I have been a lecturer in human geography in ENV since 2016. In 2010 I came to ENV as a master’s student, then I was a PhD student in ENV, and then briefly a Senior Research Associate before I took up my position as a lecturer. View Helen's Staff Profile
What inspired you to pursue a career in geography and to come to ENV?
I enjoyed pretty much every aspect of my undergraduate degree in human geography at the University of Cambridge, but it was in between the second and third years of my degree when I was out in the field collecting data for my undergraduate dissertation when things really clicked. I realised I found the whole process of creating academic knowledge fascinating, as well as being enjoyable and fulfilling.
I spent a month up in the Highlands of Scotland studying a new community land reform project which aimed to manage the local landscape to produce environmental and community benefits. I loved exploring this stunning landscape, but even more than that I found I got a real kick out of talking to the people involved in the project and hearing their experiences and reflections.
I knew then that I wanted to be a qualitative researcher – I applied to do my PhD with Jason Chilvers, who was a lecturer in ENV at the time, on organisational learning from and about public participation, and I haven’t looked back since!
Who has encouraged you along the way? (Who are your role models and heroes/heroines?)
I had some brilliant geography teachers at school (thank you Mr Frater and Ms Sartan!) who convinced me that geography was the best discipline to understand human-environment interactions and to address the great injustices which I saw across the world. During my undergraduate degree I had the privilege of being taught by ENV alumna Professor Susan Owens, who got me fired up about environmental policy and politics, and made me believe that I would be able to study for a PhD.
When I was a PhD student I spent a semester in the US on the Harvard STS program where I got to work closely with Professor Sheila Jasanoff. She is a hugely inspiring researcher and teacher, and is still a huge influence on my work many years later.
I have also benefitted from great support and encouragement from my colleagues in the 3S (Science, Society & Sustainability) research group who help to keep my work fun and fresh. In particular, my PhD supervisor Jason Chilvers and my teaching mentor Gill Seyfang have been constant sources of wisdom and inspiration.
What do you most enjoy about your job?
I still pinch myself every now and then – it is hard to believe that I am here and this is really my job. It is such a privilege to spend most of my time researching, reading about, and discussing the issues I really care about – democracy, justice, and environmental policy. I love the process of doing research. Most of my work involves either interviewing people or observing them as they interact with others, which I find endlessly intriguing and gives me such a buzz.
I think the most exhausting but fulfilling thing I do is teaching – my students always surprise me with their ability and willingness to engage in class, and with their ideas and creativity. It has been wonderful to watch people transform and grow during their time at University.
What do you particularly appreciate or enjoy about working in ENV?
I think the best thing has to be my colleagues. I have had tremendous fun with my 3S group colleagues experimenting with using improvisation and drama techniques in the classroom to help get across tricky theories and concepts – led by Gill Seyfang, Tom Hargreaves and Irene Lorenzoni. Also with the support and guidance of colleagues I have had the opportunity to develop and run my own second year module, to run a third year field trip, and to take on the mantel of ENV ethics officer.
I’ve also been supported in developing my own research projects and becoming part of collaborative bids. Everyone works hard and really believes in what they are doing, but I don’t feel any pressure from colleagues to work in the evenings or at weekends so have been able to find my own balance. Particularly at the beginning of my lectureship close colleagues were very helpful in making sure my new tasks and responsibilities were manageable and didn’t get overwhelming.
How easy is it to achieve the balance you would like between an interesting career and your other responsibilities and interests?
This is always a struggle but I feel like I get a good balance most of the time – even if I am exhausted at the end of the week! I have no caring responsibilities so this makes it easier to do weekend and evening work, such as open days, running workshops for research projects or attending conferences and social events. But most of the time I am quite strict about keeping this time free for my hobbies – singing, yoga, sewing and cooking – and for spending time with family and friends.
The thing that sometimes scares me about the job is finding enough time to focus on obtaining research funding and writing the papers I want to write – there is a lot expected of us, and there never feels like there is enough time to get it done. I am very lucky to have an academic spouse who understands the demands of my job and can support me through tricky periods, and occasionally even come with me to conferences. I think I am particularly lucky that he sees my career as being just as important as his own, so he has never expected me to make any sacrifices on his behalf.
How can a good mentor encourage their colleagues?
I think the most important thing here is to make sure you do not make assumptions about what the mentee wants to get out of their work and career, and what their ambitions are. My main frustrations with mentoring relationships have occurred when I felt the mentor was underestimating my ambition, or assumed that I was more interested in a particular aspect of the job rather than others. I think these kinds of assumptions are quite gendered – women are always being underestimated!
I think another important thing to be aware of is how precarious many junior academics’ contracts are at the moment. They don’t just need advice and encouragement from senior mentors, they need practical help in finding their next position and income stream. I have been very fortunate in having senior colleagues looking out for me in this way – it would have been very difficult for me to stay in academia if this had not been the case.