On Legos, using Scottish pounds in Nepal and gender-unbiased science: Interview with Donna Yates

What’s better then Lego? Lego figurines doing research, of course. PhD Life talked to Dr Donna Yates, an archaeologist based at University of Glasgow, who is the creative mind behind Twitter profile @LegoAcademics.

lego pub

Lego Academics were born in the office. Do you still create them there? Has anyone stepped on a Lego yet?

I do still create them but at a much slower pace. They mostly happen when something absurd happens to me or to a colleague. Oddly I started feeling a lot of pressure to make more Lego vignettes which added to my other more normal academic pressures: I thought about making a scene about pressure to make scenes but thought that went a bit far. Luckily I realized that I wasn’t obligated to make them, they could be fun “sometimes” things. Very sometimes when I am super busy. As for anyone stepping on a LEGO? No, I was well trained by long suffering parents to keep my LEGO off the floor 🙂

Your post often address the nuisances of the office life, but are there any aspects of office work that you enjoy as much as field work?

Of course! Fieldwork is often more annoying than the office, but in ways that translate to fewer people. “The LEGOAcademics have salmonella”, “The LEGOAcademics were able to haggle their forced Mexican police bribe down to £3 from £100”, or “Nepal’s visa and immigration desk don’t believe that Scottish money is British money and won’t let the LEGOAcademics into the country” has limited appeal. I love my job, it’s the best. I love office things like writing, online investigation of cases, and most of all talking to colleagues and students. I get my best ideas in the office…or well, no. I get my best ideas in the shower. I get my second best ideas in the office and also refine the shower ideas there 🙂

lego admin

I assume research outside of the office can be tricky. Do you have fieldwork anecdotes or cautionary tales to share? 

Heh, see above. Don’t try to pay to enter Nepal with Scottish money. They will look at you like you are insane, not let you in, and you will end up standing there, gazing out towards the spine of the Himalaya, and thinking “well, heck”.
I think I have a reverse cautionary tale actually. One thing you will notice about the LEGOAcademics is that they are all women. That’s who they are, they just happen to be all women. I don’t make jokes about that, I like the subtlety. But in that vein I am a woman and since age 20, I have conducted much of my fieldwork mostly alone and since 2007 I’ve conducted all of my fieldwork alone. Belize, Bolivia, Nepal, whatever. I mostly travel alone as well: not that friends and family are excluded or anything, I just tend to like different holidays than they do (e.g. in a tent in rural Mexico). There is a strong sense out there that women shouldn’t travel alone. That it is dangerous somehow, more dangerous than a man travel alone. There is an assumption that women are weak, vulnerable targets. And women are taught to feel that way about solo traveling. That’s dumb. And sexist. And not my experience at all from 13 years of travel solo in some very difficult places. This idea that women must have a lesser experience of the world than men is something to fight against.

Lego Academics aim to normalise the idea of female scientist. How do you see the role of universities and academic services in supporting this agenda?

Difficult question. I’m not sure I have a solid answer for that. In a way I’ve been lucky. My experience of archaeology has been one of equal representation at all levels or actually an over representation of women at my level. In my current role in a criminology department, we are split down the middle male and female (although we have MANY more female graduate students than male) and my ‘chain of command’ up the university ladder is nearly all women at the moment. I feel well supported but that isn’t everyone’s experience. I wonder if people who have had bad experience or felt unsupported are the right people to ask.

lego girls

Are there any other toys or game sets you’d like to see gender-unbiased?

Gosh, all of them? I hate that “space” stuff is for boys these days. I loved space when I was a kid. I imagined that if the whole archaeology thing didn’t work out (I wanted to be an archaeologist since I was tiny), astronomy or astronaut was a good fall back plan 🙂 Yet clothes and toys that have rockets and planets seem to be flagged as boy stuff now in a way that I didn’t detect when I was growing up in the 80s. And dinos. Why are dinos boy things? And, in a world where many of our top chefs are men, why are lil’ kid ovens pink? I guess it isn’t specific toys that I want to see become gender-unbiased, it is topics.

You’ve described Dino as the mean voice in our heads pushing us to work harder. Is it a necessary evil? Should we hush it or embrace it?

Good question. I was up late last night with a case of the ‘dino voices’ fretting over the strength of an idea for a funding application. I am not sure he always pushes us to work harder, I think he is a lot of self doubt, of imposter syndrome. Of inadequacy. But, then again, if we can separate that voice from ourselves, exernalise it a bit, than maybe it does push us to work harder and better. It means it isn’t ME who thinks my funding application is crap (I actually think it is pretty great!). Embrace the voice to then ignore or discount the voice?

lego dino

Any advice you’d like to share with PhD students? 

Tons of it! Don’t make my mistakes! I can catalogue them 🙂 I suppose the underlying theme would be “this isn’t your supervisor’s job market” and your supervisor may not know how to get noticed, get hired, and start out as an early career researcher in the world we are in now. It isn’t their fault. But that means that, on top of everything else you do, you have to be super proactive about filling the gaps that your supervisor doesn’t provide for. At times, you have to defy your supervisor. For example, an advisor of mine who shall remain nameless (and who isn’t my wonderful PhD supervisor I should say) back in 2006/7 told me I was flat out wasting my time on “that blog stuff” because it was “a fad that is going to pass very soon”; “wasted writing” was the phrase used. It would have been rather easy to listen to that but thank goodness I didn’t, eh? I’m pretty sure I am where I am now because of “that blog stuff” in a number of respects. Seek alternative advice from your more informal networks. Become friends with very early stage career researchers: they may not be the top names in their field yet but they can help you get a sense of the current reality of going from PhD to PostDoc or Lecturer much more so than Professor so and so.

We’re grateful to Donna for her time and this great advice. If you’d like to see more Lego Academics adventures, follow @LegoAcademics profile. 🙂

Image credits: @LegoAcademics/CC-BY-NC-SA

Ana Kedveš  (@anakedves)

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