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From Art to Science - A postgraduate story

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7 May 2019

Doing an MSc at Harper isn’t just for those with a scientific bachelor’s degree – and our recent piece profiled some of the current students from an arts and humanities background bridging the gap. There are also some notable success stories from Harper alumni who made an arts-to-science shift and have gone on to thrive in their new field.

Katrina Dainton graduated from MSc Integrated Pest Management with Distinction in 2014 – five years after completing a BA (Hons) in Fine Art from the University of Lancaster.

“I didn’t particularly enjoy science or maths at school and they weren’t my most successful subjects. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that my academic career focussed on art and humanities: A levels in Art, English Lit and Politics, then a BTEC Diploma in Art and Design Foundation Studies, and on to university to study Fine Art. Those three years in Lancaster were mostly spent in the studio drawing, painting, printing and sculpting increasingly surrealist and perhaps eccentric art pieces.

“Halfway through my Art degree I realised a career as a commercial artist wasn’t for me, which led to a slight panic about job prospects and alternative careers. Luckily I found my way into a house and collection care and conservation role at the National Trust. I spent five, mostly happy, years working in three incredible NT properties, getting to go behind the ropes and learn the secrets of the buildings and their collections. The most magical times were in the quiet hours before the visitors arrived or in the depths of winter when we constructed scaffold towers and tall ladders to carefully inspect all the rooms and clean the objects using hog and pony hair brushes and hand-held vacuum cleaners.

It was through collections care that Katrina first encountered Entomology and Integrated Pest Management (IPM). “In fact, I can still remember the exact moment”, she says. “It was in the Dining Room at Dyrham Park, when I spotted my first two-spot carpet beetle (Attagenus pellio) walking along the skirting board. I decided to learn more about these small creatures which caused havoc in collections and got involved in the pest monitoring and management programme.”

A few months later, when she moved to my next job at a new property, it was discovered that environmental control issues had caused a number of insect pest problems. Unfortunate for the collection but good for Katrina’s developing focus and interest, and she was able to develop an extensive monitoring system, enlist the help of IPM consultants and write detailed records of pest findings, dates and activity.

“I became so fascinated by this aspect of my job that I wondered about specialising in IPM for museums and collections, and started investigating potential training courses”, says Katrina. “My search led me to discover the MSc run by Simon Leather at Harper Adams University (HAU). Without any science credentials I thought my chance of being accepted on the Masters was very slim, but decided to attend an open day to find out more, so in May 2013 I drove seven hours to Shropshire and spent the day at HAU.

“I was enthused by what I saw and heard, and was astonished to hear that Simon and entomology lecturer Tom Pope were happy for me to apply without first obtaining any science-related training. A few days later I took the plunge and applied for a full-time place on the course starting that September. Happily I was accepted, and also received the IPM bursary from the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) which was a huge help financially and meant that I could concentrate on the MSc without having to get a part-time job.”

On starting the course, perhaps not unsurprisingly, Katrina had to face an initial learning curve. “I had never read a scientific paper in my life, wasn’t familiar with any of the basic biological vocabulary, and I couldn’t even work out how to use a microscope properly. The first week was fairly overwhelming but it also felt amazing to be learning again – so I got stuck in, borrowing books from the library, spending my evenings reading papers, making notes and starting assignments weeks before they were due in. It was all very different from my undergrad experience, but I liked that we were encouraged to question everything, and to discover that the answers weren’t necessarily straightforward.”

Once the culture shock was over, things quickly picked up. “The modules flew past, and I surprised myself with the intensity of my studying and the promising results that my hard-work returned. The fellow students were a varied bunch from a whole host of backgrounds but proved friendly, generous and enthusiastic with their ideas, knowledge and support. Insects proved to be more incredible than I had ever given them credit for and within just a few weeks I was well and truly converted to entomology. Amazingly I even enjoyed the statistics module; maths was so much more interesting when used to decipher stories from data.”

Of course, not everything proved entirely plain sailing. “The exams were not my strong point and even though I revised, my results were pretty abysmal. Luckily I was able to turn this blip around with the research project module, which I hugely enjoyed. I relished the challenges that arose – from finding the right questions to ask and using the right data analysis methods, to clambering over a field site collecting weevils and spending weeks measuring feeding rates and observing weevil behaviour – it certainly kept me on my toes. “The final write up was a long slog, and I was probably far too perfectionist about the finished tome, which to my mum’s despair I kept working on right up to the wire. Luckily I managed to submit it on time, with the invaluable help of Heather Hogan (Postgraduate Office Manager), who should be awarded a medal for keeping calm and being supportive in times of crisis!”

Doors have opened for Katrina since finishing the MSc, enabling her change of direction to be completed. “Since I graduated from HAU I have been very lucky to have found entomology jobs, firstly with Natural England in the Wyre Forest and for the last nearly four years at Forest Research’s Northern Research Station near Edinburgh. My current job in forest insect pest research focusses on alternative and biological control methods and is an ideal mix of desk-based planning and writing, running lab-based experiments, conducting and monitoring field experiments on forest sites and attending meetings and conferences to share and discuss our work.

“Although the move into science and entomology was daunting, working with insects will never get boring and I am glad I made the career change. But I also don’t regret my time studying art or working in collections care, as both of these helped me develop observational skills and dexterity which have proven invaluable to my work as an entomologist.”

By Gary Hartley

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