Small town blues…

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Taken on a sunrise jog in January.

…and oranges and yellows and reds.  There is never a dull sky in St. Andrews.

Three months ago today, I moved north, to try my luck on the (other) Scottish Riviera.  And I’m proper north this time, for a southerner.  I’ve been gifted a post-doctoral research fellowship at Cambridge-on-Sea: a role I’d been working towards for five years and wasn’t sure would ever come my way.  I’m eternally grateful to my new boss for trying her luck with me.  Having made it back into the academy, my experience suggests that several years out of an academic setting can be surmountable at worst, and at best, a hugely valuable opportunity to gain a broader range of skills and an exposure to quite different working environments, which, despite my recurrent concerns, are of course of use in a university setting.  I write this to reassure the many early career researchers out there who are facing a “break” from academia, be it through choice, or more often, a lack of it.  I’ve realised, through conversations with several of my new, inspiring colleagues (over several pints), that the common characteristic amongst the ‘successful’ researchers I know is passion for their subject, and for learning and experiencing in general; not working under a torrent of “should”s and feelings of obligation to the ‘industry’.  I feel very lucky to be back alongside my beloved peat, and in such a beautiful setting….for however long the ££ lasts.

One particularly wonderful aspect of my new home is how close my bed is to a beach.  Within 10 minutes* I can be at one of three stretches of sand.  Dreamy, yes.  So I’ve also realised my latent passion for sea-dipping.  (I now understand that what I do is not really swimming – refer to below.)  Less accessible an activity in London-town, and a little death-defying to attempt in Liverpool.  But the seas of St Andrews are so inviting, even in February (the least scorchio month, apparently).  I am now in ‘training’ for the second-ever Scottish Winter Swimming Championships.  I attended the inaugural event a month ago, accompanied by my new, self-appointed coach, Anna.  We only attended as observers, partly because I wasn’t confident Anna would come if she thought competing was on the cards.  The greater part was that I was too late to register us!  Moments after arriving, I was quite thankful for that fact, comparing myself to the real “winter swimmers” popping in and out of the icy (sub 5oC) water with smiles on their faces and no sign of a shiver.  These swimmers actually swam, 50m or more.  Some were flying through the water in butterfly, of all strokes.  I was in awe, as I shivered on the bank with my Patagonia and my cup of tea.  Next year, she says.

Turns out there’s way more than just Tunnocks to be enjoyed in Scotland.  It’s an honour to be here.

 

*not including two minutes of “snooze” + 3.4 mins of tying the laces on my trainers

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Just awesome!

N.B.  Peat, bogs, swamps, or anything work-related is not discussed in this blogpost, for which I do not apologise.

Last Friday, Alice Green/Marathon/Wonderwoman and I organised an ‘official’ Launch for Project Awesome Liverpool.  It was early, and cold, and dark, and damp, and so wonderful.  Herewith are some of my reflections on the whole shenanigans.

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Thanks to @mjcapturesuk for taking this photo of the record breaking numbers at the Launch.

I didn’t know Alice that well when I moved to Liverpool back in late February, having met her after a Project Awesome session in London and imparted some mediocre advice on how to train for her first marathon.  She now runs a marathon almost every weekend; on the other weekends she runs ultra-marathons.  Quite an incredible lady.  We’ve had some gorgeous runs over the last 10 months, and every time we’ve got together I’ve returned home feeling refreshed and inspired.  Thanks, Alice.

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Alice and me, midway through an evening run and deep conversation on how to do life, alongside the Gormleys at Another Place.

We had both been so enriched by our Project Awesome experience in London, and were both missing the je-ne-sais-quoi of it in our Liverpool lives.  I was also missing my epic early mornings and the feeling of adventure and perspective that they bring.  So we thought we’d have a go at creating our own Project Awesome (PA to the quickly accustomed) in Liverpool.  Danny, being Danny, was quite happy for Project Awesome to be adopted wherever, whenever, as long as it remained a fun, positive and free community.

On Wednesday 27th June, before the clock struck a sensible hour, Alice and I jogged down to the Docks and prepared our first session.  At 6:30am, two ladies turned up: Leanne and Haley.  I’d scouted them out at another running club (the ever-friendly community that is Dockside Runners), thinking that they might be of the PA-type.  I am very proud to say that my PA-dar appears to be finely tuned to picking out PA-compliant folk.  Leanne has only missed two sessions since, and Haley is an avid groupie.  The four of us had a fun first session, and finished with a photo aside the other Fabulous Four.

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Back, at the dawn of PA Liverpool time….

Since then, we’ve gained several other superstars.  I secured one whilst jogging around a park, in the dark, in Malaysia.  Quite proud of that.  And she’s a keeper.  Another unsuspecting awesomite, I poached from Dockside.  And the rest have joined in after impassioned conversations about that early-morning thing we do down on the Docks.

And Friday mornings have become the most fun and friend-filled part of my week.  I will be forever grateful that Alice and I gave it a go.  The people I’ve met through it are truly awesome.

So, the Launch.  We had 15 whole people, including four real men (presumably whole).  And four unicorns (evidence for the most delicious one below).  And the most special of guests: the man who started it all off.  I try to, but I’m not sure I will ever be able to thank him enough for all that he’s taught me since I met him some four years ago and for how much he’s enriched my life.  He’s a very special mix of human.  We need more of that mix in our midst.  And the other special guest: a woman who’s boundless creativity vastly exceeds her acknowledgement of it.  It was such an honour to have Danny and Lally along for the party.

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Oh, sweet, sweet Unicorn cake.

And if I were to stand on the podium….”Thank you, Alice, for finding time in your incredibly busy schedule to give PA Liverpool a go, and for your endless energy.  And for teaching me to be braver and bolder against ‘the authority’!  Thank you, Leanne, Haley, Steph and Ming, for being our so-solid crew.  And to Ioanna and Ian, for being there in spirit even when you’re pulled elsewhere.  Thank you, Lals, for that first fateful naked shower, and then for holding my hand on the slide of all slides!  And Danny, thank you for making me feel good about being me.

May Project Awesomes everywhere keep creating spaces for people to have their fill of community, authenticity and utter sillyness.  And long live Project Awesome Liverpool!

What we did in a decade

Back in June, a bunch of my BCM cohort made a pilgrimage back to Oxford to reunite after ten years out in the big wide World after our MSc. in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management.  It was fantastic to see each other, and through a loosely-structured day of informal presentations and discussions (and then quite a few pints) we learnt more about each other’s and our own decade of trials, errors and many adventures than we had expected to.  Championed by Rowan Trebilco, Anne Christianson (who assertively planted the seed for the reunion), Laura Chartier and I produced two pieces to summarise our thoughts and learnings from the event: the first published in the SOGE (School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford) Trinity Term newsletter (& pasted below), and the second, longer piece, published in PLOS Early Career Researcher Community Blog.  The event made me appreciate what wonderful people I met during my MSc. year, whom have become life-long friends, and whom I continue to learn so much from.  And gosh, life pathways come in all sorts of unpredictable shapes and sizes.
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10 years on from the MSc in Biodiversity Conservation and Management

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Laura Chartier presents (left) and the BCM class of 2007-08 pose for a group photo with current students (right).

Ten years later, where has a multidisciplinary MSc from Oxford led us? On Friday 8 June, the 2007-08 cohort of the MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management gathered in Oxford to find out. Celebrating their 10 year reunion, fifteen of the ’08 graduates summarised the last “10 years in 10 minutes” in a day of discussions on “Early career trajectories in biodiversity, conservation and management”. It was fascinating! And we certainly learnt more about everyone’s paths than we would had we gone with the initial plan of spending the day crawling between our beloved haunts of a decade ago, i.e. ye olde pubs of Oxford.

The presentations followed a common format, summarising initial career goals, actual career paths, key skills obtained ‘on-the-job’, skills and knowledge we gained from BCM that have been particularly useful, and what advice we would give this cohort of students. Each presentation provided valuable insights into the development of our careers after the Masters course, with often candid revelations about the uncertain, far from “straight paths” of career development. Some alumni succeeded in several, quite unrelated careers; changing course when they realised their soul was being sapped and their grey hairs were increasing exponentially.

Despite the diversity of trajectories, surprisingly consistent messages emerged from the presentations. One such key message was the importance of passion for whatever you are doing, and of stepping away if the passion isn’t there. This is not always easy when it means living back with your parents (as quite a few of us have done), sacrificing work that you’ve invested a large amount of time in, or even foregoing rapid career advancement prospects. But remaining humble throughout and believing in yourself and the important contribution you can and will make were other universal reflections. Networking and relationship-building were discussed at length, and the ways these can be accomplished as an early-career individual, without feeling phony! And importantly, gender issues and the challenges some of the women of the group have experienced warranted discussion and reflection. One thing we all agreed on was that conservation is more than a career choice: it is a mind set that can be taken into any career and shape life choices at every stage.

We’d like to thank Christine Baro-Hone and Paul Jepson for helping with the event organisation, and the current BCM students who attended and provided stimulating questions and feedback. Another point of consensus from our cohort was the rich experience BCM gave us and how privileged we were to have had a year with our inspiring classmates, lecturers and community in and around Oxford’s many spires.

Long live BCM!
Lydia Cole, Rowan Trebilco, Anne Christianson and Laura Chartier (BCM 2007-08)

That PA thing

So, Alice and I have started Project Awesome in Liverpool.

It took a few months to commit, but we have minus 47 regrets in making that commitment. We’ve had so much fun with the four or five peeps who have come along to date (i.e. two early mornings down). There’s no expectation on our part on how it should be – we’d have plenty of fun bouncing around the Dockside, just the two of us! But already we’re feeling the spirit created by the Chief of all Awesomeness in London, inspiring us as we mess around in our new city of lyrics and Lambananas.

If you’re anywhere near the Museum of Liverpool on a Friday morning, at 6:30am, please come along. ALL abilities and all weathers are welcome.

Oh, and I wrote a blog post for Project Awesome HQ, as a dedication to the magic it’s brought to my life.

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All smiles at the end of LondonCardiff24, 2018.

This was penned on laptop on 12th June 2018.

A few weekends ago, I spent approximately 25 hours and 48 minutes awake, in a minibus, with 12 sweaty betties, running from London to Cardiff. And for a lot of those 25 hours and 48 minutes, I was smiling. I certainly wasn’t sleeping! There aren’t many people that I could spend that amount of time with, getting increasingly smelly and tired, without cracking. Even fewer that I would choose to be in that smelly mess with.

This 24 hour ‘race’ is one example of the many adventures I’ve had over the last three years with a pride of Project Awesomers. There have been New Year’s Day sea-swims, marafuns along beautiful coastlines, hula-hooping ‘workshops’, muddy forest camp-outs, circum-cycling islands, midnight mass skinny dips in a November sea….to name but a few of the wonderful weekends and stolen hours (at times of the day I didn’t realise existed before) I’ve had with the peoples of PA. As well as a lot of coffees. And cake (thanks, Suzi).

It’s quite hard to remember what my life was like pre-Project Awesome. It was certainly richer in the number of hours spent in bed, but immeasurably poorer in the number of random elements it contained.

But aside from the ‘organised’ (to varying degrees!) trips, the primary reason why I am grateful to be part of PA is the incredible community of people it attracts. All ages (age being the most irrelevant characteristic of membership to this pack); all abilities; all the fun. Everyone I have met through PA has inspired me in some way; to be more positive, more confident, believe in my potential more, and be more aware of the potential for fun in everything! It has also made me more vigilant of the challenges others might be experiencing, and how a smile and some random starter question about the gorgeous weather (at 6:30am on a drizzly Primrose Hill) might go a long way towards making someone feel included. The alternative way of fast-tracking inclusion is the humble hug. However, I remember being a little shell-shocked after my first session in the Scoop, when a smiley man came over to me, wearing red ‘shorts’ and a buxom ginger beard (that covered more of his body than his shorts), and gave me a smacker and a hug. I had no idea who he was. But I admired his friendliness towards a shy stranger. I now feel honoured to call the maker of the magic, Danny Boy Bent, a friend. Why ever did I even decide to get up at ridiculous o’clock that fateful morning? A common question asked to newbies! It all started one summer’s morning, on a hill, a short train ride from the centre of London. I’d spent the night camping out under a tarpauline with a dozen people I’d never met before. I got chatting to one chap as we headed back to the big city after a beautiful dawn.

“Ah, you like running! Where do you run in London?” I asked in my slightly nervous, relatively-new Londoner way.

“I run with PA,” replied a less nervous, longer-standing Londoner. “Project Awesome!?”, he offered when I looked entirely blank.

“What’s Project Awesome?”

And the rest is a brilliant history. Thanks, Mirko.

Since earlier this year, I’ve sadly been living a bit too far away to make it to the Scoop on a Wednesday, or Primrose Hill on a Friday, even if I get up a little bit earlier. But I am in discussions with another recently-relocated PA chum (the unstoppable Alice of the Many Marathons) about starting up Project Awesome Liverpool. TBCo-erced.

To end, I shall take an excerpt from my Facebook review: “I’m not quite sure what the exact mix of magic is, but Danny Bent, has managed to create the perfect one in Project Awesome.” True story.

Long may the fun (and hugs) continue.

Update on 30th July 2018….

Project Awesome Liverpool is GO! Friday morning, 6:30am, outside the Museum of Liverpool. We’ve had two sessions so far, dancing around the dockside with the Beatles and a bunch of brilliant new individuals. BOOM!