GeoTalk: Jane Robb

GeoTalk, featuring short interviews with geoscientists about their research, continues this month with a Q&A with Jane Robb from University College London (UCL), who tells us about the excitement of geo-outreach and importance of conserving heritage collections. 

Jane Robb

First, could you introduce yourself and let us know a bit about your current work at UCL?

Hi, I am Jane Robb and I currently work as a research assistant at UCL’s Faculty of the Built Environment (The Bartlett) in student experience and pedagogy. This is quite a departure from my background – I have a BSc in geology from the University of Edinburgh and an MRes in heritage science from UCL. Not that this explains everything – I find that most people don’t know what ‘heritage science’ is. So let me enlighten you:

Heritage science is a relatively new discipline that incorporates scientific methods and practice into conservation of heritage objects. After my geology degree, I was not enticed by the prospect of a career in oil or mining and stumbled across this research masters. Having had a lifelong interest in geology, I had an affinity for all things old which incorporated museums and archaeology so I decided to combine these two passions in doing this MRes degree.

The degree programme was nested in the Centre for Sustainable Heritage in UCL’s Faculty of the Built Environment, which then led me to get the job as a research assistant improving the student experience and pedagogical practice across the faculty.

So what did you end up doing in your MRes?

Since the Masters was research based, I had the power to mould the degree into something very unique to my own interests. I really wanted to work at the Natural History Museum but keep my connection with geology, which led to me working directly with the famous Russell Collection – one of the best British topographical mineralogical collections. I was really interested in how the collection was managed, and comparing this to the way other heritage collections are managed. Unfortunately geological collections are not commonly associated with our heritage, but do form an important cultural and scientific resource which we have a responsibility to preserve in the best possible condition.

To ensure heritage collections are preserved and that appropriate conservation decisions are made for objects, they are often assessed using an understanding of their value. I am not talking about financial value here, but other values that can often contribute to attribution of financial value: educational, historic, personal, inspirational values and so on. Once again, geological collections have been left in the shadows when it comes to valuation of this kind, and subsequently collections are under-cared for and missing integral parts. I used social science techniques such as interviews and questionnaires and subsequent statistical analysis to understand what expert stakeholders (curators, scientists, conservators) value about geological collections. The results will then be used to help better care for and manage geological collections, and my supervisors and I are planning on publishing my thesis.

As well as working at UCL, you’re also the Communications Officer for Geology for Global Development – how do you balance your work with active science outreach?

I love doing geoscience outreach. I have worked for four years in science centres, education forums and museums as a science communicator and developed my own projects, training and resources around these roles. Because of this I love to spend my time volunteering for organisations such as Geology for Global Development (GfGD). I also volunteer with Rockwatch, the club for young geologists run by the Geological Association, where I write articles for their magazine, judge their annual competition and facilitate events. Of course, I also have my own blog where I like to discuss issues within science communication, specifically geology and I am also trying to find the time to complete training to become a STEM Ambassador and contribute some more to the WikiProject:Geology! It does all manage to balance out though – I manage my time with the help of Google Calendar and task lists, and because I enjoy what I do it means that I never feel bogged down by these commitments.

I also like to do some of my own projects – like the geology of Skyrim or the Twitter and Pinterest mini-project ‘SciAdvent’ where I made an advent calendar which told the history of the Earth in 25 days from a geological perspective. Both projects were just silly things I cooked up, but of all the things I have ever done, they were the projects that managed to get exponential views! Especially the geology of Skyrim, current views count on my blog of 60,000 in one week!

My work at UCL compliments the skills I need to communicate science as well. I run an event called Bartlett Showoff – inspired by the popular Science Showoff with built environment professionals from The Bartlett which has turned out a great success as well as a new scheme for graduates where they can become ambassadors for the faculty when they graduate and finally organising an international conference! Learning how to organise these events from scratch myself is invaluable, and communicating to such a different audience in all of the student experience resources I develop offers a good challenge. The Bartlett’s ‘architecture speak’ is so wildly different from science speak!

What are your future research plans – or do you hope to move further into science communication?

I am really excited about (hopefully!) publishing my Masters research, but I don’t know whether more research is on the cards for me right now. I would like to continue down the road of science communication, and at the moment I am building my ‘portfolio’ for this!

What advice would you give early-career researchers looking to communicate their work with the public?

Well, there is no harm in coming up with a project just by yourself and taking it forward. You don’t need to be part of something official to communicate science – just go out and do it! However, remember to take notice of when something does and doesn’t work – don’t get carried away with an idea just because you think it’s good.

Make sure you have a blog and talk about what you do, but also wider issues associated with your field and the challenges of communicating in it. Have a presence on Twitter – something I have found out working with GfGD and UCL is that not enough students are taking full advantage of Twitter as a resource for information and discussion on the latest topics that relate to them. Use it!

And finally there is no right or wrong way to start out in communicating your work. No one expects you to be a genius with your first try, whether this be a blog post, a set at Science Showoff or a full on event. I started out with no knowledge of communication working at a science centre and was there full time every summer for four years (and part-time during term). Every day I met different people who responded differently to various forms of explanation or interaction with science, and this taught me more than anything that to be a good communicator you have to be adaptable: you need to understand that there are so many diverse audiences out there and if you start learning how to be a communicator you will never stop.


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