INTERVIEW: The Glorious Women of the SBS’ Teaching Office

Over the hills and far away, deep down in the backwoods of the Bourne Building, Monday to Friday, 9am-4pm, teletubbies come out to play – except this time the tubby custard is a pile of lab reports, and the teletubbies are our academic guardian angels, the glorious women behind the inner workings of the teaching office – Nikki Moss and Mel Kiukkanen. The Scientists’ Scribe popped in for a chat; and here is what they had to say.
SS: Describe yourself in three words.
MK: Enthusiastic, Determined and Organized.
NM: Enthusiastic, Kind and Reliable
SS: When did you first arrive at Royal Holloway, could you tell us something about your first day here?
MK: 5th Jan 2010. College was virtually deserted as the night before we had a snow storm and very few people were around. I literally sat down at my desk, opened the computer and started to read through emails trying to make sense of what the job entailed. Luckily for me, Mrs. Lyn Wright (SBS purchasing officer) started on the same day, in the same office, so we had each other to support, which was a great comfort.
NM: 9th May 2011. The first day was overwhelming even though I studied here! Mel and Lyn were great though and helped me settle in really quickly! As with any job at the beginning, I didn’t know who anyone was – I didn’t even know my own phone number when someone asked me! I gradually got to know everyone and eventually got my head around the different aspects of the job and the different courses and discovered we had some Molecular and some Organismal courses (all a bit strange to me at first as I studied history!). It takes a while but suddenly you feel as if the job is your own – particularly when people stop referring to the previous person who did the job, then you know you’ve cracked it!
SS: Could you tell us something about your time here as a student?
MK: I did a Biology degree from 1987-1989. I lived in Athlone (based where the Hub is now) and it was an all-women residence! I was on the ground floor and I constantly had guys knocking on my window at night, asking to climb through! For the first year, all my lectures, except for Biochemistry, were off campus at both Alderhurst (known as Cabi Bioscience today – Zoology), and Huntersdale (Botany). I envied anyone who was based on campus as they could sleep longer in the mornings, and did not have the 15-20 minute walk, SBS students had to make for 9am lectures, (no buses in those days!). I wouldn’t say I loved my first term. I found it quite lonesome and difficult to make genuine friends, but I did make myself join lots of clubs and attend events I would not have normally gone to. Some were an eye opener, but I made some good friends. For some reason most of my good friends did economics or geography and they had few lectures and no practicals, unlike me! They all did a lot more sport and socializing!
NM: I absolutely loved Holloway when I was a student here – some of the best years of my
life! I met my husband during that time and made lots of friends and had a huge sense of freedom to make my own choices. I married my husband here in 1984 (and we are still married, amazingly!). I love the campus because it is unique and beautiful and I loved the student life, being able to structure my day as I wanted (I work better in the evening/early morning unfortunately), having people around me if I wanted company, but also being able to shut myself in my room if I needed to study. There was never a dull moment and I was really sad to leave when I finished.
SS: How did it feel like returning back to work at RHUL?
MK: A bit weird initially, but it felt good to be back on a campus I knew well and to see that facilities had improved for current students. (I can’t say though that I was sad to see Athlone had gone!) I was returning now as a married mum of three kids and I was looking at RHUL from a totally different perspective. I was however very excited to be back here working again and anyone who has had kids, knows how nice it is to use the brain again in a different way!
NM: Feel as if I have come home! I can’t really imagine working anywhere else, I love Founders and the campus in general, the buzz during term time and the contact with
students. It is a very special place and I feel very privileged to work here, particularly in
Biological Sciences.
SS: What was your best memory at RHUL as a student and how does it compare to that of
your memories whilst working here?
MK: I have several good memories of being a student here. I can’t really say one stands out
more than the others, but I do remember the great feeling of walking out of my final 3rd year exam, the great summer ball in my final year and the wonderful feeling of graduating at the Royal Albert Hall in London and receiving my degree from Princess Anne. Also a very special memory was a visit by the Queen’s mother who walked over to me in a crowd and started chatting to me. I have the photo to prove it! She was amazing. Since returning to work a special memory was to receive a reward from Professor Gange.
NM: My best memory while I was a student was meeting my husband (he will kill me if I
don’t say that!). It is of course totally different working here but I still love the place and the School of Biological Sciences is a great place to be! Probably my best memory was the second graduation ceremony (2012) when students that I had gotten to know and supported were graduating, I got to meet their families and be around on one of the most important days of their lives – I was quite tearful when they were walking through the c chapel receiving their degrees!
SS: What’s your most favorite thing about working at RHUL?
MK: I meet so many different people, both students and academic staff. The job varies from day to day and there are lots of things to get involved in outside of my current job, if one wishes. Also, the satisfaction of seeing a studentarrive on their first day, slightly nervous and a little unsure of themselves and then to see them 3 years later graduating with so much more confidence is very satisfying.
NM: Working with the UG students and attending the graduation when all their hard work is rewarded!
SS: What was the main deciding factor of working at RHUL after graduating?
MK: My kids were in school 5 minutes away, it was a part-time job, which fitted in with our family life, it was in the very department I had graduated and some of the academics who taught me were still here! So for me to understand and relate to the subject being studied was a bonus!
NM: When I was looking for a career change my husband thought I would enjoy working here as he thought it would suit me and he encouraged me to apply – and he was right! I was very lucky that the job came up in Biological Sciences just as I started looking and lucky that I share an office with Mel! I nearly didn’t apply as I don’t have a science background but the academic staff is gentle with me when I don’t understand the difference between mitosis and meiosis!
SS: How much of your life has been influenced by you working at RHUL?
MK: It certainly keeps me young at heart having to relate to so many students. I have learnt a huge amount about how universities work and I suspect this will help me one day with my own children. I would love one of them to come to RHUL, but I suspect they will want to go as far away from home as possible.
NM: Royal Holloway is very much part of my life now and I really cant imagine it not being! I think it is very important to be happy where you work as you spend so much time there. I look forward to coming to work and so my life is very much influenced by working here as I have job satisfaction, which makes me a happier person at home!
SS: What do you look forward to the most at the beginning of your work day and then at
the end of it?
KM: I look forward to catching up with Nikki (Mrs. Moss) on what has happened the day
before after I left work and what is a priority for the coming day. At the end of the day, when I switch off my computer I am always happy if I feel I have done a good days job and
accomplished what I had intended to do.
NM: At the beginning of my day I look forward to getting settled in, saying hello to Mel and getting started on my list of jobs to do! At the end of the day I look forward to going home and seeing my family or going out with friends.
SS: How has science, research and teaching changed over the time you’ve spent at RHUL?
MK: I am not based in the labs, so to be honest I cannot comment on the science and research, but the support to Teaching is very good. Students have so much more support than we ever had. Everything from lecture notes available on Moodle, assistance via the ESO, self -cert forms to justify absence and a fabulous Head of Teaching, Dr Jenny Murdoch who is available through booked appointments to help and advise you on any concerns you may have.
NM: History and science degrees are very different but, much as I am ashamed to say it, I
only went to 3 lectures in 3 years while I was here! This is something that works for history, but not for science and not something I would recommend in general! Nowadays I don’t think attending 1 lecture a year would be acceptable even for history, but things were much more relaxed when I was an undergraduate. Also in terms of balance between
student/academia, when I was here students were far more in awe of their tutors than
students are now – there seems to be more equality now, which is a good thing given that
students are adults and should be treated as such.
SS: How do you think RHUL will be in, let’s say, about 20 years?
MK: I suspect a lot bigger, greater choice of degree programmes, more activities and I hope higher up the League Tables!
NM: I think in the future Holloway will be more like a village, with far more activities and facilities available for students. Far more technology and better lab facilities will be available too.
SS: What advice would you like to give to the students studying biological sciences?
MK: Sit back and think about why you are really here and why you have chosen this degree. Clearly it is a subject you enjoy studying otherwise you would never have applied for it. Really put as much effort into it every term and you will notice that your hard work attending lectures, practicals and tutorials will pay off. Stay motivated, enthusiastic, and academics will take note of you. I never really appreciated this fact whilst studying my degree. I just saw it as a stepping stone to the next level. I would love to do it all again, but this time I would make much more effort to go to every lecture, make really good notes, make time for background reading and ask lots of questions so I knew as much as possible as I went along.
NM: Enjoy your time here – university is a unique experience and you will almost certainly never have the opportunity to do it again so make the most of it and although it is tempting to enjoy the social aspects of university life make sure you get the right balance between work and play and don’t take your eye off the ball.
SS: Anything else you might want to add?
MK: Read the Undergraduate Handbook from cover to cover! It has so much information which is so useful and you will need to know it at some stage. Read the emails sent to you and act on them if needed. Attend your Tutorials! Academics can see who puts the effort in and they are always happy to support you. Come to the Teaching office (Room 5-02) and ask us if there is anything you do not understand and need help and support with. Finally enjoy your time at Royal Holloway, it goes so fast and before you know it, you will be graduating and moving on.
NM: I am very lucky to have a job that I enjoy and to be able to spend time in a place that I
love, with colleagues and students that provide me with a very rewarding, sometimes challenging day to day experience.
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