Heriot-Watt Crucible V Session 3: Day 2

The closing session of the H-W crucible and culmination of the days over the last three months I have spent with my fellow cruciblists and facilitators was held in the Millenium Dome-like Dynamic Earth centre next to the Scottish Parliament. It’s an attractive building in a beautiful location, next to my new favourite piece of modern architecture, but it has the strong imprint of being a Millennium project about it. Saying that, due in part to the excellent stewardship of the scientific director Dr Stuart Monro, it has been extremely successful and gives a wonderful sense of the role that geology plays in shaping life on Earth and in particular Scotland, the centre being nestled at the foot of the Salisbury crags with magnificent views of the landscape.

We were skilfully facilitated by Quentin Cooper, who will be missed as host of Material World on Radio 4 when he leaves in May. After the obligatory introductory talk on the facilitator’s topic of interest, we started with an exercise on interviewing/being interviewed. Clearly this is one of the things Quentin Cooper is known for and he kicked the session off with a nimble and engaging interview with Dr Monro.  We paired up and were expected to pull off something similar with our partner. I’ll admit to not fully getting into the spirit of the exercise as my partner and I became caught up in a discussion of the resolution and speed limitations of fluorescence microscopy and technical developments in the field. It might not sound so engaging, but I find it really interesting to talk to people doing serious interdisciplinary science and it was good to meet a physicist with a real desire to push technology to enable cell biologists to ask harder and more quantitative questions of the systems they are imaging.

The big challenge of the day, the thing the Crucible had been leading us towards since the first session, was the research project development session. We were given a couple of hours to come up with an idea, flesh it out into something sensible and grounded in reality and then present it to our peers and a full panel of Dragons, including Heriot-Watt’s V-C, who were not planning to hold back on their criticism. I teamed up with a biophysicist and micro-fabrication engineer, based on a few conversations over the course of the Crucible where we discussed a shared interest in microfluidics applications in biological characterisation.  We hadn’t considered that most of our fellow Cruciblists might have already formed well organised research collaborations and have more than just a few vague notions of how they could work together.

The three of us spend a distracting couple of hours putting together a glib Powerpoint presentation about how we were going to solve a grand industrial challenge with a few printed microfluidic circuits, a sensor array and some immobilised bacteria. From the start we spun nitrogen fixation into the story and threw in a few jokes about Olympic swimming pools full of urine (this was continuing a theme of the Crucible where the Olympic swimming pool was used as a comparative unit of measurement at least once a session by one of the speakers/facilitators). We had not considered the fact that the V-C is an expert in the biological fixation of nitrogen and turned out to be a painful oversight.

At the allotted time for the presentations, we had a nice set of slides, a throwaway message about global resource efficiency and a small seed of an idea that was well buried somewhere near the end. Our fellow Cruciblists presented some fantastic research projects, some of which appeared to be rehearsals for ERC project grant interviews, we were outclassed by every other team and it was a mercy we were presenting last. We started our pitch and knew we were doomed by the second slide. Our light-hearted discussion of a global challenge, with some throwaway jokes and a very tiny nugget of an idea was absolutely hammered by the judges. We left the stage chastened and red faced.

The winning team had a really strong interdisciplinary project that will hopefully be a success if they can get some good preliminary data and I am sure they will be in line for some Crucible funding. I’m looking forward to seeing the progress of the project, as I’m sure it has potential. My team is still considering our options, but I would say to make sure you know your audience. Don’t talk about something you don’t know much about when the people judging your proposal are experts with distinguished careers in the field you are being glib about. That probably holds in many situations: interviews, seminars, meetings, Dragons’ Den style pitches, Sand Pits.

The day closed with success stories from previous Crucibles, Scottish and Heriot-Watt, with a fantastic talk from my colleague Lorraine Kerr on her project with the composer Jane Stanley called LabNotes.


I came away from the Crucible experience somewhat chastened by the final session, but I’ve learnt a lot over the last few months. It was interesting and illuminating to have the opportunity to talk to researchers from across Edinburgh in many different disciplines. This breadth of expertise made making meaningful collaborative connections difficult, primarily because of the narrow field of people with overlapping interests in the cohort. My parenting commitments and travel awkwardness meant that I missed all the post-event networking dinners and the informal opportunities for discussion that come with them. This probably meant that I missed out on making some links with my fellow Cruciblists, but being the commuting parent of a toddler makes a lot of after-hours activity logistically challenging.

The event was well organised and a huge credit is due to the organisers from Heriot-Watt and their partners. Some of the individual sessions fell flat, but in the context of the whole event were small glitches in a good programme. There was a significant of material that was H-W specific, but was general enough to not be too jarring, even though it was stuff I had heard before from Edinburgh University professional development events.

Would I recommend participating in a Crucible? Definitely, but be prepared to fully commit to the programme and the networking events. I’d add that it is a good idea to put some effort into extra-curricular networking, to really get the most from the programme. We were told that H-W Crucible will return next year and Scottish Crucible is coming up soon, so I’d recommend participating if your interest has been piqued by my experiences.

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