruitless.

- Attribute failure to correctable causes and success to effective strategies.

For more information about effective teaching, check out courses and other resources available at the Centre for Academic success ( and the book “How people learn” by John D. Bransford, available here.

Many thanks to Professor McGuire for the fantastic lecture and workshop!


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