03 Jan

The introvert’s teacup


Many people are surprised when I mention that I am an introvert. I enjoy giving talks in public. I love to connect with new people, and I have a huge network, offline and on social media.

However, I can only be talkative, social and outgoing for a limited amount of time. Then, my mood and my energy levels take a rapid turn downhill.

This is how a teacup must feel like. Once the tea has reached its rim, it just can’t take any more. It needs to retract into a quiet room, close the door and reflect, until all the tea is gone and it is ready to party again.


When I started my role as new lecturer last September, I had prepared myself for the obvious challenges of taking on a new job, having to juggle even more things, and working long hours to prepare new teaching materials.

I had not expected the amount of input that I suddenly had to digest. So much to reflect on. So little time. Every work day filled my teacup up to the rim with new experiences, meaningful teaching moments, meaningful learning moments, critical incidents, significant conversations, and début ‘performances’ in front of new audiences.

Not every evening was enough to fully empty it again. I could feel my brain becoming slow and stuck, as it tried to grind its way through a particular issue, with a long queue of other things patiently waiting in line.

The most annoying part was that I knew that it would get better once I had finished my first semester and the full cycle of teaching a module for the very first time, but that I still had to go through that slow process of experiencing, reflecting, rinse and repeat.

One of the funniest moments was when I taught a small group of students for the first time and realised that all except one were introverts. Whenever I find myself in a group of three or more people, I go quiet. I smile and nod a lot, and listen intensely. So were my students. Suddenly, I had to be the extrovert. I had to start small-talk, and I had to keep the conversation going. An introverted friend broke into laughter when I told her about this, as she had experienced the same thing.

I am finishing this post as World Introvert Day draws to a close. I feel like I wanted to put this in writing, maybe for introverted undergraduate or postgraduate students who are pondering their future career options: You can be an introvert and successfully take on extroverted tasks. You just might need different strategies to recharge and reflect.

With my new role, I will need to come up with new ways to build in moments of alone time during the day,  to reflect more quickly – or maybe filter more strictly on what to reflect and what to put aside – and to switch off.

Instead of a work-life balance, I will need to find my work-life-‘alone time’ balance. Not a seesaw, but a Pogo ball, trying to keep steady while wildly jumping around. Yes…that sounds about right.


17 Oct

Reflections on learning and teaching biology in formal and informal settings


As part of my new lecturer role, I am completing the  Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education (PCTHE).  Our first formative assignment was to write a reflective statement. I used the suggested format of reflecting on my own experiences as learner, and how they influenced my teaching; followed by reflections on the different types uf students I taught, and what approaches and strategies I used. The brief was to make use of formal reflective frameworks, and refer to pedagogic literature and the UK Professional Standards Framework published by the Higher Education Academy


Sculpture by Horst Antes, University campus Garching, Munich.

Some of the worst memories from my University years feature lectures that just ‘happened’ to me. They were the ones where a professor regurgitated all the information, sentence by sentence, from their lecture handbook. I stopped attending them after a few weeks, as I felt that it would be more beneficial and efficient if I just read the textbook on my own. Of course there were exceptions, like our cell biology lecturer, who provided handouts with diagrams and blank labels for us to complete during his presentation. But a large part of my University learning took place at home, where I practiced drawing textbook diagrams from scratch and explained scientific concepts to the cat.

Eleven years later, I am starting my adventure of becoming a lecturer myself. In my mind I am compiling a list of experiences that I want to spare my students, and an encyclopedia of new ideas. The metaphor of a neatly sorted inner library is not completely true to reality though, as everything still feels rather raw and messy. As I am trying to make sense of it all and to knock it into a more ordered format, I am glad about every tool that the PCTHE course offers. I had not realized that formal reflective frameworks exist, providing a structure for professional reflection. Two examples are Kolb’s Learning Cycle (1984) and Gibbs’s reflective cycle (Gibbs et al., 1988).

Using a more detailed example of Gibbs’ reflective cycle (ALES, 2015), a description of my undergraduate experience would be what I wrote in the introduction. I attended lectures that were mainly used as method of one-way dissemination of information. My feelings were disappointment and frustration. I felt frustrated by the low intellectual stimulation. I was disappointed because the lecture theatre felt like an extension of the school classroom, with all its cliques and stereotypes. I had hoped to become part of a larger group of like-minded peers. Instead, I felt like an outsider. Evaluating my experience, I now realise that it played a big role in developing and strengthening my independent learning skills. Instead of relying on lectures, I sought out my own interactive and stimulating approaches to learning. The bad thing was that I spent a lot of time on my own. Analysing my situation, students benefit from collaborative learning, group work and discussion (Brookfield and Preskill, 2005; ASKe, 2015). In conclusion, I would advise my younger self to use these lectures as opportunity to network, and strategically form relationships for learning beyond them.

As I arrived at this point of the reflective cycle, I found myself reflecting less on an ‘action plan’ and more on the limitations of Gibb’s cycle. In contrast to my teaching that I can refine and repeat, I will not get another re-run of my undergraduate degree. Spiraling down a rabbit hole of reflecting on the limitations of reflecting (Finlay, 2008), I arrived at the conclusion that reflective frameworks were more complex than they initially appeared. Do they need to be strictly followed through, or is it possible to leave at suitable exit points to enter another framework? Is it appropriate to use a past one-off event to reflect on an action plan for another future event?

To reflect on my identity and style as a teacher, I used Brookfield’s Lenses (Brookfield, 1995), in which the subject of reflection is viewed from the perspective of myself, my students, my peers, and the literature. A lot of my teaching has been influenced by my experiences on how not to do it. There is however another aspect, which is underpinned by my strong interest in science communication and in engaging different audiences with my subject area. In these informal science learning settings, I use interactive approaches and creative strategies such as humour or storytelling (Dahlstrom, 2014). As I reflected on my students, it occurred to me that biology university students are likely to be a more homogenous audience than for example a mixed audience at a family science event. In a university setting, it may be more acceptable to expect students to adjust to the way we teach our subject area; we certainly expect them to be at specific levels of background knowledge, and progress along a set academic pathway. In contrast, for successful science communication it is essential that the target audience dictates the communication approach, and we cannot expect our audience to adjust to our preferred way of communication. Reflecting on my audience as seen from my peers’ perspective, I have gained a lot of insight from working with colleagues in Health and Social Care. Depending on specific disciplines, more of their students are mature students, who enter university with extensive professional experience. This made me wonder about how much research has been carried out on teaching methods between different disciplines, and which proportion of teaching approaches in biology are traditional passive lectures, or more active formats (Allen and Tanner, 2005; Tanner, 2011).

Following on from this thought, I tried to place myself and my dichotomic teaching experience within the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF, HEA, 2011). I realized that I had gained most of my experience in designing and planning, teaching, learning approaches from my science communication activities. Through leading tutorials for my academic advisees and supervising research undergraduate and postgraduate students, I gained some experience in assessment and feedback, none of which I designed myself though. While this course is the first time that I formally engaged with professional development and pedagogy of higher education teaching, I feel that I have quite a solid base of formal and informal training and literature knowledge in science communication. I then wondered which UKPSF values are the same in higher education and science communication. There seems to be less emphasis on the individual learner in science communication, or at least in the activities that I designed – I tend to think more about a whole audience and how to reach the ‘masses’ rather than individuals. Should we focus more on individuals, or is that beyond the scope of informal science learning? This is something I would like to research more thoroughly. Acknowledging and addressing equality and diversity is a big issue in science communication, but is also being discussed in higher education. I wonder which area will evolve faster.

As I continued with this exercise of trying to place higher education and science communication along the UKPSF framework, I was struck by the differences in focus and approaches between formal and informal science learning and teaching. I plan to put my additional notes into a more coherent and scholarly format, and gain enough courage to post this and future reflections on my blog, to gain feedback from the wider higher education and science communication community.


  • Academic Liaison, Employability and Skills. Available at:
  • Allen, D. and Tanner, K. (2005). Infusing active learning into the large-enrollment biology class: Seven strategies, from the simple to complex. Cell Biology Education, 4(4), 262-268.
  • Assessment Standards Knowledge exchange. The Centre for Excellence in Assessment at the Business School, Oxford Brookes University. Cultivating community: why it’s worth doing, and three ways to get there. Available at:https://www.brookes.ac.uk/aske/resources/index.html.
  • Brookfield, S. D. and Preskill S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
  • Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
  • Dahlstrom, M. F. (2014). Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(Supplement 4): 13614-13620.
  • Finlay, L. (2008) Reflecting on reflective practice. PBPL paper 52.
  • Gibbs, G., Farmer, B., Eastcott, D. (1988). Learning by doing. A guide to teaching and learning methods. Birmingham Polytechnic.
  • Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning. Experience as a source of learning and development. New Jersey. Prentice Hall.
  • Tanner, K. D. (2011). Moving theory into practice: A reflection on teaching a large, introductory biology course for majors. CBE Life Sciences Education, 10(2), 113-122.
  • The Higher Education Academy. (2011). The UK Professional Standards Framework. Available at:https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/recognition-accreditation/uk-professional-standards-framework-ukpsf.
22 Jun

How I use social media: LinkedIn (Part 1)

I give a lot of talks and  workshops on how scientists/researchers/academics can use social media in a professional context. Two questions that regularly pop up are, for which purposes I use the different platforms, and how much time I spend on social media.

I always find it a bit difficult to reply to the second question. Partially, because I don’t  sit down to ‘spend time’ on social media, like I would sit down to read a book. I check my social media accounts on the go on my smart phone or while waiting for the bus, in the lunch break, in a gap between experiments, or while watching TV.

But more importantly, social media has become such a important part of my professional workflow that it isn’t much different from picking up the phone to call someone or dropping them an email. So I thought that I would collect examples of how I use social media during my workday, and maybe inspire others who hadn’t thought of that particular way.

Today’s example is LinkedIn. LinkedIn seems to stun people. What is the etiquette about connecting? Does anybody care about endorsements? Why is it so annoying? (Tip: turn off email notifications in your settings). Is there actually a point in using it at all?

linkedinI have a profile on LinkedIn that I update semi-regularly. I use the site as electronic business card organiser and I try to add everyone I meet professionally. I also use it to find speakers for seminars and conference sessions. Recently, inspired by my colleague Ana Isabel Canhoto from our Business School, I have started to keep in touch more pro-actively with my LinkedIn contacts. Congratulating someone on their new job or work anniversary doesn’t take much time, but helps to keeps up important weak network ties .

A few days ago, a local business expert requested to connect with me, and offered me a guest ticket to a day conference with speakers from local businesses. As I couldn’t make the date and it didn’t look entirely relevant to me, I asked him if I could pass on his invitation to my colleagues in the Business School. I got a positive reply on LinkedIn and emailed his details onwards. For my colleagues, this opportunity was very relevant and came at the right time, and I was happy that someone was able to take it up.

Later this morning I talked with one of my project students about careers and transferable skills, and what they might be interested in after graduation. I remembered that one of my former project students now worked in a relevant company – I had connected with her on LinkedIn a while ago and exchanged a few lines to catch up. When I came home, I sent her a LinkedIn message to ask if she’d be happy to chat with my current student about her experiences. She quickly replied to say that she was more than happy to do so, and even offered to drop by at the university for a chat. I then sent a connection request to my current student, and once she has accepted it, I will introduce the two to each other via LinkedIn.

What I like about LinkedIn is, that it offers a much more professional way to connect with people than Facebook, and due to its strong focus on work experience, it makes it easy to introduce two contacts with similar interests to each other.

23 Mar

Spread your wings and tweet – three tips for getting ‘unstuck’

Author: Jeremie Tisseau, http://web-kreation.com
Author: Jeremie Tisseau, http://web-kreation.com

By: Jeremie Tisseau, http://web-kreation.com

A while ago, I read an interesting blog post by Kirk Englehardt, reflecting on why many researchers are still reluctant to use social media in their daily work. Kirk lists his top ten of reasons that make it worth-while for academics to tweet or blog, from sharing your research to increasing your professional network. In my role as Research and Science Communication Fellow, I have certainly met many researchers who do not see the value of engaging with social media. But over the years I have also talked to a growing number of people who see all the benefits and would be keen to use social media in their work, but just don’t get around to learning how to do so.

I can certainly relate to that. Taking on more responsibilities in my academic role means that I am juggling an ever-increasing number of tasks. Often, the only way to get something finished is to  focus on one thing and push everything else to the back of my mind. On many evenings I collapse on the sofa and don’t have the energy to do yet another thing.

But there is another reason we aren’t learning something which we know we should be doing because it would boost our career, help our productivity, or make our research more valuable.

I am stuck.

For example, I really want to learn how to use the data analysis software ‘R’. I know that R is more powerful than Excel, and that it would be a great addition for my research and my publications. All the cool kids are using R. I have wanted to learn R for over two years now. I have downloaded and installed the software and a more user-friendly GUI version. I have bought a book ‘Introduction to R’. I have favourited and bookmarked blog posts, articles and PDFs. And yet, I still haven’t actually used it. 

‘I want to learn how to use R’ isn’t a SMART goal. I have to break it down into several, tangible steps. I first need to find out how to organise and save my data in a compatible and sensible format. I then need to learn how I can run a statistical test on my data set, how to make a pretty diagram, and how to verify that I did the right thing. If I had set the task for myself to do one step  every week, I would be an ‘R’ expert by now. So why didn’t I start?

I don’t necessarily need it now. 

Even though there are many great arguments why ‘R’ is more powerful than Excel, I can do with Excel what I need to do now. Even though I was keen to read about more intriguing and useful alternatives to the usual bar charts and histograms, these are still mainstream in the literature and enough to convey the information I want to present. There is no pressure for me to learn ‘R’ now, and the pressures to complete other tasks are much higher.

I think that this is why researchers aren’t using social media, even though they know it is important. Getting stuck is not limited to using social media, but blocks us in all parts of our lives. It is why I still haven’t sewn my first pillow case, even though I have a sewing machine, thread, fabric and pattern all ready (I got stuck trying to set up the machine), or why it has taken me ages to launch this new blog (I got stuck many times in the set-up process).

In my experience, many new tweeters seem to get stuck during the following steps.

1) How do I sign up to Twitter? 

Luckily, there are a lot of websites with good step-by-step instructions.

2) I don’t have a good profile picture! 

Golgi bodyIn order to be taken seriously on Twitter, to show that you are a real person and not a spambot, you should change Twitter’s default ‘egg’ picture immediately. If you don’t have a good portrait photo to hand, or do not like to upload your picture, do not get stuck. Instead, choose a picture of something meaningful at your work place, something that represents you professionally, draw a cartoon (my profile picture was a happy Golgi stack for a long time), or ask someone to take a quick photo on a smartphone. You can always change this picture later. Done is better than perfect.

3) I don’t know what to tweet. 

After step 1 and 2, this is easy. If you follow my instructions, you will have posted your first three tweets within a few minutes.

  • Find a website that interest you. This could be your research group’s website, a recent news article, your latest publication, an interesting upcoming conference….Visit the website bit.ly and paste the link in there. Bit.ly will create a short link that points to your original long  URL. On Twitter.com, press the ‘Tweet’ button in the upper right corner of the website. Copy and paste the short link into your tweet window. Use the remaining characters to come up with a snappy description for the link. Click ‘tweet’.
  • Find a Twitter account to follow. This could be a colleague, your university or professional body or learned society, funding body, journal, or ‘Academics Say‘. Find a tweet you like and re-tweet it (see instructions here).
  • Reply to the tweet (see here) to tell the author why you liked their tweet.

How to find the time to learn something new?

I am still struggling with this. I have tried putting time into my diary, but then more urgent things crop up that need immediate attention. My colleague Dr Sîan Jones has set up a writing group in our Faculty called ‘Shut up and Write’. The group meets regularly and follows a schedule of 15 minutes meet-and-eat-biscuits, a quiet 30 minutes of solid writing and 15 minutes of reflection. Maybe we need a similar group called ‘Shut up and Learn’, where participants bring along computers, tablets, software and books, and power through the first steps of learning something new? 

Twitter Week

Starting today, our Faculty of Health and Life Sciences is piloting a ‘Twitter Week’ under the hashtag #brookeshls. Our Dean Prof June Girvin, an avid tweeter herself, sent around an email to promote this initiative, encouraging everyone to tweet and to teach colleagues how to tweet. I am very curious to see how this pilot scheme will pan out, and if the joint excitement among long-time HLS tweeters will give the last needed boost to those who have wanted to dip in their toe for a while. If yes, I hope that this article will be useful to them!