Beyond Your Research Degree

Episode 7 - Dr. Natalie Whitehead, Co-Founder Exeter Science Centre

September 3, 2020

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about non-academic careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks to Dr. Natalie Whitehead, co-founder of the Exeter Science Centre.

Here are some links to the different organisations and schemes we discussed in the podcast: 

 

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

 

Podcast transcript

 

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter Doctoral College

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Hello, everyone, and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree.

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I'm your host, Kelly Preece, and I'm delighted for this episode to be joined by one of our recent graduates, Dr Natalie Whitehead.

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Natalie, are you happy to introduce yourself? OK, great.

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So I'm Natalie Whitehead. I recently finished my PhD in physics.

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I was looking at spin waves through magnets, which are just a special type of wave that travels through magnets.

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That was my PhD and that finished in September.

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And I'm now the founder and director alongside my colleague, Dr Alice Mills for the Exeter Science Centre.

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Talk to me about the Exeter Science Centre. How how did this come about?

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So this is something that I've been thinking about for, oh, I don't know, probably just a bit over a year now.

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But a year and a half. And basically, I I was trying to work out what to do after my PhD

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So this who was in physics and during my PhD and undergraduate degree,

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I was really involved in doing public engagement with research and a lot of science outreach.

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I absolutely love talking about science and and speaking to the public about it and showing them demos and getting their

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views and trying to answer questions and things and basically just trying to inspire them about how amazing science is.

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So I was trying to work out what to do after the PhD, which would, you know,

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be good for me, but also for something that I can really contribute towards.

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So, you know, the climate crisis is a really big thing at the moment.

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Of course, it should be and should have been for the. I don't know how many decades.

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And I really feel like I have some kind of responsibility to do something with my physics training, which is useful.

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So I was trying to work out what to do and whether, you know,

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whether I should go and work for one of these amazing Start-Up companies doing cool things.

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You know, I was looking at the the ocean clean up.

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I think what they're doing is amazing, using science and tech to solve the problem and a global issue and lots of other companies like that.

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It's nice thinking. Well, you know, I could go and work for someone like that. Will I be the best scientist or engineer to do that?

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I don't know. But I thought really what my what my skills are.

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One of the things I'm really passionate about, as I mentioned, is science communication.

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And this idea really just came to me one afternoon having lunch and thinking like, why don't I just make a science centre in Exeter?

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It's just something that I've always kind of thought, wow, we should really have one of those here

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I've been to a few around the UK and across the world.

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And I just I love going there. And I see adults and people of all ages just absolutely loving,

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understanding different things about science and playing with scientific equipment and just really engaging with science.

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And I just figured, why don't we have one here? And why don't I just make it?

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So I approached my colleague Alice, and she's a very passionate science communicator as well.

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And she loved the idea here. And we've just been talking about it since then.

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So, yeah, we're just super dedicated to making it happen.

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So what stage are you at with your plans for the science centre?

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We're still in the very early stages. So, as I mentioned, I finished the PhD in September.

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And of course, when you, you know, hand in a PhDthesis,

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you still got a lot of work to do afterwards to kind of, you know, do the viva and make corrections.

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So that's been kind of continued and maybe into about January or so.

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And then I really properly submitted it put in online and then then could properly focus on this that I've been working on.

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It's pretty much full time on and off, you know, around the thesis since September.

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So what we're what we're doing at the moment is trying to get trying to get the public to be aware of our plans and try

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to get their input and really just try to establish ourselves as a science discovery centre for Exeter and for the region.

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And just trying to raise awareness, try to raise money as well.

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That's a big part of it. And just trying to make it happen.

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We've got a a team of advisers who are amazing and super inspiring from different areas of science education and business as well.

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And they're kind of our advisory boards. They'll be moving over to be our trustees.

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Once we establish ourselves as a charity soon. But there's there's loads of things to do about it.

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When you take on such a big project, you realise that, you know, you're running a business.

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You're also trying to create a charity here, charitable business.

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Engage with the public. And that is just a kind of multidisciplinary project ready, which is really exciting or very overwhelming.

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But at the same time, it's some I wouldn't want to be doing anything else.

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I was going to say it's it's a huge project and and it is there must be an awful

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lot of business based skills and business based work that needs to be done.

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How how has that been? How has it been. Yeah.

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You know, going from an academic environment to doing much more business related work.

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Have you found that transition easy?

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Have there been kind of skills and experiences you've been able to take across or has it been a complete learning curve?

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It's been a very steep learning curve. So am I. I don't have any experience of running a company myself, and nor does my colleague Alice.

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So we're learning. However, I feel like when you you do a PhD and you study.

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I mean, you know, from my experience of studying science and physics,

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you you have to take in a lot of information and and process things and think logically.

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And, you know, you you can learn things very quickly.

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And although the business and accounting and finance and all that kind of stuff is it's not my first language at all

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I feel like there's there's a lot of information out there that just needs synthesising, understanding.

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And really, that is the way we're approaching this.

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Of course, we understand it. We we shouldn't be expected to be absolute experts.

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Everything we're doing and this projects, rather,

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it's it's understanding when we need help and need assistance and guidance from people who really have experience in this.

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So we've been very lucky, actually, to have a lot of assistance from the university in.

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In this kind of Start-Up venture, if you would call with the start-ups team, setsquared programme.

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They've been absolutely wonderful and giving us the kind of business advice.

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So we've been assigned a business adviser, David Solomides, who is just super inspiring and really, really, really helpful.

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And he's become one of our kind of formal advisors and hopefully one four trustees will move to a charity as well.

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So so the help is out there.

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I suppose if I was to give advice to someone perhaps who is thinking about doing something unusual like this, who doesn't have the experience.

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I guess it's just you just have to go for it and be prepared to ask and and reach out to people and organisations who can help you,

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such as the university and and others. It's just been wonderful.

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Actually, the amount of support and help that we've received from from various kind of organisations across Exeter and mostly really the university.

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But, yeah, I feel like we've we've been assisted the whole time with them.

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With things like this, especially business, which is kind of scary and unusual for the physicist,

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for scientists, but I but I think it's it's totally doable and it's always going to be a learning curve.

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But if you're determined enough, you'll you'll make out. Yeah. And I think there's a couple of things I'd like to pick up on there.

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The first of which is to just acknowledge that that the support is out there in it.

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And it's not about knowing everything yourself and having all of the skills yourself, but knowing how to access your networks, I guess.

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And and and in this case, for you, it is the university and the start-ups team.

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Definitely, definitely. That's really important, too, because you you can't possibly know everything,

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really recognising that is really important because otherwise you just try and do everything yourself.

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It get stressful. It gets overwhelming.

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It's kind of it's almost like knowing when to delegate and knowing when to knowing that you can't possibly know everything

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and that there is a big support network there if you're part of the university or have been part of the university.

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They are just wonderful in in encouraging and helping and facilitating anything to do with Enterprise or Start-Up Ideas.

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That is just been even the kind of encouragement that you get of, you know, wow, this is a great idea.

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You should speak to this person or have a look at this. It's it's just been really, really helpful.

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And I think people don't expect that to be a department of the university that has this kind of business expertise.

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And they really do. Yeah, that's it.

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And I seriously encourage anyone to to go visit the the Innovation Centre as the start-ups team are over in the deck over there.

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And they're just they're just great. You just pop in and speak to them and they can they have lots of kind of seminars, workshops and advice for you.

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So just go and speak to them. They're really great. So the experience you have of writing papers, your thesis reports, funding applications,

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all those sorts of things clearly and stood you in good stead for what you're doing now.

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Are there any other skills or experiences you had during your PhD day that have been really, really crucial to starting this venture?

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That's a good question, because I think, to be honest, the whole thing really the the way that I was approaching this,

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they're calling it a project, is there's more than a project.

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So that is an ambition. But, you know, you have to break it down into small, achievable steps because, of course,

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you know, Mount Improbable really in this case is building a multi-million pound science centre.

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But they're kind of finite steps you can break this down into.

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Okay. We need to talk to people. We need to make a plan.

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And then those have some steps as well.

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So the important thing is when you're doing a Ph.D., you cannot say, right, I'm going to just just solve this big problem I have for, you know,

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it's going to take four years and a PhD in this case, it might take about I dunno about seven years if we're if we're lucky to get the funding.

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But at the same time, it's a seemingly insurmountable task, but it can be broken down into small, achievable chunks,

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some of which you're doing all at the same time, which just makes it a little bit more challenging.

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But, um, but yeah, I think that the whole time management and understanding that things can be done,

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they just need to be done in small chunks is very helpful from a PhD

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So what else. Things like presentation skills. That's been hugely important to them during the a PhD

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We've had a lot of opportunities to to do presentations, you know, preparing PowerPoint,

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doing either conference presentations or presentations to our colleagues about the way that we're doing.

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Again, you have to be clear. You have to be kind of clear enough to a to a broad audience who don't necessarily have your expertise.

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And you have to express complicated ideas in a very short space of time, sometimes five, 10 minutes or so that you've got.

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And I found actually that that I've had that experience here as well. So we've had a number of number of opportunities where we will be doing business

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pitches to various audiences and they might be five minutes long or so.

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So I've had the same problem I have to express to people this kind of amazing

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vision that I that I and my colleagues have about the Exeter science centre.

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And I have to explain it in five minutes and everything that could possibly encompass and that's challenging.

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It's something I'm still kind of learning about because, of course,

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they people think of it from a business sense to not only have you got to express the vision,

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you have to express, you know, how you're going to get funding and all of this kind of extra detail to in five minutes.

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So that's been challenging. So, yeah, there's some really cool things are coming across.

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That's the the writing, as we've already talked about, but also the kind of product and time management presentation skills.

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So I think the thing that's. That's really interesting to reflect on is that it's not necessarily obviously what you're doing is science related,

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but it's not necessarily the the science specific skills that you're using certainly at this moment in time.

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It's it's the broader kind of skill set that you develop through the process of doing the research degree.

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Definitely, definitely. I think it's not necessarily you know, you don't have to have done a science PhD to to be able to do this stuff.

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But certainly, from my perspective, it has helped a lot because I feel I said and I hope I'm sure it's the same in other disciplines.

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Of course, I have no experience of it, but I just feel like doing a you know, doing a PhD in general,

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I think gives you this this ability to take on and face a lot of information and and that kind of stuff, that that's really incomprehensible.

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Synthesise it down and make logical steps when you understand what what needs to be done.

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So it's definitely helped. I guess that the difficult question but the one that I know that people will be

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wondering is obviously this isn't making you any money at the moment to be to be blunt.

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So are you working alongside it? So that the way that I'm doing it at the moment is we don't have any specific income, which is, you know,

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obviously would be difficult for a lot of people, to be honest, being pretty thrifty throughout the PhD

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I know a lot of PhD students often, you know,

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work an extra year sometimes to write up results and and maybe their funding ends and they have to continue writing the thesis.

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Luckily, with the way that I did the PhD in the centre for doctoral training in metamaterials, they were wonderful.

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And they would they would, you know, pay you for the full amount of time.

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So you had a good four years to write up.

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But what we're trying to do is, well, we've got some it's called co creation funding from one of our advisors who's amazing, Dr. Janet Anders.

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She's provided us with some funding to basically pay a very small stipend that will start soon.

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Yeah, it is a bit of a problem because when you when you do start something like this way,

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maybe you don't have an immediate income source or or reading something current kind of charitable.

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You do need to have a bit of a business head on you.

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You need to think about how how you're going to make money from it, mainly because it has to be sustainable.

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We don't want to make a big salary for ourselves. We're not interested in that.

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We want to do something good. To be honest, it would just be great if, you know, we could we could all just live for free and do nice things.

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But of course, that, of course, you have to you have to think sustainably long term.

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So this has been something we've been thinking about for a while. How on earth do we do this?

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Because, of course, you know, I initially were like, we need to make this amazing building, amazing centre, because that will have the most impact.

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And, of course, we need a lot of money for. How are we going to get to that stage?

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Well, we think that since our expertise, mine and Alice's when Alice joins us properly in September,

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our expertise really is public engagement with science.

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And of course, we we've had a lot of experience working with academics and working in academia.

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And we think that's a really important way for us to bring money in initially just to

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kind of pay ourselves a small salary and enable us to work on this properly for for

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a longer term is to work with academics to kind of basically do public engagement on

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their behalf or with them and take the hassle out of that whole process for them,

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including the reporting back and making sure that everything's clear for the for the the ref, the research excellence framework.

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So what we're what we're doing is starting now to work with academics to make public engagement programmes of their research,

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which involve, you know, working schools, the public.

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And we've got, of course, a big growing audience across the Southwest to reach and do public talks for them, help them make exhibits.

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And eventually we hope that this will transition into working with them properly for,

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you know, putting putting their amazing exhibitions in the science centre itself.

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But the way we've kind of reframed thinking about this project is that, you know, it's not just working towards a building.

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You know, that isn't the end goal, really. It would be wonderful. We really, really want it to happen.

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But the really important thing that we can be doing right now is having an impact with the public.

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You know, even though we don't have a centre, we can still be a kind of a kind of abstract idea of a centre, which is just,

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you know, we're doing something great where we're communicating science to the public in a scientific research.

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And by the way, I have to clarify, like I'm using science, but really, that's an umbrella term for STEM or science,

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technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, which we're using but I tend to just use science because its shorter

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So we want to communicate science, the public. We want to have an impact now.

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And and we don't need a building to do that. Of course, when we have a building,

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we'll be able to have so much more influence and impact and have a space that people can actually visit and engage with.

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But for now, we're going to be working with academics that should bring some money in to enable us to do this.

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And at the same time, we're going to be working to get grants from from various funding bodies and of course,

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working towards getting what we hoped might be some philanthropic or some capital grant funding to make the building itself where we're optimistic.

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That's brilliant. And just sounds like a really, really considered a weay to.

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Support yourselves, but also develop and support the.

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The business slash charity. And develop those connections and that interest and engagement with the future centre.

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Definitely. Yeah. I mean, we're really I guess the thing is we're not trying to do something on the side,

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which is I don't know for example, selling scientific toys

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Maybe that would make some money. It's kind of relevant, but not really.

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But that's more of a kind of profit making enterprise, which is just trying to,

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you know, and whether that profit goes towards the stuff that we're doing.

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We we thought we might as well try to get some some income through doing the activities we really ought to be doing anyway.

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It's just kind of lucky, really, that some that there is a market for, if you want to call it that.

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We know that a lot of academics are really busy and they don't necessarily have

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the skills or the the time to do proper public engagement rather than just,

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you know, going to a school once throughout the whole course of of of a grant.

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Instead, what we can do is say, look, you know, you don't need to bother about sending all those emails and organising things and

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reporting back and and trying to reach a broad audience will do all that stuff for you.

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And at the same time, we're doing something good,

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because it's we're getting to talk to the public about science and about exciting research that's going on locally.

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So it just ticks loads of boxes, really. We really hope that's gonna be a viable income source for us.

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But we're working on it. Yeah. Yeah.

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As I said, it sounds incredibly exciting. And the.

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The idea of of the centre, and I mean certainly as a kind of I grew up locally and I remember taking school trips,

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we always had to go to Bristol, you know, to the science centre. And so the idea of having having that in Exeter seems.

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It almost makes me sort of when I when I saw saw the work you were doing,

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it made me think what actually given this exeter science park, we've got the Met office here, the university.

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Why don't we have one? Yeah. Exactly. Really pleased you said that

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I guess this is a good opportunity to kind of explain, you know, a rationale for putting it here and also what we're trying to achieve.

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So if you. The clearest thing I tend to start with, of course, on a podcast, so I can't show you it.

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But if you look at the map of science centres across the U.K., these are.

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I have to kind of define science centre first.

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So a science centre or Science Discovery Centre is a kind of Hands-On science museum, which isn't about exhibits behind glass,

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which are kind of historical or, you know, and and have a more historical kind of background.

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It's more about Hands-On experiences which are trying to, you know, infuse and inspire people of all ages and backgrounds about science.

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So that's what a science centre is.

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And if you if you look at the map of science centres across the U.K., there is just a gap in this region which needs filling, quite frankly.

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So, as you mentioned, there's one in Bristol, which is really curious and that's amazing, really a really great centre.

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And they've got a wonderful planetarium. And it's just it's just really cool.

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It's actually one of the the earliest science centres in the UK in its original form.

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And also what else we got down in the Southwest where we've got these projects, of course, amazing and really iconic.

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And the Eden projects is still quite specialised in its aim

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So that, you know, it's more about kind of I kind of want to get it wrong, but more horticultural, you know,

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it's it's it has a certain theme associated with it isn't really general science, including like space and astronomy and biology and things like that.

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It's it's more specialised in what it does. And there's also the Plymouth the Aquarium in Plymouth.

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That, again, is very specialised. It's a it's an aquarium. And it says more about, you know, it very specialised theme.

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So what we're trying to create is a is a general science centre,

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which covers all aspects of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.

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And we are trying to to fill this gap of science engagement in the Southwest and why Exeter

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Why not Tiverton or Cullompton?

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Or something like that.

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Well, Exeter itself is is really trying to establish itself and is doing a wonderful job at being a real science and tech innovation hub.

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I mean, you're right. We have the Met office, we have the university,

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we have the exeter science park and this consists of a load of really exciting science and tech companies who are who are doing great things.

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So Exeter already is a hub of science and that does lots of great things going in the region are going on in the region around here.

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And it really just is the perfect place for it, not only because they know it has great connections,

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particularly for North Devon and the more rural areas across the southwest, you know that the roads all head towards Exeter.

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And, of course, the train service as well. So we're trying to take as many boxes as we can in terms of location.

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We want to really locate it in the centre of Exeter so that people don't have to drive to get to us.

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You know, they could use public transport or they could use a park ride service and and you know that.

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Or they could cycle in and whatever, depending on where they live with.

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You know, if we were located out in the countryside, pretty much everyone would have to drive to get to us or,

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you know, it would just make it more difficult for people to reach us.

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And also, we're just we're trying to become a real cultural centre.

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You know, we don't want to be a kind of tourist attraction on the outskirts.

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We want to serve the public and and host clubs where if we get this amazing building that we'd like to create,

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we'd love to have green walls of rooftop garden.

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You know, maybe we'd love to work with the RHS for example,

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and the Eden project to create a kind of rooftop Eden where people come and they they have mindful kind of gardening activities

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and clubs they might take part in from a kind of gardening for mental health kind of idea that we'll have public lectures.

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So I just imagine it being this kind of space that people, you know, whether they're.

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Interested in science, whether they're interested in the arts, though, will come in and an experience this place in lots of different ways.

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The thing I haven't really emphasised too much. Mainly because it's it's something I'm really excited about.

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I don't necessarily have the expertise in is the fact that we want to tie in art with the science centre really strongly.

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And I'm still working out ways to do this. I met with residents at the amazing and inspiring Studio Kaleider

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And that's the kind of organisation which not only facilitates lots of artists who work together and and

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work on really inspiring things that they create these amazing kind of art experiences and installations.

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So I'm a resident there, which means that they very kindly let me use their office space and, you know, work amongst their colleagues.

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And I'm hoping that will, you know, help me get an insight into this. This amazing arts community we have in Exeter in the Southwest,

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and we're trying to we're trying to ensure that that isn't just a, you know, science centre for science nerds.

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You know, even that would be some nerdy components of the science centre.

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We wanted to ensure that it's appealing to a broad audience and we want to emphasise that science, isn't it?

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Well, okay. The subject isn't just you're a scientist or you're an artist.

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You know that you can be both. You can use the skills from both areas to to to basically understand the universe.

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We find ourselves in and that's what artists are trying to do, you know, interpret and understand the world.

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And that's what scientists are trying to do as well. I don't see them mutually exclusive, I think.

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I think we can learn a lot from each other. And I just think it would just make it so much more interesting.

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We have been to a few science centres, the one in particular that really resonates with me,

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and that is a great inspiration for the place we're trying to make is the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

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They have a an artist in residence.

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They have these amazing creative and kind of psychologically interesting art installations which have loads of science behind them.

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And they just I can't even express it. It's it's really inspiring stuff.

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And we'd really love to emulate that. And that's something I'm trying to work on at the moment.

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We're trying to understand how we can embed and and make a thread running through a whole centre of art as well as science.

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So there's a lot of information. It just sounds incredibly inspiring.

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And it's great to hear that you're working with Kaleider as well is that a connection that the university that through the start-ups,

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set up, or is that something that you sought out yourself? So I'm trying to think how that happened.

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I think I was doing a pitch. This was I handed my PhD thesis in on the Monday and on the Tuesday, I had a pitch at an Exeter Cits Futures event.

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Oh, wow. Yeah. And I hadn't written my presentation for it, so I had zero I had to hand, my thesis on the Monday morning.

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And then that afternoon prepared my presentation. And then I'm quite literally on that Tuesday.

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Everything starts kicking off. So I had of emails and really started working on the Science Centre the next day.

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So that was intense. But yeah.

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But I think from that meeting, the kind of networking meeting, I met Andy at Kaleider and he said, oh you need to come in to our open Fridays.

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So they have this wonderful thing where on a on a Friday anyone can go and use their

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office space and just kind of mingle and do some work there and talk to people.

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And. And I I did that a few times.

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I just thought, this is so cool. You know, everyone is so interesting and they're working on great things.

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And they were really welcoming. And I guess I just I just wanted to be part of it.

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So I applied to become a resident. And they very kindly let me in. And yeah.

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So it kind of happened through just one of the networking events that these wonderful events that Exeter City futures organisers.

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I heartily encourage anyone who is thinking of setting up or being part of or doing something locally.

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They should just go to these kind of events.

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You know, there's lots of no on exeter city features have this amazing, you know, idea for the future of, exeter, that they're really proactive.

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It's just a great place to get things done. I can't really explain. I think it's it's.

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Exeter. It's the kind of people that are working here that are doing things here.

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There is a lot of encouragement and a lot of help and a lot of opportunities. So it's really the best place to be doing something great.

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That's that's brilliant. That's really, really brilliant. I think we probably draw to a close, but in doing so what?

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What advice would you give someone that's thinking about.

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I guess setting up their own business or venture or or project or, you know, we can use a variety different terms,

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but they're getting towards the end of the end of the research degree of the day, they're thinking about what's next.

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They want to set up on start up on their own. What advice would you give them?

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Okay. I would suggest that they have to.

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If they say they've got the project, they they understand what they want to do or even if they have a brief idea.

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First of all, if that part of university, I'd suggest talk to the kind of student entrepreneur team we have.

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We have one at Exeter. Of course, they're amazing. Go and talk to them and they will probably give you some amazing advice.

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Maybe you attend a seminar about, you know, how to put your put your business ideas into practise.

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They have lots of things about how to make a business plan, how to, you know, make you go to networking events and and make Connections.

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So I would really firstly suggest just talking to people about it,

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preferably people from the business entrepreneurship team, and also try and get a bit of a team behind you if you can.

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Trying to do something as a single person is really tough because, you know,

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not only is it really helpful to have a sounding board for other people to come say, well, should we do it this way or maybe we should try this.

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You know, I think this is why, for example, in in university lab work, you know, when you we have we have lab projects.

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You have to do it.

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They usually put you with a partner or there's a small team of you that really helps realise working in a series is hugely important to this.

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So maybe they'll be two of you, maybe three of you.

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And then, you know, eventually you'll start thinking about getting advisors on board maybe who have business experience,

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maybe you who are just super enthusiastic about your cause and have experience from other areas.

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But it's it's just I suppose don't be afraid of going and doing something unusual.

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You know, it might when you when you say to people, oh, I want to make a case, maybe 40 million pound science centre in Exeter,

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I think a lot of people would just like you're completely mad and you kind of say,

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well, you know, you have to be a bit crazy to do something like this. But, you know, it can be done in that it should be done and that it can happen.

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If you're motivated enough. You really I guess you have to have the enthusiasm for what you're doing.

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You have to be motivated and particularly resilient to setbacks,

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to the kind of overwhelming nature of what you're doing and just get people around you who can support you, who can guide you and who can help you.

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Yeah. Talk to First of all, the first thing to do is talk to the amazing people and the student start-ups team.

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That's my advice. Absolutely.

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And you've mentioned lots of different resources here, like the start-ups team at the Innovation Centre, set squared Exeter City Futures, Kaleider

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And I'm going to put links to all of these organisations and information in the show

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notes so that people can kind of follow up on on those brilliant recommendations.

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And that's it for this episode.

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Thank you so much to Natalie for taking the time to talk to me about what is an incredibly exciting project and the range of support.

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You can access it if you're interested in this kind of charitable, entrepreneurial venture after your research degree.

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

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