I am in the unenviable position of having recently finished my PhD but not having a postdoc position lined up (thanks Brexit). One of the benefits of this is that, for (hopefully) a short period of time, I am at liberty to say “yes” to opportunities outside of my immediate field of research that would usually fly under my radar. One such opportunity landed in my lap thanks to friends at the Institute of Geology, Warsaw, when they told me that they were to be hosting a “Pioneer into Practice”.
When Edyta initially told me about Pioneers into Practice, I thought that it would be a good opportunity to take advantage of an EU pot of money to go and spend a month refining some of my paleoecological skills (namely subfossil cladocera taxonomy) and filling the increasingly lengthy gap that is appearing on my CV thanks to my current unemployment. I had no idea that the Pioneers program would end up teaching me skills that I never knew I needed, connecting me with people I would not have otherwise met, and giving me experiences that I never saw coming. Pioneers into Practice is a program run by Climate-Kic (the EU’s platform for innovation in climate change) that trains professionals from a wide spectrum of backgrounds to work together to apply systems innovation to climate change problems. A key feature of the training program – and the thing that originally drew me to it – is the opportunity to spend a month working abroad on a climate change related challenge. However, Pioneers into Practice also delivers workshops on systems thinking, and the chance to contribute to a group project in your home country. Every Pioneer has a different experience, but all are pushed outside of their comfort zone and all return to work armed with a new set of skills that they have honed during the group project and the overseas placement.
For UK Pioneers, the experience begins with a three-day workshop in Birmingham in May. During the workshop, you learn a suite of systems innovation tools as well as taking part in team building exercises and assessing your own working style. Like all workshops of this nature, it all felt a bit formulaic and forced and I found that some of the exercises felt pointless or like they were stating the obvious. However, it soon became apparent that the idea wasn’t to teach new content but to reframe the way we approached and accessed our existing knowledge and experience. It still felt a little contrived, but I think that is the nature of the beast. Retrospectively, I can say that I left that workshop with a new appreciation of how my personal experiences as a scientific researcher fit into the global social, political and economic contexts with regards to climate change, and the skills to “read between the lines” to translate acronym-heavy EU documents and initiatives into plain English.
At the initial workshop, we were introduced to the group project. Each group project is conceived by a “project owner” and, in the UK this year, those project owners were SHAP community housing, Cenex clean vehicles, and Energy Capital. Each of these project owners gave a quick presentation about their work and presented a climate change related challenge that they faced for us to work on. We were able to choose which of the three challenges interested us most, and were split into groups based on our choices. I was hoping for a project that was linked either to biodiversity loss or to climate change adaption, but none of them seemed to fit the bill so I ended up working on the Energy Capital project. We were to explore the potential role of community energy in delivering a vision of Birmingham as a centre for innovation in energy technology. Also in my group were a marketing strategist, someone who works for Camden council, one PhD student researching energy generation from waste, and one scientist specialising in irrigation systems in West Africa. Between us, we had a very diverse range of skills and experiences but very little knowledge about community energy, so getting to grips with the topic was quite a challenge. Over the next few months, we all had to juggle our own jobs and other commitments with the 30 hours that we had each committed to spend on the group project. Our vastly differing backgrounds presented an early hurdle for us to overcome, with some of the most basic elements of remote group working (for example, which video conferencing software to use and how to effectively manage our time) becoming lengthy discussion points on which we all had different opinions. Once we had got to grips with this, the real work began.
The questions addressed by the group challenges are deliberately broad, and we spent a long time trying to refine the question. Eventually, we each identified our own areas of interest within the project scope and went away to do some further research. Having had no prior experience with the topic, I found my reading naturally gravitating towards concepts surrounding smart grids and flexible energy systems – systems which are vital to support local renewable energy generation. Even having narrowed my reading to this more specific subject, I found that 20 hours of reading (I kept 10 hours back for my contribution to writing the report) barely allowed me to scratch the surface. I suspect that someone with at least some minimal prior knowledge of the topic would have been able to make a much greater contribution in terms of content and I found this somewhat frustrating, but I eventually accepted that the point of the exercise was not to conduct an in-depth intellectual analysis of community energy but rather to use my lack of specific expertise to approach the problem from a different perspective. After a lot of prevaricating and feeling more than a little lost, I eventually found that my personal strengths were best suited to drawing together everyone’s research into one cohesive report and I naturally fell into this role. We eventually produced a report and a presentation that outlined the current role of community energy within the UK energy system, the opinions of various stakeholders about barriers to its future development, and changes that are happening both at the technological innovation level and at the global systems level that may influence the role that community energy has in the near future. Despite feeling that we didn’t really understand the topic right up until the week before the presentation, Energy Capital were pleased with our work and seemed to appreciate the approach that we had taken and the different perspectives that we offered on the topic. Despite the frustrations that I had during the process, I eventually felt proud to have contributed to something worthwhile. I now have a renewed confidence in my ability to quickly learn new material and to bring valuable insight to topics that I know very little about – a skill which will likely be incredibly valuable to my future academic career.
For my placement, I travelled to Warsaw. Unlike most Pioneers I had visited my host institution before and so I had somewhat of an idea of what to expect. Nevertheless, I had very little notion about what I was actually going to do during my placement. I had signed up to help run “Junior Climathon” in Warsaw, having been assured by Edyta that I could do this alongside some cladocera research. But I had absolutely no idea what Climathon was or what this would entail until I arrived. Climathon is another Climate-Kic initiative: A 24 hour hackathon open to anyone who wishes to attend. Participants spend 24 hours coming up with inventions to solve common climate-related problems. In Warsaw, Junior Climathon focussed on climate change challenges related to changing water resource availability and use – a topic that suited me perfectly. I spent the first part of the month teaching a school group of teenagers the scientific background, and the latter part of the month supervising them as they created prototypes of their inventions. Having never taught teenagers before, delivering the material to them in a fun and interesting way was a challenge which I really enjoyed. At the end of the month, I had a proud teacher moment as they presented their prototypes to all of the adult attendees (myself included) of Climathon. I was very lucky that my host Edyta allowed me lots of spare time to use the opportunity to work on some of my own projects too. I presented my PhD research to the Institute of Geology, where I received a lot of interest in the idea of applying their paleolimnologial research (which typically spans the Tertiary and Quaternary) to more contemporary conservation problems. I roped some people into teaching me the basics of chironomid taxonomy – a skill which I anticipate being very useful in my future research. Finally, I visited a wetland and forest nature reserve on the Belarusian border, and spent a happy week exploring Polish freshwater biodiversity and conservation in all its glory. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Poland. I met some wonderful people, reconnected with some old friends, learned some new skills, and discovered that I have a previously undiscovered love of teaching. I hope to go back very soon.
During my time as a Pioneer I think I experienced every emotion under the sun, from frustration with the group project, to despondency after failing to track an elusive moose in the wetland reserve, to satisfaction with producing a useful report on community energy, to elation and pride at seeing my teenagers engaged and excited about finding solutions to water resource shortages. The experience was far more challenging than I ever anticipated, but far richer for it. I would recommend it to anyone.
Photo: Birch trees in Biebrza National Park.