Executive Officer at The Palaeontological Association, Jo Hellawell @JoHellawell: A Day in the GeoLife Series


Jo looking at a fossil plant in Patagonia. Copyright Jo Hellawell

NAME: Jo Hellawell

CURRENT TITLE: Executive Officer, The Palaeontological Association (PalAss)

AREA OF EXPERTISE: My research has been in both geochemistry and palaeontology. I have held various technical and administrative posts.

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 15+ years in Earth sciences, but not quite two in my current position

EDUCATION: I have a BSc (Hons) in Geology from the University of Edinburgh, an MSc in Environmental Geochemistry from the University of Leeds, and a PhD from Trinity College Dublin where I used geochemistry to investigate fossils.

WEBSITE: http://www.palass.org

What’s your job like?

Very varied! The job description for my post was the longest I’d ever seen. I deal with all sorts of different things to do with running the society every day. I also deal with different people every day including the PalAss members, publishers, grant applicants and awardees, investment brokers, accountants, and members of the general public. It can be really hectic. There are a lot of different things to juggle and prioritise. I have a very varied background, having worked in administrative and finance jobs as a temp, selling merchandise part-time to earn extra money during my PhD, and working as a full-time editor. I never thought there would be a job that would encompass all of my previous experience! Even my kitchen hand and waitressing skills come in handy when I’m feeding our outreach team. I’m not a big fan of routine, so it suits me that the job is so varied.

What’s a typical day like?

There isn’t really a typical day. If I’m in the office, there are always a lot of e-mails to deal with so I tend to start my day trying to push back the tide in my inbox. At the moment, e-mails are often to do with different projects and initiatives the PalAss Council are working on or helping with the organisation of the PalAss Annual Meeting. Then there are always enquiries about our grants and students applying for travel funds, as well as some quirky queries from journalists and the public. My duties during the rest of the day vary and can include aspects of finance, sales, meetings organisation and logistics, public engagement and outreach, website maintenance, and social media. Sadly, there are not usually many rocks and fossils in my day, other than those I see in the PalAss journals and on Twitter.

fossil tree

Jo and a silicified fossil tree by the Columbia River, Washington State, USA. Copyright Jo Hellawell

What’s fun?

I enjoy helping people so dealing with queries is fun. Some of the quirkier questions can be difficult to find answers for, but I like doing a bit of research for those. It’s exciting seeing new projects under development, such as the two new Field Guides to Fossils currently in production and helping put in place new initiatives thought up by the PalAss Council. I really enjoy going to conferences to talk to delegates about society membership and publishing in the PalAss journals.

What’s challenging?

Packing everything into the working week is difficult as there is always so much to do. I try to make sure I keep all the plates spinning, but sometimes it’s impossible. There are always some good challenges when things I haven’t had to do before come up, such as putting together a new contract, changing our online payment system, or working out how to meet new Charity Commission guidelines or data protection laws. It can sometimes be difficult to switch between the many different hats I wear. As the only full-time member of staff, my duties scale from minor and pedestrian admin to important and responsible onerous tasks.

What’s your advice to students?

Don’t be afraid to try new things or do something different than other people; be your own version of success. Also, a good career isn’t just about the work you do, it’s also about the people you meet and collaborate with, so grasp any opportunities that come along to network with new people. Try and get to know new people at every conference you go to and don’t just stick with the people from your own institution. You never know what these meetings will instigate: sometimes much-needed friendship and understanding as you navigate a PhD, sometimes new fieldwork experiences or joint projects, and sometimes new ideas and directions in which to take your research. I would advocate not only joining a learned society like the PalAss but becoming involved with it wherever possible, for example contributing to the newsletter or volunteering on the outreach team. It’s good to be part of the wider community and you’ll find you get back more than you give.


Jo on the PalAss stand ready to chat with delegates at the European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontologists (EAVP) last summer in Teylers Museum, the Netherlands. Copyright Jo Hellawell

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