My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

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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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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Getting into Science

I like to think that I am already ‘in’ science to some extent or another. However, when I received information about a careers in science week organised by the UCL Careers service I pinpointed two events of interest to me.

The event which caught my eye at first was the Careers in Science Forum. This was divided into two parts: a panel discussion and a networking event. In the first half scientists in a variety of jobs, from research to patent attorneys, public sector to publishing, briefly talked about what they do and how they got there. The discussion was then opened to the floor for questions. In the networking half of the event, representatives from a wide variety of relevant organisations were present and eager to discuss what is on offer within their organisations.

The event overall was very well organised and a good eye-opener to other possible careers. Of course, a more research-focussed job is what I am essentially training to do. However, in particular, this event reminded me of the possibility of working in the publishing side of science. I really do think that this is something I should keep in mind.

The other event I attended was a workshop on CVs in the Science Sector. Of course, whatever I go on to do, a CV is one thing I will definitely need. I am sure that any CV can always do with some help, and this one hour sessions served its purpose of highlighting things I should edit in mine, and others which I should keep. Well worth the hour I think!


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