COP26 – From a PGR’s point of view

Large sign with the words Welcome to COP26
Welcome to COP26

“I’m a bit all over the place with anger, frustration, inspiration, pride, and optimism” 

Fresh from a week at @COP26, we caught up with PGR Olivia Reddy to find out what she got up to at the conference, what she learnt about climate justice and how it might impact her research.  

Before we get started on COP26 and climate action, can you tell us about your area of research at Bristol?

I’m in my second year of my PhD in Civil Engineering, researching “Onsite Sanitation Systems: How Infrastructure and Management Effects Resilience and Emissions”.  I’m really lucky as I am working in a team as part of the SCARE project, which looks at sanitation, climate change and resilience across low- and middle-income countries, conducting fieldwork in Nepal, Ethiopia, Senegal, and Uganda. I have colleagues from institutions all over the world in countries with landscapes and cultures so different to my own.  

How did you end up going up to COP26? What were you hoping to do there?

If I’m honest, at the beginning of the year I hadn’t thought much about COP26 in ways other than “the climate thing that was postponed because of COVID?”! But after hearing about it in project meetings, I started looking into it more, before taking part as a facilitator in a mock-COP26 for school children, run in partnership with the Cabot Institute. As I began to understand the importance of the conference, I saw that the SU was running a scheme for students to travel to COP26. My hope was to come back with a better understanding of the conference, the process, and the different types of people involved. 

Olivia Reddy in front of the Welcome to COP26 Sign
Olivia Reddy at COP26

We’ve heard a lot about COP26 on the news, but what is it like actually being there?

It’s different for everyone! As well as the official blue and green zones, there’s protests, activism, fringe events (such as The Extreme Hangout on a boat), music, art, culture, workshops… Everyone who attended COP26 will have had a different experience. 

Hold up – what is the difference between the blue and the green zone?!

The blue zone is the political part – you have to be invited. The green zone is the public part – open to all, you just needed to register for a free ticket. 

Ah ok. Thanks. So where did you spend most of your time?

Inside the green zone, I was lucky to attend quite a lot of events, so I spent most of my days going to talks and looking through the stands and other exhibits at Glasgow Science Centre. The 20 minutes to get through airport-style security, was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting. The science centre had been decorated with COP26 logos and the colour green almost everywhere you looked, whether as lights, paint, or foliage. There was also, disappointingly, a large amount of greenwashing from the big sponsor organisations. 

What did your days involve?

I spent a lot of time sitting in awe and wonder, either inside a talk, chatting to the speakers afterwards, or trying to take it all in while having a snack break. The passion from the speakers is something that I had never experienced before. A lot of my time was spent juggling all the conflicting emotions which seemed to be stirring inside me. Hearing the lack of progress from negotiations in the blue zone, the anger associated with it that seemed to reverberate around the room, coupled with the power, strength and courage shown by people from indigenous communities, island nations, low- and middle-income countries, who are living the effects of climate change right now. A lot of my time was spent on the edge of tears, both good and bad.  

If you want to catch up on any of the events that have happened, many are up on YouTube (such as the Official COP26 page) or linked to on various Twitter accounts.  

Extreme Hangout stage at COP26 with five speakers sat on chairs
Extreme Hangout stage at COP26

Can you tell us a bit about ‘climate justice’? How does this approach differ to more general talk about climate change?

Climate change is not just an environmental issue but covers ethics, accessibility, economics, wealth, health and wellbeing, all aspects of life. Climate justice takes this into consideration and centres the experience of those at the sharp end of the climate crisis.  

I guess we all know in the back of our heads that climate change = melting ice caps = rising sea levels = loss of coastal land and islands, but have you ever actually thought about that last part properly? Listening to Diwi Valiente from Panama as he spoke about his community being the first indigenous peoples to be displaced by climate change made me realise that I hadn’t thought about it enough. Here’s a community that has lost everything, shops, neighbours, families, religious groups, social circles – all displaced.  A community that produces less than 1% of global emissions is consistently in the top 10 countries to be suffering from the impacts of climate change. The injustice of it all.  

Similarly, listening to Ruth Miller, Climate Justice Director for Native Movement in Alaska, talk about the subsistence salmon fishing undertaken by arctic and sub-arctic communities such as the one she is part of. Making up around 30% of their total protein intake, they fish in the summer, then smoke and dry the fish so that they have food for the winter. But this year, due to overfishing and trawling further downstream, the community were unable to fish as the population was too low. They will go hungry this winter because people in the West – or richer countries – want McDonald’s fish sandwiches. This is not just. 

What does this mean for countries and organisations calling for Climate Justice rather than, for example, mitigation – what are some of the policies or agreements that are needed?

I am by no means an expert, but I have learnt so much from the people I met and listened to at COP26. One of the big conversations (with a very disappointing outcome) from COP26 was Loss and Damage. Essentially, poorer nations that are already experiencing the effects of climate change were asking for reparations from the richer nations who are the drivers of climate change. This would be a start. Loss and damage, in addition to aid and climate financing would at least provide monies for adaptation and mitigation projects.  

Salina Sanou from the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance emphasised the need for the promised billions of dollars from rich nations, but also the manner of its delivery. Currently many projects work on the basis of “high return in investment” when in reality they should be more like social enterprises, building up the communities, especially where women and girls are concerned.   

What did you learn from COP26? Do you think it will affect your research going forward?

I’ve learnt so much more than I thought I would, including; 

  1. Learning from and listening to those from indigenous communities is essential to work out the best ways to move forward. I’m going to try and reflect this in my work somehow.

  2. Amplifying the voices of those who are not often heard. I like to think I’ve already started on this journey by encouraging some of my old colleagues to include this in a “ways to help prevent climate change” show they were presenting at COP26. It may be a small step, but this message would have reached over 200 people in 3 days – which I think is quite good!
  3. Using more open access and easy read formats where available. Being able to read a paper online is something that we take for granted here at the University of Bristol. But if you are trying to access this information as a member of the public or as someone with a learning disability, fees and formats become a massive barrier.  

These are only a few things; I know there are so many more. 

Anything else you’d like to share?

You can probably tell from the tone of this conversation that I’m a bit all over the place with anger, frustration, inspiration, pride, and optimism. I think a lot of us are, and a lot of people are exhausted.  

But if I’ve learnt anything, it’s that there are more people in the world who want to make a difference and for things to change, than there are those who decide to ignore that our house on fire. COP26 was not the end, it was just the start. 

You can follow Olivia on Instagram and on Twitter.

A subterranean story — how a physicist helped to establish the University’s Speleological Society

This year, to celebrate 100 years of postgraduate research at the University of Bristol, we’ll be sharing some of the fascinating stories uncovered by our team of research interns.

In this post, Lena Ferriday, a postgraduate research student in the Department of History, explores the links between her own work and avid caver and alumnus Leo Palmer.

Leo Palmer at the UBSS New Year party at Burrington, 1956/57.
Leo Palmer at the UBSS New Year party at Burrington, 1956/57. Photograph used with permission from the UBSS collection.

The University of Bristol Speleological Society (UBSS) celebrated its centenary in 2019, making it both the oldest society at the University, and the oldest University caving club in the world.

The Society was founded by members of the Bristol Speleological Research Society. In 1919, these members undertook a dig at Aveline’s Hole, a cave in the Mendips, under the leadership of physics student Lionel Palmer, affectionately known as Leo by his peers. The excavations at Aveline’s were significant, leading to the formation of UBSS and continuing to form an important part of the Society’s current museum collections.

Two years later, Palmer became the first student to be awarded a Ph.D. in Physics at the University of Bristol. Taking up a lectureship in Electrical Engineering at the University of Manchester in 1923, and later a professorship in Physics at the University of Hull, Palmer continued to publish research in these fields throughout his life. Yet his love of caving kept his academic interests broad, and he contributed important research to the fields of geology and archaeology.

As an environmental historian, it is at this point that my own research intersects most closely with that of Palmer. My work resides at the intersection of material and cultural environmental histories, considering the relationship between the cultural perception of landscapes with the bodily experience of existing within them, while Palmer’s focus was on the physicality of the environment.

However, Palmer’s close in-person engagement with the sites he studied, in the tradition of speleological research, is interestingly positioned in close-proximity with my own academic aims to employ practice-based research methodologies, to engage more closely with the embodied experiences provided by landscapes both in the past and present.

Palmer’s quest to engage with research across these fields was innovative and inspiring, and led to the publication of a great deal of valuable research. He promoted active scientific research amongst the student members of the UBSS, and established a journal for this work to be published in. The UBSS Proceedings continues to run as a well-regarded peer-viewed journal, within which I have had the pleasure of publishing a co-authored piece of historical research. The paper explores oral testimonies from members of the Society, considering particularly participants sensual and embodied engagements with subterranean environments.

Interestingly, I think the publication of this piece, the first of its kind in the Proceedings, has continued the legacy of Palmer’s interdisciplinary inclinations even further beyond the boundaries of scientific and caving based research. Whilst not an historian by profession, Palmer’s interdisciplinary inclinations and drive for producing and saving academic knowledge have led to a great number of overlaps with my own historical work, both through the researching of his life for this project, and my research into the history of the UBSS and the embodied memories of cavers.

Palmer’s interdisciplinary interests were united in 1938, when he oversaw a pioneering geoelectrical survey at the Mendip cave Lamb Leer Cavern, which revealed the existence of a second large chamber close to the already discovered Great Chamber in the cave.

In 1956, Palmer returned to Lamb Leer with the improved equipment of a ‘Megger Earth Tester’, to test ground resistance, which he obtained through a £230 grant from the Royal Society. As a result, he confidently estimated the position of the chamber. Yet despite attempts to find the now named ‘Palmer’s Chamber’, it has still not been found, and research by Butcher, et al in 2007 has highlighted errors in Palmer’s original interpretation.

In 1957, Palmer’s interdisciplinary interests fully converged, climaxing in the publication of Man’s Journey Through Time: A First Step in Physical and Cultural Anthropochronology, and he began to conduct research along similar lines to my consideration of both the physical and cultural attributes of the environment.

Leo Palmer undertaking resistivity testing above Lamb Leer.
Leo Palmer undertaking resistivity testing above Lamb Leer. Image from the Wells & Mendip Museum collection. Accession no: 1990.27/11.

Palmer also sought to obtain the first of a number of rooms for the Society to house its museum and library collections in 1919, on the site of the former Officers’ Training Corps ammunition storeroom between Woodland and University Roads, before the exponential growth of the collection incited its move to first the Lewis Fry Tower and then the ground floor of what is now the University of Bristol’s Geography Department in 1927.

Again, his love of active research ensured that the collections held by UBSS remain large. Palmer’s efforts with the UBSS have helped the preservation of important archival material which continues to be accessed by geologists, archaeologists and the occasional historian. His desires for preserving material for posterity led him to his later career as Curator of the Wells and Mendip Museum, a position to which he was appointed in 1954.

The research project from which my Proceedings paper emerged, led by the Department of History’s Dr Andy Flack in 2019, sought to indirectly continue the conscious preservation of UBSS material that Palmer initiated. Here, however, instead of protecting physical traces of cave landscapes, we protected the memories of these spaces. Across twenty oral history interviews, our participants shared memories of the society, the social life of caving, and their experiences of travelling underground.

The UBSS archive has thus been extended into the digital realm, with these interviews recorded and transcribed into an accessible database, and with the hope that other societies might undertake similar work to preserve their human histories, and the human histories of the subterranean, alongside their physical ephemera.


For more information on the research into the history of UBSS, see this 2019 Epigram article.

You can find out more about Lena Ferriday’s work by reading her research profile, or by following her on Twitter.

Pioneering women and their PhDs — uncovering the stories of Bristol’s first postgraduate researchers

To mark International Women’s Day 2021, and as part of our celebration of 100 years of postgraduate research at the University of Bristol, Physics PGR Sophie Osbourne shares the stories of three twentieth-century pioneers.

Just over century ago, at 1910’s Second International Socialist Women’s Conference, delegates Clara Zetkin, Käte Dunekin and Paula Thiede proposed a “special Women’s Day” — a day that would help promote women’s suffrage around the world.

Their proposal was passed unanimously by all 100 delegates, and this led, on 19th March 1911, to the first International Women’s Day — an occasion that saw over one million people attend rallies for women’s rights in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland.

IWD began to be celebrated by the United Nations in 1975, the International Year of the Woman; twenty years later the landmark roadmap for women’s rights, The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, was signed by 189 governments at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women.

Now IWD is celebrated in over 100 countries across the world — and this year‘s celebration, on 8th March 2021, will be the 110th.

Over the past few months, I have been working on a project that explores the early years of postgraduate research at the university, from 1919 to 1939. Of the 145 students who were awarded a PhD, DSc, or DLitts during this period, twelve of these were women, and all but one of these were in the Faculty of Science. They studied a range of topics from “The Biochemistry and Bacteriology of discolouration in Stilton Cheese” (Elfrieda Matlick, 1923) to “Contribution to the study of the watermoulds” (Evelyn Joyce Berril, 1937).

So, who were some of these pioneering women of research? I’ve chosen to focus on the lives and work of three, though I wish I could have written about all of them!

The First: Lily Batten

Lily Newton, née Batton
Lily Newton [née Batton] by Elliott & Fry, quarter-plate glass negative, 12 January 1949. Image provided by National Portrait Galley and licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 (bit.ly/3c8HUXP).
Almost 100 years ago, on 5th May 1921, Lily Batten was awarded her PhD by the Board of Examiners for her work on “The British Species of the Genus Polysiphona” — making her the first female student to be awarded a PhD at the University of Bristol.

This was just the beginning of her achievements, though, as she went on to hold several lectureship and research posts in her career — and was Professor of Botany at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, for 30 years. Remembered by her students as a dedicated teacher, she continued to write to many of them until just a few months before her death.

As well as her successful career in education, Lily’s continued research had a major impact in her field. Her 1923 work, “A Handbook of the British Seaweeds” was published worldwide and was still in use 50 years after its original publication — it has been described as “a work of outstanding scholarship”. During the Second World War, Lily co-ordinated the production of agar from British seaweeds to compensate for a potential shortage which would have had serious medical consequences for the country. The Chairman of the Vegetable and Drugs Committee at the Ministry of Supply described her contribution to the war effort as “deserving of the highest praise”.

The Accidental Chemist: Annie Millicent King

Annie Millicent King never intended to study chemistry — she originally began her studies at the University of Bristol to complete an arts degree. Her time as an undergraduate was during the end of the First World War, and due to the need for scientists created by the World War, she decided to change to a chemistry degree.

It was a good choice — she graduated with First Class Honours in 1922 and was awarded her PhD in 1927 on the basis of four pieces of work: “1. Do the ions in or near a surface conduct? 2. The effect of Nitro cellulose upon the rate of crystallisation of various gelatinising solution in which it is dissolved. 3&4 A method for Determining the Hydrologies of solutions of sodium palmite at 90oC”.

During the Second World War, Bristol was targeted in a number of air raids, and Annie volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver, alongside her work as Secretary and Librarian to the University of Bristol’s Chemistry Department.

The Historian: Olive Merivel Griffith

The first, and only, woman to receive an Arts PhD during the period we looked into was Olive Merival Griffiths. After receiving a BA in Modern History from St Hugh’s College Oxford in 1927, she studied for her Diploma in Education at St Mary’s Training College, Paddington, before moving into research. This move to research led her to writing her paper “Presbyterianism as a social and religious force”, earning her the Arnold Essay Prize in 1930. She continued her research as a postgraduate student at the University of Bristol, culminating in her 1933 PhD titled “English Presbyterian Thought from the Bartholomew Ejections (1662) to the Foundation of the Unitarian Movement”.

Olive spent several years lecturing in local history for Gloucester Community Council, later becoming Secretary to the Local History Committee in 1947. She worked with groups from schoolchildren to the Women’s Institute to Pensioner’s Groups to help foster a love of local history in the county, work she continued up until two days before her death, driven by her affection for Gloucestershire.

These women were the first to receive their PhDs from the University of Bristol, but they were by no means the last — in 2020, there were 990 female students enrolled at the university undertaking postgraduate research degrees, 45.6% of the postgraduate research community. These pioneering women opened the doors for women in research, and looking at them only just scratches the surface of the abundance of research completed by women at the University of Bristol — all of whom we celebrate today.

Fruitful collaborations — PGRs and the pioneering work of the Long Ashton Research Station

This year, to celebrate 100 years of postgraduate research at the University of Bristol, we’ll be sharing some of the fascinating stories uncovered by our team of research interns.

In this post, Dr James Watts, a recent PhD graduate in History and Assistant Teacher in the Department of History and the School of Modern Languages, tells a tale of apples, alcohol and agricultural research.

General view of laboratories and section of the fruit plantations, also shows the Long Ashton area.
General view of laboratories and section of the fruit plantations, also shows the Long Ashton area. Photograph by British Council. Image courtesy of University of Bristol Library, Special Collections (DM249/16)

When we think of cider, we think of the West Country, but you might not realise that early research conducted at the University of Bristol is also part of the story of cider’s links to the region.

During the 1920s and 30s much of the research conducted by students at the University of Bristol had links to the key industry and agriculture that were crucial to the region, from cheese production to apple cultivation. Some of this research was undertaken by women and international students at Bristol, pioneering explorations into agriculture, from lichen, to stilton, to apples.

I have been involved in a project led by the Associate Pro Vice Chancellor in partnership with the Brigstow Institute and Bristol Doctoral College to explore some of the earliest PhDs at the university. During this time, it became apparent that Long Ashton Research Station (LARS) was a hub of research in the city as well as globally. LARS attracted international researchers interested in its pioneering research into fruit growing and it was this combination of the local and distinctive in West Country cider and the global in Indian students during British imperial rule that intrigued me about LARS.

Long Ashton Research Station and University of Bristol PGRs

One area of research which PGRs and faculty collaborated on in the 1930s was in the botanical and agricultural work done at Long Ashton Research Station (LARS). The combination of alcohol, research, and local innovation is an intriguing insight into early collaborative efforts by the University.

There was a longstanding connection between LARS and the University of Bristol. The Station was set up with the help of the Smyth family of Ashton Court in 1903 to aid the growing of apples and the production of cider in the West Country. It was then incorporated into the University’s Department of Agricultural and Horticultural Research in 1912. Researchers such as Katherine Johnstone and Elsie Stella Smyth (a distant relation to the family at Ashton Court) worked at the research station during and after their PhDs. in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Johnstone worked on the resistance of apples to disease and Smyth examined peltigera, a lichen, and its effects on water, carbon dioxide and respiration. The close trajectory of the PhDs of these two women is suggestive of how mutual support and friendship was often vital to women in research. Smyth later married Thomas Wallace, the director at the station and Professor of Agricultural Chemistry at the University of Bristol.

Investigating the yeasts and bacteria concerned in cider-making, shows man examining slides through a microscope.
Investigating the yeasts and bacteria concerned in cider-making, shows man examining slides through a microscope. Photograph by British Council. Image courtesy of University of Bristol Library, Special Collections (DM249/13)

The station had a strong international cohort, especially with its PGRs, and 6 Indian students in the 1930s worked at the station. Indian students have a particularly long tradition in Britain, with figures such as Mohandas Gandhi studying here, and these imperial links were very much in evidence at LARS as well.

In Bristol, their main focus during the interwar years was with the growing of apple trees. Students such as Sham Singh from the Punjab, Gurunjappa Siddappa who did his BA in Madras before coming to Bristol, and Yelsetti Venkoba Rao in the 1930s, became particularly interested in rootstocks and the practice of splicing and grafting older trees onto younger trees so that they could bear fruit more quickly. Siddappa’s research focused on the links between soil quality and the composition of dried peas. There was also collaboration between students and staff and PGRs like Vishwanath Govind Vaidya published an article with Thomas Wallace in 1938 on the manuring of strawberries. These interests, and the presence of these students, speak to imperial links, as well as colonial development policies in the 1930s. But it also emphasises the recurrent concern over food and agriculture in India with famine under British rule occurring in the 1890s, during these student’s doctorates in the 1930s, and during the Second World War.

In the interwar period there was an annual open day at LARS where the experiments in fruit growing and cider making were exhibited. This was noted in top research journals like Nature, which commented in 1937 on the experimentation with German yeasts and the focus on non-alcoholic fruit juices made from syrup which the station had advanced.

During the Second World War the supply of oranges was threatened, and as a response the station developed Ribena as a homegrown alternative using blackcurrants to provide Vitamin C. Numerous PhDs considering food, from cheddar and stilton, to potatoes and apples had links with the station which allowed practical experiments to be undertaken on the growing of food.

Students harvesting apples in Goldney Hall Heritage Orchard in October 2020.
Students harvesting apples in Goldney Hall Heritage Orchard in October 2020. Photograph courtesy of Simone Jacobs, University of Bristol Gardens

The importance of the research into apples and cider remains pertinent and Somerset is, along with Herefordshire, the biggest cider producing area in the UK. Some Cider apple varieties, including some 29 known as ‘The Girls’, were tied to the research centre. After its closure in 2003, the pedigree of these were lost until a paper in 2020 which recovered these apple varieties. Goldney Orchard, originally planted in the 1700s, preserves some of these apple varieties like Nonpareil and golden pippin where, even through lockdown, students and staff use them for cooking and, of course, to make cider. There is also a project beginning in Autumn 2021 led by Professor Keith Richards into certain species of Long Ashton cider apples at the Goldney orchard, as well as identifying apple types across the South-West.

The work of LARS, and many similar institutes form part of the story of the global ‘green revolution’ allowing us to feed and support, however unsustainably, a planet of 7.8 billion. It is also part of South West Britain’s success in making world-famous cider and shows some of the direct applications of university research.

Paws to say thanks — the BDC celebrates the power of pets

In our last blogpost, we shared PGRs’ thoughts on what had helped them during 2020 — a year that all of us now associate with disruptions, lockdowns and extremely challenging circumstances

Researchers’ reflections covered a wide range of topic — from music and movies to pals and parents. There was one theme, though, that came up quite a few times: the support of an animal companion.

So, although the circumstances are very different from previous years, we’ve decided to begin 2021 by bringing back an initiative that puts pets in the spotlight (and gives them the credit they deserve).

Yes, PGR Pets, our annual animal competition, is back — and this time around, we’re using it as an opportunity to celebrate the comfort and companionship that pets can bring us during difficult times. And, by inviting PGRs to share animal snaps online, we hope to bring some joy to a particularly gloomy January.

So, whether it’s a cat who’s ‘co-authoring’ your thesis (read as: trampling on your keyboard) or a dog who’s providing welcome distraction, we want to see your pet pics.

Pet-less PGRs can take part too, though. If you don’t actually own an animal, just share a snap of (for example) a bird or squirrel that you spotted on a socially distant walk — or a screenshot of the curious kitty who keeps popping up during Zoom chats with your friend. (Although, if the animal in question belongs to somebody else, please make sure that you have their permission to share the photo.)

Seeing a selection of fabulous animal pics online is a pleasure in itself. However, if you submit a photo, you could also win a £50 Pet Planet gift card or a £50 gift card from the PayPal Gifts site.

How to enter

To enter our competition, just share a photograph:

  • as a comment on one of the Bristol Doctoral College’s #PGRpets Facebook posts
  • on Twitter or Instagram using the #PGRpets hashtag
  • by emailing it to doctoral-college@bristol.ac.uk.

Terms and conditions

  • The competition is open to all current postgraduate research students at the University of Bristol.
  • The closing date for entries is 11.59pm on Sunday 31 January 2021.
  • The winner will receive a £50 Pet Planet gift card or a £50 gift card from the PayPal Gifts site. (The winner will be able to select their prize from these two options.)
  • The winner will be selected at random.
  • Multiple entries are permitted.
  • PGRs who entered previous PGR Pets contests can take part in the 2021 competition — provided they submit different images.
  • If a photograph features a domestic animal that isn’t yours, please ensure you have the owner’s permission to enter.
  • The Bristol Doctoral College will share images from the competition in a future blogpost and on social media. Entrants who do not want their images to be used in this way are asked to notify the Bristol Doctoral College before the above closing date. If we do not receive a notification of this kind, we will assume that the image can be featured.

Note: although we thought PGR Pets was an original idea, we must credit the University of Glasgow’s PGR Service, who got there before us. Read their PGR Pets and self-care blogpost.

20 things that made PGRs’ lives easier in 2020

20 small images. From left to right (across four rows of five images): Nintendo Switch controllers; Apple Watch with fitness data; small dog; watering can; cat being stroked; headphones; sheet music; person smiling at phone; chess pieces; tea being poured into a cup; chocolate baking mixture being stirred by a wooden spoon; three balls of wool; person on couch using a laptop; hand on a TV remote; thumb on an iPhone screen; two trainers; a pile of books; person on laptop screen with gesturing hand in front; branches; light from a projector.

At this point in December, we’d normally be sharing posts about the BDC’s highlights of the year — looking back at our flagship events or rounding-up activity in the PGR Hub.

Whilst 2020 certainly had many positive moments, including the University’s first online Three Minute Thesis competition and the launch of the BDC’s on-demand Personal and Professional Development resources, it’s obviously been a hugely challenging period for our community.

So we wanted to take this opportunity to share PGRs’ perspectives on the year — and, in particular, to highlight the people, hobbies and animal companions that have helped them to deal with the lockdowns and periods of disruption.

Below, then, are some of the comments from PGRs that we received as part of December’s festive giveaway. In the end, we received over 100 responses to our ‘who or what made your life easier in 2020?’ question, so we’ve tried to pick a selection that covers common themes.

Many thanks to everyone who added a response — and, indeed, thanks to all of the students and staff we met or worked with (even if that was just virtually) during 2020. We look forward to seeing you in 2021, when we’ll be launching some new initiatives — and celebrating 100 years of postgraduate research at the University.


Who or what made your life easier in 2020?

‘Giving myself a break from work and stress by learning to write music.’
Daniel Hoare, School of Chemistry

‘I have been watching movies from different countries each Friday. I have like a map of the films now, and it keeps me happy and engages with something beyond the PhD.’
Betzabe Torres Olave, School of Education

‘The amazing people in my life! The virtual drinks, socially distant walks, board games with my housemates, Skype sessions with my family. We may have been apart physically, but mentally we were together.’
Zoe Davidson, School of Computer Science, Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Engineering Maths

‘My lab leader and research group have made my life easier by offering support and many laughs in 2020.’
Elizabeth Lawrence, School of Biochemistry/Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience

‘My PGR buddy and friend! Being able to talk and vent about our thoughts and worries about the PhD and life more generally has helped me stay sane during all of the uncertainty that this year has brought us.’
Fouzia, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies

‘I deleted Facebook and Twitter and limited myself to watching the news only a couple of times a week, if at all. Then I hopped on the rower and went to a couple of gym classes. I don’t think that it made my life easier but it did allow me to find some enjoyment when everything else is so bleak. Trying to study at this time has definitely not been easy.’
Sam, School of Education

‘The training organised by BDC! These training makes me feel that I did not miss too much and forget to have self-development in 2020 under this turbulent period. Finishing my data collection… also makes me feel I did something to mark down the 2020.’
Yunyan, School for Policy Studies

‘A great support network of friends, lots of baking and a horrific amount of ’90s TV.’
Bethany, School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine

‘Being able to create a support bubble with my dad (who lives alone) so I could still see him. Not worrying about money/losing my job like many others.’
Anonymous, School of Mathematics

‘Since joining Bristol for my PhD this year, my supervisors have been fantastic, really approachable, kind and understanding of any situation. I really thank them for their help and support during my first term as a PhD student in these strange times!’
Elliott Maddison, School of Humanities

‘Keeping connected with nature on long dog walks, watching wildlife, foraging & gardening has helped me to keep balance in this final and isolated year of my PhD.’
Helena, Bristol Veterinary School

‘Honestly… video games. Took me back to when I was a kid and escaped my responsibilities for a couple of hours.’
Anonymous, School of Earth Sciences

‘I started knitting this year and I found it profoundly satisfying and relaxing. A big plus to this was finding other PGRs who knitted too. So we could support each other both in the crafts of our knitting projects and the thesis!’
Carolina, School of Education

‘As an overseas student, to maintain a regular communication with family and friends abroad has been indispensable.’
Anonymous, School of Arts

‘My dog (to get me out every day), my husband (cynical commentary making the news easier to bear), horror podcasts (just to remind me things could be worse!).’
Vivienne, School of Humanities

‘The wellbeing team really helped me with their support around organisation and time management to aid in anxiety-induced procrastination!’
Edward Barker, School of Computer Science, Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Engineering Maths

‘We adopted a cat! I wanted to do this before we could have ever expected a lockdown in March, so it wasn’t a lockdown decision. But honestly, he’s given me a lot of comfort and made it easier to get up in the mornings when I’d perhaps prefer to sleep in and avoid the day…’
Olivia Kinsman, School of Humanities

‘I think it would be my parents who support me a lot in 2020. I was very anxious when writing dissertation and my mom always call me and tell me interesting things happened in my home instead of asking me what happened. That really helps.’
Yang, School of Economics

‘My life has been made easier in 2020 by my network of hilarious, kind, and supportive friends. Their messages and Zoom calls have made me happy during times this year where I started to feel pretty sad.’
Octavia Brayley, School of Biological Sciences

‘The smiles and excitement from my daughter every morning regardless of what the day before was like.’
Chantal Lewis, School of Civil, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering


Which of these comments struck a chord with you — and what would you add? Tell us by commenting on this BDC Facebook post.

Self-Care Week 2020 — share your wellbeing wisdom

Paper shapes featuring a silhouette of a person's head

Self-Care Week 2020 begins on Monday 16 November, and we’re marking the occasion by running a competition that taps into PGRs’ wellbeing wisdom.

In challenging times, finding ways to de-stress is incredibly important — so we want to hear your tips for taking care, whether it’s a specific relaxation technique or a fun activity that helps you ‘raise your gaze’ from your research. If you send us a suggestion, you could win a £50 Rough Trade voucher.

How to enter

You can share your nuggets of wellbeing wisdom using one of the channels listed below. We’ll pick a tip at random at 5pm on Monday 23 November 2020, and the PGR who submitted it will win a £50 Rough Trade voucher.

You can submit your tip:

  • as a comment on one of the Bristol Doctoral College’s Self-Care Week Facebook posts
  • as a tweet with the #pgrscw20 hashtag
  • as an Instagram post with the #pgrscw20 hashtag
  • as a comment one of the Bristol Doctoral College’s Self-Care Week Instagram posts
  • in an email to doctoral-college@bristol.ac.uk.

Terms and conditions

  • The competition is open to all current postgraduate research students at the University of Bristol.
  • The closing date for entries is 5pm on Monday 23 November 2020.
  • The winner will receive a £50 Rough Trade voucher. The prize will be sent vie email.
  • The winner will be selected at random.
  • Multiple entries are permitted.

Ailsa’s ‘ExPhDition’ — why a PGR illustrated her route to a research degree

Ailsa Naismith is a volcanologist in the School of Earth Sciences who’s approaching the end of her research degree. In July 2020, Ailsa created an illustrated map of her PhD journey that received over 400 likes on Twitter. Below, she shares some of the map’s ‘points of interest’ — and explains how drawing the ‘ExPhDition’ helped her to reflect on her experiences as a postgraduate researcher.


Hello! I’m Ailsa Naismith. Since 2016, I’ve been researching volcanic risk mitigation — specifically, eruptive activity and human experience at Fuego volcano in Guatemala.

In practice, this means that I’ve been using a wide range of methods (including scientific reports, seismic data and interviews) to help forge a holistic impression of volcanic risk. The ultimate goal of my research (and recently completed thesis!) is to present the myriad perspectives of risk that coexist around a single volcano.

The 'ExPhDition' — an illustrated 'map' of Ailsa Naismith's journey through her research degree. Image by Ailsa Naismith

Illustrate to the point

I started making zines in January. I’ve always been interested in uniting art and science, so creating small pieces of illustrated text that communicate a concept feels instinctive to me.

I spent June toiling over my thesis: no zine-making that month! But then my good friend Bob suggested I illustrate my PhD journey. It was a fantastic idea, and once I agreed, the image coalesced almost instantly in my head.

Central America is both the location of my research fieldwork and an apt metaphor for the narrowing of focus during the course of a PhD. However, my course has often felt much less than focussed! I’ve met many diversions and setbacks along the way, hence the winding path I follow in the ExPhDition above.

Illustrating the journey has provided a great opportunity to reflect on these diversions, and those who helped me through.

Notes from an ExPhDition

1. FFT swamp / valley of shit

In my first year, I seized on a research idea which seemed both novel and certain to give good results. I invested a lot of time on it, gained a lot of input from other people, and realised around five months in that it wasn’t going to produce fruit. This culminated in a comment in my second-year assessment that I was a whole year behind on my research (yikes!).

The difficulty here is that you have to follow the diversion in order to retrace your steps. Even though such diversions seem like a waste of time, ultimately they helped me because they motivated me to seek help from more experienced academics. I also learned the value of having a mentor in-house who has experienced such diversions before. I was fortunate that I already had a mentor in the form of my supervisor Matt (major thanks!).

In the situation where your supervisor can’t offer this role, I suggest seeking the support of a sympathetic older student, postdoc or academic in your field. If not available in-house, perhaps look outside your department, or even beyond Bristol.

2. 3rd June 2018

Not many people can say “my volcano erupted in the middle of my PhD”. Fuego erupted on 3rd June 2018 with devastating consequences. I found it hard to process. Whatever your discipline, it’s likely that you will invest a lot of emotional capital in your PhD. Some people would say this a bad idea, but I disagree: you should own it.

For me, work is easier when you care, although caring can hurt when things don’t turn out as planned (see 1). In my case, I found that investing emotional capital was easier when I collaborated with other people that cared. Then, when I felt demotivated in my work, I could rely on discussion with those colleagues to reinvigorate my desire to contribute something towards our shared passion. And that contribution would be achieved through my PhD.

3. Chile

Geologists are suckers for an international conference, and I am no exception. I’d planned to attend a conference in Chile in November 2019 when demonstrations nationwide cancelled it. I read the cancellation email while in transit through the Bogotá customs queue.

Another piece of generic PhD advice is “Welcome the unexpected”. It’s true! If you can, when an unexpected twist places you in a new environment, search for opportunities for collaboration in your new environment. Perhaps this will show you a new career direction. For me, it kindled an interest in disaster risk reduction policy.

Drawing to a close

Reading this over, I can see this is ridiculous — how could this advice be useful for anyone except “past me”?! The PhD process is so individual.

Really, the advice I have given (follow diversions, own your emotional investment, welcome the unexpected) is quite generic. It has to be, because the specific experience that a PhD student learns cannot be generalised to others’ journeys.

But you may find that during the course of your own ExPhDition you agree with my advice, because any PhD is really an experience in gathering anecdotal evidence to support the clichés.

If you are also near the end of your journey, I encourage you to make a map of your own. It was a wonderful way of finding resolution to this huge chapter of my life.


Find out more about Ailsa’s research on the University’s Research Portal — and follow her on Twitter at @AilsaNaismith.

How do you support postgraduate researchers during a global pandemic?

The BDC team on a zoom call
The Bristol Doctoral College team on a Zoom meeting.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bristol Doctoral College team have been working to provide our postgraduate research community with the support, tools and information they need to stay well, progress and adapt.

This blog post outlines a number of areas where we have adapted our provision. We hope our activities might provide inspiration for others; we also encourage our postgraduate researchers (PGRs) to engage with the changes we are making. If you have any questions or suggestions please do get in touch.

PGR Hub: from a physical space to a virtual place 

With campus closed, we have had to adapt activities that would have been run at our PGR Hub to digital-only formats.

Sarah Kelley
PG Researcher Development Advisor, Sarah Kelley, introducing an online Writers’ Retreat.

Our Personal and Professional Development programme was swiftly transferred to online platforms. Since lockdown began, there have been 369 participations in 14 online  sessions, from ‘Getting Started with Academic Publishing’ to Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Researchers. PGR feedback has been positive: 

“The course online worked really well and it was possible to interact with other students in the chat groups.”

“Thank you. Very appreciative of the time/effort put in by the facilitator and support staff to swiftly move this to a webinar format under difficult circumstances.” 

We even moved our popular Writers Retreats to Zoom, providing those writing up with some structure and companionship during a day of typing at home. These retreats have been well received and demand has been so high that we increased the capacity and frequency of these sessions. 

However, whilst online training going out live (synchronously) serves a useful purpose, there are other varied approaches to bringing the community together. Recorded resources that can be accessed by the PGR community in a more flexible manner are now high up in our priority listWe recently converted our popular “Thesis mapping: planning your PhD in its entirety” workshop to a recorded webinar, with complementary resourcesWe are also in the process of creating a Sharepoint site for PGRs, which will provide materials and opportunities for asynchronous peer interaction.

Enabling our community 

Midnight Traveller
An online film screening of Midnight Traveller, directed by Hassan Fazili, and organised by postgraduate researcher Jáfia Naftali Câmara, with funding from the PGR Community Fund. Screening with permission of Dogwoof.

During lockdown, we adjusted promotion of our Community Fund to focus on digital events led by PGRs. We’ve seen nearly 200 attendees at community-building events since lockdown began, including virtual quizzes, our online Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, film screenings and PGR Book Group. 

As well as funding these events, we’ve been developing a range of tips and tools to enable our postgraduate researchers to adapt to the new normal: see our tips and tools webpage. 

Virtual Pub Quiz
A virtual pub quiz hosted by postgraduate researchers Ailsa Nailsmith and Jacob Wood, funded by the PGR Community Fund.

We have also been hosting online drop-in sessions to provide help and technical advice for PGRs running digital events and webinars.

 

Research without Borders  

RWB showcase
Research Without Borders virtual showcase entries

With all mass gatherings across the university cancelled, our flagship festival of PGR research, Research without Borders was adapted in a number of ways:

  • The Research without Borders Showcase became an online virtual showcase.
  • Our 3MT competition was conducted via Zoom and then screened on Facebook Premiere and YouTube. 
  • Our evening discussion events are currently being adapted into online events or podcasts. 

Partnerships and scholarships 

We’ve also been supporting our scholarship cohorts to continue with their research, sustain connections with their peers and stay in touch with their supervisors. Kennedy Kipkoech Mutai, a Cotutelle PhD Student based at the universities of Bristol and Cape Town said:

“The university has been greatly supportive in the course of this pandemic.  The support from my supervisors (and Infectious Disease Modelling group) has been immense. The team managing the Cotutelle Programme led by Professor Robert Bickers, Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor Postgraduate Research, Dr Kevin Higgins, and Alex Leadley have been of enormous help. The team relentlessly scheduled meetings with our cohort of Cotutelle students, where several aspects of our PhD life were discussed. My fellow Cotutelle students have become a family, with weekly catch-up meetings! To this point I am grateful, to all who have ensured a seamless continuation of my PhD during this globally challenging times!”

Looking to the future 

Whilst the circumstances are challenging and have been exceptionally difficult for so many of our PGRs, we hope that the work we’ve undertaken over the last few months will mean we can support a wider pool of PGRs beyond lockdown. Focusing on digital resources means we can provide better support for our part-time students, those on other campuses and those working remotely or with caring responsibilities.

This crisis has handed us an opportunity to support more of our PGRs and change the way we work, while continuing with our core offering. 

Remote supervision: 7 tips for successful and productive supervision during lockdown (and beyond)

With supervision via videolink now the status quo, how do you keep your supervision meetings running smoothly? The Bristol Doctoral College asked Dr Jonathan Ives  (Bristol Population Health Science Institute) and Dr Ben Pohl (Department of History) for their tips for supervisors and postgraduate researchers alike. 

1. Have an (ongoing) conversation about touchpoints

You may now have been working remotely for several months (or longer if you are on a distance learning programme). However long it’s been, ensure you keep a dialogue open about the effectiveness of your supervision meetings: 

  • Should you be meeting more or less regularly?  
  • What time of day seems to work best?  
  • Are differences in time zone making things difficult?  

Don’t be afraid to keep returning to these questions.   

Supervisors: Depending on their approach to work, your PGRs might find the idea of a fortnightly phone or video call stressful, or on the other hand they may feel abandoned without regular contact. Make sure you have the conversation and find out what is right and realistic for you both. 

 2. Find time for informal conversations

Without corridors, common rooms or coffee machines available, we’ve lost the chance to bump into each other in an informal context. Try and compensate for this by making time for an informal chat. Don’t be afraid to stay in touch with each other, but find an approach that works for you.  

Supervisors: you may want to set up a weekly online drop-in session for discussions about more practical challenges such as access to resources, hitting targets or motivation; this could be a chance for students to share their experiences and troubleshoot issues. 

3. There are some upsides to remote supervision! Embrace them. 

It might be difficult at times but try and make the most of the circumstances. For example, you may have struggled to coordinate a time to meet both of your supervisors together – with more flexible schedules, now could be the opportunity to get everyone together. 

4. A well-structured supervision session is always important 

Whether in person or onlinethe importance of a focused and well-structured supervision is critical. Make sure you have an agenda agreed beforehand, send any items for review in advance and have all the materials ready to go through together. Follow up by sending your supervisor an email to confirm what was agreed and what the actions are. STaR can be a useful tool for keeping records, but email or Sharepoint also work fine. 

5. Set small and manageable tasks

Work with your supervisor to set some smaller goals as well as the bigger ones – these could be informal or formal, such as a mock or actual book/monograph review. Tasks like this are supplementary to your main research but emulate the critical engagement with scholarship that will help keep your brain active. 

6. Get used to screen-sharing

It’s a really helpful way to look at the same thing at the same time. 

7. There are lots of formats for virtual supervision

BlueJeans, Skype, Zoom and Teams are all words we’ve become very familiar with, but what about if your internet is slow or you don’t have a quiet space to have a conversation? Don’t be afraid to go back to basics and explore whether telephone or email would work better for you. Be flexible and don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor if you need help, financial support or equipment to make your supervisions possible. 


Student perspectives on remote supervision 

“For me, the most valuable thing during Covid-19 has been regular contact with my primary supervisor and his valuable guidance. I made use of remote supervision to communicate my concerns and work together on solutions. For example, I was worried about not being able to collect data for the research project, about me not being productive as before and about the Covid-19 situation in general, etc.  In this case, my supervisor supported me a lot to adapt to the situation.”

Krishani Vithana Pelpita Koralalage, Population Health Sciences Institute

“I think remote supervision has been useful in some respects, as it seems that supervisor and student are now usually working to the same sort of schedule and in the same manner (ie. working digitally). I have found this means both my supervisors have been very accessible and easy to contact.  

“My advice to other students would be to use supervisions as waypoints to keep you working as best you can and build a routine (they’re also great opportunities for just catching up and general human interaction!). Also, keep a record of each meeting and what you talked about, as these discussions might become useful or relevant to later work.” 

Dan Booker, Department of History