Wednesday, 16 April 2014

How do you get to be a palaeoecologist?

Researcher profile: Dr Michelle Farrell (@DrM_Farrell)

As discussed by several GEESologists in our series of researcher profile blogs, it took me a long time to realise that what I do for a living now could actually be a real job! Even while I was an undergraduate student, it never occurred to me that several of the staff members in my department (postdocs, postgraduate students etc) were paid mainly to carry out research, and that research also formed a significant part of my lecturers' jobs. A career in academia was something that I knew very little about until I accidentally fell into one, and now I find it hard to contemplate doing anything else - I am incredibly lucky to have a job that I find so interesting.

I'd always been interested in natural history from an early age, mainly stimulated by childhood holidays in the UK and France. I grew up around two hours drive from the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, and hiking with family and friends in these regions convinced me that I wanted to pursue a career that involved working outdoors. During a career-planning session at school we had to complete a computer-based questionnaire, which used our answers to come up with a list of suitable jobs. From this, one job that struck me as interesting was a national park ranger (some of the other options were a little less desirable, 'waste management operative' being one that has stuck with me over the years). I loved the idea of being able to work in one of the national parks that I enjoyed spending so much of my leisure time in, and wanted to help conserve it for future generations. With this in mind I went off to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth to study for a BSc in Environmental Science.

Growing up in the 1990s, when issues such as acid rain, the ozone hole and global warming were front-page news, I was looking forward to learning more about the effects that people were having on the environment during my degree studies. However during some of my introductory lectures at Aberystwyth, I discovered that people had actually been affecting the environment for thousands of years already, and that it was actually possible to study these past impacts. I became particularly interested in palaeoecology, though I never imagined that I would actually be able to pursue a career in this field. Circumstances prevented me from undertaking a palaeoecological dissertation in my final year, and I made do with an ecological one instead, still planning to follow a career in ecology and/or conservation.

When I began to search for jobs towards the end of my degree, I discovered that vast amounts of practical experience were required even for an entry-level ecology or conservation job. I had done some voluntary conservation work with the Aberystwyth Conservation Volunteers, and my degree had equipped me with some practical ecological skills, but it wasn't enough. Several months' unpaid voluntary work was needed to allow me to gain the necessary skills. Student maintenance grants had been abolished the year before I began my degree, and with a fairly hefty student loan to pay off I needed to find paid work. I took a job in sales, and while I learned some valuable people skills and gained a lot of administrative experience (both of which are very useful in my current role!), I soon knew that it wasn't what I wanted to do forever.

When a friend forwarded me a job advertisement for a research assistant at the Wetland Archaeology and Environments Research Centre (WAERC) at the University of Hull, I realised that the thing I'd found really interesting at university could actually be a job! I didn't have any practical experience, but as the advert said that training would be provided for the right candidate, I figured it was worth a try. Unsurprisingly, I wasn't shortlisted for interview, but Jane Bunting wrote to me and suggested that I apply for one of the funded PhD studentships that the Department of Geography were currently offering. Until then I had no idea that you could be paid to do a PhD, so I jumped at the chance. I had no access to an academic library, so Jane sent me a few key papers in the post, I put together a project proposal, and I was invited for interview and offered a studentship.

I moved to Hull to start my PhD in September 2005 and have been here ever since! My PhD used pollen analysis and a suite of allied techniques to explore concepts of marginality and the response of human populations to changing environmental conditions in prehistoric Orkney. I became very interested in integrating palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data, and was keen to work more closely with archaeologists on future projects. Archaeology was also something that I'd always been interested in, but despite being a big fan of Time Team, I hadn't even realised it was something you could study at university, let alone that it could be a job! 

Pretending to hold up one of the standing stones at Carnac on a family holiday to Brittany: apparently my interests in archaeology also began at an early age, though I didn't realise this until much later...

Hugging the Stone of Setter on Eday, Orkney during fieldwork in 2006: nothing much changes...

After defending my thesis, I continued to work with Jane as a post-doctoral research associate on the Crackles Bequest Project, which I'm sure will feature in future blog posts from one or both of us. During 2012 and 2013 I worked part-time on this project, as I was also working as a palaeoecologist for English Heritage as part of their Environmental Studies Team based at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth. This gave me plenty of opportunities to work with archaeologists, and it was through contacts that I made here that I ended up working on my current project - producing pollen-based reconstructions of past land cover in some iconic Neolithic landscapes as part of the Times of Their Lives project run by Cardiff University and English Heritage. This will be the final project that I work on as a GEESologist at Hull - on May 1st I start work as a research fellow at Queen's University, Belfast, and will be working with archaeologists and other palaeoecologists on the FRAGSUS project, which is examining human-environment relationships in the island environment of Malta. This will be a big change after 8.5 years in Hull, but it's a challenge that I'm looking forward to and it's hopefully one more step along the path to the coveted permanent academic job!

I feel incredibly fortunate to have figured out how to be a palaeoecologist - it's challenging, much more interesting than most other jobs I can think of, and good fun too - I've been on some fantastic fieldwork at locations all over Europe and have met many great friends and colleagues along the way. My advice to anyone who is fascinated by a particular topic at university but can't imagine how it could ever lead to a career - ask your lecturer about it, you never know!

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

#GEESonTour - March means fieldtrips...

By Kirstie O'Neill and Rebecca Williams


Part of doing geography (physical or human) at University is the opportunity to get out in the 'field' and explore how geography works first-hand.  The 'field' may not actually be a field, but may be the centre of Rome, the top of a mountain, a farm, or a river bed, for example.  Each year in March @GEESatHull takes second year students to a range of field sites, giving students a chance to get to know each other better and get to learn more about what their lecturers do, and a chance to learn more about 'doing research'.  This year, we used the #GEESonTour (or 'cheese on toast', as our students in Rome named it!) to communicate what we were doing, with our colleagues on the other fieldtrips as well as to a much wider audience.

As GEESologists we're going to write this blogpost collaboratively to tell you a bit about two of the fieldtrips that happened this March.

Rome - Geography, Memory and Monuments in the City, and Rural Development in the Abruzzo
By @KirstieJONeill

The annual fieldtrip to Rome is popular with staff and students - it's a team taught module, led by @DavideAtkinson, drawing on research expertise of the staff on the fieldtrip.  @Davideatkinson gave students an expert tour of the historical sites and sights of Rome, linking geography and history, and exploring how the city has changed (and continues to do so) over the millenia.  This year we had a new day in Rome, looking at food in the city (urban cultures of consumption and growing), which included a tour of foodie district Testaccio with +Katie Parla and in the afternoon we visited +Eataly in Ostiense.  Students got to see two different sides to food consumption in nearby districts in Rome.  Also new this year was having a professional photographer (@andyweekesphoto) in tow to take stunning pictures of our students doing geography!  Being used as models as well as researchers was viewed with suspicion at first, but they soon got into the swing of it with some great photos as a result:

Students at Cocullo wind farm, Abruzzo

As a contrast to the city, we spend one day in the Abruzzo region, where both Lewis Holloway and I have done research on quality local food systems (here).  On this day, students get to see renewable energies helping support local community development projects, visit a multifunctional farm which hosts an Adopt a Sheep scheme, and, finally, taste locally produced, high quality wine at Pientrantonj vineyard in Vittorito:

Wine tasting with Alice Pientrantonj

Students get the opportunity to show us and their fellow students how much they know about aspects of the field trip as they prepare presentations which they then give during the field trip - each year there is a different approach to the same subject, with different interpretations and presentation styles.  This year, we had well-researched and confidently delivered presentations on national parks, the informal economy, and the Italian North-South divide, amongst others. Students also undertake their own research, making ethnographic observations of a particular space within Rome - we had 5 groups covering Trastevere, Piazza Navona, Campo dei Fiori, Montecitorio and the Spanish Steps.  Our final day was spent with Dr Nick Dines of Middlesex University, who lives in Rome, visiting working class districts with strong political identities, out of the tourist gaze.  It was my final fieldtrip to Rome as I'm about to start a new job at Lancaster University, and I will very much miss the annual fieldtrip.

Tenerife - understanding the evolution of an ocean island
By @volcanologist

One of the physical geography trips goes to Tenerife - a classic fieldtrip location for many subjects including geography, geology, ecology, zoology... I could carry on with that list. Tenerife is an ocean island which means it has a unique landscape and biology. It also has some fascinating volcanology. As a physical geography trip, we take a look at all these different aspects and how they relate to each other. The trip also changes and adapts its content based on the research expertise of the trip leaders. This year the trip was run by @StuartMcLelland, @Tom_Coulthard, myself and Brendan Murphy.
Montagne Negra, Tenerife. Students map the tephra dispersal around the vent - based on a sampling strategy they devised the night before. This allows them to plan, undertake and then assess a field research technique

For me, the trip is an excellent opportunity to break my semester routine of wake, teach, eat, mark, sleep. A bit of winter sunshine and some hikes in beautiful places does wonders to blow away the cobwebs. It's an opportunity to see some amazing volcanic rocks and to learn a thing or two from my geography-trained colleagues (river terraces, soils, laurel forests...). What I mostly relish though, is the opportunity to pass on some of my expertise to the students.
Students trying to understand how the explosive eruptive history is recorded in deposits at Tajao. Ooh, look a those pumice fall layers and ignimbrites. Is that a soil?
The fieldtrip investigates the evolution of Tenerife. So we take a look at how it was formed, through volcanic eruptions, and how those eruptions may have changed through time. We take a look at evidence for what the source of the volcanism is, and what the magma chamber might look like. We also investigate how the island is being eroded, both catastrophically through huge landslides, but also through river processes. Each day is centred around the students collecting their own data in groups, whether that's through mapping the grainsize distribution of tephra around a volcano, mapping in terraces along a river system, or conducting analogue experiments they have designed to understand a particular volcanic process. Each evening, they present the results of their research as a poster. I enjoy seeing the students undertaking real research techniques and then synthesising that data to answer a research question. And wow, do they come up with some great results!
New location discovered! Playa de las Roques - not much is know about the deposit here, so it was new for us as well as the students! The deposit it thought to be related to a large landslide. 
For a GEESologist, the trip is also an opportunity to poke around in a place and inspire new research. I know many a scientist who has developed a research project from a discovery made when leading a fieldtrip. The trip to Tenerife is no different. There are always new locations to discover and features as yet unexplained. Research doesn't always inspire teaching, sometimes teaching inspires research!

Both of these trips are one of a number of trips that run simultaneously through March.  We both love getting out and about with our students and seeing them make geography their own, as well as enjoying a break from the normal routine.  Let us know what you did for your geography fieldtrips and what was the best aspect for you:)

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Hull University Science Festival 2014

by Chris Skinner (@cloudskinner)

One of the great joys of academic life is getting the opportunity to communicate our research to the public - it is one of the key motivators of this blog after all. We spend much of our time in a bubble and become accustomed to our jargon and way of life which seems a bit alien to those outside the bubble, so it is also very healthy for us to step out once in a while and engage with those out there. The challenge is finding ways to communicate our research in ways that are informative and engaging.

This year, the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University of Hull organised the Hull Science Festival. Running as part of National Science Week (which one attending school pupil pointed out to me was 9 days, and not actually a week), it saw students and staff from the university present their research to members of the public.

The Science Festival ran on a Friday and Saturday. Friday was an early start as the Hull Bondholders ("The Bondholder Scheme is an almost 200-strong powerful network of businesses, who work together to raise the profile of the Humber") held their regular breakfast meeting at the University as part of the Festival, which allowed us to explain the benefits of our research to business in the area. After the breakfast (after we had mopped up the leftover sausages - all the bacon had gone), the audience changed to school pupils and their teachers, as local schools were invited to attend.

Throughout the day the marquee containing the exhibitions was open for the pupils to mill around and chat to us, whilst the schools took it in turns to attend the presentations and demonstrations conducted elsewhere on campus. Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to see any of these. The pupils all seemed very excited and keen to know more about the displays on offer, and I also got the chance to chat to the teachers from my old school, Baysgarth, who had brought some pupils along.

The Saturday was open to the public to just come and go as they pleased and wander, and hopefully wonder, around. This was a busy day where I spent almost all of it talking to people about my research and the Humber. It coincided with an Open Day too, so prospective students got a further opportunity to see just what an active and exciting university we are.  All in all, it was a great couple of days and I hope it becomes a regular fixture in our calendar.

Unfortunately for me and my chances of looking around, both days were very busy and I spent much of it manning my stall, demonstrating the Dynamic Humber Project's work on understanding the 5th December storm surge, but I did get to see some of the neighbouring displays.

GEES were out in force for the Festival, as shown below - 

The view over the GEES displays

I've got a bone to pick with you! (Photo by Dr Jane Bunting) 

Dr Malcolm Lillie brought along skeletons and bones from his archaeology collection, including some pieces which were over 7,000 years old.

You say stomata... (photo by Dr Jane Bunting)

Dr Jane Bunting set up a microscope and gave people the opportunity to take peelings from a holly leaf. Observing these peelings under the microscope revealed the leaf's stomata (mouth-like pores that exchange gases and moisture between the the air and the plant) - this was to highlight the research into how leaf structure can change in response to weather and climate.

GEES PhD Student, Ross Jenning's, demonstrating how to harness tidal power for electricity (photo by @HullOpenDays)

Prof Jack Hardisty brought along a prototype of a tidal generator which was used to demonstrate the potential of harnessing the abundance of tidal energy in the Humber to generate electricity.

Here, Dr David Milan demonstrates how changes to the land surface can influence run-off. Whilst the water on the hard surface drains the tank very quickly, the natural surface absorbs the water, holding it for longer and reduces the levels of flow - this can help reduce the impacts of flooding.

In addition to the displays above, we also had posters from other members of the Department, including showing off research in Human Geography by Prof David Gibbs and Dr Kirstie O'Neill, who showcased their research on green entrepreneurs  and the role they play in making building more sustainableDr Deborah Butler was often seen wielding an iPad ready to demonstrate the FoodCrowd app she blogged about last week.

We weren't the only ones at the Festival, not by a long shot, and below are some the highlights around the marquee - 

Dr Darren Evans from the University's School of Biological Sciences brought along some bees in a commercial hive. Although largely confined to a netted cage, one plucky bee escaped and enjoyed a ride on the tidal generator. 

Biodiversity Jenga and Coffee! (photo by Darren Evans)

Dr Evans also brought along his giant Biodiversity Jenga set, which demonstrates how the successive removal of species from a system can lead to environmental collapse.

My favourite part of, my limited view of, the Festival was the 3D printer brought along by Computer Science. I love these things and have been following their development for years, but this was the first time I had seen one for real, and it was working! The potential for these things is enormous, and I'm not just saying that as a secret collector of toy soldiers. Computer Science also brought along a few robots and their Oculus Rift (virtual reality equipment, recently purchased by Facebook) set up which they aim to use to train people to install and maintain offshore windfarms from the shore.

Racing for Formula Student (photo by Hull University)

Also there were the Hull University Formula Student team. A group of Engineering students who have built a racing car and race it in competitions. Their demonstration included a sit in simulator where people could have a go themselves - there was also a leaderboard going for the fastest lap times.

Smile! (Photo by Hull University)

Opposite me was a popular set of animal skeletons. I was told that these were donated to the University by the Natural History Museum in London when the University was founded in 1927. They are exquisite things, and included an ant eater, a horse, tortoise and a rhino skull.

Flying Magnets! (Photo by @HullUniScience)

Throughout the day I saw many people walking around with bags of goo, DNA sweets and all sorts of other goodies that were being given out. There were people extracting DNA from peas, and racing plankton (won by our very own Prof Dan Parsons) or even racing over a magnetic elevation track. Lots of fun was had by all and I'm looking forward to next year. If you attended the festival, why not leave a comment below about what you enjoyed most or what you would like to see in the future?

For more pictures, follow this link to the official Science Festival gallery.

Whilst I was writing this post, as part of a ongoing series of elaborate April Fool's gags from Google (which has seen me collect all 150 Pokemon and desperately search for Mew), one of the photos used got "Auto-Awesomed". The result was too good not to share.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

FoodCrowd: creating a new app

Creating a new app. (

We, the inter disciplinary DE:FT team of computer and social scientists are making steady progress with the three apps we have although GradeBack has now been replaced by FoodCrowd, an app which we are developing with help from Archbishop Sentamu School. One of the aims of the app is to provide a creative, innovative and educationally orientated digital tool which has been designed in conjunction with the revised National Curriculum in England for Design and Technology 2014, aimed at pupils at Key Stage 1 to 3. The programme of study puts more emphasis on seasonality and where and how a variety of ingredients are grown, reared, caught and processed. With this in mind we have been working on an app which aims to connect schoolchildren with the food they are growing in their school garden and the impact that the environment can have on the way the plants grow.

The images below are simulations of how we envisage the app working. Pupils will open up the app to add a new entry on a particular plant they are growing in the school garden.

In this way the app will allow pupils to monitor and record the growth of the plants they grow in their school garden.  They will be able to monitor weather conditions, temperature, speed of growth and yield to mention just a few of the parameters that are being incorporated.  Hopefully any produce they grow will be used to prepare themselves a hot meal, again one of the objectives of the programme of study at KS3.  Apart from becoming competent in a range of cooking techniques the data the pupils have collected will help them to understand the principles of nutrition and health as well as mapping across into other areas of the National Curriculum, such as Numeracy.  The image below illustrates how the app will have the functionality to create graphs based on the data pupils have collected.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Geographers' gadgets: notebooks
Sadly this image doesn't come on a notebook...
by Jane Bunting

This week is kind of quiet around the Department - the second years are away on their overseas field study weeks, along with just over half the academics, the first years have mostly gone home for a break (hopefully with plenty of reading to catch up on, since it is technically reading week for them) and the third years are working away on their dissertations.  Watching the different teams get their equipment together and listening to students (and colleagues) swapping the usual "my trip will be more work/more fun/sunnier than your trip" banter reminded me again of just how varied our subject is.  We study... well, pretty much anything that comes our way.  Geographers don't just study the world, we poke our noses into every corner of the world of study.  However, the field trips also point up things we have in common.  The students are going overseas to experience places on their own terms, to try to observe objectively what happens, to compare it with what happens in other places, and then to understand something of why and how it happens, whether "it" is a piece of public art, a type of agriculture or a distinctive rock formation.  Observation, then trying to understand what we see, then trying to explain that understanding to other people, lies at the heart of the business of being a geographer.

Stationery lust objects.  I WANT THEM ALL.
Asked to write a post at short notice, I decided to write about some of the tools I use as a GEESologist, then realised that just the list would take up most of the post!  So perhaps we can have a series, along with the "my story" series... we all have our favourite pieces of kit.  I get that "ooooooo, Jane waaannnnttttt" reaction some women get at the sight of Jimmy Choos to a really well-made collapsible quadrat, to almost anything in the latest Nikon microscopy catalogue or Van Walt field soil sampler catalogue... and to a really decent notebook.  Last week one of our colleagues arrived at the Departmental Meeting with a brand new Moleskine notebook - a rich red, A5 one.  At least half a dozen people watched with varying degrees of envy as he removed the plastic, snapped back the elastic, and smoothed open that first all-important page. One of the nice things about working as a GEES-ologist is being around other people who share some quirks with me!
 As a youngster, I had a bit of an obsession with stationery, and would regularly spend my pocket money on notebooks, pens, stickers and so on.  I especially liked notebooks, and often made my own by cutting scrap paper to size, sewing a binding, making and decorating the cover...  Actually that should be in the present tense: I like notebooks.  There are about twenty empty notebooks of various kinds stashed in a drawer in my house and another 30 or so around the office at work.  Notebooks are neat, and I like to know I'm not in danger of running out any time soon.  I'm clearly not alone: in searching for images for this post, I came across a blog devoted to notebooks - oh dear, another procrastination location for me!  

One essential supply item for the undergrad field trips is the issuing of the Field Notebook, a.k.a. Field Diary.  This emphasised to me that, like all scientists, our most basic toolkit consists of our ability to observe what is actually there in the world, and to record our immediate observations for later consideration.  I find myself frequently telling students that they need to have "something to write ON and something to write WITH" for classes, field trips, meetings etc. and the same is definitely true of the professional GEESologist, even if some are beginning to transfer these functions to a virtual electronic notebook.
A page from Lyell's 1840 field notes

a page from Darwin's field notebook
The notebook tradition is quite well established - the picture on the right is a page from Darwin's notebooks kept during the Voyage of the Beagle, and on the left a page from Lyell's 1840 notebook.  Clearly the tradition of quick sketches and crossings out has a decent history!  Darwin wrote:
'Let the collector's motto be, "Trust nothing to the memory;" for the memory becomes a fickle guardian when one interesting object is succeeded by another still more interesting.'
Technology, I'm pleased to say, HAS moved on a little - the mechanical pencil (removing the need for carrying a pencil sharpener in the field), the gel or cartridge pen  (ink without the bottle!) and best of all the waterproof notebook all make it easier to take notes under field conditions - but observation, and the recording of observation, is still and always will be at the heart of the GEES-ologist's toolkit.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

How do you become a volcanologist?

Researcher profile: Dr Rebecca Williams (@volcanologist)

How do you get to be a volcanologist? That’s a question I get asked a LOT. And a question that I’m happy to talk to anybody about, because I think it’s the best job in the world. It’s a question that I never had anybody to ask it to, when I was thinking about what career I might want to have. Through my GCSEs I got more and more interested in physical geography and my rock collection at home was growing (on the journey back from a Girl Guides camping trip, the coach driver asked me “what have you got in here, rocks or something?!” as he loaded my bags. He was stunned when I replied “yes, actually”). For a GCSE project we did an information pamphlet for the people of Naples about the volcano Vesuvius. Could you do this as a job?!
Pantelleria caldera lake - studying volcanoes means travel to some beautiful places.
But when I met with the ‘careers guidance’ teacher at school, they didn’t know what you could do to study volcanoes and geology. “Perhaps you could be a geophysicist?!” Well that was a word I’d heard of, being an avid Time Team watcher, so I thought that it sounded like a good idea. I chose my A levels based on that careers advice and started collecting university prospectuses based on who offered geophysics, but found myself narrowing down my UCAS choices by who emphasised volcanology on their courses.

Working at HVO as a gas geochemist.

The promise that ‘some of our undergraduates have volunteered at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory (HVO)’ made me head off to Royal Holloway to do a BSc in Geology. By that point I’d had a Nuffield Science Bursary and been awarded a Gold Crest Award for a summer’s work experience at TGS-NOPEC, where I discovered that geophysics probably wasn’t for me. But I knew that studying Geology would be ace, and I wasn’t wrong. My degree instilled a love of fieldwork, a sense of travel and adventure and a never ending curiosity about rocks: where did they come from? how they were formed? I entered my 3rd year not really knowing what career I’d end up having, but knew I wanted it to be geology related. I applied constantly to the HVO until they finally offered me a placement. So, a week after graduation I flew to Hawaii where I worked as a gas geochemist for 6 months. This was not only an amazing experience (walking on lava flows, contributing to important science, hiking across volcanic terrain, snorkelling at the weekends) but also the moment when I realised that I could be a volcanologist as a career.
My path to volcanology wasn't always linear. For a while I worked as a PADI Divemaster.
On return from HVO I spent a year and a half working at the Hydroactive Dive Centre as a PADI Divemaster. I spent this time saving up and applying for Grad School so I could get a Master’s degree in Volcanology. I was awarded a teaching assistantship to study at the University of Buffalo in the USA. Here, my interest in hazardous volcanic flows developed, starting with my Master’s research on lahars.  Developing and driving my own research was something I’d really enjoyed so I then searched high and low for a great PhD project so I could continue doing volcanic research. I returned to the UK to do my PhD at the University of Leicester on pyroclastic density currents.

Logging volcanic deposits in the field
After my PhD I sailed as an igneous petrologist on an IODP expedition, and held a series of short-term teaching contracts at Leicester. This post-doc time of anyone’s life can be tough – when you’re never sure if that holy grail of an academic job can be found. I stuck it out, worked hard, juggled a part-time job as a teaching fellow and a part-time research job and gained some invaluable experience. Then, a year ago I made the move to Hull as a lecturer in geology, undertaking research in volcanology and now hold a permanent position. I made it. I’m a volcanologist. Now, I'm training up a new generation of budding geographers, geologists and hopefully, a volcanologist or two.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Taking the long route - how I got here...

by Kirstie O'Neill

As you can see from reading through this GEESology blog, geography is indeed a broad discipline covering all manner of exciting areas.  The ways which each of us GEESologists have come to this are equally varied – so here’s my version as a social geographer! 

1970s singer Kenny Loggins
I always loved geography, and reading maps – I had great teachers at school which really helped, although sometimes the singing was a drawback (‘footloose’ by Kenny Loggins sticks in my mind!).  

I knew I wanted to do geography at A-level and did better than expected so was able to study it at University too. I got a place (unexpectedly) at Newcastle University.  Studying geography at University was different to school, and we got to specialise in areas that hadn’t even come up at school – rural geography appealed to me, I just seemed to enjoy and ‘get’ it.  But, I couldn't believe our first fieldtrip was back to West Cumbria and my old school's barn (below) - no exciting field trips anywhere exotic unfortunately!

Bakerstead Barn, Eskdale, West Cumbria - on a rare sunny day!

After university I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, but knew it would be geography and rural based – luckily, the rural community council in Cumbria, Voluntary Action Cumbria, had Lottery funding to train up rural community development workers.  The interview was a baptism by fire, a whole day with the other candidates and being ‘interviewed’ by the staff and trustees all day.  But, I got the job and needed to quickly buy my first car to do the job, and enjoyed a few years back in my native Cumbria doing rural community development.  But all good things must come to an end.

Over the next six years, I moved to Durham County Council, Yorkshire Rural Community Council and finally North Yorkshire County Council all doing rural development stuff.  I was working for North Yorkshire County Council when I saw a PhD advertised – I’d been thinking of doing one for a while, although didn’t realise you could actually get funding to do one.  The one advertised was funded, and was a collaborative research project with the local council – so I had a chat to the people at Hull University.  It sounded really exciting – local food was an area I was really interested in, and the opportunity to learn Italian and getting to do research in Italy didn’t sound so bad either!

               Researching rural development and local food in the Abruzzo region of Italy

So, in 2007 I also gave up my job and went back to University full-time (fieldtrips have improved!), I passed my PhD viva in 2012 (my thesis is available here) and have been lucky to get postdoc positions after the PhD too – I’m about to start a new job at Lancaster University looking at food and whether peoples’ decisions about what to buy include any consideration of sustainability.  This brings my PhD work (food) and my post-doc work (low carbon, green entrepreneurs, sustainability) together and hopefully I’ll get to write something about it soon...

I’d like to continue researching green building (here) and food (here), both of which are really important in relation to sustainability, but as ever, it all depends on what’s around at the end of the next short-term contract!