Why I Suck at Doing Scientific Research – Day 161

Friday 17:17, Ballards Lane, London

It’s finally time for the research project! Yay! No more exotic sounding surnames, theories and years of publication, or number crunching for that matter. For the next few weeks we will be scoping out a research proposal on which I will base my research project that will complete my first year of the MBA.

Although we must not call it a ‘project’. The online literature and our virtual tutor insist on calling it an evidence-based initiative (EBI). I’m still trying to work out what the difference is. I think it has something to do with the fact that the ‘initiative’ is on such a small scale (6-7 weeks) that it hardly can be classified as a research project.

Once the scoping proposal is submitted, we have until early summer to organise our thoughts and approach before starting analysing our chosen topic. I haven’t finished the scoping part yet, but I’d like to cover an aspect of lead generation, perhaps how effective marketing activities are in relation to cold calling. We’ll see.

I’m really looking forward to this part and I guess it will highlight if I’m any good at social science research and if I like it. I know that I’m awful at medical research, having dropped out from my DPhil, mid-way. If I think back at my relatively short-lived life as a research scientist I can identify three top research failures.

I once decapitated a pregnant mouse. For context I was extracting embryos from pregnant mice to study polydactyly and tibial hemimelia, a congenital malformation where the hand has too many digits and part of the lower leg is absent. The most humane way of killing mice is to break their fragile necks using your bare hands, and although I had been trained to do this during the animal husbandry course, I couldn’t stand it. It used to freak me out every time I had to pick up the poor little buggers. One day I decided that I needed an alternative and instead of using my fingers to break the necks of these unsuspecting rodents I found a blunt metal blade. It didn’t look at all sharp, but of course, I was wrong. Swoosh! The head of the mouse was instantly separated from the body and it rolled off the lab bench as the body itself remained twitching for a second. Blood came gushing out of the severed neck like a mini sprinkler. Luckily mice only have about 150 ml of blood so the mess I created wasn’t catastrophic. Yet, it was a very unpleasant experience and I do not wish to repeat it.

I once lost a test tube full of radioactive material. Hopefully nobody from the Karolinska Institute is reading this but when I was doing a summer internship at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research I lost a test tube full of radioactive material. As it so happened, I didn’t close the lid of the centrifuge properly and as the test tubes started to spin around at increasing speed, the lid of the centrifuge flung open and out came hurtling the test tubes. To say that I panicked is an understatement! With the help of a gamma detector device, I quickly found and collected as many test tubes as I could and found all but one. I’ve never confessed this laboratory mishap to anyone, so apologies to whomever found it. I’m sure the quantity of radioactivity was so small that it’s completely harmless!

I was never meant to work as a research scientist. Last but certainly not least and in many ways my biggest research failure of all was my last three months at the Department of Human Anatomy & Genetics at Oxford. When I started my DPhil I was certain that I was destined to live the life of a research scientist. I loved the science, I was absolutely fascinated and intrigued by the inner workings of cells (I still am, by the way). But what I hadn’t quite grasped was that as a scientist you spend 90% of your time in the lab, mixing colourless liquids with colourless liquids, over and over again. Hundreds of times. No, thousands of times. Constantly separating DNA, constantly amplifying it through the polymerase chain reaction so that ultimately it could be run through the gel electrophoresis overnight. Nobody told me that it would take ages to master the skills of doing research. In the beginning I totally sucked at it. I used to forget to put the DNA back on ice, which meant it was immediately rendered completely useless. But I would only find out two days later when the experiment yielded results – or no results in my case. I learnt that I sucked at getting the gel out of the electrophoresis machine too, and I can’t remember how many times that damn gel broke and disintegrated before my very eyes. I struggled, but I persevered and eventually, after a few months, I got better at it. But boy did I hate it… When I told my tutor that I wanted to quit she said ‘I think you have the brains to do this, but you’re heart wants something else‘.


The Perils of an Online Higher Education Program – Day 131

Wednesday 18:38, Old Bethnal Green Road, London

I’m now almost half way through year 1 of the Open University MBA program. As with everything now a days, it has flown passed. One blink, and it’s Friday already. Two blinks, it’s April. For me this could be seen as a good thing, as it means the end of year 3 will hit me before I even know it and I can go back to waking up after sunrise as opposed to two hours before it. And I’m not taking about British Summer Time.

Going back to university and in particular, doing this MBA, has so far been a mixed (but very good) experience. I think I’ve totally underestimated how much of a commitment it really is, and I’ve now realised that I’m much more of a slow learner than I’d like to admit. During my previous two degrees I was a full-time student which meant I could dedicate myself wholeheartedly to studying and learning. This time around it couldn’t have been more different. I constantly have an internal battle with myself about whether I should do something and if so when. Every hour is crucial, whether it’s work, study, writing or socialising. Indeed, I’m quickly becoming the master of time efficiency, albeit I have to admit I cherish the moments when I ‘treat myself’ and do something complete non-sensual like playing the new version of Candy Crush Soda. Pop those bottles!

As you all know, the OU MBA is a part-time online course. Not only is the subject matter completely alien to me (having studied developmental biology previously), but the part-time nature and the online element is as foreign as well. Whilst I can get my head around the part-time nature of the course, and I think I’m doing ok with the subject matter, I’m still struggling with the whole online thing.

Here’s why:

I know it’s kinda obvious but it’s incredibly lonely to do an online course. There are no teachers, no real, physical fellow students, there’s no cafe you can go to and hang out and connect and network with peers. In other words, there’s no physical human interaction. Instead there’s a virtual equivalent of almost everything: e-mail, webinars, online activities, you name it. At the OU we have it all.

Or do we?

There are around 350 students in my year. We’re scattered all over the world but the great majority are based here in the UK and in Europe. For practical reasons, we’ve been subdivided into groups of around 15-20 students and have been assigned a tutor and a tutor group forum (TGF). The tutor is a part-time associate lecturer who has a full-time job, meaning the ‘contact hours’ are greatly reduced to zero. It basically consists of a few emails every other week, and of course the marking and providing feedback on our assignments. The quality of the tutors varies greatly and I’m lucky that mine is pretty good.

The TGF is an online forum designed to facilitate interaction with our tutor but also with other students. Sadly, this has been my greatest disappointment so far. Our tutor encourages us to share insights and knowledge here but there’s only ever a few individuals who contribute. I’ve made active contributions from day 1 really, but I’ve now gotten to the stage that I’m tired of starting discussions and only get a few other people posting. Mostly I get ignored.

As there’s no requirement to engage with any of the teaching material apart from the essays, I can only assume that people are either not interested in participating or simply don’t have time. This is where the OU could improve. A friend of mine used to lament whilst we were both students at Oxford that the bar set by her tutor was very high. Here, students were given a topic to read up on and all of them were asked to prepare a presentation for next week’s tutorial. However only one student was selected to present and they were only told who at the tutorial itself. While this method is definitely hard core it ensured that students get the maximum of their education and it’s not surprising and a bit of an understatement to say that Oxford graduates are a successful bunch of people.

Anyway, back to the OU’s TGF.

What’s interesting is that as a result to the lack of engagement and interaction and also for just gauging the interest, a fellow student set up a closed Facebook group a few months ago. Not surprisingly it pretty quickly filled up with a selection of individuals who were keen on creating a network that.. well, worked. Coincidentally it was the same individuals who were actively participating in the TGF.

This group has proven to be a life saver. Everyone is open to discussion and we all support each other, both academically and morally. I’ve learnt lots by chatting with other students and feel that this group has indeed replaced the need for physical interaction and the OU’s non-functioning TGF. I may never meet the 50 odd individuals knowns as ‘For anyone studying B716 with the OUBS from November 2014’, but they sure are making a difference in my life.

Candy Crush Soda