How to talk about your research in a nutshell – By Emmaline Stotter, 3MT People Choice Award Winner 2023

Why did I take part in 3MT…

Participating in the 3MT competition has been one of the highlights of my PhD so far! I signed up for the 3MT competition in 2023, towards the end of my first year of my PhD project, which I am undertaking in the Biochemistry department studying host-parasite interactions between the malaria parasite and the human red blood cell. I am an aspiring science communicator, and I am always looking for ways to practice and develop my communication skills. Therefore, 3MT presented a perfect opportunity, but it was also a completely new experience. The key take-home lesson for me was how to tell a compelling story. There truly is some incredible work being performed by PhD students and 3MT is the perfect practice for making our research accessible to all audiences.


Recently, I have spoken to a few people early in their PhDs who would like to enter the 3MT competition, but think that they do not have enough data to do so. This does not matter at all and in my opinion, it is not the point of the 3MT competition! 3MT is an opportunity to present the overall picture and relevance of your research to a wider audience. And I can’t even imagine that three minutes would be enough to present data, let alone to introduce the background of it. Instead, you are given a challengingly short amount of time to be compelling, inspirational, and creative in the story telling of your important and pioneering academic work.

Why should you take part in 3MT…

3MT is a brilliant opportunity for PhD students to remind themselves of why they chose to undertake such a challenge and to share their passions with the wider community. At the University of Bristol, not only are you provided with mentorship from a brilliant team of people, but you will also compete alongside other like-minded and enthusiastic individuals. Everyone has their own style of storytelling, which I found compelling and helpful to learn from. The 3MT competition was a truly enjoyable and memorable experience. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate and I highly recommend it to all PhD students.

Emmaline Stotter, 3MT People Choice Award Winner 2023

If you are interested in applying for this year’s 3MT competition you can find out more and apply here.

Application deadline 5 February.

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A Hundred Happy Birthdays: Music and Ageing at Green Man Festival – Jessica Foley

Did you know that the world’s longest-living animal was a clam that lived to be 507 years old? “Ming” (named after the dynasty it was born in, of course) was found off the coast of Iceland in 2006, and spawned a surge of research into the extreme lifespans found in nature. Ranging from just minutes in the adult mayfly, to animals like Ming that can live for several centuries, the diversity of lifespans across the animal kingdom is astounding. And what’s even more fascinating is that rates of ageing also differ hugely across different species. With “ageing” defined as the increasing risk of mortality over time, some animals seem to age much more slowly than others – and some don’t actually seem to age at all.

Graphs showing the mortality and fertility rates in humans, fruit flies and dessert tortoises.

My PhD work focuses on lifespan and ageing in Heliconius, a group of neotropical butterflies that can live for a prodigious six months (pretty impressive for a butterfly!). What I find most interesting about this research is its dissection of these differences in ageing across different species. All animals are made up of the same molecular building blocks, and yet some have managed to extend their lifespans and even escape ageing altogether – teaching us that lifespan is not necessarily immutable, and ageing may not be inevitable.

I’ve always been interested in public engagement (and have been known to go to a few music festivals in my time), so when I saw a call for applications for science stalls for the Welsh music festival Green Man, I knew I wanted to apply – and that I wanted to teach people about this amazing diversity in animal ageing. But I needed a hook. How could I convey these ideas in an accessible, interactive way, that would work in a setting like a music festival?

One of my favourite pieces of ambient music is a series called The Disintegration Loops, by the composer William Basinski. Interested in the deterioration of analogue media over time, Basinski created a series of loops using magnetic tape, the kind you find in old cassettes. As you listen, you can hear the audio loops gradually decay as the physical tape disintegrates. I thought we could use a similar kind of audio processing to represent the diversity in ageing displayed by different animals, with a programmed decay that matched that animal’s ageing curve.

As much as I like music, I’m more of a listener than a maker. But luckily, one of my best friends, Imperial PhD student Jamie Mathews, is a music producer with a particular talent for electronic composition. I sent him a few animals, and he worked his magic with the sound design, programming unique settings for each animal based on their ageing patterns. First, he sped up or slowed down the audio relative to the animal’s lifespan, resulting in a chipmunk-like speed for the shorter-lived fruit fly, and a slow, rolling rumble for the immortal hydra. He then applied a distortion effect to represent the decay associated with ageing, and finally a reverb effect that multiplied the sound in accordance with the animal’s fertility rate. Festival-goers would get the chance to sing a snippet of a tune of their choice into our “lifespan emulator” (an MPC sampler), and see how their “tape of life” would play and decay for each animal.

With a solid, workable idea, and a successful Green Man application, we needed to source some funding for this activity to bring it to life. Luckily, there are a few pots of money available for public engagement activities, and we were able to successfully apply for funding from the Society for Experimental Biology, the Imperial Societal Engagement Seed Fund, and my own PhD funders, the GW4 MRC BioMed DTP – generous contributions which fully covered all costs for the stall.

The weeks leading up to the festival were spent painting props, sorting out practical considerations like van hire and equipment rental, and assembling a crew. To act as facilitators on the stall over the weekend, I looped in fellow biology PhD students Benito Wainwright, Amaia Alcalde Antón (who also contributed the beautiful animal illustrations for the stall, pictured above), and Josie McPherson, as well as psychology PhD student and invaluable “man with van” Conall Monaghan.

Thanks to this brilliant crew, the stall was an overwhelming success. Over the course of the weekend, we had hundreds of people pile into our tent, try their hand at some karaoke, and listen as their voices were warped and distorted beyond recognition. We had renditions of Otis Redding, Chaka Khan – and of course, for those stuck for a song choice, about a hundred versions of “Happy Birthday” – all deteriorating into chaos, stretching and compressing to mirror the lifespan of species across the animal kingdom.

Individual singing into a microphone.

The musical activity prompted some very chin-stroking conversations with adult festival-goers about whether or not it would be a good thing if we managed to extend human lifespan. The “no” contingent won out in the end, citing fears about limited resources, concentration of power, and the need for a natural end to bring meaning to life – but the yeses were a close second, arguing for the extra time spent with loved ones, and the diversity of experiences a longer life would bring.

The kids were less concerned about the ethical ramifications of a longer lifespan, and instead deeply concerned with mashing as many buttons on the “lifespan-emulator” as their small fingers would allow. We had a whole host of wunderkind DJs chopping up beats that the festival headliners could only dream of, and this enthusiasm for the musical activity translated brilliantly into engagement with our learning outcomes. I was amazed at how quickly kids as young as five began to match what they were hearing from the sampler to differences in ageing, guessing at the longest-lived animals and dragging their friends over to explain what they’d just found out. Perhaps best of all was the wonderful creativity in our drawing prompt, where we encouraged kids to make up their own species and assign it a lifespan. Some of these would put even Ming to shame.

It’s hard to know who had a better time: us or the kids. Getting to talk about my research to so many people, on so many different levels, was an incredible experience; and it was made all the better by the festival atmosphere and the promise of post-stall music to catch. It was some of the most fun of my life, and I would absolutely do it again, even if it meant listening to a hundred more Happy Birthdays – though perhaps not quite 507.

To find out more about The Tape of Life, visit our Instagram @tapeoflifespan.

Why I chose to study a Master of Science by Research – Oona Lessware

Are you considering going into research?

Do you envisage yourself doing a PhD one day? Or are you keen to gain more specific research experience? If so, then a MScR may be a great next step.

There are many different masters programmes out there, so why might you consider applying for a Master of Science by Research (MScR)? Many people are motivated by their devotion to a subject matter, their future career goals, or their desire to gain independent research experience. For me, it was a combination of all three.

When I applied for my MScR, I was motivated by my love for studying carnivorous plants and my ambition to gain more comprehensive research experience. My overarching goal had always been to study for a PhD but despite already having a taught masters under my belt, I wanted more experience before committing to one. I discovered the Lady Emily Smyth studentship and the proposed research project (working with the tropical pitcher plants, Nepenthes) on and I knew immediately that this was the position for me.

Choosing the right masters course: taught vs research 

If you’re someone who wants to acquire more skills and expertise in a specific field, then continuing your studies may be a great option. First things first, you need to choose the right programme and undertake the (surprisingly not so scary) application process.

When looking at masters programmes you will notice there are two main types: taught or research-based. Whether you are set on further study already, or you are just figuring out your next move, choosing between these two can be difficult. There are many courses out there, sometimes making the search feel overwhelming. It’s best to take things slow, narrow down your areas of interest, do your research, and have a thorough look through all your options. This allows you to make the most informed decision possible.

A typical taught masters involves teaching, coursework, and a short research project. The programme will have more familiar and similar structuring to your undergraduate degree. Here you ramp up the level of independence (compared to undergrad), whilst still having the support and guidance from university staff. You may consider this option if you already have a specific career in mind or want to expand your knowledge in a distinct field.

In contrast, during a MScR you undertake an extended research project solely based on one topic, in a more independent manner. The focus is on independent study as opposed to taught modules and instruction. There is usually far less coursework (I had none), and your time will culminate in a large thesis write up of around 20,000 – 30,000 words (slightly longer than a typical taught master’s thesis). This option is better suited to individuals, like me, who want to continue doing research.

What you can expect to gain from a masters of science by research

During a MScR you can expect to gain invaluable research experience working both independently and collaboratively. By focusing on one research topic for a whole year you essentially become a skilled and trained researcher. This comes in handy if your goal is to study for a PhD or if you’re looking to be employed in a research-heavy position. Alternatively, if you’re not sure about committing to a 3- or 4-year PhD just yet, studying a MScR gives you a great insight into the academic research world and a taste of what you can expect as a PhD student. In 2019, the Graduate Outcomes survey reported that about a quarter of the students who studied research masters went on to do a PhD. It’s worth knowing that a research masters provides not just a route into a PhD but is a beneficial and respected qualification, which can aid a career outside of academia too.

Having studied both a taught masters (MSc) and research masters (MScR), I’m aware of the stark contrasts between the two, and the importance of choosing the right course. During my MSc in Ecology and Conservation, I was taught a broader range of content, concepts, and theory. In contrast, my MScR involved no teaching element but still provided me with the best overall experience and the tools to confidently continue into a PhD. Before studying for my MScR I had already undertaken two research projects, however, I always felt that the projects were too brief and that I lacked laboratory and research experience. Now, I consider myself a confident and competent independent researcher (inside and outside of the lab), primarily thanks to my MScR experience.

Finding the right research group

If a MScR sounds like an appealing option to you, then the next step will be finding a suitable research group and/or supervisor. Keep in mind that during a MScR you study a very specific topic for a whole year (or longer, if you go part-time). This means you need to be confident that you will enjoy yourself and will remain interested and engaged for the duration. Another important factor is your relationship with your supervisor. They will be your first point of contact, therefore having a good working relationship and being sure you will get along is essential.

It helps to start by narrowing down research groups and supervisors who you might want to work with. Consider your strengths and weaknesses, where your research interests lie, and what topic you may be willing to invest a large portion of your time into. Read into publications and assess what area of research you might want to explore. You can start reaching out to people early on to discuss project ideas, and to express your interest in doing a masters with them. During the application process, it may be expected of you to write a research proposal, alternatively (like me) you may come across an advertised position that takes your fancy which already has the project outlined. Either way, touching base with your potential supervisor and getting on their radar is a great place to start. In my experience, students that have had the confidence to make prior contact with academics are a lot more appealing. Once you’ve done this, then you can think about starting the application process.

The application process

This is the part of the journey that most people find the most intimidating but take it from me, having been through this process twice, it’s not as bad as you think!

Most universities will require a personal statement, CV, copy of your degree transcript, and possibly a research proposal. The first impression that the admissions team get from you is from your personal statement, making this an important document that you should take your time to polish.

Admissions tutors want to see that you’re engaging, motivated, curious, and enthusiastic about the subject matter. You don’t get much space to sell yourself, therefore, make every sentence count! Be as original and genuine as possible and avoid overused cliched expressions and phrases. There are lots of great free resources online (e.g., on which can help you with this and at your current university your tutor and careers staff will also be able to give good guidance.

After you’ve submitted your application (phew) and it has been reviewed, you may be invited for an interview. However difficult it might be, try putting aside your nerves and focus on demonstrating your enthusiasm and preparation for a challenge. Remember, the interview panel want you to succeed!

How will it be funded?

There are a few financial considerations involved in the decision to study a masters. After having done a 3-year undergraduate course you may only be awarded another (max) £10,000 loan from the Student Loans Company. This may just about cover your tuition fees and maintenance; however, the fees and cost of living can differ greatly between cities and courses. I am grateful to have had my MScR fully funded by the Bristol Centre for Agricultural Innovation’s Lady Emily Smyth Studentship. This covered my tuition fees, consumables, and stipend for a year. Studentships (and scholarships) provide great opportunities to bypass financial difficulties and there are plenty of fully funded or partially funded masters positions out there. Other opportunities such as alumni discounts and grants also exist, so it’s worth having a look into what you can apply for.

What to expect from a MScR

Once you start a MScR you should be ready (and hopefully excited!) to expand your research experience and gain numerous new skills. For me, one of the most exciting aspects of the MScR was the opportunity to work closely with like-minded, research-driven individuals. You can really enhance your experience by being a proactive communicator and reaching out to collaborate and learn from other academics and students where possible. Asides from providing me with a great year researching the plants that I love, this MScR position has directly propelled me on into a PhD.

Overall, my MScR has enriched my research career, led me into a rewarding and interesting PhD, and forged the post graduate researcher that I am today. It’s important that you find the right course and the right research group because these have the potential to infinitely improve your master’s experience. I’m incredibly grateful for the BCAI’s funding, as well as the guidance of my supportive lab group. I encourage those of you who find research compelling, who aim to stay in academia, or who want to benefit their future career prospects, to explore your options and consider making a MScR your next step.

Oona Lessware
PhD student, Developmental biology of superhydrophilic, directional, antiadhesive plant surfaces

University of Bristol Funding

If you are interested in carrying out a masters by research at the University of Bristol and want to know more about what funding is on offer check out our funding pages through the Bristol Doctoral College. It is worth noting that university research institutes (URIs) and schools across the university will often promote funding for taught and research masters on their own webpages.

Opportunity Bristol scholarship for research-related Masters

Opportunity Bristol provides financial support to UK students from Black backgrounds to undertake a research-related Masters degree and will help successful awardees to gain the research skills and experience needed to apply for funded doctoral research opportunities in the future.  The scheme aims to place students in a better position to pursue a career in research by supporting their studies at master’s level. Find out more about Opportunity Bristol including eligible courses and how to apply. 


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 (
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

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

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.