‘Coronaviva’: Preparing for my PhD viva in self-isolation

‘PREPARING FOR MY PHD VIVA IN SELF-ISOLATION’

work from home

By  Marianne Doherty, PhD candidate, Durham University. Twitter:@mdoherty_1

Wherever you are in the world, coronavirus is going to feature heavily in your life over the coming months. In an attempt to lift the spirits of those in the same position as me during these dark times, I thought I’d share some of the steps I’ve taken to prepare for my PhD viva which will likely be conducted over Skype while I self-isolate; I’ve dubbed it my ‘coronaviva’.

Isolation is a rite of passage for PhDs, we’ve done it before, we can (and definitely should) do it again

In the weeks before submitting, the only communication I had was with whatever God would listen and the co-op self-service machine where I mass-bought packets of Lavazza. This is far from unusual behaviour for a PhD researcher. It only takes a cursory scroll through the #PhDChat #PhDlife twitter highlights to see that thousands of PhD candidates feel isolated, lonely and fearful of what is to come, regardless of coronavirus.

I am a PhD candidate at Durham University. While I regularly travelled to and from Durham, I’ve lived in Belfast for the majority of the last four years and so, I’m well-versed in remote supervision. My research area is prison-education and my thesis, ‘Supporting desistance through prison education: an exploration of the contribution of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program™ in three U.K. prison-university partnerships’, will likely be examined in the coming weeks.  Like many of my cohort, the journey has been far from straight-forward. There have been times where I’ve pulled consecutive all-nighters to meet my often unrealistic self-imposed deadlines and times where I’ve celebrated the smallest of victories with people I would never have met but for the experience. Appreciating the complexity of the PhD process and the achievement of turning a simple concept into eight chapters and 100,000 words is the first step in preparation. It provides some much needed perspective on the prospect of conducting a viva remotely: it will be challenging, but it is achievable.

How do I conquer the fear and prepare for one of the most significant events in my life during one of the most significant events in my life?

I’m used to communicating with my university via Skype but examinations following the same format constitute unchartered territory and with this, comes stress and the inevitable fear of the unknown. A clear front-runner for stress reduction is yoga, I have a yoga mat, I look at it every day – I’m sure it would love to be used. Even better than yoga, though, is using self-isolation as the prime opportunity that it is, to consider the position of the examiners. I have attempted to do this by writing and recording a lecture on my research. While it initially made for cringe-worthy relistening, it has helped hone my oratory skills and this has been invaluable. I am now a lot more confident in succinctly articulating the objectives and outcomes of my research and would recommend it to anyone preparing for their PhD viva.

Publish or perish… literally

A further benefit of writing and recording lectures is that it serves to refresh your memory and help you to identify potential titles for publication. I’ve found this to be particularly helpful. Not only has planning for the future filled the void that followed when I submitted, it has given me back a sense of purpose and momentum.

My research was a qualitative study examining interview data from twenty-two prison-based former students of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program™ and an international sample of twenty-nine practitioners of the course. I had always intended to publish about the findings of the research, but in writing my lecture, I realised that the methods I had used and my positionality as an Irish, female PhD prison researcher were also potentially publication-worthy pieces. I came to the conclusion that even if they went unpublished, the act of delving back into the data and viewing it through a different lens could only serve to give me a better understanding of my own work. A preparatory step which I may not have considered were I not self-isolating.

Read and listen to everything except the news

There is no point in worrying about that which is beyond our control. While it is healthy to keep up-to-date with current affairs, it is certainly not helpful to repeatedly refresh the coronavirus death toll on your internet browser. I am guilty of this and I tend to read the news at various points during the day. Indeed, at one point, I had a twitter alert on coronavirus, but this is a practice I have stopped and since doing so, I’ve developed a much needed sense of calm. I have replaced this behaviour with podcasts and books unrelated to law, criminology or prison. This may not sound like a preparatory step, but it is – really.  During my PhD, I met a most interesting character who, at the time was an actuary studying attachment theory. Our backgrounds and our research areas were poles apart,  but I always left our conversations having made a new connection or having had a thought about taking my research in a different direction. Listening to a diverse range of podcasts, watching the lectures fellow scholars have made publicly available and reading beyond our discipline can expand our understanding of our research and its reach.

I’ve been self-isolating for one week but I’ve never felt closer to my family and friends

Countering loneliness with scheduled family FaceTime works. There are ten of us, we are never usually in the same place and yet, at 8.30pm every night, we are altogether on one screen. This has never happened before and it’s brilliant. There’s something very reassuring about everyone being in the same boat and for me,  it is one of the few silver-linings of the covid-19 outbreak; it has brought stability amidst the chaos. It is also a reprieve from viva preparation and an opportunity to listen to other people’s stories as though we were all in one room. The normalcy of this very simple act has been hugely beneficial for me. Where it is possible to do so, talk to your people, it’s good for the soul.

You might not pass, but covid-19 will

The key steps I’ve taken in summary are: appreciate what you’ve already achieved; write a lecture on your research and listen to it; plan your post-PhD publications; use social media to your advantage; and, communicate as much as possible with your friends and family because self-isolation does not have to be lonely. While coronavivas are likely to become the new norm,  with preparation they can be managed – we are far more resilient than we think.

 

How I Changed from Science to Technology

by Azahara Fernández Guizán

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How I changed from Science to Technology

I was never a kid that was sure about what professional career I wanted when I grew up. And this has been a good thing for me, because it has let me experience many different fields, and led me to where I am today.

I was born in the north of Spain, in a mining zone of Asturias. My father was a coal miner and my mother a housewife. I attended a local school and a local high school. My grandmother says I was an unusual kid, preferring to be bought a book rather than a box of sweets. I also started learning English when I was 6 years old, and spent my free time reading historical novels and biographies.

I enjoyed visiting museums and monuments, and I used to search for information in my town’s library before going on an excursion. I loved to write stories and tales, and had always obtained high marks in school, which led my teachers to suggest that I study medicine. But I always changed my mind –  from architecture, to journalism or even dentistry, depending on the book I was reading or the museum I’d just visited.

At that age, only one thing was clear: I wanted to be an independent and strong woman like the ones that inspired me. I hadn’t seen many role models during my primary education, but one teacher told us about Marie Curie. At the library, I discovered Rita Levi-Montalcini and the Brontë sisters.

 

SECONDARY STUDIES

During the last year of high-school I was a mess, and the pressure was high because I had to make a decision. All I had were doubts

In Spain at that time, after finishing your last secondary education course, the students that want to continue to a degree have to take a general exam, the PAU. You could choose the subjects you want to be tested on and, after the exams took place, you were given a mark calculated to take account of your secondary school marks and the results of PAU exams. According to this mark, you could register for certain degrees.

At that point, I decided to take more exams than necessary on the PAU in order to have more options in different types of degree, for example, science, engineering, or languages… But the worst moment of my student life came, and I had to decide.

I had two options on my mind: a Software Engineering degree, and a Biology degree. I must admit it, but at that time I only knew engineering stereotypes and I never liked video games or anything related with hardware, so I decided that a Biology degree would suit me better.

BIOLOGY DEGREE AND NEUROSCIENCE MASTERS

During my degree, I decided that plants and animals were not my passion, but I loved Microbiology, Genetics, Immunology and Neuroscience. I discovered more female role models, researchers who really inspired me, whose lives were incredible to me. I worked hard during my degree and travelled a lot during the summers, thanks to some scholarships that I was awarded (I spent one month in Lowestoft, another in Dublin, and another one in Toronto), and started learning German.

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Azahara in the lab

During the second year of my biology degree, I decided that I would become a scientist, and started to look for a professor who would let me gain some experience in their laboratory.

During my penultimate year, I started working in a Neuroscience laboratory, studying the 3D eye degenerating pattern on C3H/He rd/rd mice. After finishing my degree, I decided to enrol in a Masters of Neuroscience and Behavioural Biology in Seville. During this masters, I worked in another Neuroscience laboratory doing electrophysiological studies, trying to understand how information is transformed in the cerebellar hippocampus circuit and how this mechanism could allow us to learn and memorise.

This was a period of my life where I worked a lot of hours, the experiments were very intense, and I had the opportunity to meet important scientist from all the world. I also had a physics peer that analysed all our data, and developed specific programmes in Matlab, which impressed me profoundly.

IMMUNOLOGY PHD

After this period, I continued working in Science, but I decided to start my PhD on Immunology, back in Asturias.

I worked in a laboratory in which, due to my friends in the lab, every day was special. We worked hard studying different types of tumours and testing different molecules, but also had the time to share confidences and laughs. After three years, I became a PhD in Immunology, and as it was the normal thing to do, I started looking for a post-doc position.

Rather than feeling happy or enthusiastic about the future, I discovered myself being upset and demotivated. I really didn’t want to carry on being a scientist. A huge sensation of failure invaded me, but as J.K. Rowling said “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not lived at all. In which case, you’ve failed by default”.

I want to specify that I don’t consider my PhD a waste of time – it has given me, apart from scientific publications, many important aptitudes and abilities, such as team work, analysis, problem solving, leadership, organisation skills, effective work habits, and better written and oral communication.

BECOMING A SOFTWARE DEVELOPER

As you might imagine, this was a hard moment of my life. I was unemployed, and doubtful about my professional career – just as I had been after high school.

Thanks to my husband, who supported me while converting my career, I decided to give software development a try.  As I didn’t have the necessary money or time to start a new degree, I signed up for a professional course in applications software development. The first days were difficult since all the other students were young and I didn’t feel at ease.

But as I learned software languages as HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Java, I also participated with good results in some software competitions which allowed me to gain confidence.

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In 2015 I started working as software developer in .Net MVC, a language that I hadn’t studied during my course, but I had the necessary basics to learn it quickly and become part of a team. For me, one of the most marvellous things about software development is that it consists of team-work.

I also discovered that there are a lot of people working in this field that love to exchange knowledge, and I regularly go to events and meetups. I have also started recently giving talks, and workshops, some of them technological, with the aim of promoting the presence of women in technology.

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Women and girls need to be encouraged to discover what software development really is. The software industry needs them. Software can be better, but only if it is developed by diverse teams with different opinions, backgrounds, and knowledge.

Commemoration, Inclusion, and Dialogue in 1916 Centenary Drama in Northern Ireland

By: Kayla Rush

The sanctuary of Belfast’s Fitzroy Presbyterian Church buzzed with activity. Friends and neighbours chatted among the dark wooden pews, the columns of the pipe organ soaring high above their heads. The congenial atmosphere felt like the minutes before the start of a church service, save for the Beatles tunes playing softly in the background.

Halfway House

At precisely 7:30, the music stopped, and those assembled fell silent as the lights dimmed and a spotlight focused on the platform in the middle of the sanctuary, turning it into a minimalist theatre stage. A white-haired man walked onto the stage. He introduced himself to us as Philip Orr, the author of Halfway House, the play we had all come to see. He explained that the play is set in 1966, in a snowed-in pub in the Sperrin Mountains. As he described the particular historical setting of the mid-1960s – a time of significant social change in the Western world, and in Northern Ireland the years directly preceding the conflict known as ‘the Troubles’ – the Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ began to play softly, and two women joined him on stage, entering from opposite doors on either side of the platform.
In the course of the next hour, we watched as the two women, Bronagh and Valerie, weathered the snowstorm – of which we were occasionally reminded by an audio clip of a howling winter wind – in conversation with one another, a conversation that ranged from congenial and sympathetic to tense and, at times, openly hostile. We soon learned that one woman is Protestant, the other Catholic; one’s father a veteran of the Easter Rising, the other’s father a veteran of the Battle of the Somme.

Parallels and Contemporary Politics

The essence of the play rests in these parallels: both women grew up in Downpatrick, County Down, but due to the divided nature of the community they have only heard of each other’s families, never met – ‘a question of “same place but separate lives”’, as one of the women puts it (Orr 2016: 5).

Both are equally proud of their respective parents’ brief military service in 1916, and both tell stories of national and familial hurts occasioned by the other ‘side’.

Halfway House[i] capitalized on an important historic concurrence: the close proximity of the Easter Rising (24-29 April 1916) and the Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916). The Easter Rising is commemorated each year as an important event in the formation of an independent Irish state, and relatedly with the Partition of Ireland. It is associated with an Irish identity, and thus with Catholicism, nationalism, and republicanism. The Battle of the Somme serves as a sort of opposite: it is commemorated as an important event in British history, and is thus associated with British-ness, Protestantism, unionism, and loyalism (see Grayson and McGarry 2016)[ii].
Commemorations serve the present: they harness the past and shape it in ways that suit the commemorators’ present-day needs. As anthropologist Dominic Bryan puts it, ‘The marking of a centenary is an act of contemporary politics… the commemorative practices are constructed in the present, for the present’ (in Bryan et al. 2013: 66).

Female Voices and Cross-Community Dialogue 

As part of my Ph.D. research, I look at one particular approach to commemoration, in which artists, particularly those working in community arts, engaged with the dual centenary of the Somme and the Easter Rising in their work. Halfway House is one of my case studies.
I would like to draw out two key projects that such artistic endeavours attempt to accomplish, using Halfway House as an example. First, the play mirrors a wider move toward more inclusive commemorations in Northern Ireland in the twenty-first century. Commemorations that recognize both the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising, and the roles of both Catholics and Protestants in each, have become increasingly common (Daly and O’Callaghan 2007: 4; McCarthy 2012: 430-439; Grayson and McGarry 2016: 2-3).

Likewise, Orr’s choice to write women characters reflects a growing desire to include women’s voices in the narratives told during and around commemorations (see Mullally 2016).

While the stories that Valerie and Bronagh tell are still in many ways men’s stories – the stories of their fathers’ involvement in armed conflict, and of their fathers’, brothers’, and uncles’ pride in the respective commemorations – they also speak of the fabric of their everyday lives as women in the Northern Ireland of the 1960s: leaving the workforce after having children, moving to the ‘big city’ of Belfast versus staying at ‘home’ in Downpatrick, caring for elderly relatives, and so forth.

Second, Halfway House represents a desire for increased dialogue, both between individuals and, more widely, between the two main ‘communities’ in Northern Ireland. The two women model ‘good’ dialogue for their audiences: while they may disagree on certain points, they never raise their voices or interrupt each other, and each actively listens and attempts to empathize with her counterpart. They are ultimately respectful of one another, and willing and able to reflect on their own biases. Neither do they shy away from difficult or painful discussions. For example, midway through the play, Bronagh, the Catholic woman, tells Valerie that the Ulster Special Constabulary, known as the ‘“B” Specials’, regularly visit her family’s home to search their barns and house. She reveals a great amount of hurt at this felt invasion of her family’s property and privacy. Shortly after, Valerie hesitantly reveals that her father and uncle both joined the ‘B’ Specials after the war, and we can see her struggling to reconcile her own pride in their service with Bronagh’s experiences of hurt. The following exchange takes place at the end of this telling:

Valerie: But what you also have to realise, Bronagh, was the fear, back then. Uncle Joe still says you could have cut it with a knife.

Bronagh: The town was miles away from the riots in Belfast and it was miles from the border.

Valerie: But we were afraid.

Bronagh: Afraid of whom?

Valerie: Afraid of you. (Orr 2016:22)

Tellingly to the play’s project, the two characters have an equal number of spoken lines, so that neither dominates the dramatic action or dialogue. One reviewer commented on this phenomenon of ‘good’ dialogue, and the way in which it encouraged the audience to participate in similar conversations, writing that ‘the quality of listening on stage was echoed in the venue’s café afterwards as people sat round and discussed the play over a cup of coffee’ (Meban 2016).

A Major Shift: Re-Imagining the ‘Other’ 

This approach to cross-community dialogue in theatre evidences an important shift in the past thirty or so years. Take, for example, Frank McGuinness’s (1986) play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, which dramatizes the journey of eight (fictional) Protestant, Northern Ireland-born World War I soldiers to the Battle of the Somme[iii]. McGuinness, born in County Donegal and hailing from an Irish Catholic background, famously drew his inspiration for this play from living for the first time in a majority Protestant community, while teaching at the (then) New University of Ulster in Coleraine. Grene (1999: 242-245) considers Observe the Sons an exercise in ‘imagining the other’ and encouraging audiences to do the same, as ‘[f]or southern Catholic nationalists Ulster Protestant Unionism is as other as you can get … The play represents therefore a new sort of imaginative reaching out in Irish drama’. Lojek (2004: 77-79) similarly notes that in both the play’s premiere and each of its subsequent stage revivals, Observe the Sons has been heralded as ‘an icon of cross-cultural understanding’, and ‘an indication of increased understanding by Irish Catholics that Irish Protestantism is also part of the island’s culture and heritage’.

What is particularly interesting is the major shift that can be seen between the type of imagining undertaken in Observe the Sons and that found in Halfway House. In the former, the playwright imagines the community that is ‘other’ to him, probing its trauma and writing from a place of empathy. It is indeed a type of dialogue, but much of the work of dialogue is implicit, having already taken place in the experiences of the playwright, though of course as spectators or readers we can choose to dialogue with the play’s material ourselves. In Halfway House, however, the dialogue is physically presented on stage. While we can, of course, choose not to engage with the material in an inner dialogue of our own, we cannot sidestep the fact of the dialogue itself, as it forms the very substance of the play. This great shift, then, is one from ‘imagining the other’ to imagining ways in which oneself – or someone very like oneself – might encounter the other in an everyday situation such as a snowbound pub.

[i] Halfway House and its companion play, Stormont House Rules!, were commissioned by evangelical Christian organization Contemporary Christianity as part of a project entitled ‘1916, a Hundred Years On’ (see Contemporary Christianity n.d.).

[ii] Of course, individual identities do not fall so neatly into these two categories, and plenty of residents of Northern Ireland, including its growing migrant population, do not consider themselves part of either the Protestant community or the Catholic community.

[iii] Dublin’s Abbey Theatre staged Observe the Sons of Ulster as part of its 2016 centenary commemoration programme. This production was staged at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in early July 2016, around the time of the local commemorations of the Battle of the Somme (1 July) and the Battle of the Boyne (12 July) (see Coyle 2016, Hardy 2016).

References

Bryan, Dominic, Mike Cronin, Tina O’Toole, and Catriona Pennell. 2013 Ireland’s Decade of Commemorations: a Roundtable. New Hibernia Review 17 (3): 63-86.

Contemporary Christianity. n.d. ‘1916: A Hundred Years On’. http://www.contemporarychristianity.net/website/1916-a-hundred-years-on/.

Coyle, Matthew. 2016. ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’, Culture Northern Ireland, 30 June. http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/features/performing-arts/observe-sons-ulster-marching-towards-somme.

Daly, Mary E., and Margaret O’Callaghan. 2007 Introduction: Irish modernity and “the patriot dead” in 1966. In Mary E. Daly and Margaret O’Callaghan (eds.), 1916 in 1966: commemorating the Easter Rising. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, pp. 1-17.

Grayson, Richard S., and Fearghal McGarry. 2016. ‘Introduction’, in Richard S. Grayson and Fearghal McGarry (eds), Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University, pp. 1-9.

Grene, Nicholas. 1999. The Politics of Irish Drama: Plays in Context from Boucicault to Friel. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Hardy, Jane. 2016. ‘Review: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre’, The Irish News, 5 July. http://www.irishnews.com/arts/stage/2016/07/05/news/review-observe-the-sons-of-ulster-marching-towards-the-somme-at-belfast-s-lyric-theatre-593218/.

Lojek, Helen Heusner. 2004. Contexts for Frank McGuinness’s Drama. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America.

McCarthy, Mark. 2012 Ireland’s 1916 Rising: explorations of history-making, commemoration & heritage in modern times. Farnham: Ashgate.

McGuinness, Frank. 1986. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. London: Faber and Faber.

Meban, Alan. 2016. ‘Halfway House – Philip Orr’s New Play Exploring 1916 from the Vantage Point of 1966’, Alan in Belfast, 19 January. http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/halfway-house-philip-orrs-new-play.html.

Mullally, Una. 2016. ‘Why Women Have Risen to the Top in 1916 Lore’, The Irish Times, 28 March. http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/una-mullally-why-women-have-risen-to-the-top-in-1916-lore-1.2588986.

Orr, Philip. 2016. Halfway House. Belfast: Contemporary Christianity.

Researching through Recovery: Embarking on a PhD post-brain surgery

By Sinead Matson, B.A., H.Dip. Montessori, M.Ed.

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Anyone who has had the misfortune to undergo a craniotomy should do a PhD. Seriously. It makes sense. Both paths have similar hurdles: Imposter syndrome – check! Struggle with writing – check! Trouble expressing your thoughts – check! Extreme tiredness – check, check! It’s physiotherapy, but for your brain.

I joke of course, because each person’s individual recovery is different, but doing a PhD has personally given me the space to recover from a craniotomy while still actively working on my career and passion. I was always going to embark on a doctoral degree but in October 2014 (ten weeks after my second child was born) I had four successive tonic-clonic seizures which ultimately led to the discovery and removal of a large meningioma (brain tumour) four days later. When I woke up from surgery I couldn’t move the right-hand side of my body except for raising my arm slightly; my speech and thought process was affected too. Of course, I panicked, but the physiotherapist was on hand to tell me that while the brain had forgotten how to talk to the muscle – the muscle never forgets. I instantly relaxed, “muscle memory! I’ve got this” I thought to myself – forever the Montessori teacher.

Nobody tells you that recovering from brain surgery is exhausting, so exhausting. Every day I had to relearn things I had previously known. Every single sense is heightened and a ten-minute walk around the supermarket is a sensory overload. However, I never questioned the fact that I would start college the following September; in fact, it drove me to do my physio and get physically better. I even applied for a competitive scholarship and won it. I can never explain enough how much of a boost that was to my self-esteem. There is nothing like brain surgery to make you question your identity and your cognitive skills in a profession that values thinking, research, articulating new ideas, and writing. It is like an attack on your very being.

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When I started, I could not have been more accommodated by the Education department in Maynooth University, but in a manner which was subtle and encouraging whilst still pushing me to do a little bit more. My supervisor struck a delicate balance between supportive and always encouraging me to look a little further and read more. I never felt mollycoddled or out of my depth (well… no more than the average PhD student).

Of course, there are challenges. Aren’t there always? It can be frustrating (not to mention embarrassing) when you cannot process a conversation as quickly as it is happening at meetings, conferences, or seminars; it’s the same for when you answer a question but know the words you are saying are not matching what you are trying to articulate. Submitting a piece of writing to anyone, anywhere, is the most vulnerable thing that you can experience, especially when your language centre has been affected and you know your grammar and phrasing might not always be up to par. Transitions flummox me, particularly verbal transitions like the start of a presentation, introducing and thanking a guest speaker, taking on the position of chairing a symposium, and day to day greetings. I lose all words, forget etiquette, and generally stammer. I forever find myself answering questions or reliving scenarios from the day in the shower!

So, what’s different between mine and any other doctoral student’s experience you ask? Well, I’m not sure. I see my fellow students all have the same worries and vulnerabilities. We all have discussed our feelings of imposter syndrome at various points thus far, our excitement and disbelief when our work is accepted for presentation or publication, and our utter distress at not being able to articulate what we really wanted to say in front of a visiting professor. I do know this: it used to be easier; I used to do it better; I never had problems with writing or verbal transitions before; it is harder for me now. But (BUT) I now have a whole team of people who share my feelings and frustrations. I now have a community who champion my successes and comfort me with their own tales when I have bad days. I now feel less isolated and more normal. They allow me…no…they push me to do more, to believe I could travel to India alone to research; to not let epilepsy or fear to hold me back; to believe that I could negotiate the research process on the ground with preschool children and their parents and not get overwhelmed. They have read papers and assignments for me before I submit them and they expect the same of me. They simultaneously allow me room to vent (and take the lift when I’m too tired to walk) and they push me to be more adventurous with my reading and theory – to take risks I may never have taken.

All-in-all, I cannot think of a better way to recover from brain surgery and all it entails than the absolute privilege of completing a PhD. It gives me a space – a safe space – to recover in. The research process itself has helped me learn who I am again, what I stand for, and what I believe. It has pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone in a way that I’m not sure I would have done otherwise but I am positive is vital to my full recovery. It has exercised my own personal cognitive abilities, reasoning skills, verbal and written expression so much more than any therapy could have, and it has given me, not a cheerleading team, but a community of researchers who are on the same journey – in a way.

I’m not saying it’s for everyone – no two recoveries are the same. However, I wish there was (and I did search for) someone who could have told me before the surgery, but particularly while I was in recovery, that life doesn’t have to stop. That it is not only possible to research while in recovery from brain surgery, but that it can also have a transformative effect on your life and your sense of identity; that it will push you outside of every comfort zone you’ve ever had, and it will be exhilarating.

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The view from here: fighting disillusionment as an American expatriate

by Cindy Withjack

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You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés. –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

 

I was wearing an Esmeralda crewneck sweatshirt the first time I heard someone say the President should be ashamed of himself. I was either reading or spinning around in circles, and I liked Esmeralda best because she looked most like me. There were at least three adults, perched like gargoyles on the couch edge and they, along with a sizeable portion of America, were all at once captivated and scandalized; the 42nd President of the United States had brought shame upon all our kettle black homes. I had yet to understand the difference between peaches and impeachment, and in twenty years time I would be an expatriate.

I was an expat before America changed hands, before Bernie Sanders was officially out of the running, before Hillary Clinton was deemed a ‘nasty woman.’ America felt to me considerably far away during my Master’s program in England where I was writing a short story collection and finalizing PhD applications, still trying to decide if it was weird to put milk in my tea. In the postgraduate pub or university café, I was often asked how I was allowing this to happen—‘this’ being the rise of Donald Trump—and I responded, with my significantly less charming accent, that I held much less clout than they assumed. And yet, it was unnerving how guilty I felt, how relieved, to be so far away from America. I busied myself with PhD applications asking that I demonstrate my intentions: my plan to contribute something new and significant to academia and why. This portion of the applications felt timely; in my case wanting to contribute something significant meant being present, from afar, in the matters of America. While the critical and creative aspects of my proposed novel materialized, I returned again and again to that awareness of guilty-relief, which did not add to my work as much as it hindered it.

During my Master’s program, in spite of American news and Brexit, I produced a sizeable portfolio of more than twenty short stories. This output created in my mind, alongside minor paranoia, an almost mystical idea of how my novel would come together. Compared to the struggles I had faced in my life to date, I felt confident in my ability to go into any PhD program with squared shoulders. There was, I believed, a surge in Intersectional Feminism, morality, and accountability. In my belief that I would change the world, I assumed the world was changing with me. Not so quietly, there was a disconnect forming, a disillusionment that would burrow its way into my studies and my writing.

I watched Donald Trump become elected the 45th President of The United States on five screens. Receiving the news this way, five different times, each one on a slight delay with varying accents and facial expressions, was both remarkable and necessary; my brain wanted to understand absolutely, without cushion or crutch, despite the disappointment that followed. America, the grassy place my immigrant parents felt was best, had let down so many of us in just a few hours. As a devoted academic I wanted precise control over the way my brain absorbed and processed the information, which meant having an early morning Q&A with myself: How did we get here? (We were always here.) Who let this happen? (We did.) What happens next? (Go to sleep.) Still, the idea of this particular President dictating what happened next with my freedom, my body, and my future was unfathomable.

My Master’s program had recently ended; I decided on a PhD program, but it was still several months away. I was appreciative that I had nowhere to be, no deadline, no expectations. I allowed myself time to wallow, stayed inside for 24 hours after the election, wondering how long I could go without disclosing my nationality as to avoid being forced into discussing what had just occurred, finally leaving to pick up a pizza. Mumbling as few words as possible while paying, I gave myself away.

            ‘Where are you from?’ asked a man to my right.

            ‘Is it that noticeable?’ I stalled.

            ‘You’re definitely American.’

            I sighed feeling both embarrassed and defensive.

            ‘What a huge mistake,’ he said. ‘How could you let that happen?’

Here I considered laughing, but truthfully I cannot remember how I actually responded. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and in hindsight, I can only imagine all the best possible retorts forming one giant metaphorical middle finger.

What followed were several months of cyclical social media overload followed by social media blackout, before I returned my attention to books, having distractedly cast them aside and, for the first time in my life, I found no comfort there. The abundance of news easily became overwhelming despite my feeling that remaining informed was a requirement. Wouldn’t it be negligent and irresponsible to distance myself from the news, both good and bad, and to potentially find myself ignorant about the state of the world? The anxiety of activism—attempting to quell my resentment by becoming more involved, and sharing important articles, and signing petitions felt at times like two steps forward followed by one very long backslide—left me exhausted and unfocused. Fighting disillusionment proved difficult following Donald Trump’s first week in office, and I went into day one of my PhD program feeling completely derailed.

Roughly two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and a rough two months it has been indeed, I still feel derailed, but I am listening to Purple Rain on repeat. I am writing less but reading more, and since my Master’s graduation I have been skeptical of the idea that I can contribute something of real significance during such a tumultuous time; those twenty short stories seem so very long ago. It is in our nature, people like to generalize about writers, to be self-deprecating and melodramatic, and I totally agree. Writing as a profession is hard all on its own; add to that a complete upheaval of the things a writer holds dear—freedom of speech, reproductive rights, racial justice, issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights—and things get a bit more complicated. However, ‘[t]his is precisely the time when artists go to work,’ Toni Morrison’s words try to remind me. ‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’ The year is only just beginning, so there is still time for me to latch onto Morrison’s words and follow through. I have no immediate plans to return to America, and as my program is the same length as one presidential term, I have at least four years to read, spin around in circles, and write a novel. It only took a year for me to genuinely enjoy black tea. A lot can happen in four years.

 

Austerity, women and health inequalities in the UK

by Amy Greer Murphy, Durham University

My PhD is part of a five year research project entitled ‘Local Health Inequalities in an Age of Austerity: The Stockton-on-Tees study’. It’s a mixed method case study exploring the localised impacts of austerity on health. My role is examining the experiences of women living in Stockton using qualitative research.

A few key terms

Austerity refers to attempts to reduce government deficits through spending cuts and sometimes tax increases. Across Europe, austerity was implemented in many countries, such as Greece and Ireland, as a precondition of receiving bailouts in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. In the UK, a major restructuring of the public sector and welfare system has been undertaken since 2010.

Neoliberalism refers to the application of free market principles to public policy. It has been enacted in the UK since Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power in the 1980s and has comprised of deregulation (e.g. of the banking and financial system), privatisation (e.g. of bus and rail services) and, more recently, austerity (e.g. extensive welfare reforms).

‘Health inequalities’ refer to disparities in life expectancy and years of health life (‘mortality’ and ‘morbidity’) within and across nations. There is a gradient in all countries – those with more socio-economic resources also have better health (Marmot, 2010). In the UK, health inequalities are widening since austerity began. Schrecker and Bambra (2015) have referred to the process of widening health inequalities and liberalised economic and social policies as a ‘neoliberal epidemic’.

Austerity and inequality in the UK

The UK is a large country, and one of great social contrasts. The contrasts that are relevant to my research are related to inequality of opportunity, resources, health, and the government policies, political decisions and historical legacies that bring these about. The North East has experienced a huge restructuring of its’ social landscape in recent decades. Mining, heavy industry and manufacturing have all but ceased to operate there. The jobs that once provided decent incomes and rooted people to their communities, providing clear routes through the lifecourse and class allegiances, have slipped away. In their place are zero hour contracts in care homes and nurseries, seasonal work in factories and as agency staff providing security in shopping centres.

Through this research process I have tried to understand what neoliberalism and austerity feel like if you’re not on the winning side of them, focussing on gender and class. I’ve then tried to see the wider connection to globalised economies and deregulated financial markets.

Stockton-on-Tees

One of the ways austerity is affecting places and people differently is through health. In Stockton-on-Tees, the gap in life expectancy for men is the largest in all of England, at 17.3 years, and one of the widest for women, at 11.4 (Public Health England, 2015). If you are a man born in one of the wealthier, typically less urbanised parts of Stockton you can expect, on average, to live 17.3 years longer, and more of those years in good health, than a man born just a short walk away, in a more built-up and less well-off part of town. You are also at a higher risk of cardio-vascular disease, obesity, cancer, mental health issues, suicide, alcoholism, to be more socially isolated, have a worse paying, precarious job or no job at all, and to be at the mercy of an increasingly retrenched welfare state for your income and livelihood. The picture for women is similar, but different in crucial ways I will explore later.

This, of course, isn’t the picture for everyone in Stockton; I don’t want to paint a doomsday caricature (Benefits Street, the Channel 4 show, made a noble attempt at that in 2014 with their ‘poverty porn’ foray into life on Kingston Road). Stockton is steeped in a proud industrial legacy, is surrounded by beautiful dales and hills, has a vibrant town centre, and is home to thousands of people of all kinds who are creating thriving and enduring communities. Undeniably, however, government policy is making the lives of an increasing number of its residents tougher.

The research topic

Women face a distinct set of risks under austerity, as their lives, choices and opportunities often play out differently. This led me to develop my research project, to be carried out with mothers from across the borough. I wanted to understand what the experiences are of being a woman living in a place like Stockton – what can they tell us about other similar places that have experienced stark deindustrialisation and withdrawal of resources and traditional routes to employment and social stability? What does it feel like to live through welfare reform, as a mother, with enough money or very little, in an area with lots of different inequalities?

The methods

The research design was informed by the work of Sociologists who have used their skills to bring to the academic and policy world narratives that are otherwise silenced – quite often the voices of women. Berverley Skeggs (1997), wrote about class and gender and respectability in an area of England not so far from Stockton, Ann Oakley (1979; 1993) spent years with mothers asking them what they thought about housework, women’s health and becoming a mother, and Arlie Hochschild (1989) delved into the lives of women trapped in the double- or triple-bind of work, caring for children and elderly relatives. The methods I used are similar to theirs, and ‘qualitative’, meaning they are designed to explore diverse social worlds and understand why certain groups of people or individuals make choices or live in certain ways, or why their lives are presented in a certain light. I had a methodology (system of methods) and sampling strategy (idea of why I wanted to contact, and why). Unlike some quantitative social research or scientific experiment, or the research wasn’t designed with representativeness or generalisability in mind.

I used ethnography, or participant observation; I spent 16 months at a women’s group where I gained friends and mentors and learned about being woman living on a low income in Stockton. I also interviewed 15 women, 14 of whom are mothers, from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds and from many different walks of life. I recruited participants through the local Sure Start centres, Twitter, Thrive, the anti-poverty charity I spent a lot of time at, and through snowball sampling (asking people I met if they could recommend someone, or pass on my details). I offered a voucher as a thank-you and recorded my interviews.

Some findings

Continuing austerity and the decline of opportunities: For respondents and their wider networks, there is a huge concern about the likely continuation of austerity and what that might mean for families and communities. We spoke about diminishing opportunity and prospects, the long-term decline of services, the quality and availability of housing and work in the area.

The desire to ‘just be a mam’: Respondents found their roles as mothers and carers increasingly devalued, with the expectation that caring work should be provided by the market and that they should seek formal work as a primary source of income. However, quality work is unavailable, childcare unaffordable, and an important source of identity formation, their role as carers and mothers, diminished under austerity.

Mental health: It became increasingly obvious as I spent more time in the field that the deterioration of participants’ mental health and sense of wellbeing was stark. Discussions of everyday struggles with depression, anxiety and serious bouts of post-natal depression were worryingly frequent. Furthermore, long-term physical health and chronic pain issues were part and parcel of life for many of the women I spent time with, symptoms of a lifetime of stress, poor quality housing and other inequalities (Mattheys et al. 2015).

Conclusion

Underpinning my research is the understanding that women, particularly mothers, face a set of distinct risks under austerity, through labour market changes, reliance on the welfare system and the public sector. They are employed in higher numbers in the public sector, and so more vulnerable to job losses there, and more likely to be underemployed or in low-paid work in ‘feminised’ sectors. They may also face maternity discrimination in their workplace, experience a large gender pay gap and are absent from the labour market for extended periods while they take care of young children. Women also make use of public sector services in high numbers, the very services being cut back during austerity. They rely on the welfare state for many reasons to a much larger extent than men. Welfare reforms like the benefit cap, bedroom tax and sanctions, closures of community centres and privatisation of Sure Starts and lone parent conditionality hit not just women in large numbers, but children and families too. This research is trying to illustrate how austerity is regressive and contributing to growing inequality, and how this group, like many all around the UK, are finding it a challenging time to live through.

References

  • Blyth, M. 2013. Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Hochschild, A. 1989. The Second Shift: working parents and the revolution at home. Viking Penguin, New York.
  • Konzelmann, S., 2014. The political economics of austerity. Cambridge Journal of Economics 38 (4) pp. 701–741.
  • Marmot, M., Allen, J., Goldblatt, P., Boyce, T., McNeish, D., Grady, M., and Geddes, I. 2010. Fair society healthy lives. The Marmot review executive summary. The Marmot Review. UCL Institute of health equity, London.
  • Mattheys, K. Bambra, C. Kasim, A. Akhter, B. 2015. Inequalities in mental health and well-being in a time of austerity: Baseline findings from the Stockton-on-Tees cohort study. SSM -Population Health 2 Pp. 350–359.
  • Oakley, A. 1979. Becoming a mother. Martin Roberston and Company Ltd., Oxford.
  • Oakley, A. 1993. Essays on women, medicine and health. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
  • Public Health England, 2015. Stockton-on-Tees Health Profile 2015.
  • Robson, S., and Robinson., J., 2012. Findings and recommendations from interim case study: the impact of austerity measures upon women in the North East of England. The Women’s Resource Centre, London.
  • Rubery, J. and Rafferty, A. 2014. Gender, recession and austerity in the UK. In: Karamessini, M. and Rubery, J. 2014. Women and Austerity, the economic crisis and the future of gender equality. Routledge, Oxon. pp. 123-144.
  • Schrecker, T., and Bambra, C., 2015. How politics makes us sick: neoliberal epidemics. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
  • Skeggs, B., 1997. Formations of class and gender, Theory, Culture & Society. Sage Publications, London.

 

Improving future asthma care

L0040548 Flyer and advert for "Potter's Asthma Cure"

5.4 million people in the UK have asthma, and every ten seconds, someone in the UK has a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. On average, three people a day die from an asthma attack in the UK – in 2014 (the most recent data available), 1216 people died from asthma. Many of these deaths are preventable, and continued use of asthma medication is an important factor in this (Asthma UK, 2017). But many people don’t stick to their asthma medication routines. Kathy Hetherington writes about her research into a new method of asthma treatment which is significantly reducing the risks associated with severe asthma.

My PhD investigates patient’s response to inhaled steroids using novel monitoring technology. I have spent the past year coordinating this project throughout the UK, within the Refractory Asthma Stratification Programme-UK, (RASP-UK). I work alongside Professor Liam Heaney and Professor Judy Bradley in Queen’s University, and Professor Richard Costello in the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland. As a young researcher in Northern Ireland I am excited in the knowledge that my PhD has the potential to improve future asthma care.

The Problem

Many asthmatics do not use their inhalers correctly. As a result, they don’t receive their prescribed dosage of inhaled steroid. Within Queen’s University Belfast and the Belfast City Hospital, we have developed and implemented a new method of observing and monitoring how patients use their inhalers. This revelation is significantly reducing the risks associated with severe asthma.

In RASP-UK severe asthma centres we record Fractional exhaled Nitric Oxide (FeNO), which is a measure of lung inflammation. An elevated FeNO is a predictor of worsening asthma symptoms or even an asthma attack. Those who continue to have an elevated FeNO are usually considered high-risk patients who need daily oral steroids alongside their inhalers. This elevated FeNO could be due to steroid resistance, or not continuing to use their inhaler (this is known as non-adherence). Determining inhaled steroid response in a difficult asthma population is a major problem in a clinical setting.

The Intervention

Within RASP-UK, we have established and further validated a clinical test using daily FeNO measurements (using a Niox Vero machine – Figure 2) alongside some additional inhaled steroid. The remote monitoring technology we use alongside this test is called an INCA™ (INhaled Compliance Aid) device. The INCA™ (Figure 1) was developed by Professor Richard Costello in conjunction with Vitalograph and is designed to work with the diskus inhaler. The INCA™ device records a time and date when the microphone inside it is activated, and records a sound file of the inhaler being used; these sound files can then be transferred to a computer. The sound files are then uploaded onto a server via a data compression utility programme where it is analysed by an automated and validated sound analysis algorithm. This combination allows us to create a remote assessment of inhaled steroid response and thus identify non-adherence to inhalers. We then communicate this information to the patients to try and improve their adherence to their inhaled treatment.

With further development, we created a web-based interface (Figure 3) to deploy FeNO suppression testing across the UK though our established RASP-UK Severe Asthma Centres. Here, we examined the utility of FeNO suppression testing to predict inhaled steroid responsiveness after a further 30 days on a normal inhaler. This period of prolonged monitoring provides further feedback on patient inhaler use and technique, using the unique presentation method below, enabling us to identify facilitators and barriers which may be involved in optimising inhaler adherence. We are constantly increasing the precision and user-friendliness of this hardware and software so that the data is easily interpreted and demonstrated to the patient.

asthma3

Figure 3 Data from the Vitalograph server following upload of one week FeNO suppression data and INCA™. The Vitalograph server shows activation and usage of both FeNO machine and INCA™ device (A) and depicts the FeNO data as precentage change from baseline as originally described (y1-aixs figure A).  The INCA™ device time and date stamps the number of inhaler uses (y2-axis – Figure A) and this is shown alongside technique analysis (B). Possible technique errors which can be identified and reported are shown in Graphic 3.

asthma4

The Future

Though we are only a year into our project, 250 patients in severe asthma centres throughout the UK have carried out FeNO suppression testing. Many have gone on to improve their inhaler usage and asthma control and decrease the inflammation in their lungs. We have presented our UK multi-centre data at conferences all over the world and interest in our project is increasing. In the past 6 months I have had the privilege of being a key note speaker at Severe Asthma Masterclasses and Specialist Asthma Meetings. This summer I have been invited as a symposium speaker at the European Academy of Allergy & Clinical Immunology in Helsinki, Finland which will undoubtedly be the highlight of my career to date!

My PhD has given me the opportunity to be able to work with a wide range of fantastic professors, clinicians, patients and co-ordinators. This PhD has convinced me that we can use this unique test and methods of presentation to improve asthma care throughout the world. I can’t express how much this thought excites and drives me; it is with great humility and privilege that I will continue to contribute to this extraordinary field.

“Dr. Kearney or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Impostor Syndrome”

by Eve Kearney

belle

I was at a family gathering recently, when as I was stuffing my face with free, home cooked food, an aunt approached me and said the words that all research students dread: “How’s being back at school going?” Apart from making it sound like I’m back wearing a uniform and taking my Junior Cert again, that question makes me stifle a sigh of despair.  I only started my PhD in English in September, and am still struggling to define what my actual research project will be on, so condensing it to a party-friendly sound bite is definitely not on my radar at the moment, nor is answering the follow up question that always comes: “And what are you going to do with that?”  In short, Aunt Jen, I don’t know how my research is going, and I sure don’t know what I’m going to do in four years with another diploma in my hand and a few more letters after my name.

The past few months have shown me that despite what I was preparing myself for, a PhD is hard.  Sure, it’s not as hard as being a real doctor and saving lives, or starting a family, or moving to a brand new country like so many of my friends are doing right now, but compared to a BA, or even a Masters, it is hard.  Gone are the days of going to class and having your ideas validated, or being graded, or even being able to discuss ideas with your friends – if I want to discuss contemporary masculinities, my fellow PhD friends will want to talk about the Victorian bestseller, or medieval syntax discrepancies.  My supervisor has been nothing but helpful and supportive, but every time I re-read an email draft, making sure it hits the right tone of humour and intelligence, I internally cringe as I hit send, fearing that I’m being too needy or bothering her with my questions – after all, I am a strong, independent, researcher who don’t need no hand-holding…right?

My whole academic career, I knew I wanted to do a PhD – I knew that coming up with original ideas and contributing to my field was for me, and even after I took a year out after my Masters, moving to Canada and starting a new life, the decision to come back to Dublin to work with some incredible people was never difficult. I have been encouraged by countless members of the department that my research ideas are good, and heck, I got As through all of my undergrad, but yet, to this day I’m still not convinced that my thesis is worth dedicating four years of my life to.  Impostor Syndrome is a very real part of academia, and a study as early as 1978 showed that it’s more likely to affect high-achieving females than any other group[1].  Even writing that last sentence made me pause: am I a high-achieving female?  Impostor Syndrome tells me that I’m not, and it tells me that I’ve only gotten this far through luck, or charm, or by fooling everyone around me. Likewise, comparing myself to everyone in the department is a trap that I often fall in to.  It seems that every day, someone is getting a grant, or having a paper published, or jetting off to an exciting conference, while I sit at my desk and try to put together an abstract so that I can keep up.  It’s a real struggle to remember that I am good at what I do, that my research matters, is original, will be a benefit to those who read it in the future.  It feels boastful to say that, but it’s the truth, and I shouldn’t be doing a PhD if I didn’t actually believe it.  I’m only in the third month of my research – papers and conferences will come, and hopefully the feeling of success will come with them.

Wait.  If a PhD is so hard and terrible, why am I even sticking with it? Why do I get out of bed every morning and put in the 9 – 5 on campus?  Because if something is hard, it’s worth doing.  And because I really do love every moment of it. Before I started in September, I pictured the next four years of my life as drinking martinis in the staff bar and using fancy words in conversations with other research students.  While it’s turned out that I’m not actually allowed in the staff bar, and I mispronounce most of the words other people around me are using, it’s turned out better than I imagined.  That feeling you get when everything you’ve been thinking about for weeks just clicks, and suddenly you’re typing a couple of thousand words of inspired greatness is unparalleled, even if it turns out that you end up deleting most of it the next day!  The community I’ve found in UCD and beyond of similarly terrified individuals has been a constant support to me – sure, we’re all quietly competing for publication and funding, but if I’m ever freaking out about something, there’s a list of people I can talk to or grab a pint with, and I know I’m on a lot of lists, too.  The challenge of self-discipline and self-motivation is something I’m finding most difficult, but again, when something goes right and everything makes sense, all the wailing and gnashing of teeth suddenly seems worth it.  And the most important thing I’ve learned so far is that drinking on a weeknight or during the afternoon isn’t irresponsible – it’s “networking”!

I was actually “networking” with one of my friends a couple of weeks ago, an amazing researcher in Trinity working on parasites, and we were lamenting about how none of our research was going how we were hoping.  For me, that’s not being motivated enough, for my friend, it’s none of her experiments going as planned – I definitely have it easy compared to a science PhD!  There was a pause in the conversation, and as I looked around, the thought hit me.  “You know what?” I announced. “To everyone else, the fact that we’re doing a PhD is pretty impressive.  Maybe we just need to be impressed with ourselves?”  We laughed and had another pint, but that idea has stuck with me since.  To answer your question, school is going great, Aunt Jen.  And when I’m finished in four years, I don’t know what I’ll do.  But I know I’ll be impressed with myself.

Maybe.

[1] http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf

How your brain plans actions with different body parts

Got your hands full? – How the brain plans actions with different body parts

by Phyllis Mania

STEM editor: Francesca Farina

Imagine you’re carrying a laundry basket in your hand, dutifully pursuing your domestic tasks. You open the door with your knee, press the light switch with your elbow, and pick up a lost sock with your foot. Easy, right? Normally, we perform these kinds of goal-directed movements with our hands. Unsurprisingly, hands are also the most widely studied body part, or so-called effector, in research on action planning. We do know a fair bit about how the brain prepares movements with a hand (not to be confused with movement execution). You see something desirable, say, a chocolate bar, and that image goes from your retina to the visual cortex, which is roughly located at the back of your brain. At the same time, an estimate of where your hand is in space is generated in somatosensory cortex, which is located more frontally. Between these two areas sits an area called posterior parietal cortex (PPC), in an ideal position to bring these two pieces of information – the seen location of the chocolate bar and the felt location of your hand – together (for a detailed description of these so-called coordinate transformations see [1]). From here, the movement plan is sent to primary motor cortex, which directly controls movement execution through the spinal cord. What’s interesting about motor cortex is that it is organised like a map of the body, so the muscles that are next to each other on the “outside” are also controlled by neuronal populations that are next to each other on the “inside”. Put simply, there is a small patch of brain for each body part we have, a phenomenon known as the motor homunculus [2].

eeg1

Photo of an EEG, by Gabriele Fischer-Mania

As we all know from everyday experience, it is pretty simple to use a body part other than the hand to perform a purposeful action. But the findings from studies investigating movement planning with different effectors are not clear-cut. Usually, the paradigm used in this kind of research works as follows: The participants look at a centrally presented fixation mark and rest their hand in front of the body midline. Next, a dot indicating the movement goal is presented to the left or right of fixation. The colour of the dot tells the participants, whether they have to use their hand or their eyes to move towards the dot. Only when the fixation mark disappears, the participants are allowed to perform the movement with the desired effector. The delay between the presentation of the goal and the actual movement is important, because muscle activity affects the signal that is measured from the brain (and not in a good way). The subsequent analyses usually focus on this delay period, as the signal emerging throughout is thought to reflect movement preparation. Many studies assessing the activity preceding eye and hand movements have suggested that PPC is organised in an effector-specific manner, with different sub-regions representing different body parts [3]. Other studies report contradicting results, with overlapping activity for hand and eye [4].

eeg2

EEG photo, as before.

But here’s the thing: We cannot stare at a door until it finally opens itself and I imagine picking up that lost piece of laundry with my eye to be rather uncomfortable. Put more scientifically, hands and eyes are functionally different. Whereas we use our hands to interact with the environment, our eyes are a key player in perception. This is why my supervisor came up with the idea to compare hands and feet, as virtually all goal-directed actions we typically perform using our hands can also be performed with our feet (e.g., see http://www.mfpa.uk for mouth and foot painting artists). Surprisingly, it turned out that the portion of PPC that was previously thought to be exclusively dedicated to hand movement planning showed virtually the same fMRI activation during foot movement planning [5]. That is, the brain does not seem to differentiate between the two limbs in PPC. Wait, the brain? Whereas fMRI is useful to show us where in the brain something is happening, it does not tell us much about what exactly is going on in neuronal populations. Here, the high temporal resolution of EEG allows for a more detailed investigation of brain activity. During my PhD, I used EEG to look at hands and feet from different angles (literally – I looked at a lot of feet). One way to quantify possible effects is to analyse the signal in the frequency domain. Different cognitive functions have been associated with power changes in different frequency bands. Based on a study that found eye and hand movement planning to be encoded in different frequencies [6], my project focused on identifying a similar effect for foot movements.

feet_pixabay

Source: Pixabay

This is not as straightforward as it might sound, because there are a number of things that need to be controlled for: To make a comparison between the two limbs as valid as possible, movements should start from a similar position and end at the same spot. And to avoid expectancy effects, movements with both limbs should alternate randomly. As you can imagine, it is quite challenging to find a comfortable position to complete this task (most participants did still talk to me after the experiment, though). Another important thing to keep in mind is the fact that foot movements are somewhat more sluggish than hand movements, owing to physical differences between the limbs. This circumstance can be accounted for by performing different types of movements; some easy, some difficult. When the presented movement goal is rather big, it’s easier to hit than when it’s smaller. Unsurprisingly, movements to easy targets are faster than movements to difficult targets, an effect that has long been known for the hand [7] but had not been shown for the foot yet. Even though this effect is obviously observed during movement execution, it has been shown to already arise during movement planning [8].

So, taking a closer look at actual movements can also tell us a fair bit about the underlying planning processes. In my case, “looking closer” meant recording hand and foot movements using infrared lights, a procedure called motion capture. Basically the same method is used to create the characters in movies like Avatar and the Hobbit, but rather than making fancy films I used the trajectories to extract kinematic measures like velocity and acceleration. Again, it turned out that hands and feet have more in common than it may seem at first sight. And it makes sense – as we evolved from quadrupeds (i.e., mammals walking on all fours) to bipeds (walking on two feet), the neural pathways that used to control locomotion with all fours likely evolved into the system now controlling skilled hand movements [9].

What’s most fascinating to me is the incredible speed and flexibility with which all of this happens. We hardly ever give a thought to the seemingly simple actions we perform every minute (and it’s useful not to, otherwise we’d probably stand rooted to the spot). Our brain is able to take in such a vast amount of information – visually, auditory, somatosensory – filter it effectively and generate motor commands in the range of milliseconds. And we haven’t even found out a fraction of how all of it works. Or to use a famous quote [10]: “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

 [1] Batista, A. (2002). Inner space: Reference frames. Current Biology, 12(11), R380-R383.

[2] Penfield, W., & Boldrey, E. (1937). Somatic motor and sensory representation in the cerebral cortex of man as studied by electrical stimulation. Brain, 60(4), 389-443.

[3] Connolly, J. D., Andersen, R. A., & Goodale, M. A. (2003). FMRI evidence for a ‘parietal reach region’ in the human brain. Experimental Brain Research153(2), 140-145.

[4] Beurze, S. M., Lange, F. P. de, Toni, I., & Medendorp, W. P. (2009). Spatial and Effector Processing in the Human Parietofrontal Network for Reaches and Saccades. Journal of Neurophysiology, 101(6), 3053–3062

[5] Heed, T., Beurze, S. M., Toni, I., Röder, B., & Medendorp, W. P. (2011). Functional rather than effector-specific organization of human posterior parietal cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience31(8), 3066-3076.

[6] Van Der Werf, J., Jensen, O., Fries, P., & Medendorp, W. P. (2010). Neuronal synchronization in human posterior parietal cortex during reach planning. Journal of Neuroscience30(4), 1402-1412.

[7] Fitts, P. M. (1954). The information capacity of the human motor system in controlling the amplitude of movement. Journal of experimental psychology47(6), 381.

[8] Bertucco, M., Cesari, P., & Latash, M. L. (2013). Fitts’ Law in early postural adjustments. Neuroscience231, 61-69.

[9] Georgopoulos, A. P., & Grillner, S. (1989). Visuomotor coordination in reaching and locomotion. Science, 245(4923), 1209–1210.

[10] Pugh, Edward M, quoted in George Pugh (1977). The Biological Origin of Human Values.

 

Sitting in the dark: the importance of light in theatre

theatre-light-design
I’ve spent a lot of the past year sitting in the dark – literally. For people who work in theatre, this may come as no surprise. In the eight years I spent working full-time as a lighting assistant/production electrician, I could quite easily go for three or four days in a row without seeing any sunlight. I’ve often thought it odd that the people who “create” light for live performance, people who use light as their primary creative medium, spend so much time in the dark. If you’re unfamiliar with the theatre production process, here’s a (very brief and very simplified!) rundown:
In most regional and London producing theatres, work on a production begins about four to six months prior to the first preview. This can be significantly longer on larger shows, particularly those in the West End. About a week before the first preview, the cast, director, and design team move into the theatre space itself to start technical rehearsals. By this stage, the set has been built, costumes made, lights and speakers rigged, etc. The technical rehearsal is the start of what is called the production week (also known as “hell week” in some American theatres on account of the long days). Technical rehearsals are the only time the entire company is together in the performance space, and they are – as the name suggests – focused primarily on the technical and design elements of a production. Technical rehearsals are often very “stop and start” as cues, scene changes, costume changes, etc. are run multiple times until all parties are comfortable. Once the whole production is worked through in this manner, this is followed by a dress rehearsal (often two or three, plus notes sessions) before the first public performance.

The lighting designer

For a lighting designer, the first day of technical rehearsals is often the most difficult. All of the lighting designer’s pre-production research, the conversations they have had with the designer, director and theatre’s head of lighting, and the plans they have drawn and had implemented by the theatre’s lighting department converge on this day, and there is enormous pressure on the lighting designer to “get it right” – funding situations in most UK theatres are such that time, money and resources are at a premium and at this point there is not enough of any of those to start over or make significant changes. This pressure is compounded by the fact that lighting is the sole visual design element that can only be created in the performance space. During the pre-production period, set designers produce a scale modelbox, alongside technical drawings, sketches and storyboards, and costume designers may use artistic drawings in conjunction with fabric swatches, for example, to help articulate their process and creative ideas. For both set and costume design, the actual product is built over several weeks and can be seen as a work-in-progress during this time. Moreover, the materials of set and costume design are tangible and the work can be observed, commented on, tweaked and refined outside and, crucially, before entering the actual performance space. Similar comparisons and tools do not exist for lighting designers. Computer visualisation software may be used; however, these programs rarely provide the detail needed to fully explain, describe or develop the potential of light outside a performance space.
In addition, these days tend to involve the most negotiation and adjustment as creative teams (especially the lighting designer) learn to navigate the “language” and “grammar” of a production, while also refining the spoken language and grammar they use to articulate it. It is this process that my research focuses on. How do lighting designers use language to articulate ideas about light and lighting, a material and a process that is largely intangible? How do they additionally use language to exercise agency and exert influence in situations of creative collaboration?

My research

To answer these questions, I sit in the dark, behind the lighting designer, armed with two recording devices. One of these records the ambient conversation, usually between the director or designer and the lighting designer. The other records the conversation on “cans” (UK theatre slang for the headsets worn by all members of the design and technical teams to facilitate conversation without having to resort to shouting backstage!).
The darkness provides an ideal environment for conducting my fieldwork. Even though I am acting as an “overt insider” (Merton, 1972; Greene, 2014), the darkness makes it possible for me to fade into the background and remain largely unnoticed by the people I am observing – which is simultaneously useful and disconcerting. There is something anonymising about the dark, but it can also be quite liberating. There’s plenty of interesting research on audience behaviour and fascinating studies on people’s behaviour generally in the dark — but for now, I’ll just say what an illuminating (see what I did there?) experience sitting in the dark has been!
References:
Greene, M.J. 2014. On the inside looking in: methodological insights and challenges in conducting qualitative insider research. The Qualitative Report. 19(How To Article 15), pp.1–13.
Merton, R.K. 1972. Insiders and outsiders: a chapter in the sociology of knowledge.American Journal of Sociology. 78(1), pp.9–47.