Written by Monica Grady
I was privileged to have a Visiting Fellowship at the IAS in Epiphany Term 2010. It was a little different from other Fellowships, as it was a joint appointment with my husband, Ian Wright both invited by Professor Martin Ward, then Director of Science at the IAS. We were both Professors of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University, both focussing our research on the action of fluids in the Solar System, but each taking our studies in different (if complementary) directions. The IAS Theme for 2009-2010 was Water – and by one of those wonderful coincidences, there was a concert in the Cathedral by the Durham Choral Society featuring Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony. January 2010 was bitterly cold – and the interior of the Cathedral was not much warmer than the exterior. But the ethereal voices of the music provided an uplifting and memorable start to the Fellowship. The Fellowship itself was sheer, unadulterated joy. I left behind the shackles of administration, teaching, proposal writing and exam questions to submerge myself in scholarship: reading, writing, talking, listening – and, above all, learning. I worked on an extended essay about life on Earth and Mars, which (perhaps ironically) has since contributed to some of my subsequent teaching materials.
What have I done in the decade since I was at Durham? Almost everything in the university cosmos: administration, research, science communication teaching, – and REF. Almost certainly not as much research as I would have wished. Four years (2011-2015) were occupied as Chair of the Department of Physical Sciences, a new department and position created from the merger of Physics and Astronomy with Planetary and Space Sciences and parts of Chemistry and Earth Sciences. The admin associated with establishing the department was almost monumental – and I am grateful to my students and postdocs who kept me in touch with the research world whilst I battled with the tedious (but necessary) world of academic management.
Part of my efforts in science communication has been my commitment to making science more accessible to a range of audiences – and I have enjoyed a really fruitful relationship with the blogsite ‘The Conversation’. This was established in 2014, with the strapline ‘Academic Rigour, Journalistic Flair’ – the idea being that an academic writes an article (across the entire gamut of subject areas) and it is then edited by a professional journalist to dilute too high a concentration of jargon. It is a much better system than an academic providing a few nuggets of information to a journalist, who writes the story, almost inevitably getting things wrong! I am currently working on a collection of my short essays, Conversation Pieces.
There have been real highlights. For example, I was surprised and extremely honoured to be appointed a CBE for my service to space science in the Queen’s Jubilee Honours of 2012, also to be awarded the Coke Medal of the Geological Society, and an Honorary Degree from Liverpool Hope University for services to Science Communication.
More specific research successes came from publication of my textbook ‘An Atlas of Meteorites’ by Cambridge University Press. I had been finalising the edited text at Durham, so its publication was another memory of working at Cosin’s Hall.
Publication of journal papers has continued, on fluids in asteroids and cometary dust, but my research again slowed up when I was asked to be Academic Lead for the Open University’s REF2021 submission. This has been a fascinating experience, as it allowed me to become involved in preparation of all the required documentation, reading and commenting on outputs and impact cases from all our Schools and Departments. Some of the most interesting were those from areas furthest away from my own research – seeing the sheer range of OU research. All that was put on hold with the COVID pandemic, but I was kept busy even so, as I was asked to co-ordinate our research into the effects of COVID. The OU was not doing vaccine research, but we are leading experts in distance teaching and learning, so were advising many institutions in the UK and overseas about the most effective avenues of remote education. We also used our expertise to investigate mental health issues around isolation and the effects of lockdown on different social and ethnic groups.
That apart, my research has focussed on the fluvial history of Mars, and I seem to be spending more and more time in groups planning Mars missions. Currently, I am on a joint ESA-NASA panel tasked with designing the ground facility to receive samples from Mars – which will be in 2032 – so only 11 years to go! I published a review paper on why more samples from Mars are needed, and what they might tell us.
REF2021 rolls on at national level – I am Deputy Chair of the Physics Sub-Panel, so am now immersed in reading outputs from the physics community. This is where working at home is a bonus, because I can read without interruption. But it is also where working at home is a disadvantage, as I miss the corridor and common room chatter. It is just not the same over Zoom! At least our campus is currently opening up. I have had a couple of sessions back in the lab, at my microscope and mass spectrometer, analysing the meteorite that fell in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire at the start of the year. It is a very rare and precious sample from the fringes of the asteroid belt, even if it looks like a barbecue briquette!
Returning to memories of Durham: I am an alumna of St Aidan’s – an Aidan’s Maiden from 1976-1979 – and I took the opportunity to re-visit the old stamping grounds with my husband – which seemed mainly to be pubs … We were hosted at St Mary’s College and had an office in Cosin’s Hall. To get from one to the other, the shortest route was through the Cathedral. As mentioned, it was bitterly cold that year – snow lay on the ground until the end of February, and the snowdrops were only just coming out at Mary’s in the middle of March. We had a wonderful walk into work each day – through the woods, over Prebend’s Bridge, with a final stroll through the cloisters to emerge on Palace Green. Unforgettable. I was delighted to be appointed to the Advisory Board of the IAS, and I am sorry that current circumstances have prevented me from visiting Durham more frequently. But, not that I’m dropping any hints here, I would be delighted to return whenever invited …