Episode 69: Chemistry, Ceramics, Art, Museums and More, with Dr Alicia McGeachy

In this week’s episode, listen to Dr Bahijja Raimi-Abraham discuss the relationship between Chemistry, Ceramics, Museum and more with Dr Alicia McGeachy — postdoctoral scholar with the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS). This episode is part of our RSC Outreach fund project.

Photo of ceramics by Erol Ahmed.

Dr Bahijja: Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Dr Alicia: This is such a hard question to answer! I am currently a post-doctoral fellow with the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (also called NU-ACCESS). I am also a proud New Yorker, from Brooklyn. I actually got my bachelors degree in Chemistry from Spelman College, a history Black all women’s college in Altanta, USA. That is really where my passion for chemistry began!

Dr Bahijja: What is your favourite song at the moment?

Dr Alicia: I have two favourite songs — its a toss up. Right now I am really into the song Naked, and it talks a lot about love and loving people despite their flaws. The second is Rise Up, which is about perseverance, and is very inspirational.

Dr Bahijja: Can you recommend a film and/or a book?

Dr Alicia: To be honest, like most people, I have been binging on everything available — like Netflix. I’ve found I have actually ben reading a lot less since the COVID-19 lockdown. I would reccomend Homegoing, which is a novel by Yaa Gyasi. I really enjoyed it and it is a generational story of trauma relating to slavery and the legacy it had on Black life. It follows two sisters in 18th century Ghana— one sold into slavery and the other married to a slave trader. It then follows their lineage, with each chapter featuring another person. […]

Did you know? The word “Ghana” means “Warrior King” in the Soninke language.

Dr Bahijja: What is chemistry to you?

Dr Alicia: Chemistry is life. I will say, one of the things I say to people most is that chemistry is all around us — It’s about questioning the things around us. Every aspect of our life, from skin and hair products, to baking, to how cars operate, or our electricity, they are all impacted and relate to chemistry.

Dr Bahijja: I understand you are now working on some interesting post-doctoral research — Tell us about your research and what problem it is going to solve?

Dr Alicia: Broadly speaking, I think the biggest issue we are working to solve is that we want to act as stewards of the past. We want to figure out how to best preserve and conserve culterally important objects for the next generation. We also really would like to provide technical guidance and support to organisations that may not otherwise have access to these tools. There is also a huge importance relating to the issues surrounding the preservation of cultural heritage [and how we can best handle these important objects, whether socially or chemically].

Dr Bahijja: I find it interesting that your PhD focused on nonlinear optical spectroscopy and applying this to model systems and nano-scale materials, and now you’re taking a multi-analytical approach to understanding production methods of 18th century English and 19th century American ceramics. Please could you tell us how you transitioned to your current research area?

Dr Alicia: To be completely honest, towards the end of my PhD I had no idea what was going on and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I realised I just had to figure out what was going to happen for me — I wasn’t sure if I was more interested in scientific outreach and education, or research. It’s really hard to figure that out without perspective. I was fortunate to find a career engagement program at Northwestern U, and this is how I actually learnt more about careers in museum education. Museums are a great and interesting way to engage with the public, whether it be events or programs, but I think people are aways more interested in seeing these visual elements at museums.

I was fortunate to discuss with my advisor that I was unsure, but I had some ideas, and together we bounced ideas around about what my future could look like. He forwarded me this email from someone at the Met relating to a fellowship opportunity, and at first I was unsure I was going to apply. I actually applied on the last day before it closed, and it worked out amazing for me. I had a great time while I was at The Met.

At first I was really interested in the history of African art, specifically of the Diaspora, as well as how it fits into the larger picture and how it has evolved over time. That shifted a lot once I got to the Met, which is where the ceramics come into play.

Photo of pottery making by Jade Scarlato.

Dr Bahijja: What are ceramics?

Dr Alicia: Cermaics are generally defined as something primarily or principally composed of clay and is heated — this includes porcelain, earthenware, stoneware. It can also include cement, some things made with glass, etc. In every case, it is transformed by heat. Historically, it is very interesting as they tell us a lot about how people live. Ceramics are extensively used for dating — it can help determine the age of a historical site. It can also tell us about how people were living — for example, if they were used for cooking, storage, ceremonies, etc.

Dr Bahijja: Why are you comparing or trying to understand production methods of ceramics specifically from 18th century English and 19th century American?

Dr Alicia: At first, I had little appreciation for ceramics. One of the first major projects I was on was actually on 18th century porcelain objects from the Chelsea porcelain factory. It was a project inspired by a conservator who was curious about the processes involved in the enamels of these products. Enamels are often specifically used for decoration, but are similar to glazes, which are generally protective. A lot of these projects are initiated by conservators who have a lot of this background knowledge and can fill in a lot of gaps about knowledge.

In comparison to factories in France or Germany, porcelain in England did not have the luxury of financial support from the government and this was really a self-funded operation. This means the operations are run quite differently — so our goal was really to reconstruct what was occurring in the factory, as they didn’t really have any preserved information from the factory. A lot of the information was kept quite private, as they were effectively trade secrets to protect the business at the time. […]

Photo of a tea service set (from 1758) produced in the Chelsea Porcelain Factory. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Dr Alicia: In America, in a similar time frame, there were a great number of enslaved people, as well as settlers from Europe, bringing their knowledge of porcelain and stoneware technology. In pottery and ceramics, there were many influences coming in from Africa and other countries, that shows the different cultures and influences all coming together. For example, many of these American glazes were quite similar to those seen in China at the time, which is quite interesting. [With chemistry, we can look a lot more into the tools and technologies used to create these objects].

Dr Bahijja: Have you been able to identify a factory or product made in America with influences from other countries, such as African countries?

Dr Alicia: That is something we would hope — but in terms of these particular pieces, we have to consider that many of these potters were not allowed to document their practices or techniques. In fact, literacy was punishable/illegal for enslaved Africans in America at the time. There are a few potters who enscribed their work, for example Dave Drake, a very well known potter from Edgefield, South Carolina (USA). He also insrcibed his work with poetry — which was very daring at a time where this was punishable. There are a lot of things we unfortunately do not know, and much of what we know is speculative.

David Drake, also known as “Dave the Potter” has a strong legacy based on his unqiue alkaline glazed stoneware jugs produced from the 1820s to the 1870s. He signed his work as “Dave” and often inscribed his poetry, which was rare during a time where enslaved people were forbidden to learn how to read and write in America. One example of a famous message he inscribed on one of his works was “I wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all — and every nation”.

Photo of a ceramic piece by David Drake courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.

Dr Alicia: For these particular jugs, however, in Edgefield, they were made in the likeness of faces, and we are not entirely sure of what their utility was. The current speculation of the West African influence is that they greatly affected the forms of the jugs, rather than the material choices/ However, in order to answer these questions, we need comparable pieces from west Africa at the same time. This requires a lot of diligence in our assessment of African art, as well.

Dr Bahijja: The pieces of peoples’ faces, have you been able to identity the artists?

Dr Alicia: Yes and no — these pieces were originally produced in South Carolina, however, there was a migration of this technique to various other states in America. One of the overarching goals of the project is to identify how chesmitry can inform our knowledge of the forms, production and how the techniques may have migrated. We definitely know the factories, but we are not certain of the specific enslaved people who produced these pieces. Some records are available, but they are not complete. […]

Dr Bahijja: What has your post-doctoral work experience been like?

Dr Alicia: Very honestly, my post-doc experience has been incredibly fruitful. This is now my second post doc at Northwestern — my first was at the MET. It was a first awkward at first, as I began on March 1st 2020. On February 20th, we had a notice about clearing out the offices, and I really noticed that it was quite a strange experience. As our qork is quite hands on, we are really meant to be having a close collaboration inside gallery and museum spaces, [which doesn’t lend itself particularly well to a lockdown]. We have had to become a lot more flexible, which is part of what being a scientist is about.

Across both positions, I’ve had to opportunity to meet so many people with so many different backgrounds, and it has been a great experience. I have learnt a lot more about the layers of intellect around museum displays and objects, and I have a great appreciation for it now. […]

Dr Bahijja: I oftentimes hear people discussing working in academia versus industry, and their concerns regarding politics in academia. What do you think about that divide?

Dr Alicia: I have strong feelings actually, [regarding this issue]. I think that is one of the worst binary views we can impose on graduate students, in general. It creates this feeling of failure or disappointment when a student picks a role that works best for them that doesn’t fit into expectations of industry and or academia. As long as we training students that they can only work in academia OR industry, we are failing them. We need to teach them about the many ways they can be a scientist or chemist. There are only so many jobs and we need to teach them about the roles outside of just “academic” and “researcher”, etc. […]

Dr Bahijja: What have been the highs and lows of your career so far?

Dr Alicia: I have to acknowledge I have had a pretty strong support system throughout both the lows and the highs of my career. One of the lowest moments I had was just after my qualifying exam — I felt defeated and that I had not done enough critical work on myself at the point, and that it showed. I went back to the lab and wrote an addendum, and then drafted a five year plan for my life. I took a moment to reflect and really planned out by vision board and checklist.

The highest moment, is probably that when I explain my research to my family now, they get it. They did not understand it before, no matter what language I used. That fellowship at the Met was a leap of faith for both of us — that and also doing a career talk at Spelman college, that was huge for me.

Dr Bahijja: What does being a chemist mean to you?

Dr Alicia: For me, what it means, is to never stop questioning or wondering. I think that has been one of the things I have held onto in my life, since I was a child, just wondering “how”, “what”, and “why”. The significance of that to me when I tell people that I am a chemist is that I can see that light in their eyes, and that they are excited about science. Some people didn’t have a good experience with science in high school, and I really like to opportunity to engage with them and talk about how science has impacted their life. […]

To learn more about Dr Alicia, check out her profile here on the Northwestern University website.

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