It is time for a move…

Moving day!

Now that we are at the end of another academic year, and slowly (hopefully) nearing the end of the CV-19 pandemic in the UK, it is time for a move, and a refreshed start.

From today onward my blog will be hosted elsewhere. The new platform is easier to use (bonus for me) and offers a host more functionality (bonus for you and me). So if you want to stay tuned, make sure you subscribe to my refreshed blog over at lifeofalecturer.com.

I have some exciting ideas for posts, and more. New features will follow after the current marking period is over. The focus will be more on my EdD journey and my life as a bioscience lecturer.

This old version of my blog will remain active as an archive, and I will without a doubt refer back to some things on here.

I look forward to welcoming you at the new home of my musings.

3 things I wish I knew before starting my EdD

I am currently sitting on the sofa with my youngest son fast asleep on my lap. I have just finished watching some videos by Ali Abdaal, which inspired me to think a bit more about why I started my EdD, and what my current self in year 4 of a 6 year programme would tell my start-of-EdD self. It has been a long run already, and it has most definitely not been an easy journey so far. Since starting my EdD my wife and I have had two children, I have taken on a number of additional volunteer roles, suffered some health and mental health setbacks, and lived through a global pandemic. If only my start-of-EdD self would have known (but then again, would I have started the EdD if I would have known all these things?). Anyway, without further ado, 3 things I wish I knew before starting my EdD.

1 Comfort zones will be demolished.

As a bioscientist, I am now researching the experiences of other people. These experiences are not expressed in numbers and analysed with clever statistics and algorithms. Instead, I am submerged in the murky world of qualitative research. Qualitative research comes with plenty of -ologies: ontology, methodology (which surprise surprise is not the same as methods), etc. This is still a relatively alien concepts, and at first I was confused as to why doing research needs to be made so complicated. But then I realised somewhere during my third year that although having some understanding of ologies is useful, it is much more important to be pragmatic, and to simply choose the best tool for the problem, rather than adapt the problem to the tool. Since realising this my identity as a grounded theorist has shifted from pure Glaserian Grounded Theory to a more pragmatic variant of Glaserian GT (if this sounds like gobbledygook then don’t worry, I thought the same three years ago!).

2 Sometimes it is better to take a break, even if you don’t really want to.

Taking breaks during doctoral studies is something that divides supervisors and students. For some, it is an absolute no-no, for others is it accepted practice. As a full-time academic doing a part time doctoral programme, I have always tried to treat my EdD as a part-time job, rather than as a course of study. I see my supervisors as my peers and mentors, and my doctoral work as just work. I therefore had no problems at all with taking two periods of paternity leave when my sons were born. I did with in my day job, so why would my EdD be any different? Luckily I have very supportive supervisors who encouraged me to take plenty of leave.

In late 2020 I was forced to take leave for a different reason. I was struggling with my mental health due to various reasons. It took me a long time to seek help, and once I finally did, I felt relieved, mostly. I had no issues adapting my day job to my new situation, but I did not take time off (retrospectively this was a bad idea… listen to your GP folks!). However, my EdD was a different story. I struggled to let go for a bit, and it took some straight talking from my supervisors to get me to apply for some leave. I will be forever grateful to them for this. To this date I still don’t understand why I struggled with this, but I am glad I took some time to look after myself. I am slowly getting back on track. I am always worried I am behind and that I may not complete in time, but hopefully that will get better over time too. The key thing I want you to take home from this is that it is OK to not be OK, and that it is OK to take time for self care. Your research will only benefit from it. An EdD (or PhD etc) is hard enough as it is, so don’t make it harder by muddling through. For more on this topic have a look at the great work Dr Zoë Ayres does here.

Burnout – emotional or physical exhaustion brought about by overwork or stress – ultimately leads to reduced productivity and output.

Dr Zoë J Ayres

3. Stretching your brain is fun.

I thoroughly enjoy my research. It is hard, difficult, frustrating and sometimes feels like it will never end. However, it is also lots of fun, and allows me to pursue my passions of evidence-based practice and open research practice. I am actively contributing to my field, and have met lots of interesting people that I otherwise would have never met. I help organise a regular early career grounded theorist colloquium, and have presented at seminars about and chaired panel discussions on a methodology I had never heard of 5 years ago. I am currently preparing an invited talk to some Canadian researchers focused on a novel contribution to grounded theory as a methodology, and have two manuscripts on the go. I have now made all my EdD research open and transparent where possible (link), and have coauthored a new platform for non-health related systematic review protocols. All this stuff came about mostly through my EdD, either directly, or through transferable skills I picked up that were useful for my day job.

So my last message is this: Enjoy your EdD journey. You (normally) only get to do this once, and there is so much out there that will benefit you. Engage with everything, and don’t be afraid to show your passion!

(Re)building my bike

Since I was young I have always been interested in how stuff works. I have taken apart many a toy, and building Lego Technic sets was one of my favourite things to do when growing up. This curiosity remains to this day. As a bioscientist, I am fascinated with how life works, and as a lecturer, when new technology is introduced I am always looking for explanations of how things operate and where data comes from.

This need to understand also extends to my bikes. From the start of my commuting-by-bike journey I wanted to be able to do my own maintenance. Not just because it saves some cash (my bikes still get an annual service done by a professional mechanic), but because I think that if you know how things work, you can also appreciate using them more, and in most cases repair stuff when it inevitably breaks.

My road bike in particular receives a lot of abuse. It is used year round in all weathers for commuting 45 km daily. The cleaning, maintenance and service intervals are therefore short, and parts wear out quicker. I noticed a month ago that the bottom bracket was making a grinding noise on the left side, and a quick inspection revealed that the bearing was rough. Although I could have just replaced the bottom bracket, I decided the time was right to make the upgrade to 11 speed, something which I had been thinking about for a while but couldn’t really justify.

The old bottom bracket was making a grinding noise, and looked really grubby

I decided an upgrade to Shimano 105 R7000 would be ideal, as it is robust, relatively affordable, replacement parts are not too expensive and it is reliable, all the things you need for a bike that is used mainly for commuting. I asked my bike mechanic to order a full groupset minus the brakes (these had already been upgraded to 105 a few weeks before because I had to replace the rear brake caliper) and ordered some new bar tape.

Whilst waiting for the parts to arrive, I spent a lot of time reading up and watching YouTube videos on how to install groupsets. I had never done this before, so I had quite a bit to learn. Taking stuff apart is easy, putting it back together again is harder. I found a few YouTube channels particularly helpful, and by the time the part arrived I was somewhat confident that I would manage without major dramas.

The strip down, frame deep clean and installation went relatively smooth. The hardest part really was installing the heatshrink tube around the brake outers at the handlebars (idea from here) and the bar tape. All the rest was a matter of think twice, don’t forget to grease, and take your time. Part by part the bike came together, and after the best part of a day the bike went from Sora to full disassembly to 105.

Some fine tuning of the derailleurs and brakes later it was time for a shakedown ride. I went for the roughest tarmac I could find and spend half an hour trying to get parts to fall off. Luckily all that needed doing was torqueing up the seat post clamp as I forgot to before I left. The difference between old and new groupset was noticeable not just because of the extra two gears, but because of the difference in feel: post-upgrade everything feels more refined and sharper than before.

I am very happy with the process and the result, and am now confident that I can repeat the trick whenever it is needed, and replace every part myself should it break. Additionally, working on the bike was very therapeutic, and seeing it all come together was really satisfying.

Next on the list is replacing the lower headset bearing. Ideally I would have done this during the rebuild, but unfortunately the order didn’t arrive in time. I have the part on the shelf, just need to find some time to install it. In a year’s time I will be looking to respray the bike, so I am looking around for ideas and good frame painters. If you have suggestions, please leave them in a comment!

On cycle commuting, working from home, and mental health

During Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 I wrote a piece for online cycling magazine notinthepeloton:

https://www.notinthepeloton.com/post/cycle-commute-v-wfh

Starting them young

To make the most of the COVID-19 lock down, I decided it would be a good idea to teach my son how to ride his bike without stabiliser wheels. The community hall car park is locked and empty, so makes the perfect practice area.

After initially trying to keep him focused on where he is going by himself, I soon realised that his urge to be destructive could be used for the greater good here… I told him to use his bike to crush the cones, which worked like magic. He was so busy thinking about crushing cones, he forget to think about cycling. This way, he rode for close to an hour with minimal support and had great fun.

It took a few attempts, but it looks like he’s now got it. Time to buy him a new bike… #ProudDadMoment

Some observations after cycle commuting for the past year

In March 2019 I started commuting to work by bicycle regularly, building up slowly from once a week to now 4-5 days a week. During the past 12 months and riding about 2000 km, I have learned and observed a number of things which I feel are worth sharing. I have listed them below in no particular order.

My commuting/club riding/all purpose bike. 2019 Giant Contend 1. Lovely bike, very comfortable.
  1. Not all motorists are dangerous lunatics out to kill cyclists
    Contrary to what seems to the the prevailing opinion among those who commute by bicycle, I found that on the whole, most drivers are fairly considerate and realise cyclists are vulnerable road users. I have had many an occasion where cars stopped to let me enter onto a main road, or where they stayed behind me patiently until they could overtake safely. These drivers will always get a thank you from me. Ofcourse, there are the few rotten apples who think they are more important than anyone else (not just cyclists) and have cut be off or performed a dangerous overtake. One of them lost an expensive wing mirror because of this as they did not leave me an escape route after cutting across me… it was crashing into the curb or into the mirror, I chose the latter.
  2. Rain is annoying, but not for the reason you think
    Having cycled through the winter, I have dealt with a fair share of rain. Although riding on a nice sunny day is always better, rain is really not that bad if you dress accordingly: a good waterproof jacket, and a change of clothes at work/at home make it very manageable. The one thing that is very annoying though is visibility. As someone who needs glasses on a daily basis, I have learned that rain drops on glasses in the dark are very annoying. They prevent you from seeing what is ahead, and any headlight coming towards you will effectively blind you for a few seconds. If anyone knows of a good solution please do let me know.
  3. Winter is hard on bikes, very hard
    I have had to up my maintenance game significantly during the November – January period. The combination of wet weather, crud on roads, gritting salt and oily lubricants are incredibly tough on any moving parts. Both front and rear wheel hubs have had to have a full service after 6 months from new, and a full drivetrain deep clean is a weekly affair instead of a monthly one during the summer. Additionally, caliper brakes require a weekly decrudding as everything sticks to them. On the plus side, I have gotten a lot quicker at doing the weekly maintenance, and used it as an excuse to buy a decent set of bike tools.
Maintenance is a key skill if you want to save some money… and is also best taught early!
  1. Clothing is key, and layering is the secret
    During colder months, it is tempting to go for thick jackets and warm jerseys. However, I found that during my 45-50 min on the bike I get quite sweaty, so using multiple thinner layers is more effective. As a side-note, I have found that cycling clothing can be quite expensive, but that there are really good value items from cheaper brands that do very well too. My favourite brand for clothing at the moment is Triban (a mid-range Decathlon brand), which I find does really good value for money jerseys, jackets and tights. Slightly more expensive is DHB, which is still fairly good value for money. Cycling kit doesn’t need to be expensive, but I feel that paying a bit extra for a good quality jacket and scrimping a bit on a jersey works better than the other way around.
  2. Cycling improves both physical and mental health
    I have noticed that when I cycle to work, I arrive less stressed, and when I cycle home from work, I am more relaxed when I get home. More importantly, my family have noticed too, which encourages me even more to jump on the bike when the weather is less than ideal. My mental health has seem improvements since I started cycling, probably because riding for 2 hours a day gives me time to unwind, and I don’t have the luxury to be distracted by work-related thoughts when riding. Physically I feel fitter, although I have a few minor bike related niggles that started playing up. However, these should be easily solved by having a look at my position on the bike, so I will be looking for a professional bike fit over the next few weeks. It is not cheap, but as I spend 8-10 hours each week in the saddle, I think it is important that I am comfortable…

There are ofcourse other lessens learned, such as “falling off hurts, even at slow speeds”, but the above were some of the more regular thoughts I have had about my cycling commute. My 2020 goal is to complete the Cycling Weekly 5000 mile challenge, and to complete my first 100 km ride over the summer, hopefully commuting by bike will help me achieve these goals. Anyway, enough ramblings for now. Thanks for reading, and watch out for the next post.

Technological developments

I was cleaning out my storage space at my dad’s house as he is moving and the place has been sold. Whilts going through boxes I came across the following tech: 

 

The left phone was my very first mobile phone, bought roughly 14 years ago. The right one is the one I am currently writing this post on. It made me reflect for a minute on how fast technology has developed, and how the practice of bioscience education had evolved. Who would have thought 14 years ago that mobile phone would become edicational tools, and students would use mobile devices during lectures to support their learning? It makes me wonder what the future brings…

Writing inspiration

Yesterday I spent most of the day preparing the first draft of a manuscript. This invariably meant that my wife and son had to entertain themselves. They went on a hike with a friend and afterwards the four of us went for lunch at a local pub.

I was struggling quite a bit before I went for lunch, but a good craft ale, some soul food in the form of a great burger, and ofcourse the lovely sunny day, gave me lots of inspiration and motivation to finish the paper. I left my wife, son and friend at the pub and by the end of the afternoon the first draft was ready.

I’m going to leave it for a few days and then have another look at it, but I am pretty happy as is. I might need to go to the pub more often, perhaps Rachael Cayley () over at Explorations of Style needs to do an article on it…

Impossible List

tick-listAfter coming across a blog by Lee Fallin (@leefallin) I have followed his excellent example and started an “Impossible List” (idea by Joel Runyon). My list is not very long yet, but it will expand over time. With a bit of luck, I will also be able to cross things off it. Fingers crossed!

 

Cycling to work

carrera-virtuoso-road-bike
The new addition to the bike family

In January I became the proud owner of a new bicycle. A road bike this time, to add to the bicycle family of two mountain bikes. The main reason being that last year I have tried commuting to work on my MTB, and although it felt good, it wasn’t quite right. Now, a year on and still wanting to improve my health and fitness by commuting to work by bike, I have finally made the decision and bought a road bike for the purpose of commuting.

The bike is a 2015 Carrera Virtuoso in white with blue details. It might not be a high end road bike, but as I won’t be racing, it doesn’t need to be one either. Made from a 6061 T6 aluminium alloy it sports an 8-speed Shimano Claris drive train/chainset and Tektro brakes and weighs in at just over 11 kg.

I have bought the bike from Halfords. Although I am very happy with the quality of the bike and the price paid, I am less happy with the quality of the build and attention to detail: On collection I was rushed through the build checks and when I came home I noticed that there were quite a few loose bolts and screws, mainly in areas which were supposedly checked by the Halfords technician who built the bike.

After doing my own extensive check and tightening all bolts and screws, and adding the necessary accessories, I took the bike for a test ride the next day. Following a few minor set-up tweaks, I am impressed by the ride and an looking forward to commuting on it. So there it is, commuting to work by bike will become the new norm.