ISSI – Discussions, Presenting and Editing

The view from a bridge in Bern (May 2014)

The view from a bridge in Bern (May 2014)

In December, only two and a half months after I started my PhD, I wrote about a trip I was about to take to the International Space Science Institute (ISSI) in Bern, Switzerland.

When I got back I wanted to write about my experiences there, but it was on that trip that as a consortium we tried to work out a consistent picture for the strange data we collected of NGC 5548 over the summer. It was clear that we had an unexpected result and we wanted to minimise the risk of anyone else realising this before we had chance to publish, plus we decided as a group to submit to Science and therefore it was important to keep in mind their embargo rules.

As the first paper from this campaign was published last week, I want to go back and describe the experiences I had at ISSI. I have now spent two weeks there, one in December 2013 and one in May 2014, with almost the same people each time. I learnt a lot during both of these weeks at ISSI, but also found them very different; I will try to explain this in the rest of this post.

The attendees of our ISSI meeting in May 2014

The attendees of our ISSI meeting in May 2014

December 2013

  • Two and a half months since starting my PhD
  • On the Monday, we had data we didn’t have a consistent picture for
  • Of the 14 other people in the room, I knew one and had met two others for one day (two months previously)
  • I had a 30 minute slot to present my work, on the Tuesday. This presentation consisted of basic fits to my section of our data and many, many questions about sightly odd results I didn’t understand. Thankfully this went better than the presentation in the phdcomics cartoon below!
  • The vast majority of my learning was science based – how to analyse data, the potential explanations that were posed for our strange data and all the reasons that we thought of for them to be right or wrong

May 2014

  • Seven and a half months since starting my PhD
  • On the Monday, we started by responding to the referees’ comments on our paper, accepted by Science
  • Of the 15 other people in the room, I knew 12 (mostly from the previous ISSI meeting)
  • I had a 30 minute slot to present my work, on the Monday. This presentation consisted mainly of suggesting a solution I had found to one particularly difficult to understand part of the data, Thankfully this also went better than the presentation in the phdcomics cartoon below!
  • The majority of my learning was more about working in science than the science itself – how to respond to referees’ comments and how to write papers, down to debating single word choices
Credit: Jorge Cham,, comic number 1553

Credit: Jorge Cham,, comic number 1553

Reading those two lists, I think it is obvious to see that by May 2014 not only was I more experienced, but the meeting in general was starting in a better position than the previous one. Spirits were high, and I felt included in the “nice to see you again” chats, rather than sticking to “hi, nice to meet you”. Saying that, when chatting to another person who attended both meetings they said they had enjoyed December far more, but I believe this is because their greater experience allowed them to enjoy the science discussions rather than be learning for the first time about almost every point.

By the end of the meeting in December my brain hurt. I had learnt so much about AGN and spectroscopy over those five days that I had no idea how to process new information when I finally left on Friday evening. I think the most beneficial part of that week was watching scientists who are experts in their particular areas debate back and forth over different theories. There is no better way to learn how to debate in science than by seeing how it’s done, and the debate that week was so focussed on the data, the results and the interpretation that it was brilliant to watch. I was very impressed by how friendly the atmosphere always was, and how happily each person listened to the other points of view. I hope that many of my future experiences in science include that willingness to discuss and debate the evidence without it ever feeling personal.

That’s not to say the second meeting was always easy. In December one of the ISSI secretaries had called us “the hardest working team” she’d seen, as we were all working in the meeting room until 7pm, almost every night. In May we worked 9am-7pm, 9am-8pm, 9am-9pm on Mon, Tues and Weds respectively. That Wednesday in May was one of the toughest work days I’ve ever done, partly because I had woken up ill in the middle of the night before and partly because we weren’t discussing any science for most of the day; we spent many hours that day group editing the paper in Microsoft Word.

This editing was a slow but necessary process, and it seems the number of hours I spent using Word for school homework and getting so frustrated with placing images in the right positions and making numbered lists work exactly the way I wanted were not entirely wasted. I definitely appreciated learning those skills years beforehand so that even tired and ill I didn’t have to think too much to be able to help out.

For me, the main difference between the ISSI meetings in December and May was my confidence level. In December I was new, unsure and very nervous. The feedback I got during that week helped to build my confidence a lot and I think this showed during the meeting in May. In May I was no longer the “new face”, I was unsure of my result but confident in my analysis and significantly less nervous.

This increase of confidence at the May meeting led to me taking advantage of opportunities during the meeting much more: I was much more active in discussions, I knew which part of the meeting I wanted to be in when we split to splinter sessions and was happy to say so and I volunteered for extra tasks (e.g. writing, recording and editing this video explaining the paper). This would not have happened if I hadn’t been encouraged by my supervisor to go in December, even though I was nervous about it.

Going to ISSI, twice, has been a fantastic opportunity for me, and there’s still another three months to go before I’ve been a PhD student for a full year!

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