Wednesday, 20 August 2014

High school students as research partners: working with Nuffield Placement Students

 by Jane Bunting (@DrMJBunting) and Rebecca Williams (@Volcanologist)

Meanwhile, back in the lab...

This week, the blog is back indoors, where Jane and Rebecca are spending August helping some Sixth Form students get a taste of 'real science' in the summer before they apply for University.  Five students have placements with us in GEES through the Nuffield Foundation Research Placements Scheme, which will enable them to be assessed for a British Science Association CREST Gold Award.

Rebecca did a Nuffield Placement herself in the summer after her first year of A Levels.  Neither the Nuffield scheme or the CREST Awards had been done before at Rebecca’s school. An eager biology teacher, Dr Bridgeman, had heard of the scheme and so started it up that year with Rebecca and two of her school friends being the first students to go through it. They weren’t provided with placements, but rather had to find them for themselves. At the time, Rebecca knew she enjoyed Geography, Science and Maths. She was also a bit obsessed with Time Team and she has blogged before about how her journey into geology really started by wanting to be a geophysicist. The only company she could find locally which did geophysics was a consultancy company for the oil and gas company, TGS-Nopec (as they were then known). Rebecca wrote a letter (no email back then!) asking if they would take her on as a work experience student and was delighted when they did. It was a phenomenal experience. Rebecca worked on a project called ‘Hydrocarbon prospectivity along the eastern seaboard, offshore northwest Europe’. She doesn’t have a good memory, but the report is sat next to her as she types this – a testament to how important the experience was. Rebecca found that the geophysical interpretation of the seismic lines wasn’t what interested her. Rather, it was the geology – how is the oil formed, where does it come from, where is it stored, how is it trapped and where can it be found? When Rebecca then had to fill out her UCAS application a month or so later, it was geology degrees she applied to, and not the geophysics that she thought she was going to do, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Nuffield Scheme really did change Rebecca’s path in life. The results from that project were eventually presented by TGS-Nopec at the PETEX Conference – the premier oil and gas conference!

Students doing placements work with a supervisor for 4-6 weeks on a 'real' research project - one where the supervisor doesn't know what will happen or be found out.  The students are expected to read around their topics, contribute to discussions about the design of experiments or studies, plan their own time, learn to use different pieces of equipment, collect data and interpret it, and produce a report and a talk or poster at the end of the placement - of course there is lots of help available, from the supervisor, from technical staff, from other students and researchers in related fields, but it is still quite a challenge.  This year's students all seem to be making the most of it, and are filling their lab notebooks with lots of lovely data.
Tinashe weighing an ear of wheat
surface of a wheat leaf: the 'squashed donuts' are the stomata

Jordan, Leah, Charlotte and Tinashe from local sixth forms at Wyke and Sirius Academy are all working with Jane and Lindsey Atkinson (@LJA_1), who also blogs here, on a pilot study of the effects of small climate changes on spring wheat, which is linked to a bigger project being run by the Network Ecology Group called "The impacts of climate-warming on farmland food-webs and ecosystem services".  In this project, 24 plots are marked out in a field of spring wheat.  Half of these are warmed by 2 oC, the sort of change in summer temperature which we are likely to see in our region within the next century according to predictive models.  Since the warming will dry out the soil, half of the warmed plots and half of the non-warmed plots are also given some extra water, so some plots are warmer and drier, and some are just warmer.  We're studying wheat plants collected from the different plots in the field experiment, and also growing our own in the controlled environment rooms in the GEES building, where special lights on timers mimic day and night cycles, the room temperature is controlled, and neither rabbits nor aphids can snack on the growing leaves - the indoors experiment should therefore help us understand how the plants respond to the climate changes without the rest of the food web complicating the picture.  Jordan is studying how biomass allocation varies (essentially 'plant budgeting', looking at how plant resources are divided between light capture, water capture and reproduction).  Charlotte is looking at the effects of the climate changes on the grain yield of the wheat plants.  Leah and Tinashe are looking in more detail at whether the plants can adapt to grow in different conditions by varying the number of stomatal cells in their leaves (an introduction to studying stomata aimed at students can be found here). 

Jordan and Leah cutting up wheat plants
These data, along with other aspects of the plants being measured by Jane and Lindsey, will form the basis for an initial paper on the response of this important crop plant to anticipated climate changes (which of course will get blogged about here) and for a grant application to extend the work; we need to show that our experiments will produce interesting results before we can ask for funding, so these projects are playing an important role in helping us develop this research area.

Jodie uses a digital camera to photograph her thin sections
Jodie joins us from Hessle High School and Sixth Form College. Jodie is interested in geology and chemistry so we’re convincing her that volcanology is an excellent subject! Jodie is doing a research project on the Green Tuff Ignimbrite from Pantelleria with Rebecca. In particular she is looking at thin sections of the ignimbrite to look for features that she can use to interpret how the ignimbrite was formed. This project is a continuation of a long-running project that started with Rebecca’s PhD in 2006. It’s a small, but important part of a much bigger research jigsaw, and the results look promising! We’ll be blogging more about the project next week. If the results look good, Jodie and Rebecca will be presenting the research at the UK’s volcanology conference which this year is hosted in Norwich; Jodie is getting real experience of working on a research project at the cutting-edge of Rebecca’s science.

The Nuffield Schemes offer a wonderful opportunity for students to try out real science; it's very different from school!  For us, it's an excellent way to communicate with the next generation of scientists and consumers of scientific findings, and gives the students involved a taste of scientific work, a boost for their university or job applications and helps them make better course and career choices.  If you're a student reading this, ask your teachers about the scheme or go to this link.  If you're a scientist, we urge you to consider taking on placement students through the scheme - it might even help you get that crucial bit of data to progress your research next summer.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Colorado Rocks! Attending a research meeting on sedimentary systems

By Lucy Clarke (@DrLucyClarke)
Continuing the blog series looking at what we have been getting up to this summer...

Last week I was lucky enough to be in the US for a research conference and I'm sharing my experiences of this with you in this blog post. This was a specialist meeting, with about 50 people attending, focusing on the “Autogenic Dynamics of Sedimentary Systems” – so basically the importance of internal processes (i.e autogenic processes) in driving change in natural systems and how this is recorded in the 'rock record'.

You may be asking yourself... why is it important to understand what's recorded in the rock record? Well, geologists use this information to reconstruct long term environmental change. Layers of material are laid down through time and over lengthy time periods these form the rocks that we see all around us (i.e. a sedimentary system). By examining the grain size, composition and structures in these rocks it can tell us information about the type of processes that formed them and what the climate was like at the time using a technique called stratigraphy. So it's important to know not only how things like climate and tectonics can influence the sediment build up and preservation as it turns to rock, but also what effect other internal processes can have on this so that a correct interpretation can be made.

Stratigraphic profile from Colorado National Monument showing a fluvial section with thick layers of floodplain with thinner, coarser bands of channel material in between
The aim of the meeting was to bring together an interdisciplinary group of researchers from ecology, geochemistry, geography, geology, and palaeontology to look at the research advances that have been made in different sedimentary systems to evaluate what, if any, ‘autogenic’ signals can be determined. Presentations covered a range of topics and included field, numerical modelling and experimental approaches that were being used to try and tackle this problem.

I presented the research that I introduced in my blog on 28 August 2013: What drives change on alluvial fans? I talked about how my experiments showed that internal processes within these landforms caused observable changes in the flow patterns. 

The sessions were really interesting and thought provoking. It was designed to be a discussion rather than just a one-way presentation of information from the speakers, consequently we had lots of time for asking questions supplemented by break out groups to follow up on ideas and think about the 'bigger picture'. I found this particularly useful as it helped me to generate new ideas as to how to develop my own research, as well as starting to think about the wider implications of my research. Additionally having the opportunity to talk to people from other related, but slightly different disciplines, has certainly broadened my perspectives.

Looking over the Colorado River to the city of Grand Junction (to the left) and the Grand Junction Main Street (to the right)
The meeting was held in the city of Grand Junction - situated in central Colorado, the town sits on the Colorado River with lots of wineries and agricultural land surrounding it. Grand Junction is a small traditional mid-West town with a population of about 60,000 that boasts a university and a quaint main street that has a night market every Thursday evening during the summer. Temperatures were around 30°C every day and despite a couple of thunderstorms at the start of my trip the weather was great. Close to the town is the Colorado National Monument, this is a national park about 85 km2 in size, containing stunning mesas and canyons. As part of the conference we were treated to a field day to experience the park's impressive geologic formations and see if we could explore, and apply, some of the conference themes in a field setting.

Colorado National Monument: looking over the national park (left) and geologists looking at a rock section showing preserved sand dunes (right)
I thoroughly enjoyed my week in Colorado. I got to explore a new area but most of all I made new connections for my research with the potential for new collaborations in the future. I learned about lots of current research from different, but related, areas that I hadn’t previously been aware of, which has rejuvenated my own research in this area - so all round it was a successful trip!

Enjoying the sunshine on the field day in Colorado National Monument

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Summer 'fieldwork', archives and hidden histories

By Briony McDonagh (@BrionyMcDonagh)

Following on from Michelle’s recent post on her fieldwork in Malta, several of us have decided to blog about what we’re up to over the summer break from teaching, specifically our summer research and/or fieldwork. As a historical geographer and landscape historian, much of the fieldwork I’m engaged in is rather different in nature to that undertaken by my physical geography colleagues. It doesn't involve flooded rivers or exploding volcanoes, dark caves or slippery climbs up glaciers. It doesn't require a great deal in the way of equipment and doesn't involve long and detailed risk assessments (for which I count myself extremely lucky). Instead it all takes place in the UK, a good deal of it within two or three hours’ drive of my office here at Hull. Much of what I do relies on a combination of landscape history fieldwork, maps, aerial photographs and documentary records. For me, fieldwork often consists of carefully scrutinizing – and sometimes photographing, measuring, and generally poking around – the landscape for traces of the past in the present. Hedges, field patterns, green lanes, boundary stones, and old buildings can all tell us a great deal about the way past landscapes were organised, resources utilized and space experienced by those who lived and worked there (for more on this kind of approach to the landscape, readers might like to check out WG Hoskins’ classic The Making of the English Landscape).

Hoskins' classic The Making of the English Landscape (paperback edition)

Yet this summer my ‘fieldwork’ hasn’t for the most part taken place in the field at all. Along with some odds and ends of fieldwork for other projects (for example, on the Diggers – on which more another time), I’m spending the summer chasing up loose ends for the book I’m writing on aristocratic and gentle women’s contribution to estate management and improvement in the long eighteenth century. This project has involved some work in the field proper – for example, visiting country houses owned by women, tracking down their grave inscriptions and identifying building work designed or paid for by them – but also a great deal of archival work. I’ve been to county record offices and private collections all over the country looking for evidence of women’s contribution to estate management and improvement, making use of collections from places as far apart as Cornwall and County Durham. So, like my physical geography colleagues, I’ve certainly clocked up the miles on this project if only within the UK. Moreover, we can think of archive work as a kind of field experience (on which see Lorimer, 2010 and Keighren, 2013). For historical geographers and others, local and national archival repositories provide spaces for collecting data and testing theories, sites where outcomes are often unknown and unpredictable, and where one may have to dig through endless boxes or volumes before alighting on something fantastic or finding just what you hoped might be there. And while they may be neither muddy nor dangerous, public search rooms and archive back offices are frequently cold and uncomfortable places and the documents surprisingly filthy.

My latest foray has been to Surrey History Centre, a new-build (and warm) archival repository on the outskirts of Woking. In my book I’m writing a bit about a woman called Jane More Molyneux, who inherited the Loseley Park estate near Guildford after the deaths of her brother and sister in 1776 and 1777, respectively. Like many of the propertied women who feature in my book, Molyneux was a dedicated estate manager and committed bookkeeper. I spent a day reading the volumes of estate accounts and records kept by Molyneux as she tried to repay the debts run up by her spendthrift brother and save the estate from financial ruin. The house was in a terrible condition: the account books contained endless payments for ‘pans to catch the drips’ and the steward was instructed to look over the exterior of the house every day in order to check that there was no stonework likely to fall and injure someone! In the winter, snow had to be shovelled out of the attics so bad were the holes in the roof. Plus the whole place seems to have been overrun with vermin.

Yet Molyneux took on her task with great resolve, renting out the agricultural estate in an attempt to raise cash to repair the house, selling off outlying parts of the estate and economizing on her housekeeping costs wherever she could. Ultimately her efforts paid off and by the early 1790s both the house and the estate finances were in a much improved position. Molyneux then made the somewhat unusual decision to lease out what was left of the land in hand including the house and gardens and move to London. Though she spent the rest of her life in the capital, Molyneux had already done much to secure the financial well-being of future generations of her family. Amongst the numerous volumes of accounts, notes and memoranda she handed on to her heir – the illegitimate son of her profligate brother – was a book recording the repairs she had undertaken on the house and estate in the 15 years she lived on the estate. This she had inscribed as ‘for my own perusal and satisfaction’, a note which reminds us of the personal sense of achievement and pride that women might take in bookkeeping, and indeed in estate management more generally – a theme which my book explores in greater detail.

One of Molyneux's account books (above) and detail from it (below).
Original at the Surrey History Centre. Photo B. McDonagh.

So all in, this was a good day’s work in Woking. I wasn't plagued by any of the difficulties which sometimes beset archive work – documents ‘not fit for production’, missing items or indecipherable handwriting – and unlike many Georgian women, Jane More Molyneux left a substantial collection of material which can be used to reconstruct the details of her life and estate management. More than once I’ve spent fruitless days struggling to find the materials needed to unlock the ‘hidden histories’ of particular female landowners, but here at Surrey my ‘fieldwork’ was a success. I’m now working on writing up Molyneux’s role in estate management for the book, and thinking about how her experience relates to that of other propertied women in Georgian England. But to find out the answer to that, you’ll need to keep an eye out for later blog posts on the project here and elsewhere. Or perhaps even buy the book!

Further reading:
W. G. Hoskins (1955) The Making of the English Landscape (Hodder and Stoughton).

Innes M. Keighren (2013) Teaching historical geography in the field, Journal of Geography in Higher Education 37.4, 567-77.

Hayden Lorimer (2010) Caught in the nick of time: archives and fieldwork, in Dydia DeLyser, Steve Herbert, Stuart Aitken, Mike Crang and Linda McDowell, The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Geography (Sage), 248-73.