Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Overcoming being a volcanic island

or how I wrote a grant proposal using social media.

by Dr Rebecca Williams (@volcanologist)

I’m a bit of a volcanic island. A lone volcanologist surrounded by a sea of brilliant researchers, but all in different fields. Once my research portfolio develops, I see some great collaborative research with some of them in the future as I stretch and grow my own research interests. But for now I need to consolidate my expertise in volcanic processes.How can I do this as a lone volcanologist in my department?

I manage to stay connected to the wider volcanological community through conferences, being a committee member of the Volcanic and Magmatics Study Group and increasingly through social media. I’m not going to use this blog to extol the use of social media for academics as plenty have done that well, I’d suggest reading some of these blogs (e.g. by Carole McGranahan by Jude Dineley, how tweeting can improve your h-index or this for the real beginners guide). But I did recently write a big grant proposal for some awesome science and social media had a huge role to play in getting this done.

A while ago, on Twitter, I got into a conversation about terminology surrounding ignimbrites (the deposits from pyroclastic density currents; more on those another time) and some of the new conceptual ideas about pyroclastic density currents. It became clear that another tweeter @orbitalpete shared my views, but from a different perspective - he was an experimentalist whereas I'm a field volcanologist. Over the next year or so tweets bounced back and forth, dream research proposals discussed (mostly, as I recall, based around excellent ski locations) and general discussions about the science were had. I knew of Pete’s work, had followed it, but we’d never met despite crossing paths at conferences and being undergrads at the same department, albeit separated by a couple of years. Then, when I finally got a position where I was eligible to be a PI (i.e. apply for research grants of my own), the reality of actually doing some of that dream research emerged. The conversation moved to email and a skeleton proposal was thrashed out (and I hasten to add, the ski locations were dropped).

Next came the mammoth task of writing the proposal (see @volcan01010’s blog for an idea of how mammoth these are) made trickier by the fact that my collaborator was a busy post-doc in France. We needed to both be able to work on the proposal when we had time, at odd hours, whilst making sure that we were always using the most up-to-date version. I decided to venture into googledocs. I’d used it before to share spreadsheets with students, but I’d never created a proper document in it before. We started off with a skeleton plan and over a couple of months fleshed out the sections. Each of us wrote in a different colour so we could keep track of new text. Googledocs continuously saves itself so you are always working on the most recent document. No need to bounce files back and forth over email. You can add comments onto the document and googledocs emails you when you get a reply. You can even both work on it at the same time; your changes are saved simultaneously and it is disproportionately entertaining to watch your colleagues cursor move across the screen and new text magically appear in the document. There is even a chat function so difficulties can be discussed while you both look at the work on screen. A system developed where we would read each others ‘finished’ sections and change the text colour to black when we were happy with it. Before our eyes, a full proposal quickly emerged. We used the word processor for the document, the spreadsheet for the budget and used it like a dropbox to share images. When it was all completed, it was easily saved into a .docx format for final tidying up ready for submission. This has been one of the easiest collaborative projects I have ever done. I can’t recommend using googledocs enough.

And that grant proposal? After a brief wrestle with Je-S, it is now submitted and in the hands of the reviewing gods. I'll be sure to blog all about it if the application is a success!

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