Can video make a PhD star?

Like many parents, I have a complicated relationship with kids’ television. There are times when I enjoy the pure joy in a song composed entirely of nonsensical whimsy. Then there are times when I would like to find an appropriate furnace to burn Thomas and all his shunting friends.

Like some parents, occasionally when I watch a kids’ performer pretending to be a bed-hopping monkey, I think to myself  “I could do that. And my monkey would have more mischievous glee too.”

The PhD – Delivering Reality Checks for Free

 Of all the unlikely vehicles to allow me to test my front of camera skills, I have this PhD project. When I embarked on it almost accidentally (pretty clumsy, right), I assumed it would mostly be me and a computer and lots and lots of data. One day it might be. What I didn’t expect was that 2 years in the surrounding bits would be such a major part of the process.

As I’ve said before here, it has become massively apparent that if you have an idea you believe in communicating is part of the job. Who else is going to talk up your thing if you won’t?

Coupled to this is the fact that I’m doing this within a charity organisation. Unsurprisingly, they also want to tell people about stuff they do. Of course, there’s not really any way I can think of getting funded that wouldn’t involve communicating what the work involves.

And so it is, that I ended up in front of a camera.

The Brief

To explain a bit about the research, we’ve created a short video pitched at the layperson. If you care to view it up front, you can look here (the link is at the bottom of the page).

The target we set was to try and answer a few questions in these 3 or so minutes:

  • Who we are and what we do.
  • Why do we give a damn about trauma and particularly traumatic brain injury?
  • What’s the problem we’re trying to address and what the hell is the monitor with the fancy name all about?
  • What are we actually doing about it?

We did this armed with a script from me, a volunteer called Cam on the camera, a bunch of black drapes in an office and 3 props. Now it’s out there for anyone to judge if we were successful.

What did I learn?

1.     Imagery is everything

One of the hardest elements to get across was the idea of how the monitoring might reveal stuff that’s going on in the brain. That’s where the balloon (and some textas plus a rather saintly wife) came in. This concept was developed in the preparation for the Bright Sparks PhD Pitch Night from earlier in the year and I still like it, although I’m always looking for a better one. A good image can demonstrate a concept way quicker than many, many words.

The search for a way of demonstrating this idea also led to a really clear focus on exactly what it is we’re doing and made me understand the complex stuff better. There are all sorts of benefits in communication.

2.     A Camera is a Strange and Unrelenting Prison

I can talk plenty in a small group. I can talk in a big room. I am seriously unnerved by a flashing red light (and no there’s no hidden associations with red lights and a long suppressed past).

Practice felt easy. In the dark room, with the light on I rediscovered the self-consciousness of a big-haired teenager. It’s truly strange how the unblinking glint of a camera lens makes it feel like you yourself are blinking way too much. It felt as if my eyelids were convinced they had a chance to live out their dream of stepping up to the big leagues and delivered a performance akin to wipers trying to clear dead bugs off a windscreen.

My hands, usually friends of mine, became massively oversized. They felt so big and everywhere I wondered if I’d forgotten the point earlier in the day where I washed my hands in a particularly angry hornets’ nest. My hand acting clearly followed the teaching of this serious actor.

So enough daydreaming. I can happily acknowledge now that there are reasons pros are pros. Which just means it’s time for practice.

3.     There’s Room to Improve

When I see it, I think it’s a start. There are things that I wish were more slick and professional looking. Actually, that’s mostly just my face I’m talking about. I am very impressed at the efforts of the CareFlight team in building on top of a little idea, supported only by 2 balloons and 3 takes.

It turns out a PhD delivers way more than just an experience in research, or the fascinating pain of literature reviews and revision. It takes you in unexpected directions. Although next time I watch Play School I’ll have to acknowledge the harsh reality that maybe I won’t be disputing the rider with Big Ted, Humpty and friends any time soon.

If you made it this far before checking it, here’s the direct link. I submit it to the court of public (well, not that public really) opinion. And if you’ve got the time, let me know what you think. How did we go? Is there a better option than the brain balloon or am I going to be popping those things for the next few years? Should there be more gags? Is it even easy to include jokes about brain injury in this sort of thing? I’m all virtual ears. After all, my future in research may well depend just as much on my communication as my stats.

No textas were harmed in the decoration of this balloon.

No textas were harmed in the decoration of this balloon.

Profiling Researchers

You must have met a scientist. They’re everywhere. They live among us. In fact, you probably saw a scientist today and you didn’t even know it.

Now, that opening isn’t my crack at writing the autocue script for a tabloid current affairs show. It wouldn’t be out of place though. That’s because despite all the scientists out there trying to engage, you sometimes get a feeling that each day a new angry mob dropped by the pitchfork shop to stock up for an anti-science march.

Science Under Attack

Maybe it’s because there’s cancer conspiracy theories suggesting the cure is already out there, but researchers are hiding it to make big bucks. Just look at all those cancer scientists buying tropical islands.

It could be the growing influence of industry-funded organisations attacking science making scientists feel a bit unloved. Maybe it’s the news of despotic regimes trying to limit public chatter from researchers about the stuff they find. Like the jackboot-wearing thugs from Canada, for example.

To launch attacks like this, it seems to me that you have to start with the assumption that scientists are some other species. A species that doesn’t recognise normal moral codes. A whole breed that would happily deny the world a cure for horrifying and deadly medical conditions or abandon any pretence at integrity and promote science they know isn’t true.

So maybe the first step is to start building up a public profile of what a researcher is. Well everyone goes nuts for those shows on TV where earnest suit-wearing people profile serial killers from the contents of their cereal bowl and the haircut they sported in their primary school photo. (Alright, maybe the serial killer reference isn’t helping me here.)

Profile of a Researcher

• My name is Andrew and I live in a city.
• I like sport. I even sit down and watch Test cricket.
• I find tea anticlimactic, particularly when compared to coffee.
• I am not particularly impressed by actors. It’s not that I don’t think what they do is cool, I just don’t think that being paid vast amounts of money to pretend to be someone who does stuff makes your opinion more valid than people who actually do that thing.
• I have never seen or read Game of Thrones.
• Despite this, I could have predicted that an episode called “Red Wedding” was probably not going to be a reference to a cultural practice of wearing red for good luck. What were you all expecting?
• I think ties serve no purpose. And bowties? No. Really, just no.
• I am also a drummer. This means that when I listen to music for the first time, I listen almost entirely to the drums and bass.
• I have a habit of singing along. Out loud. Wherever I am. My apologies.
• Hip hop has excellent rhythm. I am a middle class white guy. I have not been to “the hood”. I tend to sing out loud (see above). This makes hip hop awkward for me.
• I’d probably choose winter over summer, and the desert over the tropics.
• I’m also starting medical research on brain monitoring at accident scenes.

Yes, that is mine. Actually, I have heard that drummer joke. No, actually, I don't think my sides will be splitting.

Yes, that is mine.
Actually, I have heard that drummer joke.
No, actually, I don’t think my sides will be splitting.

The thing is, I could state the exact opposite of every one of these sentences and I’d still be describing a researcher.

So if that’s true, maybe the challenge is right there. Because it turns out that scientists are just people too. How do we get that message across?

Join the flock and get tweeting

In the anaesthetics department in which I work, there’d be less than 5 of us regularly using Twitter. In fact, when I raised the prospect of actively using Twitter for a conference we’re organising later in the year, the opening of the response was “I don’t Twit, and I have no intention of twittering anytime ever” (*). Likewise, I haven’t checked, but the division of the Uni in which my PhD is based doesn’t seem to have much active Twitter activity going on either.

Well, that has to change. If you’re a researcher and you’re not using Twitter at all, you might like a look at this excellent infographic that crossed my path today (courtesy of Joshua Drew @drewlab and to me via @karenmca and then @Phil_Baty):

Twitter Infographic copy

Now, this is a visualisation of survey results from 116 marine scientists who are actively using Twitter. It highlights really nicely all the reasons you should get involved.

Personally, I’ve only been actively using Twitter for about 5 months. In that time, it has become the source of more interesting stuff and news coverage than any other electronic media (or just, any media) I use. I wasn’t a guaranteed zealot either – I rarely use facebook because when there’s friends and family I need to chat to, I tend to actually talk to them; on the flipside, random facebook people who choose to poke me kind of creep me out. I am yet to figure out any use for LinkedIn whatsoever (is that just me, or is it literally just a place you go to link with a bunch of people you’ll never contact again?) and I came to Twitter expecting to play the part of “old cranky guy on a rocking chair shaking head at young whippersnappers”. I was wrong. Not quite a sonnet, here’s why I use it.

1. The First Edition

For me, first and foremost, Twitter gives me news. More to the point it gives me highly relevant news, that I can filter. The thing with Twitter is, you can choose where to draw your sources from, and by following people who are engaged in media, or engaged in the particular type of news that you’re interested in, they do the work of finding the interesting stuff for you.

So not only do you now get delivered news from a variety of sources, I find I get news on stuff that interests me, that I would never otherwise have seen. By following clever people who do research and are abreast of the latest “big item” developments share it. I heard about the threats to Australian Research Council grants way quicker, and in much greater depth via Twitter than any other source. Twitter doesn’t actually give you the First Edition, it gives you the rolling edition.

2. I am a disciple and a leader

Well actually, I can’t accurately describe myself as either of those, but one of the amazing things about Twitter is I get to hear from people who are seriously at the top of the research game. At work, I get to rub shoulders with a bunch of really clever paediatric anaesthetists. I might also get to hobnob with some of the other medical researchers who are based around the kids hospital. On Twitter, I get updates from those sorts of people, as well as cancer researchers, microbiologists, malaria researchers, astrophysicists and veterinary scientists.

As a researcher, part of the advantage of Twitter is the immediately expanded network of clever researchy people I can learn from. There are plenty of great ideas that advance through inspiration and collaboration outside of the immediate sphere of where an individual works. The maths is compelling. You might be lucky enough to work with exactly the group of geniuses who will come up with the perfect idea to mesh with yours. If you looks at the info graphic though, if the median number of followers is 730 times larger than a median University department size, and 55% of those followers are science related, don’t you think there’s a chance you are more likely to make a vital connection if you’re bumping into that many people day after day?

3. Riding the Butterfly Effect

I choose to make a lazy link to the common understanding that all of chaos theory can be boiled down to the meteorological mayhem induced by erratic flying things to comment on the ability of Twitter to reach far beyond the tearoom. (Yes, I appreciate it’s pretty tenuous but I’m still reeling from learning last night that someone thought it was necessary to make The Butterfly Effect 3 – how bereft of an original thought was that producer?)

Pointing to the infographic again – almost 1 in 5 times someone shares a peer-reviewed PDF in this forum, that PDF is passed on. If you walked around work and handed that PDF out (forget the environment and those crazy butterflies and climate change for a second), how many of those people do you think would actually pass it on?

I got a glimpse of how quickly something can spread via Twitter at the end of last year. At the time, I was gearing up to be part of an aid trip to India. The team decided to try crowdfunding to see if we could raise additional money for the group in India we were working with. So we set about blogging and trying to raise the profile of this little endeavour, sharing it initially amongst people we knew. Then one afternoon, I mentioned it to my brother-in-law, who has the Twitter handle @wiredjazz. As someone ensconced in creative endeavours (there’s lots of them over here and they are well worth a look), he has a whole lot more followers (about 1800 or so at the time).

Anyway, an endorsement goes out from @wiredjazz, and lo and behold 1800 people have had a chance to see what we’re up to, and most of those probably people who would never otherwise heard about it. Then he asked for an additional bit of publicity from Neil Gaiman (who writes and stuff also). So @neilhimself shares the link. To his 1.8 million followers.

1.8 million people.

Now, I’m not suggesting every one of those people checked it out, but we did get some immediate interaction from those who had, along with a bit of extra funding. In 6 minutes, the trip went from being something a few hundred people had heard of, to something that had wafted by 1.8 million people.

So if you have no interest in your idea or what you do potentially getting to that many people, please go back to your crochet on this fine evening. Otherwise, get on Twitter.

4. The Other Stuff

It’s not all work. I frequently come across other really stimulating stuff. It’s the sort of stuff I really enjoy spending a few moments with, but all too often don’t take time for because of work or drudgery items getting in the way. When it’s right there though, I find the 2 mins it takes to be astonished, amazed, infuriated, puzzled or amused. And it feels great.

One of the impressive feats pulled off with bored monotony by Twitter is the ability to juxtapose moments of high intellect and stimulation, with hilarity or banality.

Engagement is vital for any researcher. As I’ve mentioned before, if the research you’re doing is something you kind of believe in, part of your job is to spread the word. Twitter offers that in a very real fashion. Yet it also brings you into contact with amazing researchers who may inspire you, educate you or share an excellent recipe or the frustration of the football season.

Of course, there are risks. There are also trolls. Having said that, if you exercise the slightest bit of common sense about how you behave online (or just treat it like you are a sane person having a conversation in a sane and respectful fashion) there’s a lot of upside. You’ll definitely get access to awesome Lego remakes way quicker for starters.

So you’re welcome to be one of those “doesn’t Twit”. Although I would suggest that if you’re a researcher, particularly in your early career, and you’re not into it, you already qualify on the twit front.

(*) By the way, despite indicating personal disinterest, this good individual has entirely supported the conference plan.