Episode 7: Sam Giles and what’s fishy about academia?

Sam Giles, Ph.D, Sam standing outside smiling into the camera. She is wearing a scarf and black coat. Her three year old son Jonah is on her back and grinning.

Welcome to the first of four episodes dedicated to LGBT+ History Month in the UK and the first out of two dedicated to International Day of Women and Girls in Science!

Sam Giles is a Royal Society Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. She uses x-ray imaging (CT scanning) to unlock the external and internal anatomy of living and fossil vertebrates. She is also an advocate for improving access to and participation in geosciences.

The skull and brain cavity of Brindabellaspis, a 400 million year old fossil fish. The images are renders of 3D models generated by CT scanning fossils, and the different regions of the skull roof and brain cavity are different colours.

Below is the full transcript of the episode. Enjoy, and please do provide feedback or get in touch with Sam via:

Twitter: @GilesPalaeoLab

Email: S.Giles.1[at]bhm.ac.uk


Jazmin, Nuzhat, Sam

Jazmin: 0:07
Hello, and welcome to the What on Earth Podcast. I’m your host Jazmin.

Nuzhat: 0:11
And I’m your host Nuzhat. In this podcast we celebrate Earth, environmental and planetary scientists from diverse backgrounds, and get to know what they’re up to.

Jazmin: 0:23
And we also speak to scientists from different disciplines about how we can decolonise science and make it more inclusive for everyone.

Nuzhat: 0:31
So for today’s episode, we are celebrating LGBTQ+ month, and International Women and Girls in STEM day. So for today’s episode, we have Sam Giles. Hey!

Sam: 0:43
Hi, I’m Sam Giles, my pronouns are she, her and hers. I’m a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin research fellow at the University of Birmingham in paleontology, and also academic keeper of the Lapworth museum at the University of Birmingham.

Jazmin: 0:57
That’s awesome. So what was your journey into paleontology?

Sam: 1:01
Pretty much got here by accident. I never had a plan to be a paleontologist. As a child, I probably knew what paleontology was, and that it was about dinosaurs and fossils. But I was never really that into science. I like reading stories and I love reading books, and I spent most of my time doing that. In my GCSEs I studied geography, and I really enjoyed geography, it was one of my favorite subjects. And I spoke to my teacher, and my teacher told me that actually, I didn’t like geography, I liked geology, and suggested that I go on to a different Sixth Form college and a bigger one that offered geology. So I did that. But I also really liked English and history and studied those subjects and classics as well. And I was never really sure what I wanted to do at university. I didn’t really think about going to university until I was in Sixth Form and one of my Sixth Form teachers mentioned it to me [sic] on a personal statement for geology, because I wasn’t sure which subject to do. And I decided at random to do geology, just because I chose it for no reason and ended up doing geology at university and then again, got into paleontology by accident. So yeah, there was no kind of grand plan and I never anticipated doing paleontology as a subject.

Nuzhat: 2:18
Okay, I have a question. So when your geography teacher told you that actually, what you like is geology. What was your reaction to that?

Sam: 2:27
I don’t think I’d really heard of geology, I didn’t really know what it was. So we talked a bit more and the bits of geography I liked were things like volcanoes and glaciers and I guess fossils a little bit. But it had never really, you know, I didn’t really know anything about it is a subject or as a career. So yeah, I was quite surprised about it, really. And then I did some reading about it and found out more and then absolutely fell in love with it as an A level student.

Jazmin: 2:53
For me, yeah, like geology wasn’t brought up really in school, or at sixth form. When I did geography. It was definitely physical geography and human geography. Geology, even undergrad, I think, undergrad, there was like one module and I think that was the worst like mark I got out of that, because I just came into it like from a geography background, I had no idea what they were talking about. I was like, what, why are we doing this? So and I think, like, I think if I remember correctly, like the lecturers who taught me weren’t even geologists, they were physical geographers. So they didn’t have that, you know, core understanding of why are we doing this module? And I think they’re kind of just doing it because they have to. So I think it’s definitely more masters level when I thought “oh okay, this is what geology is”, and that was doing volcanology and geological hazards masters, which is definitely, it sounds like there would be rocks involved in this. Yeah. So yeah, geology is a fairly new thing to me. But it was quite interesting, because about a few months ago, I spoke to some students in Brooklyn, so it was over, like a zoom seminar. And they were earth- they were they were taking class in earth science. And actually, one of the questions I got from the teachers was, “oh, what was your- what was you learning earth science at school like?” I was like “I didn’t get taught it at school!” And they were actually quite shocked at that, it was like “what?! you weren’t taught earth science?!” Like no, I was taught geography! So I think yeah, like in America, they actually have earth science as like classes and part of the curriculum, whereas over here, we don’t as clear cut. And I think that’s definitely an interesting point in terms of why there might not be people taking it up in higher education because they don’t know about it.

Nuzhat: 5:02
Yeah, it’s not offered in a lot of schools. You have geology A level and then you have environmental science A level, which I think is even less known about. So like, you know, Sam says you went, you went to like a different Sixth Form that offered geology. Okay, so we know you’re a paleontologist, and but I don’t really know much about your PhD, could you tell us about what you researched?

Sam: 5:28
So I worked on fossil fish. And my PhD title was called “How to build a bony vertebrate in evolutionary time”. And what I was doing was looking at a series of different fossils, a series of different animals from between about, I guess, about 400, and 310 million years old, and mostly looking at their heads. I used a technique called CT scanning, which is where you take x-rays, and instead of x-ray of a hand, say, or you know, a body, you x-ray rock. And if you think about when you get an x-ray at the hospital or at the doctor’s, and the x-rays, basically go through your skin, and attenuate your bones, so you can see your bones really clearly. And we can use exactly the same principle when we’re x-ray or CT scanning fossils. So what you hope is that the x-rays will pretty much pass through the rock and we’ll just be kind of attenuated more by the fossils, and then you can digitally dissect them, dissect them, and make 3D models. And you can 3D print them, you can see internal features without having to cut into the fossil, you can see where nerves and blood vessels and the brain and all of these really cool things. So I was looking at a series of fossils, looking specifically at the heads, and looking inside the head at something called the brain case. And this is basically a bony part at the skull that held the brain and sensory organs. And it’s really detailed, it’s got loads of anatomical features to it. So you can use them to reconstruct relationships between lots of different fossils. You can use it to understand the order of- the order in which features evolved, you can look at how closely related things are to each other. You can work out when they split, how fast they’ve been evolving. But basically, I got to go to lots of cool places around the world, rummage around the museum basements, find a really cool fossil, dodge the cockroaches on the way out, put it in a CT scanner, and then listen to audiobooks while they’re segmented stuff for several months at a time. So it was great.

Nuzhat: 7:36
I guess the advantage of this method is it’s non-destructive. So you could like study them multiple times. [Sam] Yeah. [Nuzhat] So I guess my- what my first question would be like, okay, so you use this method? What did you call it, sorry? [Sam] CT scanning. [Nuzhat] Okay, so you use CT scanning, what other methods would have people used in previous studies?

Sam: 7:57
So historically, people use something called serial sectioning. This was invented around 1900, by a guy called William Solace, who was working at Oxford. And he- you get your fossil, your precious fossil, that there’s only one kind in the world and you stick it in a block of plastic, and then you attach it to this terrifying thing called ‘Solace’s Grinding Machine’, you have a handle, and it grinds away about a quarter of a millimeter of rock, then you take off and you draw a picture of it and put it back on, grind another quarter of a millimeter away, draw another picture. And you repeat this like 1000 times until you’ve got a pile of drawings and a pile of dust where your lovely fossil used to be. And and then you take those drawings and make wax models of them and stick them together. And you end up with a kind of enlarged wax model of the fossil. But then the fossil itself doesn’t exist anymore, because you’ve ground it into lots of tiny pieces. But this is a really important technique, it was the only- the only technique that we had for decades and decades. And, and what, what I often do is, sometimes people would only section half of the fossil or they’d be multiple fossils, and they’d only section one. So quite a lot of the time I’ve been re-investigating fossils that were previously studied using serial sectioning, and I used CT scanning to see whether what we thought before from serial sectioning was accurate, or whether they were missing details, or whether there were new features that could tell us something new about their evolution or their relationships. And it’s really cool, like there’s something amazing about being the first person to see inside of a fossil that’s been you know, trapped a rock for 400 million years and you’re the first person to ever see inside it. So it’s a really fantastic technique. I love using it.

Nuzhat: 9:45
That reminds me of when you compare how people like extrapolated data to predict what extinct Animals look like and then compare it to like, like drawings or paintings of say modern animals that we still have alive today, and how people would have predicted what they looked like using what paleontologists use.

Sam: 10:08
My favorite is, if you’d seen a skeleton of a hippo, and hippos are, you know, they’re not the most gentle creatures, but they’re herbivores. They’re very large, because they need a lot of room in their stomachs to digest all the vegetation. They’ve got huge teeth that they use, essentially, for defense and for fighting. But if you had a skeleton of a hippo, you’d probably be reconstructed as some kind of terrifying carnivorous apex predator, because that skeleton is just quite, quite terrifying. There were some clues though right? It’s got these big fangs that doesn’t have any other biting teeth. So you can probably infer from that, that it’s not actually a predator. But yeah, it’s very easy to, you know, when we’re reconstructing what animals look like from fossils, you do have to be a bit cautious and accept that there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know about what they could have looked like.

Nuzhat: 11:00
So when you said you look at fossils of fish, like what kind of specimens were you studying?

Sam: 11:07
So during my PhD, I was working mostly on fossils from something called the Devonian period. So this is a period of time from about 420 to 360 million years ago. And the reason why it’s important is because that’s when most of the living groups of vertebrates, so vertebrates are backboned animals, the Devonian is when most of those living groups either evolved or got really established. So my PhD was trying to understand how these different groups came about and when they evolved, and what their relationships to each other were. So I looked at a random assortment of fossil fish from the early Devonian. The- my favorite one I worked on was this animal from Siberia, it was discovered in the mid 1900s. And it was described in the early 1990s as a ray-finned fish. So ray-finned fishes are a kind of bony fish and they’re called that because they’ve got bone making up their skeleton. They’re about 30,000 living species of ray-finned fishes and they make up- they’re everything from kind of tunas to seahorses, I normally call them, you know, things that you’d see either on a dinner plate or in an aquarium. So we’re about 30,000 species of them. And then the other half of bony fishes, and again, there are about 30,000 living species of them, called the lobed-finned fishes. And lobed-finned fishes include things like lung fish, and coelcanths, but also all of the vertebrates that live on land. So that includes things like birds and dinosaurs and crocodiles. But it also includes mammals, so giraffes and monkeys and humans as well. So we’re a particular kind of lobed-finned bony fish. And so when this fossil was described, it was thought to be a ray-finned fish. And we looked at the specimen, because one of my collaborators was googling fossil fish names as you do on a Friday night, because that’s what that’s what the cool kids do on Friday evening. And he found a picture really high resolution picture of it, and sent it to me and my PhD supervisor and said, we should CT scan this. So we got hold of the specimen, which is in a museum in Estonia. And we CT scanned it using like three different methods to look inside it. And when we looked at it, we found that it wasn’t a ray-finned fish, it wasn’t even a bony fish. It was a kind of very early kind of vertebrate with jaws. So it was very different to what we originally thought it was. And we only managed to figure that out because of CT scanning. So we could look inside it and we could look at all its internal features.

Jazmin: 13:52
Yeah, can we just touch on the fact that humans are classified as a fish?

Sam: 13:58
Yeah, so I get a lot of grief sometimes when I say this. My daughter who is seven had about a four hour temper tantrum with me the other week when I told her that she was a fish, and she was so upset that she thought I’d done this deadly insult. I was like, no, no, we are. And she didn’t believe me, eventually explained it to her by like, I got a lecture that I give to undergraduate students and gave her the lecture and at the end of the lecture, she was like, “Hmm, you may- you may be onto something, I might believe you”. She was so offended, when I told her this. And this is like, three or four weeks ago and occasionally even now, she’s just like: “Mama, I’m not a fish”. And I say “but you are though Bea, you are a fish”.

Nuzhat: 14:46
You know, how they say like we are our own worst critics. I think like kids are going to be the parents worst critics ever.

Jazmin: 14:58
That’s what I find so funny.

Nuzhat: 14:59
So to be honest, I think in school I have heard like “you’re a fish” as an insult, but this just brings a whole new meaning to it. Because I’ll be like, now I’d be like, well, yes, I am.

Jazmin: 15:15
Anyway, so I’ve learned something new, I’m a fish.

Nuzhat: 15:19
When you finish your PhD, what was the main findings?

Sam: 15:23
I was really lucky and I found out some really cool things during my PhD, not because I was amazing, but because I got very, very lucky with the fossils I looked at. So one of the things I looked at was when jawed vertebrates, so vertebrates with jaws split into two groups, they split into the bony fish and the cartilaginous fish. And there was a perception that the last common ancestor of those two things kind of looked like a shark. So it didn’t have bony plates on its skeleton, it was it, the perception is that it looked like a shark, and the sharks are quite primitive. And this fossil from Siberia that I mentioned, kind of flips that story on its head. And it suggests that actually, the last common ancestor of bony fish and cartilaginous fish looks a lot like a bony fish. So it had these big bony plates surrounding its- its skull and the rest of its body. And what that means is that cartilaginous fish, so things like sharks and rays and skates, rather than being primitive, because they never evolved bone, they actually had bone, but then they secondarily lost it, because bone is actually kind of rubbish, it’s very heavy, it takes a lot of energy to make, it weighs you down when you’re swimming around. So yeah, rather than sharks being really primitive, and never evolved any bone, they actually were the smart ones. And they evolved it and then thought, nah we’re gonna secondarily lose this because it’s not very fun to be swimming around with. I also found out some other really cool things, like I looked at the anatomy of the brain cavity of different fish and, and use that to work out patterns and relationship and think about when the parts of the brain that control vision got- got particularly big in the ray-finned fishes. And then yeah, just spent lots of time establishing or helping to establish that CT scanning was a really useful technique for understanding the anatomy of these- these early fishes.

Nuzhat: 17:19
That sounds really cool. I think you made fish sound it- fish sound a lot more exciting.

Jazmin: 17:28
Okay, so what made you interested in fish fossils?

Sam: 17:34
Again, it was a complete coincidence, I got very, very lucky. And so in the summer of my first year, as an undergraduate, I spent all of my money. I got a- something called a Great Western scholarship, which is for students from low income backgrounds to study subjects that were under subscribed. And so that helped me pay for things like field trips, but it also kept me supported for my first summer as an undergraduate so that I could [sic] still, it wasn’t very easy for me to move back home, to live with my mum. So I just stayed, yeah, stayed in Bristol. And then in my second summer, I had absolutely no money and I was going to get a job in a supermarket. But I’ve heard rumors that you could get paid to do science stuff, I’ve heard this from other students. So I went down the corridor of my university department and I asked people when I met them if they have any money to pay me for the summer, and the only person I met who had money was a paleontologist. And he said, yeah, sure, whatever I can pay you for, for a few weeks. So I ended up working with him for about eight weeks, I was doing something called ‘picking’, which is not the most interesting thing in the world. But you basically have a tray of very small fragments of fossils, and these have been dissolved out of rock. I think these were dissolved out limestone. And I was looking for jaws, fossil jaws and the jaws were about, I guess, five millimeters long. And I worked through tens and tens of trays, and I did this for about eight hours a day, for about eight or 10 weeks. And I found a grand total of two jaws in that entire time period. It wasn’t the most interesting thing. But I got really interested in the underlying question, which is how did jaws evolve? And what were the relationships between this group of fish that jaws evolved in? And my supervisor told me that if I found any jaws they’d be studied using something called the synchrotron I was like, “oh, yeah, synchrotron know all about them”. And I went away and kind of worked out what synchrotron was, it’s basically a particle accelerator. So you shoot x- you shoot electrons round around this big doughnut, it’s like several 100 meters across, and as they bump into each other, they give off energy and that energy can be used to X-ray fossils and lots of other things. And towards the end of the summer because I’ve been diligently working away, my supervisor asked if I, he basically I think he emailed me and said, “oh, hey, Sam, do you want to come to the synchrotron in Switzerland next week?” And I was like “yeah”. No idea what he’s talking about. But he basically paid me to go and spend a few days and scanning fossils at the Swiss Light Source, which was an amazing experience that I could never have imagined I’d be able to do. Then I got, you know, I thought it was really cool and I ended up doing my fourth year- oh, sorry- I ended up applying for something called a Nuffield Undergraduate Research Bursary and this gave me funding to do a research project in the third year of my undergraduate. And then I did my summer, my fourth year research project with the same person. So it was a complete fluke. And I was going to spend that summer again, working, working in the lab for the supervisor and then there was a departmental seminar given by someone who’s talking about his fieldwork in Mongolia. And I went along to the seminar and I had a chat with him afterwards, because I was applying for PhDs. And he mentioned that he was going to Mongolia- going in a few weeks, and he might have some money left over to pay for people to go and I was like, “oh, yeah, I’ll come to Mongolia, why not?” And he asked me if I had any fieldwork experience and I said, “yeah, I’ve got tons of fieldwork experience”. And he asked me if I like camping, and I was like, “yeah, I love camping and go camping all the time”. And he invited me to go camping- he invited me to do fieldwork in Mongolia, which involves five weeks of camping. I don’t own a tent. I’d spent a grand total of two nights in a tent before this and they were at a festival. So I got this invite to go do fieldwork in Mongolia. I went to, I can’t remember the name of it was like, a ‘Go Camping’ or like a budget outdoor shop. Like, “hi. I’m going to Mongolia for five weeks, and I’ll be camping, what do I need to buy?” And the guy just looked at me, like, he had no idea what I was talking about. And so then I said before this happened, there was a, my supervisor who I did the research internships with told me to apply for PhDs. And I, again, had never, never heard [of] a PhD, you’d had no idea what they were and he sort of talked me through it. And I applied for a bunch of PhDs in all around the UK, and one in The Netherlands. And I got rejected from all of them, except for Oxford, and Oxford made me an offer to go and do a PhD, which I accepted. But yeah, I just got very, very lucky that, you know, I was able to find when he could pay me to work over the summer, I was very lucky that he was very supportive and helped me find funding for future years. Got very lucky that, you know, this guy had spare money to help me go to Mongolia and also that Oxford gave me a PhD offer when everyone else rejected me, and I’m still very bitter about the other places that rejected me. This is a- I mean I won’t segway into it too much. But- because otherwise, I just keep talking forever. Yeah, I rejected from- from one PhD because my- I’d failed a module in my undergrad, I failed chemistry and I got rejected on the basis of my grades from that university. And I’m still very bitter about that to this day. But I got so lucky with these lab placements, I have no, I still don’t, I don’t have any memory of how I learned that this is the thing. And you know, the fact that I was able- the fact that I was confident enough to walk down my corridor and ask people, if they could pay me, there’s a lot of people who wouldn’t be in that position. And I did my undergrad at Bristol and I think Bristol has got a bit you know, that they, they are quite used to doing summer projects, but it’s quite a research intensive University and many of the staff have the resources to be able to support summer projects, but the vast majority of people don’t have that opportunity. And the vast majority of universities probably won’t be able to offer that. So, you know, if someone has that experience, it’s probably because they were privileged or they got incredibly lucky. It shouldn’t in any way be, you know, a prerequisite or something that you expect, because otherwise, you’re excluding a huge number of people who just never had the opportunity, not because they’re not good enough, or because they wouldn’t have been able to do the lab work- they wouldn’t have been excellent. Just because they never knew it was an option. They didn’t go to university where it’s possible. They [sic] responsibilities and yeah, I think expecting it or being surprised when someone doesn’t have it is a really dangerous route now.

Nuzhat: 25:06
Yeah, I think during my undergrad, I could see that there was a split, because internships alone seem to be something that I wasn’t aware of that I should have been actively seeking. And I think internships themselves was difficult to know that you could have like, a summer research project or summer research internship, that was something I wasn’t aware of until PhD when I heard other people could do it. So there’s definitely like a divide and the types of people who are aware, I think people who come from like academic backgrounds, with parents who went to like, particularly competitive universities, or like schools that send students to competitive universities, they had this kind of head start knowing what to seek and like how to make the most of university. And I think, like, I remember, because I can help my sister and this is what I’ve been telling her like, make sure that for summer of you have internships and have a variety of internships and I remember asking a friend for advice. I was like, “oh, what kind of internships would be good?” Particularly because she doesn’t get enough money from student loans. So she wants like an internship that would be well paid and he kept saying, research position, like research internships, and I was like, but does it pay really well? And like he can see on Twitter, like you can see supervisors advocating for underpaying their summer interns.

Sam: 26:28
Yeah, it’s, it’s really difficult. So I- at the moment, so if I have some interns, I paid them- there’s a stipend that’s essentially linked to a living wage, but it’s a stipend. It’s not a salary. You- if you’re paying someone a stipend, it avoids paying tax and National Insurance contributions. But you cannot require the student to work more than I think it’s 20 hours a week? Because you’re just not paying them enough to allow that. So when I’ve had summer students in the past, I’ve made sure that I paid them either through an undergraduate research bursary, or through funding that I’ve had, and I’ve been kind of clear with them from the outset about, you know, I’m not employing them to work 37 hours a week, because if I was- well, yeah, I’m not employing them to work 37 hours a week, I’m paying them [a] stipend, and did the work about 20 hours a week. But there’s no expectation for them to work full time and, yeah, I find- I mean, there was a very lot- there was a large argument about it on Twitter the other week, but I often get asked, you know, what if I have a student who really wants to do a summer project with me, or really wants a lab experience, but I can’t pay them. And in that case, you don’t offer the student a research project. It’s not that, you know, there’s a perception that it’s unfair to the student to turn them down just because you have funding, but it’s actually unfair to take that student who can financially support themselves, because then all of the people who can’t financially support themselves won’t be able to, you know, they can’t take a position on similar terms, they can only take a paid position. And so I got asked this about 10 times earlier in the week, and every time the person got- yeah, if you can’t pay someone to do a job, then they can’t do a job for you. Because otherwise, it’s not fair to all of the people who also want to do that job with you, but can’t afford to do it unpaid.

Nuzhat: 28:34
You have to have like a social justice centered way of doing your work. And I think it’s a good way to challenge what we have in academia is like, ‘exploitation’ of people’s passion. I think like we, you know, in academia, we have people not- I mean, PhDs itself doesn’t pay a comfortable amount, especially- yeah, doesn’t pay a comfortable amount. And I think this whole idea like, oh, if you love it so much, you you know, you would, you would work for it with a much lower salary, like that’s acceptable. I think we need to challenge this exploitative behavior in academia.

Sam: 29:14
It also feeds into this culture of overwork. But yeah, you’re right that PhDs don’t pay a huge amount, so if they’re already not paying you enough to support yourself for a 37 hour week, why would you then do a 40 hour week or a 50 hour week or 60 hours a week or 70 hours a week, and it feeds a lot into overwork. When you get a permanent academic, or when you get a staff position, not necessarily permanent. And I guess amongst, it’s very difficult because having a staff position is obviously an incredibly privileged position to be in. It’s incredibly lucky, but it’s also hugely stressful. And part of the reason why it’s so stressful is because you have about, you know, essentially four people’s worth of jobs to do and if you say it’s your passion, and you’re happy to do it for free, it’s your hobby, you don’t mind doing it in the evenings, Well, okay, fair enough, I guess you can do whatever you want. But you’re setting standards that many people can’t keep up with, because they have caring responsibilities, they may have disability, they may just have hobbies that they want to do in the evenings and weekends. You know, it’s not the only people with disability or caring responsibilities want to work 37 hours a week, everyone wants to work 37 hours a week, because that’s what you’re being paid for. Not only does it set up this unreasonable kind of working pattern and expectation, if you’re doing for pers-, if you’re doing four people’s jobs, then that is three people that aren’t being able to picking up the slack for them. And this is something that I you know, feel quite strongly about, I very rarely work more than 37-40 hours a week, and I never have done. At the moment, I’m working significantly less than that, because there’s a pandemic and the world is ending and there are no schools open. Also for my PhD research fellowships I’ve ever worked for than 30-40 hours a week. And if I have, then I’ve made that timeout in lieu, you know, there are always going to be times when you have an experiment, or you have a deadline, or you’re just really excited about something and you don’t want to stop working at five, but it’s really important to take that time off, because otherwise you’re gonna make yourself ill, and you’re also doing someone else’s job.

Jazmin: 31:29
Yeah, exactly from well, because I have chronic fatigue, like I generally cannot work past that five o’clock. So I’ve always been like, right, I’ll work 9 to 5, or 10 to 5 and that’s it. And I don’t work on weekends, unless, of course, I’m really stressed and have something to do that has a deadline very shortly. But yeah, that is very important to set those boundaries as well. With- even with like your colleagues, as well be like, I’m not answering emails from this times, please don’t contact me on this time or so like that, or just expect that I’m not going to get back to you until the next day or the next week and stuff like that. Yeah.

Nuzhat: 32:14
I think also from like the science communities point of view, and from a diversity point of view, like science always benefits when there’s four people working on a project rather than one from different perspectives and innovation. And also, yeah, I think every scientist has the right to be healthy and a good mindset, better science happens when you’re in a healthy and good mindset. So, yes. All right, so one thing that we were really interested in talking to you about. So we know that you come from a working class background, and you’ve kind of touched on it in your answers. But I guess I was curious into how your working class background shaped your university choices and experiences?

Sam: 33:04
So I’m the first in my immediate family to go to university, neither of my parents went to university. And so growing up, it was never really something that was on my radar as a- as an option. I don’t think I really knew what university was until I was at Sixth Form. Then at Sixth Form, I got put into one of these ‘gifted and talented’ programs. And then you- you know, I have very mixed feelings about these kinds of programs because they tend to select students for a particular demographic within, say, a working class background. But that was my first exposure to universities and that was the first time it was really expected that I’d go to one. So I applied to a bunch of universities that I essentially picked because I’ve heard that the cities that they were in. So I applied to Oxford, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, and I can’t remember somewhere else that was just a city, the name that I picked out of a hat. But I didn’t really know anything about these places. My Sixth Form college is a very large Sixth Form college and it had a trip to Bristol University, or what I thought was Bristol University, it is actually the University of the West of England, but it just says that the university was in Bristol, and I, you know, never occurred to me that there’d be more than one university in Bristol. So I went on a day trip to UWE and got there and realised that they didn’t earth sciences. They didn’t do geology and that I’d made a terrible mistake and, and then in the afternoon, there was a bus tour around the city to kind of show you around and they drove past the University of Bristol and I was like, “oh, there’s two of them! That makes sense!” So I just had absolutely no idea. I had an interview at Oxford, which was one of the most horrible experiences of my life, I cried for two days straight, essentially, I hated really, really hated it really disliked it. And, and I eventually decided to take an of- take a place at Leeds. So I sent in my acceptance of the position at University of Leeds and then I got a letter saying that Bristol would offer me this thing, as I mentioned this Great Western scholarship, which is, I think, 10,000 pounds over the four years for students from low income backgrounds who would, who were doing schools- who were doing under subscribed subjects. And this letter came on the first day of the Christmas holidays. So my school was closed, I couldn’t ask anyone at my Sixth Form what to do. Couldn’t ask my mum, my mum works at Sainsbury’s and had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. So I deliberated about it, and eventually decided to go to Bristol, because 10,000 pounds was more money than I’d ever heard of in my- in my entire life. And, and then yes, it went off to university and had no idea what I was doing. So it was fine. I had some great friends, I joined the LGBT society, and they looked after me and taught me what I was doing. And we’re really fantastic. But yeah, it’s, since then, three of my cousins have gone to university, and it’s been really great to chat to them, and to kind of tell them a bit about my experiences and to, you know, coach them through and what subjects to do and what, yeah, where to go and what university is like. But most of the time, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Nuzhat: 36:50
You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to, but I guess I’m curious as to like, what, what made you cry, and, like, pull your- pull your application from Oxford?

Sam: 37:03
Um, I just, I- so my only- I knew nothing about- I knew that the University of Oxford existed and it was very posh and clever people went there, that was pretty much all I knew about it. And then the only things I knew about, I guess, boarding school-type thing, which is in my head, Oxford was like, a fancy boarding school with the Harry Potter books? And a series called ‘Malory Towers’, which is like a Enid Blyton that I read when I was a teenager. And I yeah, so I got the train to Oxford, which I think was possibly the first time I’d been on a long train journey by myself. I found my college, I couldn’t find the door because it’s one of these things where the door is like hidden in this wall. I had no idea what what you know how to get in. And then- so I had these rooms at the top of the stairs. And there was no- there was like a shared kitchen, which is just felt very, very strange and then at dinner, there were lots of- lots of girls talking about their ponies and their gap years and their daddy paying for expensive things and which is just completely alien to me. So I felt very uncomfortable. And then in my interview, it’s not my interviewer’s fault and now actually very good friends with the people who gave me interviews, and I don’t think they remember it was me that cried a lot. I- probably, probably a lot of people cry, but it was just, it was a very different way of thinking to what I was used to. So it was very, very kind of abstract thinking, which I’d never been taught before. So they didn’t just ask you a question and you answered it. They’d ask a question that was hidden within a question. And it just wasn’t, you know, it wasn’t something I- I just didn’t know how to do it. So I just cried. Yeah. And then yeah, a few years later, I was in the strange position of actually under- actually interviewing undergraduate students for my college when I was a junior research fellow. And it felt very strange to be essentially on the opposite side of the table. So I put a huge amount of effort into trying to make sure that the questions were sensible questions that, you know, they’re not trick questions and not, you know, try to catch the student out. And, and try to make it a dialogue. So, you know, we asked the students, we asked to give examples, and we weren’t judging them based on whether their example was their local city center, or, you know, climbing a mountain in South America. But it was a really interesting experience. And I think it I think the vast majority of academics at Oxford, do you want to do better? Do you want to widen participation and have students from a more diverse range of backgrounds? But there are probably some people who might not want to. And there are probably a lot more people who don’t necessarily know the best way to do it and don’t realise that asking questions on quantitative reasoning is gonna cut- catch out students from state schools because they’ve never heard of that. And they don’t know what they’re supposed to do.

Nuzhat: 40:16
I think especially amongst them, there’s this idea of meritocracy. And people don’t realize that it’s not as straightforward as a lot of like privilege and opportunities, and luck involved with being able to show your potential on paper and like, through your experience. But I really wanted to ask you about your interview, because there’s this excuse that Oxbridge have put out time and time again, is that, oh, you know, I’m- under represented students don’t apply to us, so we can’t do anything about it, and then not willing to admit that actually, the vibe that they give off can put off people from disadvantaged underrepresented backgrounds. And they need to also change how inclusive it feels, both in the recruitment process and the retainment process. But you touched on- you touched on a big issue with the interview. And I think, because when I was applying for Cambridge, I was trying to like, obviously, look up tips on how to apply. One of the biggest issue I found is that there was loads of these courses, offering like how to interview for Oxbridge and how to get be prepared for like certain exams, they’re so expensive, like I never tried any of them. But I was really consciously aware that I couldn’t prep myself up for the interview itself. And I was quite lucky that the interview I had was just based on maths and science questions. But I was just really, really aware that some people were putting so much money and effort into getting into Oxbridge and not a lot of people had that opportunity. And it’s similar to like, grammar schools, like I didn’t get into any grammar schools because I didn’t pass the entrance exam. And then like my peers in Oxbridge would be like, oh, like, didn’t you have a tutor? And it’s like, no, because a) my parents wouldn’t have known that, B) I couldn’t have afforded that.

Sam: 42:16
Yeah, I think, Oxford is, it’s trying to do better. And you know, lots of people try to do better. There’s this thing called the ‘Unique Summer School’, which I vol- which I taught for a couple of years. And the idea is to take students from backgrounds who are less likely to go to Oxford, and help them you know, help them become a bit more familiar with it and but the glaring problem is so that there’s lots of Oxford that doesn’t appeal to many students from different backgrounds. The way that Oxford is structured is that it’s very, it’s very cliquey, it’s very kind of, you know, once your in Oxford, you’re very much in Oxford, you’re entirely subsumed a- being at the university. It’s very short terms and there’s still a perception that you’ll work yourself to the bone for eight weeks. And then there’s a nice long holiday so that you can crash and recover and be fresh for the next term. And that doesn’t work for a lot of people. Well, it’s not healthy and it’s not possible for a lot of people. So even though I think Oxford, and some subjects at Oxford are trying a lot better, to make the interviews fairer, and to make their recruitment processes more- more inclusive, and less, you know, less likely to discriminate against people from particular backgrounds. The stack still remains that once you, you know, Oxford is something that is, it’s very steeped in tradition, it’s very old fashioned, it’s very particular, about some of the ways it’s behaves. And I’m not sure that Oxford wants to change those behaviors, I’m not sure that Oxford wants to become less like Oxford and more like any other university, because, you know, it’s those things that make Oxford special. And at some point, there has to be a reckoning about whether Oxford wants to be special, or whether it wants to appeal to students who can’t work 16 hours a day for, you know, eight weeks, and then have their parents pamper them for a month to get them back into full health for the next term. And that doesn’t always happen, right? But they’re are long days and there’s- there’s certainly not a feeling that, you know, you can’t work that hard over a term and then go and do a job over Christmas, and then come back and work hard the next term, and then do a job over the Easter because it’s just impossible. And there has to be a way of spreading out the work or taking off some of the load initial term. But I don’t get the feeling that Oxford wants to change those things.

Nuzhat: 44:51
So you mentioned that you are part of the LGBT+ society at your university. I guess from that you’re aware about your sexuality before you started University? Did it play any part in shaping your university experience or how you associate with STEM?

Sam: 45:08
It’s hard to say really. So I knew- so identify as queer. I used to identify as gay- as a gay woman and largely because I didn’t know what queer was, and then I found what queer meant, which to me queer means and basically, non-heteronormative. So it’s much more fluid, it’s much less of a rigid definition and it, it doesn’t kind of dictate that, you know, you’re only attracted to women or to Cis women, it’s much a bit more kind of, yeah, flexible term, which I really like. I like that it’s a bit hard to define and it means different things to different people. But when I was- when I was younger, I sort of I pretty much knew that I was gay, but I didn’t know any other gay people. There were no gay people in my community or in my peer network and I had a ‘boyfriend’, like a fake boyfriend when I was Sixth Form who was also gay. That was a, we were very good friends, because we were basically both gay. And then I went to university and I didn’t know that there was such a thing as an LGBT society, like, I didn’t know that- I knew there was the ‘Rock’ society for like people who did geology. But I discovered that LGBT society, I guess, in the January of my first year, and it was just great. And people kind of took me under their wing. And then I spent a lot of time- they were my kind of main, main friendship group, and kind of remained throughout University. Yeah, but I, so I sort of knew I- when I kind of came out to my mum, I didn’t mean to, I called my mum, and I was like, “oh, hi mum, I’ve been at a friend’s house”. And mum was like, “Is it a boyfriend?” I was like, no, mum, it’s not a boyfriend. She was like, is it a girlfriend? I was like, “maybe?” She was like, yeah, obviously, obviously, you have a girlfriend Sam. And I was like, oh, okay. She’s like, yeah, we all knew this. And then by the end of the day, she called like, my entire family and let them know, I have a girlfriend. I don’t actually have a girlfriend mum. It was just a girl that I was seeing. but since I don’t have a girlfriend, but it was too late by that point. And yeah, she told literally everyone.

Jazmin: 47:29
So how does your queerness and being working class affects you today in academia?

Sam: 47:38
I guess the it’s quite, it’s much more obvious to people that I’m queer, than I’m working class. It, I tell people I’m very open about my sexuality. It’s- I have a- my partner is a woman and we have two children, so it’s quite clear when I talk about that. I’ve always been very open about it. So I’ve never- I’ve never experienced kind of direct homophobia, I think, because I have kind of forestall that, you know, people don’t necessarily make homophobic jokes around me, because they know that I’ll have a go at them. And, you know, on the occasion that people have made those jokes, I’ve been very clear about it. But I think my message kind of spread before people met me. It’s had some effect in that I, you know, I’ve been invited to do fieldwork, sometimes in countries that aren’t particularly nice towards LGBT people or women. So I’ve turned down these opportunities. It’s also you know, I have a lot of international collaborators and I’ll talk about my, my partner, and I’ll talk about, you know, use she and her as pronouns and I’ll say, Becca, and then they’ll say, oh do what does your husband do? And I’m like, no, no, I don’t have a husband and then we’ll have that conversation and then five minutes later, it will be and your husband? I was like, no, there’s no husband, I don’t have- I don’t have a wife, because we’re in a civil partnership, we’re not married, but I don’t have a husband. I have a female- partner who is, yeah, I don’t have a husband, I don’t have a wife because we’re not married. I have a partner who is a woman. So you know, there, I guess I’ve felt a bit hesitant sometimes about taking my family with me to conferences, or if I was to do, you know, an extended research visit. But I think it would, you know, just have to be very crystal clear about that before I went. I’m not that uncomfortable talking about it. But it means that you have the same conversation about 20 times and then on the 21st time, they’re like, so not a husband? How does that work? I’m like, well, it’s like a husband, but it’s a woman, not a man. In terms of kind of being working class I- I mean, there’s a lot of things. I think working class and first generation, there were a lot of things where it would be quite nice if I had, you know, if I could ask my mom like, oh mum, what should I do about this, this job in academia? But my family had absolutely no idea what I do. They’ve sorted now accepted that I’m not studying for anything, but I don’t have any more exams. They’re a bit confused when I set exams for students, they, you know, they’re not really sure why I’m the teacher. But I’m essentially I think they sort of think that I’m a lecturer that I teach at university. I’m actually a researcher, I do very little teaching and yeah, they don’t- don’t really know what I do, I think, yeah, it’s very difficult to have those conversations. I was talking to my mum recently about applying for grants, and my mum was like, “but you’ve got a job, where do you need to get more money?” I’m like, “well, you get a job and then you spend a lot of time asking for money so that you can keep doing my job”. This conversation is very complicated to have, because, yeah, it is, you know, no common ground to have that conversation.

Jazmin: 51:14
Yeah, I have similar conversations as well with my family. Like, before we started recording, I mentioned that I’m writing an urgency grant. And my mum’s like, “what does that mean?” I was like, well, it kind of means that I’ll have a research position for a short period of time, but I can get the money quicker to do something”. And she’s like, “okay”, she didn’t quite get it. But, I mean, it’s even confusing for me as well like, what’s the difference? But um, yeah, it’s particularly when you are first generation or not that many people in family have gone as far as I have in university, in academia, like they can’t find any common ground to talk about in terms of jobs, because like, obviously, they’ll talk about their work, but then they can’t relate to what I do and vice versa as well, I suppose. Yes, that’s definitely a struggle in terms of- in terms of that, yeah.

Sam: 52:20
When I was finishing my PhD, my family were like, oh, well, you’ve got a PhD now you can get a job anywhere you want. You can, you know, go to the university down the road, and they’ll give you a job. And I’m like, that’s not how it works. And then I got my got a job in Oxford, and then I moved to Birmingham, which is where I’m at now, and my nan because I’m from, as you can tell from my thick Brummie accent, I’m actually from Birmingham originally, and my nan was like, oh, so you could get a job at Birmingham University. And I was like, well, that’s not how it works, they didn’t just give me a job I had, it was really difficult to get a job. But yeah, it was like, well, you know, I told you, you get a job there if you asked for one. I was like, oh, okay, fine, yeah, that’s what happened. I asked, they gave me a job. Yeah. Okay. It’s very easy.

Jazmin: 53:12
If only.

Nuzhat: 53:14
I can imagine it’s particularly hard to talk about being a researcher, if you’re from like a lower socioeconomic background, because all of our parents particularly want to have financial stability, because they can’t give us the safety net. And so to tell them, actually, I’m taking this job is worth this much and then it’s even more competitive the next step, but with academia, the higher up you go, it gets even more competitive. So as a lot, it’s really, really unstable. And you might be like, you might need to move across countries, within a country, outside a country and even with that, you need a lot of financial, like safety net, to be able to do that.

Sam: 53:59
Yeah, it’s- my mum- my mum worked at Sainsbury’s and she worked there for, you know, decades and I was trying to explain how, how academia works and how you go from different job and then you have a postdoc, and then you might have another postdoc, and then you might get a permanent position and my mom was like, “What?” Like, just no kind of, you know, in her job, she worked one of the counters and then she, you know, hurt her arm and she couldn’t she well- so she worked on one of the counters, and then she had breast cancer, and she lost the ability in her arm. So Sainsbury’s moved her to a desk job and I was like, yeah, if that happened in academia, I’m not sure that that your employer would be so willing to just move you to another position where you didn’t have to do that aspect of your job anymore. But yeah, there was, you know, there’s just no comparison. There’s no framework to or no experiences to it. To have similarities to it’s really, really difficult.

Jazmin: 55:04
Okay, so you have briefly mentioned this at the beginning, when we were talking about humans being fish. You are a parent, and your queer. So what have been your experiences of being a queer parent in academia?

Sam: 55:20
I’ve got two children. So I have a seven year old daughter called Bea and a three year old son for Jonah, he’s nearly four, which is terrifying, because I still think of him as being a tiny baby. So Bea was born just at the end of the second year of my PhD, and Jonah was born when I was a junior Research Fellow. I’m the non-birth mum, so my partner gave birth to both of them. And I guess it’s quite- it’s quite strange. It was very, I guess it’s comparatively unusual to become a parent while you’re a PhD student- not completely unusual, there are tons of PhD students who are parents. But I was in a slightly strange situation where I was living in Oxford for three to five days a week throughout my, my PhD. My partner was- in the first year of my PhD, she was a postdoc in sociology in Southampton and then she moved back to Bristol. So I was in Bristol, or Southampton a couple of days a week and in Oxford the rest of the week living with other PhD students. And I remember kind of telling them that my partner was pregnant, and everyone was like, “What? Why? Why? Why would you have a baby when you’re a PhD student?” So it was quite strange. I knew almost no other queer parents, I still know very other, very few other queer parents and I knew even fewer kind of, I guess, non-birth mums and it’s a slightly strange kind of situation where I probably get a lot of credit for being a mum in science, but I’m, I guess, the equivalent of the dad because I didn’t, you know, I didn’t have- I didn’t give birth, I didn’t take the full, you know, a long maternity leave, although I did take several months off because my partner wasn’t very well. So it was quite isolating sometimes and quite unusual. No, it was very strange being split between two places. I actually- my partner went into labour with my think- I can’t remember which one but she went into labour early. I was teaching in Oxford, and I was teaching in a room that didn’t have any internet connection. So I got out of the practical and I had like 100 missed calls from my partner and her dad and I got a taxi for I was like, oh, how do we do it? The train is going to take so- too long. So I got a taxi from Oxford back to Bristol and got to Bristol to the hospital, just in time for my partner to be discharged and she wasn’t actually in labour, it’s like Braxton Hicks. So it was this is really weird situation where I was kind of torn between two places. But the absolute saving grace is that my PhD supervisor who is an amazing person called Matt Freedman, and he and his wife had a baby, two months after me and my partner had a baby. And actually, the day that I told him that Becca was pregnant was the day that he and his wife found out that they were expecting a baby. So it was, you know, I’d email him in the middle of the night and be like, “Hi, Matt. I haven’t done any work, I haven’t slept. Everything is terrible. I can’t do anything”. And he emailed me back being like, “don’t worry, I’m in exactly the same situation”. So that yeah, honestly, though, you know, the main reason why I’m still why I stuck with my PhD and why I stayed in academia was because my supervisor was so sympathetic and understanding and, yeah, our kids are very similar in age. So and he’s in the US now, but they used to hang out a lot. We went to a conference in Vienna a couple of years ago, or maybe Prague, one of those two, and both brought our partners, our kids and they kind of played together and had a great time. But yeah, it’s, it’s very strange. I know very few queer parents in academia and it can be quite isolating because many, you know, most of the parents I do know, are, you know, straight couples. And then most of the queer people I know, don’t have children. So it’s a slightly kind of weird demographic to be in, but I have met a few people actually through Twitter, so it’s been great to chat to those people.

Nuzhat: 59:46
Yeah, I think the best type of supervisor to have as an empathetic supervisor.

Sam: 59:52
He was just amazing and I, you know, messaged him and say, I can’t do any work and he’d be fine and then when I did get back to work, I was like, right Matt, I need you to set me deadline and he’d be like, okay, just send me the work when I can- when you can and because he was just yeah, he was really, really sympathetic and really understanding.

Nuzhat: 1:00:12
I think also my experience in academia is I see more fathers, then mothers, and usually like a lot of fathers and postdoc, or like more senior positions. And if I met like a mother, they’re usually like, you know, a professor, and they have some kind of like, job stability, so that they could take time out to have children. So it was really rare. I mean, I know a couple of, well, I know one mother, PhD, but I won’t tell her story, that’s her story to tell. I know, you’ve done a lot of work and trying to champion inclusive field trips, could you talk a little bit of what you’ve done?

Sam: 1:01:00
So I’ve done some things around, I guess, highlighting barriers to fieldwork and trying to identify simple ways to remove some of those barriers. So there’s barriers can be anything from financial barriers, so that the financial cost of buying the fieldwork- buying the fieldwork equipments, and boots, and waterproofs and rucksacks and clothes and all of these things that, you know, if you’ve grown up camping, and hiking, of course, you have all of these things. If you’ve never been camping, and you’ve never been hiking, you’ve never done any outdoor stuff, which I hadn’t, you know, as a kid, we lived in a fairly suburban area, we never, we never went walking, we never went hiking, we never went camping, we never did any of that kind of stuff. My first geology field trip that I went on was when I was a Sixth Form student and I wore, you know, basically put plastic bags in my trainers, because that was the only way that I could think of to keep my feet dry, because I didn’t have waterproof boots. So yeah, I’ve done some work with some colleagues, just identifying simple things that we can do to remove some of those barriers. And then another thing that I’ve helped with is talking about toilet stops on field trips. And with most, not most, with many senior geologists, if you say, we’ve produced a guide to help students talk about field trips and toilet stops, they will say, well, everyone knows how to use the toilet on a field trip, you know, it’s basic human biology, you don’t need to have these conversations and they get very embarrassed, and they don’t see a need for it and they don’t want to talk about it, and they will run away very quickly. But as we- well, firstly, that’s rubbish, there are a huge number of people, particularly women, who don’t know how to pee outside, because why would you know how to pee outside? Especially if you haven’t grown up camping or hiking. And there’s lots of kind of anecdotal evidence that women are more likely to get urinary tract infections on field trips, because they will not go to the toilet often enough and they will also restrict their water intake. So this doesn’t only affect women, it can also affect trans students who may be misgendered or may not be out as trans and may not, you know, want to identify that. It can affect people with- it can affect, sorry, disabled people who may not be able to squat behind a bush and pee, they may need to get an actual toilet. It can affect students from different religious or cultural backgrounds who may not be comfortable peeing outside in a mixed group. So we’ve put together basically a primer to help have these conversations. We also put together like an example field itinerary to try and do this but most importantly, just tried to get the conversation going. So we we wrote this primer, and then I emailed it to all of the Heads of School of all the geology departments in the UK, and said, “Hey, do you talk to your students about toilets and tampons? You should”. And then, you know, in our field trip, preparation lessons at Birmingham, I went and basically said, “hey, let’s talk about peeing and let’s talk about periods”. Because it’s not something to be embarrassed about. It’s not something that is unnatural. It’s something that will affect nearly half of you in this room. It affects the the lectures too, we also need to pee, we also have periods sometimes. But yeah, just things like that, where if you think of the typical demographic of geologists, there are people who are typically men typically white, typically older, may not think of these things as a barrier and as geology gets more diverse, and if we, if we truly want to have students from a more diverse background, it’s not just about getting them in the door. It’s about thinking about the issues that are going to affect these people that may not have come up before, but now we need to think about how to address them and how to make people comfortable.

Nuzhat: 1:05:06
The period point is a very good one because I remember the first time I was doing field trip, and I remember trying to get out of one, like fieldwork, because I was on my period and I couldn’t get out of it, because the other person was, like, swamped with- she was really ill, understandably, I went on it. But I was with a group, everyone else was a guy and even though like, you know, periods and natural, and by this age, everybody should be comfortable talking about periods. [I] Didn’t mention, I think I didn’t know what to do, as well, like, what do I do with the waste part? The sanitary products, right? And also definitely, like when I’m on field trips, I drink less water because I was like, I don’t want to deal with peeing while, I’m like out in the field.

Sam: 1:05:54
We- one of the things that I was really, one of the things that I was quite deliberate about doing was having the conversation in front of everyone in the room. Like what you absolutely don’t want to do is say, right, girls, come here, we’re gonna talk about tampons, we’re gonna talk about sanitary pads, it’s important for everyone to have that conversation. It’s important for people who have periods who may not all be women to know about it. And it’s important for people who don’t have periods [sic]- people to have periods. So I talked to, you know, the practicalities of, you know, taking wet wipes with you, taking ziplock bags, and I put together packs for our first aid kits that had yeah, ziplock bags, tissues, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, spare tampons, as well as sanitary towels as well. And I also mentioned this to the person who does first aid, who does first aid training, field training, and he took the guidelines and shared it amongst other universities. But he also made the excellent point that tampons are very good at absorbing blood, so they’re very useful to have in your field kit anyway, because if someone cuts themselves, you can use a tampon to stop the bleeding. So he encourages everyone to put tampons in their first aid kit, so multi-purpose.

Nuzhat: 1:07:06
I remember- has any one seen scene from is it- ‘She’s the Man?’ Where like, this girl pretends to be a guy and then she’s sharing a show- a dorm with another guy and like the guy finds like her tampons, and he’s like, “why do you have these?” And she’s like, “oh, well, they’re good for nosebleeds”. Like a few scenes afterwards, you see him turn around, and he has a tampon stuck up is nose. A great scene. Okay, cool. I wanted to touch on what you talked about, that your sexuality limiting where you can do fieldwork or, you know, I think a lot of like, say straight researchers have the luxury of bringing their partners or families with them when they go to conferences or fieldwork. And like, when you’re a queer person, you might not have that same set of safety, but were you also involved with trying to- trying to restrict field trips to be in LGBT inclusive countries?

Sam: 1:08:12
Yeah. So this is something that was spearheaded by Chris Jackson and Ben Britton, both of whom are Imperial. So this is, came up specifically with regards to Imperial because Imperial ran a field trip to Oman. And it was a compulsory fieldtrip for masters students. And I mentioned this, I knew I kind of chatted to Chris about various things, and I kind of raised the Oman trip and I think Ben had been talking to him as well about it. And Chris did a huge amount of work as did Ben behind the scenes to raise this as a potential problem. And the sort of response from many people was, well, no one’s ever complained about it. No one’s ever had any problems. No one’s ever been arrested. No one’s ever been, you know, told us that they are uncomfortable with this. And that’s true, but it puts the onus on the people from the minoritised groups to raise, you know, to feel comfortable raising that topic and having that conversation. It’s possible that none of the students knew that it’s essentially illegal to be LGBT in Oman and it’s also illegal to, you know, if you’re thought to be gay, that’s equally as illegal as actually being gay. And, and you’re not providing the students with the necessary information to make an informed decision. So, one of the things that- a really great piece of work that’s come out recently is encouraging consideration of these topics in risk assessments. So when you do- when you plan a field trip, you have to do a huge risk assessment that covers everything from, you know, people hurting themselves, there being sunstroke, there being emergency evacuations. And people have suggested that you also consider whether that place is friendly for LGBT members of your team, and also for people from black and ethnic minorities, because that’s another really important topic that most white people wouldn’t even think about. Because it wouldn’t occur to you that hammering a piece of rock with a massive rock hammer might seem threatening. Whereas for some demographics, if someone sees you holding a massive rock hammer and hitting a property- hitting a rock behind a property, you’re probably going to get the police called on you or worse. So I think having this conversation about how to yeah, as I said, you know, thinking about different perspectives of geology, thinking about different perspectives of people who may have historically been underrepresented in geology, but are now sort of coming, becoming slightly more open and slightly more making the field more inclusive to those people. It’s really important when you’re thinking about fieldwork.

Nuzhat: 1:11:09
If we listen back to Episode Five with Maryam Helmi, she mentioned how one of the field trips at her university clashed with Ramadan, and there was a couple of Muslim students, and it would be so unfair to put the onus on students to bring it up, because as a power dynamic, students are more likely to think, oh, it’s just a few of us will have to adapt. So students are unlikely to bring something that would feel like an inconvenience. And secondly, like you would never want students to feel as if there’s a blame on them for making like a great change. Like, I think especially like the the, the response, the negative response, where people are like, Oh, you’re ruining this fantastic opportunity to go to Oman, it’s like no students health and safety is a lot more important. Even if, in the past, there was no issues, there’s still a potential for something to come up in the future.

Sam: 1:12:15
Yeah, that’s really important and it shouldn’t be, it should never be the students who have to stick their neck out and and make these you know, shouldn’t have to make these points. Or if then, if the point is made, it should never be the student who takes responsibility for the end action, so it’s not the fault of LGBT students that the Oman trip got cancelled. It’s the fault of the Omani government for criminalising homosexual relationships, right? It’s not, it’s similar if abuse is mentioned, or if, you know, you report someone, and then there are consequences for their actions. It’s not the fault of the person reporting, it’s the fault of the person doing the abuse or the harassment, and then facing the consequences. And so it’s something that, you know, I guess, securely employed, perhaps people should take the, you know, do the labour and stick their necks out and raise these difficult topics, not the students, because it’s never their responsibility. It’s never their fault. And yeah, the onus shouldn’t be on them.

Nuzhat: 1:13:21
They probably might not have the confidence to bring it up. But I always remind people like, you know, governments can change the rules, like if they want, you know, people to come over and do fieldtrips, in the country, they can always try and make inclusive so that you know, anyone can feel safe to, to do those fieldtrips.

Jazmin: 1:13:43
With all the stuff you’ve been doing all the things been highlighting, what kind of projects have you been involved in to support working class kids or other underrepresented groups?

Sam: 1:13:56
So at the moment, I’m working on projects of the Royal Society Public Engagement project with the Lapworth Museum, which is the museum that I am attached to at the University of Birmingham. Birmingham is a very ethnically diverse city, Birmingham University, is not a very ethnically diverse university and one of the things that we’re doing, both with the museum and with this specific problem it’s trying to tackle, not tackle- one of the things that we’re trying to do with the museum and in particular with this project is to work with primary school children from a diverse range of backgrounds. So we’re identifying schools that have children with a high proportion of free school meals, and also a high proportion of children with English as a second language. And the project is called ‘Fantastic Fossil Fish’, and it’s a generally it’s a kind of an introduction to paleontology, but trying to show different examples to the normal kind of things that you might think of when someone says paleontology, so there are some fish in there, there are also some dinosaurs, because I think it’s probably illegal to actually do a paleontology project that has no dinosaurs in it but there are some fish in it. So yeah, we’re trying to identify schools that, you know, a from a- not not just working class, but also have, you know, students from ethnic minority backgrounds in them. And we’re doing, so we have a series of activities, some based in the museum, some that are fossil paleontology explorer, boxes that we can send to community centres and schools that may not have access to these resources themselves. And then some sessions where we’re going to either go to go to the schools and meet students, or bring students into the- into the Lapworth Museum.

Nuzhat: 1:15:56
We always like to ask a fun question. And for you, because we know you are a specialist in fossils of fish, we want to ask you what’s the most underrated fish fossil and why?

Sam: 1:16:08
I’m gonna cheat a bit and say that all fish fossils are underrated. So fish are really, really cool. They’re really important. They make up over 50% of all vertebrates with jaws today and they’ve got this massive evolutionary history of like half a billion years nearly, but we know almost nothing about the really early parts of that because people say, “oh, it’s fish, who cares?” So this is time period called the Carboniferous, which is from 360 million years onwards and it’s when all the living groups of fish kind of really became established. But most of the fossils that we know of in that time period were described in the late 1800s or early 1900s and you basically got like 100 words and then a sketch of the fossil and no one’s ever gone back and looked at them again. So all of those horrible looking early Carboniferous fossils are the most underrated ones. So that’s what I’m doing at the moment trying to re-describe a bunch of them, but I keep getting distracted by older fossils, and younger fossils and different kinds of fossils. So yeah, it’s very difficult to stay on track with my lovely Carboniferous fossil fish.

Jazmin: 1:17:21
So last question, how can people get in contact with you?

Sam: 1:17:27
Either by Twitter or by email, so I’m more than happy for people to get in touch so my my Twitter handle is GilesPalaeoLab and my email is S dot Giles dot 1 at bham dot ac dot UK. So yeah, I’m more than happy for people to email me or to DM me on Twitter, my dms are open. So get in touch if you have any questions or want to find out more about any of the things I talked about.

Nuzhat: 1:17:52
Thank you for being our guest. [Sam] Thanks for inviting me. [Jazmin] Thank you. And that’s it from us. If you enjoy this podcast, please like, subscribe, share and leave a review.

Jazmin: 1:18:06
If you have any feedback or want to get in touch with us, you can find us on whatonearthpodcast at gmail dot com or What On Earth Pod on Twitter, or What On Earth Podcast on Instagram.

Nuzhat: 1:18:19
See you next time!

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