1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your role within the Department of Geography?
I am Head of Department in Geography and Professor of Quaternary Science, which means I am interested in climates and environments of the last 2.6 million years. I’ve been at Royal Holloway since 2000, joining as a Royal Society Research Fellow and then working my way up from lecturer to professor in 2010.
2. What projects are you currently working on and what are your research interests?
My main area of research is in fossil (Ice Age) mammals, looking at how animals responded to both long-term and abrupt climate change, by shifting their distribution, evolving and adapting, as well as trying to understand how, when and why some of them went extinct and how they interacted with early humans. Much of this information can be used to help us conserve mammals today. I am particularly interested in how we reconstruct past diet over different time scales, drawing on evidence from teeth and jaws (where evolutionary change can take hundreds or thousands of years) to microscopic scratches on teeth, which reveal the last few meals before an animal died. Most of my research is now focused on the last 50,000 years and particularly working in caves in the south-west of England. I’ve had a long-standing project excavating a cave in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, which a number of students have helped on over the years (and still come back, even after graduating!) and was involved in the discovery of a cave site at Sherford, a new town development near Plymouth, which was in the news recently.
3. What inspired you to pursue a role in Geography/Quaternary Sciences?
I came into Geography by a roundabout route. I had always been interested in the past and left school with A levels in languages and humanities. Inspired by work experience in the prehistory department at the British Museum, I went to UCL to study archaeology but once there, I quickly became less interested in human artefacts and society and more interested in how we reconstruct past environments and environmental change. In that respect, there is enormous overlap with Geography, something that I hadn’t appreciated until that point. I moved department to Biology at UCL and went straight into a PhD in palaeobiology, before doing a post-doc at Durham in the Geography department and finally joining Royal Holloway. In the UK, Quaternary Science has its home in Geography rather than Geology; it’s a rapidly changing and fascinating field that allows us to reconstruct all aspects of landscape, climate, flora and fauna in the past, over a period when our own species was evolving and dispersing into Europe.
4. March marks Women’s History Month, including International Women’s Day which is celebrated on 8 March. What does this year’s theme of ‘#BreakTheBias’ mean to you for your subject area of expertise?
#BreakTheBias means a lot to me because science should be accessible to everyone. When I was doing my PhD, there were no women scientists to mentor me but I was very fortunate in the support that I had from senior male colleagues at the time. However, I vividly remember being told early on by a retired member of staff at the Natural History Museum in London that fossil mammals were an “unsuitable” area of study for me and that as a woman, I had no chance of making a significant contribution. I wouldn’t think twice about calling out this appalling behaviour now but in my young twenties, I didn’t know how to answer. All I could do was to work hard and prove him wrong. When I joined Royal Holloway, I was the only woman in my research group for 13 years. I’m relieved that things are now much more balanced in terms of female representation but there’s still some way to go.
5. Which women in STEM, past or present, inspire you?
I have always admired the palaeontologist Dorothea Bate (1878-1951), thought to have been the first woman to have been employed as a scientist at the Natural History Museum. She undertook pioneering expeditions to various Mediterranean islands and the Near East, enduring many hardships en route (travelling as a lone woman being largely unheard of at the time) and made some extraordinary discoveries of new species, especially dwarf elephants on the islands. Even now, there are few women in my field in the UK but I’m very proud to have trained up eight female PhD students, with another three currently underway. Along with our other female Quaternary PhD students in the department, their energy, enthusiasm and ability to embrace new techniques are a constant source of inspiration and enjoyment.