Zoe Harris is a NERC Industrial Innovation Research Fellow at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London. She recently visited Davis to work with collaborators and has written a guest blog.
“Now I am an Independent Research Fellow, I get to decide my own research agenda and direction, and what better opportunity than to plan some travel to sunny California! I visited UC Davis in April 2018 for three weeks, and was immersed into a different research culture. I plan to work with Gail Taylor and others from the department on my fellowship, which is assessing the feasibility of using vertical farming to cultivate bioenergy crops. Gail helped link me up with a number of academics and some new collaborations were born. Having only ever worked in the UK, I decided to write this blog post about the differences I found working at UC Davis:
1. Climate. I didn’t know much about California but was surprised by how much it reminded me of the Mediterranean. This was mainly the due to the types of vegetation you see – trees with hard red-brown stems and luscious green foliage. The weather was largely pleasant for the visit and I can certainly see why there is such abundance of produce coming out of California. I make this point also as there was some critical miscommunication from a dear friend at Davis which meant I packed for the cold and was overwhelmed by the heat when I arrived – but this was remedied with a pair of shorts and fashionable hat purchase from the Gap!
2. Everything is really far away…let me set the scene. I had a meeting ‘across campus’ in another building. “No problem”, I thought, “I’ll leave 10 minutes before and that will get me there in good time”. A thought I have for any meeting I have had at both my Southampton and Imperial campuses. My god was I wrong. My meeting was A MILE AWAY (literally)! It was a good half an hour walk! Lucky I checked so I wasn’t late. Major learning point: plan in walking time for meetings at UC Davis. I swore to never complain about having a meeting across campus at home!
3. Opportunity feels abundant. I have no proof of this, just a sense I got from speaking to people. It just felt like so much was possible in terms of research. Academics described impressive projects they were working on as if they were nothing. There was no stress or concern about ‘what if it doesn’t work?’ or ‘how it would get done’. The academics I met had a sense of comfort and ease about their research. Time did not seem a threat. My sample size was only small, say 4-5 academics, but it was consistent. It could be a London vs California thing, but I think it was more, perhaps a UK vs USA thing. But it felt good, and it felt inspiring. It could be a matter of space – studies have shown that the architecture you are exposed to affected your body and your kinosphere. Perhaps more space, greener landscape, buildings further apart just opened me up and slowed me down. I find myself taking more time now I am home – I wake up later, I take my time walking and on the tube (subway), I pace myself at my desk and with my tasks. The pre-Davis visit me was frantic, but this version is more chill. I don’t know if this new approach is compatible with being back at my home institute, but I haven’t had any issues yet. I do wonder how long it will take me to wind back up, cramp back down and speed back up?!
4. I felt less connected. One downside I found at UC Davis compared to my home department was how spread things were and how this affected the relationships of those in the department. The building layout and the size of offices etc. meant that you could walk through the building and not see anyone at all. Other than those I already knew, and the people I arranged meetings with, I did not find any spontaneous opportunities to make new connections. Here at CEP, I share an office with five other researchers, the building is small and compact and I can’t avoid anyone! We have regular all staff events, staff meeting and opportunities to create a departmental culture. This felt lacking at Davis. And it may be that I was there at a bad time and these things do happen, but I just missed it.
5. DOGS DOGS DOGS. There were dogs. On campus. In the offices. Walking outside my window. Dog culture is just such a thing in the states. Being completely biased, and crazy broody for a dog baby, I loved that having a dog and bringing them to work is embraced. There is tonnes of research that shows the benefits of having and interacting with pooches, and having them in a workplace to me is a no brainer. We recently had an email come around our department forbidding having a dog in the office. Something for me that is upsetting, as we are planning on starting our canine family soon and bringing the dog to work would be a great option for us. So I applaud you UC Davis on recognizing the value these furry companions can bring to our lives!
Overall, I really enjoyed my trip and my insight into how things work on the other side of the world. I can’t wait to get some grants written with my new found collaborators and conduct some great science. I hope that feeling of opportunity is real and we do some world changing science.
Until next time Davis,