Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Earth Overshoot Day and my 'use less' manifesto

Today is Earth Overshoot Day.

The first colour photo of Earth, imaged in 1967 by the ATS-3 satellite.

Based on the current global population and levels of consumption, we have as a species used up the resources the Earth can sustain for the year. From here on out we are in the red, ecologically speaking, and unfortunately this grim milestone gets earlier every year.

Today I also learned what my own personal Earth Overshoot Day is. By using a carbon footprint calculator, I discovered that if everyone on Earth consumed the way I do, we would surpass the resources Earth can provide by May, less than halfway through the calendar year. According to this, I live as if we have 2.6 Earths instead of one.

At least that makes my carbon footprint a bit smaller than the average Brit (3 Earths) and considerably smaller than is standard for my fellow Americans (5 Earths), but to an ecologically-minded person that was hard to hear.
If I'm honest, it was more than hard - I felt sick seeing those numbers, searching my life and knowing it to be at least in the right ballpark. I may be better than average, but I still consume resources and energy like Westerner, and that is not something our planet can sustain.

An excerpt from Climate Changed by Philippe Squarzoni
As a childless person with a smallish house and a cycle commute I've never thought of myself as a big polluter, but since reading Climate Changed in 2014 I've made some big changes in my life. I've returned to a mostly plant-based diet. I switched to reusable menstrual products. I'm working on reducing my number of possessions so that I can live a less materialist life - buying less by having less. With these alterations I felt like climate change was something for which other people - or more accurately corporations and governments - were mostly responsible. I felt absolved by my efforts. It was the same blissful ignorance in which I was operating prior to 2014.

The scientific consensus about what the future holds if we don't rein in our collective consumption is enough to scare anyone into inaction. It did so for me for years. It's so much easier to think that it's someone else's problem. But I have to live my life in a way that makes me feel like I'm part of the solution, not part of the problem. I'm going to volunteer my time teaching others about what they can do to move their personal Earth Overshoot Days closer to December even as I work on moving mine. I'm going to spend the time and effort to source food more locally and with less packaging and try to bring my single use plastic waste as close to non-existent as possible. I'm going to try to reduce my food waste as well, by buying only what I know I'll use. I'm going to investigate energy providers that use 100% renewables, learn to sew my own clothes and hopefully grow some of my own food at home. It isn't easy but it doesn't have to be uncomfortable either. We had to learn to use as much as we do. We can learn to use less.

The next 50 years are crucial for human life and life on Earth. It isn't just a job for corporations and governments - it's a job for all of us. We can embrace the opportunity of access rather than ownership of content. We can all be more careful shoppers, seeking out less packaging and only buying that which adds real value to our lives. We can stop chasing more and start appreciating less. We can be more intentional about repairing and reusing what we have, and recycling it or donating it when we're done with it. We can try to buy only the food we need and throw away less. We can refuse plastic straws, plastic bottles, plastic bags by being prepared with our own reusable alternatives. We can put pressure on local and national government. We can keep campaigning for corporations to pursue sustainable practices and design products that produce less waste.

Some day we can watch Earth Overshoot Day move later in the calendar each year.

I have to believe that we can.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Farting around in the dark: failure, learning and critical thinking

“…we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”
- John F. Kennedy
I want to write about the Cambridge Libraries Conference 2017 and all the great ideas smashing about in my head delivered by brilliant colleagues. But somehow - perhaps because it encapsulated so many of the themes from the day - I can't unstick myself from one talk in particular. If you were there, you know which one I mean because, like me, you sat on the hard wooden benches of a lecture theatre, breathless and confronted by the fallacy of your self-beliefs. I know I'm not alone in feeling that it was one of the most important talks I'll attend, maybe in my life. I won't be able to capture the eloquence and grace of the speaker but I need to write about Emma Coonan's keynote before the impressions evaporate and all I'm left with is a stack of 140 character abstractions.

It seems strange to report that a keynote speech on failure was one of the most affirming things I've ever heard but if there has ever been a more necessary time to take an honest look at our failings, I think stepping out of the rubble of 2016 is it. "2016 was not a good year for criticality," Emma began. Facts, expertise and nuance took a beating. Sometimes we feel failure on a national or global scale, as happened to many of us when we woke up feeling like strangers in our own communities, aghast at a political disaster we felt we ought to have prevented. Sometimes we feel failure on the painfully, awfully local scale in our personal or professional lives. Sometimes we're backed into it by being on the wrong side of the political pendulum swing, finding ourselves having to work to the pressures of "just get it done", in opposition with our values of pedagogical and service excellence. Sometimes we simply feel we did the wrong thing, or not enough of the right thing, or did the right thing too late.

Many of us seem primed to perceive our own failure, however. Ange Fitzpatrick discussed the phenomenon of Impostor Syndrome, which seems alarmingly common among librarians, in her lightning talk. Along similar lines, Emma talked about growing up with the ingrained idea that people were either innately talented at something or not. If you tried to do something and failed, you were just no good at it. Similarly, she thought, if you weren't good enough to make a career out of something it simply wasn't worth doing. 'Why would I bother learning ballet,' she might have asked herself, 'since I'll clearly never be part of a ballet company?' She asked if anyone else had grown up with the same ingrained idea. After I thrust my own hand into the air I didn't look around at how many others went up around the room, but Emma's proclamation that she was in a room full of perfectionists drew a sheepish laugh from the audience. The perfectionist ideology of all-or-nothing in learning is one I've been challenging in myself for a couple of years now. While it has deep, culturally embedded roots, recently I traced it back to being expected to climb a rope in Physical Education at school as almost the quintessential example:
The thing about PE was that they would give you one shot to try something (in front of the entire class) and you could either do it or you couldn't. You didn't get to practice. They didn't help you with your technique if you were having trouble. They didn't give you easier regressions you could work on to build up to it. Nope. You either scooted up the rope or you dangled for a few humiliating seconds before giving up.
Based on experiences like that I had it in my head for decades that I was absolutely and permanently unathletic, that I would never be able to do a pull up or climb a rope. But just as Emma found the freedom and joy of learning something because you love it upon taking up ballet in her 30s, I've learned to delight in simply finding out how much I am capable of if I practice at it. (I even successfully did a rope climb for the first time last summer at age 33.)

Part of the reason this mindset is so ingrained is that as a culture we seldom pay attention to the process of learning and focus instead on bold, brilliant achievements that come every once in a while. Social media especially subjects us to the carefully edited highlight reels people choose to share. But underlying every achievement is a mountain of grunt work. Poets and artists know the labour that goes into work that looks, if done well, completely effortless to the observer. W.B. Yeats wrote:
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
As a rule we don't look at the back of the stitches - the 'underside of the carpet', as Emma put it - the mess that makes the design. Nor do we see how many times the creator had to rip all the stitches back and start over again.

The reverse side of hand embroidery looks a mess but it creates a beautiful pattern. The blogger who posted this photo wisely wrote, 'If the back of your embroidery looks as good as the front of your embroidery, it probably took you ten times longer to do it, and gave you about half the pleasure.' (Source:

This underlying pattern is made up of all of the hard work, the repetition, the mistakes, the failures that went in to making the final product, the bit that's celebrated. We don't tend to focus on them, but they're there if you look past the surface. Perhaps we should pay more attention and give more credit for that background work.

There is power here in the form of the oft-overlooked word 'yet'. It acknowledges potential, and that the gap between our present state and desired accomplishments can be bridged by hard work and learning. 'Yet' stands at the heart of the so-called Growth Mindset, discussed by researcher Carol Dweck in the brilliant and important video below:

Its antithesis, the Fixed Mindset, holds that 'If you have ability, you shouldn't need effort and that if you need a lot of effort, it's a sign that you don't have ability'. The fear of failure, of looking dumb, of not being able to perform leads to learners gaming the system to appear successful at any cost, or giving up with a discouraged cry of, 'I'm just not good at this.' Meanwhile, learners with the Growth Mindset face setbacks ready to learn from them, saying, 'I'm not good at this... yet.'

Recovering from supposed failure and using it to learn takes resilience, a mental and emotional skill that many students (not to mention adults) seem to lack. Student participants of Futurelib's Tracker Project, for example, tended to express the idea that they were 'not good at libraries' when they had difficulty finding a particular book. They tended to stay in their comfort zones and rely on their memory of where their most used resources were, rather than learning how to use the library. Several of these students admitted that if they weren't being observed in their task they would have given up long ago. Although resilience involves the ability to keep going in the face of difficulty, it has to come from knowing that it is safe and acceptable to fail, and knowing that there are resources to help you if you do.

Even when we've reached the stage that previously looked unattainable to us, there is still work to be done. Learning is never finished. Emma compared this to watching a prima ballerina balancing en pointe: while from a distance all you see is elegance and perfection, if you look closely you can see the dancer's ankles wobbling, making tiny adjustments all the time to rebalance. These micro adjustments are like the little course corrections we make all the time as we refine our knowledge or skills. I talked about this in a post about finding a work/life balance:
The revelation for me has been accepting that balance is not a fixed ratio but a point that is constantly shifting beneath me in response to external circumstances and where my own energy and passion is guiding me. 
It never becomes effortless. You will never be perfect. You will always be balancing to a moving point of equilibrium.

I have another frame of reference for this in my life at the moment. Weightlifting, it may surprise you, takes as much repetition to master as any move in ballet. It's a highly technical sport with very little margin for error when the weights become heavier and heavier. In the video below you can see a side-by-side comparison of two lifts from the same training session - one from early and one from late in the session - in which I performed the same movement dozens of times. Olympic weightlifters will have executed thousands of lifts in preparation for a competition. With tiny corrections and learning from mistakes each time, you can see the progression in technique in a single session (if you know what you're looking for). But there is no such thing as a 'perfect lift'. Even the professionals miss lifts, and there are always little adjustments to make.

The aspect of Dweck's Growth vs. Fixed Mindset study I find particularly fascinating was when participants in her research who had been primed for a particular mindset were given a choice between a task that would pose a challenge to them and stretch them versus one with which they were already comfortable. You can probably guess who went for which task. Dweck says that those with a fixed mindset, 'rejected the opportunity to learn in favour of something they were sure to do well on', while those who valued process over results, 'overwhelmingly wanted the hard task they could learn from'. It seems odd that in the same culture that celebrates innovators such as Elon Musk, Florence Nightingale and Thomas Edison (who famously said, 'I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.') there is a reluctance to take risks for fear of making mistakes. But, as discussed at the conference's panel on failure (which I didn't attend but sounded brilliant from the tweets), innovation requires willingness to fall on your ass. If you're not failing, you're probably not growing or learning either.

One: Number 31 by Jackson Pollock

Process is more important to learning than the end product because deep knowledge is actively constructed through a combination of failures, blind alleys, and 'farting around in the dark'. The Process Art movement encapsulates this idea perfectly by de-emphasising the final objet d'art around which most of art criticism up to that point had centred. Pollock's One: Number 31 even resembles the underside of hand embroidery pictured earlier and, as all Process Art does, functions in much the same way compared to the representative art movements against which Pollock and his contemporaries were rebelling. By removing a recognisable subject, Pollock's art makes you forcibly aware of the process, of the artist dribbling, dripping, flinging paint against the canvas. It evokes the physicality of the artist at work through the layers built up over time that converge into something unmistakably whole and complete. Like the Zen Buddhist practice of Enso, the painting of a circle, the artist's embodied experience is more important in Process Art than the end artefact. The artefact exists as a testament to the completeness of the moment of production; the expression of a mind and body that has learned, through repetition and failure, to execute a perfectly imperfect performance.

By taking exposures of his own camera in a mirror at different apertures and shutter speeds, John Hilliard in Camera Recording Its Own Condition reveals both the mechanism (the camera) and the medium (light) of the photographic process to the viewer. The repetition of the same act with slight variations makes this work performative in a similar way to the practice of Enso.
This process is simultaneously engaged and unconscious. Walt Whitman beautifully describes the balance between the two in Leaves of Grass:
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems? 
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
To my mind he is describing here the knowledge that comes from direct experience and engagement. Art and poetry perhaps describe learning better than anything else because they bypass paths to deliberate knowing and point at direct experience. Critical thinking is not simply finding the most logical resource and agreeing with it. It comes from being awake to possibility, looking beneath and risking the horrible fate of finding out you were wrong. The sculptor Barbara Hepworth discusses how she traverses unknowning:
Before I start carving the idea must be almost complete. I say 'almost' because the really important thing seems to be the sculptor's ability to let his intuition guide him over the gap between conception and realization without compromising the integrity of the original idea; the point being that the material has vitality - it resists and makes demands...
You could point to this as a failure on Hepworth's part to produce exactly the sculpture she intended to. But I prefer to see it as a metaphor for critical engagement. How many times in your learning have you found that the material 'resists and makes demands' on you, defying your efforts to beat it into the shape you want? That 'gap between conception and realization' is wide and ambiguous and frightening. Most of the time we can't even see the other side. Its the dark in which we 'fart around' when we do research, or innovate solutions that no one has come up with before, or create a piece of artwork. Critical engagement makes this darkness even broader and more vague because we begin to question the safe moorings to which we used to cling. It demands that we let go of comfortable categories, binaries and absolutist thinking, even our perception of ourselves as someone who can or can't do something. Critical thinking is essential to gaining deeper knowledge. It keeps us balancing amid uncertainties.

Mentors have the power to help navigate this ambiguity, not from atop a pedestal but by showing that not knowing, that 'beginner's mind' is an asset. Concealed by the darkness of unknowing is the opportunity to learn rather the risk of failure. The only failure in this context is the failure to act, to take a step in any direction. Therefore, we need to cultivate a working and learning environment that enables others to feel safe and rewards setbacks that lead to better understanding. People in mentorship roles in particular need to be upfront about their own failures, and applaud innovative efforts, whether or not they result in success. But all of us need to raise our hands and admit when we've made mistakes or gotten things wrong, that we've struggled with Impostor Syndrome or doubted ourselves from time to time. And most importantly we each have the responsibility to critically engage with the world, because failure to do so leads to the kind of empty, divisive, hate-filled mentalities that made 2016 a year to regret.

This has been my lengthy but feeble attempt to capture some of Emma's brilliance by reflecting on and reacting to what she said. I believe the slides and audio will be available at some point and I'll add the links here if/when they are because she said it all better than I could.

** Acknowledgement: This post was brought to you by "The Race for Space" by Public Service Broadcasting, the album I listened to about six times through while writing it. It's a brilliant concept album about the early Russian and American space programmes using original audio and you should definitely listen to it.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016 in photos

You may not know this about me but I love taking photos. I've never studied photography or anything - just enjoy capturing memories. This year has been particularly photo-filled so I thought I would give a run down of stuff that happened that a camera caught.

January marked the beginning of a UX research project I led in the library.
My awesome co-workers Emma and Mehves: these two have been a constant source of smiles over the last 12 months!

We finished work on the entry way extension and dining room in the first half of the year. 
Photographing Roller Derby (April)

Spring time in Berlin

The big project in the second quarter of the year was the Athena SWAN "Inspiring Women in Engineering" Award, for which I helped with copyright clearance and making the posters.

The summer was a lot of training for the Spartan Race (and because I love lifting heavy things!)

Lucy and I went to a spa in June and were Totes Classy!

The spa had a gym so of course we lifted like the Henchcakes we are!
Race for Life (July)

Spartan Race (September)

Visiting Seattle (September)

... and Portland

Hiking in the Lake District (October)

Level 3 in Education and Training in Barnsley (December)

Christmas in Yorkshire

New Year's Eve walk on the Magog Downs

Friday, 18 November 2016

A manifesto and a spark - My recap of 'Creating a research culture in the workplace'

Chris Powis, Head of Library and Learning Services at Northampton University, came to Cambridge to deliver a session about the research culture that seems to be thriving in his workplace, providing an interesting case study and much food for thought for those of us working and researching in Cambridge libraries. His most powerful thesis to my mind was this: the reason librarians should do research is that it's one of the activities of universities. We are a service, yes, but we are also part of the academic fabric and as such we have a responsibility to take part in teaching and research. I have seen the difference it makes working with academics who think of us as colleagues in research, both to the quality of support we can give them and the quality of insight they can give us. It's a mutually beneficial relationship I feel lucky to have in my role.

At Northampton research by librarians is supported and encouraged at all levels. Chris emphasised that enthusiastic staff alone do not make a research culture, nor can you create one by managerial mandate. A true research culture derives from a collaboration between top-down and bottom-up support for research (not from some farcical aquatic ceremony - sorry, I went a little Monty Python there...). Support for research is included in the vision and plan for the library and staff who are interested in doing research have opportunities for training and resources that allow them to run with their ideas. The library has its own research ethics board, adapted from that of the University, and they report on the impact of their research annually as well as promoting published work by their staff in monumental banners in the library. All of this is serving to expand the perceived role of librarians to include research, just as it had to be actively and forcibly expanded to include teaching.

One of the most interesting practical steps they took to promote and develop a community and culture of research has been to hold library conferences that showcase NU library staff research. There are no keynote speakers - no external speakers of any kind - and so no-one's work is held above anyone else's. Most importantly, the conference is opened by the Vice Chancellor and open to academics from the university to attend. Additionally, research is often done in collaboration with academic colleagues. This level of visibility, professionalism and interdisciplinary work is a remarkable tool for changing both the perception of librarians and the quality of the research produced.

At Cambridge we do a lot of things very well with regards to library research. Our autonomy allows some wonderful small-scale, agile research projects to flourish. However, I think that lack of communication between libraries can sometimes lead people to believe that they can't do research because there's something fundamentally different about the libraries that do it, or that what they're doing already isn't research when in fact it is. I think it's worth tackling the barriers to a research culture across the University and developing a community of practice that would help cultivate top-down and bottom-up support. The session sparked a tentative discussion and it is my (not-so-secret) hope that this will provide a spark to get more of us involved with creating a research culture that fosters a rise in the quality of research and wider dissemination of what we do across all Cambridge libraries.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Fires on the road

"Dissent is the highest form of Patriotism." - Thomas Jefferson 
“The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.” - Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches
As I write this I am listening to Leonard Cohen after an evening indulging in a little wallowing by watching videos that firmly justify my sadness and anger. I have read advice to take the time to mourn and be alone, the advice to comfort others and allow yourself to be comforted, the advice to roll up your sleeves and get involved, to speak up, to be silent. I've done a little of everything, vacillating in the directionless way of the bereaved.

I debated whether to write anything here about current events at all. After all, this is a quasi-professional blog and while I have never hidden my political leanings in my professional life, I've tended to be cagey about discussing politics openly in that context. I feel like that position has become unsupportable now. I feel the pressing need to become more of an activist. I need to speak up. The problem is that I have no idea what to say.

I could say something about the danger of echo chambers and need for media literacy. I could provide resources attempting to analyse what went wrong, how it happened, who is to blame. I could theorise about the best and worst case scenarios that could emerge over the next four years. I could talk about the role of libraries in supporting their communities during difficult times or the transformative power of reading in crisis situations. I could discuss any and all of these, but I think others have said it better and frankly I don't have the energy to analyse or prosthelytise right now.

I think what I need to do right now is be honest.

I'm terrified. I know that this fear was mirrored by those on the right when contemplating a Clinton presidency. I know that it's a symptom of the unhealthy divisiveness that has grown up in American and British politics, that Brexiters and Trump supporters find my political views as insupportable, as alien as I find theirs. It's a different set of values that has been thrown into sharp relief against my own by the polarising forces of journalism, social media, isolationism and confirmation bias. But right now I find it unhelpful to empathise, to agree with President Obama when he asserts that deep down we all want the same things, because from my point of view, here and now, I can't see how that's the case. Because what I want is for women to have equal rights, opportunities and treatment to men, for working class families to be able to afford to live without having to work multiple jobs so they can actually see their children and afford healthcare, for Muslim Americans to not feel demonised, for Mexican Americans to not feel outcast, for Black Americans to not feel criminalised, for LGBTQ+ youth to not be contemplating suicide as an alternative to facing the next four years of watching their few small, hard-won rights be stripped away. Because I am a pacifist and fear the bellicose instincts of the President-elect. Because every human has dignity and rights and I fear his ableism. Because I am pro-choice and a feminist and fear his misogyny. Because I believe that the most pressing issue facing the entire world is not "Obamacare" but the dangerously rapid warming of our planet due to human influence. Because I am an immigrant, a friend of immigrants, a supporter of immigration and I fear the growing nationalism around the globe that the President-elect has tapped into, emboldened and legitimised through his success. Because I am at heart a progressive and I fear his authoritarianism.

My mind keeps wandering back to a book I read last year called Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi. The main character is a young woman in Germany in the 30s and sees the world around her change, sees her neighbours and friends become complacent, then fearful, then complicit in atrocities that start to feel mundane. The xenophobia, paranoia and cruelty fostered by fascism became the new normal. I saw a tweet a few weeks ago that I wasn't able to find again to attribute it that said something along the lines of: If you could travel back in time the question is not whether you would kill Hitler. The question is, would you vote for him? With hindsight we forget that the figure we rightly deplore was democratically elected, that there is something appealing at particular moments in time about a strong leader who gives us a common enemy to blame for our problems and promises a solution. Now that we've voted for him (though I feel it's only right to point out that only about a quarter of registered voters actually did as half of them didn't vote at all), will we be complacent until it's too late? Will we cheer as lives are destroyed because we can sleep a little more soundly knowing that at least people who look like us have finally got what we deserve?

Like many others I know I'm desperate to find ways to help; protests I could join, petitions I could sign, acts of defiance I could perform. I will do all of this that I can but I think and hope the small daily acts matter just as much. Being kind, being there for people, listening, including people. I think this comes back to the Buddhist idea of "Right Livelihood"; doing the work that's in front of you to the best of your ability. That's all you can do. It feels small. It feels insignificant right now in the face of huge forces mobilised by hatred and greed. But, as Susan Sontag observed, that's no excuse to not do it.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

23 Research Things - Thing 11

While I don't think I'd ever really use them to put out my own content online, I am an enthusiastic consumer of YouTube and podcast content, and it's not just weightlifting tutorials and funny cat videos either. I love learning from these platforms. For example, I credit fandom podcasts such as The Tolkien Professor and Witch Please for making me a more careful, critical reader of fiction. Through 99% Invisible I've learned a lot about design and the way humans interact with the world.

The podcast I'm choosing to highlight for Thing 11, however, is Hello PhD, a fortnightly podcast "for scientists and the people who love them". I mentioned it in my previous post as a great example of communicating research and, although it doesn't focus exclusively on specific research projects, it provides great insights into the structure and culture of postgraduate science education. It takes a refreshingly critical stance toward that structure and also talks about mental and physical wellbeing in postgraduate training, mentorship, productivity, alternative routes outside of academia etc. Throw in the weekly science etymology puzzle and I'm totally hooked! The hosts are great at communicating complex issues within academia and advocates for loving what you do as a researcher. The podcast has a slight biological science bias but don't let that discourage you - the information is useful for all researchers and the people that work with (and/or love) them!

From YouTube there are too many good educational videos out there to be able to pick the best, from the now outrageously popular TED talks to SciShow, the Gates Notes, VoxCrash Course... the list goes on and on! I did need to pick one, though, so I thought I'd go in for some good old fashioned nepotism and share my friend Peter's YouTube channel, The Binary Tree.

Peter's great at explaining the theory behind computer science - something I admit I'm way more into than learning programming languages - in simple terms that appeal to my visual learning style. He's a great example of how accessible it is to share what you know with the world and get others excited about your area of interest.

Enjoy, and let me know what you think!

23 Research Things - Thing 10

I'll do my best to encapsulate my rambling and multifarious thoughts on communicating research into a single blog post. I suppose the people to whom it makes sense are already doing it, so I will do my best not to preach to the converted but instead address people who may not see the point in spending their valuable time translating their research into plain language.

Georgina and Ryan made some great points in their podcast on the topic, not least of which is that if you've devoted your time to researching something in great depth, hopefully it means you're quite excited about it. I recently asked one of my classes to chat to each other about their research topics and overheard one student ask another, "What are you geeking out on lately?" It's the same sort of language people use around a show they really love or a hobby they've gotten really into. I hope all of the researchers I work with feel that way about their work at least periodically.

To me, the "geeking out"- getting excited about an idea or a question or a problem and then pursuing it, finding it difficult to talk about anything else over dinner or out at the pub - is what it's all about. It's why I've always wanted to go into some field in education; to watch that spark ignite and help people take down the barriers to pursuing that shiny new piece of knowledge. The most influential people in my life have been educators, but first and foremost they've been great communicators who were able to share their enthusiasm, passion and curiosity. They're the Neil deGrasse Tysons and Bill Nyes of the world, but they're also the Katie Browns and Debbie Aldouses of the world. These are people who are passionate about knowledge and who are able to share that passion.

One of the chief advantages of the tools explored in previous Things is that they mean you don't have to be a brilliant public speaker or teach in a classroom to communicate your passion for your research. People like Katie Mack (AKA @astrokatie) have found the power of tools like Vine (RIP) and Twitter for sharing their research and have huge followings because they get people excited by and interested in what they're doing. The "Dance your PhD" Contest launched by Science shows how engaging, funny and accessible communicating research by video can be, while podcasts like Hello PhD provide a forum for those who prefer the spoken word.

The thing in common with all of these is that they've learned to make complex research topics accessible. The first step is letting go of the idea that your research is too complicated for other people to understand. Obviously they won't understand it at the level that you do, but I agree with Ryan that there is no concept or process that can't be explained relatively simply. I would also argue that in translating your work into a simpler, more easily communicable form, by coming up with your "elevator pitch", by trying to condense it into the length of a Tweet, or by explaining it in an animation, you change your perspective on your subject. You can actually learn more about your subject by simplifying it and communicating it.

When you communicate your research, you never know where the conversation will take you.