The Quest for Common Ground


Earlier this month, a pack of unsuspecting ZELS-AS PhD students made their way from locations spread across the globe to sunny Cambridge to greet each other for the first time. What followed was a two-day workshop designed to enlighten us about the ZELS initiative and help us understand what our fellow students intended to work on over the next 3.5 years.

The ZELS-AS group comprises post-graduate students from the EU and developing countries, all undertaking PhDs connected with the ZELS-funded projects. During our two-day induction we were to be introduced to tools to promote communication within the cohort and to foster interdisciplinarity, but we’ll come back to that later…

Day 1

The induction began with talks from the ZELS Knowledge Broker Peter Stevenson, and representatives from each of the ZELS projects. This was valuable for us since we both belong to different projects in the Livestock, Livelihoods and Health programme (a programme of the three University of Glasgow-led ZELS projects), we didn’t want to limit our knowledge of the ZELS programme to LLH activities alone. Rounding off the session was Prof Jo Sharp, co-PI of the SEEDZ project and Co-I of the HAZEL project, who illustrated nicely the interactions and areas for potential collaboration across the research areas.

Next were the three-minute presentations from the PhD students, perhaps the most anxiously anticipated event of the workshop for some of us! Although nerve-racking, this allowed us to gain insight into each other’s backgrounds and the directions we plan to take our projects. While we had read preliminary information on each other’s research, it was great to put a face to each project. We could also identify gaps in our own knowledge that others might be able to fill, and vice versa.

Perhaps the most animated session of the day was on student-supervisor relationships. In her presentation, Mary Ryan LLH administrator, identified the main ‘types’ of supervisors and students, which inevitably left us trying to decipher which categories we belonged to (or which we aspired to be!). This led to an open discussion on personal experience of supervision, which gave us an insight into how different supervisors may work, and trying to spot the ‘delegator’, ‘friend’ or ‘expert guide’ among us.

PhD Survival Tips

With the day drawing to a close, we watched two‌ inspiring talks from post-docs Dr Will de Glanville and Dr Adebowale Oluwawemimo (Wemi) on how to make it to the end of a PhD – and how to enjoy it too. Will reminded us of the privilege it is to be able to do a PhD – and assured us things won’t always be plain sailing (and that’s ok!). Wemi told us that hard work, determination and unwavering positivity are essential traits in achieving your PhD, and especially to ‘always wear a smile’.

As the winter night was already making an appearance, we finished Day One with a little ‘speed dating’. Cautious supervisors sat at tables with two students each and were given three minutes to talk freely and discover common ground and feeling for future collaborations. Then it was time to switch supervisors and move to the next table. Some tables led to very insightful conversations, such as learning from Dr Blandina Mmbaga (SEEDZ and HAZEL Co-I and director at Kilimanjaro Clinical Research Institute) that her personal mantra is ‘no problem!’ –‘hamna shida’ in Swahili.

Day 2

The final day encouraged greater student input. We were plunged into an introduction to social media in research from Mary and Nick Short, head of the eMedia Unit at the Royal Veterinary College. For more than a few of us, this was uncharted territory. It did help to lift the ‘I couldn’t possibly use that’ mentality many of us were holding tightly to.

One Health Paper

A caffeine and biscuit break later, we cracked into the Journal Club. This was a last-minute addition and proved to be one of the most useful. The paper up for discussion looked into an expanded One Health conceptual model, promoting the integration of social science and One Health to inform study of the human-animal interface (Woldehanna & Zimicki, 2015). Not only did this session allow discussion about the approach of this paper, which combined both social and biological approaches, it also permitted comparison and contrasts to be made amongst ourselves and the varied disciplinary backgrounds present. It enhanced the realisation that we are just scratching the surface of ‘interdisciplinary research’, and the potential to proceed to from here.

With our first collaborative exercise complete, we started to think about how we could continue this momentum. As economists, vets, epidemiologists, geographers and medics we are dispersed both academically and geographically, so it was recognised that we could make good use of an online platform to facilitate further discussion. Our primary tool for communication will be the creation of a student-run ZELS-AS website and to enter the world of blogging – coming to a computer screen near you soon!

After two days of excitement and interactions, we left feeling motivated and eager to keep going with our research – driven by the notion that we’ll be working together towards the common goal of reducing the impact of zoonoses in developing countries.

by Becca Bodenham (@RebeccaBodenham)  & Jennika Virhia (@Jennika23)


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