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!

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One Response to Beyond a life in the lab

  1. Pingback: Well, that’s a wrap! | Interactivate

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