Dr Michelle Farrell is a palaeoecologist, which means that she uses the preserved remains of certain organisms (in her case, mainly plants) to reconstruct past environments and ecosystems. Her primary research interest lies in understanding the relationships between prehistoric societies and the physical environments that they occupied. She is employed as Teaching Fellow in Physical Geography at the University of Hull.
SS: Michelle, how did you get to your current position?
MF: I completed my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth in 2003. I’d gone to university wanting to learn more about the role of humans in contemporary environmental and climate change, but during the course of my degree I learnt that people had already been affecting the environment for thousands of years, and that it was actually possible to study past environments and human impacts on them. After graduating from Aberystwyth I needed to begin paying off my student loan and I took a job in sales. While I learned some valuable people skills and gained a lot of administrative experience (both of which are very useful in my current role!), I soon knew that it wasn’t the career for me. I applied for a job as a Research Assistant at the University of Hull, which I was completely unqualified for, but I was invited to apply for a PhD studentship instead. Until then I hadn’t realised that you could be funded to do a PhD, so I sent in an application and project proposal and was invited for interview and offered a studentship. After defending my PhD, I stayed on at the University of Hull as a post-doctoral research associate, worked briefly as a palynologist for English Heritage, moved to Queen’s University Belfast for two years to work as a research fellow there, and now I’m back at Hull again, this time as a teaching fellow!
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
MF: Difficult to say! I’ve always been interested in natural history and archaeology, and I guess that probably started during childhood holidays in the UK and abroad, where my parents took me to visit sites such as Cheddar Gorge, Carnac, Castlerigg, and Bodmin Moor. I was fascinated by the sites and the landscapes and environments that they were a part of, and during my time studying at Aberystwyth I became aware that the landscapes within which the archaeological sites that I had visited as a child were situated had not always looked as they do today. It still took me a while to figure out that studying past environmental change was something that could be a career though!
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
MF: The most enjoyable part of my job is probably the fieldwork, which I don’t get to do as often as I’d like – just one week of fieldwork can provide enough material to keep me going for a year or more in the lab! Despite this I have been lucky enough to travel to some amazing locations for fieldwork – Orkney, Sweden, Sicily and Malta being particular highlights.
The lab work can be monotonous and it does feel as though I am making very slow progress at times – but those aspects are more than outweighed by the excitement of plotting up new data for the first time, looking for shifts in pollen types and therefore plant communities and even land-use, and trying to figure out what it all means! Gaining a better understanding of how prehistoric people interacted with their physical environment – how they may have impacted upon it, and how environmental conditions might have shaped their societies – is what really interests me.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
MF: It’s a great opportunity to present my work in an accessible way to the public who fund the majority of it. It’s also a fantastic platform for increasing the visibility of female scientists and hopefully encouraging girls to study STEM subjects at school and beyond.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?
MF: A mix of fear and excitement!
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
MF: The lack of job security for early-career researchers. It can be very difficult to completely focus on the job when you are employed on a fixed-term contract – I’ve been lucky so far, but many people are employed on contracts of a year or less. Even with longer contracts a significant proportion of your time is spent searching for the next job or writing funding proposals to enable you to stay where you are for a little longer. As well as impacting on research, the temporary nature of these contracts can also have detrimental effects on your personal life – the need to move every couple of years to start a new job makes it difficult to maintain relationships with friends and family, as well as financial stability – it can be hard to get a mortgage, for example.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
MF: Take every opportunity that you can to network. And don’t just seek out the big names at conferences – try to go to postgraduate meetings whenever you can, as your peers are most likely the ones who will be inviting you to give seminars or collaborate on funding proposals over the next few years. You’ll also need a certain amount of persistence and stubbornness – it’s inevitable that there will be failures and setbacks along the way, and it’s important to realise that these things happen to everybody and that the best thing you can do is pick yourself up and try again!