Sibling Rivalry…

Categories PGR, Research

This month saw our PhD student and resident lover-of-puns, Sam Griffiths take his viva. Readers of our old blog will remember that Sam has spent a number of years investigating the effect of submersion of bone in water. It was a complex piece of research which sought to bring together a range of analytical methods. He did experimental work, field work, scanning, all sorts. Wonderfully, he aced his viva, and is now Dr Sam Griffiths!

Sam was based primarily at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, but co-supervised here at Teesside and also at Durham. A true example of cross-disciplinary research with Sam sitting in the centre of a Venn diagram made of sediment dynamics, forensic science and archaeology. The other noteworthy aspect of Sam’s PhD was that he was supervised by me and my sister.

Despite being the less academically gifted sibling, Dr Charlie Thompson studied marine science as an undergrad and stayed in Southampton to develop a successful academic career in sediment dynamics and coastal erosion. Her work has taken her all over the place, and she’s worked out in China, in Venice and even the North Sea! She spends a considerable time on boats, which sounds positively horrific to me, but her work is important and is highly impactful.

Despite Charlie being the less hilarious sibling, we have always got on really well. We’re actually quite similar in many ways, although I still find it interesting that we’ve both ended up in academia. We don’t come from an academic background; no-one in our family are lecturers or teachers, and we’re first generation University-goers. I can only think that we both have enquiring minds and like discovering new things. An outcome of this though, is that with 100% of her children having doctorates, our mother thinks that doing a PhD is easy…

Despite Charlie being the shorter sibling, once we were in permanent academic posts, we often chatted about how much fun it’d be to do a research project together. It took us ages to find anything appropriate, but naturally when it came, it was my idea… When I was in Dundee, I had a particularly challenging piece of casework – a single human vertebra washed up on the beach. I realised that there was nothing that we could say about how it had got there, and a review of the literature underlined the paucity of publications on bones in the sea, rivers and lakes. As an island-dweller, that struck me as ridiculous. A fledgling project was born!

Despite Charlie being the less sartorially elegant sibling, Charlie works with equipment that specifically examines the effect of sediments in flowing water. We decided to start with something fairly simple – what happens to bone when it is bombarded by sediments. We figured that if we could spot features on the bone, maybe we could differentiate between bones that had been moved in rivers and those that had not. Some experiments later – and out popped a paper. But as is ever the case, these things generate more questions. How, we thought, could one differentiate between abrasion from moving sediment and other hole-based features in bone? More experiments, that’s how! And another paper. Now that we had demonstrated the potential of our approach, we realised that what was needed now was a large-scale study to take this work further.

Despite Charlie being the less articulate sibling, she was successful in getting a funded PhD studentship. We appointed Sam and through the use of Skype were able to set him off in the necessary direction despite the distance between his three supervising universities. And he did a brilliant job. This was a technically demanding project, which involved some tough decisions – which is often the case when you’re embarking on a new area of research. Now that he’s finished, Dr Sam can look back at an impressive body of published work too.

Despite Charlie being the less glamorous sibling, this work also got her on TV. I have a tendency to think that working with me rescues people’s research from the academic doldrums, and I’m pretty sure that Charlie would agree here. To be fair I’ve turned off the ‘Add Comments’ function of this blog so there’s no way for her to actually write her agreement, but I think we can safely assume… Anyway, Charlie and Sam featured in a gripping Channel 4 documentary ‘The Mystery of the Crossrail Skulls’, where frankly, they resolved the issue in question so well using their research and kit that the rest of the programme after their piece is largely redundant. Nevertheless it’s a great example of research resolving actual questions from the field. It’s also one of the strongest pieces of genuine multidisciplinary work I’ve had the pleasure of working on.

Despite Charlie being the less charming sibling, this whole ‘co-supervise-a-PhD-student-with-you-sister’ thing has worked out really well. The research we’ve published is much stronger and more important than I expected it to be, and it’s being used in a wide variety of interesting contexts which we hadn’t even considered (quarternary studies, I’m looking at you!). But it’s also been rewarding to see my sister at work. It’s unusual, I think, to see your sibling in their work environment, and she’s really good at it! You get a particular image in your head about your sibling and it’s hard to shift. Mine is of her as a PhD student up to her elbows in mud. But that’s clearly not true anymore, and working with your sibling is a good way to appreciate them for the adult they are now. I mean, there’s no way I could study what she does, and frankly I barely understand her equation-heavy research publications. It’s been such a pleasure to see her at work, and I look forward to carrying on our joint research in the future.

God, that got decidedly un-British. To end it off then, I guess I can say that Charlie has inspired me too. Since she’s our mother’s clear favourite I’ve been driven to do my best to outshine my sister on the academic stage. Which I do. Every. Single. Day.

I’m a Professor of Applied Biological Anthropology at Teesside University.