🧠 Brain STREAM: 1️⃣6️⃣ Make problems work for you, not against you

This weeks newsletter looks in detail about problems.

🧠 Brain STREAM: 1️⃣6️⃣ Make problems work for you, not against you
Problems are central to research.

Good morning, good afternoon, good evening and good night. Wherever and whenever you are in the world, I hope you are managing to find some positive thinking in your day and week.

I really liked the format of my newsletter last week; 'This week in writing', 'This week in funding' etc., so it's something I'm going to keep going for a little while. The topic headings will vary from week to week but should all be focused around research, writing and learning.

This week's newsletter and research insight focuses on problems:

  • who you can listen to, to hear an in depth discussion around problem management
  • how to identify the root cause so you can work out how to solve problems
  • an example of where one may arise in the context of my own research
  • a simple way to tackle the problem of starting to write a research paper or PhD chapter

This week's research insight - 'Because...' is a key step in problem management

I've been listening to Tara Brabazon's YouTube channel this week, specifically a couple of recent episodes which discuss 'problems':

If you haven't listened to her work before, she is a force of nature when it comes to managing problems and difficult situations in her work environment as Dean at Charles Darwin University in Australia. I would highly recommend these two episodes if you want new insights into problem management, even if just to hear her controversial comment on Ryan Holliday's 'The Obstacle is the Way' book as "mediocre at best"!

This morning as I was returning back from what I call my 'Morning Doorstep'* I was murmurating on 'putting my problems into my work', when a helicopter flew overhead. We get so many flying over where I live, I generally tune them out.

However on this morning I considered how I've never particularly wanted to go on a rig helicopter because in order to do so, you need to do training where you go upside down, underwater, stuck in a helicopter and you have to get out, somehow. No thank you.

But I did have the thought; what would I do if I had to do that training for some reason - in just 4 weeks? How would I use the difficulty to be able to succeed? How would I overcome the obstacle? I mean it's terrifying right? (Yes, I know there are people out there who relish this training...)

Now there's nothing inherently wrong with the training. It's all above board and safety certified. The problem lies with me. I could go down the blame route of "I 'learnt' to swim too late", "I had a bad experience in a high school PE lesson", "I don't like swimming" or similar. These are all 'because' illusions. I can't do anything about them and they aren't actionable.

But if I identify what the problem actually is, then it's because I have no water confidence whatsoever.

The problem is not 'I wouldn't be able to pass the training'. The problem is: I wouldn't be able to pass the training because I have no water confidence whatsoever. Only by identifying an actionable because can I work out how to solve the problem.

In this scenario, I could take swimming lessons and I would tell them, I need to learn how to be confident in 4 weeks. And I could take drama lessons and tell them I need to learn how to swim in 4 weeks.

Now this is a relatively simple example, but lets take the research example where a method doesn't work. When I say method, it could be an actual scientific procedure, but it could also be a time management or writing technique. In these cases sometimes it requires digging a little deeper.

  • Was it you who didn't follow instructions? Were you distracted or rushing? Why?
  • Is the method incorrect? Is there something you are missing?
  • Are the materials/equipment/resources you have been provided with, or sourced, faulty? What do you suspect is not working?
  • Maybe, it doesn't work with the resources you have, and it needs modification?
  • Is the method specialist and requires training to ensure success? Do you need help to get started?
  • Is it you that's stopping you?

What we want to eliminate, is having no clue whatsoever about why a particular method doesn't work and solving the problem with a unactionable blame scenario. We also want to avoid negative scenarios. Another example; I'm 4 months behind in my PhD due to COVID - can't do anything about that now can I? Instead, 'I'm 4 months behind on my PhD because I had to spend the time potty training my daughter' leaves me with a much more positive outlook. What that does, is that now I don't feel so guilty when I have to prioritise the PhD over spending time with her. Another example could be, "I haven't done any writing because I don't have time to write" when it should perhaps be "I haven't done any writing because I haven't prioritised the time to write".

We can usually work out a 'because', because we have experienced the problem. We need to look deep down within ourselves to find the root. And dig it out. And we need to consider it objectively. It often requires separating out the components.

This has parallels with critical failure analysis - what was the key point at which things went wrong? If it's you, that's OK. We're not perfect! I liked this LinkedIn post from Stephen Bartlett - you always give your 100%, every day, even if it's not.

Steven Bartlett on LinkedIn: Whatever you gave today was your 100%. Read that again. Like this post… | 345 comments
Whatever you gave today was your 100%. Read that again. Like this post if it connects with you 🙏🏽 Image by Strength Visuals on Instagram | 345 comments on LinkedIn

What matters in research is how you deal and solve that problem. And then you talk about it in a constructive manner.

Brabazon provides a beautiful mantra on how she helps PhD students to become stronger from problems; "put the problem into the work". There's a link to the episode above, or I've talked about it in more detail in a blog post:

Problems in PhD Research Are a Blessing Not a Curse
Problems in research are not just there to test you, they are there to make you. In this blog post I highlight Tara Brabazon’s three step process to “Put the Problem Into the Work”.

So I ask you the question, what is the real problem and how can you put the problem into your work to tackle it from the angle to make your research stronger?

This week's research insight: "Make the problem work for you, not against you"

"This didn't work because..."

Only by finding an actionable and positive 'because', can we work on the solution.

This week in apps

  • Headspace - I am hoping to try meditation to improve my distraction and 'switching off' problems. I signed up for a 1 year subscription for just £7.99. If you are a student (or I think work at an educational establish­ment if you can authenticate directly) you can also get this price. Headspace has many guided meditation sessions. I loved that it also has options for kids. My daughter enjoyed a Bert and Ernie bedtime story, and a short meditation session. I'm hoping to do some more with her as she gets older because she also has a challenge of sitting still for long enough! There's a wide range of natural background sounds including rainfall and waves which I find great to limit background distractions when I'm writing.
  • Paperpile - Reference management has always been a problem for me and part of this I feel is due to most reference management software being stuck in the nineties (the blame scenario). However, it is also because I have not prioritised the time to catalogue my references properly (much better). I've been investigating Paperpile this week as an alternative to Zotero. I was surprised Paperpile has only just put a custom BibTeX cite key option into beta this month. The same goes for having an Android/iOS app and to have a Word citation integration. However their roadmap is pretty epic and they are planning a big new launch this year, including for better Markdown support. It costs about the same as a Zotero sync subscription and it integrates with Google Drive. It's one to watch over the next 6 months.

This week in the lab

Most weeks I try to do at least something in the lab. This week I was scanning roots and weighing soil samples. You may be asking what relevance this has to my newsletter because most, if not all of you do not study soil or plants.

Well I wanted to talk briefly about the software used to analyse the root scans because sometimes problems do not exist in the present but do exist on the horizon. One thing I am including in my first chapter, albeit as an extra, is a comparison between two different software;

  • WinRHIZO - historically the go-to-gold-standard of root analysis but very expensive, especially for the more useful 'pro' version.
  • Rhizovision Explorer - a new software, maintained and promoted by the passionate root biologist Larry York. It is free and I think open access (or at least accessible on request). You could try it out yourself if you wanted!

[Other software is available and they each have their flaws... If you are interested in imaging roots, Katie Martin from University College Dublin did a very nice comparative analysis of the two software using mixed species grasslands.]

But my real questions are, which one of these pieces of software do you think will be successful in the long run? The expensive one or the free one? Or both? Or another one? And what does that mean for the meta analysers in this world? Because although they generally correlate well, they don't always as Martin and I have both found, especially in roots less than 0.2mm in diameter. This presents compounding problems when you start looking at big, historical datasets using different combinations of methods over the years. Some size-dependent correction factors will be needed if we are to avoid problems here.

Bonus insight for this week: Can you identify future problems in your research work? And build that into your thesis narrative?

Make sure and check out my blog post for inspiration on how to do this: https://www.knowledgeecology.me/problems-in-a-phd-are-a-blessing-not-a-curse/

This week in writing

I attended Ana Pineda's "Ifocusandwrite" webinar on Friday whilst making banana bread! She's launching her new 'Thriving Scientist' course this weekend. Here's a huge insight I took from her session.

Problem: Getting started writing a scientific paper, or indeed knowing what to include in the paper.

Solution: Start with (or perhaps re-write) the last paragraph of the introduction

By writing this, in just one paragraph (up to 8 sentences) you will have the entire framework for your paper or chapter. This paragraph will:

  • Describe your general objective or intention and/or aims
  • Mention how it is novel,
  • Have your research questions and/or hypotheses
  • Summarise your method in 1-2 sentences
  • Highlight the broad context of your work

Once you know all this you can work out, what the minimum information readers need to know to: understand (Introduction), evidence (Methods and Results) and answer (Discussion) what you have written in that last paragraph.

I think this is great advice and I can't wait to re-visit my writing to try out the technique. This can of course apply to other pieces of writing.

It's been a pretty mega newsletter this week (sorry) but I had a lot to say! I hope it has been useful for you. Feel free to reach out and let me know what you think.

Until next time!


*In my attempts to get more exercise, I have worked out the minimum effort point to do so: having my running gear ready the night before, putting my running gear on, and subsequently shoes, and stepping outside the door. Hence the name 'morning doorstep'. I don't have to do anything after that point, but because I'm there and ready to go, it's as easy to go for a walk or jog than going back into the house and undoing all the getting ready.