My situation is a little complicated: my project is ‘split site’ which means I work at the Natural History Museum, but my degree will be awarded by Oxford University. I spent approx. 90% of my time in London, and go up to Oxford to occasionally use their instruments and to meet with my research group there. The museum is a great place to study. It’s beautiful, it’s completely bizarre and it’s got some of the most amazing specimens in the whole world. I mean I get to work in the same place as an 8m giant squid, the most intact skeleton of a stegosaurus and the 3550 kg ‘Cranbourne’ meteorite (said meteorite is located in one of the shops; ‘The Cranbourne Boutique’)? The museum meteorite collection is one of the best and oldest collections in the world. The labs are also incredible here, at the forefront of technology and instrumentation. Additionally, the opportunities for doing outreach are amazing; I give talks to the public about once a month, I’ve worked at ‘museum lates’ and I’ve got the chance to work at New Scientist Live and the Royal Society summer exhibit. That being said, the museum is not a university, so I think we can miss out on some of the structure a proper university department offers. We can definitely feel a little forgotten, especially with the emphasis of the museum being on engagement with the public. This makes going to Oxford particularly special for me. They have always made me feel welcome, and provide great support for me despite me not being based there. My group there are doing some awesome things working with a variety of space missions, which gives me some incredible opportunities. So both places are great, and I am so lucky. Also if you are ever walking past the front of the museum and you see a green blow up alien in one of the ground floor windows, that’s my office!
Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?Hi! I am a 4th and final year PhD student, studying at the Natural History Museum in London and the University of Oxford. I study meteorites, which are pieces of rock which have come from space. Most meteorites come from asteroids, which are small bodies which orbit the sun and are thought to be left over from the initial stages of the solar system, never successfully growing into planets. Studying meteorites could therefore tell us about what was going on in the solar system 4.6 billion years ago, and we can use them to tackle some of the questions about how planets formed. The meteorites and asteroids I look at look as though they have been heavily altered by water, and obviously water is an incredibly vital material when thinking about the emergence of life, or the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system. I’m interested in unravelling the history of these ‘aqueously altered’ bodies, and hopefully understanding a little more about the role of water in asteroid and planet formation.
What does a typical day or week look like for you?
Most days I’ll rock up at the museum (probably later than I should, I can’t shake the student mentality) and check emails and plan my tasks for the day. I try to keep regular hours, but I will admit I am terrible at keeping to routine, and sometimes I get caught up in whatever I am doing and leave later. Earlier in my project I did a lot of lab work, which meant my day varied hugely depending on the instrument I was using. Some instruments required me to spend all day in the lab making sure that everything was running smoothly, but others needed me only for setup, and then I could leave the machine running. I also spent a large chunk of my first few years in our clean lab, preparing the meteorites for analysis. Our clean labs have no windows and so some days I would go without seeing daylight, which was probably not helped by the hours and hours of true crime podcasts I would listen too. Honestly though, those are some of my favourite times, using my hands and focussing completely on one task. Now I spend most of my time processing and analysing data and writing (although I jump at chances to get back into the lab). I have huge data volumes which have a tendency to ‘suck you into the details’ so it’s important to take breaks, think of the best way to present the research and try to remember the bigger picture of what you are doing.
What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?I could talk about how every day is different, the opportunity for travel (working in space research means I’ve spent some time in the US and Japan), the amazing people and researchers I have met and worked with, but I think my favourite thing is that I get to study what I absolutely love. I have somehow managed to make a career out of what I wanted to do when I was 5 years old, and I cannot believe how lucky I am to be able to do so.
What’s been the most challenging part of it?Doing a PhD has not been easy. They are hard, they are isolating sometimes, they often make you feel like you don’t know anything you should and they have this tendency of working their way into every single aspect of your life. The most challenging part of it for me has been finding the motivation to keep going in the face of all that. Everybody has different ways of find their motivation, but for me it is to remember that it is okay to have a bad day and it is okay to ask for help.
Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
In an ideal world I would love to stay in academia, and keep studying meteorites and asteroids, but there are challenges associated with that, so we shall see. If not maybe I’ll open up a wine bar, or maybe become a detective, who knows?
What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?I actually think one thing to remember when applying is you don’t need to know everything yet. Maybe you are interested in working in a lab but don’t have much experience using the instruments that your university uses, or maybe you want to apply your experience to a new field. A lot of PhDs are learning on the job and if you show an ability and willingness to learn, that goes a long way. Sneaky second piece of advice – if there was one thing I would have done, would be to take time doing something else before I did the PhD. Those I know who worked beforehand (even in something completely different) often have a better attitude and seem to benefit greatly from a bit more life and work experience.
What makes your university a good place to study?
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?As I mentioned already, I do a lot of outreach, which I really enjoy. I’m a big reader, and I love sci-fi, so if anyone has any recommendations hit me up. I also love video games, though I am terrible so always have the difficulty on ‘story mode’. My token completely random hobby is nails and nail art – I love doing my nails and creating interesting designs on them. It’s such a good activity to take your mind of everything else, because you have to be so focussed. Aside from that, I enjoy sleeping, napping, dozing, snoozing…
Want to know more about Helena?Follow her on twitter and check our her profile on the Natural History Museum website using the links below: