A Melting Pot for Postdocs

Sitting in a room with fellow postdocs and a couple of artists, neuroscientist Barry Gibb had "a small epiphany," as he puts it. The artists at the session asked the scientists to draw a live model, each other, and themselves. Despite his scientific training, says Gibb, it wasn't until those few hours that he learned something fundamental to his work: how to correctly observe an object. "The artists were very good at making us realise we don't look at things properly," he says. "So many things you look at and a large amount of that you take for granted." Gibb realised then that he rarely asked himself, "What I am I really looking at?"

Gibb's epiphany was part of a UK-based postdoc training course called Crucible. Established by the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts (NESTA), a publicly funded organisation that promotes innovation and creativity, Crucible was designed, says programme manager Alan Morton, to "broaden the horizons of postdocs" in science, engineering, and medicine. Crucible participants, says Morton, are typically at a point where "they have achieved a lot, but they're also at a stage where they need to take stock of what they want to do next." Crucible awardees say the programme has inspired them to set up interdisciplinary research and degree courses, to undertake scientific outreach activities, and even, in a few cases, to change careers.

Established in 2004, the Crucible Award is open to scientists with at least 3 years of postdoc experience. The award runs over a year and includes three residential weekends known as "labs" in which the 30 or so awardees get together. The majority of participants come from academia, but the award is also open to industry postdocs. Crucible labs typically include sessions on the media, ethics, globalisation, and the creative arts, among other topics. These subjects are explored through presentations from invited speakers, interactive group sessions, and other types of skills training.

Crucible participants in discussion

Crucible's uniqueness is what attracted the interest of many of the participants. Trina Dinnis, an engineering postdoc at the University of Edinburgh, says she chose Crucible because she hoped to "meet a group of like-minded people" who were interested in discussing the social impact of their work. Dinnis felt that she wasn't tapping her creative side in her work. "I realised I had more to offer than the job demanded," she says. Chemistry postdoc Gabriel Cavalli-Petraglia was attracted to Crucible "because it wasn't just science-focused." In the lab, he felt inhibited about showing his creative side, he says, and he hoped this course would give him the chance to fully "be myself."

Apart from its cultivation of useful skills, Crucible also served as a sort of group-therapy session. "With the length of the postdoc period, it's easy to feel isolated," says Ed Marshall, a chemistry lecturer at Imperial College London. Getting together with other researchers to share experiences seemed to have a cathartic effect. "We all had similar highs and lows," he says. After what he describes as a communal " 'woe is me' winging session" about career prospects during the first Crucible lab, Marshall says the self-pity rapidly decreased over the course of the year. Crucible, he says, "really engendered an enabling spirit."

One of Crucible's main goals, says Morton, is to create an interdisciplinary environment for participants. Cavalli-Petraglia, who is currently a postdoc at the University of Southampton, says, "The best part of the course was the group itself, being able to interact with people in different areas of science to your own field." The experience made a big difference in his career. Discussing his polymer research with participants at Crucible opened up new interdisciplinary channels. He became aware of parallels between polymer and protein behaviour. This, he says, provided "a new direction to old ideas I had" and formed the basis of a recent research proposal he has written since. Cavalli-Petraglia believes this new direction helped him secure his next position: a lectureship at the University of Surrey. Crucible's inspiration and motivation "is keeping me in science. It gives you the strength to go on," he says.

Cavalli-Petraglia isn't the only one Crucible has changed for the better. Since Crucible, Marshall has been involved in setting up an interdisciplinary master's degree in sustainable chemistry at Imperial, an activity, he says, "I don't think I would ever have started doing" before Crucible. The course "has given me back something I had when I was younger; I'm now much more interested in topics outside my closeted area." It has helped him gain confidence, too. "It just made me aware of new possibilities. I'm more open to going out there trying to find new things; I've more confidence talking to people in other disciplines." Cold-calling someone from another department is "something I now feel comfortable doing."

Crucible 2005: Taking a step into new territory

Crucible discussions were not limited to research. Participants also debated issues from globalisation to using the arts to encourage sustainable development. None of the ideas about creativity are spoon-fed, says Jo Baker, an astronomer. "It's self-driven; what you get out of it is what you put in." The development of creativity skills is difficult to describe, say Crucible participants. But it includes activities such as improvisation workshops (in which, for example, a group of six to eight people depict an event from history in a sequence of five static scenes without words), creative problem-solving, and the life-drawing session that Gibb found so helpful. Crucible awardees also get the opportunity to meet NESTA fellows including dancers, fashion designers, scientists, and technologists. Some scientists may not align themselves with artists, performers, or designers. But Baker points out, "creativity is a really important part of science that is completely neglected. It's the heart of what science researchers do."

Crucible spurred neuroscientist Gibb to a career change. "I was always interested in creativity," he says. Gibb was a senior research fellow at University College London when he participated in Crucible in 2004. "I found that it made me increasingly frustrated about the limitations of research; it's so focused on minutiae." The course helped him realise that "my additional interests outstripped what I was actually doing." Gibb is now a freelance science writer and filmmaker. "Crucible was the added catalyst to help me go on to do the things I had wanted to do."

Programme manager Morton doesn't claim that the initiative will make important career decisions for participants; he hopes, rather, that it encourages postdocs to reflect. "Crucible made me ask more questions than I found answers to," says engineer Dinnis, who is embarking on an interdisciplinary project that "I connect with, have a passion for." Dinnis is also planning to do some science outreach work at the Orkney Island Science festival this year.

Gibb hasn't taken up life drawing, but he is using his newly acquired observation skills for filmmaking and writing. He has just finished writing his first popular science book, The Rough Guide to the Brain. Before Crucible, he says, "I don’t think I had realised the scope beyond the lab. There are many other ways to do science."

Anne Forde is European editor North and East for Science 's Next Wave.

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Photo credit: Poppy Berry

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