stem cells in their environment

Reflections from Cumberland Lodge

25 November 2016
By Kif Liakath-Ali

During the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century the scientism worldview was first introduced. The idea of scientism is rooted in a movement spearheaded by Bacon, Descartes and Galilei, mainly to eschew any speculations that don't comply with empiricism and reasoning. It aims to bridge the abyss between what novelist and physicist C. P. Snow famously called the "two cultures" – the arts and the sciences. Too often these cultures have been classed separately, implying that neither culture can communicate with the other. Cumberland Lodge of Windsor Great Park has a prominent role in bringing these "two cultures" together and engages them in intellectual conversations and ideas. Cumberland Lodge has a royal heritage as a former royal residence set in a splendid countryside.  It has also established a unique celebration of the postgraduate research culture in the UK.  The "Annual Life Beyond the PhD" conference is part of their educational mentoring programme and PhD students and new graduates from across the country use this platform to share experiences and exchange ideas and aspirations.

I was fortunate to be selected by the KCL graduate school (among two other current PhD students) to attend this year’s conference, tailored especially for PhD students and those who recently completed their PhD. This 9th residential conference was held from 30th August to 2nd September 2016 and aimed to give researchers from all disciplines the opportunity to hear doctoral graduates relate the life decisions they made after their PhDs, as well as hearing from experts in communication, career development and higher education policy. The conference began with the welcome note and introduction by Dr. Owen Gower, Director of the Cumberland Lodge Programme. He took us through the fascinating history and also guided us around the Lodge, which we thoroughly enjoyed.

We have greatly benefited from speakers who shared their experience in working inside and outside academia.  Dr. Elizabeth Morrow and Dr. Warren Dockter spoke about their experience inside academia and higher education today in the UK. Dr. Martin Turner gave us a glimpse of what is like to work in policy sector for bio-industry.  Supt Robert France told us why he chose to work as a police officer over a glowing chemistry career after his Oxford DPhil. It was convincing.

The conference also had workshops on "successful applications" and "public engagement". Dr. Steve Joy and Katie Hewitt gave us helpful tips on how to make the application stand out and improvement of the cover letter. This was indeed a very useful session for us to be aware of common mistakes during an application process.  Another topic in the workshop was public engagement. We learned key aspects of effective science communication from Dr. Geraint Wyn Story. He also taught us the essential elements of actively engaging the public with the scientific research that we do in the lab. A session by Dr. Sally Marlow focused on her experience in working with media to create awareness on addiction.

All the delegates were asked to do a short presentation on their research in groups. It was challenging but at the same time a rewarding experience to explain my research on molecular control of skin stem cells to artists, musicians and architects – in 5 minutes! I learned from this session that it is vitally important to develop communication skills to explain your research in a common-man term. Having this skillset is mutually beneficial as it gives the researcher confidence while at the same time allows the non-science audience to appreciate what we do in the lab.

We are all careerists and want to progress in the field that is close to our heart. After being heavily engulfed by relentless PhD work, in many cases, it is not unusual to be a bit muddled about further career plans.  This conference certainly helps or gives students and new graduates ideas to help them decide what career path they want to choose. People often think that if they choose an alternative career it is a compromise. But recent trends indicate that alternate career choices should be celebrated. A nice editorial published a few weeks ago in Nature talks about this in detail. There is no such thing called "academic failure".

Reflecting upon those three days in the Lodge makes me consider my position in society as a scientist as well as appreciating the impact that the conference had on my future career. I also think that it is essential for PhD students to sit and ponder over matters separate from their research. Doing so gives an outside-the-box glimpse of how the world works and what we as scientists could contribute. While the conference was truly beneficial to plan and build one’s career, the discussions between the “two cultures” were definitely fruitful, at least in my case. I always enjoy chatting with philosophers and artists and these conversations are now leading me to collaborate with artists to materialize my dream of seeing art through science!


I would like to thank KCL graduate school for the sponsorship that allowed me to attend this conference, Dr. Owen Gower for providing materials on the history of Cumberland Lodge.

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