My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

IoP Printing and Graphic Science Conference

A few months back I had the opportunity to meet up with Alan Hodgson, and discuss my work with him, particularly in light of his work in the development of ISO standards. However, he is also involved with the Institute of Physics Printing and Graphic Science Group and he encouraged me to send in an abstract for the groups Annual Student Conference. I looked into it and submitted my abstract, and happily it was accepted. So the 1st of December saw me making my way up to Manchester in the freezing weather for this event.

Although my PhD work mainly revolves around photographic images, during my PhD I have not been exposed to the photographic industry as much as I might have otherwise been. Mainly I have been in contact with photographic conservators rather than people working at the cutting edge of this industry. I was thus very excited to have this opportunity to present my work to people working in the printing and graphic science industry.

Arriving at the conference I was initially concerned with what I would find. Would I manage to explain what I have been doing coherently to people approaching the issue from different viewpoints than me? Also, would the work I have been carrying out stand up to the scrutiny of a physics conference? This last question has been something that has intrigued me over the past year as I hadn’t at yet presented to such an audience (though I have had work published in scientific journals).

The presentations throughout the day were broadly divided into what could be considered to be two broad areas: colour and graphic science, and printing. I felt like my work fell pretty much somewhere in the middle of these two fields (and in fact my presentation was in the middle of the day). My presentation seemed to pass very quickly. However, I was excited to see that I got quite a lot of relevant questions, which to me indicated that the audience could actually follow what I was saying.

Overall I felt like attending this conference was actually really fruitful. It was interesting to hear what the others were working on. In particular however it was very good for me to become somewhat more immersed in this field, and learn about the techniques being used which I can apply to my work.

Even more satisfactory though was the awards at the end of the conference. Two awards were to be presented at the end to the students with the best presentation in each of the two broad areas. Although I wasn’t sure where my work fell, I was very grateful to receive the prize in the colour and imaging science section. It has helped me become that bit more confident in the work I have been doing, particularly as I was presenting to an audience who is not working in the heritage field to which my work is directed, but to an audience of physicist. Thanks to the committee for the prize, which consists of a certificate and £50.

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Visiting Bletchley Park

Every since I heard a talk by Captain Jerry Roberts – a WWII TUNNY code-breaker – at UCL over a year and a half ago, a visit to Bletchley park has been very much on my to-do list. It wasn’t until Saturday that I finally got there.

Bletchley park is the estate in which the British code-breakers of WWII worked. They worked there to break codes, decipher Axis communication, and also built the first computer – Colossus (partly shown below) – to speed up the work they were doing there. Unfortunately, the nature of the work the computer was doing meant that it wasn’t until decades later that this achievement was uncovered.

An excellent way of seeing the site is by taking the 1.5hr tour of the site by one of the volunteers. This gives you a very good overview of how the site progressed, what went on where, and the significance of all of it. We had the privilege to be led around by Ray Goff. Besides the history of the place, we also got the opportunity to see replicas of the Bombe code-breaking machines (below), and even a working replica of Colossus!

The tour however is more about the way the estate changed, and the general activities going on. The estate is divided into a number of huts and blocks, and a mansion. Many of these buildings now house exhibits or museums, from a museum of computing, to code-breaking exhibits, to a toy museum and a post office (below)!

There is a lot to see and do on the site (too much maybe), and a problem with the site is that, similar to the ad hoc way the buildings were put up during the war to accommodate growing people numbers, it seems like the exhibits have been put up in a similar fashion, as money was made available to build them, or organisations/individuals came along and asked(?) for space on the site.

In the three  hours I spent there I felt like I barely scratched the surface of all the gems the place provides! This is definitely good, you probably think. And I agree with you – to a point! I feel maybe a more coherent organisation of the place would be better.

However, to carry out such a reorganisation requires money, which the trust most probably does not have. So I urge you – go and visit, experience the place, hopefully you will fall in love with it, and in the process help the valuable work the Trust is carrying out in saving this oft-forgotten aspect of WWII.

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A Conference Experience

Last week the 9th Indoor Air Quality Meeting was held in Chalon-Sur-Saone, France. IAQ Meetings are  ‘all about the impact of the air quality on objects in museums, libraries, or archives’. As I have been doing some work on environmental conditions inside archives and libraries (which has also been published), I had submitted an abstract to present my work at the conference some months ago which luckily was accepted.

Presentation at the conference varied quite a bit though they all focussed on issues of indoor air quality in heritage environments. There were quite a number of case studies presented from various institutions, as well as the presentation of a number of sensor systems, including a wireless sensor network from a research assistant from the same centre as me. However, aside from the work which is relevant for my research (which of course I found very useful), I was particularly happy to hear presentations on the monitoring of airborne mould in heritage institutions. Having done an internship in microbiology, I always find it interesting to get back to that area of science!

The conference offered me a great opportunity to see the work other people working in the field are doing and to meet people I have been reading the work of and being in contact with over the past year. It also meant hearing all about the latest research in the area. It was exciting to get the opportunity to present and discuss my work, and in particular to see how my work fits into the bigger picture of heritage science. It has left me more excited and eager to keep on working on my project, in particular as I have more clearly seen the benefit of my work in conjunction with other work going on.

Now on to the next part of my research, the next paper, the next conference – the cycle goes on!

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Workshopping in Leiden

The second week of January was spent in a workshop in Leiden on ‘Electrochemistry in Historical and Archaeological Conservation‘. Although I am not working on metals and don’t see much use of electrochemical techniques, at least at the moment, in my PhD studies, I thought it would nevertheless be a good idea to learn about the techniques used to study other materials; in any way principles of conservation in the different fields are similar if not the same, so even learning about similar fields could help me produce a more coherent idea about my research.

The programme was split into lectures in the morning and practical sessions in the afternoon, with different days being dedicated to different aspects such that Monday was dedicated to analysis, Tuesday to Cleaning and Stabilisation, Wednesday to Protection, Thursday to Testing and Monitoring and Friday to Standards and Education. The sections I was most interested in where the Analysis sections and the Testing and Monitoring sections. However, to my surprise I also found the protection sections particularly interesting, and the standards and education discussions were enlightening in a broader sense (i.e. the discussion could be just as applicable to metals as to other materials).

All in all a successful workshop! It was great to meet some people I had worked with in Malta, and of course meeting new people and hearing their ideas is always good and can spark off a good few ideas which you weren’t expecting. The workshop dinner and the trip to a museum was of course, as always, a good time!

Now I am back in London. It feels great to be back to London and back to work. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to coming back here after Christmas as coming back here after the last Christmas and Easter holidays was not the easiest. however this time I seem to have settled back to work much quicker…hopefully this augurs well for the coming year of work!

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Pisa…A Research Visit

In the last post I left you with my arrival in Pisa. Now, having completed my time there, I am back in London. But how did it go, and why did I go there?

The first aim of my visit there was to determine a method for the extraction of the dyes from my photographs, followed by their separation using chromatographic methods. Thus, the majority of the first two weeks was spent trying out the methods mentioned in literature for similar methods (since none were found for my exact requirements), and then depending on the results obtained modifying the methods to obtain the best methods we could. This is proably one of the most tricky parts of a research project, since it can take a very long time till the best combination is determined. Luckily, we found something we could work with, and thus could get on to the next part of the work. This involved analysing aged photographs using chromatographic and colourimetric methods and correlating the two. What about the  results for this? I must say not all the results are perfect, but at least I proved what I was there to do.

What about the other aspects of the research trip? I must say it was great! I enjoyed the work, the people, the lifestyle…everything. Being in Pisa also meant I could get to other parts of Tuscany quite easily…so I visited Florence, Siena, Lucca, Cinque Terre, Certaldo etc. I also had people visiting me, which was nice.

I think that it is not enough from these research trips to take only the work, but it is so much better if you can experience a bit the life in that place…you really do gain a lot…not just in friends, and results, but also in other skills such as project management and time management (since you are there for a limited period of time).

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Research Trips

A good point to doing a PhD is definitely the travelling you get to do (especially if you have a supervisor who supports you and is interested in sending you to conferences and in working with other people). Luckily I have one of these supervisors ;). So far I have been to a workshop in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where I attended two workshops: One on the use of GC-MS to analyse small quantities of mixed organic materials by a research group from Pisa, Italy. The second workshop on the next day was on the use of NIR/Chemometrics in Cultural Heritage (which is something which I will use quite a bit in my PhD).

But this is not the only research-related trip for this year. Around the beginning of March my supervisor asked me if I would be interested in going to do some work in Pisa (with the research group I attended a workshop by in Ljubljana). I immediately said yes, both as I like travelling, but also as I knew that there I could get work done which would be difficult to do in London on my own. So my supervisor started some correspondence with this research group, and luckily they accepted to host me :). I then I applied for a grant through COST, “an intergovernmental framework for European Cooperation in Science and Technology” by the end of March. Beginning of April I received back that I was accepted for a grant through this programme…and Voila’! I’ll be in Pisa for the month of May!

I arrived in Pisa last weekend, and will be here till the 1st of June. So far I am really enjoying myself, and the work seems to be happening (it is still the first two days, but at least we are working on something). I am so glad for this opportunity. Will let you know how it goes!

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