With the peaceful Adriatic Sea to the right and the stunning Gran Sasso Mountain Range on the left, it is hard to imagine being stressed when this is your working environment - and this was my working environment during my week of training at Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale dell'Abruzzo e del Molise (IZSAM) in Abruzzo, Italy.
During this week I was introduced to the exciting and important activities that take place at IZSAM. I was presented with information about IZSAM's role as OIE collaborating centre for animal welfare and as a National Reference Centre for Urban Veterinary Hygiene and Non-Epidemic Emergencies. I received training on the Qualitative Behavioural Assessment for sheltered dogs and was taught about the valuable findings of the Shelter Quality Protocol and the human-animal relationship in long term dog shelters. The team at IZSAM also arranged for me to visit local dog shelters, visit the farm at Colleatterrato and meet professionals involved in dog population management. I visited both Pescara's Local Health Unit and the long-term shelter in Montesilvano, where I had the chance to learn about and discuss the overall dog population management situation in Italy.
In addition to meeting the excellent team at Torre del Cerrano (which is literally a castle on the beach), I was also able to meet the experts working at the IZSAM headquarters in Teramo. The professionals here provided me with guidance for my upcoming fieldwork in terms of epidemiological approaches to animal sampling and also introduced me to the technology available at the institute.
Overall, it was an extremely productive week at IZSAM and I really look forward to collaborating with IZSAM in the future - and of course travelling back to this stunning location!
One of the keys to the door leading to academic success has to be writing. I've often heard from students and peers alike that they hate writing, that they're not good at it, that they had specifically dropped English at school over the sciences because they had no intention of spending their lives committing words to paper. I've always enjoyed writing, which is not to say that I find the process of scientific writing particularly easy. Indeed, one of the things I personally struggle with is that blank page at the start of any writing project. The horrors associated with the very whiteness of that page have at times led me to procrastinate, something that is all too easy within the academic role - there are always lectures to prepare, meetings to attend, emails to send, collaborators to call, students to advise. Indeed, most of my time is spent communicating in one form or another, so quite why the blank page looms so ominously from the corner of my desktop (minimised, but open just in case) is peculiar. One thought is that the formality of the scientific writing style makes it so out of the way of the rest of my everyday scientific communications. I don't tend to hold my conversations using passive third person phraseology, or by regurgitating reels of academic papers citing authors and years as I discuss scientific arguments. Maybe I should, but it doesn't feel very natural to do it.
Another possibility, which has been raised before by numerous academics, is that time to write is typically fractured. I know just a handful of people who are able to effectively use a spare 5 minutes between meetings and teaching to dash out a paragraph or two on a paper. I do not count myself among them - my 5 minutes between appointments is typically spent doing rather more mundane but essential activities, like grabbing a quick coffee, or sending an email.
Making time to write must be a priority. We know this. And yet so few of us put it as an event in our weekly calendars, just as unmissable as that faculty board meeting, or lectures. Shut Up and Write Tuesdays is a virtual writing workshop for academics. I first heard about it from Mary Friel, who participated in this during her PhD thesis write-up. The idea is to help academics to set aside time to write, and to support each other to do so. Starting from next week, our research group is planning to hold our own Shut Up and Write sessions, and act as writing support for each other. We will each come to the session with a plan of what we're going to write, we'll then settle down and write solidly for an hour before stopping for our usual Monday morning coffee and pastries, where we'll talk about how we got on. My hope is that it will also provide extra support to the earlier career members of the group. I'm really looking forward to it, and the blank page is blinking at me in anticipation.
My PhD viva was on the 28th of April, and after much worry and preparation, I actually found it to be a very positive experience! I had two lovely examiners (Dr Alan McElligott and Prof Ian Montgomery) and we had a very enjoyable discussion about animal welfare science, pig farming and my research, my favourite things to talk about! I must say, it is a huge relief to have the viva done and now I can really get into my new role as postdoctoral research fellow on the Pig Sustain project. This is a really exciting and ambitious project to build a systems model of the UK pig industry. I am really enjoying learning much more about pig farming and working with our industry partners to collect the data. This has been a very busy week, preparing for having a stand at the Pigs 2022 conference (http://www.pigs2022.com). This will be a great opportunity for us to meet new people and spread the word about the Pig Sustain project. And most importantly get more people involved, the more the merrier! So, life after the viva has been busy but very enjoyable and I'm looking forward to settling into my new life here in Leeds and working hard on the Pig Sustain project! If you happen to be coming to the Pigs 2022 conference please call over to our stall and say hello :)