My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

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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RSC does Heritage Science

Earlier this year I applied and was accepted as a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). On joining I started looking at the events being offered, and one which caught my eye in particular was the event ‘Heritage Science: Does that Deal with Old Science or New Challenges?‘.

This event was being organized by the RSC Marketing Group in collaboration with the science department at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum. So far I had not been for a good visit to the V&A, except for a presentation being given there by a friend about her PhD in the field. I thought that this would be a good opportunity to get a bit more involved with the RSC, while learning more about heritage science in practice.

As the event was on Monday, when a tube strike was lovingly gracing the underground system of London, I decided to cycle there using the ‘Boris bikes’. I arrived a bit early and took the opportunity to have a quick trip around the exhibits. Unfortunately the photography gallery was closed due to lack of staff as a result of the strike. I did manage to make it to the tapestry gallery though. There I was particularly fascinated by the smell, probably emanating from the tapestries themselves.

Having had a quick look around the museum I then made my way to the lecture theatre. For the event I was also joined by Eva, a PhD student in my department. The first thing on the program was a short lecture by Graham Martin, Head of Science at the museum, giving an introduction to Heritage Science. It was a very good introduction to the subject, pitched perfectly for the mainly non-heritage science chemists in the audience. However, the most interesting to me was definitely what came after!

Following the presentation we were then given security passes, divided into groups and sent off with one of the scientist to have a look around the museum and the labs. The scientist leading our group was Graham Martin himself, and he did a very good job of showing us how scientific research has fed into the way the objects are displayed, particularly in the Jameel gallery (below). This is after all the aim of heritage science: that what is being studied can feed directly into the field to improve the condition of heritage objects, be they big buildings, or minuscule jewels.

During the trip around the museum we also came across the tapestry gallery again. I swiftly grabbed Eva and took her in there for a sniff. We are now both curious as to the volatile organic compounds, or pollutants, which are being given off from the tapestries and creating that smell. Maybe we should do some investigation of our own? I guess we’ll have to wait and see!

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Heritage Science in Scotland

Heritage science is science for access to cultural heritage and for its conservation, interpretation, research and management

The ‘Heritage Science in Scotland‘ conference was organised on Tuesday by Historic Scotland, an executive agency of the Scottish government, “charged with safeguarding the nation’s historic environment and promoting its understanding and enjoyment”. Although I am not working in Scotland, as we are working in the field in the UK we were invited to attend.

The conference started off with an opening address by Prof Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland. She quite forcefully made the point about how strong Scotland is in science, and I think she also opened my mind to opportunities which exist in Scotland as regards science. Definitely a proud Scottish scientist, which I guess is what her work revolves around.

The other presentations were more intrinsically linked to the issue of heritage science. There seemed to me to be a lot of work going on concerning stone and inorganic materials. However this seems to be the situation everywhere, so wasn’t too surprised.

I was particularly excited about two presentations, one about a project I have heard about, and one which I hadn’t.  The first presentation was by Lorraine Gibson talking about the new AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage programme supported grant ‘Heritage Smells‘.

The other presentation was by Chris Hall, on Moisture Dynamics in Building Conservation. It might not have been the most impressive work, but I liked the simple way it was presented. Even though I have no background in the subject, I could easily follow, formulate questions, and the questions I formulated were answered. It was a well-structured presentation.

I must admit that my knowledge of what is going on in Scotland was quite limited; I am only just getting to grips with what is going on in London! It was very enlightening hearing from such an enthusiastic community of heritage scientists and to learn about what they are working on.

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Close examinations: Fakes, mistakes and discoveries.

While writing for the UCL Cheltenham Blog I had invited you to go discover the exhibition behind a talk I had attended. The talk was by Ashok Roy, the head of science at the National Gallery. So far I hadn’t gotten round to it. However, following meeting Ashok Roy in person when he came to visit our laboratories last week I got another push to go see the exhibition. So yesterday, as I was in the area for the NOISEmakers workshop I decided to make the time to drop in.

As is quite evident from the exhibition’s title, the exhibition goes through the way scientists contribute to the process of identifying which paintings may be fakes, where mistakes have been made in authorship, and also occasionally identifying a precious painting in what was previously thought to be a lowly copy.

I am obviously very pleased every time the topic of heritage science is brought to the forefront of the public’s mind. This would hopefully make it easier for me to describe what I do, as well as increase the awareness of people to the scientific contribution in heritage and related fields.

As a scientist I would have loved to have seen more science in the exhibition. However, keeping in mind that this is a general exhibit, at least the basic principles of looking at underdrawings, or looking at the support and using cross-sections were evident themes throughout the exhibit. More science was also put into a video running on a loop at the end of the exhibition, where more details could be gone into about the different techniques by explaining while demonstrating the equipment.

I would have appreciated seeing more, but as a still-emerging field in the minds of the public, this was definitely a good start! And if you cannot visit the exhibition yourself, most of the exhibition is also online!

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Saving our Heritage

At the Centre for Sustainable Heritage, where I am based, there is currently a lot of work being carried out to determine how different heritage materials degrade under different environment conditions. This is one of the major research themes the centre is focussing on. In fact, work is being done on materials including plastics, paper, furniture and of course colour photographs.

Why am I saying this though? Well, the work on plastics, with reference to previous work done on paper by members of the centre, has been featured in today’s edition of the New Scientist. Starting with the words:

AS I raise the gun to her head, the leggy blonde stares back at me impassively. “Just squeeze the trigger,” urges a voice from over my shoulder. So I place the tip of the barrel on her temple, and fire.

I hope you will find it interesting reading.

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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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