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Cerys Bradley: My Last Blog Post

Cerys MBradley14 June 2019

In April, I had my last shift at the UCL Art Museum . Last week I had my last shift in the Petrie Museum, next week will be my last shift ever at the Grant Museum. After nearly four and a half years, I’ve finally finished studying at UCL – I passed my PhD viva yesterday and am a few minor edits away from graduation.  As working as a student engager has been one of the best things about studying at UCL, I wanted to use this blog post to talk about some of my favourite moments on the job and the things I have learned because of this programme.

Let’s start with my favourite engagements. It was difficult to narrow down the list but I have chosen three, one from each museum. Before I tell you them, I would like to award a “highly commended” prize to the time I spent twenty minutes talking to two visitors in the Grant about how dead baby pigs are used in research in my department before finding out they were vegan. You can read more about the encounter here.

When I started working in the UCL Art Museum, I was incredibly apprehensive – I know nothing about art. My background is in mathematics and the staff in the museum kindly spent a lot of time searching through their catalogue to find related pieces I could talk about (to no avail). So I learned a few facts about Flaxman, the man whose works began the collection, and started offering to take visitors to the Flaxman gallery and the Housman room (a room that hosts several of UCL’s best pieces that should be on public display but are now hidden behind a key-card access only door).

On one of my shifts, a mother and daughter came to the museum. They had just moved to Reading from Pakistan and the daughter wasn’t getting on too well at school. She loved art class so her mum had brought her to London for the day to tour some art galleries. They were a little underwhelmed by our small print room (there wasn’t an exhibition on at the time) so I took them to the Flaxman gallery which displays casts and prototypes of some of the funerary monuments that Flaxman designed and sculpted. Flaxman worked during the British occupation of India and incorporated Indian burial iconography in his work. I learned this from the visitors who explained to me what the specific positions of the figures in the casts and their clothing signified about their lives. The visitors were excited to connect with the work and I learned a lot from them; it was an interaction which really demonstrated how positive the engagement programme could be.

UCL Flaxman Gallery and sculpture

The Flaxman Gallery at UCL

It is at the Grant Museum that I discovered the incredibleness of bats. Once again, I had to work hard with the staff at the museum to identify a way of connecting my research background with the collection. I started talking about the bats because a student in my department did her Master’s project about them. She is an environmental crime researcher (that encompasses both crimes committed against the environment and crimes committed by animals) and used her Master’s dissertation to investigate the destruction of bat habitats in the UK.

When on shift, I would hover by the bat specimens and use them to talk about my colleague’s research and, then, how we study crime in our department more generally. When I wasn’t talking to visitors I would idly google interesting facts about bats. They are now my favourite animals – I have two bat tattoos and a bat detector so I can determine the species of bats on Hampstead Heath.

One of my favourite facts to share with visitors is how much bats eat. Insectivore bats can eat up to 7 times their own body weight in insects in one night and fruit bats can eat up to twice their own body weight. I often tell this fact to children and ask them if they can imagine eating twice their own body weight in their favourite fruit. On one occasion, I asked a small boy (whose favourite food was cherries) how much fruit that would be. He asked his mum how much he weighed and then carefully counted two times 22 kg on his fingers before answering, very sincerely, 44 kg. His parents were extremely proud.

This is my favourite bat in the Grant Museum, I think he looks like a mob boss doing a really big laugh

When I work in the Petrie Museum, I talk about two things: the pot burial and Amelia Edwards. Three if you count helping children find the pink pyramids hidden in the displays. I like talking about the pot burial because we know so little about it and it’s a brilliant object for explaining to children the mechanics and limitations of archaeology.

When children approach the object, I ask them if they were an archaeologist and they found a skeleton in a pot, what questions would they try to answer. They nearly always ask the same three questions: “who was this person?”, “how did they die?”, and “why are they in a pot?”. Then we try to answer the questions together. On one occasion a tiny child looked me dead in the eye and declared that the person had died when they were hit on the head and all their blood had run out down their face (this was acted out for emphasis). The small child then went and did some colouring and I have had nightmares ever since (not really).

The pot burial in the Petrie Museum

Every instance of talking to a child about the pot burial becomes a favourite engagement at the Petrie. I enjoy observing their curiosity and creativity. It is even more fun when they come to terms with the idea that we just don’t know the complete answer to some questions and so they get to make up their own stories.

I have worked three Saturdays a month nearly every month for the past three years and experienced hundreds of engagements with visitors of UCL’s museums. I have learned a lot about their lives and about the collections, I have grown more confident talking to strangers, I have gotten better at explaining scientific concepts and I have discovered a thousand ways to say, “I have absolutely no idea, let’s google it”.

This is my final blogpost, which is why it is long and overtly sentimental, but I wanted to sign off by saying thank you to the UCL Student Engager’s programme for the huge, positive impact it has had on my time here at UCL.

 

“When gibbons sing, I know it will rain”

CarolynThompson13 May 2019

I started writing this blog post whilst sat in a half-deserted village high up in the Gaoligong mountains in China. Occupied by only 10 remaining elders who refused to leave their traditional lives behind, I had the privilege of staying here and immersing myself into daily life.

Gaoligong mountain village, Yunnan Province, China. © Carolyn Thompson

I am seated by myself as the morning sun blinds me as it peeps out from over the moss-covered tiled roofs. Two chickens are currently sneaking past me into the kitchen to morbidly watch their duck cousin be prepared for breakfast. They scream as my host shoos them away flapping her arms wildly.

The houses date back 50+ years and are made from old wood and bamboo harvested from the forest in the days before the nearby reserve was established. Mules are found on the ground floor of these dwellings with humans roosting above. As a result, night-time can be a very noisy affair!

I also experienced a huge storm at 3 am. I’ve slept through many tropical storms when I lived and worked in Indonesian Borneo, but this was something else. The walls rattled as the rain beat against it and droplets started to seep through and trickle down. I thought the storm would snatch the flimsy roof right off, but I am glad to report that all houses — and mules — were still standing when I woke up.

Typical village dwelling. © Carolyn Thompson

My PhD is all about understanding local nature and wildlife values, comparing gibbon (small ape) knowledge, and investigating patterns of natural resource use. I have spent the past few months collecting social data in the form of structured interviews and small group discussions with local communities in both Hainan and Yunnan provinces. To get the most candid answers, it is important to immerse yourself into local life.

I have drunk countless cups of green tea and bottles of “bai jiu” (lethal Chinese wine) as a result, been dressed up as a local Hei Lisu person, braved eating the 100-year old egg, and scoffed so many sunflower seeds that I am ready to sprout!

Adult female Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). © Fan Peng-Fei.

Before embarking on my PhD journey, I was given an antique book by Robert Van Gulik, a Dutchman fascinated by gibbons and their significance in Chinese culture. Published in 1967, “The Gibbon in China” is a magical collection of poems, stories and paintings dating back to 200 BC. Rich in its content, I was overwhelmed with the stories about “lonely”, “sad-looking” yet “magical” apes who sing haunting and melancholy songs in the Chinese mountains.

Taoists (those that believe in ancient nature-worship regarding the flow of “ch’i” energy in all living things) talked about gibbons being superior to humans. Gibbons were often referred to as “gentlemen” as discussed in my previous blog. Everyone loves good manners — bring a gibbon to meet the parents and they won’t be disappointed due to their impeccable “table manners” (unlike their mischievous macaque monkey cousins), according to an 8th-Century poet, Liu Tsung-Yuan. Their intelligence, supposedly similar to humans, is also regularly mentioned, especially when needing to drink water from a nearby river. Forming a chain by holding hands, gibbons would lower themselves down to the river. One should therefore never “…place a gibbon (Yuan-yu) in a barred cage [as] how could he then show his clever skills?” (4th Century statesman, Ch’u-tz’u).

Forming a “Gibbon Chain”. Nineteenth Century. Sourced from Van Gulik’s 1967 essay on “Gibbons in China”.

Having read this book from cover to cover, I was pumped to record rich gibbon stories during my field season. I was therefore incredibly shocked and disappointed to learn that many traditional stories have not been passed down through the generations.

China is made up of 56 different ethnic groups, all of which used to be rich in culture and history with traditional dress and sigils (both of which are now rarely seen). I interviewed participants from six of these ethnic groups and asked them questions regarding  the importance of gibbons and forests in their local culture. Participants either didn’t understand the question or they would say there is no connection.

I was relieved to hear that a few elders still have a tale or two to tell, especially when it comes to gibbons being able to predict the weather:

“When gibbons sing, I know it will rain tomorrow.” (Anonymous).

An elder in Hainan province told me about how gibbons came to be which involved a naughty, lazy boy who was scolded with an iron on his butt. He then sprouted hair and turned into a gibbon.

I also had a surprisingly funny interview with a 70-something year old man who used to work in Burma harvesting wood to sell back to the Chinese. He spoke about his love of gibbons…to eat! We spent most of our interview crying with laughter as his opinion was so far from my own. He kept insisting that gibbons were incredibly ugly and thought I was crazy because I felt they had aesthetic value.

An on-looker listening in to an interview whilst looking at gibbon photographs. © Yu Yue Jiang.

“Look at their ugly faces!” He would yell. “Ah, they taste so good! Such a shame the government won’t let me hunt them anymore.”

It is important when I conduct these interviews that I remain impartial. At the end of the day, my PhD is all about finding sustainable solutions for both humans and gibbons alike.

My favourite moment was with an 87-year old woman who heard that a “laowai” (foreigner) was staying in the village. Having never left her village or seen a Caucasian woman before, we had a very special, informal moment bonding over gibbons and discussing what life was like during her youth — and what life was like now.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bu6JKNjAWA8/

Although I am still at the start of my PhD journey, I have teamed up with a local non-governmental organisation called Cloud Mountain, who carry out conservation education activities. We hope to work together to reintroduce some of these traditional gibbon stories back into these villages. With only 28 Hainan gibbons, 150 Skywalker Hoolock gibbons and 110 Cao Vit gibbons remaining (my three study species), hopefully we can remind people of their magical, shared history and raise the profile of these forgotten apes before it is too late.

If you would like to follow my PhD journey, you can do so here: Personal blog, Twitter, Instagram. Or come and meet me in the UCL Grant or Petrie museums next month!

Trippy Taxidermy and Severed Heads: The Best of the Grant Museum

Sarah MGibbs11 April 2019

For budgetary reasons, UCL Culture has recently decided to terminate the Student Engager programme, which has brought PhD students into the university’s museums to share their specialist knowledge and enable greater visitor access to collections.

As we wrap up the Researchers in Museums blog, Engagers will be sharing some of their favourite memories, and providing readers with a few final details about the museums’ amazing art works, artefacts, and specimens.

Sarah’s Top Specimens

“Half of my Head is in Havana”: The Negus Collection.

Actually, it’s in UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology. The Negus Collection is a group of bisected animal heads stored in clear Perspex containers. Have a gander at one side, and you’ll see an alligator in all his scaly glory. The other side? Well, that shows you what we might call his inner beauty. The Collection was originally assembled to study animal noses and throats. Photographs and digital models now make such preparations unnecessary. When the Grant Museum hosted a migration workshop featuring a bisected salmon head, visitors decided that the beady-eyed sushi staple should play the villain in an under-sea opera.

Crocodile (Crocodylidae; X1211)

Terrible Taxidermy: The Story of Frank

That’s what I’ve always called the Grant’s friendly pygmy orangutan. He’s an upbeat specimen, despite being a victim of some rather poor quality preparation. Taxidermists in the nineteenth century were often unfamiliar with the animals they preserved; the Horniman Museum is famous for its dramatically overstuffed walrus (no one told the taxidermist that this strange creature’s skin should lie in loose folds). Frank’s facial features are ill-defined, and his skin is splitting. It’s like he’s had both a facelift, and a few too many decades in a tanning booth. Plus, he’s an arsenic bomb. That’s right, folks. Frank is one of many early taxidermical specimens preserved using poisonous chemicals. He poses no danger unless he’s handled heavily without protective clothing. Nevertheless, don’t let those sweet brown eyes convince you to go in for a hug. At least he’s got one of those retro cool hairstyles, like the kids on Stranger Things.

Orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus; Z490)

The Lonely Donkey

The Grant Museum has a donkey skeleton. You don’t really see this donkey, as everyone’s still a little disappointed he isn’t something else, namely, a zebra. As the Grant has always been a teaching collection, and as it also received massive transfers of specimens when London’s other university-based zoology museums closed, determining the identity and provenance of the over 60,000 collection items can sometimes be tricky. Records indicated that the Museum held two zebra skeletons. Then an expert came by to check. Turns out, it has one quagga (Amazing! Incredibly rare zebra sub-species! Only seven skeletons of the now-extinct animal in the world!) and one donkey (sigh). So, for want of display space, the sad little donkey (codename: Eeyore) gazes over the railing from the second floor. Look up next time you visit, and give him a wave.

Donkey (Equus asinus; Z233)

The Thylacine

Thylacine (nationalgeographic.com)

Like the quagga, the thylacine is a member of the dark fraternity of extinct animals. A canine-like marsupial, the last known “Tasmanian Tiger” died in 1936. Even more unfortunate is the reason for the species’ disappearance: a government bounty. The thylacine was officially designated a danger to livestock, but many scholars now argue that its extermination was part of a greater effort to undermine indigenous culture by destroying native wildlife. The Grant Museum has one of the few fluid preserved specimens in the world, but don’t expect a smile from our floating friend; the thylacine has been decapitated, possibly as part of the bounty process. One visitor who had just returned from Tasmania told me that Errol Flynn, a film star in the 1930s and 40s, grew up with thylacines in his backyard. I wonder if they liked to play fetch.

Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus; Z1653)

 

Come find your own favourites at UCL’s Grant Museum.

What do Kids ask Scientists?

CitlaliHelenes Gonzalez26 January 2018

Science is exciting, science is fascinating, and with science you never get bored — this is what I want to communicate to children when I give talks about my research. As I work with brains, lasers and 3D printing, that’s easy enough. When I talk about neuroscience and what I do in the lab as a PhD student, kids are always interested even if the younger ones don’t even know what a brain does. When I show them pictures of my research (see below), which involves working with brain cells and dissecting brains, there’s always an eww sound — because the brain is “slimy”.

 

 

 

 

 

A pig’s brain, which — according to kids — is gross because it’s slimy. (Image: Author’s own photo)

 

 

 

 

 

The same brain cut into pieces. (Image: Author’s own photo)

 

After my talk, with just a couple of minutes left and a lot of hands raised, I get a lightning round of questions. They range from all aspects of life, not just science as they assume that scientists know everything about everything in the universe. This would be cool, but it’s definitely not the case. Anyhow, I always have a blast answering their unique questions, so I’ve decided to share a couple of my favourites and some of the trickier ones here. Here is a taster of them, followed by my inner dialogue (ID) and what I actually answered (A). As you will see, my inner dialogue can be quite different from the answer, which just shows how difficult it can be to answer unexpected questions. Remember, as I always tell the kids, there are no stupid questions.

 

Q: Can you make little animals?

ID: Other than little humans in my uterus, no.

A: Scientist are trying to make organs in the lab by growing cells in a specific way, but we can’t grow a full animal yet.

 

Q: Why do you die?

ID: Because our bodies can’t cope with so much wisdom.

A: It’s a big scientific question, trying to answer why we age and ultimately die. Our bodies grow older and our cells don’t regenerate as much as they used to, but ultimately we don’t know exactly why this happens.

 

Q: How much do you make?

ID: Not enough.

A: Enough.

 

Q: Is it true that when you die your heart explodes?

ID: Yes, if you die in an explosion.

A: No, when you die your heart just stops beating.

 

Q: Can we even get to fully understand the brain if it’s always evolving?

Now, this one really impressed me because: 1) she knows about evolution and understands that not only we as a species evolved but we are still evolving and so are our brains; 2) she knows that we don’t know everything about the brain; and 3) it’s just a really interesting question coming from a 10-year-old!

ID: Wow, yeah that’s true, can we?

A: That’s a very good question. Yes, we don’t know fully how the brain works but there are breakthroughs in science every day and new tools and techniques will allow us to one day fully understand the brain, even if it’s still evolving.

 

Q: My friend told me that he saw a ghost and… (After a long story about his friend seeing a ghost, the teacher was a little fed up with his not very scientific question and the rest of the class was giggling).

ID: I’m also giggling.

A: Just because your friend said so that doesn’t mean it’s real. You have to question him and ask him to show you evidence of what he claims is true. Remember to always question everything and look for evidence.

 

Q: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered?

ID: How resilient I can be when facing relentless adversity, demonstrated by how my numerous failed experiments and negative results have broken my spirit yet have not killed my wandering scientific mind. Oh, wait, you mean like in science?

A: How cool neurons look down a microscope.

 

Q: Why do you like gross stuff?

ID: What are you talking about? Brains are not gross, they’re amazing!

A: What are you talking about? Brains are not gross, they’re amazing!

 

Q: How old is the universe?

ID: Oh god, try to remember, you know this.

A: Around 14 billion years.

Q: How much is that?

A: A lot!

 

So there you have it: kids and their questions. I wish to thank the schools that invited us PhD students, as well as the children for listening to me and asking such stimulating questions. Keep your curiosity alive!

 

Five years of research: a summary

StacyHackner3 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

KevinGuyan12 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?

KevinGuyan28 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

KevinGuyan20 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

KevinGuyan8 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

Ruth MBlackburn13 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.