Dr Asimina Vergou is an Evaluation manager at the National Lottery Heritage Fund
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
My only memory of aspiration when I was little, is that I wanted to become an architect; an indication of my interest to combine structure and artistic creativity which still permeates everything I do.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
Being Greek, I did my undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies and an MSc in Ecology and Sustainable Ecosystems Management in my home country. My first professional job was conducting Environmental Impact Assessments for small and medium enterprises as a consultant. Although I was happy to get a job relevant to my qualifications, I could also describe this as my worst professional experience. I soon realised that the commissioning of the studies was more of a tick the box exercise for the companies rather than genuinely looking to make their operations more environmental friendly. As a result, I pursued a postgraduate teaching degree to redirect my career.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
One of my critical career moments was leading the development of the environmental education programme at the Balkan Botanic Garden of Kroussia, part of the National Agricultural Research Foundation in Greece. This very creative job, closely linked to my passion for environmental education, inspired a life-long love for plants and a PhD to explore how people learn when they visit botanic gardens.
Thanks to a Greek State’s Scholarship I conducted my PhD research at the University of Bath, Centre for Research in Education and the Environment. During my ethnographic fieldwork I spent 9 months living onsite at Wakehurst Place, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. That experience defined my understanding of what indepth data collection means, and the importance of immersing in the field.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
Following a few short term project research positions during my doctorate studies, and some application rejections for academic posts, I went on to work for Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) a charity that networks botanic gardens around the world and advocates for plant conservation. As the Education Programme Coordinator, initially, and later on as the Head of Education, I was involved in managing, coordinating and fundraising for large consortium EU projects, growing botanic gardens social role and botanic gardens educators capacity to engage people with plants. My work continued to be strongly linked to research, by working with researchers to develop new initiatives, by using education research to drive improvements in botanic gardens education practice, and by evaluating gardens’ education practice. Leading the Education department at BGCI has been the highlight of my career so far, by giving me the opportunity to influence botanic gardens’ education internationally and become a member of a very creative, committed and knowledgeable community.
My growing interest in improving practice through evidence and understanding fundraising from a funder’s perspective led me to my current position as the Evaluation manager at The National Lottery Heritage Fund. My role is focused on commissioning large scale programme evaluation, of the impact of the Heritage Fund’s funding. I especially value the opportunity of leading programme evaluation with the aim to inform government policies such as in the parks sector, and also to develop my own expertise on current heritage sector areas such as placemaking, wellbeing, resilience and youth engagement.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
My social research hero is my PhD supervisor, Emeritus Professor William Scott. He has been my ‘academic’ father, supporting me throughout the struggles of the PhD, instilled a commitment to methodological rigour in me, and refined my critical thinking. He is truly inspirational in the way he has influenced both the international and the UK field of environmental and sustainability education with his academic leadership, at all levels; from policy/government to the every day practice of the environmental educators.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
The landscape of a social research career in the UK, is varied, ranging from a traditional academic career to working for consultancies, charities, funders and the government. My practical advice, for someone in their early career, is to ‘research’ regularly job opportunities advertised to get an understanding of what are the social research career options, i.e. different types of organisations, different types and different level of jobs, and the skills that these require. This will focus your career thinking and help you develop of a strategy being successful.