As conservation manager for the Mary Rose, Eleanor builds bridges between science, history and archaeology.
Grasping the meaning through theory and practice
With her enjoyment of chemistry and science increasing as she learnt more at school, Eleanor’s great interest was applying theory to practical sessions. When choosing her A-level options, she was drawn to science and this led her to study materials science at university. “The beauty of this subject, it seemed to me, was that it incorporated aspects of different science subjects and had a real application focus to it.”
Eleanor went on to study for her PhD at Imperial College London, where she specialised in synchrotron science – a technique used on archaeological wood to analyse problematic compounds that form acids. “I got a post-doc position at the University of Kent working on this, which got me involved in conservation and eventually led to my role at the Mary Rose Trust itself.”
“My job is ever-changing, with the goal posts moving constantly as we learn new things; that is what makes it so exciting.”
Eleanor has been conservation manager at the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth since 2012. The famous Tudor ship sank in 1545 and was discovered in 1971. Raised in 1982, she is now in the final stages of conservation. Eleanor is involved in overseeing the conservation of the hull and her many artefacts. Developing treatments, analysing materials and monitoring the stability of storage and display conditions, Eleanor conducts research into new conservation methodologies.
Finding the best way to protect the Mary Rose so she is available for the public to view for years to come, Eleanor describes to be a huge challenge: “Each object is unique and culturally valuable; any tests we do on them can’t damage them.” The hull has been sprayed with a polymer to reinforce the wood since its excavation in 1982 and has now entered a critical phase of controlled air drying. Eleanor has been tasked with preparing the ship and establishing suitable monitoring methods: from measuring the moisture and movement to monitoring chemical variability.
“What I really love about my job is being able to apply scientific principles to a real-life context or problem. The Mary Rose is unique and presents us with many challenges. People are often surprised to hear how much science goes on at the Mary Rose and I find it particularly rewarding when I excite and enthuse people who normally would say things like, ‘I don’t understand science' or 'science is boring!’”
“At the Mary Rose Trust, we have the unique opportunity to show people the unexpected areas that a science education can get you into."
“Well done you’re a female AND a scientist”
Often referred to as a female scientist not just a scientist, Eleanor questions why people need to make her gender relevant. “Unfortunately you often see women in science try to mould themselves to what people expect them to be, rather than sticking to who they are, and embracing all that being a woman in science involves. I think this is a real shame and makes it harder for everyone involved to accept women as they are.”
From her own experience, Eleanor recognises the importance of positive role models to the future generation. Professor Mary Ryan, her PhD supervisor, plays a huge role in her life: “I have always looked up to Mary - she has managed to have an incredibly successful career whilst staying true to who she is.”
The Mary Rose Trust employs people from all types of trades, but Eleanor does find that certain people are expected to do specific jobs. Aiming to reduce this, she shares the work load between people as much as possible. Even Eleanor herself has to realise her own limits: “When working in the ship hall, I have had to swallow my pride and get taller/stronger people to help me sometimes.”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images © Anne Purkiss / Royal Society of Chemistry
Published April 2015