Professor Jonathan Knight

Blog for the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research)

Posts By: Jonathan Knight

UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science

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The United Nations has declared that 11th February of every year should be observed as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. That's this Saturday! The UN believes that equal access for women to and participation in Science and Technology is essential if it is to achieve gender equality, as defined in "Goal Five" of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development goals. I've got no doubt that is true, and it's a truly noble reason to think about - and celebrate - the role that women play in our own university environment. Let's do that this Saturday, and every year at this time. Women are disadvantaged by many aspects of our society, and it's impossible to argue that this disadvantage does not play out in higher education, including right here at our University. It's a challenge - we clearly see that there is a problem, but our response is typically based on supposition, or on faith. Actions we have taken historically have frequently been found ineffective, or at best have a modest or a long-term effect. Meanwhile, we continue to lose out - personally, at our University, nationally, and globally - on much of the intellectual resource which should be available to us. It is slowing down our progress and inhibiting our ability to find solutions to the huge challenges faced by the human race. It's an urgent problem that we need to think about every day - not just the 11th February!

But that's not the reason I am writing this post. I want to pay tribute to the fantastic women who we have at our University who are contributing to addressing this problem in addition to the "day job". At one end of the spectrum, three undergraduate women in the Department of Physics recently decided - on their own initiative - to form a "Bath Network for Women in Physics". Rachel, Mary and Rebecca not only conceived the idea and took it through to launch, but they engaged the support of academic staff to ensure that the Network is sustainable and effective. Towards the other end, I heard this evening that Professor Semali Perera, Department of Chemical Engineering, has been named the winner of the Academic Award in the UK’s biggest programme championing women in technology, the 2017 FDM everywoman in Technology Awards. It's a fantastic accolade recognising her remarkable contributions to technology. Congratulations Semali!

These two examples are chosen here because they are current - both coming to my attention over just the last few weeks. There are numerous other examples of remarkable women right across our community, and at the full range of career stages. I'm sure that if you have read this far, you would be able to identify examples of your own. I believe that we should be exceptionally proud of the contribution women at our university are making addressing the challenge. It can't be easy, when you are simultaneously playing on an un-level surface.


Funding for PhD students

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In twenty unbroken years of supervising PhD students at the University of Bath I have had always to be conscious of the recruitment challenge: to simultaneously identify both a student with the innate capability to gain a higher research degree, and the funding which will support the student in their studies. It has been very rare that both of these have been easy. Of course, there are also additional challenges: finding the resources required for the research that the student will do (my students can only work alongside funded projects) and then actually supervising the student through the various stages leading to submission and eventually award of their PhD. These have all caused me concern on numerous occasions, but having trained a generation of doctoral graduates, and having them understand so many things as a result of our interactions is a tremendous reward.

The recruitment challenge points to the difficulty which we face as an institution as we aim to increase our number of doctoral students. For much of our academic population, doctoral students means PhD students, and indeed growing our numbers of PhD students will help us to achieve one of our other objectives which is to grow our research power. So, increasing the total number of PhD students that we have registered at the University makes a lot of sense. To do that, we need to attract more top-quality students to want to come to study here, in research areas which are appropriately resourced, and at the same time identify the means to finance their studies. Broadly, students are funded either by the taxpayer (for example, through Doctoral Training Accounts or Doctoral Training Centres/Programmes, or at present, indirectly, through Europe), by the University (through a University Research Studentship), are self-funded (by gaining their own funding from e.g. a foreign government), or are funded by a third party (when an individual, business or organisation funds the student through the University, typically either as a part of a research project or for philanthropic purposes.) Different rules apply and various combinations of funding are possible, leading to a complex funding landscape. The challenge of increasing the numbers of students on other forms of doctorate - for example, the professional doctorate - is distinct, although it has some common elements.

I am confident that as we enhance the quality of our research, the experience of our PGR students, and the quality of our graduates, then the University of Bath will become a more attractive place for PGR studies. More students will wish to come here, and we will further improve the quality of our student intake. That leaves the second part of the challenge - how to fund the increased number. We can and should hope to grow our nationally-funded studentship base. There will be opportunities to establish new Training Centres, and there may be new opportunities associated with Brexit (for all we know at present!). These routes could provide opportunities for modest growth in home student numbers. The University already invests more in University Research Studentships than our competitors, and increasing this funding is a not a sustainable route to PGR growth. The remaining funding routes will benefit from the feedback loop resulting from simply doing better. An improving reputation for our research and our doctoral provision - for the quality of our graduates, the skills that they acquire during their studies, their employability, and the quality of the research that they produce here at Bath - will improve our prospects of attracting funding either through funded students "choosing Bath" or through funders deciding that the University is the best place for their investment. This feedback loop is the way that we should be aiming to grow our PGR student base in the medium term. It is open-ended and directly linked to our performance. It is also long-term and will be hard work. But on the other hand, improving the quality of our research and the experience of our PGR students is what we plan to do anyway, and so if we get that right, the growth will naturally follow.



Doctoral...and International!

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I'm delighted that we are to recruit a Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Doctoral and International. We really need the additional senior-level support for our doctoral agenda - there are few topics which I consider as important, but despite having loads of help I have struggled to give this topic the attention that it deserves. Having someone to work alongside me - with shared interests but a slightly different agenda - is going to make a huge difference to the speed with which we can move the project along. And the link with International works for me as well: not just because many of our doctoral students come from overseas, and that is where we might find the most exciting opportunities in the coming years, but because I firmly believe that in the next stage of our development on the global stage we need internationalisation to become more grounded in our own University. Doctoral students must lie at the heart of our international strategy and having the joint responsibility in a single post will tie global developments much more strongly to campus activities.

And of course, I have no intention of losing touch with the doctoral developments either, and so can look forward to having someone to work with to make the most of the massive contribution doctoral students make to our research profile.


Building and sustaining our international networks

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We are a part - a quarter, one might say - of a network of Universities spanning four continents, sometimes loosely referred to as the University of Four Continents or U4C. This network - with strategic partners Zhejiang University in China, University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, and the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil - is aimed at developing opportunities in research, in collaboration and in doctoral study, and it's a privilege for me to be able to work with a group of such prestigious partners. Up until a few days ago, my experience of the Network had been through a number of multi-party conference calls, which had enabled basic communication but not much else. From 14th-18th November I travelled to Unicamp with a delegation from Bath to the first U4C topical workshop around the topical area of ‘Sustainable Systems and Societies: energy, environment and policy frameworks’. The Bath delegation consisted of staff and doctoral students from across the institution, and we were matched by similar delegations from the partner organisations.

The meeting (held on the Unicamp campus) gave me a real flavour of the network: mixing with a range of academics and doctoral students in both academic and social situations really enabled me to appreciate the quality of the researchers at our partner institutions. The topical sessions - which took place over two full days - were great: wide-ranging but always engaging the whole audience. It was a well-chosen topic - important to everyone personally and significant in every discipline, but also manifesting in different ways for people in different places. One thing on my mind was the GCRF - how we might develop research with our partner institutions - combining our knowledge, our resources, our connections - to help some of the world's worst-off people. It became obvious during the meeting that our partner institutions share our commitment to working together, and that despite the differences in our national environments we all see reasons to make the network a success. This was apparent again at the network management meeting held alongside the conference, where the talk was all about how we can make the network thrive.

I returned proud of our University (the regard with which some of our researchers are held was obvious), but also excited about the network. I learned about research that was clearly globally leading from each of the partners, and became convinced that this mixture of partners is right for us. I also feel much more a part of the network, and have a better understanding of what is needed if we want to make it work for all of us. The members of U4C are our strategic partners, of course, and we work with them bilaterally all the time, but I now understand that one of the biggest challenges we face as a network is...making the teleconferencing technology work better across the four continents!


Where to with the Doctoral College?

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If you've been following Val's blog then you will know that both of us have had a lot of conversations across the University about the potential for a Doctoral College! Those conversations are still underway, and we have a lot more ground to cover, but we are reaching some conclusions along the way about how we might improve our doctoral provision.

One is that the ability to address the doctoral student experience at the institutional level is going to be key to the success of the Doctoral College. That said, there is a need for action in this regard right now, especially as we prepare for a new cohort of doctoral students who will joining the University starting in October. To resolve this dilemma, we have to start to take a stronger co-ordinating role at the Institutional level in advance of the formation of the College. This role will consist of the provision of institution-level activities, including a University handbook for research students, a PGR-specific landing page for new research students and a series of cross-institutional events. We will also be looking at activities taking place at Faculty and Department level to see if they could be better co-ordinated to (1) avoid duplication of effort and information, (2) ensure that there is a minimum of conflict in events timetabling and (3) enable good ideas to be shared and built upon.

A second conclusion is that there is scope to improve the way in which we develop our doctoral provision in relation to the market. In particular we need to improve our knowledge of the global marketplace for doctoral studies and develop mechanisms to identify where and how we might address opportunities for innovative provision. This marketing activity does not necessarily have to be done within the Doctoral College, but it certainly has to address the College issues. It would be natural for this type of marketing to be closely allied to our International activities, as there would surely be significant overlap in interests.

A third thought is around leadership of the Doctoral College. We've known from the start that gaining a strong voice for doctoral students at the University will require an engaged academic lead. As such, we need to spend time now to understand what this role might look like, because it's becoming apparent that appointment of a Lead will be a critical step in the formation of the College. In one sense, defining the College will help to define the role, but on the other hand, someone taking up such a role may have strong views on how the College should be developed. What is already clear is that College will have to simultaneously face inwards and outwards, upwards and down. It's going to be a lot of fun.


Why research funding matters

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A major part of my responsibilities is to increase our research power. Research power and the associated reputational advantage is important at virtually all levels: attracting undergraduate and postgraduate students, early career researchers and established academics, research council funding, in making us attractive research partners in consortia both nationally and globally, in increasing our voice with government, in forming strategic partnerships with international organisations (be they funders, research institutions, industries, government…) and in many other ways. In short, our University will rise or fall based on our ability to grow our research power.

But, it’s hard to do. Research power is clearly associated with both volume and quality. An increase in either of these, as long as it’s not at the expense of the other, would result in an increased research power. Ideally, of course, we would be increasing both. More subtly, it’s also linked to critical mass. Increased volume of our research will be most effective if it is focused in high-quality areas. So what we would like to do is increase the volume of research – the level of activity – in specific areas. Of course, we’ve recruited a lot of outstanding early career researchers as academics over the last few years, partly in response to our increased undergraduate intake. Many – even most – of those new appointments have been directed into strength areas, and will surely increase our power in the years ahead.

There is a genuinely pressing reason to be concerned about our research income. Academic roles very broadly divide into time spent doing research and teaching (and research-related and teaching-related) activities. Funding for the teaching part of the job is clearly identifiable: our time spent teaching is paid for by charging students fees to come to University. Time spent doing research is harder to understand. It used to be the case that quality-related (QR) research funding to institutions was enough to fund the costs of member of academic staff to perform their research. However, QR funding has fallen over the recent past. At the same time, costs have risen, not just because of inflation but because of the need to cover additional support and compliance structure costs, while our academic cohort has increased. As a result, QR funding simply cannot cover the costs (academic staff time and overheads) of performing the volume of research that either our academics or the University would wish. There is a risk of a downward spiral, where staff spend less time doing research and more doing teaching, because there is not enough research funding to cover their costs. This could lead to a poor REF performance, and hence a further reduction in QR research funding. On the other hand, external funding leads to a virtuous circle, where more research funding enables better research (REF) performance, increased QR funding, and less need to rely on teaching to cover academic staff time. Our colleagues who bring in significant funding are acting directly to the benefit of all of our academic staff.

One way in which funding can be found to support research is directly – funding councils, charities and foundations, alumni, governments and companies can all pay research costs if the outputs are aligned with their interests. Another way is for research to benefit less directly from commercial or industrial income: for example, through charging premium consultancy rates, or through research benefitting from industry-funded infrastructure. We’re pursuing these directions through initiatives like the Institute for Mathematical Innovation, and the proposed Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems, as well as through longer-standing methods like commercial rates for facilities charge-out. These can all diversify our funding streams and reduce our reliance on our traditional funding sources.

Of course, there are lots of other funding costs which we need to cover. For example, PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and research fellows have always been a vital part of our research base, and they virtually always require external funding in some form. Likewise, travel funding is essential across the research base, if we are to gain full advantage from the research we do, and supporting our junior colleagues and our research students to enable such travel is a responsibility we take on as research leaders. Across a part of our portfolio, laboratory equipment and consumables are an essential part of doing research. But it is a mistake to think that by doing without equipment, travel and PhD students one can do research without funding. We all have to identify ways in which our work can be supported, and to do research that is worthy of support.


Our world-leading research!

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Universities get known for their best research. That research will have some combination of factors which make it so: world-leading individual academic leaders, innovative and dynamic researchers at a range of career stages, topicality which makes the research significant for funders, an ability to address (or even solve!) real-world problems, attractiveness for doctoral students, and interest – even sometimes fascination – by the general public. Those combine with more practical requirements: a critical mass of researchers who can form a research community in which people can develop, facilities which enable that community to thrive and to remain globally competitive, and professional support that enables the research activity to grow and satisfies the requirements of both researchers and funders.

We can probably agree that not all of the research at the University of Bath is world-leading, much as we would like it to be so. However, some of it really is – in some areas, University of Bath researchers have consistently been globally leading. The University – and hence all of its members – benefits from those areas of excellence and the reputational advantage they bring. Of course, things change – both due to changes in the external environment, and because research activities are often tied to small groups of individual researchers. However, the nature of critical-mass activities and the relatively slow changes in research priorities give these areas a useful lifetime measured over many years.

Given that, a perspective of our current outstanding strengths would clearly be of interest to me as PVC-Research, and so I have been engaged in a process to identify those strengths: an internal audit of our very best research. The process was based on gaining views and data from a number of sources across the University, including the Faculties/School, Research and Innovation Services, the Library, the Public Engagement Unit, the Registry, the Department of Development and Alumni Relations and the Office of the Vice Chancellor. I then reviewed all of this, and found it relatively easy to identify groupings which are performing at the very highest level in one or several ways.

There were also some generic lessons. The most obvious was that leadership, either by an individual academic or even better by a small group, is essential if these communities are to thrive. Identifying, attracting and cultivating such leaders is a job which we must all share if we are to achieve our research ambitions. “Leadership” encompasses research leadership – identifying research directions which others will follow – but also personal leadership within the University community. A second lesson is that research students frequently make a massive difference to the scale and quality of a research team, helping to define the research community and often making a major contribution to the outputs. Hence, the link in our strategy between increasing our numbers of postgraduate (research) students and increasing our research power is strong. We need to continue to identify opportunities to attract significant numbers of doctoral students (and studentships) to our research strengths, and to ensure that we make best use of those areas where students are already well funded. Engagement with the real world is a strand running through much - even most - of our strongest research activities. Finally, I have found that our distinctive Bath attributes, as defined in the University’s Strategy (including a determination to excel, a supportive culture, a collaborative approach), are features which we need to acknowledge and cultivate if we are to grow our research culture and power. They are a part of what makes Bath unique.

Audits are somewhat reflective, and so it is not that surprising that the exercise largely formalised outcomes which many of us would have been able to guess. For example, the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies, based in the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering but with research spread widely across the University, is an obvious University asset which is performing at an outstanding level against a wide range of metrics, including global engagement. Likewise, the Powertrain and Vehicles Research Centre in Mechanical Engineering is broadly recognised as a national centre of excellence, and forms a vital part of our research profile. The PVRC is currently working towards establishment of a major off-campus facility (The Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems) which would be strongly engaged with a range of industries and serve as a major stimulus to the regional economy. Activities like these, of which we have a few, are assimilating a critical mass of researchers and resources which will need to be continuously supported in a variety of ways.

Other activities which are established as outstanding, such as our research in International Development (ID - based in and beyond Social and Policy Sciences), provide opportunities in different ways and have different needs. Expertise in ID could be the key which enables us to play an important role in meeting the Grand Challenges through the Global Grand Challenges Research Fund. We’d really like to be able to do some of that work with our international strategic partners. On a different scale, the activities in the School of Management in the field of Entrepreneurship and Innovation have significant potential to work with local enterprise and others in the region to develop the economy on a range of levels. This would fit very well with government priorities and those of the local councils.

We have a number of similar strengths across the University, which greatly enhance our reputation for academic excellence and many of which also offer opportunities in additional ways. We’ve previously decided as a University to support the development of strengths in Mathematical Innovation and in Policy Research, through the establishment of our two Institutes, and we simultaneously need to continue to invest into those areas.

We also have a range of nascent strengths. As examples, I note the work in Visual and Sensory Technologies based in Computer Science, and the grouping in Humanities and Social Science around Security, Risk and Conflict. These activities and other like them have the potential to develop to be globally significant: they are building the critical mass and core expertise, and the external drivers are becoming evident. We should hope that their need – and case - for support and resources will continue to develop. Health and Healthcare represents an opportunity for the future. We have research that fits this opportunity right across the University, and will continue to work to build a coherent University position in this area.
The audit provided a view of our research, but the profile will inevitably change with time. It is my intention to analyse “research growth” (as opposed to “research strength”) areas next. We also need to cast our net more widely, to identify opportunities which lie outside of our current areas of interest. As always, I’d be happy to hear your ideas of how we might improve what we do.


Improving our provision for Doctoral students

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As many of you will know, our new University Strategy will be firmly focused on establishing Bath as an international leader in graduate education, and on increasing our research power. Our Doctoral students will play a vital part in our achieving those objectives. A good start to the journey is thus to consider whether we are best providing for our doctoral students: whether the structures and processes we have in place right now are as good as they can be.

In considering this question, with the University Executive and in discussions with others, I have come to recognise that we may be better off with an over-arching structure for doctoral provision: a Doctoral College. This would provide a framework within which we can more readily ensure that the academic and administrative processes supporting our doctoral students are as uniformly good as they should be, but would also be a community where students could share their experiences of research and of doctoral study, interact with doctoral students from other disciplines, and learn to think like independent researchers embedded in a broad research environment. Our doctoral students are a vital part of our community and they all deserve to benefit from an outstanding cultural experience, and from top-grade professional and academic support.

It is obvious that this change will be critical if we are to be known for the excellence of our graduate student provision. However, it is also obvious to me that this is closely linked to the ambition to grow our research power. Research students play a vital role: they ask the right questions, think about things deeply, drill deeply into problems to get them resolved, and are creatively engaged with the research process. I believe that it is absolutely essential to get the creation of the Doctoral College right.

I am therefore delighted to be able to tell you that we have appointed a project manager to this project. Val Skinner has been appointed from the 1st April. You may already know Val through her current work in Internal Audit or one of her previous roles at the University. If not, I can assure you that she has wide-ranging and detailed experience of many of the University processes and structures, including those related to research.

We can now start to identify and assess our options. With Val’s help I will be exploring what is already working well and where we can improve. A significant part of that will be gathering the views of those who are involved, as staff of the University and as current students. I’m looking forward to a better understanding of what we do. I am confident that by working together, we will be able to improve our doctoral provision.

I encourage you to please stay engaged with this process by thinking about and talking about how to improve our doctoral provision, and by staying in touch through this blog and other communication channels.

Nurturing the next generation of researchers

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Many of you will know that the University intends to grow its graduate student population over the coming years. One part of that population, which is very significant for our research, is our body of doctoral students. These students fall within my remit as PVC-R.

I’ve supervised doctoral students without a break throughout my working life, and it’s been one of the greatest pleasures of being in academia. Doctoral students are typically highly educated, very bright, and well-motivated. Their development depends strongly on the environment that they find themselves in, and it is our responsibility – as an institution, as supervisors, and as administrators – to ensure that our students are provided an environment which will best enable them to reach their full potential. I have been asked – guided by thinking from the Faculties/School and by student opinion – to consider ways in which our doctoral student provision can be improved. The remit is to take a broad view of what we do now, and consider how we might do it better.

I’ve quickly come to the view – supported by the Deans and by colleagues in the Vice-Chancellor’s Office, as well as be feedback from our student body – that there is room for change leading to improvement. What might such change look like?

We’d like to form a stronger culture around our doctoral students. To achieve that, we’d like to create a single identifiable home for our doctoral community – something like a doctoral college. The intention would be that without weakening the bonds between the students and their departments or research groups, we will develop a community of students engaged in doctoral study who will share common experiences, learn from one another, make lasting contacts across our disciplinary mix and feel as if they have a genuine home at our University. We will also be providing a natural pathway to help students to engage with the University, and both students and the University would benefit from the improved communication that would be possible.

Of course, there is a wide range of issues around this vision, about the different aspects of our administrative and academic provision, and how these fit into the new picture. Over the last few years our undergraduate student numbers have increased in a measured way, and the administrative systems we use for them have been developed and refined to cope with this increase. We have seen the effectiveness of these systems confirmed through feedback from students.

To what extent can we learn from that experience to improve systems for our postgraduate and doctoral students? In putting in place an overarching structure for doctoral students, how can we manage the need for continuing responsibility for supervision at Department level? How can we maintain engagement with monitoring and progression of students at a Departmental and faculty level whilst ensuring effective oversight at the level of the Doctoral College? Through continuing discussions I will identify answers to these and similar questions in the coming months

Other news. Dr Mehdi Boussebaa, School of Management, has won the International Research Mobility Award from LabexMed, an inter-disciplinary centre of excellence coordinated by the Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme at Aix-Marseille Universite, one of France’s most prestigious universities.

Oliver Walton will be part of a team that has received an ESRC grant worth £450,000 over two years to research war to peace transitions in Sri Lanka and Nepal. The grant will support a research team made up of researchers from the Centre for Poverty Analysis, Sri Lanka, the Martin Chautari Institute and International Alert.  Meanwhile, James Copestake, Fiona Remnant and Max Nino-Zarazua secured an ESRC-DFID impact engagement grant of £73,782 to promote the use of the QuIP (qualitative impact protocol) among social impact investors. Congratulations to them and other grant winners over the last few months.


Between summer and the year end...

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It really made my morning to wake up in a hotel in Taichung, Taiwan, yesterday morning to find Anna Gilmore’s work on the actions of tobacco companies highlighted as a major story on page 6 of The China Post, which was delivered, unsolicited, to my room. I’ve long been a fan of Anna’s work as reported in the media and was disappointed to miss the live transmission of Panorama earlier in the week because I was on a plane, but this really made up for it. Such influential work, and media exposure most of us can only dream of.

Recent events in Paris have affected all of us in different ways, and of course people have been talking about it a lot on both social and conventional media. Following the downing of a Russian jet by a Turkish missile, David Galbreath (PoLIS) wrote an article in The Conversation which was read over 130,000 times in under 24 hours. He joined his colleagues Aurelion Mondon and Bill Durodie whose thoughts on the events in Paris and their consequences also attracted huge audiences over that last week. Meanwhile, William Wadsworth says laser pointers are more dangerous that we generally recognise.

With the Green paper, the Nurse Review and the Comprehensive Spending Review all now out in the open (if not actually behind us!) it’s good to know that colleagues are bringing in funding under the existing systems! Special recognition to Katie Maras (Psychology) and Michael Donnelly (Education) for being awarded prestigious and very competitive ESRC Future Leaders funding. I am confident that they will live up to the name of the scheme, and am really proud to have them working here in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. One step behind them, and with the final hurdle still ahead, Kate Fraser, Jannis Wenk, Min Zhang and Mike Bird, all from the Faculty of Engineering and Design, have done well to get through to the final stage of major fellowship or Challenge competitions. Best wishes to them for the final stage.

Reports from the summer conference season: the Academy of Management conference is an annual Management bunfight (not their description!) with more than 10,000 people in attendance including plenty from our School of Management . Stefanie Gustafsson, Juani Swart and Nick Kinnie were awarded the ‘Best Overall Paper Award’ in the Careers’ Division and Sergio Costa, who joined the School of Management in September, was awarded the Entrepreneurship Division's Heizer Award for the best doctoral dissertation. Meanwhile, I was very happy to be asked by organizer Susan Johnson to attend the opening of the Development Studies Association Annual Conference held here in Bath. The University Hall was packed.

I’ve been learning about new ways in which our colleagues are supporting Early Career Researchers. Marianne Ellis is leading the Engineering and Design Futures Award, nurturing research leadership, whilst Jeanette Müller is starting a programme of networking sessions for research staff. Working with junior colleagues is one of the best things about being at a University, and we all have an obligation to do our bit to support them.