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Archive for the 'PhD Life' Category

Five years of research: a summary

By Stacy Hackner, on 3 July 2017

DSC_0745

by Stacy Hackner

A PhD often feels like an unrewarding process. There are setbacks, data failures, non-significant results, and a general lack of the small successes that (I hear) make general worklife pleasant: “I got that promotion!” “Everyone applauded my presentation!” “I moved to the desk near the window!” PhD life is one giant slog until the end, a nerve-wracking hours-long session where you’re grilled by the only people who know more about your field than you.

I survived.

Hopefully some of you have been following my research here, starting from astronauts and moving on to runners and foraging patterns. It all ties together, I promise. I recently gave a talk at the Engagers’ event “Materials & Objects” summarizing my research, which I can now tell you about in its full glory! I’m pleased to announce: I had significant findings.

The lowdown is that (as expected) there are differences in the shape of the tibia (shin bone) between nomads and farmers in Sudan. Why would this be? Well, if you’ve been following along, bones change shape in response to activity, particularly activities performed during adolescence. The major categories of tibial shape were those that indicated long-distance walking, doing activity in one place, and doing very little activity. Looking at the distribution, the majority of the nomadic males had the leg shape indicating long-distance walking, and some of the agricultural males had the long-distance shape and others had the staying-in-place shape. This makes sense considering the varying types of activity performed in an agricultural society, particularly one that also had herds to take care of: some individuals would be taking the herds up and down along the Nile to find grazing land while others stayed local, tending farms. While it’s unclear how often a nomadic group needs to move camp to be considered truly nomadic, in this case it seems like they were walking a lot – enough to compare their tibial shape to that of modern long-distance runners. These differences in food acquisition are culturally-adapted responses to differing environments: the nomads live in semi-arid grassland and can travel slowly over a large area to graze sheep and cattle, while the farmers are constrained to a narrow strip of fertile land along the Nile banks, limiting how many people can move around, and how often.

Perhaps the most important finding is the difference between males and females. In addition to looking at shape, I also conducted tests to show how strong each bone is regardless of shape, a result called polar second moment of inertia (and shortened to, unexpectedly, J). The males at each site had higher values for J – thus, stronger bones – than the females. However, the nomadic females had higher J values than some of the males at the agricultural sites! This is in spite of most females from both sites having the tibial shape indicating “not very much activity”. This shape may be the juvenile shape of the tibia, which females have retained into adulthood despite performing enough activity to give them higher strength values than male farmers. Similar results have actually been noted in studies examining different time periods – for instance, the Paleolithic to Neolithic – and found much more similarity between females than between males. Researchers often interpret this as evidence of changing male roles but female roles remaining the same, which strikes me as unlikely considering the time spans covered. I instead conclude that females build bone differently in adolescence, and perhaps there are subtleties in bone development that don’t reveal themselves as differences in shape. As females have lower rates of testosterone, which builds bone as well as muscle, they may have to work harder or longer than males to attain the same bone shape and strength. I’m using this to argue that the roles of women in archaeological societies – particularly nomadic ones – have been unexamined in light of biological evidence.

Of course, the best conclusion for a PhD is a call for more research, and mine is that we need to examine male and female adolescent athletes together to see when exactly shape change occurs. If we can pin down the amount of activity necessary for women to have bones as strong as those of their male peers, we can more accurately interpret the types of activities ancient people were performing without devaluing the work of women.

My examiners found all this enthralling, and I’m pleased to say I passed! The work of this woman is valued in the eyes of the academe.

The Student Engager Project featured on the LSE Impact Blog

By Kevin Guyan, on 12 August 2016

The Student Engager project featured on the LSE Impact Blog, an online hub for those researching and working at universities who wish to maximise the impact of academic work.  In the article, the project coordinator Kevin Guyan discusses the potential benefits of the public engagement project for training the next generation of researchers in ways to communicate research with non-academic audiences.

 

LSE Impact Blog

To read the full article visit the LSE Impact Blog.

 

 

Engaging Conversations: What do a shift in the Grant Museum and the diaries of Charles Blagden have in common?

By Kevin Guyan, on 28 June 2016

By Hannah Wills

 

 

I’m thrilled to have recently joined the team of student engagers at UCL, and to have had my very first shift in the Grant Museum this month. As a historian of science, working on Charles Blagden (1748-1820), Royal Society secretary to the famous naturalist and patron of science Joseph Banks, I instantly found connections between the museum’s natural history specimens and my own subject interests. However, during my very first shift, I discovered another more personal link between my own PhD research and my experiences as a student engager.

Blagden

Sir Charles Blagden, photo credit: Wikipedia.

My work on Charles Blagden involves reading and transcribing some of his extensive diary, which he kept for most of his life, now looked after in the archives of the Royal Society. In his diary, Blagden recorded a daily inventory of his activities: where he went, whom he saw, and whom he dined with (Blagden was never one to miss out on a gastronomic get-together!).

Within this inventory-style diary are often records of the actual conversations had around the breakfast, lunch or dinner table. A friend of naturalists, botanists and all manner of scientific fellows of the Royal Society, Blagden frequently had conversations about exotic looking artefacts from fascinating and far away places, collected during the latest voyages of exploration. What’s more, many of these conversations took place with the objects of discussion right before the eyes of the company. During my first shift as a student engager, it struck me how chatting to visitors about strange and exotic creatures—ones which we had right before our eyes—seemed to echo what Blagden got up to on a nearly daily basis, over 200 years ago.

Something I’ve particularly noticed in Blagden’s dinner-table conversations is the use of comparison, and a fascination with the exotic. When in conversation about animal husbandry in China, Blagden was thrilled to learn how buffaloes, instead of horses, were used to plough fields—a very strange sight indeed! When talking about different species of nut, collected by naturalists on various voyages, Blagden and his friends compared them in size, shape and even taste, to those they had seen before, allowing them to make sense of new and exciting flora and fauna in relation to those they already understood.

Cookier Cutter Shark Jaw

Cookie Cutter Shark Jaw, photo credit: Grant Museum of Zoology (V415).

Chatting to visitors in front of exotic looking specimens in the Grant Museum, I noticed just how often we made use of comparisons between a strange looking skeleton and something we both knew well. Sometimes this comparison was suggested by the name of the creature. Standing in front of the cookiecutter shark jaw with one visitor, we both shuddered with a kind of macabre delight at how this animal uses its cookie-cutter like teeth to cut round lumps of flesh out of its victims, just as a real cookie-cutter is used to cut shapes out of a piece of dough.

There is definitely a thrill to seeing something new and exotic, something from far away, or something more mundane that you’ve simply never noticed before. As a student engager, I’m really looking forward to my next shifts in the Grant, Petrie and Art museums—not least for the opportunities I’ll get to see and learn about something completely new, and to chat about it with visitors, just as Blagden and his friends discussed the latest curiosities that made their way to London in the late eighteenth century.

 

Stress: Building an Exhibition

By Kevin Guyan, on 20 July 2015


Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

 

With the announcement of the Student Engagers’ autumn exhibition, here is the first in a series of blog posts that share personal insights into the curatorial process.

 

Stress offers the student engagement team an opportunity to curate an exhibition that counters the traditional view of museums and galleries as fixed spaces that display objects that convey a message. Instead – I see this as a chance for us to experiment with bold and exciting ways to share knowledge and create a space on campus for three-way conversations between curators, objects and the public.

The inception of our exhibition first found life in the summer of 2014 during a conversation between the student engagement team and the UCL Art Museum. Over one year later and, as design ideas and draft event listings are shared via email, the exhibition at last feels like it is coming together.

As our more experienced colleagues in UCL Museums and Public and Cultural Engagement warned, ‘exhibition time’ runs significantly slower than ‘normal time’ and we now appreciate starting this project with 16 months to spare. I remember looking at action plans with distant dates and the feeling that our plans were a lifetime away. Those dates have now come and gone as we hurtle through 2015 and towards our opening night on Friday 9 October.

The meat and bones of the student engagement project is the presence of researchers in UCL’s three public museums. Therefore, one of the key hopes for Stress was to import this practice and create an exhibition where a researcher was always present, waiting and ready for conversation.

The researcher’s presence will also create a way to feed-back information from visitors into the planning of events, pre-empting many questions and queries fielded and offering a more tailored visitor experience. It further gives us opportunities to adapt the exhibition during its run. For example, conversations between engagers and visitors will inform the writing of blog articles that will then shape how future visitors perceive the objects on display.

Like our previous events and exhibitions, Movement, LandSCAPE and Foreign Bodies, the theme of Stress brings together the research interests of a diverse group of PhD students under one overarching theme. This means that the visitor experience will differ according to the researcher in the exhibition space and their interpretation of the objects on display.

North Lodge

UCL’s North Lodge will house a team of postgraduate researchers throughout the exhibition.

I am excited to see how this works in reality – the continual presence of a researcher in the North Lodge exhibition space may prove overbearing and turn-off visitors looking for a space of solitude in busy Bloomsbury. More optimistically, the space will become a talking shop at the entrance to UCL’s campus and create a different, yet equally enriching, experience for visitors.

For me, public engagement is about more than sharing research ideas with other people. The benefits should reach far further than dissemination alone and empower researchers to enter into dialogues with people from different backgrounds. The process of sharing ideas with people unfamiliar with our own field will foster new and unexpected connections and force us to change the way we share our work, ultimately resulting in a deeper understanding for everyone involved.

We are attempting to build an exhibition with public engagement as a foundational building block and create a space that gives researchers and visitors opportunities to follow pathways unaware where they might lead. This is very much the ethos of the student engagement project – let’s see how our ideas work in reality.

Beyond the PhD: Public Engagement and Employment

By Kevin Guyan, on 8 December 2014

Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

I write this blog post as a break from PhD research and the task of looking for part time employment. My mind is fast becoming foggy from the endless administration loop of locating a job posting, completing the Application Form and tailoring my CV and Cover Letter to match the job specifications. However, this communication with non-academic employers has allowed me to see which experiences feature regularly in my applications, regardless of the job application.

My role as a Student Engager has featured in the majority of submissions and it is apparent that the versatility of the project presents a number of skills that impress potential employers. At the interview stage, employers scroll down my CV and are attracted to the project.   The interviewer invites me to ‘say more’ on the project and elaborate further on what it means ‘to engage with the public’.

Employers are keen to hear more about the following engagement skills:

Customer service.   The majority of employed positions require an ability to deal with other people and my work in UCL museums provides excellent examples.   Although we are not ‘selling’ our research to the public, the ability to spot an interested visitor, strike up conversation and bring discussion to a constructive close are all useful skills that have impressed in interviews.

Dissemination of information. Though it is a stretch to describe our experiences of marketing and communication, the sharing of our research with the public and shaping of events to target audiences that may not normally engage with universities, is a great talking point.

Dealing with diverse audiences. There is no set audience for the people who are brought together for a public engagement event, our previous events have attracted everyone from departmental colleagues to local residents who popped-across the road to see what was happening. This diversity of interactions is well suited to employment in everything from a coffee shop to a library front desk.

Project management. Finally, the ability to develop an idea from inception through to eventual completion is another talking point. Examples cited include our 2013 event Landscape and 2014 event Movement.

By explaining the Student Engagement project to non-academic employers, the many merits of the project and their stretch beyond our university setting become apparent. The project not only allows for the presence of public engagers in UCL museums and the delivery of events, but also provides a training platform for a handful of PhD students who may not acquire these skills elsewhere.

Student Engagers running a session at our May 2014 event Movement.

Frustratingly, the Student Engagement Project has attracted more attention from employers than the skills required to undertake my PhD. Admittedly, the positions under discussion are non-academic and therefore do not call for a knowledge of postwar gender history in Britain. I hope that my PhD will become a greater talking point after its completion.

The typical model of an application form, in which you identify skills and support them with evidence, fits well with the variety of tasks undertaken as a Student Engager.   However, rather than writing a love letter to the Student Engagement project, my thoughts have instead turned to important questions over the training of PhD students and their readiness for an extremely competitive job market after leaving university.

A substantial number of students graduating with PhDs will not go on to pursue careers in academia.   University chiefs therefore need to ask how research students can utilise their time at university to develop their employability above and beyond the research and writing of a thesis, acknowledging the reality that many students will need to jump from an academic path to an equally competitive Plan B.

For those that pursue a PhD that directly follows a postgraduate degree, undergraduate degree and secondary school, as is my situation, there is the risk of emerging from the education system in your mid-to-late twenties lacking the diversity of skills and experiences gained by contemporaries from a decade in the job market. I am conscious of this risk and have proactively worked to expand my experiences. Yet, universities face the difficult task of juggling the provision of ‘extracurricular’ opportunities for students while not prescribing the activities of independent researchers.

As an example, the Student Engagement project has offered me experiences that complement the rigours of academic research and I therefore wonder how universities can adopt and expand aspects of the project to ready other PhD students for employment beyond academia.

Public engagement – an essential experience for the PhD student

By Ruth M Blackburn, on 13 January 2014

Elephant Heart in the Grant Museum

Elephant Heart in the Grant Museum

With 2013 now a thing of the past, I find myself reflecting on my progress over the last 12 months, which have taken me from fledgling PhD student to recently “upgraded”.

For the uninitiated, the Upgrade process is the gateway from MPhil to PhD student and marks one of the few official milestones between starting and submitting a PhD thesis. The format of this assessment varies between departments but may comprise; a report of up to 10,000 words, a departmental seminar and question time (an hour or so), and a viva with examiners.

At first sight, this is a daunting process with excellent potential for awkward questions, awkward silences and total demoralisation. However, I am not alone in finding the upgrade a useful and highly positive experience; a quick (and totally unscientific) survey of my peers tells a similar story. These post-upgrade students are utterly upbeat about their experience, they describe it as the perfect opportunity to “take stock” of the whole PhD, see where it is going and to focus and refine your work with advice from your peers and examiners. However, they do concede that you can be asked about ANYTHING (that can be vaguely related to your work) and that defending your work is essential.

These sentiments are strongly reminiscent of my experiences of being a Post-Graduate Student Engager; since spring 2013 I have spent time in each of UCL’s three extraordinary museums and conversed with an incredible range of people about all aspects of my research as well as the collections that they have come to visit. We (The Student Engagers) often receive feedback about the benefits of engagement to the public or at institutional level, but only occasionally is the benefit to ourselves discussed.

To my mind, learning to engage offers four major benefits to the PhD student:

Number 1: Clarity of thinking – there is nothing quite like discussing or teaching someone to help distill your ideas and identify gaps in your knowledge. Furthermore, discussion with people who are not familiar with your area of work necessitates dropping much loved jargon for plain English. But unsurprisingly, this can lead to benefit Number 2.

Number 2: Being challenged. Far from being a bad thing, well-directed questions and real-time feedback can be entertaining (essential for successful engagement!) and educational for both parties.

Number 3: The Randomness Factor. Not to be underestimated, chance encounters can have surprising implications for research. This includes everything from meeting someone who works on a related topic to discussing what “life” or “mental health” or “a museum” actually is. In my experience it is often these off-topic conversations that build the trust and rapport needed to probe further into your area of research, and what this means to different people.

Number 4: Greater perspective. Talking to anyone for long enough invariably breaks down barriers, allows us to see the world through another person’s eyes and can renew interest in our own work.

I have experienced each of these benefits when using the Elephant Heart in the Grant Museum of Zoology to discuss my research (on the prevention of cardiovascular disease in people with severe mental illness). This grand specimen appeals hugely to children and adults alike and has sparked conversation with curious (and impressively knowledgeable) nine year olds, A and E doctors and artists from the Slade. The scope of conversation is huge; “what does a heart do?”, “is it real?” (it is), “can elephants get heart disease”? (they can), and ultimately discussion of my research, including why heart disease and mental illness so frequently affect the same individuals.

Researchers are particularly susceptible to becoming so entrenched in their own work that the broader meaning and application can become lost. Public Engagement provides an ideal platform for enriching research and public interest in it, and I would encourage everyone to give it a go.