Seven Questions with... Sabine Topf

This week we meet Sabine, a third-year PhD student in Experimental Psychology and part of the Psychology and Language Sciences Green Impact Team. Here, she chats to us about all things sustainability and building her own house, which has the perfect bedroom view to the stars.

What are you studying, why are you interested in this subject and what do you plan to do in the future?

I’m in my third year of a PhD in Psychology. My starting point was the question why do people behave pro-environmentally when whatever one person does will not make a substantial difference? What I now look at are behavioural traces, that is, evidence of behaviour in the shared environment without direct observation of that behaviour. For example, if you see evidence that other people behave pro-environmentally (such as bikes outside the lecture theatre, reusable bottles on desks, correctly recycled items), are you more likely to engage in the behaviour as well? My tentative answer is that behaviours can spread via these traces and therefore little things can indeed have a tangible impact - even though we may not be aware of our own influence on others.

I don’t really have a plan beyond my PhD. Academia is fiercely competitive and I don’t know yet what position will be open when I’m done. Also, with all the uncertainty about climate related tipping points, who knows whether I’ll ever have to make that decision...’ For now, I give all I have to the task at hand. Perhaps it’ll help a little.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve done, seen or got involved with while at UCL?

Being a part of the Green Impact Team, I had the chance to go to the Sustainability Award ceremonies and learn about the amazing projects already happening around UCL, such as Bentham’s farm (an urban agriculture project) and the IOE Garden. Also, the updates from the Sustainability Team are probably my favourite UCL newsletter - there are regular events such as Swap Shops and free bike maintenance session. There’s so much to get involved in!

Have you discovered any hidden gems during your time at UCL?

For someone hugely into do-it-yourself, the UCL Institute of Making was one of the most marvellous finds for me. If you get a chance, go to one of their open days (the next one’s in March!). You can also use their MakeSpace for woodwork, sewing, laser cutters... whatever the DIY heart desires. 

More recently I’ve found the postgraduate study space at the Senate House Hub to be perfect for quiet work away from my desk. I’m not someone to go to a café when I need a change of scenery because it’s too noisy. I was stunned by the facilities at the hub. Sorry to all undergrads that this is closed to you, but I promise it’s worth sticking around UCL for a little longer to be able to use it!

Give us your top three things to do/see/go to in London:

Despite having lived here since 2012, I have to admit I’m quite a reluctant Londoner and still haven’t done most of the essential sightseeing! So the top one on my list is an away-from-London-in-London: the enormous parks - Hampstead Heath (the ponds!), Richmond Park (the deer!), Kew Gardens (Queen Charlotte’s cottage!).

But there are also so many lovely smaller green spaces. I’m in love with Gladstone Park (with view over London all the way to the Shard, akin to Primrose Hill’s little sister), Clissold Park and closer to UCL the Calthorpe Project on Grays Inn Road. By the way, parks are not only nice to look at, they are edible too. Urban foraging can be enormous fun (and save a few pounds as well), but it’s best to go on a course first rather than end up on an involuntary tour of UCLH.

Second on the list is Open House London, usually taking place in September, where you can get a peek into London’s most exciting buildings for free.

Number three will have to be the Museum of the Home (formerly Geffrye Museum) in Hoxton, which will reopen this summer. It shows how people have lived since the 1600s. Interior envy squared.

If you were Provost for the day what one thing would you do?

Continue to focus on the climate crisis. It’s the most important issue of the decade and whatever UCL does sends a strong signal to everyone else - in the academic world and further afield. 

Who inspires you and why?

Anyone who sees a problem and gets up and does something about it. We all know the ones that make it into the media for one reason or another - Greta Thunberg for example - but there are so many more people who get up day after day and keep trying even if it takes years and enormous effort to see results. Sometimes we hear about them, sometimes never. Here’s to them: may someone be there to give them a tissue when tears run freely and beam with joy whenever they succeed.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

When I stay with my parents, I live in a seven sqm tiny house that I built in the summer of 2017, just before starting my PhD. It’s small, but it’s got everything I need: a small kitchen with a cooker and sink, a fully functional bathroom, a little woodstove and a roof window - so I can watch the stars from bed. Being there is pure bliss.


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