What happens when you let PhD students and post-docs organise a meeting?

As plant science PhD students, we feel it is vital to share our research with other scientists to generate new ideas for collaborative projects. For this reason we decided to organise the ‘Innovations in Plant Science to Feed a Changing World’ workshop, which was held in the University of Bristol Biological Sciences department in February 2017. The delegates included early-career scientists from Kyoto University, Heidelberg University and of course the University of Bristol.

Figure 1. The Conference Poster

The University of Bristol has a long-standing partnership with Kyoto University and more recently, Heidelberg University, as our plant science groups share overlapping research areas. The main aim of the workshop was to encourage novel collaboration opportunities between the plant science groups, which would give rise to future projects, publications and ultimately funding.

Last year, Kyoto University hosted a highly engaging and productive workshop (see Sarah Jose’s blog post last year) for early-career scientists from the three universities in this coalition. Following from the success of this workshop, we decided to organise the second workshop, where participants could build upon the partnerships forged at the last meeting, form new links and present their results in a friendly environment. So, for the past six months, a team of PhD students and post-docs has been busy organising the meeting that took place in February.

As it turns out, organizing a three-day conference, even a relatively small one, is quite a lot of work. Getting venues, transfers, catering, accommodation and social activities booked all presented their own particular challenges. However, perhaps the most challenging task was designing the program for the workshop, which was set out into different themes to encompass the participants’ different subject areas.

All the organisation paid off when the visitors arrived, slightly (very) jet lagged from their long flights. Once the workshop had started, we were delighted with how smoothly the sessions ran and how engaging the talks were. Following the talks there were many discussions over coffee, during the poster session and break-out session. We also included a careers talk from Prof Tokitaka Oyama from Kyoto University, who shared his insights on how to succeed as a plant scientist. Another highlight was the keynote talk from Professor Keith Lindsey (University of Durham), who shared his fascinating work on modeling plant developmental biology.

In amongst all the science, we had time for an excursion to the University of Bristol Botanical Gardens where Nick Wray gave a fascinating tour, which was very enjoyable. We also visited the Wills memorial building tower and even had a go at ringing the bell!

Figure 2. Nick Wray (far right) led a fascinating tour of the University’s Botanic Garden for the visitors.

Although organising the workshop was a lot of work, it was definitely worth it. Our organisation, leadership and project management skills were trained and tested in the run-up to the workshop, but in the end, it went very well indeed. All the delegates thoroughly enjoyed their participation and a comment that was heard a few times was that delegates were impressed, not just with the quality of the science being presented, but also the quality of the scientific discussion particularly given that English was not the first language for the majority of the participants.

We hope that the links formed at the workshop will continue to develop into novel collaborative projects. – I (Donald) definitely benefited as the post-doc Massaki Okada even stayed on a few days to teach me some techniques.

We would like to thank our funders, the Bristol Centre for Agricultural Innovation and the New Phytologist Trust for their support. We’d also like to thank the other members of the organising committee whose hard work made this workshop so successful: Fiona Belbin, Deirdre McLachlan, Tsuyoshi Aoyama and Antony Dodd.

Figure 3. Group Photo

Blog post by Donald Fraser & Katie Tomlinson

Resilience: The power of being bored…together

Louise and Eva belong to a London-based arts programme called Fourthland, which they describe as “A movement. An idea. A place. The handheld. A way of working. A history of projects”.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with them since Tessa Fitzjohn, a local curator, and Aldo Rinaldi, the Senior Arts Officer at Bristol City Council offered us the opportunity to host Fourthland as artists in residence. Together, Aldo and Tessa launched the ‘Resilience Laboratory’ in light of Bristol’s ‘Green Capital’ award – a project that aimed to explore the meaning of resilience from multiple disciplines and create a space to share learning.

Whenever I meet with Louise and Eva it feels like something profound has just happened, and is about to happen again, if I can only grasp the thoughts for long enough. They have provided a place and a time for us to stop. Think. And dwell on what it means to be resilient. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to capture just one of the many themes I found surprising and interesting at Fourthland’s most recent resilience workshop at the Cabot Institute – boredom (the good kind).

Louise and Eva from Fourthland. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy

I have never (ever) considered boredom as a precursor to resilience, but yesterday I did. When you consider the amount of work we need to do to mitigate the effects of climate change, or tackle inequality and hunger, it’s difficult to argue that we should ever move so slowly that there’s time to be bored. The scale of the challenge is so vast that those who truly engage in the topic can almost be consumed by a constant need for progress.

In yesterday’s workshop we were set a task to work with simple materials – wax, hay, string, and eggshell – in silence. We weren’t given strict instructions on how to use the materials; just that they were ours, and we had twenty minutes to work together using silent gestures. What we learnt is that each group started the task politely – exploring the materials and gently negotiating how they might be used. We were delicate, patient, and searching for rules that might guide our behaviour. We all seemed to feel that there might be actions that weren’t ‘allowed’. After what must have been around 10 minutes there was a surge of creativity. People had become bored with their ‘safe’ tasks and began to be more provocative – breaking materials, tying furniture together, making meaningful products, or reading aloud. In this space, boredom became a catalyst for a change greater than we originally felt comfortable with. We stopped searching for rules and broke the ones we thought existed. Colleagues overcame their discomfort of physical contact, and began to share materials across their workspace. Boredom forced us to create and connect.

In the Cabot Institute workshop, academics from social sciences, arts, engineering
and science worked with simple materials from hay to wax, string to eggshells.
Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy

In the post-event analysis, Louise, Eva and I discussed the possible importance of boredom in resilience and I was taken aback by their ideas. They suggest; “when we are bored, we are seeking something – something stimulating, something interesting. In this state, we become more receptive to learning.” Shima Beiji has previously argued that in order for an agent to become resilient, it must undergo a continuous process of knowledge acquisition and learning. Is boredom a condition that makes us more receptive to learning?

Perhaps, but it’s possible that we’re also open to a different kind of learning. It’s not the reductionist type of analysis that takes place after a disaster (where did the issue originate, what specifically could we have done to make it better, how can we be more resilient next time?) It’s a far more emergent way of creating understanding that intuitively feels more innovative and preventative.
If we took more time to be bored and engage in mindless repetitive tasks, could we actually be far more mindful in the present, more creative, and more resilient in the future?

In the scientific and engineering literature, it is clear that a degree of ‘redundancy’ in a system is critical for resilience. This means having additional resources or capacity that allow you to absorb shocks without compromising productivity or safety (e.g. having a store cupboard full of beans in a food shortage will mean you can avoid hunger). It seems to me that there’s a link between boredom and redundancy.

If boredom arises (in part) from repeating a task beyond the point that we can learn more from it, or enjoy it, then is boredom a form of mental ‘redundancy’? Does it give us time to absorb the mental ‘shock’ of constantly receiving new information every day?

I repeatedly hear people say they crave ‘time to really think’ away from the daily slog of tasks, but have realised that when we create this space it’s often for a defined purpose: “Think through new paper ideas – 2 hours”, or “send thoughts on strategy document to Rich – 30 mins”. Very rarely do we schedule time for unadulterated, unstructured and exploratory learning.

So what did I learn from playing with a bowl of wax this afternoon? That in order for people and communities to become resilient, we need time to be unproductive, together. That boredom can be a precursor, maybe even a catalyst, to a different kind of creation, connection and learning. That we need to trust that the use of this time will surpass our initial expectations. And that I want to work with more artists like Eva and Louise.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute Manager Hayley Shaw.
Hayley Shaw


Images from the Fourthland workshop at the Cabot Institute


Fourthland workshop

Implementing volcanic hazard assessment operationally

Following the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, the National Risk Register now lists volcanic hazards at the highest priority level. Volcanic hazard assessment draws together scientific knowledge of volcanic processes, observational evidence and statistical modelling to assess and forecast hazard and risk. Researchers at the University of Bristol have been central to the development of local, regional and global volcanic risk modelling over recent decades. One aspect of ongoing research is to develop a strategy for devising and implementing hazard assessments in an operational environment, to provide decision support during a volcanic crisis.

Cabot Professor Willy Aspinall
demonstrating the application of
Expert Elicitation in volcanic
hazard modelling at the OTVHA
workshop, Vienna, April 2014

Last week, I organised a workshop on Operational Techniques for Volcanic Hazard Assessment. The 2-day workshop, held in Vienna, Austria and supported by the European Geosciences Union and the Cabot Institute, brought together researchers from 11 institutions in eight countries to explore current practice in methods applied to operational and near-real time volcanic hazard assessment.  I was assisted in organising by Dr Jacopo Selva of INGV in Bolognia and speakers included Cabot Institute members Professor Willy Aspinall and Dr Thea Hincks, Dr Richard Luckett of the British Geological Survey and Dr Laura Sandri, of INGV, Italy.

There is a real gap between our ability to monitor and understand volcanic processes and our capacity to implement that understanding in a way that is useful operationally. In this workshop, we were able to bring together some of the leading researchers from around the world to explore how different tools and techniques are deployed. Better integration of these tools is essential for volcanic hazard forecasting to be useful for risk management.

The workshop involved discussion sessions and practical demonstrations of tools for real-time monitoring alerts, the use of expert judgment, Bayesian event tree scenario modelling and Bayesian belief network inference tools.  Dr Mike Burton from INGV Pisa, who took part in the workshop, said,

“It’s really important for volcanologists to engage with how our science can be adapted and incorporated in hazard assessments. The OTVHA workshop was a really useful exercise in exploring how our knowledge and uncertainty can be assimilated for real time decision support.”

Monitoring a volcano in Ethiopia

My research in Bristol concerns the interface between volcano monitoring data and hazard scenario models and I felt the workshop was a great success.  A few groups have developed approaches to modelling volcanic hazard and risk. This workshop provided a great forum for detailed discussion of how these tools and techniques can be combined and compared.  As scientists, we need to understand how to optimise and communicate our model output to be useful for decision makers.

Developing tools that are both scientifically and legally defensible is a major challenge in natural hazard science. The idea of organising the OTVHA workshop was to further explore the opportunities in addressing these challenges, which are central to the mission of the Cabot Institute. We’ve already started planning for the next workshop!

The OTVHA workshop was followed up with an associated session at the EGU General Assembly meeting, ‘Advances in Assessing Short-term Hazards and Risk from Volcanic Unrest or Eruption’, with a keynote presentation by Prof Chuck Connor on assessment of volcanic risk for nuclear facilities.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Henry Odbert, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol.


There are a few places left on the Cabot Institute Summer School on Risk and Uncertainty in Natural Hazards, featuring Willy Aspinall and other leading Cabot Institute academics.  Book your place now.

Setting-up new collaborations with geoscientists from Kazakhstan

A map of Kazakstan
(from GraphicMaps.com, World Atlas)

Landlocked in central Asia, Kazakhstan is the world 9th largest country, larger than Western Europe. It is host to one of largest amounts of accessible minerals and fossil fuel. Even though, Kazakhstan is relatively unknown to the general public and geoscientists. In order to encourage international research collaboration between ambitious young researchers from the UK and Kazakhstan, in March 2014 the British Council Researcher Links organized a workshop in Ust-Kamenogorsk in Kazakhstan.

I was selected to attend this meeting and as a result I found myself on a Monday afternoon boarding a plane to Kazakhstan together with 12 other UK scientists. My main reason to attend the workshop was that palaeoclimatic reconstructions from this part of the world are almost non-existant. This while in the geological past (Mesozoic and Paleogene) Kazakhstan was on the bottom of a large epicontinental ocean that connected the Tethys Ocean with the Arctic. Any palaeoclimatic records from this region of the world are thus very valuable and could provide key-insights into deep-time paleoclimate. I hoped that some scientists worked on palaeoclimate reconstructions. Publications were sparse, and sometimes in Russian, so hopefully a face-to-face meeting would be good start for collaboration.

The modern campus of the East Kazakhstan
State Technical University in Ust-Kamenogorsk.

The first personal encounter with the vast size of Kazakhstan and remoteness was the time in took us to get there. Flying from London, it took us more than 24 hours to get to the small city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, located in northeastern Kazakhstan. Although temperatures in the UK reached a comfortable 18 degrees C that day, in Ust-Kamenogorsk day temperatures were well below freezing and winter still in full swing. Snow was packed half a meter high at the side of the roads.

The workshop was held at the modern campus of the East Kazakhstan State Technical University. The first days were filled with presentations from both UK and Kazakh scientists, as well as Simon Williams, the Director of the British Council Kazakhstan. An interpreter was used to translate Russian into English and vice versa. It was very interesting to give a presentation with an interpreter, it makes you very conscious of what you say and forces you to talk in brief and concise sentences. I was very happy to hear that several Kazakh palaeoclimatologist were present and very enthusiastic to share their results and ideas. Although palaeoclimate is not a top research priority in Kazakhstan, it was impressive to see the work that was already done. Several scientists worked on sections covering all periods from the Cambrian to the early Cenozoic and detailed stratigraphies were developed. We saw dinosaur eggs, beautifully preserved fossil leaves, fossil fish, and remains of large ferns. Very exciting! We had an impressive lab tour in which they showed us an array of state-of-the-art instruments that would make some UK-geoscientists jealous. 


All geared-up and ready to descend into the mine.
(I am on the right!)
As a main theme of the workshop was mining, the 3rd day we visited the Maleevka Mine near Zyryanovsk. After a detailed explanation of the daily operations of the mine, which mainly produces copper and zinc, we went down into the mine and had an amazing and slick two-hour tour. Although I am not an expert in mining, it was fascinating to see the mining operations from close-by. I was impressed by the state-of-the-art technology and know-how and safety regulations.
Remote-controlled mine dozer used to safely
get ore from newly blasted areas.
After four intense days (and nights), it was time to make the 30hr journey back to Bristol. My overall impression is that Kazakhstan is an amazingly beautiful country. It was impressive to fly for hours over snow-covered steppe and mountains. Although the weather was cold, the people were incredible warm and friendly. Wherever we went, people welcomed us with smiles and food, lots and lots of great food! The workshop was incredibly well organized. I definitely want to come back to this country. In fact, the last day one scientist gave me some Paleocene samples that I literally had to smuggle out of the country and which we will use for a pilot study. In the near future we aim to organize another workshop in Kazakhstan, focusing especially on palaeoclimate and hopefully some fieldwork because there is so much potential for great science and collaboration!
The British Council organized this trip. The UK coordinator was Prof. K. Jeffrey from the Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter.
This blog is written by Dr David Naafs who is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Organic Geochemistry Research Unit at the Cabot Institute, University of Bristol.