Ode to Acetobacter🦠

How can knitting possibly help you learn science? I’m going to show you some examples of how my neurodivergent brain uses crafting to help me engage and learn.

Today I’m expanding on the topic because it raises some important points about how neurodivergent individuals may learn and generate knowledge differently to the accepted norm.

In school, learning starts with theory. In higher education, there’s lots of this. You do theory, a bit of practice, then reflect about the practice, then theorise again.

Now I’ve accepted I’m never going to be a brilliant scholar, but I am an amazing crafter. Earlier this week, my OneDrive “memories from this day” gave me a fantastic example of how my ADHD works.

Two years ago I was working on a funded project, looking at bacterial cells down a microscope. The colours and formations were beautiful, and I immediately thought they would make wonderful prints. Within 20 mins I had images on the one drive of my mobile phone and was ordering fabric to be printed. Two days later, I was sat at my sewing machine into the early hours making my Gram stain TAL cuff top (see picture below).

The process was invigorating, going from science lab to makers bench in a few days, it was great fun. The product however was not so good. I had no knowledge of textile printing, or photography, so the image I used just didn’t work well on a fabric. I got lots of pity likes for that project. So was it a terrible failure? Hell no! It’s still one of my favourite crafted pieces. It’s prototype 1, generation 1, beta test, first edition.

I learned so much from every step of that process. It was two years ago and I could repeat the process tomorrow and  implement every improvement needed just from memory. More incredibly, every time I think back to the project, I remember my acetobacter, I remember the flowers they were extracted from, the colours and smells of acidic alcohol mix they produced in the lab. All of these sensory experiences helped to build up my knowledge of the bacterial strains I was studying.

And that is how I motivate myself to learn science. Accepting there is always a need to do some theorising, but mostly by doing and experiencing.

The first cycle of crafting is my background research. Having sensory experiences and building muscle memory helps me generate and consolidate knowledge. In the same way that reading text and writing essays helps other people learn. Experimenting is one of the reasons I fell in love with science.

But in my case, where ADHD gives, autism takes away. My difficulties with written language mean that I am not an avid science writer, the final step in the process of academic success.

Thankfully, society seems so be coming to a new understanding about neurodiversity. Individuals like me, who are desperate to contribute but feel hindered because we don’t fit in the mould, are about to have our renaissance.

All of my posts are opinion based, as I can only talk about my own experiences of ADHD and autism. But listening to the voices of other neurodivergent individuals has allowed me to see the commonality between us. And that helps me to feel less alone in the world.

Anyhoo, have a peep at prototype 1 below and, if you feel brave enough, post one of your own…

A photograph of a pink patterned top on a coat hanger.
Ode to acetobacter…..

I Am Scientist

What does it mean to be a scientist? I have been contemplating this question a lot over the last few weeks, particularly since I posted about what it feels like being an autistic academic (the wrong kind of academic). If I’m not really an academic by most people’s traditional standards, then at least I am still a scientist. I think.

“Alexa, what is a scientist?”.

Thankfully, the UK Science Council has provided a definition of a scientist for us here:

A scientist is someone who systematically gathers and uses research and evidence, to make hypotheses and test them, to gain and share understanding and knowledge.

There is some further definition that provides context of methods and disciplines within which the scientist works. There is also a separate definition of a science technician that is distinct from the main classification of a scientist but that recognises the immense skill and expertise needed in a technical role.

I’m putting a disclaimer in here that I am a devoted supporter of The Scientific Method and its purpose in generating new knowledge and understanding. But can we do better with our definitions of what comprises a scientist? Do we really need to have a separate definition for those who do the “technical work”. And what about everyone else who works in the realm of science but doesn’t conduct research?

One problem with the above definition is that for the most part, being a scientific researcher almost always requires a university degree. And a PhD if you want to lead a research program and be the person who makes the decisions around what actually gets researched to begin with. You want to be a scientist when you grow up? You probably need a PhD. Its easy to see how inaccessible this career path feels to most of the population. So how can we start making science more accessible to the younger generations?

In December 2023, the Education for 11–16 Year Olds Committee, appointed by the House of Lords, published a report outlining the urgent need to reform secondary school provision in the UK. The main findings suggested that school is too focused on the acquisition of academic knowledge in a core set of subjects and learning facts for traditional style exams. The report suggested that reform should focus on providing a broader overview of subjects, more varied learning experience than just learning facts for exams, and more real life context to learning.

“Schools must be given greater flexibility to offer the subjects and qualifications that would best serve their pupils, based on a balanced curriculum including the study of creative, technical and vocational subjects”

I have children at both primary and secondary school, one that attends alternative provision. From my experiences as a parent I see that, likely due to issues around covid and the general lack of time and resources of staff and schools, science can be taught as a very dry subject in schools. And it shouldn’t be taught that way. In my opinion, this is like teaching art through reading books and looking at pictures. Science is not just a set of facts to be memorised and it should be taught in the main using practical experiments and a range of learning methods.

In 2020, I delivered a session at an event aimed at discussing digital transformation in higher education. One of the big take home points from my talk was that we need to include more creativity in science education. My talk was awesome – the participants (unbeknown to me at the time, some of them were very senior leaders in academic organisations) had fun playing Minecraft on iPads and experiencing more of what I think learning should be about. Remembering and understanding knowledge because you enjoyed the experience and learning new skills because you were taught them in a safe, comfortable, accessible, fun and relevant environment.

For a number of years pre-covid, I used Minecraft as a learning environment for hosting environmental field trips. The idea was that we have few opportunities to leave the classroom and go into the field, so Minecraft could be used a safe and easy way of wandering around “outside” and testing out a students skills before the real thing, whilst generating some data to analyse as a practice run. The alternative option was to give the students a sheet of data and a PowerPoint presentation explaining the relevance.

I look at this situation and think it is easy to see the benefits of using Minecraft. But honestly, alongside the academics who were supportive (and there were a good few hence my talk at an important event) many of my academic peers were very cynical and snobbish about my Minecraft work because it wasn’t very “academic”.  To counter this, I did a robust study where I went into different Minecraft environments and gathered tonnes of ecological field data, which I then analysed to demonstrate how it could be used as a suitable replacement tool for field work. So I have a piece of work that was conducted using proper scientific robustness, was innovative as nobody was doing this at the time, and could have been a great contribution to both education and scientific discussions on accessibility of field trips. The data is still there, unpublished due to my struggles around writing publications and somebody from another university published similar work years later. Feeling like you have lots to offer, but not being able to contribute due to accessibility, is frustrating on a personal level. But it is tragic on a societal level.

So I now have two main questions for us (scientists and educators) to consider:

Firstly, how do we make science more accessible by using digital tools and practical experiences to capture learners imagination and interest during their earlier studies at school?

And Secondly, how do we then recreate that accessibility within the science industry itself? Because even if we generate interest in science at an early age, barriers to becoming a bona fide “scientist” still exist (re: the PhD issue).

I’m finishing off with my favourite Temple Grandin Quote:

I am different, not less (Temple Grandin)

I am a scientist, and always will be, without the need to fit into black and white definitions. I love learning about our amazing world, how it works and how we impact upon it, and I love sharing this knowledge with anyone who will listen. And that’s good enough for me.

Crochet for this week is a work in progress and is going to be a long, long long ….. project in many ways. You may guess what it is…. its a bit niche but one I’ve been wanting to make for ages. Once finished, it is destined to be a whole blog post in itself.

A long tube of crochet made up of different sized stripes of wool coloured red, blue, green and yellow. The picture shows the tube alongside four balls of wool and a crochet hook.
A long way from the end…

An ADHD Approach to Information

One of my work interests at the moment is in finding ways to provide more accessible learning and research environments for individuals with neurodivergent traits that impact on their learning needs. I tend to focus on ADHD and autism because they are where my difficulties lie and this allows me to speak from personal experience.

A great example that I have encountered myself recently is around finding, processing and presenting information when you have ADHD. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, there is some irony in this situation. When researching accessible learning, I am carrying out academic tasks and still find the usual road blocks in place that make the topic ….. well, inaccessible. One obstacle I have overcome in terms of communication is in writing this blog. This blog isn’t proof read by anyone. I don’t spend hours tying myself in knots over the quality of my writing. It is imperfect, but it is also authentic.

I am keen to develop good practice and conduct some research around universal design for learning (UDL) in higher education, specifically in relation to supporting learners with autism and ADHD. UDL is a way of designing learning experiences with accessibility as a starting point rather than an after thought. The idea is to build a learning session with the flexibility that allows different styles of learning and assessment to be utilised, but that ultimately leads to the same outcomes. We can all get to the same point via different routes, right? I am keen to see how recent increased awareness of neurodiversity will influence research on learning styles over the coming years.

Now, having ADHD I know exactly where my weaknesses lie when trying to research new topics. I struggle to read, so much that I will often avoid reading anything unnecessary. This is going to be a difficult concept for some folk to comprehend, but the following description is how my reading attempts usually work. I have a passage to read (book, magazine, website etc) and will read the first sentence, maybe two. Then I immediately become aware that I am reading text, and have a sort of out of body experience- you know the kind of thing where you say a word too many times and it loses all of its meaning? I tell myself I need to focus and continue reading but this time whilst being aware that I am tying to focus, I will read a few sentences further. However, this is just looking and recognising words, not comprehending the information. At this point, my brain has branched off into a number of different thought lines and I have seven things going through my head, none of which are the four sentences I have just read.

You will think this part is hyperbole, but I often feel physical discomfort during this process. If I become hyperaware that I am reading, my body wants to crawl out of my skin, a sensation similar to restless leg syndrome but with a touch of tinnitus added in. And I repeat this cycle many times until I give up. I want to read the document / book that is in front of me, I desperately want to know the information, but I somehow struggle to get my brain to focus and assimilate information in this way. So it ends up that producing academic outputs that require reading comprehension of any kind (such as writing an essay, journal paper etc) becomes a difficult task.

But its not impossible, and I have adapted mechanisms and strategies that have allowed me to survive this long in academia. I am essentially a top down assimilator of information. Having to research and understand a new topic in academia (especially when you get to senior academic levels) usually requires the synthesis of a significant amount of information. This can feel overwhelming when you struggle to read one paragraph without getting stressed. So I tend to gamify the process of acquiring the information which usually turns it into a hyperfocus session of organising things into groups.

I usually start at a journal or library search engine (Teesside Uni Discovery, and Scopus are my favourites) and start with keywords. Maybe I’ll get 10,000 hits for a topic, so I adjust the keywords and criteria to narrow down my returns. This bit can be fun, because its doesn’t involve reading anything more than one or two sentences of a header or abstract, which I can happily do. I can flit through lists, reorganise and whittle down to a nice concentrated subset of papers / journals etc. Finding a really enjoyable search engine that allows you to play around with criteria and document the process of searching is important for this part.

When I’ve completed a number of searches using different combinations of keywords, its easy to see the same papers coming out again and again as being most relevant. I will often export the search results into OneNote when the list gets manageable where I can use coloured highlighters and stickers to play around with my lists and eliminate papers I don’t need.

A good reference management system helps here. If you can export a whole list of reading material into RefWorks then you can also play around with organising the material into groups. Just from skimming over the titles – which ones have the most citations? This is often an indication that the publication was seminal in its disciple (or hugely controversial) but worth looking over. Which paper is the oldest – who started off this work? Yes, its probably out of date now but sometimes its interesting to see the beginning of an idea. Can you organise into subfolders by publication date, discipline, keywords, author?

To many students and researchers, this probably sounds like a standard way of working – you do searches and read some papers, what’s revolutionary about this strategy? Well, to an individual with ADHD this is probably the most important stage of the process. Moving onto the step where you actually have to read the material can be challenging. But if you have managed to organise a volume of material it is highly likely that you will already have provided yourself with a pretty basic overview of the topic already without even reading one source. Your brain will have inadvertently picked up on important keywords, different contexts in which the topic arises, an understanding of the timeline during which the topic has evolved, any closely and tenuously related topics that sit beside the main research idea. All of this is great information when wanting to understand a new subject.

It does feel overwhelming when you still have a list of documents to read over. One strategy I use here is to narrow down my reading to a specific subset of items – maybe 10 pieces that look important from my searches. This is quite an important step for me because even though I still need to do some reading, I have defined the upper boundary for my project (for now anyway). And already having an understanding of the breadth of the topic makes it easier for me to manage “reading” smaller chunks of text. I already have a framework to hang the ideas from – and that allows me to retain the information more easily.

This is similar to my other favourite tools of learning which are knitting and Minecraft. Using these building tools to construct information from a scattered array of knowledge helps me to focus and allows me to think in pictures rather than using language, which is an area where I struggle.

So, I can go on a fantastic and enjoyable learning journey without extensive reading and use of literature that is often expected from an academic. On that note, today’s piece of crochet is more for fun than education!

A flat amigurumi style pink crochet brain, with embellished brain folds and face.
My research tells me that all brains are pink and woolly…..

Redcar Rocks

Aside from a few years here and there, I am a born and bred Teessider. I love our fabulous region and all of its natural beauty and industrial heritage. There are loads of beautiful beaches along the NE coast but in terms of accessibility, local facilities and the expanse of the sandy beach, Redcar is my favourite. And I can satisfy one of my autistic compulsions with a trip to to the beach – collecting and organising stuff.

Collecting things is one of my life long autistic special interests. I didn’t realise the significance of this behaviour until the last few years when I was diagnosed with autism. Before that I would say that I probably hid a lot of these interests from people outside of my immediate family out of embarrassment. I still feel a physical stress response when I think about the time I mentioned Minecraft to a group of mums outside Brownies one evening.

However, one of the few positive aspects of social media is that I have found plenty of other individuals who have similar interests to me and I don’t feel quite so alone with my unusual hobbies. I could talk endlessly about knitting and Minecraft, and have somehow managed to shoehorn both into my working life. I very rarely discuss how much I love collecting things. Its probably not as obvious to everyone, but two of my hobbies – playing Pokémon Go and bird watching are entirely based on my need to collect things. I have a substantial collection of stamps in my attic from the summer when I was on my first maternity leave. From my childhood, I still keep my collections of erasers (super 80s hobby!), stamps, thimbles, Wedgewood, Garbage Pail Kids stickers, Garfield stuff and New Kids on the Block memorabilia. I was a pretty weird kid to be honest. I’m also a completionist gamer – I have to collect every object, tick every achievement and finish every side task. If you add a dose of ADHD hyperfocus to this mix then I can end up doing some pretty awesome, but also quite random, things.

The process of placing items in order is as important as the process of collecting them – its something my brain is compelled to do. I find this whole process incredibly relaxing – perhaps this is how some people feel after a long run or session at the gym? It is like all of the loose threads in my head get smoothed out and tied together. Or maybe it just keeps my brain busy for a while to stop the ADHD hyperactivity?

Anyway, back to Redcar and my current hobby of collecting shiny pebbles 😊. I can’t leave without a bag of rocks. Anything that looks unique or interesting. And I’ll clean them up, try to identify them and organise into little groups. And my brain is super happy in this space ☺️. Here’s a piccie of today’s haul:

  • A display of fossils and pebbles lined up into groups of similar characteristics
    Todays finds on Redcar beach: Ammonites, stained quartz?, veined pebbles and weathered rock, and maybe some pieces of slag?

    And finally, I have the perfect piece of knitting for this post. It’s one of my favourite pieces from the last year. It’s a first and only draft and certainly needs to be rejigged and remade. Do you recognise it?? It’s Redcar blast furnace at night 🌙 ✨️ 😍.

  • Knitted wrist warmer
    Knitted wrist warmers … depicting Redcar blast furnace at night

The wrong kind of academic

Happy New Year peeps!

This is my first new post in a while, after taking a year long career break to be a full time parent carer. During my year off I came out as being autistic and having ADHD. Identifying as being neurodivergent is a topical issue at the moment and lots of people are sharing similar stories to mine. Having open and honest discussions around the impact of neurodivergence is the first step towards improving the lives of those who need support or simply acceptance and understanding.

Over the coming months, I am going to post about neuroinclusion and accessibility in academia. My aim is to engage with others who feel similar to me, and have positive discussions around how we can improve support and career retention, and remove barriers to progression that stem from being neurodivergent.

This week I have been thinking about aspects of research (and academia) that I find the most challenging and trying to drill down into the specifics of where I need support. And if I had an academic mentor to guide me through my career, how could they help? The criteria for promotion through the academic ranks are grouped into three broad categories that cover an academics professional standing in the research community, academic outputs (impact, publications, grants etc) and contribution to leadership in academia. Its sensible to assume that these are the main achievements that are deemed necessary to be a successful academic.

Reading through the criteria I realised that there isn’t necessarily one area that I find difficult to achieve. It is the intrinsic need to collaborate for success in all of the activities. And I find collaboration hard – it is the one aspect of autism and ADHD that really challenge me in my role.

Academic collaboration frequently involves working in a team environment with ill defined roles, leadership and boundaries and many invested individuals with no clear workload allocation. Some people will thrive in this flexible working space and will naturally lead the pack and ensure their ideas are heard. Being autistic makes this situation incredibly challenging for me. I thrive with clear and transparent communication, fair division of work and well defined tasks. My natural response is to withdraw, from conversations, from meetings, and eventually from projects. Many times I have left fantastic projects where I had been central to their development because I felt an overwhelming need to run away and hide from the complexities of the collaboration that eventually built up around me.

The impact on my career has been significant in so many ways. Surprisingly, colleagues never ask why, just assume I lost interest and go on without me. I lose publications, I lose the time that I spent building a project where I didn’t benefit academically, and I lose confidence in myself every time this happens. My natural default is now to focus on small scale projects, maybe where I see a gap in the provision, or usually just something that I find exciting and fun. Almost always projects that I can run independently with my amazing students. And this is where the benefits of ADHD can really help because I have an uncanny ability to generate ideas and combine existing stuff into new and exciting better stuff. This is where I thrive and when I am most productive. So it seems I get to be a happy academic, but just not a successful one.

Does this resonate with any other academics? And if so how do you break that glass ceiling and manage the complexities of research collaborations? Please get in touch or comment below if you want to chat!

I’m going to sign off with a bit of crochet. I made the piece below when I was having a spectacularly low day… and feeling like a bit of a misfit, hence its called the wrong kind of leaf. But Homer Simpson always cheers me up so its a fab piece in all.

A flat piece of crochet that depicts a brown tree branch, with six different coloured leaves hanging from the branch. On one of the branches a crochet emblem of the cartoon character Homer Simpson is hanging in place of a leaf. The image is called 'the wrong kind of leaf'
The wrong kind of leaf

Something’s brewing…

Cellulose & sustainability:

Bacterial cellulose produced in the microbiology lab

One of my favourite aspects of microbiology is the ability of simplistic, single cells to make things of value to us as a society. Somehow, it seems less exploitative than the use of animals and more sustainable than using crude oil-based resources. This is of course, true some of the time but not quite as simplistic as it first seems. Some of the more complex fermentations that make products like vaccines and antibodies will use tonnes of plastics, chemical resources and energy in their lifecycle. And in order to exploit fermentation products to replace the chemical building blocks within crude oil, we would need a consistent source of sugar without diverting it from the food industry. These aspects are not insurmountable, and often the sustainability of biological processes relies heavily on advances in other disciplines such as engineering (renewable energy) and chemistry (allowing the breakdown of complex waste into sugars). So, it is important that we persist in researching these processes so that we understand what is possible. 

One of my primary research interests is the production of bacterial cellulose via fermentation. Cellulose is a complex carbohydrate, made up of linked chains of glucose molecules, and is the most abundant biopolymer on Earth. The glucose bonds in a way that creates long overlapping polymer chains that have a high tensile strength and stability. One of the best-known uses of cellulose fibres in nature is the structural material in plant cell walls. Aside from plants, many bacterial species can produce cellulose which they secrete outside the cell to form biofilms. The cellulose fibres form a solid matrix that facilitates bacterial attachment to surfaces and can provide a protected microenvironment in which they can accumulate in higher densities. Cellulose is also a valuable commodity, being primarily used in the manufacture of paper & textiles. This article on Fortune Business Insights provides an excellent analysis of the current cellulose market. Looking at market trends is certainly not the job of a microbiologist. However, it is important to know the value of the research you are conducting. This value doesn’t need to be economic / financial – but there needs to be an end game for a scientist’s work, and this nowadays is referred to as impact. So how does this relate to my kitchen table?

Fermentation of bacterial cellulose is actually quite a simple process that can be carried out using household items. This process isn’t something that I designed – it is a well-known and established home brewing method that is widely documented and freely available in books and websites (here’s a good one from Make: magazine). I have had lots of success with home brewing in the past, and decided it was time to set-up a new batch of cellulose. Here’s one of my old completed pieces hanging out to dry on my washing line:

A photo of a square piece of bacterial cellulose hanging with pegs on a washing line
A piece of bacterial cellulose hanging out to dry on my washing line

The fermentation broth:

In order to grow bacterial cellulose at home you need to provide an environment that is hospitable and allows the bacteria to divide and make your desired product. For the fermentation of cellulose, we need to provide the following:

  • A food source for the bacteria. Depending on the bacterial strain, this can be quite prescriptive as some bacteria need specific molecules fed to them which they can’t make themselves. Luckily, the microbes we are growing aren’t that fussy, so we are giving them table sugar (sucrose – a disaccharide of glucose and fructose) at approx. 100 grams per litre of fermentation broth. The bacteria will break this down and use its components to make the building blocks required to divide and make new copies of themselves. 
  • Extra nutrients. Alongside carbon and hydrogen (provided in the sugar) bacteria need smaller amounts of other elements such as nitrogen (part of a cells protein material), phosphates (forms DNA backbone), salts and trace elements. For this purpose, I added a teaspoon (about 5 g) of Marmite to the fermentation broth. 
  • Acidity. The microbial community that ferments cellulose prefer to live in a slightly acidic environment. In order to provide this, I added 100 ml of white vinegar to the fermentation broth. 
  • Water. These microbes will live in a planktonic culture (free floating in liquid) and need available water to survive. I used boiled tap water for this purpose.  
Photo showing the ingredients of the fermentation broth: sugar, marmite, vinegar and Scoby.
The ingredients of the fermentation broth: sugar, marmite, vinegar and Scoby.

The table below shows the components for a bacterial growth media (Hestrin-Schramm Broth) that can be used to grow cellulose producing Acetobacter species in the microbiology lab. I have included the home-based substitutes in the table so you can see the comparison. 

Hestrin-Schramm Broth Home-lab Broth Alternative Component
Ingredient

(purpose)

Weight (per litre broth) Ingredient Weight (per litre broth)
D-Glucose

(carbon and energy source)

20 g Table sugar 100 g
Yeast Extract

(nitrogen, salts, trace element source)

5 g Marmite Teaspoon (approx. 5 g)
Peptone

(nitrogen, amino acid source)

5 g
Disodium Orthophosphate Dihydrate

(buffer)

2.7 g None n/a
Citric Acid

(acidity, carbon source)

1.15 g Vinegar 100 ml
Type 2 water

(solvent)

Make up to 1 litre Tap water 1 litre boiled and cooled
Preparation notes:

 

Autoclave to sterilise

Preparation notes:

 

Sterilise glass vessel with boiling water

My fermentation broth is less defined and is certainly missing some specific ingredients. However, we are not using optimal conditions for the home brew – we just want to make some cellulose no matter the quality. Also, we are going to use a mixed microbial culture in our fermentation. I often use a commercially produced Kombucha scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) as a starting culture for my cellulose fermentation purchased from the Happy Kombucha Company.

IMPORTANT These are food grade starter cultures intended for making edible kombucha tea. I have varied the recipe so the product I make is not going to be kombucha tea and is not an edible food item. This is important – please do not follow my recipe above to make anything at home. 

The mixed culture will provide an undefined number of bacterial and yeast species that have been selected for their ability to ferment sugars and produce kombucha tea, and as a side product can also produce cellulose. Often in such cultures, the yeast will ferment the sugars and provide alcohol that certain bacterial strains can use as a carbon source. So having a mixed culture can be very advantageous. However, when I prepare cellulose in the microbiology lab, I use the model bacterial strain Komagataeibacter xylinus DSM 2325 purchased from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures.

Setting things up:

Setting up the fermentation is quite easy – just maintain a clean area in order to avoid any contamination from bacteria on other surfaces / your skin etc. I used Pyrex casserole dishes with lids which I steam boil/sterilised by filling them with the correct volume (1 litre) of boiled water from a kettle prior to adding the rest of the ingredients. The dish has a large diameter which is important when making cellulose as the biofilm forms and floats on the surface of the vessel. the bigger the diameter of the vessel at the height of the liquid, the larger the piece of cellulose that you produce. Once the water had cooled, I added the sugar, vinegar and marmite and stirred using a spoon that had been blanched in boiling water. I then added the contents of the scoby to the broth and placed the dishes in a warmish area of the house (NB not accessible to children, pets or any other vulnerable individuals).

And finally:

Will it grow? This is a new set of ingredients for my home fermentation, so we will wait and see what happens. I will provide an update next week – hopefully with cellulose to show off!

The awesomeness of student researchers (or something like that)

One of the joyful aspects of working in academia is the prospect of having a fresh start every teaching year and the cycle of reflection and potential for improvement that comes with this. As such, autumn is always a time for me to reflect on my achievements and plan where to go next with my work. I am a super harsh self-critic, but I have a pretty good understanding of my strengths and weaknesses. For me, this is an offshoot of my mental health problems. Depression, anxiety and a good dose of neurodiverse thinking mean that I spend a lot of time in my head mulling over my place in the world.

I had my annual work review this week for the first time in a few years and as preparation I read over my achievements from previous reviews, albeit all before COVID. There is something that stands out to me (and likely no-one else) in this record of my achievements. And that is that my most successful academic projects, the ones that have been the most innovative, the ones that I have enjoyed the most and persevered to see their potential being realised, have been in collaboration with our own university students.

My most productive years were the ones where I was awarded students as researchers as part of a university wide research informed teaching scheme. Undergraduates had to apply for roles and were screened and interviewed prior to being employed for 60 hours of research work. I was lucky enough to be allocated five such placements over the years and each time, these students had a positive impact on the direction of my career. I have read many research studies waxing lyrical about the benefit of these projects to students and to the research informed teaching curriculum. But what about the benefit to staff? And what was it that made these placements so beneficial?

Perhaps it was the nature of the projects themselves that were so enjoyable. All of these placements were working on new projects that needed nurture and enthusiasm, ideas and action. And thanks to the fresh, enthusiastic approach of student researchers, they turned into amazingly feasible projects. My favourite part of the process is taking crazy ideas and turning them into a tangible, working project. Does this count as bona fide academic research? Probably not. Does it have outcome and impact? It certainly does. But most importantly, it is an accessible way of generating ideas and innovation in science without the gatekeeping that comes with larger research projects. And honestly, that’s my favourite place in the world, so its where I plan to stay.

Some of my past student as researcher projects that have been far too enjoyable to be considered work (nb it was still work):

Minecraft as a learning tool in science:

Over the years I have had many students working on this project for me. A bona fide reason to have Minecraft on my desktop at work? Yes please! These projects saw students build:

  • an in-game Minecraft ecology field trip for first year undergraduates as a prep tool prior to a real field trip. I presented this work at the Advance HE STEM conference in 2019 (STEM conference 2019: Using Minecraft in HE as a virtual field trip: One academic’s journey | Advance HE (advance-he.ac.uk)). NB I delivered this presentation in memes…. it was super cool)
  • a gamified biorefinery that demonstrated the circular economy to KS2 / KS3 aged kids
  • a MakeCode program that could be deployed in Minecraft and used scoreboard mechanics to keep tabs on your sustainability in the game, such as using non-renewable materials to build and destroying biodiversity.
  • Here is an in-game snap of one of our field trips:

Campus Biodiversity:

  • My AMAZING student for this project worked over two placements to design and deploy the Teesside University Campus Bird Count. We had volunteers walk a transect around campus and submit data to study the impact of activity on our birdy friends. We also made bee and bird sheets for general use to highlight the extensive biodiversity we have on campus, and its importance in maintaining a green highway through Middlesbrough.

SciArt in Biosciences:

  • The student worked with Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art to investigate the crossover between science and art. This included a number of public engagement events at mima, ran with science students as volunteers, that aimed at engaging families with biodiversity monitoring in Middlesbrough town centre. And it involved knitting of course – we had knitted birds at the mima events:

I feel incredibly lucky to have been gifted with these amazing students and projects. Fingers crossed I might get to work on more of these placements in the future😊.

Any ideas for contributions to the above projects, and science knitting / crochet, are always welcomed!

The Echo Chamber

“Make Mental Health & Well-Being for All a Global Priority”

Monday was world mental health day. I have always tried to be transparent about my own mental health struggles and how these impact my day to day personal and professional life. I’m not a social scientist, so I can’t speak from a place of academic expertise on this subject, but I can talk about lived experience of being an academic with mental health struggles and neurodiverse traits.

I think, interact with people, behave, and generally do lots of things in way that might seem different to others. It’s not that my ways of doing things are wrong… but when you are different, it becomes hard to fit in and that’s exhausting. Most things we do in life are organised around the average person’s brain, and there isn’t much room for compromise (understandably for a lot of things).

As I get older, I am less inclined to worry about fitting in and the impact on my career. Academia is a hub for creativity and generation of ideas and knowledge. If it doesn’t support diversity of thought, it will remain an echo chamber for the average brain, and hence the rest of the world with it. So, I guess the point of this post is to say … solidarity to those who feel they don’t fit; we need you more than ever 😊.

And if you get chance, read this blog post about autism and inclusivity in sport by Josh MacLaren. It’s amazing and important work 🙂 Josh MacLaren – Sports industry, accessibility and digital media blog (tees.ac.uk)

And of course, SOME KNITTING. I’m fatigued from a few big projects and have lots of WIPs at the moment. I am working on things, honest…. just not finishing anything. Here’s a few pics of my current projects:

Photo of four science knitting pieces with no obvious identity for each piece
My latest science crochet / knits (top secret until they are finished)

I have FOUR big science projects underway at the moment. All of these are TOP SECRET until finished and are super exciting. And the picture above does not give away anything 😁.

I also have loads of winter knits on the go, here’s a few latest piccies:

Photo of knitted cream hat with two bobbles
Bobble Hat for Hubby (He needs to pick a bobble, I think the cream one?)
Andrea Mowry “Wool and Honey”
Photo of knitting showing two coloured rows of cream and brown bobbles
Paintbox Yarns Bubble Cardigan in cream and fudge Super Chunky acrylic!
Photo showing a semicircle shaped piece of knitting in cream and red
Just started this two-colour brioche shawl by Andrea Mowry “Cinnabar Shawl” and I am completely in love with the pattern.
Photo of autumn wreath with knitted leaves attached.
A fun one – just finished this crochet autumn wreath decoration. Pattern available for free on the Hobbycraft website.

More updates soon,

Helen x

A stupendous fail 🤷‍♀️

I thought it would be helpful to post about projects I undertake that fail, or those that take a lot of iterations to get to the final product. Below is the pile of earlier versions of the crochet fatty acids from the membrane granny square. It took dozens of attempts to work out a pattern for this piece:

Left: unused earlier pieces of the granny square membrane. Right: final piece.

This week I uploaded a piece of work to the Twitter SciArt Community group as part of SciArtSeptember activity for scientific illustrators to share their work. The work shared by members of this amazingly talented group is phenomenal. And then there’s my contribution…. 

This piece was rushed, designed and completed in a couple of hours (whilst the kids were still on school hols, so with Roblox and The Simpsons in the background). The prompt for day 1 was the word “Survivor” which immediately made me think of my favourite microbe Deinococcus radiodurans. This bacterium has an amazing ability to withstand radiation and repair itself following exposure, making it a microbe of significant interest in both the biotech and health industries (click here for link to a Nature Micro Reviews article on this bacterium). Hence, I couldn’t resist having a go at making something! Here is the end result (this picture here shows what I was aiming for): 

Crochet representation of Deinococcus radiodurans as four neon coloured circles joined together in a tetrad
Final piece – a tetrad of Deinococcus radiodurans cells
Crochet pattern progress
Crochet pattern progress

Needless to say this was not how I imagined the final piece was going to look. I don’t regret submitting it, it was very different from the other pieces uploaded for that day which perhaps shows a different perspective on the topic. And whilst making the piece, I came up with loads of new ideas for future pieces of work, which I guess was one of the goals of the exercise? So, in some ways it was a success 😜.

PS My 10 year old thinks it looks like butt cheeks….