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Penguins, Jammy Dodgers and Gravity Waves | Geoff Lee

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

I recently took time out of the day job to spend a week shadowing Beatrix Schlarb-Ridley, the Director of Innovation and Impact at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in Cambridge. Shadowing is promoted by EnvEast as a part of NERC’s drive to encourage early career researchers to understand how scientists can innovate and collaborate with industry, business, government and policy-makers, rather than just between ourselves.

The idea behind innovation is that a joint approach to working and problem-solving can lead to breakthroughs of the sort that resulted in action on the ozone hole. It can also generate much needed income for institutions where budget constraints are becoming a part of the financial landscape.

I chose BAS primarily because I am partly based there, so it seemed a good opportunity to learn about the organisation, the politics, structure and operations, and to meet some new contacts at a senior level; a crash course in BAS!

By encouraging more diverse and collaborative relationships, BAS is rising to the challenge of public engagement while continuing to make scientific advances

So what did I learn from my experience following Beatrix, for a week? Firstly I learnt that she loves to ply everyone she meets (and she meets an awful lot of people) with biscuits and cake. I soon noticed that regular visitors placed as much distance between themselves and the biscuit tin as they could. Despite the odd Jammy Dodger I managed not to put on any weight, but Beatrix’s biscuits were not my only learning experience. What I discovered was that BAS, as with so much of the public-sector, is in a state of change and having to make savings. By encouraging more diverse and collaborative relationships though, it is rising to this challenge and is beginning to generate additional income as well as extend its areas of expertise.

BAS engineers developed the ‘Penguin Weighbridge’, an ingenious device that can weigh them instantaneously and non-invasively

BAS has much to offer: it has acquired a range of expertise and equipment that’s been under development since the beginning of a secret operation to deny enemy ships access to Antarctic waters during World War II whilst, at the same time, doing a little science on the side. The project developed into various organisations that eventually evolved into BAS. BAS’ expertise and equipment has been honed in the face of challenges resulting from operating in the harshest working environments on earth. BAS knowhow and facilities are now being made widely available, and can be hired; anything from ships to aircraft, research stations, laboratory facilities to scientific expertise. BAS is also working towards marketing its inventions. Much of the equipment developed by BAS is rather niche: for example, when BAS scientists needed to identify how much food penguins were eating they had only invasive techniques which were as unpleasant for the scientists as they were for the penguins. Well, almost. So BAS engineers developed the ‘Penguin Weighbridge’, an ingenious device that can be placed on the route to feeding areas in such a way that the birds are constrained to cross it one at a time, and which weighs them instantaneously both on the way out and on the way back. Subtracting the outgoing weight from the incoming gives scientists the exact weight of food that each individual penguin has eaten. Anyone who has ever tried to get a dog to stand still long enough to be weighed during a visit to the vet will know that a normal set of scales does not weigh instantaneously like this, and might well appreciate something similar. This is the sort of technology, developed for a particular purpose, that could have wider uses and be marketed to help generate income. Veterinary surgeons take note! Other innovative ideas - and this is my favourite - include turning scientific data into art. Some of the datasets that have already been used in this way have produced images of striking beauty that have an added quality when the viewer considers what they represent. For example, a map imaged on the edge of space and showing cosmogenic gravity waves results in a multi-coloured concentric pattern that looks as though partial slices have been removed. It looks a bit pop-art, but with a pretty cool twist. Imagine this as a print on a wall, a t-shirt or a scarf - or maybe a poster or postcard. Not only could it generate income, but it makes the science accessible to the public that fund it and may attract more interest and questions; an important consideration when the research community is trying so hard to engage the public with its output. A soon-to-be-built ‘innovation centre’ with associated ‘controlled environment’ experimental facilities will be added to the existing BAS building. The centre itself will house conference and exhibition facilities and collaborative offices and desk space. It will ‘incubate’ new start-ups of businesses, academics and artists. Anyone who wants to be there can rent these facilities and it is hoped that this rubbing of shoulders between disparate groups will result in exciting new collaborations.

If other early career researchers have been offered a shadowing experience and are reading this and considering whether or not to take the offer, here’s some advice: just do it!"

These are just a few of the innovations in progress at BAS, but I took away much more than this. I also developed an insight into the strategic workings of a large organisation and how things ‘work’ to keep the operational priorities moving forward. The logistics of the annual Antarctic field season involving transporting people and equipment across the globe is a colossal undertaking, and storing the equipment at BAS when not in use is far from easy in a finite space. I learnt how people are working together to try and overcome these difficulties and ensure that everyone’s needs are accommodated. I also participated in a ‘brainstorming’ with Beatrix to find solutions to these problems and was able to contribute ideas and suggestions in many of the meetings I attended. An added bonus was the networking opportunities of shadowing and I made a number of useful contacts for the future. If other early career researchers have been offered a shadowing experience and are reading this and considering whether or not to take the offer, here’s some advice: just do it! Whether in the public, private or third sectors it will expose you to new experiences and thinking, usually at a strategic level, and will make you look at things from a perspective other than just your immediate research priorities. No experience is ever wasted, so pile in and have fun. Geoff Lee, EnvEast PhD Student.


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