An interview with Alison Atkin

We’re excited to continue our series of posts from researchers who’ve posted projects on Petridish, highlighting their backgrounds, research interests and experience with the funding process.  Our next interview is with Alison Atkin, a Ph.D. candidate a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield in England studying biological anthropology and archaeology.  View her project, “Profiling the dead: Learning from mass-fatality events.”

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research interests.

I have quite a broad range of research interests, but over the years I have become more focused into the particular subject I am studying now.  I have, in all of my degree studies, tended to focus on areas of research that would result in a practical application to a current problem facing our field; the political and ethical issues of exhibiting funerary artefacts and human remains in museums, the current state of forensic archaeology in a human rights context, and now the application of demographic theory and methods to mass fatality events – each new research project addressing a lack of research in a particular area identified during the previous project.  I appear to be developing a reputation for taking on difficult and under-studied areas, but I really love the challenges you face with this type of research focus!

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?  What got you interested in this particular project?

Looking back, it seems obvious that I would go on to become a scientist, since I have always been an incredibly curious person.  I was never happy with a simple answer to a question, constantly seeking more details and more information so that I could learn as much as I possibly could on a subject.  I have always been fascinated with biology and history, but I never expected that I would end up in a position that relied so heavily on expertise in both of these subjects  – so it really is the perfect fit for me!

This particular project came to my attention through my PhD research and as soon as I heard about it I just knew I had to jump at the chance to study a lost museum collection.  It is not only really useful as another sample to add to the larger research project, but as a case study it is very unique.  In addition to learning more about this particular collection, I am hoping that by studying it I can demonstrate the importance of re-visiting historical museum collection as methods and theories improve.

Q: What has been the most exciting thing you’ve found in your research so far?

Well, I am not sure how exciting it will seem to everyone else, but I am most fascinated by possibilities this research project offers.  You know how everyone says that history repeats itself?  Well, it turns out that it actually does!  And when we’re talking about mass fatality events, this becomes very significant.  These mass fatality events aren’t as rare as you might think – and they can have huge long-term impacts on populations.  By developing methods to identify mass fatality incidents and the factors influencing the mortality profiles in the past we will be able to better study how these events have affected past populations and human development throughout history.  This is incredibly important if we want to understand what sort of impact future events may have, which in turn may change the way we prepare for them or react after they’ve happened.

Q: Why did you decide to post your project on Petridish?  

With research funding being reduced year on year it has been increasingly difficult to secure full-funding so, while my tuition fees are covered by a scholarship from my Faculty at the University, I pay for all of my maintenance costs (living and research expenses).  Unfortunately, I have also found myself in a bit of an unusual situation where many more traditional funding options (research councils, professional societies, and charities) which can be used to ‘top-up’ existing funding are not open to me, since I am between residencies.  I knew a lot about crowd-funding being used for non-science subjects and I was really excited when I learned about Petridish.  I am a huge supporter of engaging the public with science, so in addition to the financial support it offers to scientific researchers, I was very keen on the opportunity Petridish affords the public to get directly involved with a projects they find interesting.

Q:  Your project was fully funded within 24 hours of being posted on our site.  Any tips for future Petridish users on how to make a crowdfunding campaign so successful? 

I cannot tell you how surprised I was to login to Petridish the day after my project went live to see that it had already met its minimum funding goal!  In addition to hoping that there are just incredibly generous individuals out there who are interested or invested in your particular research area, I feel the video on your profile is really important to make for a successful campaign.  It is a good idea to practice it before recording so you feel comfortable, but try not to make it too rehearsed – you know your research better than anyone and this will come across when you talk about it. Unless you’re a professional, simple videos are the most effective.  But that doesn’t mean they have to be boring!  I know that some people can find my area of research a bit ‘dark’ so I decided to keep the video light-hearted, which seemed to be quite popular.  And after all the effort you put into your profile and video, you need to make sure people see it, so it is also really important to spread the word once your project is posted on the site – use Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, blog… and ask your friends, family, and collagues to help share it with people too!

Q: What is your favorite part of the work that you do?

I really enjoy the variety of subjects and activities that are open to me as a part of my research.  One day I can be reading about an archaeological excavation and the next I can be learning about advanced statistics.  I could spend all day working at my desk on the computer or I could be at another University presenting my research at a conference.  It might be that I have to spend three hours marking undergraduate papers one night or maybe one morning I might get to spend two hours chatting with school kids about science.  While last week I was piecing together an historic account of a flood, next week I’ll be visiting a museum to look at one of their collections – it may be everyone’s cup of tea, but I asbolutely love changing up what I do each day or week.  It keeps me focused on the task at hand and continually reminds me of my place in the wider world, which helps to keep my research grounded.

To read more about Alison’s research, ask questions or back her work, view the project page:

Profiling the dead: learning from mass-fatality events

I will be studying the remains of individuals executed in Nubia during Roman times, using methods not known 100 years ago when they were orignally excavated. This is a part of a larger project studying mass fatality

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