My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

Progress Report

I realise it has been 3 months since I last wrote in this blog, so it’s high time I update you (all?) with what has been going on.

I have been keeping myself quite busy! Since the last update I submitted my PhD (end of August), attended 3 conferences (LACONA as part of the organising committee, Anoxia and Microfading as a participant and ICOM-CC conference in Lisbon as a presenter). Following the conference marathon I then spent a few days working with Bruce Ford on microfading at Tate. This was a superb experience for me to learn about this new technique. I also got to analyse paint samples that Matisse used, which was very exciting.

Of course, there’s still my viva to go. My viva is next week (*fingers crossed*) so I have been preparing for that. I have also been offered a job in Denmark. I will be moving over there within a month, which takes some work.

This is not the last of my PhD-related work though! I have been selected as a finalist in an Royal Society of Chemistry postgraduate competition which means I get to present my work to judges form industry at the beginning of November. There is also a number of papers still to be written, and of course a lot rests on the outcome of my viva, so wish me luck!




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Interdisciplinarity: Science and Art

Interdisciplinary Studies of Evidence is one of many courses offered through the UCL graduate school skills development programme. I have so far been to three of the sessions in the series, on being a general session on interdisciplinarity, and the other two on evidence in statistics and computer modelling.

Late last month I went to another session in the series: Using Science to Understand Art: Contexts and Communication. It’s taken me quite some time to get round to writing about it. This is not only because I have been busy, but because I needed time to think about what was said.

During the course, Ruth Siddall, the course tutor, spoke about her experience as a geologist working with people in museums (arts). Her research interests deal with the identification of pigments, minerals, mortars and rocks. She spoke about how her skills as a geologist have come in useful in her work, but at the same time, how she needed to adapt to communicate with people in a different field.

However, something she was saying wasn’t sounding quite right to me, at least in the way I am experiencing interdisciplinarity in my work. Something felt jarring, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. I am still not sure I do! However, I think it has very much to do with how she views herself and how I am encouraged to view myself in my work.

She constantly referred to herself as a scientist (geologist) working with people in the arts. She quite readily and clearly identified herself with the field she has a strong background in: geology. Something which has been niggling me about the way I am encouraged to view myself is that there is a strong desire to see me describe myself as a ‘heritage scientist’ (with the caveat that ‘heritage’ is not an adjective describing the noun ‘scientist’). However, my only background in ‘heritage science’ is that I am working within the field whilst frantically scrabbling around to try to grasp at numerous strands of knowledge I feel are important. Is that enough?

Also, what does being a ‘heritage scientist’ mean in practice? What should I consider to be my strong point? Should it be the science? Or should it be the heritage field? I strongly suspect that the suggestion is that I should consider both to be a strong point. But where does that leave me? It leaves me pretty much falling into nothingness…or does it?

There is still quite a lot I feel I need to digest from that session and from everything I have been absorbing and feeling throughout my PhD. The session pushed me into thinking about things more coherently and systematically. That surely can only be a good thing. People say that a PhD is a journey, and I feel that this is an important part of my journey that I need to come to grips with.

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The Centre for Sustainable Heritage is 10!

The UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage, where I am based for my PhD, was established in March 2001. This means that starting this month the centre is celebrating its 10th Anniversary with a series of events which started precisely on the 1st of March 2011.

The day started with a meeting of the ICON Science Group on ‘Monitoring and Modelling of the Heritage Environment‘. I was only involved in this as a very willing participant, unlike the other ICON Science Group Meeting I was involved in over a year ago now. It was nice to relax though and hear updates from other researchers about projects I have been aware of, as well as learn about new projects and what they aim to achieve. Keeping the presentations to 10 minutes seemed a good way of making sure that the basic concepts of projects were explained without going in too much detail – after all there was time to network and ask about the details later on in the day.

My main role in the event was then in the afternoon part of the day: an Open afternoon in our Heritage Science Laboratory. The event was organised very well by the research fellows in our department, with people divided over 4 time slots throughout the afternoon. This meant that the people were well spread over the whole time and did not get over crowded at any one time. This did mean though that I was kept very busy talking to people! However, having people from so many different backgrounds attending meant that the discussions arising were often very stimulating, and kept me on my toes trying to tackle my work from different points of view.

Of course, no celebration is complete without a party! A private reception was indeed organised in the evening for people linked to the centre. Being part of the centre meant that it wasn’t only a party for me as I had some things I was responsible for. Nevertheless, it was a great opportunity to talk to people I already knew in the field as well as meeting new ones.

I was utterly exhausted by the end of the day. However the enthusiasm I regained from talking to so many people about my work was definitely worth it!

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Visit to the London Metropolitan Archives

Although my PhD research is being carried out in collaboration with The National Archives (TNA), I am always on the look out for any opportunity which might broaden my view of relevant issues. So when I saw a Behind the Scene Tour advertised on IanVisits’ calendar for the London Metropolitan Archives, I booked myself onto it.

The tour didn’t start off to well I must admit. When I entered I was directed to where the tour should start. However, as time passed, no one came to pick the other three and I for the tour. When 15 minutes had elapsed we went to try to track down what has happening. It seems that we were directed to the wrong room, and the tour had started without us! Around 20mins late a woman came to pick us up and start the tour for us.

The building in which the archives is housed was built for the Temple printing press in the 1930s. It was selected to become an archival building due to the very well supported floors it had to support the printing presses and which are now needed to support all the archival materials stored there.

Having been given a brief history of the place we were then led into the conservation space where we joined up with the rest of the group. A conservator was showing degraded cellulose acetate photographs and of course making us smell the unmistakable smell of vinegar. He had previously discussed with the rest of the group some issues with a map and a bound book which he briefly summarised for us.

From the conservation studio we were then led to the Image and Design area where we were introduced to David Tennant (no, not THAT one). He explained that the work of the department was to producing advertising material for the organisation. However, the main job relevant to the archive is that they provide an imaging service for people for materials which cannot be photocopied, such as parchment, bound books, or hand-coloured materials.

The last area we visited was the archives themselves. Having often been inside TNA repositories I was of course not particularly overawed like some of the others were. They looked as I expected a well-functioning archive to look like. I tried to ask about environmental control (as I didn’t feel that cold in there), but besides being told that there is a set-point it is kept at, I didn’t learn much more.

Coming to the end of the tour I would say I would have two suggestions to others thinking about going on this tour:

  1. Do go!
  2. Make sure you’re at the right place! The tour leaves exactly on time we were told so if no one comes at that time start asking around.

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