Thinking outside the box

Massung_SoapboxBristol2014.jpgDr Elaine Massung (EM) is a Research Assistant in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bristol where her work involves examining how technology can be used to support sustainability. Today she talks to Soapbox Science (SS) about how she developed her career and gets us to think outside the box when it comes to our smart phones. You can here Elaine talk about “There’s an (environmental) app for that: smartphones and sustainability” on the 14th of June. Follow Elaine on twitter @GreenDoors2014


SS: Hi Elaine, thanks for coming to speak to us this morning. Lets gets things starts, firstly can you tell us about how you got into your current position?

EM: How much time do you have?!  My route from student to researcher spans two continents and a few disciplines.  I am an American, and my background is in archaeological interpretation. I spent a year abroad as an undergraduate at the University of Bristol, and very quickly fell in love with the city.  I returned to Bristol to get an MA in “Archaeology for Screen Media”, and this introduced me to the use of location-based media to provide information about the past: audio or visual interpretation that was triggered by GPS and a user’s movement throughout a region.

At the time, this was still quite new (the iPhone had yet to be invented), and many companies were in such a rush to get something on the market that they didn’t bother to actually see what the users themselves wanted from the technology.  This inspired me to pursue a PhD entitled “Visitor Reception to Location-based Interpretation at Archaeological and Heritage Sites” where I tested different methods of providing interpretive content at the Clifton Suspension Bridge using members of the public to evaluate and shape the design.

This was jointly supervised between the Department of Archaeology and Computer Science, and it was my supervisor in Computer Science, Dr. Kirsten Cater, who later recommended that I apply for a research post looking at how technology can be used to promote issues of sustainability.  While initially outside my comfort zone of heritage studies, I have greatly enjoyed immersing myself in the world of HCI research [human-computer interaction], while also promoting a topic I personally believe in.


SS: From archaeological interpretation to human computer interactions – very exciting! So was there anything or anyone who particularly inspired you to get a career in science?

EM: Honestly, I wasn’t looking for a career in science, it found me!  But with the benefit of hindsight, it seems only natural that I have ended up in research.  Growing up the in United States, science fairs are a big part of the school curriculum: students learn the scientific method, how to think analytically, and are encouraged to run their own experiments. When I was in 5th grade, I was fortunate to have a teacher, Mr. Martin, who encouraged me to enter the county fair and the rest, as they say, is history – participating in science fairs at the regional and state level were a big part of my life until I entered University.  I believe this not only helped instil a love of science, but also keep an open mind about the career possibilities open to me.


SS: We don’t really have those kind of science fairs here in the UK its nice to hear that they might be inspiring generations of scientists in the states. What is it about your current research that you find most fascinating?

EM: How an everyday device—the smartphone—can be used as a tool to do good.  Many people view their phones as a Swiss Army Knife of sorts: it allows you to stay connected to friends and family, can be used to find your way from point A to B, provides entertainment, and can even be used to order pizza at the press of a button.  Why shouldn’t something like this, something people always carry with them, also be used to support the work of a community organisation or science in general?  Our work with both Close the Door and the Digital Green Doors project has shown that smartphones can play an enormous role in data collection as part of the citizen science movement, and also enhance community learning and the spread of best practice.


SS: Really good point, why not use modern technology for so much more than phone calls and maps! You sound like you have a real passion for your subject which is wonderful, but what was it that first attracted you to Soapbox Science?

EM: They say the geek shall inherit the earth, but there is still a stereotype that computer science is nothing but coding and algorithms (typically carried out by socially inept men!).  The field of human-computer interaction blows these antiquated ideas away, involving such disparate subjects as psychology, design, and a desire to understand how technology can be used to bring about positive changes in behaviour.  People tend to find my jump from archaeology to computer science unusual, but I believe that I am still following the same path: using technology to spread enthusiasm and increase interest in a given subject, whether it be Roman ruins or the importance of cutting carbon emissions.  My interest in Soapbox Science is an extension of this, a desire to put a new face to computer science and get the word out about the fascinating research being conducted.


SS: And if you could summarise how you are feeling about the day in one word what would it be?

EM: Adrenaline!


SS: If there was one thing you could change about the scientific culture right now what would itbe and why?

EM: Eliminate stereotypes.  While this is applicable to many disciplines (and life in general of course!), the STEMM fields [science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine] seem to be plagued by notions such as “men are good at X, but women better at Y” or “people who do Z are like [fill in the blank]”, and therefore everyone should fall in line accordingly.  Yet men can be nurses. Women can be engineers.  Computer scientists can be social.  People should be encouraged to follow their passion for a subject, full stop.


SS: Well thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today Elaine. Just before you go, if you could give a female PhD student thinking of starting a career in academia any advice what would it be?

EM: would ask her why she wanted to stay in academia – if it’s because she can’t think of anything else to do with a PhD, then it’s probably not the right place for her.  However, if it’s because she is so enthusiastic about a topic that she can’t see anywhere else that would let her pursue that interest to the fullest extent, then I would say she’s on the right track.  Seriously considering what she can offer academia, and vice versa, can help avoid a misalignment of values and unmet expectations.  Admittedly, I would give this advice regardless of gender as I’ve heard too many PhD students say that they’re planning to pursue an academic career because “that’s what you do” or that’s what’s expected of them, without any thought to what it will actually entail.

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