Friday, 30 August 2013

Happy Birthday BES!

Celebrating 100 years of the British Ecological Society
By Dr Lindsey Atkinson (@LJA_1)

This year the British Ecological Society is 100 years old. It is the oldest ecological society in the world and its aims are ‘to advance ecology and make it count‘.  To mark the occasion there have been a series of events celebrating ecological science and research and promoting public engagement through the Festival of Ecology The celebrations also included a major international conference: ‘Ecology: into the next 100 years’.  

This was the 11th International Congress of the International Association for Ecology (INTECOL 2013) bringing together about 2000 ecologists from around the world (including myself and two GEES colleagues) to give 1000 talks and present over 500 posters.

So why are we talking about an ecology conference on GEESology?  One thing that came across at this conference was the sheer diversity of the topics covered by the broad umbrella of ecology.  The themes ranged across theoretical and applied ecology, conservation management and public policy.  Specific topics included sustainable agriculture, sustainable cities, biodiversity, ecosystem function, biogeography, climate change ecology and public policy, poverty alleviation and much more, linking in to many of the interests of GEESologists.

In the introductory session Professor Georgina Mace, President of the BES, welcomed the delegates in the Capital Auditorium of the ICC London ExCel Centre (last year the venue for the Olympic boxing, wrestling and fencing).  She was followed by the President of Intecol, Professor Alan Covitch, who outlined challenges for ecologists for the next 100 years emphasizing the vital role of communication between disciplines.  Finally, Professor Ilkka Hanski of the International Scientific Committee of the Congress emphasized the need for ‘solid ecological knowledge’ to inform ‘well-educated decision makers’.

The conference then got under way with an excellent first plenary lecture given by Professor Sandra Diaz of Cordoba National University in Argentina.  Professor Diaz discussed using a plant functional trait approach to describe patterns of diversity at a global scale.  The aim is to provide a framework for predicting the response of ecosystems to environmental change and the impact that this will have on the services those ecosystems provide.   Another highlight of the conference was Professor Mace’s Presidential Address ‘Looking forwards not backwards: biodiversity conservation in the 21st Century’ – you can read a summary of her talk on the BES blog.

The Sex & Bugs & Rock 'n Roll Roadshow has been touring
 music festivals this year to tell people about ecology
The opportunity for everyone to get involved in ecology was highlighted during the week through sessions about 'citizen science'.  No need to be an expert as the information you will need is provided, often via the internet or an ‘app’.  The data contributions are validated and interpreted by scientists.  Examples include the Treezilla project which aims to map all the trees in the UK and shows how they benefit the local environment and Conker Tree Science, mapping the spread of an invasive moth which is damaging our horse chestnut trees. There are citizen science projects monitoring birds, pollinators, ponds and hedgerows and many others – perhaps there’s one to spark your interest!

Over the next few days we listened to more plenary talks from leading scientists as well as talks by scientists at all levels from graduate students to emeritus professors, participated in workshops, discussed our posters, caught up with old friends and met new people.  Even with the help of the ‘app’ to negotiate the programme it wasn’t possible to go to everything of interest.  At times it felt a little too busy with so much going on but the advantage of going to such a broad-ranging conference is being able to dip into other sessions to learn something about a new topic area and making connections with colleagues in other disciplines.  We went home tired but inspired to explore new work directions!

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

What drives change on alluvial fans?

By Lucy Clarke (@DrLucyClarke)

So first of all you are probably wondering what an alluvial fan is? An alluvial fan is a landform that is created when a small river feeds into a larger one or when a large river flows into a lake or sea, they form in characteristic fan shapes – hence the name. Changes on an alluvial fan system are driven by the amount of available sediment and water, and two main types of alluvial fan can be distinguished based on whether a fan is formed primarily by sediment movement (‘debris fan’) or by the action of water (‘fluvial fan’). It is the latter, fluvial fans, that I am interested in – these tend to have a shallower slope and lower grain size than their debris counterparts.

Debris fans in Canada – formed by the movement of rock and sediment due to gravity, 
these characteristically have steep slopes and large sediment on them

Fluvial fan in New Zealand – formed primarily by water flow these 
have shallower slopes and lower grain size than debris fans.

So, you may be asking why am I interested in these landforms at all? First of all, alluvial fans have a global distribution and are often prime locations for settlements and road networks. In many temperate and humid environments these fans are dynamic systems that are prone to rapid change and due to their steeper slopes (compared to the surrounding area) they are prone to flooding, so understanding how they respond to changing conditions is important in their management. A recent example of this can be seen in the floods that hit Alberta, Canada in June 2013 – one of the worst affected areas was the town of Canmore located on the Couger Creek alluvial fan, shown in the photos below. Alluvial fans are also important on a longer timescale. Fans trap sediment and therefore preserve a record of environmental change. Changes in the climatic conditions can be reflected in the amount of sediment produced; the amount of rainfall can influence erosion rates, whilst also affecting the density of vegetation growing in an area (denser vegetation traps sediment and the roots stabilise soils lowering the sediment delivery to the fan). So periods of growth and decline on the fan can help us to know what the environment was like at different stages through its formation.

Cougar Creek, Canmore, Canada: (a) Photograph I took of Cougar Creek in June 2007 showing the low flow conditions, (b) flooding in the same area in June 2013 (image courtesy of the Calgary Herald) and (c) the damage caused by the floods – the house shown is the same that is circled in Photo (a) (image courtesy of the Calgary Herald).

To understand the response of an alluvial fan during its evolution we need to look at the sediment and water delivery to the fan system and how these alter the processes that are operating on the fan. The impact of fluctuating climate and tectonics in changing the relative amounts of sediment and water and how these drive change are pretty well understood, but lots of work has shown that reconstructing just these variables doesn’t give a complete picture of what is happening on the fan. As well as these ‘external’ controls, there seems to be something else going on, an internal reaction in the fan system itself that is promoting change. And it is this that I am interested in trying to look at.

It is impossible to try to isolate these variables out in the field, as there are too many complex interactions taking place on a field fan to determine what is driven by climate, tectonics or internal processes. So I used a physical model, or a miniature landform, in which I could create my own scaled alluvial fans and control the conditions that were feeding them (if you are interested in learning more about using physical models in geomorphology see my blog post from 5 July 2013). So I ran lots of experiments where I kept the sediment and water supply constant, so there were no external factors impacting the experimental fans, so any changes that I saw must have been driven by internal processes.

Experimental plot used in these experiments; experiments were carried at the Sediment
Research Facility at the University of Exeter.

The experiments I ran were not scaled to a specific fan in the field, but I was instead interested in learning more about the general trends that occurred using what is known as a similarity of processes model. The experimental fans behaved as we would expect fans in the field to, which was a good indication that we were replicating natural processes. The initial results of these experiments were published in a paper (Clarke et al., 2010) and demonstrated that independent of any change in the external conditions the shape and flow patterns on the fans changed through time. I will highlight two of the main findings. First of all I calculated the fan volume at various points through time, to show the overall size of the fan. These are shown for three example experimental runs below, Run 1 has the lowest sediment and water rates fed onto the fan with Run 3 having the highest. Fans grow rapidly in the initial stages (Stage 1) and then begins to stabilise (Stage 3), this is because the fan fills up all the available space and so starts moving sediment out of the system rather than storing it. The higher the discharge rates (increases from Run 1 to Run 3) the quicker the space is filled and so the sooner the fan stops building, therefore lowering the overall volume.

Changes in fan volume through the experiments driven by internal processes. 

The experimental fans also displayed a change in flow patterns through time. Four stages were observed: (1) at the beginning sheetflow dominated, this is when over 50% of the fan area is covered in water; (2) unstable channelised, with multiple channels covering wide areas of the fan; (3) formation of 1-2 main channels that continually move across the fan surface; and (4) a single channel forms that erodes (cuts into) the fan surface.

Changes in the flow conditions through the experiments driven by internal processes on the fan. From left to right: (1) sheetflow dominated, (2) unstable channelised, (3) formation of 1-2 main channels, and (4) single channel. 

This paper highlighted the importance of internal processes in driving change on alluvial fans. I have recently submitted a paper exploring the quantitative data from the flow patterns from these experiments and I will hopefully talk more about that in a later blog. I am now working to try to understand more about the triggers behind these processes and how to identify these features in the field.

Reference: L Clarke, T Quine and A Nicholas (2010) An experimental investigation of autogenic behaviour during fan evolution. Geomorphology, 115, p 278 – 285.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Writing Group - getting research done amid chaotic teaching semesters.

by Dr Rebecca Willams (@volcanologist)

This year I moved to a new part of the country, started a new job, wrote and delivered a new 4th year-level module, wrote and delivered lectures, practicals and exams on two other modules and trained for and ran my first ever marathon. That’s quite a lot to fit into the first half of 2013. Juggling all those commitments and staying sane has been difficult. On top of that, I’ve managed to stay research active and have managed to get two papers and one proposal written by July.

Talk to any academic and they’ll tell you the difficulties in finding time to write papers or grant applications during the teaching semesters. So how have I managed to do it on top of what was already a hectic year? I attribute this achievement to a writing group Dr Jane Bunting set up in our department this year.
Writing Group is an informal weekly meeting of colleagues across all the disciplines in Geography, Environment and the Earth Sciences. We meet on hump day morning, over coffee (medium caramel latte with skimmed milk please) and chat about the research writing we’ve got going on. We’re a diverse bunch and study everything from volcanoes to Italian fascism, from pollen to green buildings, from rivers to digital technologies in farming and a whole lot in between.

When we first met in February we discussed what our research goals for the coming teaching semester were. Many of us had papers we needed to write, book chapters to propose and epics of old that needed reinventing, rewriting and knocking into a submitable shape. We were all finding it a bit tricky to find time amongst the lecture writing, teaching, student supervisions and for some, job applications, to sit down and write science. We set ourselves our long term goals. What did I want to achieve by the end of the semester in May? Looking back through the pages of my filofax (don’t mock me for being old school) I see that I wanted to have my short PhD paper finally resubmitted for publication, my mega-PhD paper written and submitted to co-authors , have a NERC grant proposal written and my first post-doc paper  written in draft form. Looking back, that seems ambitious given how much other stuff was going on. But it was achievable because we had a plan.

The plan was to set ourselves small goals every week. Something that would help progress the papers on, something that could be done in between lectures, or of an evening. My first goal that first week was small - redo a figure on the short PhD paper. We would then meet the next week, report back on whether we’d done our homework and set our next goal for the following week.

Some weeks I had long lists of writing goals, other weeks I would have one tiny goal. But each week, a small step was taken towards finishing a paper. Writing Group quickly evolved into group therapy. We’d discuss the problems we were having-the structure of a paper didn’t make sense, writers block, trouble with software-and others would offer advice. The fresh ideas from colleagues who didn’t know the first thing about your paper (or often, your discipline) would make you think about your problem in a different way and a solution was quickly found. A few great writing strategies were shared. My favourites are:
  • Free-writing: Set yourself a time limit and just write. Don’t worry about sentence structure, what section of the paper this will fit into, putting in references or getting the ‘perfect phrase’. Just write and see what happens. This is a great way of getting over writers block. Some people like to do this with old fashioned pen and paper, others by typing. You can even get countdown clocks online to help (though, looking for the best one is definitely writing procrastination). Scientists seem to love 20 minute blocks, writers use 48 minutes (followed by 12 minutes off, then repeat, forever). Often, what you produce becomes the base for a section on the paper, or just breaks you out of the mental block.

  • Reverse outlining: Write section headings and one sentence summaries of your paragraphs onto post-it notes, clear your mind of your paper (works best if you’ve not worked on it for a while) and arrange your post it notes in the best order. Often, it’ll be different to the order that your paper is currently in. This is a great way of restructuring a paper or converting PhD chapters into something publishable.

  •  #madwriting: Tell twitter you are going to sit down and do nothing but write, get some people to join you, then write for an agreed amount of time, or words. Accountability works wonders

I had a couple of big writing issues this year. I had a paper that was essentially three PhD chapters crowbarred into one paper. It was too long, poorly structured and a mess. Talking it through with Writing Group and using a reverse outlining technique helped transform the mess into a submitable paper. I was also trying to write my first big grant proposal and was coming across all sorts of stumbling blocks from what exactly was meant by ‘pathways to impact’, the perils of Je-S to contacting our Research Support Office. Again, Writing Group patiently listened to my problems and offered advice, as they did to everyone’s issues. 

At the end of May, over cupcakes, we went back to our semester-long goals and reported our successes. I can happily say that the short paper was resubmitted for publication, that mega paper was completely rewritten and submitted to co-authors and the NERC proposal went in to try its luck. I have a filofax full of stickers celebrating each weeks success (hmm, we did end up having reward stickers - they are surprisingly motivational! As is the thought of reporting to Writing Group that you didn’t complete your goal that week) and a new set of goals to be achieved by the end of the summer before teaching starts again in October. Yes, one goal is that draft post-doc paper I didn’t get done, you vigilant reader; I did say the February goals were a tad ambitious.

I think the other members of Writing Group would agree that it has been spectacularly useful in their writing as well as an enjoyable, sociable weekly meet-up. Another great thing to come out of writing group is this blog! So, grab some colleagues or fellow students and start your own Writing Group!

Please share your writing strategies in the comments section...

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Vegetation survey in sunny Spain

by Michelle Farrell (@DrM_Farrell)

In my last blog post a few weeks ago, I gave a brief introduction to the science of palynology, or pollen analysis. Essentially, palynologists analyse the pollen grains preserved in ‘environmental archives’ such as peat bogs or lakes where sediments have accumulated in order to build up a picture of how the surrounding vegetation has changed over time. However, the interpretation of these pollen assemblages is far from straightforward, since pollen grains from different species vary in terms of size, shape and therefore dispersability, and there are also differences in the amount of pollen per unit plant produced by different species due to variation in plant reproductive strategies. For example, wind-pollinated plants need to produce much greater amounts of pollen than insect-pollinated species in order to increase their chances of reproductive success.
A key goal since the earliest days of palynology has been the quantitative reconstruction of past vegetation abundance from pollen assemblages. Models of pollen dispersal and deposition have now been developed, and estimation of Relative Pollen Productivity (RPP) is an essential for applying these models to reconstruction of vegetation from pollen records. Empirical estimates of RPP can be extracted from measurements of modern pollen assemblages and vegetation cover, and over the last 10-15 years considerable research effort has been invested in obtaining RPP estimates for key taxa. A recent review reported a wide range of RPP values for individual pollen taxa from different studies across Europe (Broström et al. 2008)‚ but since a standard methodology was not used to record vegetation cover it is not possible to determine whether these differences are due to variation in taxonomic groups (pollen grains can often only be identified to family or genus level, so in different regions a different assemblage of species may make up the palynological equivalent taxon Betula or Poaceae)‚ variations in environmental factors between study sites (e.g. climate‚ management)‚ or reflect the variations in methodology (Bunting and Hjelle 2010).

In May 2010, we held a workshop at the University of Hull which brought together several key researchers in the field of quantitative vegetation reconstruction from pollen records. At this workshop we came up with a standardised method of vegetation survey for obtaining RPP estimates. As part of the Crackles Bequest Project Jane Bunting and I, along with a team of European project partners, have applied this method to compare estimates of RPP within individual species across a wide climatic range and in different habitats. We’ll write more about the results of this project in future blog posts.

The majority of researchers who are interested in using models of pollen dispersal and deposition to quantitatively reconstruct past vegetation cover are based in north-west Europe, and as a result this is where most research activity to date has been focussed. The approach is now beginning to be adopted worldwide, and we are now collaborating with groups working in India, South Africa and South America to obtain estimates of RPP for common taxa in their regions. A little closer to home, research groups based in southern Europe are using the standardised vegetation survey protocol developed for the Crackles Bequest Project to taxa of interest for reconstructing Mediterranean environments. 

In June 2013 I was invited to join a team from the Pyrenean Institute of Ecology in Zaragoza, Spain on their fieldwork near the town of Teruel in the east of the country. Their research project is focused on the palaeolake at Villarquemado, from which they have recovered a 74m long sequence for pollen analysis. The group are now working towards estimating RPP for six key taxa in this sequence to enable them to quantitatively reconstruct the former vegetation in this area. I joined the group for a week to demonstrate the standardised vegetation survey methodology and to learn more about their research.

The palaeolake at Villarquemado, now mostly infilled and supporting fen-type vegetation

After a false start (I arrived at Leeds-Bradford airport on the day I was due to fly to Barcelona to find that all flights were cancelled due to a French air traffic control strike!), I eventually arrived in Zaragoza two days later than originally planned. I was met at the railway station in Zaragoza by my colleague’s husband, and we then drove for approximately two hours to the village that we would be staying in. Incidentally, if anyone is planning a holiday in this region you could do worse than to stay at the house we rented for the week – it was absolutely beautiful!

The following day we made an early start to avoid the worst of the heat (although I have to say that 30oC was still a bit of a shock to my system, coming as I had straight from the miserable British summer that we had been having at that point!) and headed to one of the group's sampling locations. There are some differences between working in north-west Europe and in the Mediterranean region - for example in our fieldwork areas we normally collect a moss polster as our pollen 'trap', but since moss is pretty hard to come by in semi-arid Mediterranean environments 'Tauber traps' had to be used by the Spanish research group. These are essentially plastic containers sunk into the ground so that the top is at ground level, with a hole in the lid to allow the pollen rain to be collected. The team will return to empty the traps at the end of the flowering season to ensure that a full year of pollen rain is collected, so for now our task was to survey the surrounding vegetation.
The view from one of our sampling sites - very different to the lush green landscapes that I am used to working in in north-west Europe. Although I'm told that this is an unusually wet year and that everything is much more green than usual...

View from another sampling site, with the Tauber trap visible in the foreground
Once we had all got to grips with the intricacies of the survey method, the team worked incredibly efficiently, and we managed to survey all 12 sites in five days. We also had fantastic logistical support from the husbands of two members of the survey team, who arrived to meet us every lunch time with hampers full of goodies to fuel us through the afternoon! For me, there were huge benefits to joining my Spanish colleagues for a week – I got to know people that I had previously met only at conferences much better, I made new friends, I got to experience fieldwork in a totally different environment to that which I am used to working in, and I learned a lot about Mediterranean plants and environments. I’m really looking forward to seeing the results once Edu has processed all the pollen and vegetation data from this field season!

Friday, 9 August 2013

Building green homes – what does this mean?

By Kirstie O'Neill (@KirstieJONeill)

Most people are probably already aware of the benefits of making small changes around the home like fitting low energy bulbs (which last longer than ordinary bulbs, use less energy and therefore cost less to run), buying A-rated washing machines or cookers, and most people probably recycle things like bottles and newspapers at home.  However, as energy becomes more expensive and oil-based fuels become scarcer, there are more significant actions that can be taken to make our homes more ‘green’ or environmentally friendly – but the best way to achieve this is not agreed and a range of different approaches exist.

We have spent the last two and a half years researching ‘green entrepreneurs’ and businesses working in green building and construction.  Such businesses are working with straw-bale building, growing hemp for construction and as a source of biomass, as well as providing products and services for green homes and buildings (e.g. architects specialising in a range of green building designs or ‘green’ builders merchants where sheep wool insulation or triple glazed windows can be purchased).  While change is happening within the mainstream construction industry, with technologies like solar panels becoming more common, we need a step-change in the way we build and use our homes.  As new products become available which could make our homes perform better in terms of carbon emissions, it is essential that we have skilled people able to install such products effectively and to explain these clearly to home-owners and tenants.  Ensuring the availability of such skills would mean that our homes are more environmentally friendly and cost less to run – at the moment, such new technologies are not widely available so knowledge about their installation and use is limited, but evolving.

What might a green home look like?  In the future we will have to rethink our expectations of our homes’ appearances so that we can live comfortably and affordably in a changing climate.  Below are some images indicating the degrees of difference between what can be argued to be a ‘green’ home:

The solar settlement, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Germany (designed by architect Rolf Disch)

The buildings in the ‘solar settlement’ have roofs which face south and have solar panels to provide electricity, they are connected to a district heating scheme (which heats water in one place and then channels this out to individual homes within a given district, so that separate boilers are not needed), and the homes are oriented to take best advantage of sunlight so that the buildings towards the rear of the development are higher than the others in order to still have sunlight hitting their solar panels.

 Straw bale holiday cottage, East Yorkshire (photo: Carol Atkinson)

This building is built using straw and other natural materials like wood (different building materials have different amounts of carbon 'embodied' within them).  The building is oriented to make the most of natural light for heating and avoiding the use of artificial light.  The building is heated by a wood-burning stove and there is no central heating – the thermal mass of the straw walls means that heat generated is stored and released slowly.  The building is fitted with low energy equipment such as a low-flow shower and water-saving toilet.

More radical designs are also being experimented with, which look significantly different from most homes at the moment.  It is likely that such experimental designs won’t be built in great numbers, but they help to challenge our thinking about how houses should or could look and be built in the future.  The following photos illustrate this:

Low-cost straw bale house in southern Scotland (see * below)

The same material, straw bales, is used in this house which looks markedly different to the straw bale holiday cottage in East Yorkshire (above).  While straw bale building can be a low cost approach there are certainly differences in construction costs – the one pictured here cost the owner just £4,000 to build (Hill 2008).  Affordability is a key concern for green buildings as some new technologies (biomass boilers, solar panels and so on) are expensive to purchase.

 The ‘Heliotrope’, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Germany – a rotating, cylindrical building designed to maximise exposure to the sun for generating heat and power.

As these images suggest, ‘green’ building is of great interest in a range of countries where governments are trying to encourage a more environmentally-friendly building stock in order to reduce emissions, improve energy security and reduce resource consumption.  Many of the UK green entrepreneurs we have spoken to suggested that Germany was a forerunner in such environmentally friendly buildings and associated technologies – the British Academy funded a short piece of research where we looked at green building entrepreneurs in Germany, and we will report on the results of this research in a future blog post.

At a time when more conventional building and construction companies have been in recession, we've been surprised that the businesses we've interviewed are doing so well and expanding.  However, a clear message that we've been getting is that these businesses are particularly concerned about the lack of direction and inconsistency from the UK government which is seen to be stifling investment and growth.  Another core concern has been access to finance, especially as banks look to avoid risk and other sources of money dry up.  The time is ripe to encourage and support these green businesses and ensure that we make the most of the available opportunities so that our homes have lower emissions, running costs and are, above all, comfortable, pleasant places to live.

See Jenny Pickerill’s excellent Natural Build blog ( for a further discussion of such issues.

Research results from a research project with Professor David Gibbs, University of Hull.


Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Down the Microscope - Understanding urban drainage post 2007 Hull floods

By Dr Karen Scott (@DrKarenScott)

As an environmental microbiologist I spend quite a bit of my time elbow deep in muck collecting samples to be analysed in the laboratory – which is exactly how I spent the majority of my 3.5 years PhD investigating sustainable solutions for urban drainage.

One of the streets during the Hull 2007 floods.
My research came as a result of the 2007 Hull floods, where the city was severely hit by a major flooding event which caused millions of pounds worth of damage. Blocked gully pots were partially blamed for exacerbating the flooding in the city and although it turned out there were other factors behind the severity of the floods, it did cause us to wonder what exactly was going on within the gully pots and whether the waste collected could  be managed in a more sustainable way.

Gully pots are small sumps in the roadside gutter and are important components of the urban drainage system with over 17 million in use across England and Wales, approximately 73,000 of these in Hull. Their main purpose is to collect sediment from road runoff, organic matter and litter before it enters the drainage system where potential blockages could occur. Due to the large amount of materials they collect they require regular cleaning to prevent the pots themselves becoming blocked.

A. Diagram of a large square gully pot. B. Inside the gully pot showing waste collected within.
Despite their importance, gully pot internal processes (in particular decomposition rate of their contents, which may have a significant effect upon the frequency with which the pots require emptying) have received little scientific study in this area. Due to this, it was firstly essential to examine the contents to gain a basic understanding of the processes and to establish the decomposition characteristics of the contents. Understanding the processes that occur within gully pots and determining if the environment affect these processes, is an important element in developing sustainable solutions for managing the pots.

This introductory section of my research aimed to create an initial understanding of the physical and microbial processes within the gully pot waste, the ability of it to decompose, and whether season and geographical locations affected it. To assess this, two lots of experiments were set up - in the field and in the laboratory. In the field, the city of Hull was divided into four main areas – industrial, residential, busy road and areas with high foliage. Gully pots from these four areas were randomly sampled on a monthly basis over a year (which allowed for seasonal differences to be monitored).

Modelled laboratory composting experiment
In the laboratory a composting style experiment was set up over a five week period and monitored on a more regular basis. As the decomposition processes in gully pots are unknown composting methods were used as it’s a better characterised environment and had visible similar organic waste. Setting these up in the lab made it easier to sample, control the environment (I could make sure the temperature, waste level and moisture remained constant/recorded) and ensure the samples would not be tampered with (be that people or weather etc). For all of the field experiments, samples were taken from each gully pot and taken back to the laboratory to be analysed for enzyme activity (which can indicate microbial activity, quality of organic matter and the ability of degradation), organic matter (can indicate how much of the waste can decompose) and pH. The composting trial was only analysed for organic matter to see if it was possible for the waste to decompose.

The finding from the one year field study showed that area had more of an impact than season. Differences in organic matter was observed in the seasons where it was higher in summer (potentially due to high land use e.g gardening which would decrease when the weather got worse and leaf fall during the late summer months) and lower pH in autumn and winter. These differences did not appear to affect the enzyme activity, where similar activity was observed across the seasons. Looking across the geographical area types, organic matter was considerably lower in industrial areas (due to the lack of vegetation) and pH was higher (potentially due the dumping of industrial detritus, such as cement, which was observed in samples). Enzyme activity was higher in samples with higher organic matter values, it was also present in the samples with less organic matter, but just at lower levels.  The results from the five week trial showed that the contents from the gully pots are able to decompose in modelled laboratory environments. Organic content decreased at an average rate of 0.1g of organic matter per 13g of organic matter per day. Although the rate of decomposition was observed to be slow it quantifies a previously unknown degradation process.

While significant differences in the parameters monitored between gully pots were recorded, it was difficult to show any distinct nature of the different gully pot contents. Therefore, it may be possible to treat gully waste in a homogenous manner, rather than individually, especially in a seasonal context. This may greatly assist future research to determine the activity of the contents via replica systems in a laboratory or otherwise, and can be used as a baseline when examining sustainable solutions for urban drainage waste

Scott et al., 2012. An initial appraisal of waste decomposition by microbial processes within roadside gully pots. Waste Management and Research. 31(8). 
This paper can be found here.

Friday, 2 August 2013

On the academic condition…

Today we have a guest blog by Prof David Atkinson (@DavideAtkinson) with some musings on the academic condition inspired by a recent conference trip to Chile.

I am recently returned from a conference trip to Santiago, Chile.  As often happens on these kind of solitary journeys to conferences, the long hours in the air and the slivers of time found in cafés, restaurants or airport-terminals en route often prompts me to reflect on the nature of our academic lives – on what we could label ‘the academic condition’.  I share some of the thinking I did here...  


I had a great time in Chile.  The conference was entitled Patrimonio y Territorio (heritage / memory and territory) and was convened by the National Monuments Council and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council of Chile.  It was coherent and impressive – with some excellent papers and workshops, and good attendance and questions.  I was especially intrigued by the practice of submitting questions to the panel chair on slips of paper – a method designed to stop endless, rhetorical questioning from the floor, but which results in anonymous, disembodied questions with only the handwriting betraying something of the questioner.  I think my paper and the workshop focussed on my work went well.  We had an excellent field-visit to cultural centres in Valparaiso on the Pacific coast.  I did some research visits to sites memorialising the victims of Pinochet’s regime, and I undertook some public relations visits and interviews for my hosts.  I came home pleased.    
I also liked the city, the country and the Chilenos I met.  Of course at the conference I encountered well educated academics and professionals from the cultural sector for much of the time; but I also took a tour of Santiago’s more left-field spaces with some student tour-leaders, and I chatted with other people in bars and restaurants.  Santiago is a rewarding city in many ways.  Its inflections of behaviour and style are distinctive (in contrast to Europe or North America), and this difference is enhanced because the globalising trends that have homogenised other cities haven’t washed over Santiago as much as most European cities.  There’s a clearly visible tradition of sociability that’s performed in the markets and public spaces, while Chile’s various cycles of wealth and economic struggle are written into the capital’s architecture.  The struggle to represent and remember Pinochet’s military regime is also very distinctive– in part because it is still so raw and emotive for many (the regime lasted until 1990).  All of this made Santiago a fascinating place.
This trip also reminded me of one of the better aspects of academic life.  I like international academic exchange.  I find the flow of ideas and research between different academic traditions particularly rewarding – and events like this conference remind me of this most forcefully.  In part this may be because I did my PhD and much of my subsequent research on Italian topics – in a foreign language geographical tradition.  And while I usually enjoy conferences in the Anglophone world, I sometimes find the academic approaches they offer are less differentiated, and the debates are much more familiar and predictable, than conferences elsewhere in the world.  Of course, I can’t appreciate the nuance of the routine and the familiar in Chile, and I won’t notice their competitiveness and parochialism in the way that I sometimes see it erupting at Anglophone conferences.  I’m also sure what I’m describing is rather superficial ‘academic tourism’ in some respects.  But I’m nevertheless fascinated by good conferences in foreign language traditions: you never quite know what’s coming – and good papers are additionally interesting due to their difference from our ‘normal’ Anglophone circuits of communication, debate and positioning.   
These days however, my pleasure at being away at conference, and especially at being immersed in a different, surprising flow of ideas and perspectives, is book-ended by the looming presence of ‘the job’ back home.  Increasingly I try to reduce my trips away and other excess responsibilities due to family reasons and workload matters – the perennial academic obsession with trying to balance work and life (and, incidentally, why don’t we talk about life-work balance?  Why does work always comes first in discussions of that little duet?).  Therefore, I find myself trying to cut down on conferences as part of a strategy to eliminate any unnecessary hassle.  
These trips are a hassle as they approach.  There are mundane jobs and duties that demand attention.  You (or at least I – for I’m sure others transact these tasks far better than me) have to clear your desk temporarily.  This means looking ahead to deadlines that fall in the period you’re gone and, increasingly, I find myself anticipating what might happen in the week away, and I set processes in place to accommodate any problems that may arise.  More prosaically, you have to pack, check the insurance and, for a trip like this, fill in University paperwork about contact details, risks and dangers.  You have to organise the money you’ll need, and tell the banks where and when you’ll be away.  I decide that this conference is probably an occasion for a suit and tie, so I have to dig those out.  I also negotiate creeping guilt about the environmental costs of the long-haul flights.  Most importantly, at home you have to square your absence from family and other responsibilities with the professional benefits of this performance.  And as departure nears, a parallel operation begins which entails organising extra childcare, school drop-offs and all the family duties I’ll be vacating for the week.  I’ll also miss my family, and my children and my partner all ask me why I have to go away for so long.  
And, of course, you have to write a paper: a good paper that engages the audience and leaves them with questions (to write on slips of paper).  The paper should also justify your host’s faith and investment in you.  When I reach Santiago I’m told that the monument commission undertook a two month search and reading exercise before inviting me as their keynote speaker – so I want to repay that faith.  To this end, the keynote paper should address the conference theme directly: it should point out the key debates and their shifting developments, and how, in this case, the Anglophone world thinks about heritage-memory-territory.  The paper should meld your research to the conference agenda and then, nudge this agenda forwards.  You need good images and a fluent visual presence for the big screens you’re bound to perform before.  Ideally, you should also come up with a question or issue to flourish at your audience at the end – something to make them think, and something that may echo through the next two days.  
These trips are also a hassle after the event.  Unless you deal with their insistent trickle while you’re away, you have to negotiate a flood of emails on your return.  These can encompass anything: urgent circulars requiring information, requests for references and reviews, postgraduate progress issues, undergraduate questions, research administration and, more plaintively, requests for help.  You also have to note and file those tasks that may be less immediate, but are still lumpen in their stolid, looming presence.  These days, you should also think about somewhere strategic to publish the conference paper – once it’s suitably dressed and finessed as ‘agenda-setting’.  You should also publicise your achievements to audiences at your institution and within your field.  And you have to sort out your expenses and tidy up the trip’s bureaucracy (two things I’m particularly bad at completing).  Finally, in this instance I’m faced by a hefty phone bill on my return and I start arguing with the phone company.
But for me, the bonus of such a conference trip, with its dedicated time and space, is a rare moment of focus on one academic task – and a task that we imagine is core to our professional lives: delivering a paper that draws on our research to make bigger claims about current debates.  It re-engages me with some of the research I’ve done in the past.  It reminds me of the interesting writing I’m supposed to be doing in the summer.  It also prompts bitter-sweet dreaming about possible future research that may, or may not, ever progress.  But in sum, it reminds me of many of the things I like most about the job.  And this is the big plus for me: despite the hassles of finding space, travelling for 25-26 hours each way and writing the paper, there’s the sudden, jolting reminder that working with these ideas is a key part of what academics should be about.   
So, I stand in suit and tie, before 220 Chilenos, in an large, austere, industrially-themed cultural centre in the Biblioteca de Santiago.  I’m presenting Anglophone theories of heritage, memory, space and territory and illustrating them with examples from my research in Rome, Trieste and, equally exotic for this audience, Hull and East Yorkshire.  I’m speaking through translators and there’s an overflow audience in the lobby outside, and, we’re told, some of the 400+ who couldn’t get tickets are watching this via a webcast, as are audiences in every province of Chile and at three Ecuadorian Universities.  At such moments, the incongruity of the event often hits me hard.  I’m part of this high-profile event locally, nationally and even in other parts of Latin America- but I’m all the way on the other side of the world from my normal circles.  And getting there has drained so much time, money and effort from all parties.  But then again, this is one of the prime currencies of the modern, academic world: the presentation, the visuals, the performance.  And, buried within this somewhere, is the exchange of ideas and perspectives – all sides are encountering different ways of conceptualising and negotiating the world.  And despite the hassle, this is what I like.  But there is a growing degree of hassle for those of us living in this academic condition.