University of Nottingham Research Showcase

Sometimes running PubhD can be tough, it isn’t all playing with whiteboards and getting the next round in. Last wednesday was one of those times. The University of Nottingham was holding it’s annual showcase of research at which students use posters to summarise their ideas and provoke questions. It reminded me of our regular monthly PubhD events and so I thought I’d pay a visit.

I had to take a day off work to spend a sunny afternoon in the leafy surrounds of Nottingham University. As I said, sometimes running PubhD can be tough. After a quick refreshing drink on the banks of the boating lake, the rest of the afternoon was spent looking at research posters and chatting to the students.

There were two main styles; the visually interesting which provoked you to ask questions, and the information heavy…which also provoked you to ask questions. Here are a selection of some of my favourites (click the images to embiggen):

Louise Kettle - Politics and International Relations

Louise Kettle – Politics and International Relations

Beili Shao - Clinical Sciences

Beili Shao – Clinical Sciences

Chris Gaffney - Life Sciences & Medicine

Chris Gaffney – Life Sciences & Medicine

There were over 50 finalists and there simply wasn’t enough time to speak to everyone – the above is just a small sample of the outstanding work on show. So, I’ll just leave you with the overall winner, who was very much in the “give a lot of information to provoke questions” category:

Kamaljit Moirangthem - Biosciences

Kamaljit Moirangthem – Biosciences

The showcase was followed by a keynote speech by Simon Singh who was very kind enough to give PubhD and Nottingham Skeptics a big 20 feet tall plug.

Can you Explain your PhD in the Pub?

If you’re not familiar with Simon’s work, there aren’t many people who work harder to promote science and critical thought, or to fight pseudoscience in all its forms. You can learn more about his work at

What’s My Name?

One of the things we looked forward to most when setting up PubhD was the interesting and surprising questions that people would ask our speakers. It’s why the Q&A is twice as long as the talk.

However, we didn’t expect to be asked “How do you say PubhD?” We like our puns and thought the pun was obvious.

It didn’t occur to us that some people are very literal and would try to actually read it. Which comes out as “Pub-hud”, or if you’re Irish “Puvud”, which makes no sense. No wonder people were asking us how to pronounce it!

This simple typo from Simon Singh will help us explain…

Even the scourge of Chiropractors can get confused by how you say PubhD

Even the scourge of Chiropractors can get confused by how you say PubhD

PubhD is a word merge or werge (if you want to be all QI about it, it’s a portmanteau). PubhD werges Pub and PhD to make. Pub…hD. You could also try thinking about it if the Pub was in High Definition. Pub HD. (But it’s definitely not written as PubHD. It’s definitely written PubhD.)

Regardless of how you say it, PubhD really is excellent and lots of fun, so if you’re lucky enough to have one in your town pop along. If not, start one! There is some very simple advice for creating you’re own PubhD here:

A review of February’s PubhD

Considering the weather warnings, traffic problems and a pre football crowd making grabbing a pint fiendishly difficult – props and kudos to the hardy souls who made it to PubhD #2!

Following the success of PubhD #1 we didn’t play around with the format too much, but we did try and move the tables around abit, and everyone seemed to be more comfortable and had enough places to put their drinks down. If anyone does have any other suggestions, please leave a comment below.

A big thanks must also go to the fabulous @archibarb for redesigning our “Primark” logo into something a little more “Gucci”:

New PubhD Logo-200x200-by Barbara Griffin

Due to the football traffic, the running order was closely allied to whether or not the speakers had managed to arrive at the pub…

So, first up was Ricardo Rato Rodrigues who is a second year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. He has not only cultivated a fine beard, but he has also been researching how literature can be used in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a non-medical professional, Ricardo was part of a group of arts researchers working with medical practitioners to help them understand how the use of books can help them empathise with the patients. Ricardo focused on the Portuguese writer António Lobo Antunes – a neurologist who was conscripted into the Portuguese Colonial War and wrote about his experiences.

Ricardo Rodrigues

Ricardo Rodrigues – using literature to help PTSD patients.

Ricardo struck a chord with an audience member, Jason, who introduced the group to the fine work they do at Books on Prescription. We also had our first challenge to a speaker when Ricardo was asked how he could be certain that the books did help if he wasn’t contacting the patients directly. Ricardo’s answer provided an insight into how controls and safety mechanisms play just as large a part in academia as the rest of life.

The next speaker was Stephanie Smith who took time out from the third of her PhD to talk about her research into cell signalling in roots. Plant growth is caused by a single hormone (auxin) – how that travels from cell to cell controls what grows where and how big that thing grows. Stephanie is hoping to better understand this so that plants can be encouraged to use the soil better to retrieve nitrogen (long deep roots) and phosphorus (wide shallow roots) depending on their environment. Steph also waxed enthusiastically about Norman Bourlag, who until two months ago I had never heard of – he saved a billion lives but hardly anyone has heard of him.

Like Althea and Donna she's "Strictly Roots"

Steph Smith explains how roots can be encouraged to use soil better.

Speaking to Steph after her talk she was most worried about there being an “anti GM nut” in the audience. She stated that being pro- or anti- any tool is wrong; after all, metalwork can create a gun but garden gates are useful too. Thankfully, a PubhD crowd likes its anger evidence based!

The final speaker of the night was Julian OnionsJulian works in the astrophysics department of Nottingham University using model simulations of Universe creation and hoping to better understand why, when we look up to the skies, it looks like it does. Simplifying the models so that gravity and dark matter are the only ingredients can produce pretty good models for the big stuff in the Universe, but, as Julian gracefully conceded in the Q&A, the small stuff like supernovae and black holes complicate things.

Julian was also happy (almost cheerful) to admit that no one really knows what dark energy really is. However he did draw an interesting analogy with neutrinos – they were originally predicted in order to make the maths work with out but were not observed until quite some time later.

..and let it cool for a gigayear...

Julian Onions draws the Universe on the whiteboard and then “…lets it cool for a gigayear…”

A personal high point of the night was that Julian was the first person I’ve ever heard use the word “parsec”, and it not be in a Star Wars conversation. I must be growing up!

So, with two meetings successfully under our belt, and with new faces each month, along with other groups now meeting as well, PubhD is definitely here to stay!

We look forward to seeing you all next month – which has already been arranged!

A review of the first ever PubhD

A full room at the first ever PubhD - 22 January 2014

A full room at the first ever PubhD – 22 January 2014

Like Christmas, the run up and organising of PubhD was almost as much fun as the event itself. Tweets had been tweeted, Facebook events updated, 3 PhD student speakers invited and the pub room booked.

Finally the night of 22 January 2014 arrived for us to have the first ever PubhD: three PhD students, in diverse academic areas, would tell a bunch of people in a pub about their research. We just had to provide them with beer.

And we’re pleased to say…the night went swimmingly well!

At a virtual sell-out for the room we were delighted to see so many new faces as well as some regulars from Nottingham Skeptics. The numbers were swelled by some lovely members of Lincoln Skeptics in the Pub, who made us deeply jealous with the marvellous logo that their burgeoning PubhD (Lincoln) group had produced:

PubhD (Lincoln) beer mat

PubhD (Lincoln) beer mat

To keep things simple, alphabetical order based on academic area provided us with our running order.

First up was Sera Bakera doctoral researcher in Archaeology at The University of Nottingham. She spoke to us about studying the small shops of Roman Pompeii before they were destroyed by the AD 79 volcanic eruption of Vesuvius.

Sera started by busting some common misconceptions about Pompeii, which included the fact that it wasn’t a fabulously rich city but rather ordinary, and that during the eruption at least half of the 12000 residents escaped.

Sera’s obvious enthusiasm for Pompeii was tempered by the surprising news that heritage contracts seem to be run by…erm…shadier members of the local community should we say. This can make research and preservation of the site difficult. She had to sadly report that the site is falling apart and, unlike nearby Herculaneum, there isn’t funding to maintain it. The Q&A demonstrated the popularity of Roman history and Sera’s humour (she doesn’t have any bits of Pompeii stuffed away at home…yeah Sera…we believe you 😉 ) made sure the subject stayed very human. As a Canadian, Sera had the misfortune of not being familiar with the seminal work of Frankie Howard on the subject.

The next speaker was Dave Farmer, who is a physics PhD student at the University of Nottingham. He spends his time studying the elastic properties of polymer films. He does this by hitting them with a stick and watching them wobble.  What made his talk interesting was that he actually uses powerful lasers on films 1000 times smaller than a human hair.

Dave’s style incorporated humour and half intentioned smut to put his ideas across. It’s surprising how easy it is to make alleged grown-ups giggle with the word wobble. Our portable instant whiteboard was put to good use with some good old fashioned diagrams, and despite Dave’s best efforts to destroy it, it worked well. How making something wobble can tell you interesting things about it was practically demonstrated by Dave playing the National Anthem on a musical ruler. Yes, really.

The Q&A clarified that not every-one who has a massive laser is a Bond villain, but he does sometimes refer to his laser as a Death Laser.

The final speaker of the night was Christian Perrin from Nottingham Trent University – he works in forensic psychology and his talk described the issues surrounding peer support groups in prisons and their effect on re-offending. Christian passionately described how meaningful activity while in prison can improve prisoner’s outlook on life and themselves. He was also clearly disappointed that the data that would help him measure the positive outcomes he was hoping to find was so difficult to obtain. This was further illustrated during his Q&A where Christian spoke about how dealing with humans with privacy concerns means that Psychology may not as scientifically rigorous as some may like, but its results are significant none-the-less. Most interestingly for us was the story about the bizarre paradox that The Samaritans will run mentoring with a prisoner to improve their self respect, but if that individual were to volunteer with them upon release, they would be turned down following a CRB check. It would seem meaningful options for prisoners following released are incredibly limited.

After the event, we chatted with all three speakers for the Pod Delusion podcast. All speakers thoroughly enjoyed their experience, and got something out of it too (and not just the free beer!). Christian pointed out that hearing people in other disciplines present their research had given him ideas about how to explain his own research in the future. The interview can he found on Pod Delusion episode 221.

Judging by the spontaneous and lengthy applause after each speaker, we think everyone present thought the night was a success. However, we’re looking for feedback – what can we improve? Let us know in our “Request For Feedback” blog post.

PubhD: Not as popular as Grumpy Cat…but it is smarter.


Ever wondered what would happen if someone actually followed up on that silly idea that came to them after a couple of pints? We used to wonder this, and then we were enjoying a couple of pints and had a silly idea.

Initially we imagined a a couple of people huddled around a table nodding enthusiastically as a chemist PhD desperately tried to convince them that they don’t really use test tubes any more.

But, where would we find speakers? Where would we find an audience? Where would we meet? What would we call it?

A blog post and some inspired punning later and it turns out that this silly idea wasn’t so silly after all. The idea grew into PubhD. In a matter of weeks we have:

Coming soon: PubhD (University of Birmingham)

Coming soon: PubhD (University of Birmingham)

It’s the fact that others have started up so quickly that has really blown us away. No one actually knows if it will work – but the enthusiasm and response gives us huge confidence that, apart from tweaking the format, we’re all on to a winner.

So, if you’re interested in joining in or setting one up, follow the simple steps on the “How To” post to find like minded people and speakers. This isn’t a cult though, so if a variation works for your group go ahead and try it and let us know how it goes. Apart from ruining the pun there’s no reason why this couldn’t work in a coffee shop, back room or any space where interested folk can talk about and listen to other interesting folk. Sharing the ideas that work and don’t work will help us all refine the idea and have really successful meetings.

We’ll post honestly about the first meeting and invite the comments of all who attended (and those that didn’t) so that PubhD (Birmingham/Glasgow/Lincoln etc.) can avoid the mistakes that we will undoubtedly make.

PubhD has a venue: Welcome to The Vat and Fiddle!

We are delighted to announce that PubhD is no longer homeless!  The lovely people at The Vat & Fiddle have welcomed us with open arms and provided a room that should be perfect for us.

Those of you who have attended Nottingham Skeptics in the Pub meetings will be familiar with The Vat, but if you’re not, this is all you need to know:

It’s the home pub of the Castle Rock Brewery and as such boasts a vast selection of ales at very wallet friendly prices.  They also serve some pretty decent pub grub and accept card payments if you haven’t had time to dash to the bank on the way home from work.

Castle Rock's Vat and Fiddle pub

Castle Rock’s Vat and Fiddle pub

The Vat is ideally situated 5 mins walk from both the Train & Broadmarsh Bus Station and there is some limited on street parking nearby. There is a new multi-storey car park at the station that is easy to walk from as well.

In the next week we’ll be seeing which of the speakers are free for January’s talk and organising the inaugural meeting, keep your eyes open!

Please also join the PubhD Facebook group so we can notify you about upcoming events.

Gonna Be An Engineer

Firstly, Kash and I have been stunned by the response we’ve had to the idea for PubhD. I’ll admit I wasn’t certain that we’d have enough volunteer speakers to go round… but with over 20 already we’re set for some amazing meetings.

The topics suggested so far are wonderfully varied and range from History and Bio-fuels to Robotics and Disease. We will also be taking in Criminology, as well as Portuguese and American literature.

A Smorgasboard of interesting things for interested people!

In keeping with the range of subjects we saw a recent blog post from the Association of Engineering Doctorates, who shared both our enthusiasm for the idea and awful puns:

We like this idea, but think it needs to extend to Engineering Doctorates (EngDs), so would like to propose that our friends in Nottingham also allow some “InngD” talks by EngD research engineers.

So, to demonstrate our commitment to all flavours of qualification and in solidarity with our brother and sister Engineers…here’s Peggy Seeger.

Next steps are to confirm a date (Probably 22nd Jan) and a venue (Probably the Vat & Fiddle) and organise the first PubhD.

In the meantime please share the idea with people who might like to speak (PhD students or EngD students) or listen; or if they aren’t a Nottingham resident – start up one in their home town.