Dr Robyn Veal BSc (1983) BA(HONS) (2005) PhD (2009)

Dr Robyn Veal

Dr Robyn Veal BSc (1983) BA(HONS) (2005) PhD (2009), post-doctoral honorary in the University of Sydney's Department of Archaeology, is a shining example of how you can successfully juggle family, research and work whilst still maintaining life balance. Throughout her life, she has not been afraid to explore contrasting areas of study or make drastic career changes. In the last ten years, this has culminated in a passion to pursue archaeology, in particular environmental archaeology.

Robyn originally graduated with a Bachelor of Science from The University of Sydney, and after an early career in IT, wished to pursue an interest in the arts and humanities. She therefore returned to the university to complete an Arts honours year in Archaeology, which has ultimately lead her into the beginning of an exciting research career.

Recently her career reached its pinnacle when Dr Veal was awarded the Ralegh Radford Rome Fellowship by the British School at Rome (BSR). She began her residential fellowship at the School in October 2011, and her placement will come to a close in June 2012. She was awarded the nine-month fellowship in open competition, which included post-doctoral applicants from both the United Kingdom and Commonwealth nations, and she is one of the first Australian researchers to have won such a prestigious award.

The research fellowship will constitute the first of a four-year study for Dr Veal, focusing on the fuel economies of the Roman imperial period. In a global society increasingly concerned with climate change and diminishing fuel provisions, Dr Veal's research on ancient fuel production methods may well provide a valuable contribution to land and forest management strategies, especially in countries where wood and charcoal are still the dominant fuels.

Her passion and enthusiasm for her research is contagious and below she shares with us her unique journey, and some fond memories of her time at the University of Sydney.

A Conversation with Robyn Veal
What are your happiest memories about your time here as a student?
I had the good fortune to study in both arts and sciences, which meant I was exposed to a lot of different ideas. I remember feeling very empowered to ‘own’ different parts of the university grounds and I have never been hesitant to delve into areas outside my own. It has always delighted me to find that my own restive, intellectual curiosity has usually been matched by that of others, so much so, that the addictive adrenalin rush of finding a new track to follow, still happens on a pretty regular basis.

Who was your favorite Professor whilst you were a student at the University of Sydney and why?
This is a really tough one as there have been a lot of good lecturers. I think Prof Peter White (emeritus, Archaeology), was really important to me, in that he was welcoming and encouraging when I wanted to return as a mature age student. His collegial approach and wide intellect still impress me. My PhD supervisors, Prof Dan Potts (Chair, Near Eastern Archaeology) and Dr Dan Penny (Senior lecturer, Geosciences), in their own different ways, mentored me strategically through the thesis. They helped me form research skills and self-belief, and they continue to provide references and support in this post-doctoral period.

What is your proudest achievement?
That day in the Great Hall when you hear your doctoral work described, and you go down to collect your degree, with your family watching, is hard to beat. Possibly now matched by winning the fellowship to the British School at Rome.

Tell us more about yourself, how you chose this interesting path and how you came to be awarded the Ralegh Radford Rome Fellowship at the British School in Rome?
I have meandered through a career in IT (both public and private sectors), which employed my database skills, but also my geosciences background (from a BSc at Sydney); through an MBA (at UTS); to studying ancient history/Italian at Macquarie then a return to Sydney for archaeology honours and finally my doctoral studies on the fuel economy of Pompeii. I have always liked studying, but came to the humanities late, where I am completely at home. It’s so multi-disciplinary, and I love being back at my alma mater, where it seems anything I want to try, is possible, including combining archaeology, history, economics, and science. The BSR has a range of fellowships open to UK and Commonwealth scholars. I credit the Research Office, particularly Margaret Harris, for teaching me how to write funding applications. I am sure this helped win the fellowship; that, and the general idea that Australians can do anything they want to if they try.

What has been the most memorable success you have had?
It’s hard to choose between the private and the public. I have two daughters who are growing up into fine young women, and a wonderfully tolerant husband. I cherish them and they testify to the ongoing success a woman needs to remind herself that she has achieved, and is achieving, if she is balancing work and home. In a public sense, besides the obvious markers of thesis and fellowship, I think having scholars more senior than yourself acknowledge your contribution is an important thing. This year I was invited to speak at the American Academy in Rome at a conference on History and the Environment in the Ancient Mediterranean. It was a vibrant and life-changing experience due to the level of intellectual exchange. It has led to other opportunities to speak and to publish, and it increased my confidence enormously.

What is the mantra you live by?
I wish I had some sort of clever thing to say here, but honestly, it seems I have been a magpie in my learning and experiences, always dipping into this and that, at times in a rather random way. I seem to follow my nose without knowing why, but later, it turns out the brain has been making good subconscious choices. ‘Follow your instincts,’ perhaps encapsulates it.

What are your plans for the future?
I am very keen to expand my research to examine the fuel economy of all of imperial Rome and its provinces, which is something I am starting here at the BSR. I am trying different sorts of experiments on archaeological charcoal that I hope will lead to more tools for closer economic analysis of ancient fuel economies. Ultimately I hope these tools will transcend boundaries of time and place and be useful for understanding fuel economies of the recent past as well.

What drives you?
I just have to know more about the world. I have an unending (some would say irritatingly so!) curiosity about everything.

What advice would you give to students graduating from the University of Sydney?
Try to work hard at university and get the best possible marks. For women especially, this affords the opportunity to apply for scholarships for later study and enables one to combine work and family. It perhaps sounds trite, but you should never give up pursuing your interests and passions, even if you have to delay them from time to time.