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.

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 

 

Research without Borders 2020 Virtual Showcase: online competition

Research without Borders 2020

We are inviting postgraduate research students to share the story of their research in one image for the chance to win a prize in our online competition. 

Whether you get creative with paper, pens and glue, draw us a picture or use items found in your kitchen, your challenge is to create and photograph something that tells the world about your research through one image. The more creative and unusual the better! 

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic we have had to cancel our annual Research without Borders 2020 festival of postgraduate research, which was due to take place in venues around Bristol in May 2020.  We hope that by holding this online competition, our wonderful community of postgraduate researchers have the chance to share their fascinating research with the wider world in a different way.  

The challenge 

How can you bring your research to life through an image? We invite you to submit an image that you think helps share the story of your research, with a short, accessible description. Here’s a few ideas of how to participate: 

  • Get crafty: We know you can’t get to shops to buy special craft supplies. Instead, we encourage you to get creative with what you have around you at home – pens, paper, glue or tape could be used to create a model of your work. 
  • Grab some objects from around the house: What items can help tell the story of your research? This could be something literal or a more abstract interpretation. For example, perhaps a colander represents a molecular structure, some fruit and veg could stand in for your research participants or you could create a costume to reflect the period in history you are researching using bits and pieces from around the house. 
  • Got some kids’ toys lying around? Perhaps you have some Lego that you can use to recreate your work? 
  • Dig out some existing photos or visuals: You can also use existing images of you working on your research project — e.g. a photo of you in the lab or on a field trip — although we would encourage you to think of imaginative ways that you can combine or adapt these images.

All entries will be featured on our Bristol Doctoral College social media channels. 

How to enter 

The competition will run between 9am on Monday 11th May and midnight on Sunday 24th May. All entries will be collated and featured in an online gallery the following week.  

To take part, please share your image, a title and a short description (up to 80 words) that explains how this image illustrates your research and why it is important. Please don’t use technical jargon if possible, instead think how you could explain what you do to a friend outside of academic or a member of the public.  

Ways to share: 

Judging 

Submissions will be judged by a panel of staff from the BDC, Public Engagement and Communications teams (to be confirmed), on the following criteria: 

  • Overall, how engaging is the entryDoes it clearly communicate the relevance of the research to the public? 
  • How visually effective is the image? Does it make viewers want to know more about the research? 
  • How effective, clear and accessible is the description? We are looking for a clear description using non-technical English which grips the reader and highlights the relevance of the research. 

Prizes 

  • First prize: £50 Netflix or Spotify voucher 
  • Runner up: £20 Netflix or Spotify voucher 

Example entries

Conny Lippert - RWB online entry
Gothic Topographies: New England and other Spaces in the Work of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. In the gothic genre, the past tends to encroach on the present, and, harking back to the country’s history, H. P. Lovecraft’s and Stephen King’s fiction engages with wider American societal anxieties via their own geographical roots in New England. This research shows how their gothic topographies provide the setting for crises of identity and authenticity, feelings of guilt, and the fear of transgression.
[Research by Conny Lippert]
Elizabeth Mamali - RWB entry
How do same-sex couples engage with wedding rituals that are grounded in heterosexual meanings and traditions? This project looks at the motivations behind same-sex couples’ decisions to replicate, appropriate or entirely reject well-established wedding rituals that are underpinned by the heterosexual norm: the belief that people fall in two complementary genders (female and male) with natural roles in life. The research aim to challenge stereotypes and simplistic assumptions that people make about same-sex relationships, gender identity and sexuality. [Research by Elizabeth Mamali and Lorna Stevens]

See also some examples on Twitter:

Terms and conditions

  • You must be a current postgraduate research student at the University of Bristol. 
  • The competition is open until on midnight on Sunday 24th May 2020. 
  • Entries to the competition must present work conducted as part of your research degree.
  • Photos can be taken on any device and can be colour, black and white.
  • By entering, you give the Bristol Doctoral College permission to feature the photo on their website and social media channels.
  • We will assume that all submissions have the permissions of anyone featured in the photo (this is the responsibility of the applicant).
  • Added 13 May: You must have copyright to reproduce your image and have created it yourself. You also need to have permission to use and edit any stock imagery that forms part of your submission (for example a photograph taken by a third party which you may have edited). If you are unsure about permissions, please contact research-without-borders@bristol.ac.uk.

Any questions? 

Contact us at research-without-borders@bristol.ac.uk. 

Top tips for a successful videolink viva

With current guidelines around COVID-19, vivas are being conducted by videolink where possible. What should you expect from a videolink viva and how can you prepare? The Bristol Doctoral College asked five PGRs who’ve been through the process to share their experiences and tips.  


Debbie Daniels, School of Biochemistry 


Why did you have to do your viva by videolink? 

My viva took place during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak – as non-essential travel was advised against and flight schedules were looking increasingly unreliable, we made the last-minute decision for my external examiner to take part via videolink.  

How did you prepare?

I was feeling a bit nervous about the prospect of a viva over videolink so one thing I did was to practise some answers to a few common opening viva questions, for example “why did you decide to do this project?” or “briefly summarise your project for us”. I think even if you don’t end up using them it makes you feel a bit more confident when beginning the viva, especially when you throw in the added nervousness of it not being in person! 

What was the main thing that stood out for you about the experience? 

Debbie Daniels
“It took a few minutes to settle in, but after that it really felt like my external examiner was in the room with me.” Debbie Daniels

How surprisingly normal it felt! It took a few minutes to settle in, but after that it really felt like my external examiner was in the room with me.  

In the end, I found it a really positive experience, despite the initial nerves! The whole process went really smoothly and my examiners even commented on the fact that they felt they were able to conduct the viva exactly as they would do in person. Overall, I would say to try not to be too nervous about the videolink aspect and to trust in your ability – you will have spent much of your PhD explaining your work to other people and doing it via videolink really feels no different. 

Any tips for someone who now has a videolink viva planned? 

Think about any aspects of your projects (for example, a complex experiment set-up) where your go-to explanation may have involved drawing a diagram or using other visual aids – this might be trickier to do via videolink so it could be worth practising some verbal explanations for these out loud during your viva prep.  


Catherine Chan, School of Humanities  


Why did you have to do your viva by videolink?
 

My viva took place before the COVID-19 pandemic. One of my external examiners was supposed to come to Bristol from London but he had injured his back and had to restrict his mobility. The decision to move to videolink was quite last minute (if I’m not wrong, less than 24 hours before). 

How did you prepare and what did you learn?

Catherine Chan
“Having a set-up where you do not have to constantly worry about unnecessary details will help you focus on the exam.” Catherine Chan

Personally, there was not much I could do but to face the ‘challenge.’ I was a bit jumpy over the sudden change of plans, especially because I (and I trust a lot of others) have always found video calls/meetings awkward. I was mainly worried about the awkwardness and the possibility of glitches. Talking to my supervisor about this helped a lot, particularly because spelling out my worries in detail made me more aware of the actual issues I had with a Skype viva.   

Looking back, I wouldn’t have prepared differently.
If properly set up and with good internet connection, an online viva is not too different from an actual face-to-face examination.
 

I have learned to be less wary of online videocalls/meetings and this has been extremely helpful during the current situation with COVID-19. I’ve increasingly dealt with online teaching and meetings in the last two months, and I can assure everyone that it does get easier after a few tries. 

Any tips for someone who now has a videolink viva planned? 

  • Take the videolink viva as you would a face-to-face examination. While you’re in the process, you’ll find yourself so immersed in dealing with the examiners’ questions and discussing your thesis that it feels as if everyone is physically present in the room. 
  • Make sure to do a test call (or a few test calls) to make sure that the internet connection is stable, you are comfortable with the angle of the camera, and that you’re showing only what you want to show in the background. Having a set-up where you do not have to constantly worry about unnecessary details will help you focus on the exam.

Jon Prager, Bristol Veterinary School 


How 
has COVID-19 impacted on your viva? 

In a way the most unsettling thing was constantly changing plans – when COVID-19 initially became a problem I was going to join the external examiner in London (where I’m now based) and have a two-way Skype call between Bristol and London, then my internal had to self-isolate so it was going to be three-way call, with him at home. Then, a couple of days before the viva, the external’s campus was closed so we moved to four-way Skype call from home.  

What was the main thing that stood out for you about the experience? 

Jon Prager
“My external examiner afterwards commented it was great to be able to do a viva in fluffy slippers” – Jon Prager

The examiners were both really friendly. In a way, because doing it by videolink was new for everyone, it meant we were all a bit unsure how things would work and could all laugh off any teething connections issues and lighten the atmosphere. (My internal examiner accidentally disconnected – I joked he was bored already!)

It all worked much more smoothly than I expected/feared, and certainly I don’t think it had any negative impact on the viva. My external examiner afterwards commented it was great to be able to do a viva in fluffy slippers – so that’s one positive!  

Any tips for someone who now has a videolink viva planned? 

  • Check your internet connection and platform set-up. Do a test call with and without a headset to find the best approach for you.
  • Try to find somewhere quiet and without distractions. Make sure anyone around knows when you’ll be busy so you’re not disturbed. Similarly, close your emails and any other messaging apps to avoid distracting notifications.  
  • Think about how you’ll reference your thesis during the viva. I considered marking up my thesis digitally but ended up sticking to pen and paper.  
  • Check whether the examiners want you to join at the diary start time, or whether they will want to discuss first and ask you to join later.

Vivian Kong, School of Humanities 


What was your experience and how did you prepare?

Vivian Kong
“Before the viva I had a mini-mock viva with a friend over Skype.” Vivian Kong

Before the viva, I worried whether I would be able to hear everything clearly over Skype and understand my examiners’ questions. English is my second language, which also added to my concern. I also had concerns about other practical issues, such as internet speed and sound clash 

Before the viva I had a mini-mock viva with a friend over Skype. My friend asked me standard questions about the thesis and checked if my answers were audible and clear over Skype. That really helped ease my concerns, as I knew the right speed and volume to speak at in order to convey my thoughts. 

How did it go in the end? 

There were occasions where I couldn’t hear my examiners properly, and I had to ask them to repeat. However, once my examiners started asking me inspiring questions and gave me feedback, I almost forgot we were doing it over Skype! Having done a videolink viva, I understand how one may find it trickier to prepare, but I hope my positive experience can give students preparing for a videolink viva some assurance, and hope they’d find their viva useful too! 


Hang Yee Leung, School of Education


Why did you have to do your viva by videolink?

Hang Yee Leung
“I tried to maintain a healthy body and peaceful mind.” Hang Yee Leung

My doctorate was based at City University in Hong Kong and taught by academic staff from the University of Bristol. My viva was originally scheduled to take place in Hong Kong. However, due to the spread of COVID-19, the teaching team had returned to the UK and the viva was rescheduled to take place in Bristol. Unfortunately this was also cancelled due to closure of the School of Education. I was then informed that my viva would be conducted by Zoom two days before the scheduled date, with the five attendees all dialling in from separate locations.

How did you prepare for it?

Despite the coronavirus pandemic and sudden transition from offline to online viva, I tried to maintain a healthy body and peaceful mind, which helped me turning the viva from a challenge to an enjoyable experience.

Any tips for someone who now has a videolink viva planned?

  • As well as academic preparations and getting used to the technology, take the time for a walk or listen to your favourite music when you are feeling stressed.
  • Getting enough sleep and having a clear mind are also vital for a successful viva.

What are your thoughts, looking back on the experience?

To cite a quote from Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” 2020 is perhaps one of the most tumultuous years in many people’s life, but we should never give up hope. Good luck to all candidates who are going to attend an online viva. Enjoy the experience and learn from it.


Find out more

‘Jump at the chance’ — 3MT advice from a Bristol winner

Rebecca Shaw presenting during Bristol’s Three Minute Thesis final (Colston Hall, May 2019)
Rebecca Shaw presenting during Bristol’s Three Minute Thesis final (Colston Hall, May 2019)

What does taking part in the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition really involve — and what do doctoral researchers get out of it?

Rebecca Shaw, a postgraduate researcher in the School of Humanities, shares her reflections on winning the University of Bristol’s 2019 competition.

The idea seems simple enough – write a three-minute speech about your research and present it in front of your audience. But actually, as it turns out, 180 seconds isn’t that long! Making this the perfect challenge for any doctoral student.

I entered the 3MT competition during my second year of my PhD, and it was a fantastic opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on my research, and think about it in a different way.

For while we, as doctoral students, are intimately aware of our own research projects, distilling them down to a three-minute speech that will appeal and make sense to the general public – well, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

The trick I found was to find a ‘hook’; some aspect of your research that could get your audience interested and thinking, ‘hmm, this sounds interesting’. Here, the bespoke training offered by the Bristol Doctoral College was invaluable. Discussing your presentation with the Bristol Doctoral College staff and other research students, who have no idea about your research or even your subject area, can help you find that ‘hook’.

The training also offered you a chance to practise your presentation, as on the day (yep, you guessed it!), you aren’t allowed any notes or prompts. Just one static slide that you can refer to throughout your presentation. And don’t forget about that three-minute rule – one second over and you’ll be disqualified. Timing really is everything.

The semi-final of the competition soon came around, and after a final practise in the space, I felt ready. It really does feel like everyone’s presentations are amazing – each competitor had clearly put in a huge amount of work, so the competition was tough.

What I found, though, is that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it too. Deliver your speech with confidence, as if you’re telling a story on stage – the idea is to get the audience to engage with your research and your presentation. They are never going to do that if you mumble your speech while looking at your shoes. So, perform it!

The same goes for the final. At this stage, you really are competing against the best presentations. The final takes place at the end of the Research without Borders day, which I had also taken part in. It was quite a long day, as you can imagine, but I just thought – I’ve got one chance to wow everybody, let’s do this.

When my name was announced as the winner, I was genuinely surprised and of course, thrilled. The whole experience of 3MT had been quite the rollercoaster, much like any PhD! But given the chance to hone and practice your presentation skills, conquer any fear of public speaking, and gain fresh perspectives on your research – what research student wouldn’t jump at the chance?

So give it a go, and if you do enter, good luck!


Interested in taking part this year? You only have until 9am on Monday 16 March to apply for the University’s 2020 competition, so don’t delay!

To submit your application now, visit the Bristol Doctoral College’s 3MT pages.

Prizes, perspectives and popped balloons — Laura’s Research without Borders story

  • Laura Fox holding a scientific model
    Laura Fox's Research without Borders stall was entitled 'Nano: Nice or Nuisance?'.

Dr. Laura Fox, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Bristol, is a Development Scientist/ KTP Associate in the Physics department at the University of Manchester. In May 2019, when she was still a postgraduate researcher (PGR), she won the ‘Best-Communicated Exhibit’ prize at the 2019 Research without Borders showcase exhibition.

Below, she reflects on the festival — and why getting involved was such a positive experience for her.

I took part in Research without Borders (RwB) in the final year of my PhD (2019), while I was writing my thesis. I decided to take part mostly because I had gotten fed up with the daily slog of writing and sitting at my desk for weeks on end. Taking part in the festival let me have fun with my research again and view my work from a new perspective.

Getting out of the writing bubble

Coming to the end of a research degree sometimes feels like you don’t have time for anything else. You can feel like you should live and breathe your research, which you probably have been doing for 3/4 years.

When you have been working on something for so long, it can definitely start to feel a bit stale towards the end. Taking myself out of the writing bubble to view my research from the eyes of the general public really helped me to squash that feeling. I really enjoyed putting some creativity into the stall design, making colourful and engaging posters, displays and demonstrations. Sparking a bit of joy back into my research again.

The BDC provided some really helpful sessions to help us plan a stall design, discussing what had worked well before and how best to communicate with a wide variety of people that would likely visit us on the day. From these sessions, I learnt the importance of keeping it simple and how much people love to be quizzed!

Sharing research with diverse audiences

I had a bit of set-up to do on the day, as I had decided to make a display out of balloons to represent a cell membrane. Quite a few popped, as you can imagine.

I was ready to go as the doors opened with props and quizzes to describe what I had been doing for the last three years of my life! The first guests at my stall were a large group of retirees that took part in my quiz, ‘Nano: nice or nuisance?’. I was surprised at how much they already knew and they had some brilliant questions. This experience taught me never to assume someone’s knowledge! Within the group were people who used to be engineers and worked at NASA!

From then on, I had lots of visitors at the stall throughout the day — including four-year-olds, sixth-formers, teachers and industry professionals working in a huge variety of fields. Explaining my work to such a large range of people with different science capital was a challenge, but one I’d been prepared for.

A rewarding experience

The event was brought to a fantastic end by the final of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, which I watched as part of the audience. At the prize-giving and drinks event afterwards, I won the prize for the ‘Best-Communicated Exhibit’ — and I got to use the prize money to attend a conference and give an oral presentation in Sofia, Bulgaria. I’m now happy to say I’ve since submitted my thesis and passed my viva!

Taking part in RwB gave me improved communication skills, the opportunity to network and, most importantly, renewed energy to finish writing up! It’s a fun day and a fantastic thing to put on your CV, so what are you waiting for? Apply!


Want to give it a try yourself? To apply for this year’s festival, just complete the Research without Borders application form before 9am on Thursday 6 February 2020.

If you’d like to get more information about the festival before you apply, the Bristol Doctoral College team will be holding two drop-in sessions in the PGR Hub (2nd floor, Senate House). Join us at:

  • 1.30–2.30pm on Wednesday 22 January
  • 1.30–2.30pm on Friday 24 January.