Author Archive | Lukas Harnisch

I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!

UntitledWhen I first heard about I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! I thought it just sounded like a fun and easy way of engaging in some student outreach whilst never having to leave my desk.. But it turned out to be both challenging and rewarding in equal measure!

For those of you who haven’t come across IAS!, it is a 2 week competition partly modelled on TV talent shows and mainly supported by the Wellcome Trust. It is split up into zones of 5 scientists working on a broadly similar theme, who then fight it out answering questions submitted on the website and taking part in live chat sessions with whole classrooms of school children. In the second week a scientist is voted off by the students every day until a champion is decided, who is then rewarded with £500 to spend on further outreach work.

As a lowly first year PhD student I wasn’t sure I’d even be selected, but sure enough I soon found myself assigned to the ‘Sustaining Health’ zone, alongside opponents including an experienced professor and a post-doc at JIC (set up perfectly for a local rivalry!). The first task was setting up a social media style profile page for the students to read about my research. As anyone who has attempted science outreach with children can confirm, it is surprisingly hard to describe your work without using technical language or presumed knowledge.. In the end I just made sure to include lots of interesting pictures of microscopy and impressive equipment (and even some fancy dress from the Christmas party!).

As the event started the first few questions started to be posted online, which soon became a steady stream each day. Fortunately most were either easy to answer or interesting to research, although as many of them were asked to the whole zone there was an added incentive to reply first and earn extra brownie points with the students. The real fun started with the live chats however.

These had been booked by the teachers in advance, and although I could not do all of them due to lab commitments I still took part in one or two every day over the fortnight. The 30 minute chats were fast and frantic (especially on a few occasions when I was the only scientist available!), and varied massively depending on how much the teacher and moderators paced the session. Often I found myself typing away faster than I have since my days as a teenager on MSN messenger! I was surprised by how much I could actually answer easily, although I’ll admit that google was my friend when it came to looking up half-remembered facts and figures.

The questions were often thought-provoking, or simply hilarious, but a few topics cropped up again and again. Due to my research area I was often asked what the deadliest bacteria is (I usually went with TB); but the kids also seemed extremely interested in areas such as space and possible missions to Mars, when the world might end (a little macabre), the future of cloning, and the existence of alien life. They were also very curious about our scientific background, such as what subjects we enjoyed at school and when we decided to become scientists. Of course not all the questions were so cerebral, with some of my favourite random queries including:

  • What are the disadvantages of the world being flat?
  • Where would you put the carrot in terms of importance for sustaining the growing population?
  • Do you like cows?
  • Is your profile picture actually your real face?
  • What does Lizard DNA look like?
  • What’s your favourite cheese?

And that is only a selection of the best I can remember!

When I started the competition I was primarily hoping that I simply wouldn’t be the first scientist evicted. So it was a pleasant surprise to survive to the final day, up against a PhD student studying UV-light purification of drinking water. He had developed an ingenious strategy of pre-preparing interesting science facts to produce in any lulls in questions during the live chats (which I of course immediately bemoaned as cheating to the rest of my office but secretly wished I’d come up with first), which seemed to impress the students immensely. So it came as quite a shock to find out at the end of the final day that I had been voted the winner of the zone!

It is quite gratifying to find that my science communication skills seemingly appealed to the students, but to be honest the fun was really in the taking part (pardon the cliché). I plan to donate the prize money to some science education charities working in developing countries, as I am sure they will find better uses for it than any scheme I concoct myself.

As Duncan Gaskin was victorious in a Food Science zone a few years ago, IFR now has a strong track record in IAS!. I highly recommend anyone who is considering options for interesting communications work to consider giving the competition a shot. It was hectic and challenging but the most fun outreach I have done by far, and I immediately missed it when I returned to my normal work schedule!

The next I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here event will run from the 15th to 26th June 2015, and applications to take part are already open, with a deadline on the 3rd May. The zones have not been announced yet, but there will almost certainly be at least one relevant to IFR science plus a number of general science zones. Visit to find out more!

By Samuel Ellis, a 1st year PhD student in Stephanie Schuller’s lab.

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ISF away day 2014

In October 2014, the ISF celebrated a successful first year as a committee, and welcomed our newest PhD students by donning the Segway helmets for the first ever IFR student team-building day.

away day 1Our first, and unanticipated, team-building exercise was to find our way to ‘The High Lodge’ in Thetford forest, something which our carload were not so successful at, even with a map and the initiative of 4 PhD students. Despite this and the buckets of rain that fell on our journey, our spirits were high as we excitably piled out of the car and headed for base camp. On arrival, we were greeted with a lovely spread of tea, coffee and pastries, which slipped down very well and prepared us for an action packed day.

The fun began with the initial (actual) team-building exercise: ‘Would I lie to you’. The aim was to conceal one extravagant, but true fact about yourself with some even more outrageous lies- definitely a useful skill in the world of science! I was quite chuffed with myself when my co-team believed my lie that I once went to clown school!

Following the initial ‘get to know you’ session was the main event. We strapped ourselves into the helmets, picked up the Segway’s and tentatively stepped up- this could go one of two ways. Luckily, after the first few baby steps, we were zooming around the practice area. Looking very fetching in our safety gear we headed out into the forest, surrounded by beautiful scenery. Although the route included some hairy off-roading, we managed not to break anyone this time around, and only had one (minor) crash, quite a triumph!

away day 2After a bite to eat and some much needed warming up, we headed back to base camp where the remainder of the day was filled with some more team-building exercises. Our initiative was really tested when we were asked to build a basket sturdy enough to catch a golf ball using only a few straws and some tape!


The day was rounded off with an awards ceremony and presentation of our (unofficial) Segway licenses. Mine still stands proud on my desk to this day. After all the excitement, it was time for some sleepy students to return back to actual work…but on a serious note, the day was a great success and enjoyed by all. I think all would agree that it helped to tighten the bond of the student community at IFR.

By Elizabeth Thursby, a 3rd year PhD student in Nathalie Juge’s lab.

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Application open for 22 new PhD studentships at the IFR!

Applications are now open for 4 year PhD studentships at the Institute of Food Research to start in October 2015.

The PhD studentships, funded through the Norwich Research Park Doctoral Training Partnership, form an integral part of our research that addresses the fundamental relationships between food and health, food and the gut and the sustainability of the food chain in order to further the production of safe, healthy foods.

Projects being offered cover the whole range of IFR’s current research, from delivering a better understanding of gut bacteria through finding ways of tackling obesity. There are opportunities that involve tackling foodborne pathogens, making food and diets healthier, improving sustainability in the food chain and understanding what makes a healthy gut.

The full list of all advertised studentships and additional information on each can found here.

Doing a PhD at the IFR is an amazing opportunity and here are just some reasons for it:

  • You will join one of our small, dedicated research teams that are managed by supervisors with international reputations in their fields
  • You will be part of the enthusiastic, self-supporting student community at IFR
  • You will become part of a community of over 2,500 scientists working on the Norwich Research Park, a leading centre for research in food, health and the environment.
  • You will benefit from high standards of supervisory practice and mentoring for graduate students, which include IFR’s close links and proximity to the University of East Anglia (UEA)
  • You can enjoy full access to joint courses at UEA designed to develop generic professional skills
  • You will be working and studying in a great environment. The Norwich Research Park boasts 230 hectares of open parkland on the outskirts of the city of Norwich. Norwich itself is a vibrant city, with a superb quality of life, great entertainment, a unique mix of ancient and modern architecture, a top 10 UK shopping centre and good links to London and internationally, via the Norwich International Airport.
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The first ISF annual BBQ


Barney Shaw and Dan Lock discussing meat in the shadows of the UEA Ziggurat buildings

With the recent weather being unlike that majority of the British summer and the tan lines appearing from lunchtimes sat in the sunshine the IFR Student Forum decided it was time for a BBQ, hopefully starting the tradition of an annual summer celebration! So, with a spot at next to the UEA broad booked, a large ice box ready to cool whichever tipple took your fancy, and a tentative look skyward to check the dark clouds weren’t rolling in (luckily as you can see from the photos it was a beautiful evening!) we headed off in the direction of the university. By 6pm a great mix of IFR staff, post-docs and students both new and current were enjoying the sunshine and prodding the flames of the freshly lit BBQ.


After having our fill of the delights from the grill the games were begun. The rounders (or ‘pretty much baseball’ as the Canadians among us noted) match was going very successfully until Bruce took a tumble, the result of which was a pretty spectacular break of his collar bone and some scary looking x-rays. Fortunately he’s now on the mend and is already scheduling the re-match.

The lessons learned from the day? A BBQ with the IFR staff and students is great fun, and a brilliant way to relax after a hard week of PhDing…..but perhaps we’ll leave the rounders bat at home next time!



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Inside Scoop: Lizzie Thursby chats to the ISF about the IFR Student Science Showcase

SSSYou’ve seen the poster titles. You’ve felt the nervous tension wafting through the corridors. Yes, the IFR Student Science Showcase is fast approaching! Once again, this event promises to be one of the highlights of the academic calendar at IFR. We caught up with Lizzie Thursby – member of the organising committee and previous poster prize-winner – to give us her top tips for the day along with a taster of what we can expect from this year’s event.

You took part in the SSS for the first time last year. Did you enjoy it?

I thought it was a fun day! It is not often you get the chance to present your work to others and I enjoyed the challenge. There’s usually a hint of competition between you and your colleagues as well, which can be a lot of fun!

What did you gain from the experience?

The IFR SSS was the first time that I presented my work to people outside of my specific field of research, and this made me aware of the challenges that arise when you need to interact with an audience of mixed scientific backgrounds. You quickly realise that not everyone has the same level of understanding of your project as the people in your office, which means that you have to think about your work differently in order to make it sound understandable and also interesting to others.

I remember that an older student approached me at last year’s Showcase and said, ‘so, tell me about your poster!’ I was really nervous and my mind just went blank!

But the student was really encouraging and I soon felt more comfortable. I learned from this experience that it’s good to prepare a kind of ‘mental script’ that summarises your work so that you don’t feel so scared when people come to your poster. I think that the Student Science Showcase is a nice platform for learning these skills – you are in an environment where it’s okay to make mistakes.

What can we expect from this year’s Showcase?

We have tried to plan the food around the theme of the keynote talk (given by Professor Ian Rowland from University of Reading). It will be buffet-style with a Mediterranean feel to it. This year, we have managed to obtain a large amount of sponsorship from companies such as Biolabs, Primerdesign and Fisher, in addition to the funding given by the BBSRC, so expect some nice food and generous prizes! The sponsors will be there on the day to give us information about the services they offer, so feel free to have a chat with them.

Speaking of prizes… you won one of the coveted poster prizes last year, well done! Do you have any top tips for designing a winning poster?

Thank you! I would say that having a logical layout is quite important. Include lots of pretty pictures and don’t make it too wordy. Don’t forget an acknowledgements section! One useful tip is to print out a copy of your poster on A4 and try to read it – if you can’t read the writing then it won’t be readable on the real thing either.

And finally, what advice would you give to the current first years who will be taking part for the first time?

Don’t worry about how far you have got in your project or how big/small your results section is. Anyone can present a good poster, even if it only contains background information about your project. Concentrate on enjoying your first experience of presenting a poster and try to speak to as many people as possible. If people are not noticing you, approach them! I wish that I had spoken to more people last year and had not let nerves get in the way. Once you get going, you will feel much more comfortable chatting to people about your work. Enjoy it!

The IFR Student Science Showcase 2014 takes place on Monday 23rd June from 2pm in the IFR lecture theatre.


By Steven Lewis, a 3rd year PhD student in Stephanie Schueller’s lab.

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Big Bang Fair 2014 in Birmingham

The Big Bang is the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths for young people in the UK.

This year it was taking in place in Birmingham and the IFR had a stand presenting the work being done at the Institute.

A large number of students and members of the IFR travelled up North to show and explain to the hundreds of students, children, parents and teachers their science and answer questions.

Have a look at the pictures below to see how much fun we had and the awesome blow-up, walk-in colon.


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A survival guide to conferences

Yesterday I registered to attend my eighth conference and after three years of attending them I think I might be getting the hang of it! Before I embark on another round of abstract writing, grant writing and travel planning, I thought I might pass on some advice I wish I’d have known when I went to my first conference.

  1. Cloth posters are your friend. Unless you’re lucky enough to be giving a talk you will need to take a poster. Posters (or more specifically poster tubes) come with a unique set of trials and tribulations of which I won’t go into in detail. Suffice to say that when my poster tube spontaneously disassembled itself for the third time on the tube I began to see the benefits of a cloth poster. Cloth posters neatly fold into your suitcase, handbag or pocket (depending on the size of your pockets) and are a similar price to paper posters. In my opinion the quality is a good as a paper poster, unless you need to display lots of high definition images. The other advantage of a cloth poster is that when you return from your conference you can use the now ‘old’ poster as a draft excluder or table cloth, rather than just allowing it to collect dust and occasionally fall on people from a high shelf.
  2. Be like a Boy Scout. Conferences can be busy places so make sure you prepare in advance. Know which talks you want to attend, which posers you are interested in viewing, and any people you would like to meet while there. If you are going to try to meet people while at the conference make sure you’ve done your homework and you know about their research, it will only look bad if you don’t appear to have done some background reading before a meeting.
  3. Find yourself a conference buddy. On the first day of the conference I try to find myself a friend. This will make mealtimes and networking events much easier to face. My general method is to find someone who looks slightly cleverer than myself and also a bit lost and confused. This way I have someone who can explain the more complex talks to me, but is less likely to ditch me for the ‘cool kids’ on the second day.
  4. Never try to keep up with your PI.A conference is a stressful and confusing place for a student. However, for your PI, a conference is a chance to meet friends, catch up, squabble with rivals, eat, drink and be merry. Never get drawn into a drinking session with Professors, their capacity for alcohol is amazing. They will outdrink you, and I think it’s unlikely they’ll consider employing anyone who threw up on their shoes! My advice is to sit somewhere relatively close to them (in case they offer to buy the drinks) and enjoy the show.
  5. Networking = making friends. If you don’t ‘get’ networking don’t worry, neither does anyone else outside politics. Remember standing in the cold, wet playground on your first day of school, not wanting to let go of your mum’s hand? Fast forward twenty years and I still feel the same in networking sessions (although my supervisor said I had to stop calling him ‘mum’). Keep your conference buddy in sight for moral support. Say hello to everyone you meet (even if you don’t know them) and if they stop to chat, chat back. Try to remember names, as you will see many of these people at other conferences. In poster sessions talk to poster presenters. This both helps you pick up new conference buddies, and get yourself noticed (hopefully in a good way!). If people ask you to keep in touch after the conference then consider the offer seriously, you never know where it might lead. Remember networking gets easier as you get to know more people, so just try to swallow your fear and get stuck in there!
  6. Enjoy yourself. I know this is ridiculous advice and I hate myself for writing this, but throughout all the stress and angst try to remember that you are actually quite lucky to be doing this. Most people will never get to travel as part of their work and even if they do they probably won’t be attending these kinds of events. As PhD students we (sometimes) get to travel to some pretty cool places without very much personal expense. Try to enjoy the experience, spend a little time seeing the sights and attend the conference dinner whenever possible. Some of my fondest PhD memories are of travelling to and attending conferences.

By Hellen Brown, a 4th year PhD student in Arnoud Van Vliet’s lab.

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