In this episode I talk again to Léna Prouchet about doing her PhD between the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter, and the NGO Cool Earth. You can find out more about Léna and her research on twitter and on her University of Exeter profile.

Music credit: Happy Boy Theme Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) 
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License 
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/ 

 

Podcast transcript

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Hello and welcome, R, D And the in betweens, I'm your host, Kelly Preece,

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and every fortnight I talk to a different guest about researchers development and everything in between.

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Hello and welcome to this special mini episode of R D and the In Betweens.

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So one of the projects I'm working on at the moment at work is really trying to gather information

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about how people's research projects have had to change due to COVID and how they manage that.

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And when I spoke to Lena last week, she talked a little bit about how actually.

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She started two weeks before the start of the pandemic, and that changed the nature and scope of her project quite substantially.

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So I wanted to take some of these conversations and make just a little special mini episode about how Lena adapted her project.

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Yes. So I guess at the beginning we took a really inductive approach to this project.

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And I mean, the pandemic happened two weeks after I started the project.

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Yes. So the plan at the beginning was to collaborate with Cool Eartch

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So from the beginning, I was supposed to work in their offices two days a week so I could get to know them and get to know their projects.

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And after the plan was to go to Peru because they have a project there.

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So the Latin American project they have are in Peru.

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So I was supposed to do this exploratory trip where I would meet with the communities cool earth partner with.

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And we would come up with a research topic that would match everybody's interests.

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Unfortunately, this was not possible because travelling to Peru was not an option.

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So what I did was very much to tighten my links with Cool Earths so trying to understand their project

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through Cool Earth itself and not the communities with the plan of going to Peru in the next few months.

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So kind of know adapting my approach. And this was made by me attending most of their team meetings.

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They have we also have meetings where we only talk about my research and I

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also present my research project and how it evolves quite regularly to them,

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to their team in the UK. So the team I was talking about are based in Penryn, but also to the country team they have in Peru.

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That's really great and it does sound like you've had. A lot of freedom to shape the project.

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Whilst I appreciate you know, it in organisational sense,

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whilst at the same time being quite directed by not being able to go to Peru and the impact of COVID19,

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I wondered if you could say a little bit about that experience,

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about coming in with a kind of really clear understanding of what you were gonna do,

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go and work and research these communities and then having to kind of really early on shift the focus of the project because of the pandemic.

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Yeah. So that was that was a tough experience, especially.

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I think it depends on people. And some people, they can adapt very easily.

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But I'm a person who really likes to plan things. So I had applied to thisPhDposition.

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The research proposal was already written. There was already the research question and the different steps of the research.

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And for me, it was very reassuring because I would never have applied to a PhD and come up with a research proposal myself,

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because I thought that I was ensured that my topic would be relevant.

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So I thought if someone in academia identifies those gaps, it means they're expert on that.

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So, I mean, it's it's helpful to do research in this area.

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So this was very much my approach or I was only applying to project that were already super defined.

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So I arrive and I have all this list. But like a to do list and it's very reassuring, especially since you don't know where to start.

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And then two weeks after everything changes. Not only as a result of the pandemic, I think my project would have changed anyways.

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As I told you, because I needed you to take more of a business and management approach to it

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And so eventually now when I would look at my research proposal, I think that I.

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I did it myself. Like I really transformed it.

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The only thing that remains from the beginning is the partnership with Cool Earth

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And I think that that's the most important part. And I think I feel proud about it because I feel this is something.

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Yeah. That was the result of months of work and collaboration and discussions.

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And it's actually I have this sense of ownership that I wouldn't have had with the initial proposal.

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So in the process of it, it was very hard.

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I had months where I was coming up with a research question every week because I was stressing out a lot about it and thinking,

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okay, I'm never going to find a relevant topic. It's never gonna happen.

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I had those phases during the summer, but eventually it worked out.

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So the process was tough. It was definitely worth it.

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And now, yes, I'm happy.

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Although I know it's going to change a lot when I start fieldwork and the approach is going to be totally different in the final work.

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But for now, I'm I'm pleased with. With the topic and the approach.

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Yeah. And I think there's a number of things that you said in that which I think are really important, which.

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What I've been discussing a lot with colleagues, and it's not to in any way downplay the impact of COVID on people's research projects on it,

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and it has had varying degrees of impact where kind of people have had to,

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you know, shift to doing things, you know, doing interviews or whatever on line to completely,

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you know, in in a lot of the ways that you don't like completely redesigning the project.

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But it's interesting to hear you talk about that kind of flexibility and adaptability and the importance of that and the

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also the kind of slightly philosophical recognition that research is about change fundamentally.

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And, you know, when you talk to any researcher, but certainly any, you know, postgraduate researcher like yourself,

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where they start when they come in with a proposal and where they leave when they, you know, submit their thesis.

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Are always two incredibly different places.

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I'm not. And I think that's that's reassuring because, I mean, when you start to feel work is you're not open to what you're seeing,

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what people tell you in you have your agenda in mind, in your just telling people, I'm going to do this and this and this.

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I mean, it's I don't think that's a very constructive nor ethical approach.

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So I think it's good to. It's even necessary to to remain open minded during the entire project, especially in my case,

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where I work with indigenous communities, where communities who have been over researched.

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And it's interesting because I had the opportunity to talk with an anthropologist that work with Cool Earth last summer.

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And she told me about her experience of going to the communities and during the community assembly.

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So members of the communities telling her, yeah, but what ways should we take part in this?

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It's always the same process of you Western researchers coming on taking our knowledge and leaving and we never hear from you again.

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So what are the benefits from Forest? Right. So if you take a more participatory approach and saying, OK, we're gonna remain open,

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we're going to construct this research together and we're going to identify your needs and see how the research projects can benefit,

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can benefit you, then I think that's that's the best way of doing it.

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Yeah. And I think. I think that's really interesting and the issue of of of ethics.

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I think that was really interesting and I'll come back to that in a moment. But.

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As you were saying that I was thinking about, well, actually, when you do get to do fieldwork now,

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the framing and the approach of that field work will be very different.

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Having worked within within the organisation in the U.K. for, you know, a year or plus and actually the kind of the way in which that will.

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Inform. The way the way that your approach that and I guess the additional context and knowledge and skills and all those sorts of things that you've gained from.

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Taking that step back and spending time with the organisation. Yes, I think it also there are some pros and cons.

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So, of course, the pros is that. I know.

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I know more about what's happening in the community, the relationship between Cool Earth and the communities with UK and also Peruvian team.

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So it's very good that I have this communication with Peruvian teams because they are the ones who go to the community more often.

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They also have technicians that live with the communities. So I have this insight.

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Well, on the other hand, then it gives me a certain perspective and a certain vision.

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I don't think that's bad. And I think any researcher has has biases.

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You just have to acknowledge that.

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And you I mean, from the recommendation that I had in the various articles, I could read about that when you arrive,

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even though you're in embedded research within your organisation,

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when you arrive to fieldwork in the communities, you're not working for the organisation.

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You have to make this clear to community members. Of course, because you have to tell them that you're independent and what they're going to tell you,

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you're not going to going to report it in any way. So it's it's important for the trust and the relationships you're you're building with them.

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But you also have to try to put aside what you've seen before and really take

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this new approach and trying to understand from scratch what's happening there.

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And this is very challenging. So the way now I see I'm going to try to to address this is to spend an initial

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phase of one month in the communities doing only participant observation to.

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Yes, to try to understand how he works there. Also to prove that I'm there, too, to work with them,

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but not to to steal anything in terms of of knowledge or practises, really to to build those those trust relationships.

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And then from there, from what I've seen during the past, leaving the reservation and from my previous learnings with Cool Earth and the interviews,

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I'm going to you then deciding on on follow up methods such as, I don't know, interview or focus groups.

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But this will come in second time. So can you say a little bit about how you approached or went about thinking about how to change the project?

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So, yes, after I think what mattered for me that I tried to get in touch with other PhD students

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or postdocs to ask them about this process of reshaping their research topics,

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because I know this is something that happens a lot for PhD programmes.

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And I thought it was interesting to have the to the experience of my peers and some of them and told me, well,

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first of all, think about yourself, because you're going to live with this project for the next now three.

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But it was four years at the beginning.

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So if you don't like it, if you're not happy to to read about it, write about it every morning, then it's not going to work out.

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And this is something I had kind of forgotten at the beginning because I really wanted to comply.

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And to be sure, I was ticking the boxes. But then, yes, as the months came along, I thought, okay.

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I have to find this balance and I have to find this topic that also pleases me in something I'm passionate about.

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So this took really a long time. I started in March and they came up with the final idea in November.

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And my supervisor, they had reassured me from the beginning that it was normal.

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It was going to take a long time. So you had to be to get lost in the the literature jungle and then see which angle you wanted to to adopt.

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Thanks, Lena, for that insight into the reorganisation of PPhD project.

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Two weeks in, I'd be really interested to talk to other people who've had to change their projects due to COVID.

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So please, if you're interested in sharing your experience, good.

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The bad, the ugly. Please do get in touch. And that's it for this episode.

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Don't forget to, like, rate and subscribe and join me.

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Next time we'll be talking to somebody else about researchers development and everything in between.

 

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Hello and welcome to R, D and the in betweens, I'm your host, Kelly Preece,

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and every fortnight I talk to a different guest about researchers development and everything in between.

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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of R, D and the In Betweens.

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It's Kelly Preece here. And today I'm gonna be talking to one of our PGRs Lena.

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Now, Lena started her PhD at a really odd time just a couple of weeks before the start of the pandemic.

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But the reason that I wanted to talk to her is actually because her PhD is a collaboration between the university and an external partner.

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This is a common thing in these days in terms of funding,

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but it presents particular situations and challenges for the student in working between two very different organisations.

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And I was delighted that Lena was happy to speak to me about this.

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So, Lena, are you happy to introduce yourself? Yeah. Hi.

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Good morning. Thank you for for having me in your podcast, Kelly. So my name is Lena.

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I'm finishing the first year of my PhD in the business school that I'm based in the ESI

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So the Environmental and Sustainability Institute in Penryn and my PhD looks at how indigenous intrapreneurship,

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so more specifically cocoa and coffee growing, can empower forest communities who perform these activities.

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And more specifically, I'm interested in how these activities are supported by external organisations

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such as NGOs and how these organisations play a role in the empowerment processes.

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So, yeah, I work in directly in collaboration with an NGO called Cool Earth

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So they are based on the penryn campus as well.

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And they're a conservation NGO whose founding principle is that people who live in the rainforest should determine their own future.

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So Cool Earth creates projects for sustainable livelihood creation,

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and those projects can contribute to forest preservation and climate change mitigation.

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That's great. Thank you.

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So actually, the thing we're going to talk about today is the experience for you of working between the university and the NGO.

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So I guess it's a good place to start is. How how did that come about?

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So how I guess, how did the  collaboration between the NGO and the university came about?

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And then what kind of led you to become interested and apply for the project?

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Yeah. So I applied for this PhD position in July twenty nineteen, so it's been quite a long time ago now.

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And on the project description, there was no direct mention.

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Of Cool Earth, the project was only talking about food security issues within indigenous communities in Latin America.

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And this was a topic I was very interested in because at that time I was doing a masters degree in food policy.

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And previous to that, I had done a master's in international development.

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And I had looked for my thesis, the question of the preservation of indigenous intellectual property.

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So it was very in line with my interests.

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So then I emailed the main supervisor to ask for more information.

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I got in touch with the main supervisor of the project, who is Stefano Pascucci

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and he explained to me that this project will be a collaboration with Cool Earth

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So this was already decided.

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And actually, when I took the interview, there were two people from the University of Exeter and two people from Cool Earth.

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So, okay, so the the relationship and the NGO were really embedded from the beginning then.

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They're part of the interview process as well. Yes. So I guess at the beginning we took a really inductive approach to this project.

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And I mean, the pandemic happened two weeks after I started the project.

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Yes. So the plan at the beginning was to collaborate with Cool Earth.

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So from the beginning, I was supposed to work in their offices two days a week so I could get to know them and get to know their projects.

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And after the plan was to go to Peru because they have a project there.

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So the Latin American project they have are in Peru.

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So I was supposed to do this exploratory trip where I would meet with the communities cool earth partner with.

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And we would have come up with a research topic that would match everybody's interests.

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Unfortunately, this was not possible because travelling to Peru was not an option.

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So what I did was very much to tighten my links with Cool Earth so trying to understand their project

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through Cool Earth itself and not the communities with the plan of going to Peru in the next few months.

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So kind of, you know, adapting my approach. And this was made by me attending most of their team meetings.

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They have we also have meetings where we only talk about my research and I

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also present my research project and how it evolves quite regularly to them,

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to their team in the UK. So the team I was talking about based in Penryn, but also to the in country.

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team they have in Peru Think the the shift in the project.

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That was really interesting. So I can I can sort of imagine that the dynamic and the relationship between you,

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the research and the research project and the organisation had to shift quite considerably if you're

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going from kind of researching the projects and the communities that they work with to actually.

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Researching the organiser. Yes. So that's a very interesting point, so.

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So at the beginning, my unit of analysis was supposed to be the communities themselves.

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But since I I have this embedded approach. As you said that I came to really try to understand how Cool Earth worked and

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why was their theory of change and why were the challenges they were facing.

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I shifted my approach and now the units of analysis is more the network that cool earth created in these creating with its partners.

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So it really influenced my approach. It also changed the topic of my research.

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So as I told you at the beginning, it was very much so food security related.

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And more specifically, was alluding to sustainable agriculture and agroecology.

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But early on, I realised that there were issues with this this topic.

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And first of all, in the sense that I couldn't go to Peru, as I said before.

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So it was very hard for me to understand what was happening there exactly on the ground.

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Although cool earth gave me very interesting insights on what was happening there.

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But the second problem I had is that I'm PhD student in the business school.

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And it was made clear to me by my supervisors from the beginning that I had to bring a contribution to the business or the management literature.

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So I tried to to shift the topic so that it would please both.

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Cool earth and the business school, my supervisor, and most importantly, that it would be a topic that I would be passionate about.

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I mean, simple as that. Yeah. So it took a long time.

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A lot of it was a very iterative process, a lot of conversation.

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What was great was that there was always a connection between my supervisors and cool earth as well.

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So we had a meeting where we would all talk together about my projects or communication.

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I think it was very important in this process. And I mean this I think this is part of the hD research that you have to constantly adapt.

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And I consider myself lucky because, I mean, I started the PhD really two weeks before lockdown.

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So nothing was set in stone yet. I could really adapt.

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It's not like I had planned already. I had my tickets for Peru and I had to change everything, which would have been way more complicated.

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Of course, there's a couple of things I want to pick up, pick up on that in terms of relationship.

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So the first one to kind of sort of, you know,

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focussed more on the kind of topic for the minute is about your relationship, therefore, with the organisation.

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So. You know, you talked about being kind of embedded in it and, you know, the idea was that you'd spend time in their offices.

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Obviously, that has happened, I imagine, in a in a very different way during the pandemic.

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But I wondered if you could talk about kind of being embedded or being part of the organisation,

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but also researching the organisation and what's that what that's like for you as a researcher,

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but also what how that kind of how that affects your relationships with the people in the organisation, how you navigate that?

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Does that make sense? Yeah, sure. So it's funny because this concept of embedded research I actually found about it quite recently when

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I was so I was working on my upgrades and I was having a conversation with one of my supervisor,

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one of my supervisors, sorry, and she told me what actually what you're doing is is embedded research,

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because usually what a researcher does is preparing and having this phase of literature review and then going to the to the field.

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But what happened for me was I dived into the field from day one and I hadn't really realised that for me it was something natural about had happened.

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And actually this position has a lot of consequences on the approach towards the research project, and it has benefits and challenges.

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So I would say that.

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So the main benefit that you have is that you're really able to build those trust based relationships with the other members of the team.

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So you understand what the work is, but also who they are as a person.

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So you can really bond with them. And I think it's a very important element of research, of building this, what is called the raport.

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You can also gain deep knowledge on the organisation.

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It's not like you look at their Web site. You really understand how they work from an internal point of view.

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And they think this is also very valuable.

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And this allows you to build a project that I called action oriented in the sense that I really endeavour to ensure that my research priorities

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were in line with Cool earth's interests and that I was I was coming up with a project that could really inform their future strategies.

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I mean, also, it is going to be an academic work, but I really wanted to be Demand-Driven.

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We also had the opportunity to to work on a variety of projects that are not necessarily related to my to my research group.

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We're working, for example, on a crowdfunding application together or on a conference abstract

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So we have though those side projects are very also interesting for me.

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And I would say that it's also super nice to meet with people during the pandemic because otherwise I don't have a research group.

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So it would be very much me, myself and I.

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I'm in meetings with my supervisors, of course, but those weekly meetings I have with Cool earth have been very important for my mental health as well.

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this also comes with some challenges so like you were

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mentioning my relationship with the organisation and how I can manage that because I'm researching them at the same time, which can be quite tricky.

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So in terms of ethics, approach, first avoids very hard to to manage that, because in the end,

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when you're going through the ethical review process, you don't have to start that correction before having the approval.

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So all the information I gathered until now, I'm not going to do for in my research is data.

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I'm going to just use it as a way of building my research project.

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But then I'm going to do formal interviews with cool Earth members.

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And I already told them that everything they had disclosed with me previously, I wouldn't use it for.

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For ethics purposes.

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So you have also to be aware that there might be the temptation of  thinking, oh, I heard this amazing thing during a meeting.

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That would be great if I can use it. But no, you can't. So this is something you really have to be careful about.

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As I was saying, I also tend to very much focus on trying to come up with a project that's helpful for Cool Earth.

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And since I have those very tight links with them, sometimes I tend to forget.

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But I also am a PhD student and I have to bring a contribution to specific literature.

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So it's kind of hard to be in the middle sometimes.

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So I try to remind myself and my supervisors are here for that as well.

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And also, I would say that the last element is. I really feel that Cool earth's members, they trust me and they value my opinion.

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So sometimes, yes, I share with them my thoughts or some notes on academic reading I had.

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But I feel I lack the legitimacy to really be able to provide any advice, because, I mean, there they have been there for a long time.

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They know the topic. They know your communities. They have relationship with those communities.

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And I'm on the I have only been there for 12 months and working from home.

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So, yeah, sometimes it's I feel a little bit like that.

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But otherwise, it has been a great experience. Sounds really fruitful.

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And I think it's really interesting to hear you talk about the sense of connection with people that working in this way has given you,

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particularly during the kind of the UK lockdowns and the corona virus pandemic, because.

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Yeah, the impact on your mental health. I think that that's a really interesting facet and kind of had extra of this.

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So you've talked a little bit about kind of making sure that the research project is useful to the organisation,

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making sure that it makes an academic contribution.

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So sort of satisfying your supervisors at the university, but also making sure that it's interesting to you as a researcher and.

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I sort of glibly commented when you mentioned that oh it's as simple as that. But of course, we know that it's it's nothing like.

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So I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how how you negotiate that kind of almost a triad of expectations,

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but also kind of triad of what people want out of the project and how what the

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challenges are with that and maybe a little bit about how you've been negotiating it.

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Yes, sure. So I as I mentioned before,

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I think one of the key points was to have this communication with both my supervisors and my academic team and cool earth and even between then,

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they can communicate. So it's not just me telling to the other.

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Oh, they have told me that in doing this back and forth thing, we have really a group.

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I feel it. So we're a group and we we all have a common goal.

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And we wanted to create a project that is interesting for all of us.

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So I think it's important then that we are on the same line also from the beginning.

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Cool earth's members told me that they were really open on their research topic as long as it was relevant to their projects.

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So they really gave me this freedom and they did an imposing list of topic I should focus on.

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So, yes, after I think what mattered for me that I tried to get in touch with other PhD students

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or postdocs to ask them about this process of reshaping their research topics,

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because I know this is something that happens a lot for PhD programmes.

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And I thought it was interesting to have to the experience of my peers and a lot of them told me, well,

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first of all, think about yourself, because you're going to live with this project for the next now three.

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But it was four years at the beginning.

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So if you don't like it, if you're not happy to to read about it, write about it every morning, then it's not going to work out.

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And this is something I had. Kind of forgotten at the beginning because I really wanted to comply and to be sure, I was ticking the boxes.

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But then, yes, as the months came along, I thought, okay.

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I have to find this balance and I have to find this topic that also pleases me in something I'm passionate about.

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So this took really a long time. I started in March and they came up with the final idea in November.

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And my supervisor, they had reassured me from the beginning that it was normal.

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It was going to take a long time. So you had to be to get lost in the literature jungle and then and see which angle you wanted to to adopt.

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I wanted to talk to close by asking you if that's another potential PGR out there,

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who is looking at doing a piece of research that is working between a university and external organisation.

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What advice would you give them? What would you sort of tell them to consider?

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Mm hmm. Yeah. So how to be a good embedded researcher?

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Well, first of all, that that's an approach I would definitely encourage as often as possible when it's relevant to the research topic.

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I think what's important is to be clear from the beginning of what the collaboration entails and what it does not entail.

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Even to have it's written down. So it's it's clear between the researcher and the organisation, but also the supervisory team.

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And I think what makes for me this collaboration very fruitful is the communication between the organisation and my supervisory team.

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I think it's very good to have this contact. So to ensure we are on the same line.

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And there are no there are not two agendas growing side to side.

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And because I think this is the one thing that can be very challenging for for researchers.

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Thank you so much to Lena for sharing her experience with us of working between the university and

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Cool Earth and the unique challenges there are between working between the university and industry partner,

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but also doing that and starting that during COVID

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And that's it for this episode. Don't forget to like rate and subscribe and join me next time.

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where i'll be talking to somebody else about researchers development and everything in between.

 

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