Physics

EuroScience Open Forum: sharing science, and a bit of career advice | Science


When I received an email last December stating that the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) was now accepting poster abstracts from early career researchers, I had no idea what EuroScience was nor what an ‘open forum’ was all about. Since it was described as a “great opportunity to network with scientists in research and business and raise your profile” I decided to investigate. Buzzwords like ‘networking’ make my hair stand on end – so much so that I have issued *trigger warnings below – but I also realise it is an inevitable path to walk for a young scientist like me, on the brink of finishing my PhD in physics and looking for my next job.

The first sentence on the ESOF webpage mentions its *interdisciplinary character. It brings together not just scientists but policy makers, educators, businesses involved with science, science communicators, and journalists, ranging from undergraduate level to (near) retirement. I should probably have heard of EuroScience, being a European researcher and all, as it has been around for over two decades working on advancing science and innovation in Europe.

Adhering to the ESOF 2018 motto ‘Sharing science: towards new horizons’, the host city Toulouse organised events for the locals to join in on all the science fun. A fair was set up in the main square of the city with lots of interesting stands aimed at teaching young kids about the magic of science, using interactive exhibits and games.



Two young high school students, Mitja Denac and Bor Kolar Bačnik, present their research on preservation of ancient books and drawings at the ‘Science in the City’ fair. Photograph: Emma Winkels

An apple a day…

The ESOF biennial meetings are not just a good opportunity for networking, but also for showing the world about great advancements in European science, and convincing our politicians that we need funding. One of the most persuasive sessions perhaps being one about using robots combined with *artificial intelligence in the medical industry. Because who would not want to save a life whilst imagining they are on the set of the next Transformers movie?!

The medical device industry has been given lots of attention this summer, with a recent Guardian article laying out some of the benefits and future visions. However, there’s two sides to every coin, as is shown in the very recent Netflix documentary with provocative title ‘The Bleeding Edge’. Perhaps portrayed in an overly-dramatic style, the documentary makes some valid points on hastened approval processes of technological advancements in the medical industry, potentially causing harm to patients. It is hard to figure out where the truth lies, but a healthy dose of scepticism is valuable when considering these techniques for your next medical procedure.

With a PhD you can do anything

It was interesting to see that there were multiple sessions focused on transferring careers from academia to industry. This is a topic around which there is unfortunately still a lot of stigma in the academic world. Luckily my supervisor is very flexible (otherwise I would not be writing this post!) but many academics, young and old, see it as a failure when one trades in the university life for a business one. A recent study (PDF) from the South East Physics Network shows that roughly half of its PhD graduates go on to work in fields other than academia . Whether these students chose to leave or had to, it’s about time we gave the *alternative career path some more attention.

With a PhD you can do anything! – was the title of one of the careers sessions that immediately caught my eye. It can be hard to understand the value of doing a PhD while you are in it, because you are doing it with a bunch of other students that are all similar to – or more brilliant than – you. What, then, is my added value? A large part of these career sessions was focused on *transferable skills. PhD graduates from any field are used to hard work, tight deadlines, analytical thinking, and self-motivation. The less obvious (but not less important) skills learned in a science PhD are team work, presenting, and communicating with all kinds of people, from the mono-syllabic guy who is a single-point-of-failure in a complex computing system to the science minister of a neighbouring country. All these things are essential assets for potential employers and all you need to do is prove that you’ve got them. Easy, right?

A panel of people including the president



When the president of the European Research Council (Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon) tells you to change the world, you go and do it. No pressure though. Photograph: Emma Winkels

Science for the sake of science business

After a few days of staying away from anything physics I decided to attend a session much closer to my current passion – The case for blue-skies research. Working at CERN myself, both for my PhD and as a guide, I have inevitably come across some great scepticism for what we do in particle physics. It can be hard to explain why it’s important to build a multi-billion-euro machine to study things we cannot see ourselves nor predict a practical use for. Of course, there are many spin-offs that come from physics projects like the Large Hadron Collider. It is estimated that for every euro invested in CERN, the economy gets 1.2 euro return. This is what we tend to focus on when convincing ‘the public’ that we are not just using their hard-earned money to build fancy toys.

An interesting contrast was sketched between the US and Europe in the way people regard knowledge and *entrepreneurship. In the US, it’s considered normal (useful even) to fail a few times at, for example, starting your own business with a spin-off idea from your university research project. From my experience with European researchers, they often feel that European institutes regard past failures as a sign that you are apparently not cut out for this; you had better put your safety goggles back on and trudge back with your lab coat between your legs. Besides this ‘fear of failure’ culture, there is little incentive from European universities to bring an idea to industry. The university owns any patent or *intellectual property you develop whilst working there (the exception, apparently, being Sweden). Currently, the process involved in getting an idea patented, working out the arrangements between researcher and university, and then bringing it to market, are very long and complicated. Should European universities not be encouraging knowledge transfer, rather than making it too exhausting to even start on? For those with little patience, I hear that Sweden’s population density is rather on the low side…

European City of Science

Toulouse did a great job of hosting the ESOF conference and living up to its prestigious 2-year title of ‘European City of Science’. Even the social networking event was held at ‘the City of Space’, a partially outdoor museum to discover space and the wonders of the universe. The next ESOF will be held in Trieste in 2020 and I hope to be there again. Whether it will be in an academic capacity or as an example for *the alternative career path.

The dream of any academic – a headstone in comic sans (slide by Jonathan Bamber).



The dream of any academic – a headstone in comic sans (slide by Jonathan Bamber). Photograph: Emma WInkels/slide by Jonathan Bamber

Emma Winkels is a PhD student at the University of Sussex, working on the ATLAS experiment at the CERN Large Hadron Collider



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