Beyond a life in the lab


Regan ForrestRegan Forrest
works with museums and other cultural organisations to help them understand their audiences better.

She is at the end of her doctoral studies through the University of Queensland’s Business School, with her thesis “Design Factors in the Museum Visitor Experience” due to be submitted for examination at the end of September.

Among the many hats she wears is being the Director of interactivate (interactivate.com.au), a research and creative consultancy committed to helping museums make the world a better place through quality visitor experiences. Years before she founded the business, she snapped up @interactivate as her twitter handle.

We invited Regan to write for us because of her approach to finding a career space. PhD researchers and ECRs often feel that a linear trajectory is what’s required and valued. Regan’s story shows that taking a risk can lead to unexpected, very satisfying job opportunities and career paths.


[Original photo by @kimtairi on flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

[Original photo by @kimtairi on flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

Once I turned down a PhD scholarship, only to accept another, 15 years later, in a completely different field.

After finishing Honours in Biochemistry at the University of Adelaide, I opted not to do a PhD straight away. That would have been the path of least resistance, but I thought some experience in other labs would make me a more rounded researcher in the long run. I decided to take a gap year (or two) to work as a Research Assistant instead.

About halfway through my first year as an RA, I started to feel frustrated and miscast. I wasn’t sure if the lab life was for me after all. But what else was I going to do with a science degree?

At this point I wasn’t 100% sure what Science Communication was, but I decided I had nothing to lose by applying for ANU’s Graduate Diploma program. This course dramatically broadened my horizons, and although I didn’t know it at the time, laid the foundations for a career path I could not have imagined previously.

One of the things the course covered, thanks to its links with Questacon, was the process of developing exhibitions and hands-on exhibits for science centres and museums. Prior to this point I had, like most people I suspect, never given a moment’s thought as to how a museum exhibition actually comes into existence.

I’d enjoyed that part of the course, but wasn’t convinced there was necessarily a career in it. In any case, I wanted to spend some time overseas and I managed to secure some short-term work in the UK as a researcher for a new science centre under construction. I used this short-term contract as a springboard to network like crazy, paying to send myself to a couple of conferences so I could get to know the UK Science Communication scene and how I could fit into it. This paid off – I managed to secure a slightly longer-term contract to help develop the exhibitions at the soon-to-be-built National Space Centre in Leicester, UK.

I was a long way from the Biochemistry lab but still inside the science tent, albeit in a completely different discipline. But even that was soon to change.

Once the Space Centre was opened and my contract was up, the exhibition design company who had worked on the project invited me to join them as a content researcher and exhibit planner. My first project? A medieval guildhall. About as far from science as you could get!

Over the next few years, I worked on a lot of science exhibition and hands-on exhibits for children, reflecting my Questacon roots. But I also ended up developing exhibitions on a wide range of topics: the American Revolution, the social history of Welsh coal mining, and the maritime history of the Gulf States to name just a few.

Without really trying, I had gone from being a scientist, to a science communicator, to being a more general interpreter of cultural heritage (and learned that Interpretation was actually a thing). That was where I was at when I returned to Adelaide in 2007.

Fast forward to 2010, and the research bug had come to bite again, but this time in a completely different way.

All through my career, although the subject matter may have changed, the common denominator of all my work was looking at ways to engage visitors with sites, stories and collections. I’d developed lots of different exhibitions, but practical constraints meant I’d never really had the chance to see the results of our design decisions from a visitor’s perspective. That bugged the hell out of me!

So, I decided to do something about it – and that’s what my PhD was all about.

My doctoral research was planned to address the question: How do museum visitors perceive and respond to different exhibition environments?, and was conducted in various permanent galleries at the South Australian Museum. I accompanied visitors around the exhibitions and asked them to give me a running commentary of their experience, observed visitors using the spaces, and developed a survey that helped me quantify perceptions of different environments and relate these to how visitors described their experiences.

This survey, which I call “Perceived Atmosphere”, is something I’m hoping to roll out at other museums so we can build up a picture of how a wide range of exhibition environments are perceived by visitors, and use that to inform future exhibition design.

Before starting the PhD, I had worked in exhibition planning for over a decade. My role was about communicating the expertise of others, making it interesting and engaging for a general audience. But now, I have my own body of expertise to communicate and I’m developing a multi-pronged strategy for communicating my research:

1. Practicing what I preach

As exhibition developer, I spent a lot of time telling experts (curators, historians, scientists, etc.) what they need to do to engage the general public: tell a coherent story, avoid jargon, don’t get sidetracked by unnecessary detail, answer the “so what?” question as to why their topic mattered. Now I need to take my own advice and make sure I can communicate appropriately with a number of different audiences.

2. Making it relevant to “industry”

I never considered my PhD as a stepping-stone onto an academic career. To me, it was an opportunity to add some intellectual horsepower to the knowledge I’d picked up through experience, and to give me more credibility as a consultant. I also wanted my research to produce something useful for exhibition designers. I think I have achieved that, but the challenge now is to present it in a way that demonstrates this at a glance: visuals, infographics, and so on. And I’m aiming to present at as many different conferences as I can.

3. Still showing my academic credentials where it counts

Although I don’t have any plans to follow an academic career path, I still need to show that my work has the requisite level of rigour, both in the thesis itself and through academic publications. I already have one paper published (part of my literature review), and I reckon there’s at least 2-3 additional papers in there as well. They’re on my “to-do” list!

Life as an academic at a regional university

Dr Mel Thomson

[Photo by Phil Roberts, York University]

Dr Mel Thomson completed her undergraduate Honours degree in 1998 in microbiology and immunology at the University of Melbourne.

She then migrated to the UK where she worked on various projects as diverse as allergy and cancer before undertaking further studies. She completed a Masters of Research in functional genomics in 2004 before reading for a PhD in microbial genetic regulation in Neisseria species (both at the University of York, UK).

After the award of her PhD in 2009, Mel became interested in the extra-gastric consequences of the host-pathogen interactions between gastric Helicobacter species and their human host.

She returned to Australia in 2011 to start her own group at Deakin Medical School, where she plans to continue her explorations of host-pathogen interactions leading to pathology affecting nutrient absorption in the gut.

Mel has recently become a national ‘torch bearer’ for the concept of crowdfunding academic research, with a track record of two successful Pozible campaigns: Mighty Maggots and Hips 4 Hipsters. She is involved in advocacy for Women in Science both nationally and internationally.

Mel tweets at @dr_mel_thomson and blogs at Dr Mel Thomson.


Photo by Mel Thomson

Photo by Mel Thomson

I recently caught up with several early- and mid-career research colleagues from regional Queensland and NSW at a national conference.

The last time I had seen them at this meeting was two years ago, when two of them were working on the end of their fellowships at metropolitan universities.

Meeting them again, I discovered that the two of them had moved to a ‘new’ university in a regional area outside of the conurbation they had previously inhabited.

One had followed their Patron to this new position. The other had decided to take an academic lecturing position to offer some job security in response to the increasingly unstable funding environment for early and mid-career researchers in Australia.

They knew I was from a regional campus of a Victorian university, and we got chatting about the differences they had experienced since moving out of town to a ‘second tier’ (or perhaps ‘third tier’?) university. I asked what kind of support and commitments they had, compared to before.

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We need to talk about titles

Jonathan LaskovskyJonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets infrequently as @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


A colon

The dreaded colon

We need to talk about titles. We’ve been neglecting them and it’s starting to show.

Neglect signifies that we once cared for titles but, for some reason, the care has ceased or become sporadic at best (insert your favourite garden-tending metaphor here).

This neglect might partly be explained by the ever-increasing pressure on academic life: large teaching loads, increasing demands for research output, conferences, meetings and other administrative distractions, as well as our paltry attempts to maintain some kind of work-life balance (one more reason to attend Shut Up and Write).

Being time-poor means we are often in such a rush to write that we don’t spend the time needed to gather our thoughts and really nail what it is we are writing about.

But we should. In particular, we really need to work on our titles. Those little summaries are the first thing that people read.

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Are we there yet?

Francis WoodhouseFrancis Woodhouse is a postdoc at The University of Western Australia.

Born and bred in England, he did a bunch of degrees at the University of Cambridge—first a bachelor’s and a master’s in Mathematics and then a doctorate in Mathematical Biology—before moving out to Perth.

The content of Francis’s research is gradually including more biology every year. At the University of Western Australia he works in bioengineering and biofluids, developing models of knee cartilage damage and repair to understand and prevent the onset of osteoarthritis.

He maintains side interests in pattern formation, self-organisation, and microswimmer propulsion.

He tweets as @fwoodhouse and blogs at www.microbiohydro.com.


Tropic of Capricorn sign (Photo by Dan Dyer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dwdyer)

Tropic of Capricorn sign (Photo by Dan Dyer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dwdyer)

I’m every Aussie’s least favourite invader: a grubby, plummy pom.

But unlike the other half million of us here in Perth, I’m not here for the sun, sand or surf.

I’m here for the science.

Nearly a year ago, I left the crumbling mortar of England to take up my first postdoc, far away at the University of Western Australia. I’d never switched university before, let alone moved country, so I was a little apprehensive.

Will they understand me? Do I need special gloves to deal with all the redbacks? Can I apply sunscreen fast enough to keep up with the sunburn?

I needn’t have worried. Confusion, spiders, and sunburn have all been minimal, and I’ve settled in just fine. I don’t yet ask “how ya going?”, and “Australia” still has four syllables, but I’ve happily accepted the flat white and long black as the two coffees to rule them all.

The first thing I learned is that Australia is really rather far away from England. I always knew this on paper, but the soul-sucking malaise of twenty hours in the air made it feel very real indeed. The journey isn’t getting any easier with practice, either (and being forced to pause in Baku doesn’t help).

Thankfully, the malaise didn’t last, and the distance receded once I’d wrapped my head around the novel avian and arboreal life forms. With somewhere to live and the city sussed out, it didn’t feel so alien anymore. Before I knew it, a couple of weeks had gone by and it was time to start work.

Moving to Australia didn’t mean existing research connections had to languish, so I soon resumed interacting with colleagues in Europe and North America over the all-connecting Internet.

That’s when the perception of distance came back, and this time with tyranny.

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Designing your research dissemination

Megan McPhersonMegan McPherson is currently working on the Dissemination of Learning and Teaching Resources Project for the College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University. She is supporting multiple research teams and internal and external processes for engaged dissemination.

She has project managed, led, and evaluated higher education research in the areas of peer learning and assessment in the creative industries, elearning approaches in the university studio, and professional development for teaching in new generation learning spaces.

Megan is a practicing artist and has taught and researched in the university studio for 18 years. She is a PhD scholar in the Faculty of Education, Monash University.

Megan tweets and instagrams at @MeganJMcPherson.


Tote. Sack. (Artwork/photo by Megan McPherson)

Tote. Sack. (Artwork/photo by Megan McPherson)

It used to be that dissemination was all about the academic publishing and conference presentations you would do at the end of the project to make public your findings and recommendations.

In the grant-lands of internal and external funding bodies, the idea of dissemination is changing.

Engaging in dissemination with your stakeholders is expected from the beginning of the project. An example of the support for this move is the Australian Government’s Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) ‘engaged dissemination’ project resulting in The D-Cubed project and resources.

Most learning and teaching funds emphasise engaged dissemination, and there are things that we can learn from this space. Dissemination can be more than an academic conference paper or article in a pay-walled journal.

Dissemination has moved into the more specific arena of ‘engaged dissemination’ where there is a planned process of ‘understanding potential adopters and engaging with them throughout the life of the project, to facilitate commitment to sustained change” (p.12). This means that you identify and interact with the audience for your research from the beginning of your project.

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