Being a researcher in a climate of change and anxiety

Jenny Watts is a PhD Researcher at the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. Her research focuses on developing novel remote sensing techniques using drones and satellites to improve our understanding of the impact of sea ice on air-sea exchange of carbon-dioxide in the polar oceans. This is Jenny’s blog on conducting research in the face of the climate emergency.

The first year of my PhD has occurred against a backdrop of climate emergency declarations, climate protests and climate strikes. As a researcher in this field it has been amazing to see so many people want to effect real change. At the same time this has led to an increase in climate anxiety, caused in part by a feeling of hopelessness as an individual to make a difference. This is exactly how I feel.

I’ve been told the best way to combat climate anxiety is to feel like you’re at least ‘doing something’ to try and tackle it.  This can mean reducing flying, eating less meat, lobbying your local MP on green issues or switching to green energy suppliers. Some of these are more difficult to implement than others but they are all actions I can take in my personal life – but what about my PhD research?

I have to say that my mind-set during the first year of my PhD has definitely changed.  I have become increasingly aware that my actions as a researcher are not without an impact on the environment. While I know some researchers can justify their (often large) carbon footprints as being ‘for the greater good’ I am becoming increasingly less comfortable with this justification. It has become important for me to feel I am trying my best to align my actions as a researcher with my beliefs – to try and set the best example I can, but this is not without challenges.

On Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, holding an iceberg.

Implementing the same steps within my PhD that I can take in my personal life has at times felt difficult. For example, travel is a major component of the carbon budget of a research project, including getting to fieldwork sites, conferences, meetings and courses. The expectation that you undertake these activities is there, and as someone early in their career looking to make important connections it can be very difficult to differentiate between what opportunities can be missed and what needs to be attended. University wide guidance for early career researchers wishing to reduce their carbon footprint remains limited. Individual choices often come down to a supervisor’s stance on the topic (Shout out to my supervisor for being particularly on it in this case).

It’s not all doom and gloom though! If you are looking to reduce your footprint where possible there are actions you can take, including:

  • Travelling by train where possible (try or
  • Using a carbon footprint calculator to become aware of your impact and aid decision making
  • Looking for opportunities closer to home – is there a similar conference in Europe instead of further afield?
  • Attending events remotely where possible
  • If flying is unavoidable what else can you do to give the trip value? For example is there anyone else you can meet with? can you add a holiday on? (I can highly recommend the latter)

Snorkelling in the Mediterranean near Crete during a pre-course holiday

It’s also important to remember there will likely be things you have to do which have a high carbon footprint (for example I have to get to the Arctic/Antarctica at some point, I don’t plan to swim there…). There are also opportunities you should take – for example if the one great conference for your subject is in New Zealand and you have an opportunity to present your research you can’t spend the whole time feeling bad about going. For me it’s all about balance, and while trying to find this can sometimes feel difficult and overwhelming I think we are starting to take steps in the right direction.


Written by: Jennifer Watts

Encountering Emotional Conflict during My Research Fieldwork

Isabel Sawkins is a History PhD student investigating the contemporary memorialisation of the Holocaust in the Russian Federation. One of the chosen case studies is the Russian national exhibition, “Tragedy. Valour. Liberation”, at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

As a descendant of Austrian Jews, and more generally as a human-being, I knew that conducting research at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum was going to be an upsetting experience. My grandmother refuses to go because she doesn’t think she would be able to cope, and those of my friends who have visited note that the trip was so harrowing that it still resonates with them to this very day. I was therefore somewhat prepared for the personal distress of entering this site.

Walking into the museum was an emotional challenge; I was stood on a site that I had read extensively about for years, and at first I couldn’t take in the enormity of where I was. Yet, whilst I experienced this struggle, it didn’t necessarily seem to be the case for all of the tourists I observed at the site. I would go so far as to argue that some of them failed to treat it with the same respect that I did; indeed, there is a distinction in Holocaust studies between Holocaust pilgrims and Holocaust tourists, groups who are motivated to visit these sites of mass atrocity for different reasons. There were several distinct incidents during which the behaviour of others really distressed me. The effect that the behaviour of tourists would have on me was not something that I had envisaged, and I was thoroughly unprepared for this upset.

The first incident was on my first day. I had visited the Russian national exhibition for four hours and was rather overwhelmed, so decided to slowly work my way towards the exit and head back to the city. I wanted to visit the crematorium before I left, for a moment of peaceful reflection. I was in that building for one minute, contemplating in eerie silence, before a British tour walked in and one of the tourists noted in a rather shrill voice “Oh, it’s a little chilly in here, isn’t it?” The irony of this comment in what used to be a crematorium obviously did not register. As I left the crematorium, I saw two tourists sat, eating pączki, Polish doughnuts, on the ledge outside the exit to the building. Nothing about being on those grounds made me want to consume any food; if anything, my appetite was suppressed by the location. I have no shame in admitting that I spent that evening crying, completely overwhelmed by what I had seen that day.

The final incident was with my parents, who came to visit me in Kraków in early November. I showed them around both the museum of Auschwitz I and the grounds of Birkenau; the latter site has no museum, but is rather just the ruins of the barracks and crematoria. Upon entering the site of Birkenau, I spotted a group of tourists lying across the train tracks, which has come to be a quintessential Instagram picture at the site.

(The train tracks at Birkenau. AP Press)

These tourists were posing à la Burt Reynolds, smiling and laughing for their friends behind the camera. I couldn’t help myself and approached them, to enquire why they thought that this was an appropriate way to behave at a Jewish cemetery and remind them that Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a site to acquire Instagram likes.

The sites themselves have more directly requested that tourists stop taking selfies, with Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum noting in a tweet in 2019, “When you come to @AuschwitzMuseum remember you are at the site where over 1 million people were killed. Respect their memory.”[1] However, others, such as Günter Morsch, former director of the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, considered selfies at the sites positive developments. He argued that “’Selfies’ are a part of today’s cultural experience and the virtualization of the world…In the virtual world, people try to integrate an authentic place into part of their own image and that’s actually something positive.”[2]

I have not yet come to terms with how I truly feel about what I saw, but I would be lying to myself if I said that it did not have a major impact on me. Yet, in spite of this, I have to remember that my time at Auschwitz-Birkenau was of extreme value to my research: I was offered an invaluable insight into how the institution of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum works, an insight that I would never have had access to had I not spent my time there. It has answered many questions I had about the exhibition, as well as raising others which will be answered in an upcoming trip to Russia later this year, and I am incredibly grateful to the SWW DTP for making this possible.


Written by: Isabel Sawkins

Twitter: @IssySawkins

Credit: SWWDTP


[1] Quoted in: Sarah Hucal, ‘When a selfie goes too far: How Holocaust memorial sites around Europe combat social media disrespect’, ABC News, 30 March 2019 <> [accessed 13 February 2020].

[2] Ibid.