It’s been a busy summer.

And yes, I’m starting summer in April. It’s been a weird year.

They aren’t kidding, a PhD is a lot more work than it looks like. Been flitting back and forth between working and travelling, and am going to give you the photo montage catch up. Let us begin with April then eh?

April 2019

In April I went to the SEAHA Conference in Oxford. I got to stay in the swankiest of student accomodation, presented my poster, and then spent time dodging rain and doing some sightseeing in the afternoons and evenings. Also got to have lunch in one of the colleges, which felt very Harry Potter-esque.

Straight after the SEAHA Conference, M and I went to Malta! It was warmer and sunnier than the UK, we had the sea out the window, and there was a lot of Really Old Things to look at. It was an excellent choice. We stayed in Xemxija (which is covered in prehistoric, Roman and Phoenician remains, and the oldest tree on the island btw) and travelled around the country to Valletta, Mdina, and Rabat. Valletta is the capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like most places like this, the main street is flooded with tourists, but if you go two streets down you can wander nearly empty areas. Mdina is the Silent City, as no cars (other than people who live there) are allowed in the walled city, and even then you only really see them parked in a few areas. It’s like walking into a movie set. Rabat is the town right outside of Mdina, which has early Christian catacombs, a Roman villa, and the strangest car park design I’ve ever witnessed.

Sadly, we did have to come home and back to real life. I had some data acquisition at the museum from our scanning electron microscope trials and did work both at home (with cat company) and in the museum.

We managed the first BBQ of the year in April, when a random warm weekend showed up and we decided to make the most of it. It was wise, as the weather was a bit weird after that.

I did also pop down to London to the UCL campus to become inducted into the Institute of Making. It’s the university’s MakerSpace, and gives me access to a huge plethora of tools and ideas for making any old idea I get in my head. The idea is spreading, so check if you have a MakerSpace in your area!

Finally, I got to prep, CT scan, metal coat and SEM data capture a beefly as my first attempt for data for my dissertation. It totally didn’t work, but the beefly did make a nice little victory pose for the scans.

 

May

May was a hectic month. Started it with the annual trip to Lyme Regis with the NHM to volunteer at the Fossil Festival. Lyme Regis still looks exactly as I left it, and the kids still know more about dinosaurs than I do.

Came home from Lyme Regis, washed some clothes, and threw them back in my suitcase to head off to Amsterdam directly afterwards for the 2+3D Photography Conference at the Rijksmuseum. Ophelia did not approve of my leaving. Amsterdam was a fun city to visit, but very expensive. Also, hunting for a historical building will probably lead you through the red light district and you should be prepared for the surreal experience of prostitutes in windows. Would definitely recommend the Rijksmuseum though. They’ve got a massive collection of All Things Dutch, and have displayed it really well.

Back from the Netherlands, M and I decided we wanted to attempt camping again. Reader, one night it got so cold that ice formed on our tent. If there is anything to be learned from this second attempt, it is that camping should never be done as early as May. During the days we had a good time of it though, with rather pleasant weather.

We had to detour down from Suffolk to Chelmsford to get M’s car fixed mid trip, but we used it as an excuse to see the remnants of the Springfield Lyons Bronze Age Enclosure. You can see where the perimeter of a camp used to be, as well as some burials. Again, felt a bit like walking onto a movie set.

We also visited Southwold again, and a new visit to Dunwich – the city that fell in the sea. It’s a really interesting story, and the last vestiges of the thriving medieval city can be walked around. Plus there’s a beach, and that’s always nice on a sunny day.

I tried whitebait when we were out camping one night when we went to the nearby pub. I had no idea what it was. Turns out, it’s like fish fingers that can stare back at you. As long as you don’t stare back, they’re not bad actually. M is still unconvinced.

Towards the end of the month the weather got better and I did as much work as I could outside in the back garden. Judging from the grassprint I left, perhaps too much. When the weather wasn’t behaving, it was all good though as M built me my new desk! It feels like a real office upstairs now.

Finally, we celebrated M’s birthday and had some walks about town to enjoy the new signage that Colchester seems to be putting up everywhere. Some are odder than others.

 

June

In June we went to Italy with M’s family and stayed in a town outside of Venice called Lido di Jesolo. Honestly, if you don’t have ALL the pasta, what are you even doing? The weather was gloriously sunny, the mosquitos were in full force, and there was always something to go see or do.

One of the days there we went to Venice proper. Venice is exactly as beautiful as everyone says it is. However, it is also filled with every tourist all at once. The day before we went a cruise ship accidentally ran into one of the docks, so they banished them all from docking when we were there and I’m not sure it made the blindest bit of difference. Still, you should definitely go. But maybe stay in the city itself and enjoy it when the tourists start thinning out.

Back in London, I was back in the lab helping with an intern doing some SEM work for me. We scanned all kinds of microfossils. We also pushed the SEM to its limits and ended up finding a fault in the contrast that nobody had noticed before and had to call out repairmen. Fun times. We also got to go up one of the towers of the museum, courtesy of my supervisor, which was a legitimately fun time.

There had been a heatwave all month and towards the end it finally broke with a deluge of rain to try and make up for the previous lack of it. SO. MUCH. RAIN. This has been a trend that continued throughout the summer, with a spell of no rain and high heat, then humidity going through the roof, then a torrent of rain.

Back at the museum, I finally got a chance to see the temporary Museum of the Moon exhibit. It’s free, so well worth a visit, but it’s also pretty darn cool.

Mostly though, I was downstairs doing work. Like sorting out butterflies in a box. And then bringing said butterflies to an after hours museum event to explain what I’m trying to do for my PhD to members of the public that walked through. So far everyone has nice things to say about it. So far.

Also, one day I decided to make a log of how long it takes me to get from London back home to Colchester. Not sure I want to know how long it takes going the other way after doing this. I mean, obviously I have an idea, but it just confirms my lunacy in hyper-commuting like this.

July

Not nearly so much going on in July. Went to Manchester for the MMC 2019 Conference and presented some of the work I’d been up to thus far at the Zeiss Microscopy booth. Got to see some really interesting work done in the microscopic world, and even learned a few tips and tricks. And it being Manchester, we got rained on.

Went to a wedding for one of M’s good friends as well. Beautiful converted barn location out in the West Country. Fabulous couple, amazing food, and riotous dancing were all a part.

Otherwise it was mostly just time sat in the lab, working on data acquisition and attempting some experiments.

Oh yes, we also painted the kitchen. And then got a phone call that they could take my gallbladder out the next day. So that happened. And then I got to wear those glorious compression socks for a week. God, those drugs were heavy duty. I didn’t have any pain issues, but I also seem to have lost 4 days worth of proper memories. To be fair, one of those was the hottest day of the year, so I don’t miss that one much.

 

August

August has been frantic catch up of data acquisition post-surgery and then write up of dissertation based off said data. This means I’ve been knocking about the house A LOT. So much so that I got to see our new wheelie bins delivered as our council has decided to join the 21st century and collect rubbish from bins rather than bags on the ground that get savaged by seagulls, cats, and foxes.

The heat came back, and with it I made sun tea. Ophelia guarded it carefully.

Most of the time though, I’ve been dragging the chair and table out and do my work in the sunshine.

There was some rain again, of course right before my early birthday BBQ. I watched the weather apps religiously up until the day and stared out of the office window.

Thankfully, the weather mostly held on the day, just giving us some exceptional winds. It was great to see everyone, though hopefully next time will be a bit less breezy!

 

And there we are, basically up into today. From here on out I’ll just be frantically writing up this dissertation and then prepping for the oral examination with PowerPoint that’s due to come afterwards. Oh yes, and waiting for ethics approval to do the proper PhD work as well with minors. But hey, what is academia if not a long list of things to do, things to chase up, and things to wait to happen?

 

— Kate

Winter to summer. I miss wearing coats.

Right, so, where was I? Oh yes, coming out of the dark of depression and surrounded by snow. Well, I’ll have you know I’m on medication, back to my usual antics, and Britain is currently melting into the sea from heat. But what’s happened since then eh?

Of course, we went to America! The weather may have been playing silly buggers, but it was wonderful to see my family again, come rain or shine! It was so strange coming back to Tennessee after being gone seven years. Some things haven’t changed a bit, and some things are unrecognisable now. Poor M had to witness quite a bit of reminiscing, but we took him on a goodly few tours of the attractions in the area. All in all, going somewhere warm with warm hearted people was just what the doctor ordered. I can’t wait until I can see them all again next. 🙂

What was not so fun in our Transatlantic Tour was that on about day three, little Ophelia went missing. And stayed missing. Friends and family were out canvassing the neighbourhood, posters were put up, and all the tricks were tried to get her home. Of course, she then remained missing the rest of our trip (nearly three weeks!) and we were all beside ourselves wondering where she was. We got home, canvassed the area ourselves, and then with no luck put ourselves to bed.

Lo and behold! Who would show up meowing at us in bed at 4 AM? Oh yes. She was skinny and a bit hoarse, but our little fur face was home safely! ❤

After the highs and lows of our big holiday, life settled down into more normal paces. Well, normal for us anyway. At work, I finished two projects on digitising whale skulls and some of the fossils Darwin sent back from his journey on the Beagle. They were both challenges to 3D scan in their own ways, but very cool and totally surreal to handle. And now they’re available to a much wider audience than before!

This April, one of my sister-in-laws and one of my work colleagues were both absolute Wonder Women and successfully ran the London Marathon! M and I came down to watch them run and cheer them on, but mostly just spent the time nearly seeing them and running back to the tube for the next spot. You may not get nearly as many steps as the runners, but cheering for the marathoners is a pretty heavy walking activity itself. It was really interesting to be a witness to such a big event, and I would recommend doing it at least once. I can’t vouch for the running bit – you’d have to ask them! 😉

In a truly miraculous moment at the end of April, I took the UK driving test and PASSED. That’s right, I’m now licensed and insured to drive both manual and automatic cars on my shiny new British license. Honestly, you should all be more concerned.

May snuck up on us and soon enough it was time to head back to Lyme Regis with the Museum team. We brought down a load of 3D printed specimens and our scanner again, but this year we also had a 3D printer in the background for people to watch. I don’t think many people realise quite how long it takes to print something until you see the process. We were shortly mobbed as soon as we opened each day because this year we had play dough to ‘create your own fossil.’ After a child (or some parents) finished with it, we would do a quick 3D scan of it. Let’s just say we’re still processing some of those files. It was popular.

After hours, it was great to catch up with some people that I hadn’t seen since the year before, and we all got to bask in glorious sunshine at the sea – a rare treat not to be taken lightly. Brought home some fossils found on the beach, and some of our staff even won some ice trophies for going above and beyond in helping make the event happen this year. And so, so many chips were eaten. There’s something magical in the fryers at Lyme Regis I think.

A month went by and we all recuperated from Lyme Regis. At the end of it, M and I took a mini holiday to Hungerford for his birthday weekend. It’s a quiet town outside of Reading, and we went when the weather was perfect for it. Took a stroll through town, had dinner at a lovely place off the High Street, and stayed in a listed pub, The Bear Hotel. Parts of the building go back to the 17th century, but the room we stayed in with the view of the river was very much from the 21st century.

The next morning, we packed up and continued west towards Tetbury to spend the rest of the birthday weekend with M’s family. It just so happened to be the weekend of the Tetbury Woolsack Races, so of course we had to go see them. The aim of the game is to carry a sack full of wool and run up the steepest hill in the village. It was quite possibly the most British thing I think I’ve witnessed to date, and it was really fun to watch! We took a stroll DOWN the hill afterwards, and immediately could see why people were so exhausted by the top of it. That hill is deceptively brutal!

For his birthday, M got a homebrew kit from my parents, which of course needed to be tried straightaway. Well, as straightaway as one can brew things anyway. After a quick stop to the shops for brewing sugar, M was busy concocting his brew. I mostly just stayed out of the way until the bottling process, which is more of a two person event. The beers have now finished brewing and have been sampled. The neighbour gives it a solid rating, though M is convinced it tastes more like real ale than the lager it was intended to be. Ah well, just means we need to make more eh?

What else has happened? Well, M’s other sister and her family have moved into a new, beautiful house and their cats are ALL ABOUT the fact that the downstairs lets them do a circular patrol. We’ve now been in our new build for over a year, and are finally putting down some literal roots in the form of a raised garden bed.

What I didn’t know was that new builds often use whatever junk soil they have available to get the yard to a certain height, and then put on a thin layer of topsoil for the grass to grow on. This was quickly discovered after we tried digging down and hit rock after rock after rock. It was a sweaty, hot day, but after nearly six hours and multiple rest breaks, we finally got the borders in and the plants rooted. As of now, they’re all still alive too!

I have realised at this point that we have had so many BBQs that I’ve stopped taking photos of them. Normally everyone in Britain races to the shops to buy food for a BBQ on a Saturday when there’s a chance the weather might have sun and temperatures above 20C/68F. However with this heatwave, it’s been balmy and sunny for months now.

We’re at the point of planning weekend BBQs without even looking at the weather forecast. People are leaving their laundry on the lines overnight with full confidence that they won’t get dew on them in the morning. Everyone has given up on wearing professional work clothes and just trying to make do with their holiday clothes. Shops have run out of shorts. Truly, Britain is going mad in the heat and sun.

It can’t all be sunny days and BBQs though, and we did have to deal with the stress that is my spousal visa this July. After being married 2.5 years (yay!), it has to be renewed for another 2.5 years. After that, I can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain, and then even a dual citizenship after that. It ain’t cheap though, and the paperwork required is a righteous pain to compile, even if you’re sensible like we were this time and had organised by month in accordion binders for the last 3 years. All the money has been paid though, and the paperwork sent off, so now it’s just a waiting game to hear back from Home Office. I don’t see why they wouldn’t approve it, but it’s stressful to wait for someone to decide such a big thing in your life.

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The paperwork required this time around for my visa. About half the amount required for the initial application.

After getting that stress sorted, M and I had two partial weeks off, and so we went to the sea to enjoy the sun, and then out into Colchester like tourists. I may have put him on a ‘let’s go find all the really old things in Colchester’ tour, but I think he did remarkably well out of it.

The beach at Walton on the Naze is perfect for lounging in the sand with a book and letting the braver souls toss themselves into the freezing North Sea. (I stuck my toes in it and can confirm that it is still frigid.) The beach huts were absolutely everywhere, and we enjoyed getting a peek inside the ones that were open. They’re basically Sea Sheds, with little kettles, a bed for a nap, and some toys for the beach. I would totally rent one if I thought I was going to spend a few days out there. We also quickly detoured up to the Naze Tower, though didn’t go in as it was getting even hotter and they had the windows shut in it. (!!!)

On our Colchester adventures, we got into town and then promptly into the Castle Museum to avoid the blazing heat of the sun. Colchester is old as all get out, as I have mentioned, and the amount of archaeology they find is impressive. I really enjoy having lived here long enough that I can recognise the names of the streets and villages where the finds were discovered and have an idea of where Roman and medieval Colchester spread.

After the museum, we headed over towards the Balkerne Gate – one of the last Roman gateways still standing in Britain. Next door to it is a pub called The Hole in the Wall, which is quite literal. You can see the Roman wall in the middle of one of the pub walls. Of course we had to pop in, as it definitely fell under the ‘old things’ tour mandate. After a brief stop, we continued on to dinner at the Siege House, which was another old building that was used (and shot at) during the English Civil War. Even if you aren’t into history, the building is beautiful and the food was amazing. Would definitely go back.

So here we are, pretty much caught up with everything in a single post. It’s still too hot in England and the trains are all melting, but other than that life is doing well. Not quite sure what’s in the cards for the next few months, other than praying for rain and keeping on at work. But we shall see, won’t we? 🙂

 

— Kate

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

First major museum field trip! We were given a section at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival alongside a good handful of colleagues from around the museum. Our demonstrations were on 3D surface scanning and creating 3D images and prints within the Natural History Museum. But first, I had to get there.

Had a bit of a hiccup Wednesday evening. I had already intended on doing half a day in the office and then heading back up to Chelmsford on the train so M and I could drive down. Unfortunately, either I straight up lost my season ticket holder or someone nicked it. Regardless, I ended up halfway to Liverpool Street Station via the District Line before I realised what had happened. Apparently if you come up to the station staff at the barrier gates with a concerned look on your face and tell them you’ve lost your Oyster card, they’re really pretty helpful. Greater Anglia, not so much. The lady at the desk was lovely enough, but unlike TfL they won’t just replace your lost/stolen card. Even though it’s a SmartPass and all the details are saved in the system that prove it’s me. They were kind enough to freeze the card and let me buy a single ticket home. Ugh.

Thankfully, the monthly passes were both set to expire before I got back from travelling anyway, so that wasn’t too awful. Even better, my manager is a saint and let me work from home for the half day. Probably for the best, as we were definitely not packed the night before in any useful amounts. Eventually, the significant otter left the hospital and we packed up the car to drive the 4.5 hours to Lyme Regis.

The drive was gloriously uneventful and we made it in around 10 pm. Everyone else was already at the cottage and set up, so we all caught up and then headed to bed. It was due to be a busy day the next day.

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The view from our cottage room Friday morning.

The next morning was our schools day. Constant streams of small children in washes of different coloured uniforms poured through the doors. Most had the level of excitement and attention you’d expect at that age, but some were genuinely thrilled by the prospect of 3D and microscopes. It’s a beautiful moment to watch the beginnings of a small scientist. 🙂

M had of course come down with me, but obviously wasn’t part of the museum so enjoyed a nice lie in and a wander around the town while the rest of us were up at the Fossil Festival location. At lunchtime I got a break and he and I wandered around together and enjoyed the distinct lack of rain (It’s either full on or off at the English coast. I’m convinced there’s no in between.). This year, the Fossil Festival was being held across the town rather than in one location, so we went to see what other groups were doing, between strolling the beach and eating chips cautiously. (Seriously, the seagulls were downright predatory if you weren’t careful.)

It was a trip to the pub after the event wrapped up for the night and a game of skittles, then a slog up the 14% incline of a hill back to our cottage. (Views like that don’t come for nothing!) The next day was our busiest day of the weekend, and we went out in full force. We scanned objects from fossils to children’s wellies, and showed 3D images from microscopic to full size. The public engagement and honest excitement and interest was fantastic. We guessed from rough estimates that we had probably 230 people come and chat with us.

There was a brief lull around lunchtime, probably due to the lovely weather and hungry children. That was quickly rectified though with an inflatable T. rex costume and a walk down the pier. People seem to want to know where a dinosaur and giggling museum staff are headed. Who would have guessed?

Before we all set off for another trip to another pub for food, it was mandatory for me to go see the grave of Mary Anning. You see, Mary Anning was one of the pioneers in fossil collecting and helped to change the views on what prehistoric life even was. Of course, she was ignored in her own time, despite her accomplishments, and didn’t even get a grave to herself. Instead, she is buried with her brother. Still, she was a really interesting lady that you should read into if you have a free moment. She is the “she sells seashells on the seashore” inspiration behind the tongue twister!

The evening was spent roving the town with my colleagues and M, eventually ending up at a party held at the house of a local fossil collector. I’m still not entirely sure how so many people ended up in such as small area, but it was a riot of a time. Because I am an old lady, M and I bowed out around midnight for home. Most of the rest of the crew didn’t come home until gone 2ish, from what I was told. And who says scientists are boring?

IMG_4488The final day dawned and we all managed to arrive in mostly one piece. Our scanning did get a bit silly as the day went on, but the public seemed to rather enjoy it. I mean really, who doesn’t like a pork pie – digital or real? (Okay okay, maybe just me. But it was good fun!)

It was throwing down sheets of drizzle all day, so having a nice walk at break time was a bit out of the question. At that point though, I was too tired and cold to want more than caffeine and dry shoes. Lesson learned for next year – prepare to get by on a lot less sleep than usual.

At the end of it all though, we all cleared up the location and headed out for one last night on the town with the NHM crew. It was a lovely bonding moment for all of us, and I can see why people come back again and again to do it. I think I may need the year to recover, but it’d be good fun to go back again next time! Now hang on until next week and I’ll tell you about how we got in the car and drove straight for the coasts of the other end of the country.

— Kate