Lora V Angelova
LORA V ANGELOVA, CONSERVATION SCIENTIST
NATIONAL ARCHIVES, KEW
LIFE INSIDE THE LAB
What is your work/research topic? I am a chemist specializing in cultural heritage conservation, and within that tiny sphere, I specialize in surface cleaning, i.e. studying the effects of conservation cleaning treatments on the artworks, and investigating and designing new cleaning systems for conservation (for example, gels!). NB, I am not a conservator, but I work closely with conservators in museums. I also carry out a lot of day-to-day analytical work for the conservation department, primarily using FTIR and GC/MS. This work involves analysing dust-sized samples collected from artworks to determine the types of materials the artist used.
Lora V Angelova is a conservation scientist at the National Archives.
What was your best day of science? Tough one, there are so many! One that comes to mind is during my first post-doc, whilst analysing a slew of new data, slowly coming to the realisation that a very big statement I had been making over the past 5 years (along with many others in field) is unlikely to be correct. It was great because I was disproving something widely accepted, that I had been buying into for years. It was the scientific process in action – we had made a reasonable assumption and it turned out not to be valid, and now we had to figure out why.
What was your worst day in science? The day that I realised some labs have a culture of presenting only the positive data, and hiding the rest; the day that I was asked by collaborators to design experiments which were more likely to show the results we were seeking; the day that my work was plagiarised; and the day that I found some of my data had been taken, manipulated to show the desired results, and used by a collaborator. Basically, any day that I breaks my trust in science and fellow scientists, and causes me to think twice when I read anything in the literature.
What did/are you study at university? I started as a biology major at Case Western Reserve University and changed to chemistry after falling in love with the subject in Organic Chemistry class (I really enjoyed drawing mechanisms and making things). I did a PhD at Georgetown in Chemistry under joint supervision of a professor of chemistry and a senior scientist at the National Gallery of Art.
What does your average day look like? I cycle into work, parse through emails and the start working. This means 1 of 3 things – I (1) fire up the analytical instruments and check what samples need to be analysed, look at the artwork files to learn a bit about them, and begin analysing and interpreting; or (2) meet with one of our conservators to discuss a current case study in a big project on new methods for cleaning modern and contemporary art and we set-up mock-ups, or test cleaning systems, and evaluate the results; or (3) write, write, write all day – blogs, manuscripts, reports, etc. And then I cycle home (or to the bouldering gym).
What are some of the highlights of your career? Figuring out what I want my career to be was certainly a big one! Being able to do my PhD with my two mentors was a dream! Getting a Clare Boothe Luce fellowship for my PhD, working on any artwork (but some more than others ;-), being invited to give talks or workshops and talks anywhere – Getty, Tate, Bulglarian Academy of Conservation, etc., being awarded the Newton International Fellowship so that I could re-locate to England… and of course, every time I publish I am through the roof. My current post-doc is the culmination of my career dreams – working on contemporary art and surface cleaning at Tate?! I couldn’t have made that up. My most recent career highlight was realising that at conferences, I no longer have to go up to people and introduce myself to network… people now come up to me, which is so fulfilling somehow.
What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job? A Hirox digital microscope with a 2500x magnification and 3D imaging possibilities. There’s nothing quite like looking at the surface of a painting through a microscope, I can spend days doing that.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF LAB
Where did you grow up? I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria; when I was 7 and shortly after the wall came down, we moved to Budapest, Hungary for 2 years, then back to Bulgaria for 1 year. My mum was then awarded a fellowship to pursue a PhD in linguistics at SUNY Buffalo, so we immigrated in the mid-90s. After she finished her studies, my mum found an assistant prof job at Cleveland State, so we moved to Cleveland where I started high school. I count myself as a citizen of the world, sorry Ms T May.
What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? I wanted to be a paleontologist from the start. Then that changed to medical illustrator for a while.
What do you do to relax outside of lab? I knit, bicycle constantly, and boulder
Do you have any pets? Yes, a cat called Dimitri
Do you have any fun hobbies? Yes, they’re all the things I do for relaxing J
If you want to talk about your family, what is your family life? How did your family develop alongside your career? At a very boozy after-work drinks, I met a summer intern from the National Gallery of Art, DC about 3 years into my PhD… we had a shotgun wedding a few months later. He was British and wanted to do his MA in London, and I wanted to move to Europe, so it worked out well – he waited for me to finish my degree and then we moved to England so that he could do his. Marriage seems to be a lot like doing a PhD.
Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? My grandfather was a food quality chemist and used to take me to his work sometimes – I remember clearly going to a wine bottling plant and getting to take home some funky labels and some laboratory glass beads. I was always a very curious and methodically-minded child and happily, no one in my family or early education discouraged my science geekiness as ‘unfeminine’.
Why were you drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? How close was your schooling related to your current job? I was born in the early 80s in Eastern Europe, where this nasty obsession with ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ toys, clothes, and activities was not very pronounced (in communist times, women could pursue any career – don’t get me wrong, they were still expected to do second shift at home – but they were also encouraged to be engineers, truck drivers, or dentists like my grandmother for example). I wore a lot of clothes in primary colours, played with whatever was available (mainly outdoors), and happily developed into what some in the West might have called a tomboy. In the 90s, after moving to the USA, when I started to form an idea about what subjects I liked in school, this mindset allowed me to feel perfectly comfortable in science and math classes (it never occurred to me that these were not ‘subjects appropriate for women’). The only other path I ever considered was art-related, but not as an artist – I never felt creative enough for that. Instead, I was interested in technical art-related fields like design, print-making, and medical illustration. I studied for a BA (rather than BS) in chemistry so that I could enrol in as many applied art and art history courses as possible. After that, I found out that heritage science is a field that would simultaneously allow me to be a scientist and work with art, and I was sold; the PhD followed immediately on the heels of that discovery.
What was your biggest challenge during your degree? Imposter syndrome, learning to network, not being taken seriously as a woman scientist – this one also relates to experiencing sexual harassment in the lab and feeling disempowered to report it.
What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? I just wanted to be at the top of my nerd-game. I’ve always been very competitive and I wanted to finish this academic challenge to the end with top honours and all.
What is your best advice for girls interested in science? We all feel like imposters to some extent. I asked my mum about this when I was struggling with it during my PhD. She said, ‘I’m in my 50s and a well-respected full professor in my field, and I still feel like an impostor.’ Don’t let that get you down. Find other strong and clever women and minorities in your field and work together to persevere through the worst of it. Also, find some hobbies to get your mind free from work – always set time aside for that. One day, you might find that those hobbies start to take up more of your time/interest than your academic work; this seems to be pretty normal of women in science. Don’t let that make you feel like an impostor either. You don’t have to have a one-track mind to be a successful scientist.
Are there any women in STEM who are inspiring you right now, and why? Stevie Bergman @ Princeton – for juggling an astrophysics degree, a fabulous radio show, and political activism. My close friend Eleni Petrou @ University of Seattle, WA for juggling a degree in marine population genetics, activism, teaching, traveling, mountaineering, climbing-yoga-and-capoeira-ing, and being an all-around super-woman. There is also endless list of women in my field (heritage conservation science is extremely woman-dominated).
If you left academia, what was the biggest hurdle you had moving to industry/other? Getting over the idea that I was letting down all young women in the world by being yet another statistic of a woman who’d obtained a PhD, completed a few post-docs, and then left academia. I hate that guilt trip… can we please stop that one?
Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? Because once we see more women in STEM being treated fairly, equally, and not getting harassed, we will have a sure indicator that women in society are being treated fairly and equally and are not being deterred from pursuing their intersects because of outdated gender norms.
What is your favorite book? Ada or Ardour by Nabokov (also, anything by Nabokov), A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, The Tin Drum by GünterGrass, and anything by David Foster Wallace, Henry Miller, and Kurt Vonnegut
What is your favorite desk snack? fruit
What is your favorite cartoon? Achewood. I also really enjoy comics by Stephen Collins
What would you listen to while writing? Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Gaussian Curve, Botany, Made of Oak, Ratatat’s 9 Beats
What was your favorite subject in high school? Art
What is the strangest thing on your desk right now? Probably Paul Coombs’s business card which has a giant dildo on it.
Organization nut, or curated chaos? The former, with occasional lapses into the latter.
Any other fun fact about you… I used to have an imaginary friend who lived in a living room which was inside my head (i.e. rather than a brain, I believed my skull contained a living room)
What color socks are you wearing? Yellow, home-knit socks