Looking for people who don’t garden, and other unexpected PhD moments

Green Roof home garden IMG_0263

Lauriane Suyin Chalmin-Pui

I am coming to the end of my first year as a PhD student at the Landscape department and am looking for people who do not garden to answer my questionnaire.

This might seem an unusual move for someone who is doing a project on the impact of front gardens on health and well-being, especially as I am funded by, and working with, the Royal Horticultural Society. Rest assured, I already have plenty of responses from gardeners but I need to be able to compare this data with non-gardeners to better understand and isolate the therapeutic impacts of gardens and gardening.

Since I wrote my first blog post here in May 2016, my research has progressed well: I have read articles galore, interviewed over 20 gardeners, and have received over 5,000 survey responses. I have planned logistics, made research decisions and fine-tuned my expectations. I have had to abandon weaker ideas and go back on myself. So far, almost every week has been different, and I would like to centre this piece not on my research itself but on the experience of being a PhD student – the everyday, the inspiring, the perks, the dull days, and the downright unexpected.

Development, training, networking

Outside of research, the last ten months have mainly been about personal development, skills training, and professional networking. When not staring at a computer screen or poring over books, there have been many firsts for me: attending the Chelsea Flower Show, a poster presentation at the British Environmental Psychology Society, an oral presentation at the RHS PhD Symposium, learning to teach undergraduates, and forming a network of early- and mid-career researchers. These experiences were tasters of the many different directions I can go in, both during and after my PhD. For the time being, I am peering through as many doors as I can, enjoying the research, and keeping busy.

Along with two passionate scientists in the Animal and Plant Sciences department, Briony Norton and Olivia Richardson, we organised the first ever Urban Green Infrastructure symposium for early- and mid-career researchers at the University of Sheffield. It was an inspiring and heartwarming day; this tentative idea secured funding from Think Ahead and gathered 32 young researchers in one room. From eight departments across four faculties, it was a wonderfully interdisciplinary mix of PhD students and postdocs all working on various aspects of nature and natural processes in cities. An afternoon of expert presentations, collaborative chat, and the near-absence of supervisors created a stimulating atmosphere that we are hoping to repeat next year.

Keen to be on ‘the other side’ after so many years of being in the student’s seat, I applied to be a teaching assistant. Returning to my academic roots, I have led workshops for budding geographers on information and essay writing skills. Teaching has been a unique opportunity not only to learn the basics of design, delivery, feedback, and mentoring, but also to realise how much I have grown since my undergraduate days. I can only hope that my students feel that I have shared a few signposts for their respective journeys too.

Media engagement

Perhaps the most unexpected experience, especially at such an early stage of my PhD, has been my project’s media exposure. To help disseminate my questionnaire, I was interviewed by the BBC news science correspondent who wrote an article covering my research. Even when I saw my name and my project on the BBC website, I still couldn’t quite believe it. It was published around the time I was visiting several family members, who never fail to ask me when I am going to get a job, so I told them that “I’m still a student but I’m on the BBC!”. They were very proud.

On the back of the news article, I was then invited for a radio interview with BBC Coventry and Warwickshire. After a much-needed pep talk conference call with supervisors in two different corners of the country on a Friday afternoon, I did manage to speak slowly and articulately, but I need to practice saying “um” less! In an attempt to improve, I have now booked to attend a masterclass organised by the University of Sheffield on engaging the public through radio broadcasting.

Working alone

In a way, I have sole responsibility for my project. Yet, a huge inspiration that I constantly dip into are the people I have interacted with over the last year. I have been humbled by the number of friends, family members, and mostly strangers who have shared ideas, potential research directions, articles and reports; people who have given up their valuable time purely because they want to see the end result. I have also got a list of names of people who have been absolutely critical to the project’s progress. I use this as a last slide on presentations and the font size is constantly having to be decreased to fit them all on the screen. This is a far cry from the PhD isolation I had expected.  Yes, ultimately,  I still work alone day in and day out, and have very few benchmarks to set myself against, but I do feel surrounded by supervisors, peers, RHS colleagues and other interested people who are helping me at every stage. I am very thankful for that and am looking forward to the next two and a half years of talking about gardens all the time (sorry!).

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