Research intelligence: A grounding in gadgets

The British Library's new researcher-in-residence will use both her media and academic expertise, writes Hannah Fearn

July 8, 2010

With an enviable career as a television presenter and popular technology pundit, entry into the academy seemed an unlikely path for Aleks Krotoski.

But a year after completing a PhD at the University of Surrey, she has found the ideal post, which allows her to do work with "academic rigour" and to make the most of her ability to inspire non-specialist audiences about the potential of emerging technologies.

Dr Krotoski was this week unveiled as researcher-in-residence for the British Library's forthcoming exhibition Growing Knowledge: The Evolution of Research.

The exhibition, held in partnership with Times Higher Education, will showcase current and future technologies that could revolutionise the conduct of research the world over. The British Library's partners include technology companies such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, and institutions such as Brown University in the US. Input will also be sought from other leading libraries such as the New York Public Library and Columbia University's library.

Dr Krotoski's previous roles have included spells as a national newspaper columnist, technology expert on Radio 4's Woman's Hour and face of the BBC Two series The Virtual Revolution. The researcher-in-residence post attracted her, she said, because she had "a need for academic rigour and the desire to spend more than a very short period of time looking at a question. I adore the one- or two-year projects you have in academia as you're able to grapple with topics, and you have the time to really 'get it'."

The Growing Knowledge exhibition will include prototypes of new inventions, offering visitors the chance to test them and academics the opportunity to discuss how their work could be improved if the emerging technologies are rolled out across the academy.

The British Library is working with CIBER, an interdisciplinary research group at University College London, to evaluate researchers' and students' responses to the exhibition. Dr Krotoski will gather and assess the findings while also consulting with the academy, interviewing researchers about how they use technology, providing qualitative data for study, and monitoring the formal debates that take place as part of the series of events accompanying the exhibition.

No stranger to techno terrors

Dr Krotoski said she drew inspiration for the role from her own experience in using new technologies to research her subject area, social psychology.

"Throughout my research, one thing that really struck me was how certain elements of traditional research could potentially be transformed by the digital environment," she said. "I spent an entire year of my PhD trying desperately to figure out how to crunch the volume of data that I was able to capture due to the very nature of its being a digital technology. As a social psychologist I was over the moon, but as a researcher I was terrified.

"One thing that I've been very passionate about with this exhibition is how it potentially could transform our relationship with research participants."

Dr Krotoski began her academic career as an undergraduate in the US, graduating from Oberlin College with a BA in psychology in 1996.

After moving to the UK, she embarked on her journalistic career, before studying for an MA in social psychology at Surrey, followed by her doctorate, which was completed last year.

She said the differences between the UK and US academy came as "a bit of a shock", with PhD candidates in the UK expected to have already developed solid research skills. "It's a terrifying thing that I don't think most people really understand before they do it."

The PhD opened new doors, and Dr Krotoski said it was her unusual portfolio of skills, as someone steeped in the worlds of both academia and the media, that landed her the researcher-in-residence post.

"I was absolutely thrilled - I spend all of my free time in London in the British Library anyway," she said.

She believes that the exhibition, which is running for nine months from October, has the potential to change researchers' lives.

"The point is to get at the heart of what it is that the library can offer by evaluating what is actually happening on the ground, rather than just future-gazing," she explained.

Now back in the public eye, Dr Krotoski is keen to continue her academic research, and is already in discussions with a number of universities over potential posts. "I'm passionate about research. I didn't do a PhD to become a TV presenter again," she said.

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