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  An ethnographic study of the chemistry laboratory: Automation, robotics, and workplace practices


   Department of Sociology

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  Dr Darren Reed, Prof J Woodcock, Prof I J S Fairlamb  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This PhD opportunity is part of the Centre of Doctoral Training in Autonomous Robotic Systems for Laboratory Experiments (Albert). It is focused on developing the science, engineering, and socio-technology that underpins building robots required for laboratory automation. Albert will contribute to the development of autonomous robots that conduct laboratory experiments that are cleaner, greener, safer, and cheaper than anything achievable with today's conventional techniques and technologies. Albert research will tackle significant socio-technical problems for science, engineering, social sciences, and the humanities. The YorRobots Executive and the Institute for Safe Autonomy will provide international leadership for this research area. The students will be provided with a rich research environment offering world-class labs and training opportunities.

The Albert Centre for Doctoral Training is concerned with the design of interactive robotics for the Chemistry Laboratory. As part of these efforts, we are looking for a talented social scientist with skills in ethnography, to undertake a close observation of current laboratory practice. This includes the use of laboratory technology and the human practices of interaction and sense-making.

You will have a fascination for human interaction and the ability to discern the manner in which the laboratory space is meaningfully constructed. In addition, you will be interested in the way that embodied human interaction is coordinated with and afforded by scientific technologies and laboratory spaces.

You will have expertise in workplace studies and an understanding of ethnomethodology and ethnographic methods in sociology. You will have a working knowledge of human-computer interaction design and an ability to convey your research in a timely and constructive manner.

The principal motivation for the ALBERT mini-CDT is to develop the science, engineering, and socio-technology that underpins the building of a laboratory-based robotic system for use in applied experiments across the physical sciences. Creating a Chemistry-based eco-system that is cleaner, greener, safer, and cheaper than anything achievable by current conventional techniques and technologies, is a key driver for this research.

The sociological research will support the broader design initiatives in relation to improvements in interaction, workflow, and systems support.

Objectives

This research will study the everyday practices of those in the chemistry lab. It will:

  • identify the mundane relationships between human practices, laboratory space, and technical devices;
  • focus on the use and integration of assistive and automated devices in the production process
  • develop a detailed account of the socio-technical relationships in terms of safety regulations, material logistics, and organisational relationships
  • provide clear design requirements for other members of the Albert CDT

Approach

The social researcher will undertake a focussed ethnography of a chemistry laboratory. This will be oriented to identifying and detailing the mundane interactional practices between humans and the various technical devices and spaces within the lab. This will rest on a grounding in ethnomethodology and forms of interactional analysis such as embodied conversation analysis.

Novelty

Positioning sociological analysis at the centre of robotic technology development in the Chemistry laboratory is both novel and premised upon the history of ‘laboratory studies’ in Science and Technology Studies. Rather than a subordinate role, the ethnography is key to understanding human interactions with technologies in locally organised spaces that mitigate risk through institutional and interpersonal practices. In turn these are grounded in national policy and regulation.

Training

The project will be led by Darren Reed (Sociology) and supported by colleagues (co-supervisors) from Chemistry (Ian Fairlamb) and Computer Science (Jim Woodcock). Each provide unique, complementary expertise and skills that are key to delivering this ambitious project.

There will be cohort-based training for the ALBERT mini-CDT, where other students working on related projects (across a range of York-based Departments) will meet to exchange ideas, solve problems and discuss alternative ways to improving automated laboratory experiments going-forwards.

There will be specialist training in interactional analysis and participant interaction in Sociology.

What is ALBERT?

Doctoral Training in Autonomous Robotic Systems for Laboratory Experiments

A cohort of students will be part of a mini, pilot Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) focused on developing the science, engineering, and socio-technology that underpins building robots required for laboratory automation, e.g. in chemistry and related sciences. The first cohort will begin their PhD projects in 2023, and the second cohort in 2024. Albert represents an autonomous robot that conducts laboratory experiments that are cleaner, greener, safer, and cheaper than anything achievable with today's conventional techniques and technologies. Developing Albert offers significant socio-technical problems for science, engineering, social sciences, and the humanities. The YorRobots Executive and the Institute for Safe Autonomy will provide international leadership for this research area.

When completing your application form, please select CDT Autonomous Robotic Systems for Lab Experiments from the drop down menu for How will your studies be funded?

The Department of Sociology is committed to supporting equality and diversity for all staff and students. The Department strives to provide a working environment which allows all staff and students to contribute fully, to flourish, and to excel: https://www.york.ac.uk/sociology

This PhD will formally start on 1 October 2024. Induction activities may start a few days earlier.

To apply for this project, submit an online PhD in Sociology application via this link: https://www.york.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/courses/apply?course=DRPSOCSSOC3&level=postgraduate

You should hold or expect to achieve the equivalent of at least a UK upper second class degree in Sociology or a related subject.  Please check the entry requirements for your country: https://www.york.ac.uk/study/international/your-country/

Candidate selection process

You should hold or expect to receive at least an upper second class degree in a relevant subject

Applications for this studentship will be considered on a first-come, first-served basis; the position will be filled as soon as a suitable applicant is identified.

Applicants should submit a PhD application to the University of York.

Supervisors may contact candidates either by email, telephone or web-chat.

Shortlisted candidates will be invited to interview.

Approach to Research

For more information about our Research aims and profile, please visit https://www.york.ac.uk/sociology/research/


Chemistry (6) Computer Science (8) Engineering (12) Sociology (32)

Funding Notes

Fully funded for up to 3.5 years by the EPSRC/University and covers: (i) a tax-free annual stipend at the standard Research Council rate (£18,622 for 2023-24), (ii) tuition fees , (iii) funding for consumables.
Not all projects will be funded; candidates will be appointed via a competitive process.

Where will I study?