Ahead of the next Scottish Crucible  (applications due 31st January 2017) we asked one of last year’s participants and award winners, Sandy Brownlee, about his experience and for some application advice. 

Sandy Brownlee: Research Profile; Email

A postdoc researcher in Computing Science & Maths at Stirling, my research interests are in “value-added optimisation”: approaches rooted in data science that yield optimal solutions but also reveal underlying information about problems to help people make better decisions. My work uses techniques like evolutionary algorithms to find optimal solutions in diverse applications including chemotherapy, low-cost green buildings, routing of taxiing aircraft and optimising software itself. Understanding new applications is one of the most interesting parts of the work!

As an early career researcher I am looking out for opportunities to develop my independent research profile. Early in 2016, I spotted a call for applications to Scottish Crucible. A colleague had attended the previous year’s Crucible and with only positive things to say, I took a closer look. The crucible programme is all about widening networks, enhancing skills and communicating research to different audiences – all things that are useful – and the application process is very simple. Their application form asks four questions, with answers tightly restricted in length (3300 characters in total). I focused on the existing interdisciplinary work I do, and my desire to seek new collaborations outside my discipline. I was a little surprised to hear that my application was successful – one of 30 in 120 (still a higher success rate than many funders).

Crucible’s core is three 2-day residential “skills labs”, about a month apart. Each focuses on a different theme. Lab 1 was hosted by Vivienne Parry, a broadcaster you might remember as one of the hosts of BBC Tomorrow’s World. She reflects the quality of speakers at all three labs – they really do find the best people – and a bonus is that attending Crucible opens the door to ongoing contact with them. Day one is all about communicating with the public and media, how to make what you do accessible, and how to handle the press. Day two is based at the Scottish Parliament, with talks on engaging with policymakers, a mock pitch to a minister and mock participation in a Parliamentary committee.

The evening meal at each lab is all about networking: over the three labs I shared tables with a university Principal, two VPs, company directors and senior civil servants as well as other Cruciblists and alumni from previous Crucibles. I struggle to think of another situation where meeting so many senior people informally is possible.

Lab 2 covers creativity and interdisciplinarity, with senior Profs giving their tips on building successful teams across disciplines and excellently facilitated sessions on creativity. This is also the chance to start building networks. A “speed dating” session pairs you with all 29 Cruciblists and starts teasing out possible collaborations. I have already been invited to comment on two research proposals as a result of this session!

Lab 3 looks at enterprise and collaboration, with some very helpful advice on commercialising your research. The final day is focused on collaboration. Teams form out of the Cruciblists and each makes a mock pitch for funds to a panel of senior Profs and industrialists. This was very helpful – thinking on our feet, making a sound proposal in a very short time, and getting excellent feedback on how to improve it further.

The icing on the cake is that teams are then invited to submit proposals for real money to make their project happen! I put together a project with an artist at Aberdeen University and psychologists from Edinburgh (very much outside my normal engineering applications box), and was happy to learn in September that we had been funded. It is really great as a postdoc to be the PI on my own project worth several thousand pounds.

I had a rewarding time on the Scottish Crucible and highly commend it to others. It provides high quality training and a small pot of funds, but most crucially helps you establish a strong network of collaborators that will hopefully last your whole career. All early career researchers should apply!

This year, Stirling are hosting the second Crucible lab on 1st and 2nd June. If you are interested in applying and would like any help with your application, please do not hesitate to contact Katharine Reibig or your aligned Research Funding Officer.