The 2017 SCENARIO Conference: Frontiers in Natural Environment Research

Every year students from the SCENARIO (Science of the Environment, Natural and Anthropogenic Processes, Impacts and Opportunities) Doctoral Training Partnership organise an annual conference. Those invited include SCENARIO students, NERC employees and industrial partners. This year, after last year’s successful collaboration with the University of Oklahoma, it was decided that we would run the conference (Frontiers in Natural Environment Research) with the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) and London NERC DTPs, led by a variety of universities and institutions in London.

A similar conference was organised last year (Perspectives on Environmental Change) between SSCP and the London NERC DTP, which was a rousing success. This year, with the addition of Reading and Surrey, we had almost 200 delegates attending with a healthy proportion of supervisors and industry partners, with over 40 oral presentations and 40 posters from students at the various institutions. The conference was held in the Physics building at Imperial College, a literal stone’s throw away from the Royal Albert Hall.

Organising the conference was a daunting task; there was a lot of work involved between the nine PhD students on the committee! One of the challenges, (but also one of the most exciting parts of the conference), was the sheer variety of research being presented. Many of the attendees were from the Met department, but there were also students from Chemistry and Geography from SCENARIO, and students from the London institutions doing topics as varied as sociology, ecology, biology, materials science and plate tectonics. This made for a really interesting conference since there was so much on offer from such a wide range of fields, but made our lives quite difficult when trying to organise keynote speakers and sort abstracts!

IMG_8983

As well as the student presentations we also ran workshops and panel discussions, and had two invited keynote speakers. The workshops were about communicating science through social media, and also on getting published in one of the Nature journals (similar to the successful workshop ran by SCENARIO here at Reading). The panel discussions were themed around “Science and Development” and “Science in a post-truth world”, looking at ways in which science (particularly that within the NERC remit) can help to solve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and how we communicate science in a time of “fake news”.

IMG_8990

Perhaps my favourite part of the conference were the two keynote speakers. Finding speakers who would appeal to the majority of people attending the conference was no easy task, given the huge range of disciplines!

Opening the conference, Marcus Munafo, Professor in Biological Psychology at Bristol University spoke about the “reproducibility crisis” and how incentive structures affect the scientific process. I can honestly say it was one of the most thought-provoking lectures I’ve ever been to. His main argument was that ultimately science is done by people who have an incentive to do certain things, (e.g. publish in high impact journals), for the benefit of their careers. However, this incentivisation means that often one “big result” can mean more for the career of someone than all the work they’ve done previously, even if that result ended up being retracted or proven false later on, (he went on to demonstrate that happens a lot). One of the statistics he presented was that the higher the impact factor of a journal, the higher the chance of retraction, which I thought was really interesting and certainly made me re-evaluate the way in which I approach my own work.

The other keynote speaker was Lucy Hawkes, Senior Lecturer in Physiological Ecology at Exeter, talking about her work and career, particularly “biologging” of animals and looking at their migratory patterns. Aside from all the great anecdotes and stories (like swimming with sharks in order to plant bio-tags on them), from a meteorologist’s perspective it was interesting listening to her talk about how these migratory patterns change with the climate.

Of course any conference worth its salt has entertainment and things outside work. A BBQ was hosted in the courtyard underneath the Queen’s Tower, and drinks and comedy (the Science Showoff) in the wonderfully titled hBar at Imperial. The Science Showoff in particular was really good, hosted by a professional comedian but with most of the material coming from PhD students at the various institutes (although shamefully no-one from Met volunteered).

IMG_9012

One of the other really useful parts was meeting students from disparate fields at the other institutions. As Joanna Haigh (director of the SSCP DTP) said in her closing speech, the people we meet at these conferences will be our colleagues for our entire careers, so it’s really important to get to know people socially and professionally. In the end I think it went really well, and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing the London students again at next year’s conference!

Surviving the Viva

Email: d.l.a.flack@reading.ac.uk

Recently in the department we have had a fair number of students submitting their PhD theses and awaiting or completing their viva.

For many students at the start of the PhD the viva seems a long way off and can often be thought of as a terrifying experience. So why then do many PhD students come out of their viva saying that they enjoyed it? and is it really as XKCD portray it?

MY RESULTS ARE A SIGNIFICANT IMPROVEMENT ON THE STATE OF THE AAAAAAAAAAAART
Thesis defense according to XKCD

With the help of some former PhD students (Hannah Bloomfield, Sammie Buzzard, Hannah Gough and Leo Saffin) we’ve come up with a summary of our own experiences and some advice for people just about to go in.

But before I get into that I’ll briefly explain a little bit about the viva. The viva is (alongside writing the thesis) the examination for the PhD. Its essentially an oral exam where you sit and talk about your thesis and the area surrounding your field. The viva can last anywhere between 90 minutes and 5 hours, depending on how much you have to talk about (and how much you or your examiners talk). The result from the viva is as follows: Fail; Major Corrections requiring another viva; Pass: Major corrections; Pass: Minor corrections (the most common) and Pass: No corrections (very rare), and at the end of the day it’s the pass or fail that matters.

So what can you expect from a viva? Well, as with each PhD each viva is different (hence why this post is a collaborative effort). Even people’s nerves are different, some go in feeling confident, whilst others are still fairly nervous about it (which of course is very understandable). I certainly was in the nervous camp, but I would have been disappointed if I wasn’t because I always feel I perform better if I am nervous beforehand. Indeed, many of us who are initially nervous become relaxed as soon as we get into the swing of things and the questions start flowing. Furthermore, many examiners (not all) will know and understand that you will be nervous so will immediately put you at ease by saying something along the lines of “I really enjoyed reading your thesis and you don’t need to be worried about the result.” This last statement is probably key for anyone going into the viva – by the time it gets to the viva your examiners have already decided the result, the viva is mainly to check that you did the work.

Looking at the recent experiences of the PhD students I have broadly classified the viva into three types, Presentation,Traditional” and Thesis covering described below.

Presentation (Hannah Gough):

Hannah was asked to produce a presentation for her viva. She did find this useful as it was a good way to settle into the viva and bring across the aims and key conclusions of her thesis, at the same time highlight what she felt was the most important figures in her thesis. After the presentation, the examiners asked questions on her entire thesis. These ranged from points of clarification, to the wider implications of her work.

Traditional” (Hannah Bloomfield, Sammie Buzzard and Leo Saffin):

The more “traditional” viva asks you to summarise your thesis for the first 3-5 minutes and then goes through the thesis asking about wider implications and where your work fits in, basic theory, parts of the thesis they are unsure about and implications of your work (amongst other things).

Thesis covering (myself):

Essentially, all we did was go through my thesis cover-to-cover discussing bits specifically related to my project (some minor wider implications/knowledge) and comments that they had on my work.

So why do people enjoy the viva then? Well, there is a fairly simple answer to this question. You’ve been doing work for between three and four years and now you get to discuss it in detail and the examiner can see that you know what you are talking about and will often ask some interesting and thought provoking questions that you either haven’t considered or didn’t necessarily view as important.

Other things that are worth mentioning about the viva, before going on to our collective advice, is that most of the time (unless you spend a while talking about basics of your area) the viva doesn’t feel it is taking as long as it actually is (2 hours feels like 15 minutes – I’m not just saying that, it really does!) – it’s essentially the old saying “time flies when you are having fun”.

So, that’s a brief overview of the viva and our experiences, so how do you actually survive it? Our collective advice would be as follows:

  1. You are the expert in your thesis – so don’t panic – your examiners don’t know as much about what you did as you do.
  2. The examiners are not there to trick you, they are just checking that you did your work – they’ve already made the pass/fail decision.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for breaks from time to time (your examiners may want a break too).
  4. Don’t look at the clock (if there is one in the room). All you will then do is think about how long you have been in the viva.
  5. Bring food (biscuits, etc) and enough to share with your examiners.
  6. Prepare a simple 3-5 minute overview of your thesis and know it well – generally you will be asked to summarise your thesis.
  7. It can be useful to read a couple of your external examiners papers – just to find out a little bit about them at the very least.
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to be explained in more detail so you know exactly what they want.
  9. Eat something before you go in no matter how bad you feel.
  10. Try and get a good night’s sleep beforehand.
  11. Don’t be afraid to say how you would do things differently, after having had time to look back at it.
  12. You are the expert in your thesis – so don’t panic – your examiners don’t know as much about what you did as you do.

With that all I can say if you are facing a viva soon is good luck.

A special thanks to all the former PhD students that helped provide information for this blog: Hannah Gough, Hannah Bloomfield, Samantha Buzzard and Leo Saffin.

4th ICOS Summer School

Email: R.Braghiere@pgr.reading.ac.uk

The 4th ICOS Summer School on challenges in greenhouse gases measurements and modelling was held at Hyytiälä field station in Finland from 24th May to 2nd June, 2017. It was an amazing week of ecosystem fluxes and measurements, atmospheric composition with in situ and remote sensing measurements, global climate modelling and carbon cycle, atmospheric transport and chemistry, and data management and cloud (‘big data’) methods. We also spent some time in the extremely hot Finnish sauna followed by jumps into a very cold lake, and many highly enjoyable evenings by the fire with sunsets that seemed to never come.

sunset_Martijn Pallandt
Figure 1. Sunset in Hyytiälä, Finland at 22:49 local time. Credits: Martijn Pallandt

Our journey started in Helsinki, where a group of about 35 PhD students, with a number of postdocs and master students took a 3 hours coach trip to Hyytiälä.  The group was very diverse and international with people from different backgrounds; from plant physiologists to meteorologists. The school started with Prof. Dr. Martin Heimann  introducing us to the climate system and the global carbon cycle, and Dr. Alex Vermeulen highlighted the importance of good metadata practices and showed us more about ICOS research infrastructure. Dr. Christoph Gerbig joined us via Skype from Germany and talked about how atmospheric measurements methods with aircrafts (including how private air companies) can help scientists.

Hyytiala_main_tower_truls_Andersen_2
Figure 2. Hyytiälä flux tower site, Finland. Credits: Truls Andersen

On Saturday we visited the Hyytiälä flux tower site, as well as a peatland field station nearby, where we learned more about all the flux data they collect and the importance of peatlands globally. Peatlands store significant amounts of carbon that have been accumulating for millennia and they might have a strong response to climate change in the future. On Sunday, we were divided in two groups to collect data on temperature gradients from the lake to the Hyytiälä main flux tower, as well as on carbon fluxes with dark (respiration only) and transparent (photosynthesis + respiration) CO2 chambers.

chamber_measurements_renato
Figure 3: Dark chamber for CO2 measurements being used by a group of students in the Boreal forest. Credits: Renato Braghiere

On the following day it was time to play with some atmospheric modelling with Dr. Maarten Krol and Dr. Wouter Peters. We prepared presentations with our observation and modelling results and shared our findings and experiences with the new data sets.

The last two days have focused on learning how to measure ecosystem fluxes with Prof. Dr. Timo Vesala, and insights on COS measurements and applications with Dr. Kadmiel Maseyk. Timo also shared with us his passion for cinema with a brilliant talk entitled “From Vertigo to Blue Velvet: Connotations between Movies and Climate change” and we watched a really nice Finnish movie “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki“.

4th_icos_summer_school_group_photo
Figure 4: 4th ICOS Summer School on Challenges in greenhouse gases measurements and modelling group photo. Credits: Wouter Peters

Lastly, it was a fantastic week where we were introduced to several topics and methods related to the global carbon budget and how it might impact the future climate. No doubt all information gained in this Summer School will be highly valuable for our careers and how we do science. A massive ‘cheers’ to Olli Peltola, Alex Vermeulen, Martin Heimann, Christoph Gerbig, Greet Maenhout, Wouter Peters, Maarten Krol, Anders Lindroth , Kadmiel Maseyk, Timo Vesala, and all the staff at the Hyytiälä field station.

This post only scratches the surface of all of the incredible material we were able to cover in the 4th ICOS Summer School, not to mention the amazing group of scientists that we met in Finland, who I really look forward to keeping in touch over the course of the years!

 

A PhD Student’s Guide to EGU 2017

Email: r.frew@pgr.reading.ac.uk

EGU2017logo

Science is a community effort, requiring collaboration and lots of different people providing different parts of the jigsaw to try to understand more and more of the full picture. Despite a lot of research being carried out individually in a lab, or at a desk, no one individual can do everything themselves, no matter how much of a genius they are. Sharing, discussing and debating are key to the progression of scientific ideas, and this ethos is something large scientific conferences like EGU cultivates.

Attending EGU for the first time as a PhD student was both an exciting and overwhelming experience due to its shear size and number of people. This year 14,496 people from 107 countries participated, giving 4,849 talks, 11,312 posters and 1,238 PICO presentations throughout the week!  

With 649 scientific sessions running throughout the week, deciding how to spend your day was a significant challenge in itself! The EGU website and app allowed you to create a personal programme, cutting down the number of entire printed programmes being printed, aiming to try to make EGU slightly more environmentally friendly.

IMG_2541
Vienna international conference centre, image courtesy of Matt Priestley.

A ‘typical’ day at EGU consisted of something like… 

7-8am: Wake up, shower and breakfast and then hop on the U-bahn to the conference centre. Pick up a EGU Today newsletter on the way into the centre, highlighting a few sessions happening that day that may be of general interest

8.30-10am: Division session of your choice consisting of six 15min talks. People also pick out specific talks in different sessions and hop between, especially if their work is more interdisciplinary and covers a few different sessions.

10-10.30am: Recharge with a much needed coffee break!

10.30am-12pm: Go to a debate on ‘Make Facts Great Again: how can scientists stand up for science?‘ There were a number of other topical debates throughout the week, including ‘Arctic environmental change: global opportunities and threats‘ and ‘Great Debate on Great Extinctions‘. This consisted of a short introduction from members of a panel, then questions from the floor.

12-1.30pm: Pick up something for lunch from one of the nearby bakeries or cafes around the conference centre, and sit in the nearby park and enjoy the sunshine (hopefully).

1.30-3pm: Explore the many information stands in the exhibition areas. These included publishing houses, geoscience companies, NGOs etc. Next go and vote in the EGU photograph competition: https://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/2017/, before stopping to listen to some PICO (Presenting Interactive COntent) presentations. These are very interactive sessions where speakers give a 2min overview of their work, after which people have the opportunity to go and question speakers further afterwards by a poster/couple of slides.

3-3.30pm: Tea/coffee break with cookies in the Early Career Scientists lounge.

3.30-5pm: Polar Science Career Session aimed at Early Career Scientists (there were also sessions for other divisions), consisting of an informal Q&A with a panel covering a variety of different career paths.

5-7pm: Poster sessions in the big halls with beer/juice and nibbles. These were a great opportunity for in depth discussion, and meeting other people in your field.

7-8.30pm: Early career scientist (ECS) reception with drinks and canapes, meet other ECS from all fields and chat with division leaders. This year 53% of EGU participants were ECSs, and there was a definite effort to cater for them throughout the week.

8.30-?: Dinner and drinks in Vienna town centre with peers, followed by an early night if you plan to make it to a 8.30am session tomorrow…

EGU2017photowinners
EGU 2017 photo competition entries, image taken from the GeoLog blog, more information about the entries and results can be found at: http://blogs.egu.eu/geolog/2017/04/28/at-the-assembly-2017-friday-highlights/

In addition to events highlighted, there were also a variety short courses running, for example ‘Tips and Tricks: How to Navigate EGU‘, ‘How to write a research grant‘ or ‘Rhyme your Research‘! EGU had its own official blog GeoLog, highlighting some of the events from each day: http://blogs.egu.eu/geolog/.

However, EGU is 5 days long, and despite the impressive offering of sessions being put on it would be a shame to go to Vienna and only see the conference centre… The odd extended lunch break to take the U-bahn (included as part of the entrance to the conference) to walk around the centre, or an afternoon off to explore a gallery or museum, or simply sit in one of the beautiful parks or cafes to enjoy some coffee and Sachertorte is definitely a must to recharge and finish off the week!

Industrial Sponsored Doctorates

Email: a.halford@pgr.reading.ac.uk

When it comes to doctoral funding, the current method means project funds can come from a variety of sources, such as research councils, charities, industry partners or a mixture of these. In this blog post I will talk about my experience of being jointly funded by a research council and industrial partner.

To start with, I am not actually a PhD student like most people in the Meteorology department here at the University of Reading, but an EngD student. An EngD is a more industrial focused PhD, based on collaboration between industry and academia. There is a taught element to an EngD in the first year, during which a range of modules are covered, on everything from business analysis to sustainability. Additionally, a portion of time is dedicated to work for the industrial sponsor during the course of the project. An EngD still has the same end goal of a PhD, of an intellectual contribution to knowledge.

EngDs were started by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) back in 1992 and after initial success, the program was expanded in 2009. Out of this expansion came the Technologies for Sustainable Built Environments (TSBE) Centre at the University of Reading. The TSBE Centre has produced 40 EngDs over 8 years, covering a wide variety of disciplines, from modelling energy usage in the home to the effect of different roofing materials on bats. Each student is based within multiple academic departments and the industrial partner organisation with the aim of answering real world research questions.

My project is in collaboration with the BT Group and looks at weather impacts on the UK telecommunications network. I have found that being in an industrial sponsored project is of great benefit. It has been useful to get experience of how industry works, as it can be very different to the academic life in which most doctoral students find themselves. There have also been a lot of opportunities for training in specialist subjects including industrial project management and help to get chartership from professional bodies for those who want it. Being linked with an industrial partner can also offer strong networking and knowledge transfer opportunities, as was the case when I attended a recent interdisciplinary conference of the newly formed Tommy Flowers Institute. This institute has been formed by BT, along with other partner organisations, to further support collaboration between industry and academia.

It can be a challenge at times to balance the approaches of academia and industry. They do not always pull you in the same direction but this is often the same with any lengthy piece of work produced under the guidance of different advisors from different disciplines. The strength with the EngD partnership comes from the different perspectives offered from those different fields to ultimately solve the problem in question.

For me working on a heavily applied problem in the setting of a real organisation has been of greater benefit to me than working on a purely theoretical problem would have been. I have enjoyed seeing my preliminary output being tested within the organisation and look forward to being able to test a more advanced version in the final stages of my project.

Alan Halford is funded by the EPSRC and BT and supported by the TSBE centre.

 

Quo Vadis 2017

“Quo Vadis”, Latin for “where are you going?”, is an annual event held in the Department of Meteorology in which 2nd year PhD students present their work as if they were in an international conference.  In addition to providing the opportunity for students to present their research in a professional yet friendly environment, Quo Vadis has an emphasis on where on-going research is heading (as its name suggests).  Over the years presenters have always walked away with constructive feedback on their presentation style and scientific work, and occasionally, a new collaboration with someone in the audience!

This year’s Quo Vadis was held on 1st February, 2017.  26 excellent talks covering a wide range of meteorology-related topics were delivered by PhD students in their 2nd year in the one-day event.  A full schedule of the event can be found here.  The morning sessions covered topics such as Atmospheric Dynamics, Tropical Meteorology and Space Weather, whereas the afternoon sessions focused on Oceanography, Climate Change, Urban Meteorology and Data Assimilation.

Every year a winning talk is selected based on criteria including knowledge of the subject, methods and innovativeness, results, presentation style and ability to answer questions.  This has always been a tough job for the evaluation committee formed by staff members, as our students tend to be very good at presenting their cutting edge research!

This year’s Quo Vadis winner is Christoph Kent.  He gave an excellent presentation on representing surface roughness in urban areas to determine the vertical wind profile above the surface.  Understanding wind in urban areas is essential to stakeholders in sectors such as renewable energy, construction and many more.  In addition to the winner, 3 honourable mentions were made.  They went to Jonathan Beverley, Thomas Eldridge and Elizabeth Cooper, whose talks were about the influence of Asian summer monsoon on European summer weather, the use of the Temperature Humidity Infrared Radiometer, and the use of data assimilation to improve flood prediction, respectively.

At the end of the event a buffet was served to thank all our speakers and the evaluation committee, congratulate the well-deserved winner and honourable mentions, as well as to celebrate research excellence of the Department of Meteorology.  Quo Vadis 2017 was a huge success, you can find out more about the event on our Twitter account @SocialMetwork, or under the hashtag #QuoVadis2017.

Met Festivities.

The Christmas period is a busy time for many and PhD students are no exception. Below are quick highlights from the department written by three of our PhD students. Read below to learn more about our recent Royal Meteorological Society South-East local centre meeting, the adventures of the Met Choir, and the much-anticipated departmental pantomime.

“Will we have a white Christmas in Reading this year? What does the term “white Christmas” even mean? Both of these questions were addressed at the beginning of the Royal Meteorological Society’s local south-east centre meeting on the 7th of December by the department of meteorology’s recently retired Ross Reynolds.

The evening began with inevitable mince pies and a poster showcase by eight PhD students from a variety of research areas, which initiated lively discussions. The Met choir singers added to the festive spirit with a repertoire of carols before the oral presentations began.

First up was Jake Gristey, whose research project investigates satellite constellations to measure energy flux in and out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Updating the satellite constellation will allow satellites to measure outgoing energy flux to a higher accuracy than any instrument has done previously, allowing for an accurate calculation of Earth’s radiation budget. Eunice Lo spoke about a geoengineering method, Sulphate Aerosol Injection (SAI) which involves releasing sulphate particles into the atmosphere with the aim of increasing the Earth’s albedo. The idea is based on historical volcanic aerosol release which led to a decrease in global temperatures. Eunice is basing her studies of the effects of SAI on a future world following a particular economic scenario. Our last speaker of the evening was James Shaw, who researches the modelling of atmospheric transport over terrain. He is currently developing a new mesh for numerical transport schemes over mountains, with a focus on the accurate representation of near-surface cells.

The meeting exhibited the huge variety of research happening in the department and was an overall success. This was the last local-cente meeting of the year, with the next one taking place on 11th January 2017.”

Kaja Milczewska, K.M.Milczewska@pgr.reading.ac.uk

“An important part of the festive season for PhD students is the infamous Met Pantomime. Twice a week we all get together over our lunchtimes to practice and perfect all the jokes accrued by the members of the department this year. Although planning begins in September, it’s only come December when it all comes together. That crazy wig arrives from Amazon and we’ve created oversized comic props from all the cardboard Hobbycraft can spare. The jokes and jibes get funnier every time we practice them and staff just keep providing more and more material (oh no they don’t!). There’s definitely an undercurrent of excitement – and a little apprehension – as the big evening draws near. This years’ comic spectacle: Snow White and the Research Dwarves, complete with lights, sound, and a fantastic buffet.”

Sarah Bentley, S.Bentley@pgr.reading.ac.uk

whole_cast

“This year the meteorology choir have been busy rehearsing for performances both within the department and externally. A recently formed tradition and definite highlight has been singing for the residents of the Lakeside care home as well as for the annual department Christmas celebration. We also have been lucky enough this year to perform at a local and national meeting of the Royal Meteorological Society. The choir is open to all, regardless of musical ability and we have members ranging from students all the way up to head of department.”

Samantha Buzzard, s.c.buzzard@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Social Metwork.