NAME: Dr. Sallie Burrough
Current title: Trapnell Fellow of African Environments, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
Area of expertise: Quaternary Science, Deserts, Long-term Ecology, Geochronology
Years of experience: 8 years since finishing PhD
Education: BA in Geography, MSc in Quaternary Science, Phil (PhD) in Kalahari Palaeolakes and Paleoenvironmental Change
What’s your job like?
Incredibly varied, sometimes brilliant, and occasionally deeply frustrating. In essence, I get paid to better understand the history of the Earth and how it works or, more specifically, to unpick a few hundred thousand years of climate change in Africa. Looking into the past is extremely cool – you get to spend time (metaphorically and literally) in landscapes and environments so different from today that it’s hard to sometimes imagine. We do this in lots of different ways, but mostly the information I acquire comes from sediments variously drilled, dug or augured out of the ground. There are many amazing adventures to be had extracting the “right” mud from some of the remotest corners of the Earth. There are also, however, a lot of tedious months spent in a laboratory (lab), some very boring committees, and a large dose of administration including too many health & safety documents (I run a lab with an interesting mixture of dangerous chemicals, lasers and radiation sources, all of which we use in the dark). I’m very fortunate to have a few exciting research projects on the go right now (www.sallieburrough.com/saltpans-and-palaeolakes.html ) and there is always something new to learn, although there are never quite enough hours in the day to do it all. In between the mud, data and meetings, I teach both graduates and undergraduates and manage a busy luminescence lab (www.geog.ox.ac.uk/research/landscape/old).
What’s your typical day like?
I usually get up at 6.30 a.m. and, against all better advice, eat breakfast in front of my laptop whilst trying to delete as many emails as possible. This, of course, is a mistake, as by the time I’ve cycled the 7 miles to work, there are already replies to red-flag. I try to ignore them until procrastination gets the better of me. Most days, there is some minor lab issue to deal with first thing in the morning before I get on with other things. These usually involve misbehaving machines or problems that students or our technician may be having with preparing or running samples. Beyond this, days are peppered with meetings, students and/or administration. In between, I try to work on my own research. Unlike many other geographical disciplines, even when we get the hard-fought mud back to the lab, it can be extremely time-consuming then getting information from it. Laboratory analyses are slow and tedious. I often have projects at all stages so must divide my time between lab work, data analysis, grant management and sometimes, when I’m lucky, writing papers. Multitasking isn’t my greatest asset but it’s hard to avoid. There are always people in and out of my office, so I tend to work from home if I need to concentrate. One of the best things about this job is that there is a huge amount of freedom and flexibility. The flip side is that the work is limitless and can consume as many hours in the day as I let it, often to the annoyance of other people in my life.
The truth be known, I’m afraid I’m probably happiest on my own with a spade and a pick-axe far away from other humans. For me, fieldwork (in my case in the lesser frequented corners of Zambia, Botswana and Namibia) is a precious time and serves as my respite from daily life every year. It offers me the space to think that I don’t often get at work or home. Usually, I’m out for a month to 6 weeks on various projects and however grueling the sampling schedule and difficult the conditions, it hardly ever feels like work. I wouldn’t swap this time with the sand and the jackals for anything. The other really great bits of the job come when the data finally emerges after many long months in the lab and I can, at last, begin making sense of what it all means. There is always a lot to learn and think about at this stage, and this is the really rewarding bit. In between, it’s the constant requirement to learn new things that probably keeps me happy. I frequently find myself having to dive in and understand whole new disciplines (with a little help from colleagues), or to teach myself how to use new software or programming languages in order to analyse something in a different way. I often don’t find this easy, but perhaps it is that challenge that keeps it interesting. I also enjoy helping the students in my lab tackle their own projects, grow in confidence and flourish as they become unafraid of the challenges that research throws up. I hope, in the end, I will learn as much from them as they can from me.
Time management. Your time is your own and, provided you continue to produce high-quality research and fulfil all your institutional responsibilities, no one much cares how you spend it. Work can surreptitiously seep into the rest of life and occasionally displace some of the other things I love (running, cycling, surfing, ….my family!). Getting the balance right isn’t always easy. I’m also about to become a mum for the first time and have just returned from the field at 8 months pregnant. Pregnant fieldwork has its own challenges though I am well aware this is only the beginning. Babies, lab and field science are likely to be a difficult mix. I’m lucky to have a very supportive Head of Department and Departmental Administrator but am conscious that academia is not very forgiving, and science still loses too many women at this stage in their lives/careers. I will need the support of my colleagues and family to keep moving forward.
What’s your advice for students?
Don’t be afraid of the things you don’t yet understand or know how to tackle but do work hard to try to get there. You’ll probably find the more effort you put into getting it right, the more effort your lecturers, tutors or supervisors will put into holding your hand along the way. Pursue the subjects you love. Don’t let the failures get you down – academia can be brutal, whatever stage you’re at – we all doubt ourselves some of the time (well…most of us!)