Blog: PhD ‘Must-knows’ from attending the Big Data Centre for Environment and Health (BERTHA) Summer School – By Katie Riddoch

In August, SGSSS funded two ESRC Researchers to participate in the first annual summer school of the Aarhus University Big Data Centre for Environment and Health (BERTHA). This five day course on the theme of Personalised Sensors introduced a small group of PhDs and Post Docs to the application of state-of-the-art research using personalised sensors to measure environmental exposures, fitness, health, and wellbeing. The course also provided an excellent opportunity to understand the responsibility and ethical considerations in research involving protection of personal data and the involvement of participants in campaigns or fieldwork. Here, Katie Riddoch, a 2nd Year Doctoral Student at the University of Glasgow (Social Brain in Action Lab, Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology) funded by an ESRC Industrial Strategy Studentship, shares her reflections on the experience.

PhD ‘Must-knows’ from attending the Big Data Centre for Environment and Health (BERTHA) Summer School

PhD ‘Must-knows’

In late August I attended a summer school in Denmark run by the Big Data Centre for Environment and Health (BERTHA). The lessons I learned in those few days changed how I perceive myself, academia, and the potential impact my research could have on the world.

Lesson 1: Selling your research

After briefly presenting my project to the group someone boldly asked the question “who funds this research?”. They then went on to imply that they didn’t think the public would be happy that their money was spent in this way. Initially the comment stung, but the more I thought about it, the more I realise what a great question that was. Thinking back at what I had said, I realised I hadn’t spent much time at all emphasising the potential impact of my work in the outside world… so to people outside my field it probably all seemed a bit bizarre!

Top tip: as researchers we are under increasing pressure to make an impact, help people, and make a difference… so be ready for questions about the impact of your own research. Also, tailor your presentation to your audience! Although it may be obvious to you why your research is important, others may need a more explicit explanation!

Lesson 2: Cultural differences

After me there was another presentation – someone planning a project in Madeira, monitoring the movement of babies immediately after birth. I proceeded to ask how this was possible, as mothers are encouraged to hold their child close after birth. They responded saying that in Madeira babies are placed in cribs immediately after they are born, and there isn’t the same emphasis on skin-to-skin contact that we have in the UK. This was such an eye-opening moment.

Top tip: it’s natural to try and figure out the world based on your own experiences and knowledge, however beware of the assumptions you’re making. Although we are training to become experts there is so much we don’t know, and other people have experienced things we have probably never even considered. When thinking about your own research, do consider cultural differences. It might complicate things, but it’ll likely improve your understanding of the world we live in.

 Lesson 3: Control the narrative

In a discussion about ethics, a professor recounted a story of how their results had been misinterpreted by the media. This incorrect interpretation was then picked up by politicians who proceeded to use them in their campaigns and arguments. Listening to this story made me realise the influence that our research can have, but also how difficult it can be to ‘put things right’ when incorrect information gets out.

Top tip: although it can be difficult, as researchers we need to control the narrative as best we can. In addition to talking to your supervision team, your university/organisation should have a press/media liaison team that you can chat to about how best to convey your research… and avoid common pitfalls!

 Lesson 4: Choose your words wisely

On day three we had a talk stressing the impact of the language we use. They emphasised that if we slip into using words like something “causes” or “leads” to something else, it’s not trivial. In addition to making big claims about your skills and the validity of your measurement tools, you’re also implying that you fully understand what is likely a complicated interplay of factors.

Top tip: If you’re going to use the word cause, be ready for the scrutiny… and also be ready for the media and the public to latch on!

 Lesson 5: Take it personally!

After presenting again later in the week I was pulled aside by a professor. In addition to complimenting my presenting style they mentioned that they were slightly distracted by my repetition of the phrase “and things like that”. I felt a pang of stupidity as I realised my phrasing had taken away from the message I was trying to convey. Rather than letting this become a negative though, I filled my head with gratitude and thoughts of becoming one the best presenters out there. I then ‘bit the bullet’ and asked for further feedback about my presentation. In the process I learnt a huge amount about myself and the way I come across to other people.

Top tip: if you want to get better at something, you could watch videos and read about how to improve, but a more efficient route is to ask for help from someone with the skills you desire. It can be tough to hear (especially when it’s things like your words, body language, and behaviour) but with the right mindset you can use the information to change your life for the better!

Final Comments

In addition to these lessons I learnt a huge amount from Big Data Centre for Environment and Health about big data, data protection, and the complexities of monitoring the environment using sensors. I encourage anyone with an interest in big data and/or personalised sensors to check them out at http://projects.au.dk/bertha/. In addition to thanking BERTHA I am extremely grateful to the SGSSS for funding the experience. To explore the range of training opportunities they have to offer visit https://www.sgsss.ac.uk/training/.

Katie Riddoch

Katie Riddoch

Katie is a PhD student investigating human-robot attachment and empathy for robotic agents. Specifically, the project focuses on the prospect of companion robots for the elderly. Katie is based at the University of Glasgow and is funded by an ESRC 1+3 Industrial Strategy Studentship.

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