Why I don’t think there should be more women on University Challenge

A reasonable amount of media attention was given to the fact that by the semi final stage of last year’s University Challenge, the remaining teams were exclusively male. But why was this? And why, as someone who is so pro equal opportunities and women in science would I not want to change this?

The reasons for the lack of women competing aren’t straight forward, From my experience I don’t believe that there is any bias in the selection process of the universities themselves. I felt that Reading were pretty thorough; we have a written test and then the top 10 from that go through to a buzzer round in front of an audience to ensure that you have the speed and ability to cope on camera. The final team were then chosen by a panel. Other teams seem to have had a similar experience.

Nor, if the producers are honest, is there any real bias in the show’s selection procedure either. It’s true that there may be some fiddling to make sure there is some geographical and diverse representation, and preferences for universities who haven’t been on for a while/ at all but the producers make it very clear that it is still very much based on your score in their test quiz: if you’re not good enough you’re not in. So I suspect there may, for example, be a little bit of juggling of the teams ranked 20-30 but the top 20 will definitely be in and anyone below the top 30 definitely won’t, or something similar to that. But essentially you have to be good, and that’s the real deciding factor.

There’s no reason why there should be fewer women making it through these various stages than men. I’m not aware of any evidence that men are naturally better at quizzing and anyone who saw Gail Trimble in action will probably be of an opinion that they are not (not that men aren’t good of course, who could forget Ted Loveday and Hapax Legomenon). So it seems that women just aren’t applying, and much as things could be done to change this, the way things currently are I’m not sure I would encourage this.

My reasoning for this is not only the comments that contestants are likely to see on social media, which have been well documented, but also because of the quiz master and Newsnight legend, Mr Nasty, Jeremy Paxman himself. But not for the reason you might think. In fact it could be suggested that Jeremy is supportive of there being more women on the show. Several media outlets reported on his comments at the semi-final stage of last year’s series: “why on earth are there no women left in this stage of the competition?”. Many even lauded him as some kind of feminist.

However, I have to say that from my experience this couldn’t be further from the truth. Jeremy Paxman is not a feminist. In fact his ideas of what it is appropriate to say to female contestants are definitely not in line with BBC or ITV policy to say the least.

Not only are his attitudes to women in the workplace outdated, they do not help to make it a positive experience for the women participating in the show. For University Challenge is a workplace. Contestants essentially have to sign something that at least is very close to an employment contract before they are allowed to appear on the show, yet for some reason Paxman is allowed to behave in way towards female contestants that would in no way be considered appropriate in any other workplace. I can’t even imagine a male member of staff at my university being allowed to make comments to the female PhDs and everyone just laughing it off or ignoring it. More to the point I can’t even imagine that any of them would even want to do this either!

Yet Jeremy is allowed to make comments to female contestants in the studio, in front of the cameras and the audience, and no-one in the production team even bats an eyelid. As contestants we were expected to sit there politely and carry on smiling both because this is what we have agreed to do, and through fear of them not broadcasting our match that we have worked so hard to qualify for if we did kick up a fuss. Every year over 100 teams don’t make it through to the TV round so it’s not like there aren’t plenty of replacements. Given that my team had a member who was originally a reserve for his college back in the days of Bamber Gascoigne there was no way I was going to mess up his chance to finally be on the show after such a long wait by giving Paxman the response to his comment to me that he definitely deserved. I think it is this acceptance of Paxman that is much more dangerous than the man himself and the reason I chose to write this. So here’s the key starter for 10: we can all ignore someone with outdated views but is this ok just because they’re famous and from a generation where this behaviour would have been acceptable?

Our team. Needless to say this was pre any dodgy comments.

Our team. Needless to say this was pre any dodgy comments.

I should make it clear here that I’m not trying to claim that had we had a different quiz master we would have beaten Imperial, they were excellent and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from that. Although I think we had a strong team it’s quite sad that actually we were all pretty relieved when the final scores came in and we found out we didn’t have to go back as a highest scoring loser (this isn’t really a spoiler as Paxman said goodbye to us on the show!).

I do feel it was a privilege and a great experience to have been able to take part in a legendary show and I wouldn’t want to put off any women from applying- they just need to be aware of what they may have to put up with. It made me really sad to write this and to think of the blip on an otherwise awesome experience. But until there is a different quiz master I certainly wouldn’t push to get more women on the show knowing what the producers think is acceptable for them to deal with. There is also no support or warning given by ITV about what contestants are likely to see on social media. It can get pretty horrible and I think at least a warning just to not look is the minimum that they should be doing. I hope that those that do go through in 2016 can go into it with their eyes wide open and not be put off by any comments that they’re expected to just deal with. And that’s without even starting on what Twitter thinks it’s appropriate to say…

What is a conference? Part 2- the BIG meeting- AGU Fall Meeting 2015

My PhD has so far taken me to some pretty exciting places and I’ve been lucky enough to secure some travel grants that have allowed me to really make the most of my allocated travel money. However, despite the fact that my friends and family seem to think I’ve been constantly off on holiday conferences are actually pretty hard work and essential for making a career for yourself in the scientific world.

Recently I wrote about my experiences at a small meeting in Iceland. Small meetings tend to have a set programme, you all see all of the talks, everyone has lunch together and you have a chance to speak to the bulk of the people at the meeting. My other conference trip last year was to the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco and was completely the other end of the scale. With over 23,000 attendees it is the largest Earth and Space science meeting in the world, and is spread across 3 buildings. At any one time there are many talks going on as well as multiple poster sessions; here the poster session is the size of several football fields.

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A small fraction of the poster hall at AGU.

Given this, I was slightly sceptical about how much I was going to get out of the meeting. Even though I had put in the effort to be prepared for what I wanted to see the first couple of days were exhausting and I didn’t feel like I was picking much up. Even simple things like going for dinner were quite hard work with limited WiFi and even though I knew plenty of people there I kept missing many of them. The icebreaker reception was pure chaos- the crowd outside waiting for the free beer and merchandise from the exhibitors reminded me of the crowds you see on the news for black friday!

However, once I got over the jet lag a bit things went up hill. I realised my brain was too saturated with science on Wednesday to take in much more and instead joined to queue to watch Al Gore speak (a definite advantage of a larger conference)- he was very into the space science he was talking about, funny and nothing short of inspirational at the end. Words I’d never expect to use about a politician. It was also nice to have dinner with my UCL colleagues, and catch up with old Reading colleagues and Karthaus friends throughout the week.

Thursday was a very early start for my talk but I was glad there were still quite a few people there for the time of the morning. Straight after my talk I had responses on twitter and the next day at the poster session I spoke to several people who were interested in my work and able to offer help and advice, or were just starting out on their PhDs and wanting to know more.

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Giving my talk. Unfortunately no-one ever sits near the front but there were a lot of people there, honest! Thanks to Nat Melia for photographing.

It is these interactions that make the conferences so useful and so essential. Not only have I found help with my own work, I may be able to help others with theirs and collaborate in the future. You also get a good idea of what other people are working on so you know where there could be gaps to look at things in the future.

It’s a weird old world in science as we are all at the end of the day often rivals for the same pots of funding, but we also all need help from others to get to where we need to be. Meetings like AGU are essential for this and also good for just getting to know what’s going on more generally in your field- Iceland was great but it was very specific. AGU gave me chance to watch big keynote speakers such as Eric Rignot talking about sea level rise, the notes from which will definitely be useful for putting my PhD in context both in my viva any upcoming Fairbrother public lecture.

Conferences also are of course a lot of fun and luckily there was a bit of time for sight seeing and even a Parkrun* the day after the conference ended. It was also useful that the conference was right next to Bloomingdales for those moments when a break from the full on science was needed, but don’t tell my supervisor that…

 

*The last one in the world in fact and therefore probably the only one where coming last is a more exciting achievement than winning.

Tea cupcakes- Earl Grey

I almost feel that this post should be categorised under ‘ice’ as well as ‘icing’ as if there’s one thing that gets me through research it’s definitely tea. So what better way to enjoy tea than in cake form?P1070781

These use a standard sponge cake recipe and buttercream frosting. However, the difficulty is getting the Earl Grey flavouring to come through. I find it’s better to use tea leaves rather than bags and also to add the Earl Grey to the icing too.

Makes 12 cupcakes

Ingredients:

(for the cake)
3 tea spoons Earl Grey tea leaves
3 table spoons boiling water
150g butter
150g sugar
200g self raising flour
1 tea spoon baking powder
3 eggs

(for the icing)
500g icing sugar
200g butter
1 tea spoon Earl Grey tea leaves
1/2 table spoon boiling water
1/2 table spoon whole milk

1. Brew the tea leaves in the boiling water for a good 10 minutes. Pre heat the oven to 180 degrees C, gas mark 4.
2. Cream together the butter and sugar, and mix in the eggs.
3. Strain the tea leaves from the water and add the water to the mixture.
4. Fold in the flour and baking powder.
5. Two thirds fill cupcake cases with mixture and cook for around 20 minutes, until the cakes begin to come away from the cakes and are springy.
6. Brew the tea leaves for the icing as before.
7. Mix together the butter and icing sugar for the icing. Strain the tea leaves from the water and add the water to the milk.
8. Add the milk mixture to the icing slowly until you have the desired consistency for decorating the cakes.
9. Enjoy with a cup of tea, naturally.

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The Three Minute Thesis Experience- Is it worth it?

The call for people to enter Reading University’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition is currently being sent round so I thought now would be a good time to reflect on my experiences of this event two years ago.

For those of you who don’t know, 3MT competitions happen worldwide and PhD students get 3 minutes and 1 slide to explain their research to a general audience. This is surprisingly quite tough; to say what you do and explain why people should care in that timeframe is tricky.

I found preparing the talk and practicing it a really useful experience. Not only does it focus your mind on why you’re doing your PhD, something it’s very easy to lose sight of once you get buried in data and coding, but it also helps with thinking about how to explain your work to friends and family who often do want to know what you do but worry they won’t understand. Through doing it you realise that, although you probably know to avoid jargon in general, words like ‘model’, which seem to have such an obvious meaning to you actually have a very different meaning to the bulk of the population! It also means that when you get asked to give your ‘elevator pitch’ of your PhD, be it in a job interview, at the pub or in an actual elevator, you’re more than ready.

I was lucky enough to be the runner up at the Reading competition which was a great piece of recognition and also meant that I got to represent my university at the national 3MT semis in York. The Reading competition was really nice and friendly, I got loads of feedback and enjoyed the whole thing a lot. And there was free wine after.

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Giving my talk- just about remembering which way was up after the previous week at Glastonbury…

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The Reading finals audience

However, at the semi-finals I started to be less keen on the competition. Many of the audience felt that the judges picked some finalists on how much they liked the project rather than presentation skills, which surely is only part of the point. For me it was clear that what the Reading judges wanted was different from what the York ones did, which was a shame but that that point I was starting to get a bit disillusioned/ questioning how much time I’d traveled as a ratio to speaking time. I think by that stage you’ve done the talk so many times that it stops being an exciting communication opportunity and starts being an attempt to follow a set of predefined rules that you think you know from the style of past talks, but can also change depending on who’s judging you… and it seems a lot of effort to put in for such a short talk!

I also do wonder how good it is to compare PhD projects. They’re all so different and go at different speeds. Although most of us can always get better at communicating and being made to do it so concisely is definitely a good exercise.

So in short, I’d say do it, just don’t do too well…

To get an idea of the style of talk here’s my rehearsal for York filmed at the Reading graduate school, ignore the faffing at the start!

 

What is a conference? Part 1- a small meeting- International Glaciological Society Iceland Symposium

This June I had the chance to attend my first international conference. It was a little daunting being as I’d only been to UK conferences before and had never spoken outside of my home Universities but the chance to visit somewhere so stunning definitely helped to mitigate that.

The journey there was an adventure itself- fill a tiny plane with glaciologists and fly them over an ice cap and you are bound to get some pretty excited people.

The conference itself was a really good size- there were 120 delegates which means that it is very easy to get talking to people. The day consisted of talks and poster session. Talks are as you would expect, a speak has about 12 minutes to give a presentation on their work and then the audience can ask questions. Poster sessions are usually in another room where people can wander and chat more informally with those presenting their work as a poster. These are often at the end of the day and over drinks.

Being a small meeting the talks were quite specifically in the area of ice shelves, ice sheets and glaciers which was good as I felt I understood a lot and also picked up things from people that are lucky enough to actually go to these places or use satellite data to learn about them.

My talk thankfully seemed to be really well received which was a big relief and has definitely helped with the thesis writing motivation. This was slightly bad timing being as I was about to start 3 months away from Reading on my Government Office of Science internship but it’s definitely made me keen to get back to the science and given me extra confindence that this a career that I can do.

A highlight of the week was the mid week excursion to the Hoffellsjokull glacier. Finally, after 2 and a bit years of PhD, some actual ice! I was clearly not the only theoretician that was overly excited by this as one was heard to exclaim, seeing the chaotic crevassing  in the ice “and we’re supposed to model this?!” We were greeted at the end of the hike with Brennevin (an Exeter Uni musician staple, no-one could understand why I was quite so averse to it), horse meat and pineapple. When in Iceland…

The conference was great for making contacts, I got to see some old Karthaus friends, and make new early career buddies as well as meet a lot of interesting and important people from withing glaciology. I have hopefully got a chance to collaborate with others outside of Reading and have since been invited to give a talk by one of the other attendees. Sadly it was all over too quickly, but even the journey home from the conference was picturesque with the bus stopping at least every half an hour to view lakes and waterfalls. Iceland, I’ll be back.

 

PhD Interviews- Attempting to clear up some of the mystery

The PhD interview seems to be an area of great variety, mystery and something that I personally was quite afraid of. Since they are all so different and you can never really know what to expect I’ve tried to collate a variety of experiences from different subjects and funding routes. However, the variety of responses made it hard to even really categorise them so I’ve just put them all into a post in no particular order. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed and I hope that this will help reassure or at least inform any future applicants that whatever happens, there is no normal…

**If you replied to me and can’t see your response here please let me know asap- the servers went down during my initial attempt at writing this!**

Being interviewed by people I already knew was the hardest thing for me I think – it’s hard to be professional but also keep those friendly relationships up at the same time. The main thing my interviewers wanted was justification – for my choice of topic, for my choice of texts, for my choice of focus in the proposal, everything. Plus the absolute guarantee that I could finish in 3 years, of course. My main advice for arts/humanities candidates would be that you need to *really* know your topic and why you want to do it. You’re not expected to be an expert already, but you are expected to know exactly why the topic is a) original and b) valuable. Also not to be too downhearted if you don’t get it first time round. I know quite a few people who took a year to fine tune things and then reapplied and were successful, plus also a few self-funded people who are doing just fine.
(Gemma, Film Studies, Exeter- an interview for funding)

I had 3 supervisors in mine (for 2 projects) and a chair, which was quite difficult at times as one project was on phytoplankton, another was on the genomics of invasive species, so it was difficult to make sure I was ticking both boxes! They asked about my previous work to ease me in. The chair asked questions relating to my motivation for doing a PhD, including why I didn’t pursue my bachelors dissertation as a PhD as I was very enthusiastic about it! Then the supervisors asked questions specifically relating to their projects. I was asked to described one of the PhDs as if I was talking to the general public rather than scientists. At the National Oceanography Centre they also present you with a piece of data you wouldn’t have seen before and get you to describe what you see. They essentially want to see how you think and analyse information. It was fairly relaxed but mentally draining so I felt exhausted afterwards!
(National Oceanography Centre, 2014)

I didn’t go through an interview process, but my supervisor always has a “mock” interview with him + his current PhD students interviewing the applicant a couple days before the real interview, and the applicants have all been successful–not sure if you want to work that in but it’s always worth asking your supervisor if you could have a mock interview before the real one!
(Scott Polar Research Institute)

My interview actually took place on my birthday, which immediately made it a more jovial affair. The panel consisted of four senior academics from the research cluster, who interviewed all potential candidates. I seem to have come out on top so I was offered the post. The interview itself was very friendly and a combination of questions about me, such as my motivation behind pursuing a Ph.D. or my future career aspirations, and ones regarding the project (e.g. why it was important to find out about mid-Holocene climate change). The panel largely wanted to know about me though, why I was interested in this specific topic (I made sure to read all the relevant papers before the interview), how I was going to deal with things not working out as planned, and what kind of avenues I’d like to pursue as sidelines to the main project. Overall, they wanted to know that I would be able to stick it, have a genuine interest in the topic, and that I could get along with other people:)
(Southampton, Geography, 2007)

My interview took place at a research institute rather than a university, but all three of my supervisors were present in the interview. They each asked a couple of questions about my previous research experience- through my undergraduate dissertation, and my masters. They also asked me to explain some of my knowledge on computer programming and languages- as this was stated on my CV but they wanted more details. Finally they asked about my knowledge of the project I was applying for. The questions included asking what I thought the project would entail and what I already knew about the specific area- it’s good to have read a few papers on it before the interview! They also asked what my opinion was on fieldwork, and whether I was still willing to accept the PhD with no fieldwork. I think it is always good to have a question or two for the interviewers also, as it shows that you have read up on the project, and are interested in finding out more. I’m not sure how long the interview actually took, as time flew by, but I think it was around 45mins to 1hr.
(Jenny, Atmospheric Sciences, BAS)

My interview was in Zürich so since I was travelling there from Edinburgh they made a full day of it. In the morning I had to give a presentation based on my Masters thesis in front of the group and everyone could ask questions, but that wasn’t so bad since I had had to give that presentation in Edinburgh too. There was then some time just with the PhDs and post-docs in the group and later I had a lab tour (the PhD was split between two departments so that took a while) and an interview with two professors which was very informal – just asking why I wanted that PhD and why I wanted to do it in Switzerland, what my other interests were etc. I think the main thing is to show your enthusiasm rather than technical knowledge (as that is what you’re going there to learn). They said they had others to interview and I didn’t hear for ages so assumed I hadn’t got it but I emailed to ask and I had got it – so well worth chasing up if you don’t hear for a while!
(Ruth, geochemistry, Zürich)

My interview at Manchester was a very casual meeting with my potential supervisor, whom I’d contacted in advance before officially applying to the course. I applied to her specifically with a two-page proposal and before meeting she encouraged me to turn it into a fuller ten-page outline of my research plans. We then met to discuss the proposal, and both felt it was a good fit for the university and for her as a supervisor, so from there we turned it into a course application and then a funding application (neither of which required official interviews at Manchester, though the funding application was tough and I was unsuccessful first time round – I was funded from my second year onwards). Before successfully applying to Manchester I had several interviews for funding at other universities (typically, in the humanities in the UK getting a place on the course isn’t as tough as getting the funding). One at Cambridge was a phone interview, and two at Exeter were more formal interviews in which I sat in front of a panel of three people who grilled me on my research proposal. I think when you meet a potential supervisor for a meeting she or he is trying to get the best out of you and find out what the heart of your research interest is. When you meet with a funding panel, they are trying to distribute a very small pot of funding to a very large number of applicants so they are rather tougher.

(Phd, humanities, Manchester)

My PhD interview is now 8 years ago. I received the invitation from Exeter and stopped there for the interview on my way to join a research cruise. At the time, I had all the confidence of a Masters degree with a year in research, and while brutally honest about my abilities or lack thereof, none of the restraining self-doubt of a PhD. I don’t remember much of the detailed questions, I do remember the friendly atmosphere. As I entered the room I met with two men and a woman, who would later be identified as the lab manager and the two supervisors. Charles, who would become my main supervisor, immediately put me at ease with his unassuming, intelligent manner and friendly smile. The researchers had a genuine interest in me and my previous work and education, and it was more of a scientific conversation than a drilling. The lab manager asked a few more detailed questions regarding research ethics, laboratory experience and general squeamishness. A tour around the labs concluded the interview, before I got back on the train for my flight to join ship. Looking back now, I think that they were mostly interested in my potential; my potential to develop as a researcher, my potential to move knowledge forward, my determination to achieve goals and my general application to work and challenges. I was by far not an ideal candidate in terms of background – I had studied marine biology and worked in deep sea ecosystems, applying now for a PhD in freshwater fish, hormone disruption and population genetics. And yet, when I returned from the cruise an offer was made. There are two caveats to this story. Firstly, I did not apply for a Research Council funded PhD. And secondly, I was interviewed under the old system. Then, PhD funding was generally secured by the University and an appropriate candidate then sought. This changed a few years ago, and I am not too clear on the details as I have not had much dealings with it, but I think now Universities first choose a candidate, and the candidate then has to compete with all other PhD candidates for RC project funding. Not everyone is, of course, successful, which I imagine makes this a much more stressful experience. However, I am convinced that the potential slumbering in an applicant is, nonetheless, still of decisive importance.
(Marta, Exeter, biological sciences)

And finally me:

I had two interviews at Reading for two different PhDs and they were very different experiences and both different again from the standard Reading meteorology experience.

My interview with my current supervisor was quite informal, he seemed quite concerned that my degree title contained ‘proficiency in Spanish’ until I explained that it was only through optional modules and I could still do maths. He then decided to test this by writing an integration problem on his whiteboard. I couldn’t solve this off of the top of my head- I generally need to sit and scribble away at maths on my own- but then he asked “do you think you could solve this on your own?”. He obviously believed my response as I got the job!

My other interview was with a panel. As much as they were friendly it was more intimidating to have three people. I’d tried to prepare for this one by reading some papers but that seemed more detail than they needed, they were more worried about the way I thought. One thing I could have been better prepared for was that even though the PhD description described some skills as unnecessary, I needed to be able to show that I could learn them.

The most common Reading experience is thorough their annual PhD visit day where all the supervisors describe the projects they have on offer and then applicants book short interview slots for the projects that they’re interested in. Then students are matched up to supervisors depending on their and the supervisors’ preference.

Note: One thing I hadn’t really thought about when starting this was self funded PhDs as it doesn’t happen so often in the sciences. If that’s a route you’re looking at then I’d recommend hearing from Gemma here.

Fairbrother Lecture

I’m very excited to be able to reveal that I’ve been asked to give Reading University’s Fairbrother Lecture for 2016.

Named after Jack Fairbrother, who in 1929 became the first student to be awarded a PhD from the University, the Fairbrother Lecture is an annual event at which a current, or recent, Reading doctoral researcher will present their work to a wider audience.

A wider audience means that it should be accessible to everyone so please do come along to hear about my work as well as some more general information about the polar regions.

It’s free but ticketed: more information is available here.

Wednesday 4 May, 19.00, Henley Business School, Whiteknights, University of Reading

Fairbrother 2016 photo

 

The official announcement:

“The Graduate School is pleased to announce that Sammie Buzzard, a final year doctoral researcher from the Department of Meteorology, will give the Fairbrother Lecture in 2016. In this lecture, Sammie will discuss some of the key issues around global warming and climate change; in particular, the collapse of ice shelves in Antarctica. Sammie’s doctoral research aims to help us better predict the speed and rate at which these ice shelves – one twice the size of Wales – will continue to melt and she will explain the wider impact of this occurrence. Sammie will also highlight some of the challenges of researching one of the most inhospitable places on earth. 

Sammie Buzzard holds a Natural Environment Research Council studentship and had previously been a finalist in the Graduate School’s Three Minute Thesis Competition. 

In addition to her studies, in 2015 Sammie completed a Research Council Policy Internship at the Government Office for Science. 

If you wish to attend this lecture, please book your place using the online booking form: http://www.reading.ac.uk/news-and-events/about-event-register.aspx

‘The Easiest Rose Ever’ Cutter Review

8/10- Nice and simple but a little overpriced for what it is.
£5.60 Cake Craft World

I got this little gadget at the Cake and Bake show 2015, mostly because they let you try it out first. You can get it from Cake Craft World who had the stand online for just over a fiver, as well as from other online retailers.

I was sold on the ease of use and just how pretty the roses looked but I wasn’t convinced I’d be able to reproduce it at home with my own rolling pin/ no fancy foam mat like the had at the show. However I was pleasantly surprised.

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Instead of buying the whole expensive kit they were flogging at the show I made my own glue by mixing a little of the fondant with water, made a soft mat out of a tea towel and cling film and used a sieve and cornflour to keep things dry.

Once I’d put together my own replica of the kit needed (see caption above) I was ready to go. The cutting was straight forward but the shaping with a rolling pin was less easy. You do need something a bit more foam like than a tea towel and a wooden rolling pin is no good as it leaves a pattern, you do need a plastic one or something else round and smooth.

The rolling however was just as easy as advertised and soon I had plenty of roses of various sizes ready to go:

Overall I’d say the £20 kit they sell (with foam mat, rolling pin etc.) is very overpriced but the cutter on its own isn’t too steep and it certainly works. the roses are pretty effective and looking at the design on the website I’d certainly have them on my wedding cake…