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#sea2shop2supper

March 23, 2015

As a marine scientist I am compelled to be interested in the sustainability of seafood. The various activities I took part in with WWF SASSI (multiple links!) were some of the highlights of my time in South Africa. I’ve been keen to keep my enthusiasm for sustainable seafood alive since returning to the UK. Theoretically this should be easy, there’s a lot of seafood here. But I’ve found that understanding which fish I can buy and from where can be a little confusing. I’m pretty dedicated to figuring it out, but then I am a marine scientist with a fair amount of free time who loves to cook. I appreciate that not everyone else has the time needed to figure out what to buy, from where, and then how to cook it, in today’s fast paced world. Sometimes I don’t either!

So I’ve come up with the idea of a #sea2shop2supper series of recipes where I will discuss what sort of fish I’ve bought, where from, and how to use it in a recipe. Hopefully this will allow me to build up a series of sustainable seafood recipes for me and others to use. I’m kicking this off by showing how I can continue to make one of my favourite dishes I made in South Africa, here in Plymouth.

Thai Hake Curry from #sea2shop2supper

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The fishy subject of this dish is Hake. I ate a lot of hake in South Africa, as a readily available cod substitute. I’ve also seen it a lot here in restaurants since I got back and thought “Hooray! A fish I know a lot of recipes for that’s sustainable!”. However, if you look at the Marine Conservation Society guidelines, there’s two main types of hake available here, with different levels of sustainability. I learn’t just how much fishing and management methods can matter from WWF SASSI in South Africa. There, the Cape Hake fishery is green, orange and red listed depending on the method of fishing. Similarly, there are more and less sustainable fisheries for European Hake, and you can often get imported Cape Hake in the UK too – see the details here.

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So, with 7 options for hake available according to the MCS guidelines, where do you start? Of course you can hope you have a knowledgeable fishmonger at your local market or supermarket, who will be able to tell you the fishery location and method…but if you’ve tried this I’m sure you’ll agree you can have limited success in getting the information you need. This is not to say we shouldn’t ask these questions to encourage greater uptake of information around sustainability, particularly in our supermarkets, we really should! But if you are having a particularly busy day and don’t have much time to look around, I have a readily available option for you, for this dish. Case in point – yesterday I was feeling quite ill, and Ben had asked for this thai fish curry dish for dinner. A short walk from my current flat, is Marks and Spencers, who sell fresh (not frozen) Cape Hake that is MSC certified. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), not to be confused with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) who produce the lists I mentioned, provides certification for sustainable fish, and is probably the best guarantee you can get as a consumer. The symbol is a little blue and white tick/fish logo – see here. I’m pleased to have seen this logo in nearly all the supermarkets I’ve visited in the UK, ensuring there are more options, particularly for busy consumers. There is also cod that meets these standards, which would also work well in this dish, though the hake is still my favourite. At £2 a fillet (£4 for two), it’s not cheap, but M&S do offer it as part of a 2 for £7/3 for £10 deal. I’d also recommend trying to keep an eye out for when reduced items typically appear – the M&S in Plymouth City Centre had lots of reduced products available yesterday – including lots of nice fruit, veg and meat. I tend to buy these reduced items and freeze them to extend their best before/use by date, or cook them up in to bulk meals to freeze for later. This can be a great way to cook on a budget, eat more exciting ingredients you wouldn’t typically justify buying for (I bought a lot of duck yesterday!) or just save a little extra cash.

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The basic recipe for this delicious Thai inspired curry can be found here. However, this is a nice and flexible dish which you can quite easily adapt. Last night for example, I simply poached the hake in the coconut milk, with two teaspoons of M&S thai green curry paste (it’s actually quite authentic and delicious, though I do try to make my own), and then served it with rice, peanuts and a quick veggie stir fry I’d got in a reduced section in M&S for 70p.

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I’m excited to continue this series, so if you know of a good place to buy sustainable seafood – particularly from local suppliers, I’d love to hear about it!

Perfecting Persian Lamb

March 22, 2015

The novelty of being back in Plymouth is wearing off slightly, and I’m settling in to the rhythms of my job. This, it seems, is the worst time for suddenly being struck by second-home-sickness. The most ridiculous things will set me off (really, who cries when they hear Kurt Darren, except in despair for the state of music these days). It’s been an up and down few weeks, but I’m trying to be proactive about dealing with the downs.

I tend to use cooking as stress relief. I find the focus required to create an interesting dinner a really good form of distraction from whatever is bothering me. Particularly if I’m working with new ingredients or inspiration from cuisines I’m not familiar with. The last few weeks I’ve been looking in to the history of Persian and related regional cuisines. I bought a beautiful book called Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour and have been using my fantastic flavour thesaurus by Niki Sugent to explore typical flavour combinations.

Lamb is a frequent feature of many recipes I looked at, but I don’t tend to be one to go shopping for specific ingredients for recipes. This makes Persian style cooking a little challenging in that I don’t tend to keep things like pomegranates around and I’m still rebuilding my spice collection, so saffron is out. But I did have a big pack of lamb mince to work with.

Two dishes arose, inspired by my reading. First, a cardamom and lemon lamb meatball dish, with roasted cauliflower, cashews, carrot pickle and tahini sauce. Then a lamb and pistachio meatball and fig tagine with mojardara.

The first dish was rich and delicious and perfect for our current preference for eating few processed and white carbs (less bread, rice, pasta, potatoes etc). I personally find this keeps my energy levels more constant throughout the day, and reduces the portion sizes I tend to eat.

This to serve two.

Ingredients

Half a pack of lamb mince (250g)
3 cardamom pods
1 tsp of Ras El Hanout
1 small cauliflower/half a large one
A handful of cashew nuts
1 lemon
2 carrots
A splash of white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons of tahini
1 clove minced garlic
Parsley to garnish
Olive oil/coconut oil

Method

First, make the meatballs. Mix the lamb mince with the zest of the lemon. Crush the cardamom pods to get the interior seeds, crush these and add to the lamb mix. Form in to meatballs of desired size.

Slice the cauliflower in to 1 cm slices or florets depending on how you would prefer for presentation, I like slices. Drizzle with some oil (I mostly use coconut or a light olive oil) and sprinkle with ras el hanout.
Put the meatballs and the cauliflower on to a tray and bake in a medium (180 or so) oven until they are nice and brown and the cauliflower have softened (time will depend on size).

To make the tahini sauce, mix the juice of the lemon with the tahini and a dash of olive oil and season with some ground pepper.

Grate the carrot and dress with the white wine vinegar.

To serve, stack the meat balls on top of the cauliflower, drizzle with tahini sauce and garnish with parsley, crushed cashews and the pickled carrot on the side.

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Inspired by the success of the first dish I decided to use the rest of the lamb mince for the other dish, fancying something with maybe a sweeter and more tomato based sauce.

This also to serve two.

Ingredients

Half a pack of lamb mince (250g)
1 yellow pepper
1 red onion
1 tin of tomatoes
A handful of pistachio nuts
6 dried figs, quartered.
1 tsp ras el hanout
100g rice
100g lentils
1 white onion
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
Oil for frying (I used rapeseed oil)

Mint and parsley for garnish.

Method

First make the meat balls by mixing the lamb with the pistachios (chopped finely). Lightly brown these in a frying pan. In another pan (saucepan or frying pan, see next point), fry the red onion (roughly chopped) until soft. At this point you can use a proper tagine pot (mine is on a ship somewhere mid-Atlantic) or continue in a saucepan. Add the yellow pepper (chopped in to sizeable chunks), the tomatoes, the figs, the ras el hanout and the browned meatballs. Bake in the tagine or simmer until the sauce has thicken beautifully.

Meanwhile make the mojardara (rice and lentils). This recipe is a mix between the one in Persiana and from the Cranks Bible by Nadine Abensur – also an excellent book. Cook the rice and lentils separately (tinned lentils will speed this up). While these are cooking add a decent amount of oil to the meat ball pan. Slice the white onion thinly and fry until crisp. Put these aside, add the cumin, mustard seeds, coriander, cinnamon and turmeric to the pan. Fry lightly until aromatic. Add the rice and lentils and combine, before mixing the crispy onions through,

Serve the tagine on top of the mojardara and garnish with mini and parsley. It would probably also be nice with a little yoghurt or feta, though I didn’t have and and it was still delicious. We had ours with a bottle of the Fire Flower Shiraz Mourvèdre from South Africa – bought at Waitrose.

I highly recommend making extra mojardara. It lasts in the fridge, makes a great lunch or breakfast (top it with a fried egg) and the combination of rice and lentils is much better than just having the rice.

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I was pleased with both these dishes, but I’ve got lots more ideas to experiment with yet. These dishes can take a little bit of time, which is ofte. fine for me, but not everyone, so my next challenge may well be some simpler dishes for busier days.

Personal Resilience Training

March 4, 2015

Whilst discussing the end of my PhD and the recent move I’ve made to start a new job in Plymouth, I spoke a lot about the many worries a young scientist may have while trying to build a career. I should have noted then that these worries are not limited to those of us beginning a career, and a whole set of new worries may face my more senior colleagues. Stress, I’m sure most people will agree, is an ever present part of work, and managing this can be difficult when faced with what seem like never ending and ever increasing pressures. In science this can include long hours, pressure to gain funding, publish papers, etc, in addition to the stresses of any work environment and balancing life in general. Luckily for me, my new workplace is supportive and proactive and recently offered us the opportunity to undertake personal resilience training to help cope with this sort of stress.

You can find lots about personal resilience training online, and we completed a questionnaire to help assess our current approaches to resilience which is available here. Some of the other stuff I looked at online sounds a little “fluffy” (though I’m particularly sceptical in general I will admit), and there are certainly some criticisms of resilience as an alternative/distraction from addressing systemic problems. But the more I’ve read, and since attending the course, I’ve realised that there are definitely aspects of resilience that I’ve already found useful in my life (particularly for coping with my somewhat infamous fear of flying) and can develop further to support my progress in my scientific career.

Since a common stress is not having enough time for things, the course we attended was kept short – just a few hours. We started off discussing what we felt resilience entailed, and came up with a variety of sometimes conflicting answers, showing there are many individual approaches to being resilient. We then spoke about some common components of resilience from various theories – including confidence (feeling competent etc), social support (being emotionally aware and having a supportive network), adaptability (being flexible and viewing change as ok) and purposefulness (having personal values, drive and direction). We also chatted about negative self talk, which seems to me to have a lot in common with the frequently discussed “impostor syndrome” that seems to effect many scientists, myself included. The biggest aspect I took from all this was the need for self awareness and analysis – understanding how you feel, why, and stepping back to check whether you are being unduly negative and can try to think about things in a different/more positive/constructive way.

We were given some useful tools to help focus our thinking on resilience, which I have already started using. I particularly liked the idea of the circle of concern and circle of influence suggested by Covery, Simon and Schuster, 1992. The idea is simple but good for inspiring reflection on personal circumstance. The model is basically two circles, a larger one, encompassing everything you are concerned about, and an inner circle which encompasses the things you are concerned about, but that you have influence over. The model allows you to think about how you can expand that inner circle. I quickly found that there was actually very little within my circle of concern that I didn’t have some influence over, or couldn’t think of ways I could increase my influence over. A second tool was the idea of a resilience prescription from Charney 2007 – including a number of general guidelines to increase resilience:

– Find a positive role model/mentor and develop an active support network.
– Develop resilient thinking – thinking about what is positive and what you have influence over.
– Develop cognitive flexibility – reframing negative situations to look at the positives.
– Identify and focus on what provides you with a sense of purpose and nurture this.
– Recognise and develop the things you are good at but also train in multiple areas to increase confidence.
– Look after yourself physically – maintain a healthy diet and exercise.

A few tasks finished of the workshop. We were asked to think of three positive things someone had said about us recently. I think it is all too rare that we offer praise and encouragement directly to colleagues, friends etc and this is something I’m trying to do more. I had the most wonderful outpouring of support and encouragement (both personal and professional) when we left Cape Town recently and have kept all the emails from friends and colleagues to re-read on days when I’m feeling a bit lonely or having a bad science day. This forms part of my own personal “resilience prescription” – the last task we completed for the workshop. To my prescription I added that I must find a mentor and build a new group of collaborators. I had a great supervisor and wonderful group of colleagues in Cape Town, and I certainly feel their absence at the moment. I also decided to breathe new life in to my existing hobbies – writing this blog, taking part in science communication etc and to take on some new challenges, which has included learning to rock climb this week. It’s a highly personal thing, but if you are struggling with the constant ups and downs of work life, maybe take a look online at some of the information available on resilience, or see if your workplace can offer a training course.

The Samphire Bush

March 4, 2015

I’ve been following The Samphire Bush restaurant on Facebook since I saw many of my Plymouth based friends and family liking the beautiful photos of their food. Seafood is the speciality of this little restaurant, situated in the increasingly popular Stonehouse area of Plymouth. Obviously seafood is a source of internal conflict for me. I love it as a cook and foodie, but I’m always concerned about sustainably as a marine scientist. I also appreciate the difficulties restaurants face in sourcing sustainable options, and incorporating these in to a profitable business model with ever picky consumers. Regardless, I had seen sustainable options advertised on The Samphire Bush Facebook page, and was really pleased to see their support and promotion of the National Lobster Hatchery, so Ben booked a table for a birthday meal for me.

We struggled to find parking near the restaurant, so I’d recommend taxi-ing or parking in the nearby Royal William Yard. We were greeted warmly on arrival by hostess Maja and offered a table in a corner of the cosy, relaxed dining room. The Samphire Bush offers both a full menu and a fantastic value set menu (£14 for 2 courses/£16 for 3 courses). On the set menu was red mullet and flounder, which are mid-list on the marine conservation society guidelines, not bad, but I had my eye on the local scallops, calamari, crab and lobster which are personal favourites of mine. I opted to have three starters I couldn’t resist, whilst Ben had the set menu including the red mullet, and a chicken dish for main. My scallop dish was beautifully served, and perfectly cooked in a unique combination with cauliflower puree and Shimeji mushrooms. This was followed by a delicious crab and lobster cocktail, fresh with beautiful flavours of apple and tomato. My final dish was the calamari with curried aioli and mango and coriander tartare – a delicious contrast of spicy and sweet flavours and soft and crispy textures. Ben’s mullet dish, with chorizo, was probably the star of the evening (though it faced strong competition from the crab and lobster cocktail) and his chicken main was a well cooked alternative to all the seafood on offer. I finished off my meal with a panna cotta, which was included on the set menu Ben had ordered. I love panna cotta and this one was very nicely done, served with tart rhubarb to cute through the sweet cream.

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With regards to drinks, The Samphire Bush has a broad selection of wines, I enjoyed a glass of the great value house white (an Italian wine, which varietal escapes me). I was also happy to see they were keeping things local, with my favourite Rattler cider on tap. We had a lovely chat with Maja about the wine, and she told us that they were looking at some new wines to add, offering us a delicious french red to try.

Our evening ended with a lovely chat with Maja and chef Martin about the National Lobster Hatchery and about the use of sustainable seafood options in restaurants. Their enthusiasm and passion was inspiring, and I was really pleased to see this in a restaurant that specialises in seafood. They have many awesome events planned – including special wine tasting meals, so we will definitely be visiting again soon.

You can follow @TheSamphireBush on twitter, on facebook, and visit their website here for more information.

The Greedy Goose

February 19, 2015

To be honest I’d not need much reason to visit a restaurant with such a wonderfully quirky name as the Greedy Goose. But there was greater motivation behind booking a special dinner at this new Plymouth eatery this week. It’s the first time my mum and I have been able to celebrate our birthdays together in nearly 5 years. We were born on the 16th and 17th of February respectively and have, for many years before I moved to SA, had joint celebrations in some lovely places. A particularly wonderful birthday, was my 21st, for which mum and my dad arranged a lovely dinner for family and friends at the historic Prysten House in Plymouth, at the time home to the Tanner brothers first restaurant “Tanners”. We have a long history with Tanners and regular readers may remember the particularly excellent wine pairing dinner that mum and I shared on a visit home in 2013. So, we were understandably sad to hear that the Tanners restaurant would be closing at the end of last year, but suitably excited to find out that this beautiful location would play host to a new restaurant from former Barbican Kitchen (another Tanners restaurant) head chef – Ben Palmer and wife Francesca.

Birthday Girls

Birthday Girls

Prysten house remains ever the beautiful setting it always has been, but is now complete with a subtle but fun collection of goose themed paraphernalia – eliciting a number of squeaks of joy from myself. Service from the beginning of the evening was impeccable, and I particularly enjoyed having a pre-dinner drink from the broad wine selection. Mum and I enjoyed a very delicious but surprisingly well priced glass of prosecco, and decided to have another bottle to go with our dinner.

The Greedy Goose offers several ways to dine – including a tasting menu, with or without pairing, or the general menu, which includes a selection of dishes forming a great value set menu – 2 courses for £17 or 3 for £20. Both, mum, her partner Jon and I opted for the set menu, whilst Ben couldn’t resist a main dish of lamb. Still, after adding extra drinks and coffees, the bill at the end of the evening was really good value. Despite this, service at The Greedy Goose was definitely reflective of high end dining, with attentive staff and some lovely little touches. In particular, a lovely selection of freshly made bread and an amuse bouche of smoked fishcake, beautifully presented in a smoke filled jar, were delicious and thoughtful. Starters of parfait with pear chutney, and duck egg with venison hash were quirky and tasty, a trend that continued in the main courses. Mum particularly loved the addition of devils on horseback to her chicken dish and Bens lamb main combined typical local flavours in the lamb and buttered samphire with more eastern elements of shwarma, aubergine and cashews. Classic dishes were also given a revival and I enjoyed a delicious mushroom and truffle risotto, whilst Jon had calves liver, beautifully soft with flavours of sage and honey.

Smoked Fishcake Amuse Bouche

Smoked fishcake amuse bouche

Beautiful duck egg and venison starter

Beautiful duck egg and venison starter

Delicious chicken with devils on horseback

Delicious chicken with devils on horseback

I can rarely face a big dessert after a rich dinner, so I was pleased to see the option of tiny treats to go with after dinner coffee. A great way to round off a lovely evening and I would highly recommend a visit to The Greedy Goose, already doing justice to the history of this fantastic venue, and writing a promising future of its own. We’ll definitely be back.

After dinner treats

After dinner treats

What happened next: Becoming a doctor, leaving home, returning home.

January 4, 2015

Despite a promised blogging deluge, I’ve obviously been very quiet the last few months. Everyone needs a break from life in general post PhD right?

Well I’ve not quite been taking a break. After handing in I decided to head home and visit family in the UK for a bit – a nice way to distract from the uncertainty and worry waiting for my results and facing the existential crisis of what I was going to be doing next.

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Catching up with family post thesis hand in.

It wasn’t all without science though – I also attended the excellent Challenger conference, held in my home town of Plymouth – check out my report in the next issue of the Challenger society magazine. This was the first time I’d been able to present the entire story of my thesis, which was awesome and it was great to attend such an interdisciplinary conference. I particularly enjoyed the vibrant social media conversations and the policy session. I also attended a workshop organised by the ESA LearnEO project – on the future uses of Earth observation in educational contexts – I’ll try and write more about that later.

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Presenting at Challenger.

Anyway, back to that existential crisis. I’m sure everyone who’s done a PhD knows this feeling. The internet doesn’t do much to alleviate the worry of the “in-limbo” PhD student/recent graduate. You’re late twenties/early thirties so the pressure is on to “get a real job” (not my words!), make investments, hold down a relationship, start a family etc. The difficulties associated with the post-PhD life are catalogued throughout excellent blogs online – the stress of temporary contracts and frequent moves around the world, growing competition for fewer permanent positions, the difficulties of being a woman in science, the infamous “two body” problem for couples. There’s lots to potentially worry about, and reading online I couldn’t find much to help convince me that the future was bright. Now emerging from the other side of my post-PhD low in to a new opportunity gives me the chance to try and share a slightly more positive perspective. I know I could have done with hearing one a few months ago.

Like many recent PhDs, I had no confirmed next step when I handed in my thesis. From this blog it’s probably obvious that I had a pretty excellent PhD experience – the most amazing research group, generally awesome academic opportunities and a great life and partner in South Africa. My partner Ben had landed an exceptional skills visa and a postdoctoral contract in South Africa – a great opportunity in interesting research with a great organisation but not ideal in practical terms given his desire to make steps towards a more long term plan for his, now second, career. Staying in SA for at least a while longer seemed the obvious choice. And, as many articles online say, it’s assumed you’ll do postdocs once you finish a PhD. I’d kinda made my peace with that, being at the youngest end of PhD graduates, it didn’t bother me too much, though I could see how it would in the future, wondering if an indeterminable number of postdocs would lead to a permanent position in an indeterminable number of years. Regardless, I got involved in a bunch of postdoc applications and we applied for permanent residence in South Africa, hoping this would allow us to apply for a range of work and eventually get at least the one permanent position necessary to start a settled life at some point in the not too distant future. However, despite some very promising positions applied and interviewed for, we felt our long term future in our temporary home slipping further away. Even with our love for South Africa and the awesome work we have done there, the sensible thing seemed to be to look further afield (in and out of academia), if only to alleviate some of the worry.

A couple of job adverts came across my social media updates – including a call for several Earth Observation Scientists at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, in my home town in the UK. PML is a big hub for scientists working in my research field (ocean colour) in particular and I had the great pleasure to meet and work with many scientists from there during my PhD. The job descriptions sounded really interesting, covering some really cool projects that were well aligned with both mine and Bens existing experience and planned research. Now, I think I’ve been hit by the infamous impostor syndrome a little less severely than many – I’ll put that down to the fantastic supervisor and community support I’ve received during my PhD. But even I wasn’t convinced about my chances applying for what seemed like a really excellent job opportunity before I’d actually even graduated. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained right?

There’s a lot more story in here; my first ever interview for a job that wasn’t at Tesco, sneaking around to avoid my Plymouth based family finding out I had an interview (and potentially influencing my decisions/getting upset), and spending some very tense weeks waiting for the examiners reports for my thesis!

To cut that part of the story short, both Ben and I were offered positions. In one way this made things easier, as the decision about “what next” was practically made for us and has provided lots of relief from our immediate worries about our future in science and together. Still, it has meant leaving Cape Town, and the life we had made and planned there behind, which was heartbreaking. I was asked to start work immediately, as the project I’m working on is already going and I needed to pick it up from a (lovely) colleague who would be leaving. Whilst my family bounced around in excitement that I was coming home, I spent a few weeks fluxing between several states. Feeling rather out of place and coming to terms with leaving my second home for one which I had deliberately left for various reasons, then feeling guilty about feeling glum when such an awesome opportunity had come up for myself and Ben and ultimately having a really good time reconnecting with friends and family, seeing the place I grew up in in a new light and getting my head in to some cool new science.

Exploring new parts of the South West with a little friend.

Exploring new parts of the South West with a little friend.

Plymouth has epic cider and seafood...and best friends :)

Plymouth has epic cider and seafood…and best friends :)

I also received my PhD results a few weeks in to my new job, with just a few minor corrections necessary for me to graduate.

Celebrating PhD results

Celebrating PhD results

A month in Cape Town to pack up my belongings (and Ben) and graduate has helped put things on a more even keel. Whilst trying to pack and move life across hemispheres was pretty stressful, we managed to make the most of the limited time we had left with our friends and colleagues. I even managed to finish off my tattoo (mostly…)

Celebrating our graduation at the awesome Test Kitchen in Cape Town

Celebrating our graduation at the awesome Test Kitchen in Cape Town.

Graduation.

Graduation.

Finishing off my back piece...maybe just a little more to come on the lower back, but I think I will struggle to find an equally grand occasion!

Finishing off my back piece…maybe just a little more to come on the lower back, but I think I will struggle to find an equally grand occasion!

I’m pretty excited getting back to work now, I’ve made some really nice new colleagues and am determined to set up life-long collaborations that will prevent us losing touch with the wonderful people and second home we had in South Africa. There are definitely off days, when seemingly endless pouring rain and wet toes make me long for the seemingly endless days in summer dresses with a view of Table Mountain. Or when my new office is too quiet and I miss the lively scientific discussion and laughter of my much loved colleagues in Cape Town. But I try to remember that it took time to adjust to Cape Town and build that life, and it will take time here too.

I wondered for a while if this blog should take on a new persona now that I’ve left the place that inspired its creation. But one of the things I was most worried about leaving behind in Cape Town was the person I had become there. So I’m keeping the same theme. There’ll be plenty more science, lots of sightseeing as it’s now time to be a tourist in my old/new(?) home, and of course sustenance, with a particular focus on all that Devon has to offer in terms of sustainable seafood.

So for now things are good. It’s early days, but I feel like I’ve got a good opportunity to build and develop my career further. My new work place has a very interdisciplinary approach and mixes research with operations/industrial/business applications in ways I find exciting. I still feel like way too much of a noob to offer much in the way of advice to others who are in the same position as I was a few months ago. Except maybe the following – apply for everything, meet lots of people in your field (maybe broaden what your definition of that is) and form connections to find opportunities. Lastly, try not to let the process of finishing the PhD kill your confidence. I know it dented mine but you do need it to get through applications/interviews etc for a new position, one that you should remember that you deserve even if it feels the opposite.

Publishing my first scientific paper

August 22, 2014

As part of my blog catch up, here’s a much delayed post on my experiences publishing my first paper, earlier this year!

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Any one who works in science will tell you that the currency of science, your worth, more so than any qualification, is your scientific publication record. “Publish or perish” they say as you wonder yet again how you’re going to fit in paper writing along side doing your research, finishing your thesis, teaching etc before you run out of money or sanity.

If, like me, you did a 3 year honours and a year taught masters, as is common in the UK, chances are you may only have one (if not no) paper to your name when you start a PhD – usually a reflection of your lack of independent research experience.

I’ve rectified that lack of experience during my PhD. I look back and I can remember when I applied for my PhD and was thinking “how can I write a proposal, I don’t even know enough about oceanography to know what questions I would need to ask?!”. Now the prospect of starting a new project excites me, I have so many questions I could ask, new topics I’m keen to work on. But until recently that much desired moment of seeing my name in print on a scientific paper had eluded me.

I think mainly it’s taken so long due to a lack of confidence in my own subject knowledge. Most of my colleagues had done 2 year research masters in remote sensing/optical fields before coming to their PhD. With my rudimentary knowledge of optics gained from working with ocean colour data products during my masters, I felt a little out of my depth for most of the first year of my PhD. Things picked up in the second year. With my knowledge base growing rapidly, I was asked to contribute to a couple of projects, including some data analysis for a paper and book chapter. With guidance from colleagues I began to see what it took to get your work to a publishable standard. By the end of my second year, despite submitting several pieces as a co-author, I still had not seen my name in print. The concept of trying to apply for postdoc work without a single publication, let alone a first author one was terrifying.

A second delay, I think, came from my research itself. I’ve been developing methods – more specifically, algorithms – to apply to ocean colour data (literally the colour of the ocean, for more info see here). The problem with this is that there’s often an end goal. In my case, I wanted to derive some information on phytoplankton (tiny plant-like organisms which live in the sea) to an acceptable accuracy. It’s not really the same approach as much of science – where you set a question (hypothesis), test it and report what data shows. I’ll freely admit it seems that publishing negative results, the “we don’t know”/”it didn’t work” answers in science is hard and I think in an ideal world this would be easier, if only to save postgraduate research students wasted time! The good news is, the difficulties I had with getting my methods to work, and explaining why in some cases they didn’t, has ultimately improved my understanding of my subject and lead to me finally publishing my first paper!

My approach had initially been to develop some algorithms to look at the size of phytoplankton in South Africa’s coastal waters – the Benguela upwelling region in particular, using ocean colour. Eventually I found myself more involved in a fundamental question: to what extent can we look at cell size using ocean colour data? Encouragement and support from colleagues and my supervisor assured me that this was a worthwhile question and with their help I reworked my research strategy. Combining modelling and in situ data measurements to develop and test our method proved very interesting and has given us a new structure to investigate a whole range of questions about ocean colour.

My paper was submitted to Optics Express; an open access, online publication. The review process was quick, with two reviewers responding with a few weeks of my submission. The first response was encouraging. It contained a lot of constructive criticism, which meant some work for me, particularly on making the figures clearer and simpler – something I had really struggled with. Ultimately this reviewer made it a much better paper, picking up on points I probably couldn’t have, after being so close to the work for so long. It seemed to me that this is how science should work. I felt they’d paid attention, engaged with the work as a concept and offered well thought through comments and words of encouragement. I don’t know who they are, but I’m grateful to them for not only for helping improve my work but also for providing an example of the type of reviewer I want to be. The second reviewer…well, luckily I had a glass of wine in my hand when I read their comments, and a supervisor who tends to read his emails at night to calm my mild panic! After re-reading the second review the next day I realised that this reviewer seemed to have misunderstood the paper and so I set about a) making my findings and their importance abundantly clear in the manuscript and b) carefully refuting their broad comments with all the knowledge I had. Rather than feeling downtrodden, as I might have expected given my previous lack of confidence, I was determined.

By the end of the review process, when my response and the paper were accepted, I felt something I’d not really felt at all in the PhD process – pride in my work. Meanwhile, two more co-authored papers and a book chapter have been accepted and I’ve got one more paper submitted and two in progress. I feel like an actual scientist now and it’s nice. It was particularly fortuitous that his happened in January as I began the final push to finalise and submit my thesis.

Some things I’ve learnt from this and will carry forward:

- Thinking about publications as an end goal. Whilst I can look back now and be happy that I got to freely follow ideas and develop knowledge during my PhD, in future I want to balance this curiosity with asking questions that should be more easily turned into publications.
– Co-authors: Very few people publish papers on their own. I think choosing co-authors well can make life much easier. I’m lucky to have an awesome supervisor and a couple of close colleagues who have collaborated on this and now other papers too.
– Reviewers are people too. I don’t know who reviewed my paper and why they responded the way they did, for better or worse. I do know that I put in a lot of work and thought a lot about my research before I submitted my paper. I think knowing when comments are constructive and should cause concern, and when comments are unnecessary/biased/wrong or even cruel etc isn’t easy and I imagine many young scientists like me will take negative or critical comments to heart. With this in mind, I intend to a) not take any comments too personally without assessing their context and b) make sure when I review papers that I provide constructive feedback without unnecessarily negative and cruel commentary.

As I mentioned, my paper is open access so anyone can read it and it’s available online here.

I also found this great piece on being a good reviewer, which I will definitely be when I get the chance to be on the other side of peer review.

What have your experiences of the peer review process been? Please feel free to comment below :)

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