Agatha Explores

AgathaHerman_wAgatha Herman (GES) is a human geographer with interests in geographies of ethics and justice. In particular her research explores the role and impacts of socio-economic and environmental ethics in production systems and spaces.  She currently holds a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in which she is investigating the capacity of Fairtrade to promote resilient and ethical development within and beyond its producer communities. Building on her PhD research, this focuses on the Fairtrade wine sector and will involve fieldwork in South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Tunisia and Germany.

Agatha is currently part way through a 3 month fieldwork stint in South Africa and is writing about her experiences in her blog –

‘After my first post about just some of the day-to-day things that we do and experience here, it got me thinking about some of the other things that we now just seem to take for granted (amazing how quick you acclimatize!):

Mosquitoes: when we first arrived we didn’t realise (a) just how many mosquitoes there were in the evenings and (b) how tasty we were to them. After getting 19 bites in about 3 days we realised action needed to be taken………….’


Wellbeing and Work Life Balance



Roberta Gilchrist (Head of School) highlighted both of these recent articles:


‘Tips on looking after your mental health as a PhD student’ by Holly Else (Times Higher 13th November 2014)

Learn to recognise and respond to signs of depression and stress – ‘A PhD can sound like a great career move: it challenges the intellect, expands horizons, boosts a CV and offers flexible working hours. But for some the nature of the work involved can take a toll on their mental health.’









‘Clocking off’ by Patience Schell (Times Higher)

‘Work need not – should not – be all consuming. Long hours hurt productivity, while leisure improves health and sharpens minds’

Five alive: scholarly ways to well-being

Patience Schell adapts the New Economics Foundation’s evidence-based “Five Ways to Well-being” for academic lives

Cultivate your human relationships at work. Invite a colleague for coffee. Walk down the hall and knock on a door instead of sending an email.

Be active
When a problem’s got you stuck, walk to the library to return those books, explore an unknown street, find your own “Sandwalk”. Give your mind the time to be carried by your body and roam free.

Take notice
Be mindful, look around, be in the moment and be aware. Be with your students as they learn. Be in the moment with your research, even when it’s frustrating. We’re so lucky that our field allows us to follow our curiosity.

Keep learning
Here again, we are lucky. Each time we redesign our courses, each time we approach a new aspect of our research, each time we’re given a new administrative task, we have an opportunity to learn, which is vital to our brain’s health and our well-being.

Be generous with your time. We are generous every time we help junior colleagues and students, create a postgraduate support group or work for our profession.

Do you have any tips?  Is there any additional support that could be offered to staff and students? Do you feel you have a good work life balance?  Could it be improved?…………..


Women prefer cooperation at work; Men like competition

‘Are Women More Attracted to Cooperation Than Men?’ by Peter Kuhn and Marie Claire Villeval is published in the February 2015 issue of the Economic Journal.

Are women more attracted than men to cooperative working environments? The findings of this research suggest that the answer is yes.


Athena Forum

The Athena Forum is the expert voice from within and for the science community.  The Athena Forum was established in 2007/8 and is an independent committee.  The function of the Forum informs the wider debate on diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) through:

• discussion and dissemination of examples of good practice in addressing the under-representation of women in academic STEMM;
• facilitation of exchanges between organisations and stakeholders with an interest in academic STEMM for the development, dissemination and implementation of good practice in STEMM employment in higher education and research;
• provision of an expert voice on issues of women in STEMM in higher education and research when appropriate;
• events, reports and other activities that advance the understanding of the role women in academic STEMM.

Athena Forum members are nominated by the UK’s leading scientific professional and learned societies and are individual experts with experience on the issues of women’s career progression and their representation in STEMM.








The Forum is composed of representatives from the Academy of Medical Sciences, BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Physics, London Mathematical Society, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society and Society of Biology. The Athena Forum is supported by the Royal Society.

The Athena Forum held an event, at the Royal Society, on Friday 28th November 2014 ‘Celebrating success and looking ahead‘ celebrating past achievements and looking ahead at future project activities.

At the event, the Forum launched its report ‘The Athena Project Review’, by Caroline Fox (Athena Project Programme Manager, 2001-2007) in celebration of the successes of the Athena Project


Mines, Mudflats and Manure

Careers in environmental science are entirely unpredictable. You can make grand plans about where you might go and what you might do but the reality of life is that you have to respond to the opportunities that present themselves and do whatever seems exciting at the time. You may end up exactly where you started, but the journey can be simply sublime.

Devon Great Consols former copper and arsenic mine

Devon Great Consols former copper and arsenic mine











I did my PhD at the University of Reading where I spent almost four years looking at the effect earthworms had on metals in contaminated soils. Experiments basically entailed taking metal contaminated soil and comparing the chemistry of the soil before it gets eaten by the earthworm with the chemistry of what comes out the other end. During the first meeting I had with my PhD supervisor I was informed that he had been successful in securing ‘beamtime’ on a super-expensive instrument called a synchrotron in about a month’s time and that we needed to turn up with some contaminated worm poo in order to avoid major embarrassment. My first challenge was to find some contaminated soil. I was pointed in the direction of Devon Great Consols, a huge copper and arsenic mine on the banks of the river Tamar that was abandoned at the beginning of the 20th century. Upon arrival, the site looked like a moonscape with bumpy terrain consisting of various plies of pale yellow soil and a huge unvegetated spoil heap. The trick was to collect some soil that wasn’t so inhospitable that my earthworms would kick the bucket at a mere whiff but soil that would contain enough metals so that the synchrotron could detect it in the worm poo. This was a fine balance to strike but successfully achieved by hunting around for soils adjacent to the mine that already contained earthworms. If those earthworms could handle the elevated arsenic concentrations then surely the worms we had back in the lab would too. Fortunately the experiment was a success (perhaps more by luck than judgement) and that initial assessment made on my first day at Devon Great Consols served as a blueprint for subsequent field trips. I returned to the same spot on several occasions and adopted the same approach to sampling soils at other contaminated sites that I visited over the course of my years as a PhD student.

The mudflats of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada

The mudflats of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada











After my PhD I took the opportunity to spend a year in Nova Scotia, on the eastern coast of Canada. Why? Because the opportunity presented itself and it sounded like a fantastic place to spend a year. I was right. Nova Scotia is beautiful, everyone I met was ‘super awesome’ and the science was really exciting. Sandwiched between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick is the Bay of Fundy. The Bay of Fundy is home to the highest tidal amplitude in the world which gives rise to expansive mudflats that can stretch for more than a mile between the high and low tide mark. The bay is designated as internationally important due to its significance as feeding areas for long-distance migratory shorebirds. Every year the majority of the global population of one bird species (the Semipalmated Sandpiper: Calidris Pusilla) use the Bay of Fundy as a pit stop to eat shrimps and polychaete worms and build fat reserves before continuing their migration to South America. Because previous work had shown that some of the mudflats were contaminated with mercury and that the sandpipers were arriving in South America with elevated mercury loadings, we wanted to see if their Nova Scotian diet was contaminated. My task was to trudge out onto (or should I say into) the mudflats, collect sediment cores and extract invertebrates from the cores back at the lab. Sounds easy but the mudflats have the consistency of yesterday’s custard so just walking on (or should I say in) them is exhausting. This may seem like I’m stating the obvious but working on a mudflat results in you getting very muddy. Simple tasks like labelling samples or scratching your nose can result in getting mud in places that you never thought possible. The effort was worthwhile because we discovered that the polychaete worms contained much higher concentrations of mercury than the mud shrimp. We then went on to discover that the feeding ecology of the polychaete worms had a major impact on their mercury uptake.

The Manure Incorporation experiment at Rothamsted Research

The Manure Incorporation experiment at Rothamsted Research











Following my year in Nova Scotia (and a year in the US state of Iowa where I didn’t do any field work, so won’t go into it here), I had the fantastic opportunity to conduct fieldwork at what is probably the most famous and revered agricultural research station in the world: Rothamsted Research. Rothamsted is steeped in history and is most famous for the Broadbalk Experiment: the oldest continually running agricultural experiment in the world (which started in 1843). I was employed to look after a new suite of field experiments where we added various types of manure to plots of soil. The purpose was to see which type of manure, or which straw/ manure combinations were the best food for the organisms that live in the soil. The hope was that by adding the manure to the soil, the abundance of beneficial organisms such as earthworms and fungi would increase. We hypothesised that these organisms would then re-organise and improve the structure of the soil, reducing its strength. The improved soil would then be easier for plant roots to penetrate and we would see an increase in crop yield – and we did! Despite UK agriculture boasting some of the most technically advanced machinery in the world and Rothamsted being at the forefront of Agri-Environment research, it became quickly apparent that when an accurate quantity of manure needs to be applied to a precise plot of land, a man with a shovel is still be best tool for the job. For this reason, I spent my Septembers with a team from the farm engaging in the back-breaking pursuit of shovelling approximately sixty tonnes of manure into neat little piles on the back of a trailer and then applying them in buckets to the surface of more than 300 plots in the field. The experiments are still going and have already yielded some bumper data but I am happy to say that I have handed the shovel over to my successor.

Now that I have come full circle and am back at the University of Reading, a stone’s throw from the lab where I produced my first contaminated worm poo, I have one piece of advice: Don’t try to plan a career as an environmental scientist. Take the opportunities that present themselves, however mad or scary they may seem. The journey is much more important than the destination.

A bit about today’s blogger: Tom Sizmur

Tom_Sizmur_wDr Tom Sizmur is a Lecturer in Environmental Chemistry at the University of Reading. His research interest spans soil biogeochemistry in contaminated and agricultural systems with an emphasis on the interactions between organisms and their environment. His current research is on the use of biochar in environmental remediation and on the improvement of soils by applying organic amendments. Prior to this appointment Tom worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Rothamsted Research (UK), Iowa State University (USA) and Acadia University (Canada) and gained his PhD from the University of Reading.

Is Gender Still Relevant?

In September 2014 a conference discussing ‘Is gender still relevant?’ took place at the University of Bradford.

Dr Karina Croucher was conference lead, having secured funding from the British Academy. Karina is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Bradford. Her research interests include Funerary Archaeology, Archaeological Theory, Prehistory, Identity, gender and personhood, as well as interdisciplinary research into death and dying and end of life care. She is author of Death and Dying in the Neolithic Near East (2012, Oxford University Press).






The ‘Is Gender Still Relevant?’ seminar, sponsored by the British Academy, examined the state of play in gender research in the historic disciplines, and asked if (and why) we still need to debate gender issues, including feminism, masculism and gender fluidity. Despite over 30 years of campaigning and policy, why does gender remain a key issue today?

The event discussed both research and academic practice and welcomed participation from all career stages, particularly early career scholars. They were also keen on perspectives from all genders – this isn’t just about women!

You can find out more about the event following this link –

RGilchrist_wThe Introduction to the event by Roberta Gilchrist (Head of School) can be seen here –

Research Staff Conference

The University of Reading Research Staff Conference: Research Funding, Strategy and Impact took place on the 4th February 2015. The Research Staff Committee (with the support of People Development) organised the conference to examine key issues facing Research Staff at Reading. This conference aimed to enable Research Staff to develop their own responses to the key issues of securing funding, developing a strategy and making an impact. The conference also provided an opportunity to network with fellow researchers from across the university.

Event Themes
• Presentations by senior representatives from the Research Councils on winning funding.
• Feedback on the University of Reading’s Research Strategy & REF Results.
• How to maximise your Research Impact
• Promotion for Research Staff
• Women and promotion in the University
• Non-academic career paths for Research Staff
• The European Commission Human Resource Excellence in Research Award
• Networking lunch

Both Macarena Cardenas (GES) and Pascal Flohr (Archaeology)attended the event, and answer some questions about their impression of the day:

What was your main impression of the Conference?

Pascal – It was great to meet research staff from different places in the University, and in fact to meet people from within the School. Working in an office or lab most days, you don’t always really speak to other research staff, even if they have their offices in the same corridor. The conference was a good opportunity to do exactly that.

It was useful to have some more general information on research within the University, but I mainly found the more specific workshops valuable. I attended a workshop on AHRC funding and one on careers outside academia. It was an eye-opener that the last session was very busy: I am clearly not the only one who wonders what to do if there is no job for me in academia (after all, only ~20% of post-doctoral researchers will be able to find a permanent position in academia).

Macarena – I thought this was a remarkable event. From the venue to the quality of speakers, I thought this was a valuable event and I personally took loads from it. Looking at the great effort from Dr Justin Hutchence I am not surprised with the organisation and quality of the Conference. I felt supported and valued.

I was pleased to see how much Research Staff and academics cared. Without the interest of participants this event would have not been as successful as it was. I personally loved to see how the people that attended the seminar that Dr Hutchence and I provided were so excited to share their thoughts.  In fact some could not even get to write all their information on the flipcharts!

On the other hand, being behind the scenes and knowing how much planning and work this event took I feel that it has more value. Seeing the Development and Enterprise team working to have everything ready to go on time made me realise how much they care about Research Staff.

Were your expectations met?
Pascal – Yes.

Macarena Cardenas

Macarena Cardenas


Macarena – Absolutely, from both organising team sessions and the attendees. I thought people really appreciated the event from both sides, and this showed in the good attendance and atmosphere.







What did you think of your role within the conference? Do you think that you could have done more or something different?
Pascal – I was a participant. I could of course have been more involved in organising the conference, or a session, but I did not feel the need to do this (it was already done well!).

Macarena – You can always do more, can’t you? This experience makes me want to be a lot more involved the next time.
I would have not done anything different really. What I would include next time perhaps is hands on activities, and to create interdisciplinary groups to facilitate future collaboration.

About my role, I think I did give my best, and was as involved in as much as possible. I enjoyed talking to research staff and professors from other disciplines that otherwise would have not been possible. I believe I took the most I could from the day.

What are you taking away from this experience?

Pascal Flohr

Pascal Flohr


Pascal – A lot of information on various aspects of research, like how to integrate impact into research, what the REF results mean, how to apply for funding, and how to assess which career to choose.







Macarena – Great learning and reinforcement that can be summarised in three words: Connect, Impact and Publish!

Would you recommend this event in the future to other research staff, and why?
Pascal – Yes. The main reason is that it is very nice to meet other research staff from various schools.

Macarena – I would absolutely recommend it. The networking, learning, and facilitation at this event were extremely valuable. Feeling supported and connected as research staff is key.

Did you see any difference in gender attending the conference? If yes, where was this evident?
Pascal – I had the idea that the conference participants were about 50:50 male:female, or in any case that the numbers were not specifically much more leaning to one side or the other. It was striking though that all the main speakers, so those in the plenary session, were male, and also the majority of members of the Research Staff Committee are male (including the chair). It is of course possible that this is coincidence, after all we are talking about small numbers. But I think it is likely that this is mirroring the general trend in (and outside of) academia where there are about equal numbers of female and male undergraduate students, post-graduate students, and post-doctoral researchers, after which suddenly relatively few women are present in permanent academic roles and especially in management roles.

Macarena – The only difference I noticed was that the Professors invited to speak in the general sessions were only males, but that just appears to demonstrate the reality of the percentage of women in high academic positions. There were some female academics giving talks in masterclasses and seminars.

Would you say that the conference addressed and supported both genders equally?
Pascal – Yes, I did not notice any difference in how different genders were addressed.

Macarena – Yes, equal support. I did not notice any reinforcement to any gender in particular. All presentations and speeches were neutral and supportive to both research staff and academics.

Any further comments?
Macarena – That I enjoyed it, learned a lot and would recommend it to both academic and research staff.

The Culture of Enthusiasm – How do you remain enthusiastic?

Hilary Geoghegan (GES) has written a blog post discussing – How do you remain enthusiastic?

‘Here are a few in-expert tips on how I try to remain enthusiastic and go for it:

1. Understand yourself – take time to think about what you enjoy doing, what motivates you, what makes you feel positive. Keep it in mind.

2. Smile and say ‘hello’ – regardless of how you’re feeling, always make time to smile and chat (however briefly) with others.

3. Do something you love – academia isn’t always a happy place, but the pros far outweigh the cons for me.’

Follow the link to read the whole post and see more tips –

Be happy

This Girl Can

‘This Girl Can is a national campaign developed by Sport England and a wide range of partnership organisations. It’s a celebration of active women up and down the country who are doing their thing no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their face gets. This Girl Can is here to inspire women to wiggle, jiggle, move and prove that judgement is a barrier that can be overcome.’

More information can be found here –


Is the Professor Bossy or Brilliant? Much Depends on Gender

Pascal Flohr (Archaeology) highlighted this article in the New Y0rk Times from the 6th February 2015.  Claire Cain Miller discusses – Is the professor Bossy or Brilliant? Much Depends on Gender

Results for a search of "genius" on the interactive chart show students are likelier to apply this word to their male professors.

Results for a search of “genius” on the interactive chart show students are likelier to apply this word to their male professors.