Conference Season is Upon Us: My top tips for conference presentations

I’m off to ASM in Houston in a few weeks and conference season is well and truly upon is. I’ve been fortunate enough to get asked to speak at a number of events over the years, but I still clearly remember how terrified I was when as a trainee I spoke to my first big room. Last year, I gave my first key note lectures. I’d been asked to do a couple in 2020, and then the pandemic hit, so all of those events were cancelled. I felt as nervous as that trainee again. I prevaricated, I self flagellated and then finally managed to force myself to sit down in front of a blank screen and just get started. If you are in any of those stages, this post is for you, I hope it helps.

No one can tell you the best way – only what is the best way for them

First things first. When as a trainee I was preparing my first talk I got A LOT of advice. My first problem was trying to use all of it, even when it was conflicting. I was advised to rehearse over and over until I had it memorised, I was advised to have a script and notes. I was advised to do none of those things as it would be too staged. So, my first tip is this. Seek advice, gain knowledge from those more experienced, but then use what helps you and discard the rest. Your personal process will be different to everyone else’s, and it’s worth acknowledging this early and accepting that you will find a way that works best for you and refine it with experience.

For instance, I hate rehearsals, and I never have a script. It makes me stressed and forces me to feel like I have to deliver the same way every time. I know my content, I know my story and the audience and I are a team who deliver the final product together. I bounce off them and try to read the room, and fingers crossed, it seems to work OK.

The one time I don’t work this way is for extremely time restricted presentations, such as 5 minute fellowship interviews. For those I practice so much I can recite the words in my sleep. These are different because:

  • you HAVE to get all your content in, your career kind of depends on it
  • the time lines are short and hard, they will just cut you off and so you need to know you will finish in the window given
  • there will be no audience bounce, there will be no reading the room, they are going to remain neutral to what you are presenting, and so focussing on them can make the scenario even more stressful.

What I hope you take away from this is that there are no hard and fast rules, there will always be exceptions, but if you can, do what works for you and don’t try to be anyone else.

Ask for learning objectives and check what other talks/speakers are in your session

There is little worse than sitting, waiting to go on for your talk, and hearing the person before you give the talk that you have basically written to give next. I have learnt the hard way to make an effort to ask what an organiser would like me to cover, and to always check what the agenda is before I turn up for the day to see the lay of the land from other speakers titles. A little repetition is not a bad thing, ground hog day is unlikely to land well. This one is more of an issue for invited speaker sessions, although even if you are presenting novel research data it’s worth seeing who else is in your session, as you may be able to reallocate slide time if the 3 people in front of you are talking about the same virus. They are likely to have covered a lot of the generics and you can then invest time elsewhere.

I don’t always get very far, but these days I also ask for learning objectives when I’m invited to speak – what would you like me to cover? any particular highlights that you are interested in? what is the audience size and mix likely to be? All of these things can dictate not just your content but how you think about delivery, such as how much interaction you can include.

Think about your audience

This one seems like a no brainer, but I often think that it’s forgotten. It is really easy as the person delivering to get caught up with your nerves and write a presentation that you feel comfortable with, without thinking about those that will be listening. Now, I’m not suggesting that you deliberately produce content that makes you uncomfortable, but sometimes it is easy to teach in a way that suits us rather than the learners. It can be really worrying to include interactive content, what if no one responds, but if you are on at the end of the day after 7 hours of didactic teaching, your learners may be ready for something that re-engages them.

The thing that scientists and clinicians also often do when they are nervous is to resort to technicality and jargon. It can act as a shield. If you are presenting to a mixed cohort, of either different levels of knowledge or professional backgrounds, this defence mechanism can end up making your content inaccessible to a number of people within the room. It’s OK to have a couple of slides that stretch people, it’s usually not OK to have a whole talk like that, unless you know your audience really well.

Think about the tone of the presentation

I struggled a lot when I was asked to do the talk below. I struggled thinking that maybe I should turn up as ‘Dr Cloutman-Green’ with formality and pretend gravitas. You would not believe how long I went around in my head about it. I then decided that they had asked me to speak about my blog, and my blog is anything but formal and hierarchical, and so I turned up as me, with all the sarcasm and self mocking that entails. In the setting, at the end of the last day of the conference, when everyone was tired, including a little humour felt like the right way to go.

I would however have made different choices if I was turning up to present my PhD thesis in a viva, or if I was presenting to the board, I would have still been me, but a slightly less overt version. Some settings require a formal tone, some lend themselves to informality and some you can decide the path you wish to walk. The key thing is to make an active decision based on the invite, topic and audience to ensure that you match what your tone is with what you wish to achieve.

Find out if you need to allow room for questions

One of the things that often catches people out at research meetings is there is not always a standard of whether there will be time for questions or not, you can sometimes guess by slot length but not necessarily with any certainty. It is always worth explicitly asking if you need to allow time for questions so you can plan your talk length accordingly. I’ve Chaired conference sessions where this wasn’t handled well and it meant that it was really challenging to keep everyone to time and some speakers had much better opportunities for audience interaction than others. If you aren’t told definitely ask, not least so you can prepare for what your answers might be.

Think about what you want for your slides

This again might be a really obvious one, but if you are teaching on an MSc you are likely to want a lot more information on your slides, as they are likely to be annotated and used for later learning. Your conference talk may be recorded, the slides may get circulated, but the reality is that they are much less likely to be used as a later teaching resource. Therefore you will want to pitch your slide content based on your participants/learners, which is another good reason to find out a bit about them.

It is also worth thinking about how important it is for the people in the room to be able to read and understand what you have included on a slide. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen speakers apologise for tables and overwhelming numbers of charts that are not visible to anyone sitting beyond the front row. Unless it’s high level conceptual stuff there is little point including slides that are not going to be accessible to your audience. It is also worth (and I am not good at this) ensuring that colours and fonts etc do not present unnecessary challenges to engagement.

Plan in your breaks/interactive moments

Even if you are the best speaker in the world, and I am definitely not, there are always slots in any agenda or meeting which will make it more challenging. The post lunch slot, where everyone is digesting and sleepy, and the end of day slot where everyone wants to make sure they catch their trains are just a couple of examples. If you are allocated one of these slots, or are given a 3 hour lesson slot, planning how to keep learners engaged is key. More than 20 minutes staring at your powerpoint is going to be enough for anyone. So can you include things like videos or other types of content to break it up? Can you include live quizzes that embed some of the discussion topics? Can you get people to talk to neighbours or even do some group work? It is sometimes easy to stand up and go through 60 slides, when the experience of everyone in the room might have been better with 6 and a modified activity based approach. Again, it depends on the setting and audience, but if you can be brave and consider stepping beyond the lectern during your session.

Make sure you have backups

No matter how prepared you believe you are for giving a session there are some days when it will not be enough, for this one you need to make sure you are the master of your own destiny. There have been numerous events where I have turned up to speak believing that my slides will be already loaded as I had sent them to the organiser well ahead of time, and had the tech guy look at me in bewilderment as they had nothing. I always carry my talks on a USB stick, having emailed them so I can also get access to an email version in case my USB files is corrupted, and I will have them stored on cloud storage as a back up in case I need to download directly onto a system. The fear of having to just get up and talk without slides haunts me too much to leave anything to chance.

Know how you might wing it if needed

The reason I know very clearly what it feels like to have a slide deck that doesn’t work is because it happened to me at a conference in 2021. I rocked up having sent my slides ahead of time, having been told that the organiser had checked them when they were loaded onto the laptop. I started my talk and then realised that every single slide that had a table or anything other than a textbox was entirely blank. I then proceeded to give my 30 minute with a variety of blank slides. When you’re up there there is nothing that you can do but wing it. I pivoted to a session where instead of trying to focus on my slides I talked about clinical experiences linked to the visible titles. I survived, it was even well reviewed, but I never want to do it again. That said, those 30 seconds staring at the first blank slides and working out what to do taught me a valuable lesson, and now I do my ‘what if’ worst case scenario planning ahead of staring at the audience whilst on my sofa with tea, so that I know what I will do if something goes wrong. I also now try to make sure I personally check my slides prior to any session.

Have a watch or phone that you take up with you

You would be amazed at the number of teaching and conference rooms that don’t have a clock on the wall or visible from the stage. I’ve been caught out by this a few times, and when you full screen your slides you can’t always seen the clock. That means you are subject to the session Chair giving you a 5 minute wrap up when you are only half way through your slides, as time feels different when you’re staring into 1000 faces and hoping not to screw up. I always take my phone (on silent) these days and set a stopwatch so that I can gauge where I am in relation to time without having to rely on someone else. I find the slide rush just waaaaay too stressful otherwise.

Be prepared to handle the question that is a actually a comment

This may be a shock to you, but I’m a woman. This means at any given presentation with questions I have a ~30% chance of a male colleague standing up and giving me the question that isn’t a question, but a comment on how they would have a) done my work better b) point out some key point I have missed c) tell me about their work and their experience. This may not be my most attractive feature but I have made a life choice to shut all of these options down hard. I am open to questions and shared learning, I am not open to someone taking question time from someone else in order to rail road a session into something different. If someone starts with “this isn’t really a question but more of a comment” I will generally reply before they get any further with “that’s really great and I’d love to hear it over coffee but I think we need to address the questions in the room first” and then actively call on someone else. You may wish to have a different technique, you may wish to pivot the comment back into something relevant to your talk so you effectively answer it as if it was the question you wanted to hear. You may have a completely different approach (I’d love to hear them all). If there is plenty of time I also sometimes let it slide, but it is a particular bug bear of mine.

Bring yourself into the room

I’ve touched on this one a little throughout, but I think you will have a much better experience, as will your audience if you can bring yourself into the room. That can be anything from including your favourite colour as part of your slide colour scheme to sharing parts of yourself, in terms of stories or experiences, as part of your session. The more you are prepared to share of yourself, the more your audience will connect with you and the better the chance of your content landing. If you are giving your research presentation, maybe take 10 seconds to share why you chose you that given topic, especially if you have a passion for it – like mine for Klebsiella and Adeno. Don’t be afraid to include humour and light and shade within what you are presenting. Audiences often want to know why they should care about what you are talking to them about, so feel free to convince them, and not just by sharing raw data.

Put your nerves into context

It is almost always nerve racking speaking in front of people, even after you’ve done it for years. One of the things I always say to both myself and my students is “what is the worst that can happen”. I’ve seen some truly terrible talks in my time, but I don’t remember who gave any of them, I remember the topic and why it was bad. Even if I did give a bad session and someone remembered it was me, would they remember in 3 years? If they did, the worst outcome is that they may not invite me back to speak, there will be plenty of other people who will, plenty of people who weren’t in that room that day or who won’t remember. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has bad days at the office. Everyone has sessions that don’t go well or land in the way they hoped. The important thing is to learn from them. Sometimes there isn’t even that, I have given the same activity sessions dozens of times, and every now and again it just won’t work. The participants may be in a bad mood, or there’s tech failure. It happens. Bring your best to every moment and that is all you can do, the rest doesn’t matter, the rest isn’t permanent. So good luck and be bold and I can’t wait to hear you speak!

All opinions in this blog are my own

Guest Blog by Dr Claire Walker: Bots, ChatGPT and AI – Is this the end to assessments in Higher Education as we know it?

Whilst SARS CoV2 continues to kick my ass and make doing much other than getting out of bed a challenge, the wonderful Dr Claire Walker has stepped up yet again in order to ensure that whilst Professor Cloutman-Green may be dozing, Girlymicro still delivers! Dr Walker is a paid up member of the Dream Team since 2013, token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered Clinical Scientist in Immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci), education (PgCert) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a Senior Lecturer in Immunology at University of Lincoln. She has previously written many great guest blogs for The Girlymicrobiologist, including one on the transition from lab to academia.

Bots, ChatGPT and AI – Is this the end to assessments in Higher Education as we know it?

The impact of ChatGPT on assessment is a hot topic in high education at the moment, you can scarcely open a newspaper without seeing scaremongering headlines shouting this is the end to course works as we know it.

I’m not sure I really agree with this, I’ve had a play with ChatGPT and remain fairly confident that I can spot a bot at forty paces. Students have always had access to a use a ghost-writer for take-home exams and essays, and from this perspective, ChatGPT is hardly a new problem. I’m also convinced that my  students are honest, and genuinely believe that they want to prove their knowledge and understanding through coursework’s and examination. Afterall, they will need these skills when they venture out into the world of work so there is no benefit to committing academic fraud. Even if you aren’t caught on day one, it’s going to catch up with you eventually.

That said, there is a question being whispered around higher education institutions at the moment regarding the coursework questions and exam papers – ‘have you run it through ChatGPT? What did you think? Could you tell it was a bot answer?’. So before I throw the baby out with the bathwater and panic, I thought I’d take time to note down some of the flaws that I see in ChatGPT. Currently, ChatGPT only has access to information up to 2021 and cannot access papers behind paywalls so if you design your questions to reflect on current knowledge and practice, the bot will return an error. I often create a new virus, disease or genetic defect for a paper, the bots also error when presented with these and cannot hypothesise the way a student can.  Bots cannot make personal reflections which are essential in synthesis of clinical information, it’s very obviously if a reflection is generated by AI.. Also we know our students, we know their writing styles and have a very good idea of what level of knowledge they have – it’s our job (!). We do teach the content of the modules after all. Finally, we already have AI detecting tech built into our anti-plagiarism systems. This is a cat and mouse game, and the bots won’t stay ahead for very long. 

Even so, this is just one lecturer’s opinion so I thought I’d go right to the source – and ask ChatCPT itself. And you can read for yourself. I’m not convinced we’ll be getting it to write any more blog posts any time soon….

Input Question: Write a 500 word blog post on the impact of ChatGPT and AI on student take home exams in biomedical science education

ChatGPT Blog Post:

The rise of artificial intelligence has been transforming various sectors of society, including education. One area that has seen significant changes is in student take-home exams in biomedical science education. With the advent of ChatGPT and other AI tools, students have a new level of accessibility and support in their studies. In this blog post, we will discuss the impact of ChatGPT and AI on student take-home exams in biomedical science education.

Firstly, ChatGPT and other AI tools have revolutionized the way students can access information. Instead of spending hours poring over textbooks, students can simply ask ChatGPT to find the relevant information they need. This saves a lot of time and effort, freeing up students to focus on understanding and applying the information. Furthermore, the ability to quickly access information means that students can study more efficiently, making better use of their time and ultimately improving their academic performance.

Secondly, ChatGPT and other AI tools have enhanced the quality of student work. These tools can provide students with instant feedback on their work, allowing them to identify areas for improvement and make corrections before submitting their assignments. This means that students can produce higher-quality work and learn from their mistakes more quickly. Additionally, AI tools can help students catch errors that they might have missed on their own, leading to more accurate and thorough work.

Thirdly, ChatGPT and other AI tools have increased the accessibility of biomedical science education. For students who may have difficulty accessing traditional classroom-based education, these tools offer a new avenue for learning. With ChatGPT, students can learn at their own pace and on their own schedule, making education more accessible to those who may have other responsibilities such as work or family commitments. This also means that students who live in remote or underprivileged areas can access high-quality education that might otherwise be out of reach.

However, while there are many benefits to using ChatGPT and other AI tools in student take-home exams, there are also some potential drawbacks to consider. For example, there is a risk that students may become overly reliant on these tools, leading to a reduction in critical thinking skills. Additionally, the use of AI tools may make it easier for students to plagiarize, as they can simply copy and paste information without fully understanding it.

To mitigate these risks, it is important to ensure that students are taught how to use these tools responsibly. This includes educating them on the importance of critical thinking and encouraging them to use AI tools as a supplement to their learning, rather than a replacement for it. It also means teaching students how to properly cite and reference sources, and providing them with opportunities to practice these skills.

In conclusion, ChatGPT and other AI tools have had a significant impact on student take-home exams in biomedical science education. These tools have improved the accessibility and quality of education, while also helping students learn more efficiently. However, it is important to approach these tools with caution and ensure that students are using them responsibly. By doing so, we can continue to harness the power of AI to enhance biomedical science education for students around the world.

Certainly ChatGPT has a high opinion of itself but there are some good points made here. This could be a useful study tool to help students learn and revise topics. With this in mind, you can’t uninvent a technology. Now is the time to elevate the different assessment methods that we use. So with that I’m off to mark an in-person practical exam, set a group work project and spend a week listening to students present a critical evaluation of papers written after 2021. I don’t think ChatCPT has me out of a job just yet…

TLDR – It’s not like the Bot started the blog post with ‘I am become death the destroyer of the higher education assessment system’, just yet.

All opinions in this blog are my own

Guest Blog by Karen Barclay-Elliott: Life, the universe and surviving FRCPath part 1

I put out a post earlier this week on my experience of sitting MRCPath or FRCPath part 1, but as, in Healthcare Science terms, I am a bit of a dinosaur and sat mine so very long ago I put out a call for someone to help out who has more recent experience. The wonderful Ren Barclay-Elliott was a life saver and jumped to my aid. Ren is a virology clinical scientist based in the Midlands with an interest in congenital and childhood infections, fantasy novels, and cats. She also has demonstrated she has a generous heart by not only agreeing to write this but turning it around so quickly for the enjoyment and aid of all of you 🙂

It’s Me, Hi!

A quick introduction to who I am and why I’m writing this – my name is Ren, and I’m a clinical scientist in Virology and Molecular Pathology. I completed the NHS Scientist Training Program in Infection Sciences in 2020 and have been working in virology ever since. After a year or so of putting off sitting my FRCPath Part 1 exam, I finally gathered up the courage and willpower to attempt it in Autumn 2022. (Spoiler alert – I was fortunate enough to pass on my first attempt.)

I found Part 1 incredibly dauting for so many reasons – not least of which was the fact it was the first exam I had sat since finishing the STP, and there had been a whole pandemic in the interim! Not to mention it is an incredibly broad exam, and as a virologist I had promptly forgotten about 90% of the bacteriology I had ever known the second I finished the STP. I was given a lot of advice about studying for, and sitting, this exam over the last year, as well as gathering some (possibly questionable) wisdom of my own – I hope that in sharing it, I can make Part 1 a less intimidating prospect for anyone sitting this exam in the future!

The Exam Itself

In this post-pandemic world, many things look a little different to how they used to. Part 1 is no exception – at least for the time being, the exam is entirely online. This can be quite an odd experience for those of us used to huge, drafty exam halls and ominously pacing invigilators. There are certainly a lot of perks to this way of doing things – mainly not needing to travel to physically attend the exam, but also the comfort of being at home and being able to think out loud if you come across a tricky question.

The exam itself is simple – 125 best-answer multiple-choice questions in 3 hours. When they say “best answer”, they are not kidding – be prepared to think “but these could ALL be right!” at least 30 times throughout the exam. Fine-tuning your decision making to be able to narrow in on the most likely to be right is a skill in itself, and one that takes time and practice to develop. I found that practicing multiple choice questions from a few different sources really helped – more on that later! Almost everyone I know who has sat the exam finished well before the time limit and had plenty of time to go back and check their answers a few times.

Help – How and When Do I Study?

So now you know what to expect on the day of the exam. But what about the weeks or months leading up to it? How do you prepare for an exam where the syllabus is just “literally everything you have learned up until now”? How long do you need to study for, and how much time do you need to spend on any given topic? Unfortunately, as with many things in life (and in Part 1 for that matter!), there is no single right answer. I was given the general rule of thumb of starting to prepare about 3 months prior to the exam, but I know people who have spent as little as 2 weeks or as long as 18 months preparing for their first attempt.

Personally, I started off very slowly about a year before the exam – not with full-on studying, but by doing fairly low-effort things like listening to podcasts, making a point to attend MDTs where I knew interesting cases would be discussed, and starting to note down areas where I knew I had a weaker knowledge base and reading up on them whenever I had downtime at work. I started studying in earnest about a month before the exam and found this was sufficient time for me to cover everything in enough detail to feel confident.

AS for how to study – there’s as many correct answers to that as there are people on the planet! However, I have tried to summarise my best advice below…

Find Different Ways To Learn

I have always thought of myself as a very visual learner – come exam season in uni, the walls of my room would always be plastered in meticulously colour-coded mind maps covering every possible topic I could be examined on.

An actual picture of the walls of my bedroom circa March 2017 while I was studying for my MSc exams

However, once I got to studying for part 1, I found this approach wasn’t working so well for me anymore – not least because I don’t think I have enough wall space in my whole house for the number of mindmaps I would have made! For a while I kept stubbornly trying to stick to my tried-and-true method (after all, it had gotten me this far!), but eventually I had to admit that I needed to be more flexible in how I learned. I ended up with a huge variety of methods depending on the topic I was learning and how I was feeling on any given day – printing and highlighting guidelines, writing flashcards, making (and delivering) powerpoint presentations, and teaching my (non-lab-scientist) husband, who now knows WAY more about carbapenemases than you’d expect from a high school chemistry teacher.

Trying out practice questions was massively helpful, both for getting me ready for the multiple-choice question format in the exam, and to give me a way to assess my progress as I went along. I found the BIA LearnInfection resource to be invaluable, as well as the infamous “orange MCQ book” (more formally known as “Infectious Diseases, Microbiology and Virology: A Q&A Approach for Specialist Medical Trainees” by Luke S P Moore and James C Hatcher).

I also found listening to podcasts to be a great way to learn – I would thoroughly recommend ID:IOTS (bonus points for the hosts’ Scottish accents, which really helped to alleviate my homesickness!) and Febrile (bear in mind that this is American so not all of their guidelines are identical to those used in the UK, but it’s a great resource and very entertaining). Both are available on Spotify!

Make It A Game

Let’s face it, studying can be incredibly tedious. After finding myself staring blankly at textbooks for hours on end, barely taking in a single word I was reading, I realised that I needed to make studying fun – or at least, not mind-numbing! I found that games were a brilliant way to re-approach a subject with fresh eyes and remember that I am studying this subject because I genuinely love to learn about it. One of my favourite resources with Microbial Pursuit (, an online trivia game that my colleagues and I got very competitive over! One question is published each day, so it’s great for doing a little bit of learning every day, or you can dive into the back catalogue if you want a more extended study session. It’s a fun way to test your knowledge across the whole breadth of infection science, and useful for picking up little facts that you may have missed in your reading.

I found this approach really important the closer I got to the exam – it was a useful way to remind myself that learning can be fun and exciting, and I wasn’t just memorising screeds of information for the sake of it.

Create Systems That Work For You

Part 1 covers a frankly enormous amount of content, and it can be utterly overwhelming trying to find a way to cover all the necessary material without accidentally missing things out. There are plenty of ways to split it up, and some may work better for you than others! Some systems that I, or people I’ve spoken to, have used include:

  • Going “head to toe” – learning organisms associated with clinical syndromes starting with brain/CNS infections, then down to ENT, respiratory, cardiac… you get the idea. Don’t forget to include skin and soft tissue infections if you’re using this method – it’s surprisingly easy to forget about!
  • Going through organisms by classifications – e.g. start with Gram-positive cocci, then Gram-positive rods, then Gram-negative rods… you get the idea. This can be particularly useful if you’re struggling to remember things like viral structures – if you learn all of your DNA viruses back-to-back, it’s easier to remember they are all in the same group then if you learn them individually by the clinical presentations they are associated with
  • If you have a lab background, then going “bench to bench” can be helpful – learning about organisms/lab tests/clinical presentations associated with wound swabs vs blood cultures vs tissue samples can be a great way to learn if you have a lab background since you might already unconsciously group things in this way
  • Picking interesting cases – if you have a lot of clinical time and see plenty of cases, then you might come across (or be able to construct) memorable cases that help you to learn about lots of different concepts, from diagnostic tests to antibiotic stepdown choices, associated with a single patient

You may find a system that works perfectly for you first time, or (like me) you may need to chop and change as you go along. I would definitely advise going in with a plan though – even if you end up changing it later, it gives you a good framework to start with and refer back to so that you can be sure you haven’t missed anything.

There Will Be Some Questions You Know the Answer To, And Some You Don’t…

While this seems like a fairly obvious statement, it was one of the most helpful pieces of advice I received while I was preparing to sit Part 1. You are never going to know absolutely everything – there will always be at least one question that throws you for a loop and makes you think “how on earth am I meant to know that?!”. All you can do is make your best guess and then move on – while the exam isn’t unfair or out to get you, it is meant to be challenging and everyone has blind spots – don’t let it faze you, just move on. On the flipside, everyone has strengths as well, and you are likely to find far more questions that make you think “Yes! I know this one!!”.

I had to learn to bear this in mind especially when talking to friends or colleagues who had sat the exam before me – people love to tell horror stories starting with “You wouldn’t believe what they asked about when I sat it…”! There are always going to be questions designed to stretch people and test the limits of their knowledge, but these do not make up the majority of the paper. 

Don’t Stress!

I am fully aware that my friends, family, colleagues, and literally anyone who has been in my general vicinity in the last few months will all laugh uproariously at my hypocrisy when I say this, but try not to stress about Part 1 too much. While preparing for any major exam can feel overwhelming and world-ending, it is not the be-all and end-all, and does not reflect your worth as a scientist or as a person. I know many excellent scientists who are outstanding in their fields who did not pass on their first attempt. While Part 1 is a significant milestone, even getting to the point of sitting it is an achievement to be celebrated, regardless of the outcome. Treat yourself with kindness, take breaks when you need them, and ask for help early and often.

Best of luck to everyone sitting Part 1 in the future – I sincerely hope that my ramblings have been at least a little bit helpful. And remember – at the end of the day, it’s just a test. You will be okay. You got this!

All opinions on this blog are my own

Your Wish is My Demand: Here are some of my tips for sitting MRCPath in Micro/Viro

I posted about the FRCPath exam last Friday and in response I’ve had some people reach out and ask about MRCPath (or FRCPath part 1) and if I had any thoughts that might help in preparing for it.

Now, I have a bit of a part 1 confession. I sat part 1 in 2007, the exam was in September and my contract was due to end in a matter of weeks, and I had no idea what my next steps might be. In those days you had to work for 4 years to get your registration as a Clinical Scientist, but the training scheme only funded 3. You therefore had to find someone prepared to fund your 4th year, otherwise you dropped off the scheme with no registration and therefore you couldn’t get a subsequent role. I registered to take part 1 in case my contract ended, as I thought it would give me the best opportunity to try and find someone who would pay for my 4th year if my Trust couldn’t keep me. When I registered the exam conditions (as that time) said it was possible to defer the exam, but didn’t really give any more information. Two weeks before the exam my contract was renewed, and to be honest as it was looking likely I hadn’t even begun revising. I was just waiting for it to become official so I could confirm the deferral with the college.

My continued employment confirmed I phoned the college to defer, they said, of course! They also said that they hoped that I knew that although I could defer I would have to pay another £384 (see I still remember it to this day) to sit in the spring. I put down the phone and hyperventilated in the infection control office. I couldn’t afford another £384, I was a trainee who barely made ends meet on less that £20,000 a year in London. I walked out of the IPC office and into see my consultant (John Hartley, always a legend) who looked me in my tear-stained eyes and said, ‘well you’d better go home and start revising, see you after the exam’. My husband told me to hit Foyles bookshop on the way home, and that was that. I cancelled everything for the following 2 weeks, revised for 18 – 20 hours a day, and my poor husband asked me more exams questions than I’m sure he’d care to remember. I sat the exam and passed with (I believe) 80%, but this all means that my pathway to part 1 is probably not the one I would recommend for others. So instead of telling you more of what I did, below are some thoughts about how I would do it if I had to sit the exam over again.

Know what’s expected

Part 1 hasn’t changed much in structure since I sat it, although some of the focus of the question content has been updated as medical trainees are now joint Infectious Disease/Microbiology. There is, as expected, plenty of information on the Royal College of Pathologists website about this, but here are some of the things that I think are important to be aware of. The exam is aimed at people who are fairly early on in their speciality training, so for medical trainees this means those who have spent a year or so as a registrar. The exam itself is a different beast from what I described in my post on sitting FRCPath. It is a single 3 hour exam, consisting of what the college calls ‘best answer’, what the rest of us call a ‘multiple choice’. It covers Microbiology and Virology, as it is the same part 1 for both later FRCPath options. For context, unlike FRCPath, most people I know sitting part 1 prepped hard for about 6 weeks rather than for 6 months before the exam.

I’ve spoken to a few people recently who were prepping for part 1 and they were spending most of their time running case studies and learning a lot of detail about HIV treatment etc. I can only talk from my experience (I don’t write or have anything to do with the exam) but for me that is much more FRCPath prep. I think part 1 is much more about understanding the fundamentals of clinical microbiology: whether viruses are DNA or RNA, single or double stranded, what is the difference between decontamination and sterilisation, what are the key toxins associated with Clostridial species? There is more clinical in it now than when I sat it, and if I can I will find someone who passed more recently to write a guest blog (drop me a line to volunteer), but it’s mostly about identifying clinical risk. Part 1 is a lot about facts and memorisation of microbial characteristics and so books are where it’s at!

Get a current view

This brings me onto my first top tip. Find someone who has sat the exam recently and pump them for information. The thrust of the exam changes from year to year and so to really get prepared you need to get the most recent view you can. No one is allowed to share question information, but they can talk through and prepare you for what the current clinical vs organism balance is. They can also talk you through how much basic microbiology you need to bring into the room, and what the best resources are currently available to help you prepare. Most of your consultants will have sat this exam a long time ago and so you really need to be reaching out to your peers. If you are lucky enough to have a consultant in your department who is involved in writing the exam questions, they are still likely to be restricted as to what guidance they can give, so using your network is key.

Find a study buddy

One of the things that I would recommend for any college exams is that you find a study buddy. I did both of mine on my own, partly because of circumstances and partly because not that many scientists were sitting the exams back then. If you can pair up with someone else you will have a much easier time of it. I think this is probably true for three main reasons:

Firstly, you will probably have different areas of strength and weakness. For part 1, if you are a virologist try to find someone who is mainly a bacteriologist, you will then have a ready-made expert to help you go through concepts and visa versa. Even if you are both from the same main domain you are likely to have different interests. This is likely to help you with splitting some of the prep work. Also, if you are like me, you may only realise the gaps in your knowledge when you are trying to verbalise explanations to someone else and so it helps to have someone you can talk things through with.

Secondly, networks are really important and the more of you there are, the larger your combined networks are going to be. You will use your network to find good resources, have prep conversations and sign post you to key topics or challenges. They are the people you will go to in order to discuss how long you should prepare for ahead of the exam, to send you some test questions if you struggle to access them elsewhere, etc. As I said, you can do this on your own, but the richer your access to these, the easier your prep is likely to be. They may even be able to guide you to places that support funding the exam.

Finally, these exams are periods of high stress, by doing it with a peer you can provide each other with support during the process. Sometimes just having a friendly face to walk into the exam room with can make all the difference, or who you can text ‘OMG what is Citrobacter, I’ve had a massive blank’ when doing your reading. Building these relationships will help you throughout your career, and there’s nothing like shared high stakes moments to help bonding 😉.

Read not once but twice

There is a lot of exam technique that can help in passing both part 1 and part 2, and the sooner you start refining yours the easier it will be. The greatest piece of advice I received about sitting part 1 was ‘read through the question twice so you answer the question they’ve asked, not the question you think they’ve asked’. To be honest, I think this is the reason I passed, not because I am super smart or because I was well prepared.

The questions themselves are sometimes long. There will often be a bunch of information that can lead you to jump to conclusions about the answers the examiners are looking for. Most of the questions will have 4 options for answers. A lot of the time you can easily exclude 2 of them, just by reading the question properly. If you skim read the question though and don’t take a minute to appreciate what they are actually asking you can however go down a rabbit hole in your train of thought and pick one of the 2 that were only there for this reason. Save time by reading each question twice and asking yourself ‘what is it they are really asking me’.

Reading not once but twice also extends to checking the barcode answer sheet (if they still use these). It’s far too easy to get out of sequence or accidentally skip a line. No matter how close you are for time (and to be honest you should have plenty to spare), make time to cross-check your answer sheet at least twice. It will save you from unnecessarily losing precious marks.

Don’t over complicate things

Having said that you need to read the question carefully, there was one other thing that I remember finding really challenging in the exam itself. There was an extended matching question where you had to match the type of organism with the right molecular diagnostic test. I remember looking at the list for ages and thinking, ‘I could make a case for using any one of those for any one of these organisms’. Therein lies one of the other problems. It is possible to overthink your responses if you know too much in an area. As I said before, this exam is aimed at medics roughly a year into their training. If you have been a jobbing scientist for some time there will likely be things that you know in far greater detail than they would. It’s important if you find yourself in that kind of spiral to step away and think what would be the approach to someone just starting out in answering this question, what would the most obvious answer be, and let that guide you. Sometimes you may need to move onto other questions and to then return with a fresh set of eyes.

Go old school

One of the common traps we fall into as scientists is believing that all the questions will be based on the latest techniques. Now, it may have changed, but when I sat the exam there was a LOT of old school microbiology in there. Some it now feels old school as most of us don’t use many APIs and biochemical tests anymore. There is however quite a lot of this information that is intrinsically linked to organism characteristics, and as I’ve already said that is a lot of what this exam is about. So, if I were you, I’d pull some microbiology textbooks (not just clinical microbiology) and remind yourself what a VP/citrate/indole etc, test looks like and what they could differentiate. Remember that parts 1 and 2 are sat by international clinicians and so the exam has to serve a global purpose and reflect widely available diagnostics.

Listen to the advice but go your own way

Now, I’ve just written 2000 words of advice but I suppose this is one of the key ones. You don’t have to listen to any of it. Everyone prepares and studies for exams differently. What works for me may be completely the wrong thing for you. There is plenty of advice out there, and there are many people who will be more than happy to share their thoughts and opinions with you. Only you know what might work for you. If you’re unsure, try out different things in plenty of time and discard the ones that don’t serve you. I’ve already talked about my rather unconventional route to sitting part 1, but I made it work. You will make whatever route work that is right for you.

If at first you don’t succeed

Finally, sometimes these things don’t go your way first time. Sometimes, the questions aren’t what you expected. Sometimes, you frankly just have a bad day. I’ve known plenty of people who did not pass first time, all of whom are excellent in their posts. This can be a bitter pill to swallow for high achieving scientists who aren’t used to failure. Bear in mind however that it is more common in medical exams for people to sit multiple times. These exams are benchmarks for safety, and so there is understandably little wiggle room in terms of marks.

Sometimes, when people fail they close off to that failure and double down, rather than opening themselves up to what it can teach them. If you can, be open and take all you can from it. You will come out all the stronger. If failure happens to you, and I know this is hard, you have to let it go. Sitting these exams is in itself a learning experience. You will gain valuable insight into the exam itself to help you prepare for the next time. You will learn a bunch about how to revise, what to revise and how to read the questions. In short the process in itself will make you better, irrespective of the outcome, if you open yourself up to the learning it can provide.


There are a lot of great resources out there, and I’m sure your networks will help you identify even more. Below are just a few things I found useful when I was sitting the exam or that some of my amazing trainees have signposted that have been useful to them. I wasn’t involved in creating any of them, so they are just suggestions. As ever, pick and choose what works best for you.

Not a resource, but if you want to sympathise with my husband for living with the girl who just won’t stop studying, here is a Girlymicro podcast that we recorded about that very subject.

Hope this is all a little useful and please do drop me a line and let me know how you all do and if you’ve got any advice to add!

All opinions on this blog are my own

The Trials and Tribulations of High Stakes Assessments: How I still remember everything about FRCPath

Seven years ago this week, I found out I passed the exam to be awarded Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists (FRCPath) in Medical Microbiology. It is still the only exam, other than my PhD viva, where I vividly remember not only how it felt to sit it, but also how I felt both awaiting and getting the results. As others currently await their outcome, I’ve been reflecting on what it was about this exam that means, even 7 years on, it has had such a lasting impact on both my career trajectory and my memory? Also, why did I, as a scientist, decide to sit it in the first place?

For me, it started with you can’t

I’ve started a post that I’ll publish another time about the journey from trainee to Consultant Clinical Scientist, and the joys and pitfalls that entailed. For me, although my path may appear winding, I always knew what I was working towards and had a list of things I knew I would need to accomplish to get there. Knowing what was needed was never the issue. Knowing how to achieve it was often much less clear.

Getting FRCPath is essential to becoming a Consultant Clinical Scientist in microbiology. There are, however, 2 common ways of achieving it, by publication or by exam. I knew plenty of people who had FRCPath by publication, and it was a route that was achievable by me, as I was also on a clinical academic pathway. The problem for me was, however, that I was in a patient facing role, making patient-based decisions over a broad spectrum of activity. To me, FRCPath by publication would have given me credibility in a different way and would not, therefore, have been perceived as equivalent by my medical colleagues. I was just not sure it would fully support the work I was undertaking or aspired to undertake. So it was that I started to think that FRCPath by examination was the only way forward for me.

(Side note – I truly believe that either way of attaining Fellowship is valid. I believe it’s just about the kind of work you are going to do once you have it. That decision should drive your thinking about which is the right choice for you.)

I don’t think I’d realised how many feathers I would ruffle along the way by making that decision. One of the challenges, and also eventual benefits, is that a lot of people will give you advice along the way, and some of it will make you question your decisions. This eventually enables you to have an even greater understanding of your choices, but at the time, it can lead to a lot of self-doubt and require a lot of self-reflection. In this case, I was told you can’t by a LOT of people on the road to even sitting the exam. I was told that you could only pass if you worked as a registrar in a teaching hospital for 3 years. I was asked (even at the mock and the exam) why on earth a scientist should be allowed to sit a medics exams and what kind of job did I think I would get afterwards. In just about every way I was told that someone like me should just give up and choose a different path. Any readers of this blog know how well I deal with those kinds of responses. So, like so many other times, I had my reflections, dusted myself off, and came back with even more determination that this was the right path for me. Determination, however, doesn’t always change outcomes. All I’d done was decide to sit an exam, that was all rather different from passing it.

No one said it was going to be easy

What is FRCPath by exam all about anyway and why do people think of it as such a defining moment? It has changed a bit more recently, especially through the pandemic, but when I sat it, the exam was about 30 hours carried out over 4 days. I’ve always described it as a bit like The Great British Bake Off of microbiology exams, but without the benefit of ending the day with cake. Day 1 included written papers (essays, short answers, critical appraisal). Days 2 – 4 were wet lab practicals, with 9 written exams interspersed throughout the days. You would just be told during these to put down your loop and move to another room where a written paper would be waiting for you. These further written tests included: virology, quality, spots and public health. In my year they were closed book, but in previous years some of these had been open book. Between sessions you would be given new specimens or further clinical information on ones you’d already processed to make further laboratory actions. Doesn’t sound too bad…….right? I didn’t think it would be, or I hadn’t quite conceived of how hard it would be until I attended the mock exam up in Blackpool in June 2015.

I knew before going to the mock that the pass rate was about 40% for the real thing and I knew that everyone described it as the toughest exam they had ever sat. I just don’t think that I KNEW it. The challenges of the exam are hard to describe. Some of them are physical, how many of us physically write essays for 8 hours a day these days. I have a history of repetitive strain injury and so it was interesting to come up with a painkiller strategy that would enable me to perform as well at the end of the day as at the beginning. I was surprised at the extent of the exhaustion. Usually, I prep enough that I arrive at the exam in a ball of flames and adrenaline gets me through the day so I can collapse in a heap afterwards. With this exam you can’t do that. At the end of day one you need to study and prep more for day 2, at the end of day 2 you know there is stuff you need to pick up hinted at in the specimens so you can be more sure you know your stuff for day 3 etc etc. The exhaustion therefore accumulates until (at least for me) by day 4 I was working in an exhausted haze.

The other thing that makes this particular exam challenging is that it covers EVERYTHING. They can ask about any organism, any presentation, any vaccine, any treatment. Part of the reason it was designed that way I think, was to ensure that come day 4 when you are exhausted you can still make safe clinical decisions and spot pitfalls and risk. Normally when you walk into an exam room you have a syllabus that enables you to have a fairly reasonable chance of targeting some of your learning and determining likely content. This isn’t that exam, and therefore a lot of the exam techniques you’ve previously used are not quite as applicable. This one is more about maintaining your calm, being structured and clear in your responses and making life very easy for your examiners, in terms of finding and making your points. You have so little time for each of the components that clarity of both thought and communication are key, and practice is the only thing that will get you there, that on top of all the revision you can cram into your brain. (If useful the link to some of the content I prepped to help with revision in 2015 is here)

The ugly truth of coming face to face with who really are

All of the challenges, physical and mental, are nothing compared to the emotional and psychological roller coaster that you go through. I’ve always been fairly fortunate, in that until FRCPath I’ve never come up against a challenge where I thought I couldn’t conquer it if I worked and applied myself hard enough. It’s why I talk all the time about how it’s important to know you’re why. Your why will get you through when other things fail, your why means that you know quite what price you are prepared to pay and what you are prepared to sacrifice. Everything in life comes with a cost, life itself is resource limited. Knowing how much you value something means you know when to stay in the game and when to walk away. That has been true of every exam I’ve faced until FRCPath. FRCPath forced me to face something different. It’s the first time in my life where I’ve had to look myself in the mirror and ask myself whether I actually had what it takes. Not whether I had what it took to put in the time, to face the physical toll or wanted it enough, but whether I had actually reached my limit. Was this just something I would never be able to achieve no matter how hard I worked, but that I as a person would just fall short. I can tell you, apart from fear for my loved ones, I have never felt fear like it.

Now I’m not telling you all this to put you off sitting the exam, far from it. For me it was a life changing process, not just because of the fact that it changed my career, but because of what I learnt about myself. It made me look myself in the mirror and face something that really scares me………….failure. I can in a logical way sit here and talk about how the things I’ve previously post about impact on how I feel about failure, or how because of what happened to my sister this career means more to me than I can logically explain. The thing is none of that can encompass how I felt when having a full on panic attack outside of the exam room before going into short answers, because it had gone VERY badly at the mocks. Just not being able to find my breath. Knowing I could walk away, and just take the easy way out. Then finding the strength of resolve to make a choice, to press the button on my phone and turn on my ‘get psyched mix’. To forcibly calm my breathing and to walk into that exam room, face my fear and turn over the front page of the exam paper. I learnt more about who I am in that moment than sitting 100 easier or more straight forward exams could have shown me, and for that I am strangely grateful.

Is this the best way to test competence?

The question is, should any exam take you to that place? What is it really testing? I was told that most medical exams involve candidates sitting multiple times, it’s common for people to fail at least once, which with a pass mark of ~40% for FRCPath feels likely. I don’t know for definite that this is the case, it’s just what I’ve been told by registrars who’ve trained with me. It is true that I know many highly competent Microbiology Consultants who failed at least once. The other thing is that this test doesn’t really represent clinical practice. In the real world I would consult guidance and other sources if I had any doubts, competence isn’t just a matter of recollection, it’s mostly how we use that information in practice. At the end of the exam one of the education leads at the college turned around and congratulated us, they said not having quit and making it through 4 days was a success in itself. I do see the value in making sure that those sitting these exams can make safe decisions when they are exhausted, after all most of us will take calls when that is the case. I’m not sure however as an educational driver we couldn’t be doing something better. The exam has changed a lot since I took it, it’s now a one day exam. In some ways I’m saddened by this, it was almost a rite of passage that me and others bond over to this day. I also worry that by removing so much of the lab side of things and reducing the exam hours so drastically it could be pretty hit and miss about the content suiting candidates, rather than truly testing against the curriculum. Anyone who works in education knows that assessment design however drives educational engagement. Although I’m not by any way an expert in this, I do think that high stakes summative assessments have cons as well as pros, and just because I’m sad that the exam/rite of passage is under review does not mean that change is a bad thing.

What happens when there is no plan B?

One of the problems with high stakes summative assessments i.e., those taken at the end of learning and are pass/fail, is that there is often no plan B. This is especially true for FRCPath where there are a limited number of times you can sit it before you are not permitted anymore (x4) and will therefore never become a consultant. For someone, such as myself, who is not from a wealthy background and was being paid a junior scientist salary, the costs associated with this exam could be prohibitive. Sitting the exam was over £1000, that combined with hotel accommodation, books, paying for the mock, meant paying over £3000. I have friends who spent over £10,000.00 in 2 years sitting the exam 4 times. In a world where accessibility matters a financial barrier should not mean that someone cannot progress in their profession. Currently the exam in online and so the barriers are not the same, but the exam fee itself can add up. I needed to pass first time, not just because I couldn’t face losing another 6 months of my life, but because I was pretty sure I couldn’t afford to sit it again. I went all in and came out the other side, but I know of people who have found the process damaging, rather than the freeing experience it ended up being for me. It is an immovable block to your future and failing really does mean that you could be dealing with the consequences for the rest of your career, a career that you will have already invested years into.

The payoff was worth it all

Having been through the process though I don’t regret it for a minute. It is still one of the things in my life I am proudest to have undertaken. It has given me the courage and conviction to fight as I had stared into my soul and knew that this is what I wanted. I wouldn’t be a consultant without it, not just because I wouldn’t be qualified but because I wouldn’t have had the courage to fight for it. I still remember my candidate number, it’s become one of my favourites. I still remember crying uncontrollably when I looked at the website and saw the below, and then sent this screen shot to everyone I knew in order to make sure I hadn’t read it incorrectly.

The other thing to say is that there are lots of people out there who will tell you there is only one way to pass this exam and frankly I don’t believe that is true. The exam is a milestone on the pathway to where you want to end up. In the same way that FRCPath by publication is the right route for some people, you can pass this exam by not being a registrar for 3 years in a teaching hospital, after all, I did. It all depends on what your aspirations at the end of it are. If you work in public health you are probably not aiming to switch to being a Consultant Clinical Scientist doing on call in a district general, but to upskill and improve your clinical competence to continue working in your area. If you are like me with an aspiration to work and specialise in Infection Control in a paediatric setting, then your aspirations will be different again. It is OK to sit the exam and plan with this in mind and to make your own path. Everyone is different and where we want to end up does not have to be the same, nor the path we take to get there. The challenges we face along the way are sometimes more important that the destination. Even when it’s hard enjoy the journey, enjoy the challenge if you can and for sure enjoy the person it enables you to become. Finally, if it doesn’t work out first time know that there is life beyond, don’t let my fear of failure make you doubt that that is the case. We are after all definitely more than the sum of our grades.

All opinions on this blog are my own

A new Girlymicro podcast where we talk about what it’s like for someone living with an FRCPath candidate

Guest Blog by Jade Lambert: Choosing your next steps as a Healthcare Scientist – Why an integrated biology masters may be the right choice

Blog Post Introduction from Dr Claire Walker  

Whilst @Girlymicro is taking a well-earned break buying all her Christmas presents in New York, I’ve been loaned this wonderful platform to discuss all sorts of important matters in science and education.  

Recently I’ve been speaking a lot with students of all levels about different opportunities they have in the University environment. Things have changed a lot since my day, it’s not just a BSc then a PhD if you like research. There are so many exciting pathways for students in biological and biomedical sciences to follow, but it can become a bit of a quagmire trying to work out exactly which path you might want to take. I often start the conversation with students describing my own experiences at university and how I came to be in my current role, but increasingly I feel that they are now out of date and just aren’t relevant in the modern system.  

It can feel overwhelming when you look at the decisions you have to make when starting university – do you take an iBMS accredited course, should you do a placement in industry or the NHS or maybe a year abroad, how about a Masters by Research degree, and what the heck is an MBio? Where are the best resources and who should you ask? Dusty old lecturers like myself will be able to tell you about the content of the courses, and all about our love of research. But we aren’t going to be able to tell you what doing a placement feels like, if it’s worth spending the money on an MRes or how to choose the right undergraduate course for you. To that end, I have asked some of my most engaging and eloquent students who are completing all sorts of different degree pathways to give us all some insight into what we can gain from the university experience in 2022 rather than, let’s be kind and say, my experiences which were more than a little while ago. And with that I’m going to hand over to reins to their expert hands.  

My life as an MBio student by Jade Lambert

Since I was a child, I have always obsessed with medical programmes such as 24 hours in A&E. I found the investigative work that goes into diagnosing a patient so cool. When the programmes got a bit gory, like all these programmes tend to do, I would be fixed to the TV, fascinated by the doctor’s knowledge to save their patients. Despite growing up as quite shy person, I’ve always had a passion to helping people and making the world a better place.

I’ve always been interested in doing a science degree, the problem was picking what science degree, I wanted to do them all. At around the age of 16 I was set on doing a degree in biochemistry, until I discovered my dislike for chemistry. So, it was back to the drawing board, until I discovered biomedical science. It was like something in finally me clicked, a degree which brought my love for medicine and hands on laboratory experience all together. Then I was onto my next problem, choosing a university. This problem was a lot easier to solve, as there are only certain universities in the UK which provide an IBMS accredited course. To later register as a biomedical scientist, an accredited biomedical science degree is needed.

I landed myself applying for an integrated masters (MBio) in biomedical science at the University of Lincoln. The course is quite unique in the way that it is a 4-year undergraduate course, but the final year is a masters, MBio ‘research’ year. Explaining to people that I’m doing a masters, which isn’t a masters, but kind of is a masters has been entertaining. I am currently at the start of my MBio final year, and so far, I’ve really being enjoying it. The past 3 years of the course have been heavily focussed on learning the ins and outs of biomedical science, which gives you the knowledge to complete research in later years. As this year consists solely of research skills and my project, I have felt much more scientific freedom to read around the subject, instead of focussing on multiple modules at a time.

The originally end goal of my degree was to become a biomedical scientist for the NHS, so I was not going to do the MBio, and instead take a placement year out. However, after starting my degree I discovered my love for research, so doing the MBio year was a must for me. The MBio to me seems to be the perfect steppingstone degree to developing a researcher. My third-year project involved doing a study which the answer was already known. However, for my MBio project all the research is novel, giving a real insight to the world of research.

My new end goal of my degree is to become a Clinical Acientist in embryology, through the Science Training Programme. The possibility of doing a PhD as a clinical scientist also really excites me. This degree has not expanded my knowledge of biomedical science but has helped me find an area I really find interesting. I would really recommend the MBio to anyone wanting a career in the life sciences, it has not only advanced my knowledge in the subject but developed me into a scientist.  

All opinions on the blog are my own

Guest Blog from Daniel Nash: Placements make the world go round – why placements are so important for HCS students

Blog Post Introduction from Dr Claire Walker  

Whilst @Girlymicro is taking a well-earned break buying all her Christmas presents in New York, I’ve been loaned this wonderful platform to discuss all sorts of important matters in science and education.  

Recently I’ve been speaking a lot with students of all levels about different opportunities they have in the University environment. Things have changed a lot since my day, it’s not just a BSc then a PhD if you like research. There are so many exciting pathways for students in biological and biomedical sciences to follow, but it can become a bit of a quagmire trying to work out exactly which path you might want to take. I often start the conversation with students describing my own experiences at university and how I came to be in my current role, but increasingly I feel that they are now out of date and just aren’t relevant in the modern system.  

It can feel overwhelming when you look at the decisions you have to make when starting university – do you take an iBMS accredited course, should you do a placement in industry or the NHS or maybe a year abroad, how about a Masters by Research degree, and what the heck is an MBio? Where are the best resources and who should you ask? Dusty old lecturers like myself will be able to tell you about the content of the courses, and all about our love of research. But we aren’t going to be able to tell you what doing a placement feels like, if it’s worth spending the money on an MRes or how to choose the right undergraduate course for you. To that end, I have asked some of my most engaging and eloquent students who are completing all sorts of different degree pathways to give us all some insight into what we can gain from the university experience in 2022 rather than, let’s be kind and say, my experiences which were more than a little while ago. And with that I’m going to hand over to reins to their expert hands.  

Blog post from Daniel Nash

Who am I to write a blog post about placements?

As a Biomedical Science student on an accredited Biomedical Science course, the obvious path for me was to get myself onto a placement year working in an NHS laboratory to complete my portfolio and finish my degree ready to slot into a lab and begin helping patients. However, throughout my degree I felt this was not the path I wished to take and began feeling research was better suited to who I am. A placement is, I think, regarded as one of the best from to gain experience and improve employability while remaining a student and with all the perks that brings. And so, while looking into my options for getting into research positions and postgraduate degrees, I decided a placement year in another area would be a good idea.

My application process didn’t go amazingly, I don’t mind admitting, but given the competitive nature of placements, I’m still happy I got where I am. I was rejected from every single place I applied except for here, many on the grounds that from my biomed background, I didn’t have the specific skills demonstrated for the labs I applied to. So what placement did I get?

My Placement

I am working as a lab based analysist at Reckitt, specifically working on the Nurofen team, where I work in a lab to investigate and run tests on products across the Nurofen brand range. I have been working here for 2 months as I write this and have to say I have had mixed experiences so far. I know after this short amount of time that working in industry is not for me, but I also appreciate all the things it has and will teach me. The equipment I get to use, the analytical & investigatory techniques I will learn to use, and the independence and team working skills I will develop. All will be invaluable to be as I come out of uni looking for opportunities.

This placement was always going to be a learning curve, disregarding the skills I would learn, coming from Biomedical Science my chemistry knowledge was limited, and yet I landed smack bang in the middle of an analytical chemistry lab for complex drug formulations that I’m learning all the chemistry, toxicology, molecular interactions, analytical techniques, and terminology for. I alluded to before that this wasn’t even my first choice of placement and fighting through all the admin of a drug company at the same time made motivating myself to embrace the role harder than it should have been. but I have to give credit to my supervisor, Chander, for changing my mentality on this. We have weekly one to ones where he really emphasised the importance of using this year to learn take on new challenges and understand what I am doing. It shifted my mindset to try and look around the aspects I didn’t enjoy, and find what I could learn from it.

This is now my focus for the year to learn the skills & chemistry, understand the scientific method, and how the pharmaceutical industry works, better than I did before. Some would argue I should have thought this prior to embarking on a placement but being truthful, I think most people applying for placements know this to a degree but hadn’t internalised it like myself, (or at least need reminding of it when it gets tough as I did).

Aside from the academics

My placement was slightly unique in that there is a large cohort of around 20 students working across teams at the Reckitt R&D site, and so-far good friendships have forged, they have been great people to rely on through the chaotic onboarding stages. and we a  placement group will work together on charity events, workshops and the all-important pubs nights throughout the year. I hope these friendships stand the test of time.

I’ve played with toxic chemicals, taken part in development of the newest yet to release medications going, and met some really great people all in the sub 3 months I’ve been here. I have to recommend a placement year or summer long, to anyone in a STEM field or beyond. You can’t beat the experience and growth possibilities it provides.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Clarity is Key: The role of learning agreements in supporting learner success

It’s that time of year again and many of us will be taking on new trainees, getting to know new students or supervising new PhDs. I thought it was time therefore to share something that I’ve found increasingly useful and have now set out to cover in initial meetings with learners, and that is the development of learning agreements.

What is a learning agreement and why is taking this time worth while? Surely everyone knows what they’ve signed up for when they take a training place? The truth of the matter is that students often know the logistics of what they’ve signed up for, but any learning placement is a whole lot more than just the nuts of bolts of the curriculum. There’s a lot of expectation setting/management required for one thing. We’ll cover what learning agreements look like in a bit, but in short they are agreements based on conversations between the learner and their supervisor where they actively set out the expectations and boundaries of their relationship.

At STP/HSST and PhD level it can be the learners first experience of formal education routes within a professional setting. As supervisors we often expect learners to be able to undertake independent study at this point, identifying their own learning objectives and being responsible for any escalations. If this is the students first experience however, they may believe it will follow the pattern of the prior learning they have experienced, which may have placed a lot more focus on structure and consistency.

What is a learning agreement?

In light of these complexities what is a learning agreement and how can it help? Well they take quite a few different forms depending on what it is that you want them to fulfil. In short they are a working (and therefore dynamic) agreement between you as the supervisor/education officer and your new student/trainee. I tend to refer to them as learning agreements rather than contracts as the term contract to me implies penalties and learning contracts are what I escalate to if challenges occur during the time someone is with me.

They can include all kinds of things:

  • What topics are in or out of the learning objectives
  • How deadlines will be set and a broad plan of work
  • Expectation setting around students identifying additional learning objectives
  • Ideas for how the learner will benchmark their progress and/or learning
  • How the educator will assess progress/learning

Although the above is often the framework the most valuable parts of a learning agreement for me are less structural. It is my time to ask:

  • What kind of learner are you?
  • What kind of support do you prefer (close vs supportive supervision)
  • What are your main objectives that may or may not be topic based?
  • What are you hoping this will lead to?
  • How do you prefer to communicate, face to face, email etc?
  • Why this course? Why this training? What attracted you? In order to understand their drivers

Making the implicit explicit

In general I think most of us are good about talking about the nuts and bolts of what a course/placement entails. We are good at giving the ‘this is the bathroom’ tour and ‘this is where your desk is’ plus ‘our supervisor meetings are on Tuesday’ type of information. What I have discovered over the last few years however, is that imparting curriculum or logistic based information just isn’t enough to support a good supervisor-learner relationship, where both get what they want out of it.

I think as supervisors we have quite a lot of expectations that we don’t necessarily voice, after all for many of us this is something we do a lot of. It can therefore be easy to make assumptions about the level of awareness of these expectations from someone coming into that supervisor-learner relationship with us. The thing is, you may have been doing this a loooooong time, but your learner almost definitely hasn’t.  They won’t have that implicit and often organisational linked cultural knowledge that you have been embedded in for so long. Worse than that even, they are likely to have a whole lot of different assumptions based on their last educational experience that they are bringing with them. Unless we all work therefore to make things that we implicitly understand explicit, you won’t know where those differences in practices and expectations lie.  It is when this happens that problems often occur that could easily have been addressed early on, but have significant impacts on learner experience and supervisor stress levels.

Supports orientation to a new field/culture

As I’ve said a few times culture matters, as culture and cultural norms are intrinsically linked with the expectations we all have. Having these conversations is about more than expectation management however. Learners are coming into an environment that may be pretty alien to them. This can make students feel like they are floundering, right from the start, meaning that they don’t feel like they fit. A small percentage of students are likely to walk away because of this, not really understanding the cause. This is often combined and amplified by the fact that they may have moved or lost their support networks in the transition.

Talking about your role (and similar roles) with learners helps, not only to build your relationship and set expectations, but also to support them in making the transition into being a scientist in practice, not just in name. It took me years to feel like a scientist, to feel comfortable calling myself that, to feel like I belonged. Having conversations where students understand what it takes to succeed as a scientist, not just in a placement, can be invaluable to learners re-establishing support networks. Also, supporting learners to find other trainee groups,  to join twitter, or of timings for lunch clubs, can help them settle into their new role and their future profession.

Setting matters

Having these conversations can feel uncomfortable and challenging, mostly because of the fear of the unknown. They may also take time we may not have. All of these are reasons to make sure they are done correctly and given the time required. If you are nervous having them with your learner then imagine how nervous they may be to have them with you. You are asking for a lot of honesty and self reflection from someone who doesn’t know you well, in a relationship where trust may not yet have been built. Furthermore, you are asking for all of this in a relationship where you probably have all the power and where your learner is likely to be highly keen to please, rather than representing their true self..

So how do we hold these conversations and support them getting the best outcomes? I think there a couple of things we can be mindful of. The first is not dropping them on the learner. If we want the conversation to deliver we both need to do the work. I need to be honest with myself about time and also what kind of supervisor I am. The student needs to be given the questions or a framework beforehand and supported to have time to reflect on themselves to be able to answer the questions asked. They may need to be encouraged to speak to friends or family to support them in this reflection if they’ve never done it before. They can then start the process of reflection by thinking in the presence of people they trust, if needed.

Think about where you physically want to have the conversation. I tend to take learners out, to a none Trust space where we can have tea and cake (or other suitable consumables). I’ve written before about the power of tea. The main reason that I do this is that it means we are no ones turf, we are in a neutral space, and the provision of food further helps to reduce/remove hierarchy. When thinking about where however, you need to consider privacy. Your learner may need to share things that are private or important to them, and so considering the type of location is also important.

The other important thing about getting the conversation right is setting the conversational scene before you start the conversation itself. You need to be clear about the objectives that you want to achieve, why they are helpful to both parties and set some ground rules. It’s key to say that honesty is the most important part of this process. It’s OK to have styles that don’t match, by knowing this early you can sign post and find additional support to ensure that the learning process itself still works.

What happens when the expectations don’t match

Hopefully by going through the process of creating a learning agreement you will avoid any significant bumps along the way later on. The process needs to be done thoroughly though, so you don’t just hear what you’d like to hear. As stated above it’s ok to have areas of difference, it’s what you can flex in response to that information and how you respond that matters.

For example, I am never going to be a good micro manager, I have neither the time or personal inclination to work this way. I have fallen foul of not having had the learning agreement conversation and subsequently had learners who felt they were inadequately supported. If I find out that I have a learner who feels they need close support I need to therefore make some pragmatic choices. Is it they will need close guidance for the transition period? If so I can likely change my style for a period of a couple of months in order to support that orientation to a new location. Is it that this is their learning style long term? In this case I need to think about pairing them up or seeking support from a colleague who is better able to provide that close support during the periods in between our catch up sessions.

I have also struggled previously with learners who have not met the outputs that I had expected. This may be more of an issue with PhD students, but to be honest if I’m not clear about publication expectations how will they know? Therefore if it becomes apparent that the timeline expectations don’t match it is worth considering drawing up a broad, high level, delivery plan so you are both working towards the same mental models

Finally, it may be that learners make it clear that they have pastoral care expectations that you may or may not be able to support. Prior to going into these sessions it is important to be aware of the different additional support services that learners have available to them. Whether they need them or not in the moment it is crucial that you sign post to these, especially if you are not the kind of supervisor who will take on this kind of support role. Additionally, there are likely to be plenty of networks that offer peer support that you can sign post learners to. There will always be things that they want to talk about that they won’t want to talk to you about. Let’s be honest, no matter how well you get on there will be times they need to moan about you as a minimum. Being open about this being OK and linking them into peer groups can be incredibly valuable

No matter what you hear in this space it’s important to be open and judgement free, in order to support honest sharing. If you hear something you don’t agree with it’s important to take a beat and try to understand the drivers of that view point. By being open to opinion and challenge now you are investing in success later on. I don’t know about anyone else but I studied in a different time, my undergraduate degree finished 20 years ago. My expectations of learners and learner experience therefore is, to be frank, well old. I’ve also worked in one place for 18 years. It is naïve therefore to believe my experience and expectations are going to perfectly match the learners who are coming through now.

There is a big difference between being someone’s educational supervisor and someone’s manager. In some cases we are both, but we need to understand that they are different roles with different requirements on both sides, and be aware of what hat we are wearing when. Techniques such as learning agreements can help make sure that we do the ‘education’ part better by having the kinds of conversations you would not have with someone you just had a managerial relationship with. It encourages self reflection, expectation management and consensus forming. All of which are skills that we should be modelling for those learners we are supporting. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know. So let’s start this new academic year by having conversations better and talking about how we can all be the best we can be.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Surviving Your Viva: My top 10 tips for oral exams

I’ve sat my fair share of viva voce exams in my time and I must admit I’ve always been pretty intimidated by them, that said they’ve never been as bad as I feared when I finally got in the room. They’ve been on my mind this week as one of my PhD students is due to have her viva on Friday and so I thought I would write down my top tips in order to bring your best self to the process. This post focusses a lot on PhD viva’s but I think a lot of the principles can be extrapolated to other types of oral exams.

1 – Do your prep

Some people think that the viva process is about what happens in the room. Although you have to ‘bring it’ during the discussion your life can be made much much easier by doing a good job in the prep phase.

If you are having a viva for a PhD this goes all the way back to researching the administrative side of the process and being actively involved in examiner selection. In an ideal world your supervisor would sit with you, talk you through the stages and actively involve you in the discussions, we both know however that the world isn’t always that ideal and you may have to be prepared to do this leg work for yourself.

There are some benefits to owning this phase of the work. For my PhD there was a communication breakdown towards the end and my supervisor wanted me to delay submitting for another year and therefore refused to sign the submission paperwork. I knew that I needed to submit on my current time scale as I wanted to sit FRCPath in my NIHR funded time. I also knew because I’d spent time researching the administrative side of things that I wasn’t required to have sign off, that part just meant that UCL weren’t responsible for any failures. So I submitted anyway and passed. I also researched, found and submitted my examiner paperwork and choices.

The downside to selecting your own examiners without supervisor support is that you run the risk of only selecting based on academic publications or area of interest. I was fortunate as I personally knew plenty of people in the field of IPC and so could select with greater context. If you only select on the basis of publications you can end up with an unbalanced panel or one that doesn’t support you to have a discussion that really represents you or your work to the best of your ability. So if you are in a position where you need to lead on this make sure you also find out what kind of examiner they are, and whether there are any political conflicts of interest before making a final decision.

2 – Have a practice

Whatever your situation it is always worth having a practice viva, preferably with people that scare you just a little. Ask that amazing post doc who has always been a little intimidating or the person that always asks good but challenging questions at lab meetings. You don’t want to destroy your shaky confidence at this point but if set yourself a challenge you will amazed at how much easier it is when you are in the room for the real thing.

One of my other PhD students had their upgrade recently and his other supervisor and I ran a mock. Now I apparently can get a little intense when I’m asking questions about science and very rarely I’ve been called ‘the destroyer’ when it comes to challenging the science presented by reps if I’ve found it to be misleading. It was therefore reported back that if you can survive a mock with me the actual event will be a walk in the park. I don’t know if that’s true, but what I do know is that if you have a relationship with your supervisor that permits this kind of mock session, your supervisor will know the strengths and weaknesses of your project intimately. They will therefore be able to ask ALL the questions that you hope your real examiners will skip over or not pick up on. The purpose of us asking these questions is not to discredit what you’ve worked so hard on, all work has weaknesses, it’s to help you develop a strategy to answer those questions.

These sessions can also be useful to prep the paperwork you’re taking into the viva with you. I had my thesis labelled up with colour coded tabs and had post it notes within it to remind me of key points in case I got flustered (Bayesian modelling haunts me to this day). A practice viva will help you work out whether what you have done works and if you need to change anything before the real thing.

3 – Know your examiners

I’ve already talked a little bit about researching examiners before you select them, but in the run up to the big event there are last minute things that are worth doing. Firstly, check any of their publications that have come out since you submitted your thesis. I had these printed out and annotated to take into my viva so I had prepared for discussion based on their latest work. Second, when your doing your thesis notes think about highlighting your examiners papers that you have referenced and be very aware of how they have linked into your narrative. They will also have published papers adjacent to your work which you may not have referenced, be aware of these and where the conversation topics may therefore drift to in order to help you be prepared.

Third, and this is a bit more work but worth doing if you have time, check out who they referenced. We all have go to references and authors, your examiners are no different. By looking at the reference lists in their papers you can see who their go to authors are and you can see where your over laps are. Also, be prepared for questions if you haven’t cited the same papers. Finally, check the latest publications within the big name journals within your field. Examiners may occasionally ask questions about the latest big work in your field, even if it’s not directly related to your work, to see how well read you are and if you have a wider interest. This isn’t a pass or fail question, but your PhD project may be different to where you end up as a post doc and it helps to gauge how you might make the transition to working in academia more generally.

3 – Think how you want to present yourself

This may seem like a given but it’s really useful to think about how you want to be perceived in the room. How much this matters, in part, is dependent upon some of the research you’ve done. There are some examiners who would immediately think less of you if you turn up in the room and aren’t suited and booted. The main thing In terms of clothing and outfit is that it’s important to be comfortable, whatever route you choose to go down. You may be sitting in that outfit for 6 hours and so you don’t want to have to constantly be adjusting necklines or moving waist bands that are cutting into you. You need to be in the moment and so choose an outfit that helps that by making you feel comfortable in your own skin, preferably professional enough that you don’t risk upsetting anyone. You may find wearing a T-shirt under that top that sums up who you are is helpful or having a mascot in your pocket that you can slip a hand into a pocket and grip if it gets stressful is useful. I genuinely don’t believe there are any hard and fast rules here other than to plan it before hand and make sure you give your an outfit a dress rehearsal to make sure it empowers rather than distracts you.

To be honest appearance isn’t something that is important to me when I examine, being present and polite in the room is waaaaaay more important to me. I find body language is really key in this kind of face to face assessment. You really need to be aware of what your body language is saying. No matter how you feel it’s going it’s important to stay open, smiling and responsive in terms of your body language. If you have a ‘resting bitch face’ it’s worth being aware of it as you don’t want to come over as angry or defensive when you are dealing with the questions. Mostly because you won’t get your point across anywhere near as clearly as it will be distracting for the examiners.

4 – Answer the question they ask not the one you’d prefer

This one is true whether it’s an oral exam or written paper, answer the question you are asked not the one you wish they’d asked. Now as part of your viva prep you will probably learn to answer some of the difficult ones like a politician, where you acknowledge the questions and then deflect to a strength when following up. This is different to just not answering the question. I’m so guilty of this one. I tend to be holding a conversation in my head at the same time as being in the room and so I will proceed to the next question in the conversation I’ve planned rather than listen to nuance of the one I’m actually being asked. I have to really force myself to be calm and really listen to the question. I always make sure I have water or something I can drink in the room and try to force myself to take a sip before I answer a question when I’m feeling stressed or nervous in order to stop me jumping in and make me focus on the question. Hearing the question can be especially tricky in a PhD viva when the questions may be long and multi-component. I took in a pad so that I could write down sections from multi-component questions (just words as prompts) so that I could try to ensure that I was answering everything that was asked of me.

Remember that in a PhD viva you are also able to take the lead in some of the discussion, this is your chance to really talk about your work after all, but it’s important that you bear in mind the point you are trying to make rather than meandering or going down rabbit holes. If you go off topic too much it can give your examiner doubts about your ability to prioritise key points, which can indicate a lack of thorough understanding.

5 – Don’t try to blag it

If you don’t know the answer please just say so, it’s OK. There is nothing worse than having someone try to pretend they know the answer or watching them actively make things up in a viva. Science is about the unknown and there will be numerous points in your working life where you don’t know the answer. If you try to blag it can indicate that you might not acknowledge key failings or points in your work/field you don’t know/understand, not just in your viva but in your practice. This can be a really big red flag and will mean your examiners push harder and dig more to uncover what other weaknesses may be present. It is perfectly fine to acknowledge that you are having a blank and would prefer to come back to a question later, or say that is not something you actually have a concrete answer for but you would consider X, Y, Z in finding an answer. Practice responding to questions you don’t have the answer to, it will stand you in good stead for conference questions and all kinds of other situations in the future.

6 – Give credit where its due

A lot of PhDs and other pieces of work contain sections where you supported rather than led. You may have had some statistics, bioinformatics, or sampling support. I’ve had a couple of (non examination) situations recently where instead of acknowledging this individuals have obfuscated the support they had. If this happens in an exam situation then it’s really concerning, if it comes out in an exam situation and has not been acknowledged in the thesis this is also really not good. It is OK to have work that has been co-created or even led by others, as long as this is well acknowledge and there is enough in your thesis that is unique or led by you. Again, hiding these other contributions makes your examiners question the level of your contribution and they will get the spades out to start digging. Science and medicine is a team sport, don’t be afraid to acknowledge that. Being able to work with others is a strength and not a weakness.

7 – Be prepared to talk about your why

Although PhD viva exams can feel like they are all about the data that’s not actually true. They are also about you as a person, not just the science. It is important therefore to be prepared to answer questions to help the examiners get to know more about you. What was it that made you want to do a PhD? What were your skills and interests when you started? What were your learning outcomes that you were aiming to complete by the time you finished?

A PhD is effectively an apprenticeship in research with the aim that you will become an independent researcher at the end. All that is about more than just data collection. What skills and techniques do you feel like you’ve picked up along the way? What other transferable skills have you learnt? Have you mentored masters students? Presented at conferences? Written papers? Have you undertaken any science communication or public engagement – what have you learnt? Which courses have you undertaken as part of your PhD? What networks have you become part of? What collaborations have you formed? Thinking and preparing to answer questions like this will give your examiners a much greater idea of where you came from and help to bench mark how far you’ve come.

8 – Prepare to talk about the future

The other thing that you should be prepared to talk about (after where you’ve come from) is where you are going to. A common question is ‘if money or resources were no object how would you change the work you have done so far and how would you plan the next steps for your project?’

You will have had plenty of time to reflect on the weaknesses of your work, this is the moment where you get to talk about how you would address those weaknesses by discussing what the next steps for your work could be. Practice both a realistic ‘I would put in a grant to X funding body to continue Y aspect of my work because….’ answer as well as a super ambitious version for if someone took away all of the resource limitations placed upon you.

You should also be prepared to talk about your plans for the future. Are you going to stay in academia? Are you interested in transferring to industry? Would you like to become a clinical academic? This a great way to help examiners understand why you may have made some of the choices of direction you’ve made linked to project, for instance taking a more clinical bent. It is also a good way to have a conversation that may help your thinking about where you want to be in 5 years and if you’re lucky gain advice from some very experienced people on next steps.

9 – Know we’re rooting for you

A lot of people go into the examination room thinking that it will be adversarial setting, the opposite should be true, we are rooting for you. Our job is to support you through the process to get the most out of both you and your work. Everyone understands that you will be nervous, everyone in that room has sat on the other side of the table, has sat in your shoes, they know therefore both how it feels and what it means.

Don’t be afraid to talk about challenges your have faced, in fact you will often be asked to talk about the biggest challenges within your project. It is important to think about what you want to discuss in response to this question: what was the challenge? how did you respond to it? what was the learning you took from it, both about yourself and the work? These questions are important for the examiner not just to understand what your progress to viva has involved but also how you think and respond. This is a great opportunity to talk about things that matter to you and to help the examiners get to know who you are as a scientist. By doing the work to prepare you are doing all you can to help your examiners achieve this. Stay open, stay engaged and stay hopeful.

10 – Keep calm and carry on

Finally, this is a big one. No matter what happens in that room know that it is rarely the end. For good or bad almost everyone comes out of that room with further work, with something more to do. That is very much part of the learning. A lot of people who haven’t done a PhD think that the viva is the end of the process, the big hooray, but I must admit it didn’t feel real to me until I stood at a graduation ceremony in my robes knowing it was truly done.

Whatever happens you will work out of that room with a whole bunch of concrete information that will allow you to put a bow on what will already be (probably) one of the best pieces of writing you will ever do. You will also have learnt more than you could dream in the process of prepping for the viva and during the event itself. You will come out of it as a stronger, better person who will have learnt so much about yourself and what you can really achieve when you put your mind to it.

So as much as any oral exam is terrifying, know that you will actually benefit so much from the process. It’s one of the few moments in your life where people will be forced to listen to you talk about a topic you will know more about than just about anyone in the world. Enjoy the captive audience and if you can try to be in the moment and make the most of the experience.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Blog: Claire and Sam take over the Environment Network

Today is the Environment Network 2022 event: The Role of Surfaces and Surface Decontamination in Managing healthcare association infection (HCAI) and as @Girlymicro is busy running the show she has tagged in her willing PhD student Sam Watkin, and regular contributor Dr Claire Walker to live blog this event. Let’s get started #EN2022.

What Is the Environment Network?

The Environment Network works to support people in clinical, engineering and scientific roles who are interested in environmental infection control

Do you want to know more about what to do with your water screening and air sampling results?  Are you keen to understand the evidence behind equipment cleaning and the role of the environment in healthcare associated infection?

Then welcome to the Environment Network!  This is a network for people in clinical/scientific/engineering roles within the NHS and other associated organisations who are interested in the role of environmental infection prevention and control in preventing infection. 

The aim of the network is to support infection prevention and control professionals involved in commissioning, environmental audit, water, air and surface testing within their Trusts.  By working together we can share best practice between Trusts; as well as circulating the latest evidence and discussing personal experiences. 

We are so excited to be live blogging the wonderful EN conference this year. Dr Elaine Cloutman-Green BEM opens the conference setting the scene for a wonderful day of networking, learning and discussions with our clinical, industry and academic colleagues. We’ve all come here today create a friendly network of experts. Because sometimes we all need to phone a friend at 4.30 on a Friday when everything is going wrong, and this is the perfect opportunity to grab every experts number.

Morning Presentation Session

The esteemed Professor Jean-Yves Maillard from Cardiff University leads us through his thoughts on options for surface clean and surface decontamination. This topic is very much at the forefront of our minds in the EN, and whilst there has been huge progress in hand hygiene (thanks COVID!), Prof Maillard’s fascinating talk demonstrates how many factors have to be considered to really make a surface ‘safe’. There are so many variables to consider; what product to use, how effective a product is, what factors impact on that efficacy and unique multifaceted challenges we face in this field particularly when it comes to training and developing best practice across healthcare specialisms.

He raised a very interesting and important point when thinking abut surface decontamination – how do you define a “safe” surface? Let’s talk about norovirus – when we consider that it takes 10 virus particles make you sick and there are one billion virus particles per gram of vomit or faeces – you best hope your cleaning strategy works or the whole cruise ship (or worse hospital ward) is going down. The difference between looking clean and being safe is shown, just because it looks shiny doesn’t mean that you can eat your dinner off it!

As we come to discussing decontamination chemicals, the focus turns to compliance with surface decontamination protocols which are essential in maintaining environmental decontamination efficacy. Prof Maillard raised fascinating points on how products are used and why this matters. Different delivery methods, such as spray, foam or pre-wetted wipes, have significant impacts on the efficacy of compounds and their proper use is often hard to consistently achieve.

Further complicating the issue, different microbes have different susceptibilities to different decontamination agents. Wipes that can remove a Gram-negative pathogen can do very little against a Gram-positive. We know that some key pathogenic organisms like Clostridioides difficile require higher levels of disinfection compared to others, but other pathogens often have different requirements to each other. Multidrug resistant organisms can often be resistant to quaternary ammonium compounds meaning you may be able to clean off antibiotic-sensitive Klebsiella, but the drug-resistant ones could remain. Similarly, despite some company claims to the contrary alcohol gel does nothing against C.difficile spores.

Prof Maillard detailed just how important this is by describing some shocking cases of where cleaning has gone wrong. The use of inappropriate compound concentrations and a lack of consistent training on new products can have truly terrifying consequences in the hospital environment. In untrained hands, cleaning can actually make the situation worse not better, for example poor cleaning with can spread viruses around a patients room rather than remove them. We all have so much to learn from not taking detail for granted and how basic precautions like ‘one wipe, one direction, bin it‘ can prevent healthcare associated infections.

As the talk comes to a close we ask can we trust claims of residual activity of decontamination products? Does it really leave a surface ‘clean’ and ‘safe’ for 48 hours? Do these products really work as well as companies or their representatives claim? Prof Maillard says we really can’t trust everything we read. A disinfectant used improperly can select for microorganisms resistant to that product. This highlights not only the importance of choosing the right disinfectant compound, but on using it correctly too. With pandemics in the press, it’s more important than ever that we have an open dialog and solid evidence base for what we use, how we use it and when to use it to create safe environments for both patients and staff.

In our second presentation of the day Karren Staniforth from UKHSA explains the role of novel decontamination techniques in healthcare

It’s important to acknowledge that in decontamination, one box does not fit all. A high risk patient post chemotherapy has very different requirements to a healthy adult popping to the GP to ask for a repeat prescription. Furthermore, we know can’t sterilize everything. It simply doesn’t work that way, so we need to be decontaminating to an appropriate level for the site. If we can avoid high-level sterilization we should as they are expensive, potentially damaging to the site and generally involve harmful chemicals. So how do we manage surfaces categorized as ‘low risk’? For those of us who aren’t so familiar with disinfection in the low risk setting this means something that comes into contact with intact skin. A huge number of different products are available but today Karren is are talking about UV light, and gases and vapours – why we might want to use them and how we might automate these systems.

Karren raises an important issue that automated decontamination techniques don’t remove human error, particularly as they generally require humans to set them up. We still need manual cleaning of rooms when using these, so they very much are there to support environmental cleaning and decontamination, not to replace manual decontamination. However, there are some incredible advantages to an automated system – not least that they are highly reproducible thus much easier to audit and, with proper calibration, should be highly precise and accurate.

Karren tells us why it is so important to use and understand what disinfectant efficacy really tells us, and why it is crucial to be sceptical and to question the manufacturers claims about their products. She details a fascinating history of working in infection prevention and control, and the journey from cleaned rooms actually causing MORE infections to introducing novel technologies and strategies that are proven efficacious. Her talk is peppered with wonderful real world experience of infection, prevention and control. Simple strategies like removal of felt notice boards from wards also had a huge impact in improving cleaning strategies to rid geriatric wards of C.difficile. As a member of the EN steering group (Claire), I am heartened to hear how sharing our stories can improve real world patient care.

Karren closes her talk with some fascinating points about cleaning frequency rather than specificity. We really need to thing about exactly what we are trying to achieve in each setting, and often a bespoke mixed-approach will be what fits the bill.

Post Coffee Talk Session

Claire has been let loose on her own now – with Sam giving his presentation next.

Revived by our coffee we move onto the much anticipated talk by our pal Sam who, with the knowledgeable Helen Rickard, is guiding us through monitoring microbial surface loads – how we should approach it in healthcare and some key findings from their exciting work. Monitoring let us pick up presence and movement of clinically relevant microorganisms in the hospital setting promoting surveillance and targeted treatment programs. This is done routinely in hospitals, but can be stepped up after an outbreak or when transmission is unexpected.

Sam gives us a step by step guide to the different samples and how you might process them to identify the microbial population present. His data demonstrate how important continual sampling is – just counts of microbial species are a snap shot of the situation, and when repeated sampling is done microbial persistence is revealed telling the whole story.

Helen Rickard walks us through why sink surfaces are so important in HCAI. Sinks are the perfect environment for microbes to thrive, and the presence of running water disperses and aerosolises bacteria. They are also often very close to patients. Helen is interested in the impact the patients will have on sink surfaces. Her exciting preliminary data reveals that numbers of organisms detected on sinks double when patients inhabit wards, and numbers of human commensals massively increase. We’re already excited for Helen to come back and tell us more when she is further along into her project.

Dr Marco-Felipe King from the University of Leeds is up next, telling us all about how one can model the impact of surface decontamination. Dr King’s work links airborne and surface contamination, looking at the impact of ventilation on surface contamination, and then transmission onto human fingers. We watch an incredible computer generated model depicting how viruses spread across a ward onto surfaces challenging the myth that viral particles don’t deposit on surfaces. Dr King’s enthusiasm for understanding microbial recontamination of surfaces (why microbial loads sometime increase after cleaning) is infectious. He showed several delightfully complicated formula to model these (and explained them very well!). In Dr King’s own words, “something funny is going on” with the data, which inspired lively discussion amongst all the delegates. He showed how much relative humidity matters for transferring organisms to hands when surfaces are touched – basically proving you should never lick your fingers when on the tube.

Dr Lena Ciric from University College London brings our morning session to a close with a fascinating talk all about the importance of surface loads, and how they differ in healthcare and the community.

Dr Ciric kicked her talk off by discussing the challenges of achieving low surface loadings in the healthcare setting, explaining that while we want microbially clean surfaces in hospital, we have evolved to live with microbes. She highlighted how few guidelines actually exist for surface loading levels, and the challenge this presents to standardisation. Dr Ciric’s data looked at colony forming units collected from a range of locations – hospital wards, the FA cup final, the Brits and even the Tube – to understand what a safe level of microorganisms on surfaces should be. Safe to say we are never touching a surface on the tube again. But it’s not simply a case of how much of something is there, we need to understand what microbial species are present. Her data on presence of SARS-CoV-2 presence showed that colony forming units (CFU) didn’t reflect how much SARS CoV-2 RNA was present on the tube, so whilst the CFU guidelines are interesting more work needs to be done. Really highlighting the importance of, in Dr Ciric’s own worlds, ‘you’ll find what you go looking for’!

Reflections on Surfaces

What an absolutely brilliant, informative and lively morning. It’s difficult to condense such a varied and thoughtful set of presentations into a few take home messages.

  • The importance of moving past the marketing – we really need to question how good products are, validate them for use and develop sound guidelines.
  • Human factors are hugely important – without proper training even the best tools are not helpful
  • The overall takeaway for the transfer of organisms to people’s hands: “it depends”

TLDR: @girlymicro let Claire and Sam loose on her blog, who had lots of fun but she should definitely have provided a word count.

All opinion on this blog is my own

More Than the Sum of Our Grades: Why academic success only tells part of the story

I thought I should start with an apology, this one is all about me. There is a point to it but you may have to get through a chunk of stuff about me first. If you don’t fancy that there are links to some of my other posts at the bottom that you may fancy more.

Everyone tells you that academic qualifications aren’t everything and they really are not, depending on the path you want to take. In many ways the more qualifications I have the more I question their validity, but I get to do that now from a position of privilege where I no longer really have any skin in that particular game. That said A-level and GCSE results have come out in recent weeks and it got me remembering the day I received mine, more than that it made me think about every time I stood there waiting for a sheet of paper to be put up on a wall or to open an envelope (yes I am that old 😉).

If you look at my CV now you’d see a pretty good list of academic achievements but there are things that you don’t see. Past a certain point no one lists their GCSE or A-level grades. You also don’t see the fact that I have never been the smartest person in the room, I’ve never been the top. The reason you don’t see it is because none of that actually matters, it’s about the body of work rather than a single point in time. When you get those results however no one tells you that or even if they did you probably wouldn’t believe them. Those results are your whole future, they feel like your whole world. I wanted to just write something to put out there that shows that no matter what you received it doesn’t have to define either who you are or your future, it’s just one step on the way.

GCSE horror show

Frankly my GCSE years were a bit of a horror show. Not because I didn’t want to study or engage but health wise it was basically a disaster. I caught glandular fever (Epstein Barr virus) and ended up with such bad swollen lymph glands under my arms I couldn’t lower them for days at a time and turned yellow due to the hepatitis. On top of this I slept 23 hours a day and it just didn’t get better. I ended up with post viral fatigue and for my 5th year at school managed an hour a day, on a good day. I was withdrawn from all but the basics (maths, english and double science) and told I should plan for failure.

I sat no mocks and frankly had no idea what day it was let alone feeling on top of anything. School became a terrifying place where I could see everyone else moving on rather than a place where I fit in, as I had loved to study. I never really had a lot of school friends but all but one basically forgot I existed (cheers to Heather who always stood by my side). I missed all the big occasions, no last day of school with signatures for me, no last school disco. I was just left behind and I really started to believe the tale that I was being told that my aspirations were over.

Things got worse when I sat the exams. I managed a weekend of revision pre the written papers, although it really blew me out. I did that awful thing of not really reading the instructions as I was so nervous. My english literature exam was up first and instead of answering 2 of 5 essays, I answered them all. I couldn’t understand why I was furiously writing whilst everyone else looked so calm or had finished with loads of time. It just fed into my panic. With 5 minutes to go I finally finished and went back to the start to see the words 2/5 glaring at me from the front page. I felt like I’d screwed it on day 1.

Come results day I just didn’t even want to go. I was so convinced of my failure and that I had sealed my fate. I had no plans for next steps, I had no college or A-level plans. I picked up my envelope and I suspect other people’s tears were for very different reasons. My 2 A’s (english lit and language) BB (duel science) and C in maths were so far from what I had hoped for at the start but were so unexpected on the day. Everyone stood around me with 11 and 12 passes but my 5 meant that I was still in the running. I still had a chance. I went back home and went to bed for a week, there was no energy for celebrations and dreamt of what next.

A-level winging it

As I said I’d made no plans for A-levels as no one thought they were an option. My mum (who is loyal, devoted, loving and probably a genius) swung into action in a way that I will be forever grateful for and don’t deserve. She got me a last minute place organised to do A-levels at the secondary school less than 5 minutes from my home. My original school were so focused on grades and success that it wasn’t even discussed as an option. So 3 weeks later I’m due to start at mixed sixth form, having only studied in a single sex environment since 11, with no one I knew, having never even visited the school. Nervous was not the word. The school knew about my health issues and to be honest the word university was not being mentioned. So that I could manage health wise I started A-level biology, which happened in normal school hours, and A-level drama that had some evening classes so I could rest during the day. That was it. 2 A-levels. Only 1 of which was considered serious. I set to it.

In what will become a theme for my life I felt so far behind. For my GCSE exams I studied the minimum possible to be able to pass for a weekend, that did not enable me to keep up with my peers during A-level biology classes. I was the idiot who knew nothing, understood nothing. If I had had friends I probably would have understood earlier that most of my class mates felt the same way but I didn’t, the switch from GCSEs to A-levels is hard but I thought it was just me.

Drama on the otherhand was a revelation. For someone who was struggling to find a refreshed version of her identity and new place in the world as the plan she’d had was falling by the wayside, drama was my safe space. You could choose to be loud or quiet. You could often choose to watch or engage. I was in a place where my choices were given life. Not just that but I didn’t feel behind, the texts were new to everyone, it was a very different space. I still didn’t fit, on the first day they thought I was their teacher not a student, but being able to academically engage in a place I didn’t feel like a failure was something that gave me hope, it kept me going. It’s partly why I’m still so passionate about the use of STEAM now. When I had no other way of being me it helped me find myself.

By the end of my 1st year of A-levels I was beginning to feel a bit more like me, a bit more able to think about the future. I still wasn’t physically right but my mind was a bit more back on track and I wanted to be able to plan again. I knew that if I wanted to even apply for uni that I would need 3 A-levels plus general studies and I only had 2. Let’s put to one side that I had no idea what I would apply to study I just knew that 3 A-levels was the first step. As I’ve said the school where I was doing my A-levels did evening classes that were open to everyone. I can’t even remember how it happened but I found an amazing psychology teacher who I spent some time talking to and who said she would help me. We came up with a plan. There was no way I could cover 2 years of psychology in 1 but I didn’t need to. The course was split into core and optional modules. If I took some of the evening classes and some of the day classes across years I could still cover all the core components. I then just had to cover 1 optional and make sure that I knew it super well as I’d have no essay options – I’d have to be able to answer the one that came up. I also registered on general studies knowing I would just have to turn up to the exam and hope as I wouldn’t be able to physically manage any more classes.

I also knew that despite ‘the plan’ I wasn’t going to be well enough to manage full time uni the next year and so I would give it everything I had and then defer my place for a year.

I basically spent that year working and sleeping. I didn’t have much left in the tank for anything else, but I had a plan. I also had an amazing cheer leader in my mum who repeatedly let me know that her love was unconditional and that she had my back, but I could also stop at any point if I wanted to. The choice was my mine. That word choice is so important when you feel like your options are taken from you. I chose to go for it. At the end of that year I got my envelop. The uni’s I’d applied to required ABB or 3 BBB with the A or B in biology. I got 2 As a B and a C. The C was in biology. The A’s were in psychology and drama. I didn’t get in. I can sit here and say that the fact that I managed to get passing grades was amazing, that to come from nothing to a C in biology was such an achievement, but none of that is true. I felt crushed. I felt that the people who told me I couldn’t make it were right and what was I thinking. Then someone stuck me a room and handed me a phone and told me to call clearing. I had no idea what clearing was or what I even want to study, but somehow an hour later I’m going to a city I’ve never even visited (Liverpool) to study a course (general science) which I didn’t even know anything about – apart from the fact that it would enable me to choose my science speciality later on which at that moment felt sooooooooo important.

Everyone moved past me once again as I deferred for a year and focussed on getting well. I also took a part time job, not only to help me earn some money for uni (we weren’t rich and I’d need it) but also so I could see how I managed to see if I was OK to go.

University catch up

I turned up for my first week at uni and if A-levels had been a shock they were nothing on this. EVERYONE and I mean EVERYONE seemed to be more prepared, understood more and frankly knew more than I did. I had been so relieved to just arrive I hadn’t planned for what would happen next. As it turned out 3 main things occurred:

  • One – I learnt the importance of finding my tribe
  • Two – I learnt to hide my fear and insecurities
  • Three – I found ways around things so that I could hide my knowledge gaps

Now, some of these I’ve written about separately on this blog, like finding your tribe, and as a life lesson it has stood me in so much good. I found a small group of people who I could learn with, who didn’t make me feel foolish and behind, even if I didn’t ever really share with them how I felt. One person in particular, Diane, became my study buddy and we would have late night chinese, work out pass margin requirements and all in all keep each other going. She was a bridesmaid at my wedding and I was maid of honour at hers, if it wasn’t for Diane I wouldn’t have made it through. She’s northern, straight forward and stopped me listening to the voices of doubt and fear that troubled me in the middle of the night.

As for the other two things I learnt they have their pros and cons. I’ve reached a point in my life now where I’m pretty open about my fears and insecurities, I write this blog after all. The thing is fear festers because we don’t talk about it and one of my motivations in writing this blog is so that others don’t feel alone in their self doubt and their challenges. I can do that now though as someone who has worked through a lot of them and who has (thankfully) gotten to a place in her life where I’m less bothered by what people think of me than I am in trying to help others find their way. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was a 19 year old who was still struggling to feel like she belonged. This is an after uni story, but I still remember my first week as a trainee Clinical Scientist and having people stare at me as I tried to pipette into an agarose gel, and having people comment on whether I was back pipetting and how interesting my style was. I had no style. No one had ever taught me how to pipette, I had never run a molecular test, I was a Zoologist who ended up in microbiology after all. I therefore had to learn, especially in the competitive environment I was in at uni, where the bottom 50% got booted every year, and as a trainee to cover and not let my lack of skills be seen for fear of what that might mean for me.

I spent my entire time at uni volunteering to do the drawing or take other roles because no one had ever shown me how to focus a microscope and I was terrified that I would be found out. This haunted me enough that when I sat FRCPath I actually had close friends run trials for me on different types because even the memory of it gives me panic attacks to this day. No one ever showed me how to do dissection and so again for my first 2 years at uni I covered and did the best I could. It was assumed that everyone had gone to schools that had access to equipment, that had run these types of classes and then to add onto to that my lack of experience due to illness, it all just meant I felt at sea. In my third year I faced an eight hour dissection exam and I knew it was going to be a disaster. After three years of uni though I had finally found a lecturer I trusted and a couple of friends who I felt would stand by me, and so we approached as a collective and asked to be allowed to have specimens and practice on weekends. Me and my dogfish George got an A in that exam and I cried in a way that is only rivalled by passing FRCPath. It took me three years to have enough trust in other people and myself to ask for help, not because I was afraid to do the work, but because I was afraid of what it would mean if they rejected my request.

So what does all of this mean and why have I written it. Firstly, I’ve written it because I want anyone out there to know that if things didn’t go well for you there are still pathways ahead. We may not take the most straight forward path but we end up in similar places and sometimes the learning that will give us will be invaluable for the rest of our lives.

Secondly, I want those of us who are now acting as educators, leaders and supervisors to bear in mind that not everyone is joining you at the same point. There will be smart people out there who are turning up at day one who will not necessarily have had access to the resources or opportunities you think they have. Making assumptions that everyone is started from the same place sometimes puts people back even further. This is especially pertinent as we have trainees about to start with us. Taking the time to have a non judgement based conversation about prior experience can make all the difference to those who feel lost in our world where we take so much for granted.

Believe it or not there are so many things I’ve learnt about myself that I see the way I got here as a strength and not a weakness. I’ve never been the one at the head of the class, and the route that I’ve taken, although circuitous, now pays real dividends as I understand so much more than if I’d taken the direct route. It’s also taught me valuable lessons about myself, what I value and what I can achieve if I can get over my fears of how people see me. I’m used to hearing no, I’m used to hearing that’s not how it’s done and that it won’t work for someone like me. All of those things felt horrible but now I’m so thankful. Those no’s have taught me to be strong and to break down barriers. Those no’s have in the end enabled me to truly be the person I wanted to become.

Finally, and I can’t say this enough, find the person who sees your value even when you can’t. Find the people like my mum, my husband, like Heather and Diane. Find them and even when you haven’t got the strength to articulate what you are truly afraid of they will still be the people who stand by your side and guide you. Find your tribe and you will never truly be alone again.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Guest Blog from Anthony De Souza: From lab to educator, finding a new direction

Continuing the Girlymicro theme of raising awareness of roles outside the laboratory to Celebrate National Pathology Week 2022 today we have the inspiring Anthony De Souza sharing his journey from bench scientist to Practice Educator. I’ve already written about why I think it’s so important that Healthcare Scientists think of themselves as educators (see blog here) but Ant puts this into practice and talks about how he became a Practice Educator and why these roles are so important.

I was a geeky kid and was pretty obsessed with astronomy, pathology and nature. I was an avid reader and loved to immerse myself in my mother’s nursing textbooks! I mean, I used to peruse the BNF for fun and at church book sales I wanted medical textbooks.

In my teens I pondered whether to become a marine biologist, a science teacher, a dietician or scientist. After looking through four heaving A4 binders of job descriptions in our school careers corner I settled on Biomedical Scientist, more specifically in Microbiology.

It was a career that allowed me to immerse myself in the medical world without being too close to the patient, something which I thought I may struggle with. My first taste of Microbiology at A-Level was a lesson on bacterial culture which involved bacterial streaking. From this point microbiology sparked an interest that I knew would always be there. After completing my IBMS accredited degree I was very lucky to get a trainee band 5 position in my local micro lab closer to home!

As time went on, I developed within Microbiology spanning a ten-year period. I realised that some of the most enjoyable parts of my role were when I taught or trained others, especially if they shared the same excitement I did. In every job I had I always ended up being known as a good teacher, and knew I wanted to get more involved, but being a teacher full time didn’t appeal to me.

As an experienced band six I started to feel frustrated, felt like I had peaked within my current role and needed something to fundamentally change. It was at this point that I seriously considered leaving the NHS and using my transferable skills in a different place. I’ve always felt confident in my abilities to work in different settings and environments with different people, I just needed the opportunity. That’s when I was encouraged to apply for a job as a part time practice educator in our hospital. Up until this point, I had only ever heard of this role in a nursing context.

‘Most things feel impossible till it’s done’ – Nelson Mandela

During the application for this part time role, I had full on imposter syndrome and was talking myself out of applying. One of the biggest self-imposed barriers was feeling like I was leaving behind certainty and proven experience for a role in which I would need to build and grow within. I had gotten to the point where work felt comfortable, my knowledge and skills were developed for my role, and I felt confident in that. The thought of moving to an area outside of my core experience base was pretty terrifying but I knew I had to do it! I decided to apply and was successful in the interview!

Some of the key purposes of the role are outlined below:

  • Work to support learning and education and support specific workstreams, in my case this was Healthcare Science.
  • Create and maintain positive learning environments
  • Facilitating induction, education and continuing professional development
  • Encourage practice development, support service improvement
  • Promote high standards of care and act as a role model for others
  • Work multi-professionally, as needed

After being used to working in a small team within the lab my new role involved an even bigger and more diverse team. This exposed me to a greater appreciation for the work of other health professionals and the hospital as a whole.

At first, I found the job challenging; learning new names, getting to know the team, my place within it, learning new acronyms during meetings and adjusting to the different styles of communication. Some of my work involved supporting healthcare science learners, acting as a point of contact to raise issues, signposting relevant training & education and supporting outreach and engagement activities. As my role grew and developed, I was able to work more multi-professionally, increasing the visibility of our hidden workforce and even teaching nurses about healthcare science.

As a practice educator a PG Cert in Practice Education is essential to learn about educational theories and how this relates to designing learning for the learner. Whilst I may have been acting on natural instinct before gaining this qualification, the education and evidence-based practice approach to back up teaching has been important in the role.

This role could suit a range of individuals but ultimately this would suit someone who wants to make a difference, is passionate about education and training, has the ability to communicate well, work effectively with others and enjoys working both alone and with different teams. The job often involves taking yourself out of your comfort zone and identifying opportunities to share and develop learning.

Whilst I have now left the lab and am working full time as a practice educator, I still do look back fondly on my lab days and Microbiology. I love checking in on the lab and looking at exciting agar plates and learning about exciting cases, and who knows maybe one day I’ll go back for now though I am fully committed to this new direction. Just because I’ve left the lab, doesn’t mean its left me….

Follow Ant on Twitter @ADSMicro to find out more

All opinions on this blog are my own

Scientists as Educators: Why I believe all scientists should invest time in understanding pedagogical principles

Let me start todays post by sharing what on earth pedagogy is as my husband kindly pointed out its not a term that comes in up in most every day conversation. Well according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary it means:

So why am I talking about this on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Well I’m chilling on the sofa and recovering from one of the highlights of my year, the Healthcare Science Education Conference (this year #HCSEd22). Needless to say I therefore have pedagogy on the brain as it’s an event that although pretty intense also re-energises and inspires me. There is absolutely nothing like seeing a room full of scientists coming together for change, and in my world when you combine this with mindset shifts linked to education it doesn’t get much better. We had many really amazing speakers and workshop leads that put both the science and art into education, plus the wonderful Ant De Souza chairing. When I have time to mess with the recordings they’ll be up on the Healthcare Science Education YouTube channel if you couldn’t attend the day.

Below are some of the great photos taken by Rabbit Hole Photography

This was the 5th Healthcare Science education conference and it’s been running for 6 years since 2017 (we missed a delivery year because of COVID-19). Over the years we’ve had some pretty diverse themes including:

  • Co-production in Education (2022)
  • Innovation in Education (2021)
  • What is the Role of Collaboration in Education? (2019)
  • The Role of Leadership in Education (2018)
  • Healthcare Science Education: Where are we now and where are we going? (2017)

I think it’s probably pretty obvious therefore that I’m interested in education, especially how Healthcare Scientists educate both themselves and others. It wasn’t always this way though. To be honest when I finished my training and got HCPC registration I had only really experienced education delivered in one way, from the front of a lecture theatre/teaching laboratory. I imagine you’re all thinking but what about CPD? Continuous professional development is important and I obviously have undertaken it, as we all have, but it’s task focussed learning. What I’m talking about is the wider mind set switch and set of skill development that enables us to think about the educational experience as a whole:

  • what kind of learning are we trying to achieve – what are our learning objectives?
  • what kind of educational experience is best to deliver those learning objectives?
  • how much time do we have with our learners – is it a one off session or a repeat?
  • where is the education setting going to take place – are we going to be in a lecture theatre or a more flexible space?
  • where are my learners in the topic? is this an introduction session or are we aiming to achieve changes in practice? deep vs surface learning?
  • how do I assess learning linked to the learning objectives and delivery method?
  • how am I going to get feedback? how am I going to evaluate if I’ve achieved my aims?
  • is there a role for the learners in co-producing the session? learning outcomes/assessment/delivery?

How did I get here?

Between achieving state registration and taking the next formal steps along this pathway I was fortunate enough to undertake a one year leadership course at GOSH called the ‘Gateway to Leadership Programme’. This was a commissioned course with monthly sessions delivered by external providers with additional coaching. The sessions were delivered in a wide variety of ways and whilst I sat in the room learning about leadership I also started to ask myself if this teaching was being delivered in an MDT format with different structures could other teaching be different too? For those outside of Healthcare Science this may seem like a really naïve position, other disciplines in healthcare, such as medicine, have been using problem based learning and other structures for years. I know this now, I’ve done the reading on it and now experienced it, but in 2009 it was just not my experience of any form of formal education.

In response to the learning experiences I had on that course, and the fact that it was my first cross disciplinary learning (outside of my Clinical Microbiology masters) I used the opportunity to quiz others in the room, to speak to my coaches about the differences between 1:1 learning and group learning strategies………………..long and short I was probably a pain the ass. I started to sign up to other courses that were being delivered by the Trust and I found that the hospital had an entire education team, an entire team dedicated to education and learning. This team didn’t deliver the mandatory education, they didn’t just deliver education on specific topics, they used something called pedagogy to put together education and learning opportunities in conjunction with subject matter experts, as education was a field of expertise in itself. It was nothing short of a revelation.

What were the next steps?

The people that I knew in training positions in pathology didn’t have a formal education qualification, most had an interest in training but it was focussed, for the most part, on specific delivery mechanisms such as portfolio completion. Although obviously valuable, this again limited the scope of the education I would be being taught to deliver if I went on similar courses and the rest of the departmental offerings were things like train the trainer courses. I was more interested in really getting to grips with some of the theory as well as the practical aspects. At the time I had a wonderful IPC lead as my boss called Deirdre and she suggested that what I really needed was to do a post graduate certificate in education. She suggested this because it meant that I would be able to support the team and the Trust in running courses in conjunction with universities, as it was a requirement on most of the modules for module leads to hold formal qualifications. At the time I was also pulling together my NIHR Doctoral Fellowship and looking to take the next steps as a Clinical Academic. UCL requires lecturers to have a minimum number of credits linked to a formal education qualification and so it seemed fortuitous to cost into my grant the course so I could undertake a PGCert as part of my PhD.

Was it what I had hoped?

So in 2013 I started a 2 year PGCert in teaching and learning in higher and professional education at the Institute of Education (now part of UCL). I think the nicest way to put it is that it was a shock to the system.

It was like nothing I had ever done, the essays were first person present tense for one thing, it felt like I was back in primary school writing for my teacher. The first 6 months were hard, I was clinging to the educational culture I had always sat in as a scientist and the idea of moving away from being the ‘expert’ in the room to someone who facilitated learning was something that definitely did not happen over night. When it did however it caused me to completely shift my thinking about how we deliver on education and training in healthcare science and the need to move away from thinking of ourselves as people who deliver task based learning to the fact that we are all educators. Therefore learning about how we do it, why we do it certain ways and how those choices impact on the success of the learning is a key thing for all of us as a workforce moving forward.

Coincidentally an article I wrote on this for the Academy of Healthcare Science Leadership Journal came out this week, here is the link to the whole edition it’s got some really interesting stuff (not written by me 🙂 )

Despite the fact that the transitioning into thinking like an educator took me some time I think it was one of the most valuable things that has ever happened to me. So much so that I have since worked with others to get 5 other Healthcare Scientists funding to go through the same process. I also utilised the course to attain Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy which has enabled me to have the credibility to be able to put some of what I’d learnt into practice on a larger scale when I applied to be part of the T-Level Healthcare Science Development panel as an employer representative. It also meant that in 2021 I was fortunate enough to spend time working with a wonderful Lead Practice Educator in IPC called Kate to input into the first paediatric IPC course.

Why does it matter?

It is sometimes easy to forget that as a Healthcare Science workforce we exist as part of a wider system. By taking steps to upskill and acknowledge ourselves as educators we achieve 2 main things:

  • we can do a better job of training not just our own work force, but of supporting the system by sharing our specialist and valuable knowledge
  • we can build links and break down silos by working across disciplines and healthcare professions by working as educators across those boundaries in order to maximise our impact, with all the side benefits that has to us as scientists

The students and others coming through education now will have had a very different experience of education to that I experienced when training, therefore their training needs and expectations are going to be very different to those I had when I joined the NHS. The new curriculums being delivered by the National School of Healthcare Science and Apprenticeship/T-Level groups are bench marked against teaching and education delivered in other specialisms/professions and so standing still is not going to be an option. The more we understand, the better choices we can make, in terms of influencing those choices for our workforce and how we like to work with others. So lets not just join the education revolution but take what steps we can to lead it, for the benefit of ourselves, our workforce and the NHS as a whole. Hopefully I will see you all at #HCSEd23.

All opinions on this blog are my own

If Not You Then Who? Why seizing the opportunities that come your way is so important

We’ve all had the emails arrive with requests. We are looking for a new member of X committee, a training rep for X group or would you like to give a lecture to Y. For many year when these dropped into my inbox I ignored them. They were being sent to everyone and so ‘they’ weren’t actually looking for someone like me. I wasn’t experienced enough knowledgeable enough, connected enough to ever find success in replying to something like this. Then one year I took a chance and replied. I volunteered to become the HSST lead for the Microbiology Professionals Committee of the Association of Biochemistry and Laboratory Medicine (a LOT of letters I know). They couldn’t reply fast enough with how happy they were I’d replied.

Don’t get me wrong, the ACB weren’t particularly excited that I’d replied……..more they were excited that anyone had. What I’ve learnt since from sending out these emails myself, is that hardly anyone does. The world is full of people who doubt that they would succeed and so don’t put themselves out there and give it a shot. So today I want to talk about all the reasons why, when that email arrives, you should click reply, open the next door in your career and step through it boldly.

You never know where these things will lead

When I sent that email I had no idea where it would lead. Now I know it was the first in a series of steps that took me from where I started to being considered a leader within my profession. At each step I never could have predicted what the one a couple of steps down further down the road would involve. What I do know is that each one I took, I took with purpose. Sometimes I wanted to give back, sometimes I wanted to increase my skills and sometimes I wanted to gain experience. The choices are your own but also not taking those steps and being purposeful is also a choice.

What I hadn’t realised back then is that people frequently ask people they know to get things done, not necessarily because they are the best person but because they are the person they can identify. This means that visibility and being part of networks is key to getting some of the opportunities that would benefit you and your profession.

In my case, that application to be a HSST rep emboldened me to apply for a bursary to attend my first overseas conference in Denver (see pic). After attending my first SHEA conference I was encouraged to apply to their international ambassador scheme, and became the first UK Ambassador. That then led to them paying for me to attend a conference at Disney in Florida, which was not only amazing, but meant I made the connections to sort out a 2 month sabbatical at Boston Childrens Hospital. This helped my NIHR Clinical Lectureship application. That progression helped give me the confidence and experience to apply to become Trust Lead Healthcare Scientist and to become a Clinical Academic.

Gain experience you won’t get in the day job

There are many reasons why it can be difficult to get the kind of experience that volunteering for professional bodies/guideline groups/any external responsibility can provide:

  • Sometimes its hard to be seen in a different way if we’ve been in post for a while, and therefore it can be hard to get identified for opportunities internally
  • Internal committees may find it difficult to accommodate extra people under existing terms of reference
  • Concepts linked to hierarchy may matter more for exisiting structures versus new groups/committees
  • External groups are often specifically looking to engage new people, garner new views and so it can be easier to align personal desires to be exposed to new experiences with the needs of these groups
  • Experienced provided by external groups may just not be provided internally i.e. experience of being a charity trustee

The activities linked to these groups may provide a lower stakes way to get experience. This can include chairing your first meetings, making decisions linked to the success of small pots of grant funding, inputting into a strategic plan. When doing this as part of our day jobs this can feel high stakes and be daunting. If you can gain experience of similar processes in a lower stakes environment you can participate in the learning without some of the stress and anxiety which might otherwise be present.

Often the experience isn’t limited to the activity itself but the experience of working with new people from different backgrounds. This experience helps make us more rounded professionals as well as supporting us in expanding our networks.

Progression is a series of steps

As I described in ‘not knowing where things will lead’ it is often hard to see where taking a series of these smaller steps will take you to. Frequently engaging in these activities is not about ticking off part of a big life plan but about making small progressions that support the whole. If you are a trainee it can be a really nice way of ticking off competencies, if you are already registered it can bring some variety to your CPD for the year. Meeting new people and making new friends is a benefit in itself.

One of the wonderful things about seeing these encounters as small steps is that you don’t have to feel overwhelmed by the big picture, in fact you don’t have to know what that big picture will look like. I talk a lot about having goals in mind, and I stand by that, but there is also joy in taking small steps into the unknown where you just enjoy and value the step in itself. Where you focus on the learning and the experience of that encounter for what it’s offering you in the moment. Taking multiples of these small steps combine to lead to big changes but the little steps have value in themselves and should be appreciated as such.

Don’t be afraid to be seen

I think on some level we all fear being visible, of sticking our heads above the parapet. It feeds into imposter syndrome and our fear that we aren’t ‘enough’. Fear of failure, of not getting chosen, is embedded in most of us from standing in lines to be picked at school if nothing else. I know and understand these fears. Fear is OK, it’s natural, in some cases in the right amount it can even be helpful. The problem comes when it overwhelms, or when we pay it too much heed and therefore we let it stop us from becoming all that we can. I feel this is especially true if it stops us learning, either from the experience itself or from even engaging in the opportunity to start with.

I often sit in my fear for a bit when I’m trying to move forward. This may sound like a strange phrase or a strange thing to do, but sometimes I need to experience the fear to understand it. I don’t dismiss it as I’ve never been able to make that work, instead I allow myself to feel and to ask myself ‘if this fear is real what is the worst that will happen’. What are the worst case scenarios. Then I ask myself, ‘what does this worst case scenario actually mean for me?’. Is the worst case that someone doesn’t pick me? In which case I’ll be a bit bummed out for a few days but there will be more opportunities. Is the worst case that I will make myself look like a bit of an idiot? To be honest I’ve been there before and whether its for this specific reason or not I am likely to be there again. One thing I’ve learnt it that you and your behaviour/embarrassment has way more longevity in your mind than in others. To be frank you are simply not important enough to most other people for them to remember a stupid comment in 6 months time, and those that you are important enough to probably won’t care. Most of the time when I do this I realise that even in the worst case scenarios the event would have little meaning in my life a few months down the line. Therefore the potential cost is still worth it. I don’t talk myself out of fear, I embrace it and that way it doesn’t control me.

Help your community

Finally, and I think this is so important. Our communities survive because of the fact that we engage as part of them. Guidelines don’t get written if people don’t volunteer to write them, events don’t get organised, outreach doesn’t get undertaken and manuscripts don’t get published. It really is a case of trying to make the sum greater than the parts.

As well as learning experiences in themselves, these opportunities are vital for both our profession and our patients. So much of what we do isn’t ‘paid’ as such, so much of our impact is based on the community choosing to engage and work together towards making things different, and hopefully better than they are today. We reap the benefits from the work of this community whether we volunteer or not, but we benefit so much more if we are part of the process. As each one of us steps forward to support our communities the output benefits, as the contribution comes from a more varied group of people and stands a better chance of therefore representing the society/community it is linked to. So instead of seeing your application as a way to benefit you and feeling stressed or worried about how it is received, see it for what it is, something that will benefit those receiving it and something they will be grateful to open.

Since sending that first email asking to be considered I’ve travelled the world, met amazing people and opened up a world of opportunities I just couldn’t have imagined, just because I hit reply and YES. So give yourself the gift of believing in yourself the way that you believe in others, you deserve it!

All opinions on this blog are my own

Conference Season Is Upon Us: Top tips for anyone who struggles with networking

Firstly apologies, this post was supposed to go up before ECCMID as I was hoping it would help others attending. Work was just too full on and I didn’t have the headspace to get it written. As there are still a lot of events yet to come I’m hoping it will still prove useful however.

We all know how very important networking is, especially at conferences. So much of a career that makes a difference in science is based on who you know and who you collaborate with. The problem is making those connections and getting to know people, especially in the early part of your career, often requires taking the plunge and being the one to open a conversion with someone you’ve never met.

I have an amazing friend called Diane who is a wonder to behold in these setting. She happily goes up to talk to people who she’s never met and just starts talking to them with great enthusiasm. Shes fearless and draws the best out of those she engages with. If you are a Diane you probably need read no further. For me however, there is little worse than that moment when you enter a room at a meeting/event, get your cup of tea and survey the 100s of people before you. In this moment you know that really now is the time, you HAVE to find someone to talk to. How do you choose who? What on earth do you say that means you don’t come across as an idiot? The very thought of it gives me palpitations. So here are some things I’ve learnt that take some of the stress out of networking at conferences.

Find an in

There are some moments and set ups at conferences when it is easier to start a conversation than others. There is always the chance that the person next to you in an interesting session will strike up a conversation to help them process what they’ve heard but in general they will be doing the same as you, ducking into and out of sessions that trigger their fancy, meaning they will be you focused on what comes next not starting a chat.

I find however there are two key moments when people are available for the cold start up conversation.

The first is at food breaks/receptions. During these moments there will be people who are there solo and also looking to develop their networks. I find the best thing to do in these situations is to get there early. There are always a limited number of tables where people can put down drinks, if you can find one and hold a place then people will effectively come to you. If this fails and there are no tables, just being close to the source of the refreshments often does the same job. Food and drink are great removers of hierarchy and being somewhere visible means that those in a similar position to you will be able to see you and hopefully will head your way. Worst case you make some small talk to the group that comes to your table and you can politely extricate yourself if it all feels too weird by saying you’re popping to get another drink.

The other place where people will be desperate to speak to you is during poster sessions. So many people will be waiting at their posters for an hour in the desperate hope that someone will come and show an interest. This is often a great time to make connections/exchange contact details (see NB below) If you scope out the listing you will know you are speaking to people who are interested in the same kind of work as you. This can shortcut some of the small talk you might otherwise need to make. It also enables you to know whether you are making a connection with a peer or whether you are connecting with a potential mentor/future employer.

The other thing to think about prior to these conversations is what you can offer, what is your unique selling point?

  • Knowledge (technique, setting or organism)
  • Access (organism, patients, research equipment)
  • Support (mentorship, peer-peer)
  • Collaboration (shared goals, shared research, shared implementation)

NB one of my biggest tips for all of these situations is to make sure you have some business cards printed – even if you print them yourself – this means that you can have something easy to hand out or pin to posters if you want authors to get in touch

Find your tribe

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I’m a bit of a twitterholic (@girlymicro if we haven’t met). One of the many reasons that I’ve stuck with twitter since I initially signed up is that it has transformed my networking experiences. Twitter has offered me a way to circumvent the cold start up conversation by allowing me to find my tribe.

These days every conference/meeting has a hashtag. By following this hashtag you can find people who are interested in the same things as you, people who are in the same sessions or who even have shared connections. In many ways its an improved version of doing the poster walk.  Not only does this give you a conversational in but also by tweeting yourself linked to the thread before you ever meet in person it allows you to have a low stakes initial introduction.

One of the things I also love about twitter is it enables me to find and arrange to meet up with people who I primarily know online in order to strengthen my networks by getting to know each other better. It also gives me the chance to arrange collaboration events, like podcast recordings, when we just happen to be in the same place for a limited time.  Both of these can obviously be done by email but can be much easier to arrange when at an event when you suddenly have half an hour free. Especially at big conferences you could wander the halls for 4 days and not meet anyone you know, this way you can make the most of every second.

Take a study buddy

I absorb my learning best when I have someone to talk through my thoughts with. I have a couple of trusted study buddies that I will by preference attend events with. These guys help me get the most out of any event by:

  • Encouraging me to be braver – ask those questions I might talk myself out of, talk to that person that I should really try to connect with
  • Providing me with a sounding board for ideas when I’m in the moment
  • Enabling us to divide and conquer – there are often multiple sessions I want to be in at the same time, this way we can split up and meet at whichever session is actually proving most appropriate
  • Knowing me well enough to give me space when I need down time to re-energise
  • Crucially for me they are also there so I can feel safe from a health perspective if I have issues. They’ve helped me manage severe reactions, broken limbs etc and I trust them to get me where I need to be and give healthcare workers the right info if I need care

Mel and Lena have been my colleagues for years and they can not only get me out of a shame spiral if I do something stupid but also, by having them available to have conversations all together with new collaborators, we can make much more rapid progress on projects from the very start.

One of the other great things about going with a great study buddy is that you can also achieve other goals whilst at the conference. You can start to get papers drafted, do that research return or catch up about PhD students. If you do have supervision responsibilities whilst you’re away, as you have trainees with you, you can also share the load in terms of ensuring you have downtime. A lot of my most creative breakthroughs have happened with these guys whilst we’ve been away, surrounded both by new science and the time to reflect on how we could encorporate new thinking into our work.

Do some pre-work

I can get really insecure when going to high stakes meetings, like some of the ones I’ve been to at the House of Commons. I never really feel like I fit in and I have been known to hide in the bathrooms there until 5 minutes prior to an event start so I don’t have to face the ‘meet a stranger’ chit chat. In recent years I’ve learnt the value of doing some pre-work ahead of these meetings. This has taken different forms:

  • Reaching out on social media to see if any of my connections are attending
  • Approaching a professional body, especially if I’m on their guestlist, to find out who else they are sending so I can pre-arrange meeting at the session
  • Researching the event to look at speakers and attendance list (if available) so I can pre plan who I might want to speak to and what I could start a conversation with

In these events part of the value is in expanding your network and so really thinking about why you are going and what you hope to achieve is really worth it. Then you can match your elevator pitch (who you are, what you do and what you can offer) to your goals to help you achieve them.

Become the person others come to speak to

One of the things that has become lovely in recent years is that I’ve realised if you are presenting/organising/chairing people come to speak to you. This removes a whole lot of the stress of networking. As I mentioned above, people will often come to you even when you are presenting posters. Its always worth submitting work therefore to events you are attending, not only to get feedback on get science, but also to support you in developing your networks.

Even if you are not in a position to submit work then you should think about offering to support the organisation of events. Meetings are frequently looking for individuals who are happy to support the event organisation, both ahead of time and to do things like man the desks during the event itself. This will mean that you get to know other people who are supporting event delivery with you and give you an opportunity to network with delegates and speakers in a supported way. These connections can be transformative in terms of giving you further opportunities down the line.

Know your self and your limits

Most people assume I’m an extrovert when they meet me and I definitely have a lot of those traits. The things is, I can only manage networking for a fixed period of time. I’m good for a couple of meetings but then I need to retreat back into my bathroom office and answer some emails, otherwise I just feel progressively drained. The older I get the more I need my own space. This is usually fine but presents a real problem at places like conferences where I may need to be in full on extrovert mode for 16 hours a day. I find it exhausting.

One of the things that I’ve discovered about networking is that I therefore have to schedule it in a way that works for me. I can’t agree to go to lots of dinners on top of full day events, either from a health or a social resource point of view. I therefore pick the moments that work best for me and don’t over commit. This does mean I sometimes worry about missing out and not making the most of every opportunity but it also means that I put myself and my wellbeing first. It means that I don’t leave a conference unable to engage with work when I get back as I’ve already used up all my resources. Therefore my top piece of advice is to understand that networking is key but find a way to do it that works for you. Pick your key moments and do them well, rather than trying to be all things to all people.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Prioritising the Needs of the Many: Great communicators let the message do the talking

Let me start by saying that I am by no way a ‘great communicator’. I’m OK, I’ve never been the one who wins best presentation prizes or anything like that. I have however had the privilege of seeing some truly amazing communicators speak. I’ve also sat through more hours than I’d care to mention of bad conversations,  bad presentations and bad interviews. What these combined experiences have shown me is that truly great communicators focus on the message and not how they want you to perceive them. They let the listener feel like they own the communication and thereby feel like the message is personal to them. They make the audience feel valued and like they matter by creating a shared experience.

We can’t all be great at this, it’s not where everyones skill set aligns. The greats also seem to me to have a bit of magic that probably can’t be taught. For the rest of us mere mortals however there are things we can do, in terms of thinking and preparation, that may make us a little bit better. So what can we do differently?

It’s not about appearing to be the smartest person in the room

We’ve all been there. We’ve probably all reviewed papers or seen talks where the communicator focused on appearing smart rather than the message. They used complex sentences and words to demonstrate just how much of a scientist they are. In some ways it feels like they have done just about everything they can to make it harder to engage with their message, by making it clear that most of the audience isn’t smart enough to understand what it is they are trying to convey.

In fact the real skill with highly complex topics is being able to present them in a way where they don’t feel complex at all. Being able to break down a complex topic into pieces that when combined make the whole process understandable can only be achieved if you yourself really understand your subject. It’s why Feyman utilised trying to teach something as a way to better understand his learning gaps.

Working out what your message is

Before you start the process of breaking down what you want to teach and going into detail you really need to start with the message.  Too many of us when we are trying to plan a lesson or lecture, or even a paper, don’t put in the pre work to think about what it is that we are actually trying to communicate.  What story are we trying to tell.  We don’t often think of communicating science as telling a story but in reality we are, and there is lots to be gained from thinking of it in terms of these structures.  A story has a key theme or message that it is trying to be communicated to the audience.  Stories also build, they are comprised of sections, even if these are simply: a beginning, a middle and an end.  Before starting to communicate we should therefore think the same way about the topic we are trying to get someone to take away.  We can make sure that everything else we talk about comes back to and enforces this key message. 

The next thing is to then flesh out this message by planning learning objectives.  What are the 3 – 5 things you would hope that someone who has attended will be able to know/achieve after they leave.  These effectively are used to give you your beginning, middle and end.  Your learning objectives for sessions delivered to different audiences may be at a high level the same i.e. raise awareness of the work of a microbiologist. In order to maximise their effectiveness however you will need to tailor them for different audiences to ensure that they can be achieved i.e. talking about AMR will be different for lay pubic audiences versus researchers. This is where the specific and relevant components really come into play.  Everything you put into your session should be based around these learning outcomes in order to support the audience have a clear sense of direction with your overall message.

Remember who your audience are

If your message is going to land then designing your way of communicating it and the learning objectives with them in mind is key.  If you have an audience of 4 year olds then your method of communication is going to be very different to if you are talking to a room full of post graduate PhD students.  If you have a drop in 15 minutes with a large group at a science outreach stand you will need to have a very different method to if you have a small group for an hour as part of a workshop.  You also need to bear in mind whether these audiences are ones you have a relationship with because they’ve met you before, or are they a one off encounter.

When you are writing items like lay summaries for research grants and papers this is especially important.  Most lay summaries should be aimed at an audience with a reading age of 12.  You need to be very conscious of abbreviations and scientific terms that we may all use without even thinking about them.  There are some good websites that can be used to check wording and language, but even more simply you could ask a member of your family (or even ideally a lay focus group) to read through it and see what the message is that they take away vs the one you think they will take away. The same is true for verbal presentations as well. Think about the language you use and whether it invites the audience in or acts as a barrier for engagement.

Try out a metaphor or two

I’m presenting tonight at an AMR event and I have one slide to talk about my work.  The audience is likely to be mixed and I want to talk about the differences between phenotypic, fragment based sequencing and whole genome sequencing, and how different techniques are best in different circumstances. These are challenging concepts to describe in under 5 minutes and so I’ve picked something I think most people will be familiar with for them to hook their knowledge onto…………cake. A good metaphor puts your audience at ease as you are discussing something familiar. You are also able to take shortcuts in explaining some concepts as you are hooking new knowledge onto a pre-existing framework. Hopefully your audience will walk away with your message and if you’re really lucky as someone they will remember.

Take it one step at a time

No one wants to sit in a talk and feel lost or read an article that makes them feel stupid for not understanding it. It makes the person engaging feel bad about themselves. It also makes them disengage which can be distracting for the audience as a whole, depending on how they behave when it happens. I’ve been that person in immunology talks at conferences. I’ve been fully engaged and listening for 15 minutes and then the presenter either takes a step assuming knowledge I don’t have or I blink for a second and miss something and I spend the next 30 minutes with no idea what on earth is going on playing with my phone.

The lesson for me here is twofold. Make sure that every progression step your audience needs is present, you can rarely make assumptions about your audience. If the information is key to understanding the information to come, make sure you give it however briefly. This is where we come back to knowing your message and learning outcomes. By only having the info in your session that is essential to serve those you buy yourself time to spend on the blocks of info needed. The second lesson is to make sure you refer back to previous building blocks of info in your talk. That means that if someone misses something they are given a repeat opportunity to contextualise and understand prior to you moving on. It also means that you are embedding the previous knowledge because the next step builds upon it.

Know when to present yourself vs your CV

Connection between yourself and the audience is always key to getting your message across. There are times when, as much as I wish it wasn’t, that standing in front of an audience as a living version of your CV is required in order to be taken seriously. When establishing your credentials before you start communicating is key to your message being heard. At these moments I’m Dr Elaine Cloutman-Green who leads X and has Y amount of research funding. When you are trying to speak in a lot of other settings however it’s important to remember that credentials can in fact get in the way of the message you are trying to present. Remember it’s about the message and not about you. If I stand in front of audience to talk about science being for everyone and reel off my list of fellowships and leadership roles I have immediately moved myself into a box of ‘other’. Someone not necessarily like them, someone with different professional experience who doesn’t share their experiences and aspirations, someone that it is hard to connect with. When doing sessions like these I’m definitely not my CV, I’m Elaine or Girlymicro.

The best way to get better is to practice

As I’ve said I encounter people all the time who are so much better at all of this than I am and I’m always super attentive when I hear them speak, not just to hear their message but to also learn ways to do it better myself. There are obviously some people out there who are born great at this, but even they needed to learn and improve how they did it. The best way to do that is to practice. Write blogs and get involved in writing papers with others who you think are good at this. Try out thinking about messaging and designing learning objectives, until it becomes easier because you’re used to it. Most importantly practice talking to people, practice one on one conversations with those you supervise, with your colleagues who are in different disciplines and with your friends. See what bits interest them, which bits they respond to. Be brave and book in to do some outreach and volunteer to give that departmental seminar you’ve been dreading. Doing is in essence how we learn, you can only get so far by reading about something. Once you’ve had a go its then important to take the time to reflect in order to learn how to do it better next time.

The other key part of practicing and learning how to communicate better is to make sure that you are building evaluation into your sessions/activities. We often try to guess at what well, what audiences actually heard and what we could improve upon. Guessing is fine to a point but you will never have the backgrounds of everyone you are engaging with. The only way to really know what they are responding to, what worked well and what didn’t is to actually ask them. This is where the measurable part of your learning objectives is important. As scientists we respond well to data, it gives us concrete direction in which to improve. Lets apply that to the way we communicate so that we make the most of every opportunity, every moment, in order to succeed in getting our message across.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Changing Our Pathways: What are T-Levels and why should I care about them?

I’m still in the land of the shingles lesions and so not up to drafting some of the many ideas I have brewing for blog posts, but I thought I’d share something I recently wrote for the Association of Clinical Biochemistry and Laboratory Medicine (ACB) on T-Levels. The ACB are one of my professional bodies and they are doing a great job of trying to raise awareness of different routes into Healthcare Science, these routes won’t just feed into HCS however and so I think we should all know a little more about T-Levels.

What are T-Levels and Why Should I Care About Them?

In 2017 I saw an advert from the Department of Education looking for an employer representative to sit on a panel to develop a new vocational qualification, known as the Technical Level or T-Level, for Healthcare Science.  This came about as part of a wider educational review looking at how to change vocational qualifications so they aligned better with what employers were looking for, and to fit in better with other routes such as apprenticeships and A-Levels.  I was lucky enough to be selected and for the next year a panel of fellow Healthcare Scientists, Educators and Department for Education representatives met monthly to design a new qualification to help budding scientists access the Healthcare Science profession.  Since then we have been working with Further Education teams to roll out the qualification and the T-Level launching for early adopters in September 2021 is the result. 

So What is A T-Level?

T-Levels are equivalent to 3 A-Levels and offer an intermediate choice between traditional academic routes into Healthcare Science i.e. A-Levels followed by undergraduate study and Healthcare Science Apprenticeships, which are 80% workplace based and 20% further education based.  T-Levels are 80% based in a further education institution but have a 20% work placement.  They are broadly split into 3 components:

  1. Technical Qualification = the main, classroom-based element. Students will learn about different areas of Healthcare Science through a curriculum designed by employers and developed by an awarding organisation.
  2. Industry Placement = runs for a minimum of 315 hours (45 days) overall and will give students practical insights into their sector and an opportunity to embed the knowledge and skills learned in the classroom.
  3. English, maths and digital provision = built into the classroom-based element of the T Level, meaning students will be given a solid foundation of transferable skills.

As T-levels are also eligible for UKAS points, when a student completes the T-Level they can either choose to progress to further education, via an undergraduate degree, or can enter a degree level apprenticeship scheme and continue via work place based progression.

Why Should We Care?

One of the problems faced by the Healthcare Science profession is that routes into it are becoming much more structured than they were when I entered 17 years ago.  In many ways this is great and provides a much better quality of training and structured career progression.  The downside of it is that students need to be aware that Healthcare Science exists as an option in order to be choosing the right degree or entry point.  By providing a course like this early to students before university it will enable them to make more informed choices about the courses that are right for them, as well as raising awareness of the profession.  For those students who opt to continue onto the apprenticeship route, it provides employers with a growing pool of students who will be well placed to apply for these roles, who will have knowledge and experience of what it means to be a Healthcare Scientist.

What Does All This Require of Me?

In order to make the new T-Level work we will need to engage with it as a profession.  This will include linking in with further education establishments to offer expertise to support the launch, in order to ensure high quality delivery.  The main thing we need to think about however is whether we can provide sites for the work based placements.  T-Levels will help improve our candidate pool and ensure that we have access to improved recruitment in the long term.  To get that however will require us to ensure that students really do get a good idea of what we do and what a job in this great profession could look like.  We can only deliver on this if they get to meet us.

The ask therefore is to reach out to the communities our Trusts support and see if we can strengthen those ties by supporting not just in our remit of health, but also by supporting education via work placements.  The reward for this is not only financial (you will get a payment per student) but also in terms of staff development.  This is a great opportunity for junior members of staff to gain experience in supervision and managing small projects.  It’s a chance for them to get more experience with training, and especially those who are still in training to get their own competencies signed off.

By 2022 the Health and Science T Level will be available for delivery by all providers that want to and meet the criteria. By 2024 it is expected that the vast majority of providers will be delivering this T Level.  This is a great opportunity for our profession to rise to the challenge and help support the development of the next generation of Healthcare Scientists. More information about T-Levels across subjects can be found here.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Healthcare Science Education 2021: Innovation in Education

Yesterday the NCL Education Partnership hosted our 4th annual (bar COVID-19 related 2020) Healthcare Science Education conference (#HCSEd). These meetings came about as way to encourage and support Healthcare Scientists to recognise themselves as educators, in the widest possible context, not linked to specific training schemes or disciplines. It’s something we continue to be passionate about and if you’d like to get involved in future events please drop either myself, Ant De Souza or Vicki Heath a message.

This years theme was innovation in education and ended up including a lot about how we innovate, not just in terms of the technology, but in terms of our approaches in working with trainees, teams, workforce and the public.

The day was chaired by the Vicky Nash who is an established leader within medical education and is a great supporter of the Healthcare Science workforce. (NB apologies for my poor photography skills, all the good ones are from Rabbit Hole Photography and when the other ones come through. I will swap them out)

Nicola Baldwin, playwright and screen writer, kicked off our first talk on ‘Public perceptions of Healthcare Scientists during the pandemic’

Her talk was about her experience both as a member of the public and someone who works with Healthcare Scientists about how that perception has changed over the course of the pandemic and what some of the drivers for that change has been.

She told the story of how at the start people were engaged and interested, they felt part of the narrative and then they began to get lost as part of the conversation. We (Healthcare Scientists) lost our place in the story in the same way that the general public lost their ability to engage in the conversation as it became politicised and increasingly focussed on strategy and technicalities.

As someone who has previously written for Holby City she discussed that one of the reasons Healthcare Scientists are not represented on TV in the same way that doctors and nurses frequently are, is that doctors and nurses are presented as flawed human beings. They get the tests and they ignore them or they react to crash calls for good or ill, and frequently lack the information they need to make decisions. They are effectively glorified members of the public and therefore fulfil that role within the narrative of connecting with the view. In medical drama the guest stories i.e. patients, are only there to challenge the flaws or impact on the regulars i.e. the cast. In reality Healthcare Scientists do not visibly battle but work hard to remove their flaws from the equation, and therefore leave their emotions at the door. They live in a data driven world where patients do not always get better and we all die. Because of this Healthcare Scientists do not obfuscate and do not hope for the best, but make evidence based decisions and work in a world of these facts and may therefore make less attractive heroes for fictionalised drama. In the real world the longer the pandemic has gone on the more that scientists have been seen as messengers of doom as they deliver fact, not necessarily a message of deliverance.

So how do we move towards speaking the same language and engage?

The challenge outside of the Healthcare Science profession is that the pandemic has laid bare a lack of scientific literacy and connection between scientists and the public domain and has therefore left reservoirs of fear. Our most basic measures of literacy are to read and obey basic instructions. Above this level educationalists have said is the ability to read and engage with newspapers and other sources. Above even this is the ability to compare, digest and analyse in order to support meaningful engagement. The same thing is needed in terms of scientific literacy and engagement. Connections between science and the public are needed to enable people to navigate the space and literacy is required to support analysis and evaluation of the information is available. Sometimes the connection between the Healthcare Scientist workforce and the general public is limited by a culture emphasises teamwork and there is a lack of individual promotion. In many ways this is great but it is important to be out there and therefore some form of promotion is needed.

Public perceptions have been changeable and volatile, opportunities to explain that from early in the pandemic were missed and that has resulted in public scepticism. To change this engagement of Healthcare Scientists is key to ensure that scientific literacy and the best way to do this is to not be afraid to promote and make connections. You and your stories can change the world!

Dr Steve Cross, science communicator, talked about ‘Science and science communicators’

Following on really nicely from Nicola with her call to arms in terms of the need to start and be part of the conversation, Steve talks about the practical aspects and challenges of engaging as a science communicator.

The big challenge for UK science communication infrastructure is that is consumed by 13% of the population which mostly consists of white, wealthy, males, who are 35 – 50. This doesn’t reflect our population, patients or future workforce so how do we communicate outside of the 13%? Some of this stems from the official science communication structures, such as the media, believing that ‘The public love debates about genomics’.

As nobody has to engage you have to make it engaging? How do you make something that actually works rather than ticking a box?

So how do we go about thinking how we undertake engagement activity? A good place to start is using Design Theory.

  • Empathise with the audience – remember ‘the public does not exist’ they are vastly different. Think about who you are trying to reach and why
  • Define the problem – put in work to really understand what you are trying to address, what are the barriers, who are your stakeholders, what are the reasons why things haven’t work before and what have people already tried
  • Have ideas – have lots of ideas, sensible ideas, crazy ideas, out of the box ideas
  • Prototype – come up with lots of approaches to those ideas and try them out, be prepared to try loads of them and throw them away in order to refine the prototype
  • Test and evaluate – once you have a prototype make sure you continue to test and ensure you evaluate and improve

Dr Rowan Myron, associate professor of healthcare management, gave our keynote on ‘Qualitative data collection’

Rowan started out talking about the pros and cons of quantitative vs qualitative data: qualitative may not be generalisable but gives rich data set exploring how and why, whereas quantitative may enable extrapolation but may be less deep and doesn’t normally explore motivations.

Traditionally Healthcare Scientists are considered to be Positivists, believing that data should give answers and therefore leaning towards quantitative data collection. Professionals that work with qualitative data are often considered to have more of a constructivist approach, where each piece of learning develops from the last and therefore permits exploration of how and why that development occurs.

It is also possible to have a mixed methods approach where some aspects of the work lend themselves to a quantitative approach, with other project components lending themselves to a qualitative collection method i.e. where you may use surveys to explore underlying attitudes but relate it to comparative quantitative bench marks.

The best approach for facilitating these conversations can vary from free – semi structured – structured and the style of facilitation matters. Directive interventions may be appropriate in some clinical meetings but is less likely to be successful in terms of gaining information and insights in a qualitative research setting.

Being in the room can sometimes change what people tell you – as a qualitative researcher you can get some of the best responses when you turn the data recorder off and so how you record and capture some of that which doesn’t fit into your framework, however it is important to consider the ethics of this. It is also key to ensure that you are recording accurately and not interpreting, and therefore checking in with participants to ensure that recordings are accurate is key.

Using some of these techniques can also help in non-research settings, such as team meetings and 1:1 in order to improve communication quality

BAME Scientist Trainee Network gave a really important session on ‘Diversity in access to education’

The session was really impactful for me and I believe having these kinds of sessions and conversations is key if we are going to address some of the issues raised.

For those coming into the healthcare system as staff members, white applicants for posts across the NHS are 1.5x more likely to be appointed from shortlisting than non white applicants. In order to change the system that permits this we need to start with education and therefore understand the biases of the system that recruits into it. This challenge was shown to also be reflected in the STP appointment scheme, where the average success rate was ~5% but for Black/Black British – African applicants the success rate was ~1%.

When in post 1/3 of BAME staff report having been harassed or bullied at work either by patients or their colleagues.

For those coming into the NHS and healthcare systems as patients healthcare inequalities exist and are often based on myths that emerged from 18th century studies linked to slavery, such as black people feel less pain as they have less nerve endings. Within the NHS black women are 5x more likely to die in child birth and black patients at half as likely to receive pain medication.

Not only are the issues backed up by research and other evidence but there is also data to show that promoting equality, diversity and inclusion does not just benefit BAME groups, and therefore benefits the workforce and patient population as a whole.

So what can we do to support our BAME colleagues?

The following suggestions were taken as part of a qualitative research study from BAME and white Healthcare Scientists, rooted in their lived experiences (as we learnt from Rowen, this permits the exploring of why and how questions).

Advice for leaders:

  • Unconscious bias training – manager and leaders have the biggest influence and it was felt could have the biggest impact on as inclusive environment, and that active allyship was key
  • Diverse influence panels – decreases the collective effects of unconscious bias
  • Monitoring for training opportunities – ensuring equality , measure and monitor metrics and review access
  • Mentorship, including reverse mentorship
  • Diverse teams
  • Zero tolerance of inappropriate language, awareness of micro aggressions
  • Equal opportunities for showcasing skills – ensuring that extra curricular activities or additional responsibilities were accessible to everyone, not based on connection to a manager
  • Practical advice to address specific needs i.e prayer room location, halal food options, joining staff inclusion networks

Advice for non-leaders:

  • Read WRES reports workplace race equality standards
  • Actively learn about others perspectives
  • Check in with colleagues when incidents witnessed
  • Advocate for others
  • Target outreach to schools in disadvantaged areas
  • Review clinical practices and ask whether they are contributing to health inequalities

No matter what your role you have the ability to take steps to counter the data shown and so this is a call to action and take steps as individuals, teams and organisations to address these issues.

Dr Jane Freeman and Dr Kerrie Davies, NIHR clinical lecturers and clinical scientists, ‘Communicating differently’

To finish off the morning with a bang Jane and Kerrie called on us to really think who are we, and not just our scientific credentials……. what is our talent, not just our ability to plate 200 samples and hour…….and to think who are the audience we’re trying to reach? What is the message your trying to get across? How can you make it memorable? One size does not fit all??

Communication is about connecting with people and that involves taking risks, doing the unconventional, bringing whole self to work………..not just Dr XXXX but all of you. As I have said in a previous blog I do my best science over a cup of tea and Jane and Kerrie emphasized that talking is key, with conversations being the starting point to any success piece of work.

Actions however speak louder than words and so below is my (rather shoddy) recording of one way that Jane and Kerry show that actions speak louder than words. Enjoy the Small Faeces discussing ‘Quality’!

For the afternoon session we moved onto the workshops. There were three streams to choose from:

Stream One – Innovation in outreach by Victoria Heath and James Harkin, followed by Royal Literary Fund – Rooftop writers by Nicola Baldwin

Stream Two – Top tips for delivering educational activities online by Justin Poisson, followed by Evaluation of digital education by Ian Davies and Matt Coombes-Boxall

A starting reflection on the transition to digital delivery from face to face learning. A move from reactive remote learning to blended learning. Sessions were put together to lecturers and students. ‘Moving your lectures online’. Online induction resources’, ‘Talking into the void’.

The session then talked about learning technologists, and translating practice to the educational environment. Opportunities were given for staff to showcase how they moved their online to a digital format.

Retention research has highlighted that regular feedback was important and that to support this the community of inquiry model was encouraged as something to think about when delivering sessions.

There was also a demo different learning software’s that could to help with engagement: Flip grid, Wakelett, Mural

Stream Three – Maintaining your education during a pandemic by the London Healthcare Scientist Trainee Network, followed by Influencing upwards by Cherie Beckett

I was lucky enough to be supporting the stream three session which was kicked off by the LHCSTN who ran a really interactive session getting everyone in the room to explore and score (1 – 10) whether the pandemic had impacted on 7 key areas, either as a trainee or a trainer:

  • Redeployment/role changes
  • Exposure to practical clinical skills
  • Rotations and placements
  • Research projects
  • Staying connected
  • Virtual learning
  • Wellbeing

We then talked through the learning and different ways those in the room has dealt with the high scoring impacts they had experienced.

Cherie then followed on with an equally interactive session exploring everything from how we introduce ourselves i.e. ‘just a trainee’ or using banding, to how to expand your influence. The group spent time identifying barriers to influencing up and reflecting on whether some of those were self imposed. Then we moved onto to talking about how to navigate around those barriers or coping strategies for the internal ones.

The final session of the day was the plenary given by Vivienne Parry, Science writer and broadcaster (and all around Healthcare Scientist champion)

Viv finished the day in inspiring style by reminding us all of why what we do matters, the impact that we have but also re-iterated the message of the day – that we have to be seen! We need to talk to people like we do to our families and explain what we do and why it’s important. Not speak like we do to our colleagues, not like we are speaking to a Guardian science reporter, but like we do when we are outside work. That is how we talk in a way that is heard and received. We are too important to be invisible and now is our time to shine!

NB – these are the meaning of the sessions as I received them as a member of the audience, hearing through my own lens, these are not verbatim notes, although I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can. All opinions on this blog are therefore my own

A Trip Down Memory Lane: Top tips I’ve learnt over 20 years of event organising

Its 6am and I’m back into the groove work wise post holiday. That means, for me, that I need to get prepared to run 2 one day conferences in a week in the first week of October. In many ways this is a foolish endeavour, but due to SARS CoV2, delays and the impending clinical business of winter it seemed the only way. As these events loom therefore I will be calling upon 20 years of organising events, both big and small, in order to try to make them a success.

I haven’t always worked as a scientist, I know, shocking! For a very small window between my BSc in zoology and starting an MRes in Biophysics I worked for Birmingham City Council in a couple of roles. One of those was as an event planner. I cannot tell you how brilliant that job was, some days I can’t believe I left, but deep down science was always my calling.

When organising an event there are some decisions you need to make early on. The big one being whether you are going to organise it yourself or outsource it to someone else, be that a company, venue or individual.

The decision about whether to outsource or not depends on a number of factors:

Manpower – organising events is time consuming and for very large events I.e. large conferences, you are unlikely to have the capacity to do this by yourself. I usually draw the line at events of over 350 to organise with a small voluntary working group, but it depends on the event and how much cat hearding is required

Infrastructure – do you have access to IT and other support to permit registrations, have a Web presence etc. In some ways this is less of an issue these days with platforms such as Eventbrite but they will take a cut of any charged ticket. You will also need to have things like a bank account that funds can be paid into, which can be problematic depending on who you are organising for with budget codes etc. If you don’t have the ability to register attendees you may have to find a partner organisation.

Finance – Obvious I know but events cost money. Some of the ones I’ve organised (especially the ones I’m running in October) make a considerable loss as they are about giving back, sharing knowledge, and developing networks etc. Some non work events I’ve helped run have been focused on breaking even with profits donated to Charity. There are others that have needed to make money in order to justify their existence. How much money you have to spend or need to make will dictate how much outsourcing is appropriate/possible and is more common for events that need to make money or at least break even, as these tend to link to scale.

Marketing – Do you have preexisting networks or links for you to be able to use to reach potential attendees? Twitter networks? Professional body mailing lists? If not then you may need external support or advice on how to get your event info to reach the people who might be most interested in it. Again, this is usually more important if you are trying to run a for profit where you needs 1000s to attend. It is certainly less of a concern if you’re organising a hen do.

Designing your brief

Start with your why. Who are you organising this event for? What are you trying to achieve? Are there learning or other outcomes, such as the bride having fun, that you need to achieve? Whichever way you decide to go in terms of organisation you will need to have a clear brief in your mind linked to these questions and others in order to decide what you want your event to be. You’ll need this for yourself if you are making your own decisions, but you will need it to even get a quote for an external events company. Spend some time doing your thinking here and you will save yourself a lot of drama later on.

You need to decide:

  • How many people i.e. small family event for 8 or large conference for 5000, plus everything in between
  • Catered or not. Short meetings may not need full catering, if you are organising an event with food what might the dietary requirements look like, how long will you be giving for breaks as this will impact on what type of food you can provide, is it a formal event as food will need to match this etc
  • Is onsite accommodation required? This is more common for multi day events, or scenarios where people will be coming from further afield i.e. weddings, or international meetings
  • What feel are you trying to achieve: formal, informal, networking focused
  • What level of technical support do you need: audio-visual, ticketing etc
  • Always bear in mind accessibility requirements, especially if you are organising a public event. This doesn’t just mean in term of physical access to spaces but to the content that will be provided. I run small loss making events so I can’t address this the way I’d like but you should be aware of the limitations of what you can provide
  • Who are your target audience? Where are they based? What links do you have with them? How will your achieve your objectives with them i.e. lectures, group work, open circulation?
  • How will you evaluate the event and what does success look like?

Your brief will dictate:

Room type and number required I.e. are you going to have breakout sessions or lectures or both

What kind of seating you want i.e. for lectures you might want lecture type seating, if you are having a networking event then cabaret might be more appropriate, or if the focus is on a larger single group working together then board room might work best.

Food choices, the more formal the event the more formal the food. It would seem really odd to have silver service in the middle of a conference day for instance.

Venue is everything

If you find the right venue to fit your brief (either yourself or via a planner) everything else becomes much easier. As we are a small team we tend to go for venues that can offer a package of support i.e. they come with furniture, audio visual options, flip charts and other paraphernalia and most importantly (as catering is super important to participant experience) good and plentiful food options. Your choices will vary dependent on whether you have greater resource either in money or time than we do. Knowing your ask means that you can find the right fit for you.

Find your team

If you are going to go it alone in terms of organisation then you need to find your team. This is true whether you are organising a group outing for friends or a work event. The kind of team will depend on the people who are doing the event planning. Some events benefit from creative disagreement to ensure inclusion. For the most part I like to work drama free as organising these events with limited resource is stressful enough. I therefore try to find people to work with who are interested in collaboration and are focussed on task completion. This works well for the type of events I’m currently involved with, but there are definitely events where innovation of process during the planning is part of the learning (such as nosocomial) and these require more risk taking and creativity.

Some scenarios also mean that there is less choice about who forms part of the the group. It is therefore crucial that whatever group you end up working with it is important that you have an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of everyone so that you can maximise the efficiency of the group and minimise frustration. There are things I’m really good at, I can hold a vision in my mind and have ideas. I need someone in the group therefore who grounds me and keeps me to task and deadline. It also helps if everyone has the same passion for the work as you do, or at least are equally committed. Uneven distribution of workload is one of the things that inevitably leads to stress in these settings.


One final and yet super important thing is to plan as part of the process how you are going to evaluate both the event and it’s impact. Learning is key. Did you participant love/hate the venue? It will impact on whether you will use it again. Did the delivery set up facilitate the learning needs? Did the agenda fulfil the brief? You are bound to do this more than once, even if not for the same event. Learning what went well and what could be improved is important in order to get better at this. Also understand that you will never please everyone, don’t take criticism to heart, you have put yourself out there and done something. Use comments as learning not as judgement.

That said if you want to join me at either of our upcoming events you can judge me against this post and see how well I/we stack up

Environment Network 2021: Designing and building for infection prevention – 8th October, London

Healthcare Science Education 2021: The role of innovation in education – 4th October, London (free)

All opinions on this blog are my own