On relocating to Oklahoma for 3.5 months

Email: s.h.lee@pgr.reading.ac.uk

From May 4th through August 10th 2019, I relocated to Norman, Oklahoma, where I worked in the School of Meteorology in the National Weather Center (NWC) at the University of Oklahoma (OU). I’m co-supervised by Jason Furtado at OU, and part of my SCENARIO-funded project plan involves visiting OU each summer to work with Dr. Furtado’s research group, while using my time in the U.S. to visit relavant academics and conferences. Prior to my PhD, I studied Reading’s MMet Meteorology and Climate with a Year in Oklahoma degree, and spent 9 months at OU as part of that – so it’s a very familiar place! The two departments have a long-standing link, but this is the first time there has been PhD-supervision collaboration.

The National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma – home to the School of Meteorology.

The National Weather Center (NWC) [first conceived publicly in a 1999 speech by President Bill Clinton in the aftermath of the Bridge Creek-Moore tornado] opened in 2006 and is a vastly bigger building than Reading Meteorology! Alongside the School of Meteorology (SoM), it houses the Oklahoma Mesonet, the NOAA Storm Prediction Center (SPC) (who are responsible for operational severe weather and fire forecasting in the U.S.) and the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL). SPC and NSSL will be familiar to any of you who have seen the 1996 film Twister. You could think of it as somewhat like a smaller version of the Reading Meteorology department being housed in the Met Office HQ in Exeter.

Inside the NWC.

The research done at SoM is mostly focussed on mesoscale dynamics, including tornadogenesis, thanks to its location right at the heart of ‘tornado alley’. It’s by no means a typical haunt of someone who researches stratosphere dynamics like I do, but SoM has broadened its focus in recent years with the inception of the Applied Climate Dynamics research group of which I’m a part. Aside from the numerous benefits of being able to speak face-to-face with a supervisor who is otherwise stuck on a TV screen on Skype, I also learnt new skills and new ways of thinking – purely from being at a different institution in a different country. I also used this time to work on the impact of the stratosphere on North America (a paper from this work is currently in review).

I also visited the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder, Colorado to present some of my work, and collaborate on some papers with scientists there. Boulder is an amazing place, and I highly recommend going and hiking up into the mountains if you can (see also this 2018 blog post from Jon Beverley on his visit to Boulder).

As for leisure… I chose to take 2 weeks holiday in late May to, let’s say, do “outdoor atmospheric exploration“. This happened to coincide with the peak of one of the most active tornado seasons in recent years, and I just so happened to see plenty of them. I’m still working on whether or not the stratosphere played a role in the weather patterns responsible for the outbreak!

An EF2-rated wedge tornado on 23 May near Canadian, Texas.

Wisdom from experience: advice for new PhD students

The new academic year is now underway, and a new bunch of eager first year PhD students are dipping their toes into a three-to-four year journey to their doctorate. So, we’ve collated some advice from the more experienced among us! The idea behind the following tidbits of advice is that they are things we would tell our younger selves if we could go back to day 1…

Work

“Make sure you and your supervisor set out expectations and at least a vague timeline at the start, that way you will know you’re on track.”

“Write code as if you’re giving it to someone else – one day you might have to.”

Even if you don’t give your code to another use, in a year’s time you’ll have forgotten what it does! Related to this, it’s useful to keep good “readme” documents to note where all your code is, how to run things, etcetera. Also, if you think you’re going to present a plot at some point – in a talk, paper, or even your thesis, make a final version at the time (using appropriately accessible colour maps and big enough labels), plus note down where you’ve stored the code you used to make it.

“Learn and use git/github (or at least get familiar with the 3 basic commands of: git add, commit, push) ASAP! This means that if you take a wrong turn in your code (you will), you can painlessly ‘revert’ to a stage before you made a mess.”

“Read papers with your literature review in mind. If you can’t see where the paper will fit in your literature review, either reconsider your literature review… or find a more relevant paper.”

“Write down everything you learn, or facts you are told – you never know when you’ll need a piece of information again.”

But also be prepared to have not really followed any of this advice properly until you regurgitate it to new students in your fourth year and wonder why you haven’t been doing any of it up until now.

“Try to keep up a good routine – it’s much easier to get out of bed when you’re having a slow work week if that’s what your body is used to.”

“You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn and master without even realising.”

“Don’t compare yourself to others.”

Every PhD project is unique, as is every student. During a PhD, you’re looking into the unknown. Maybe you’ll get lucky (with some hard work) and have some really interesting results, or it might be a bit of a battle. Some projects are more suited to regular publications, others less so – this doesn’t necessarily reflect your individual abilities. In addition, everyone has different background knowledge and motivation for doing a PhD.

“Not every day has to be maximum productivity, that’s okay!”

“Some days are great, others are rubbish. Like life, really.”

Life

“Make friends with other PhD students. It’s nice to have someone who might make you cake when you feel sad, or happy.”

This is so true. A PhD is quite a unique experience and lots of people don’t really get it, thinking it’s just like another undergrad. Sometimes it’s really useful to have someone who understands the stress of some code just not working, or the dread of a blank page where your monitoring committee report should be. It’s also helpful to get to know people in the years above, or even post-docs, since they’ve probably already gone through what you’re experiencing.

“Make friends and join clubs and societies with people that aren’t doing PhDs.”

Sometimes it’s important to get out of the PhD “bubble” and put things in perspective. Keeping in touch with friends that have “real” jobs (for want of a better word) can be a nice reminder of some of the benefits of PhD life – such as flexible hours (you don’t have to be in before 9 every day) or not having to wear formal business attire.

Wellbeing

“Try to keep your weekends free – it’s great for your sanity!”

“Take holiday! You are expected to.”

“Don’t feel guilty for not cheering up when people tell you everything’s okay. It almost invariably is, but sometimes it all gets a bit much and you’ll feel bad for a while, that’s totally normal!”

Yes, it’s totally okay to have a couple of bad days. Remember, this can often be true of people with ‘real’ jobs, it isn’t just unique to the PhD experience! However, if you’re feeling bad for a long period of time, it’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t okay and you don’t have to feel like that. It might be helpful to let your supervisor know that you’re having a bit of a hard time, for whatever reason, and work might be slow for a while. There are also lots of support systems available. For students at Reading, you can find out more about the Counselling and Wellbeing Service here (http://www.reading.ac.uk/cou/counselling-services-landing.aspx). A PhD is hard work, but it should be a fundamentally enjoyable experience!

Finally:

“No poking your supervisor with a stick. They don’t appreciate it.”

(…no, we don’t get it either)


Co-written by Simon Lee and Sally Woodhouse, with anonymous pieces of advice collected from various PhD students in the Department of Meteorology.

SWIFT and YESS International Summer School, Kumasi, Ghana

Email: a.j.doyle@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Last month, from the 21st July until the 3rd August 2019, I was in Ghana attending the African SWIFT and YESS International Summer School. What a catchy name you are probably thinking. SWIFT, or Science for Weather Information and Forecasting Techniques, is a programme of research and capability building, led by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), and funded by the UK Research and Innovation Global Challenges Research Fund. The project aims to improve African weather forecasting, especially on seasonal timescales, as well as build capability in related research. It’s worth a quick Google search at some point, and there are several people involved in the project at the University of Reading. YESS, the Young Earth System Scientists community, is an international, multidisciplinary network of early career researchers. Catchy!

Anyway, all this contributed toward a really remarkable summer school in tropical West Africa, with people from many different institutions and nations across Europe and Africa attending the summer school and science meeting alongside. It was also another chance to get consistently barraged with Brexit questions by a baffled international audience.

The days were long but engaging, with lectures, practical sessions and workshops on a huge variety of topics in tropical meteorology – from Rossby waves, to the monsoon, to remote sensing applications. It was quickly evident how tricky tropical African weather is to forecast. It is largely driven by convection, which is very difficult to forecast accurately on a small spatio-temporal scale, unlike nice, large mid-latitude weather systems. Furthermore, several different atmospheric features are at play. This is where we were introduced to the wonderful West African synoptic analysis/forecast charts (see below for an example of mine). We also had a chance to present our posters, with many of those from the science meeting – experts in their fields – coming round to look, and this was a fantastic networking opportunity. It was really beneficial being around other early career scientists in the same specific field as me, from different places around the world. It cannot be said enough how important this is for PhD students, who for the most part live quite an isolated existence where when you switch from your native English language to your ‘PhD language’, only your supervisors and a few select others can understand you!

For me, it is in the people attending where the strength of the summer school really lies. The people in Kumasi, Ghana were amazing people. They not only keep you going through 2 weeks of long days, 3 dozen lectures, and 400 meals of rice, but they reminded me what it meant to be a scientist. I found, to my discredit, that most of the students there were far more studious than I was, not because they were any less clever or anything like that, but because they simply loved knowledge, and loved applying it (meteorology is great for quickly being able to see how what we know manifests itself in the real world). On reflection, I think they are more aware of the fact millions of people (moreso in Africa than any other continent) simply do not have access to such knowledge, but in Kumasi we were learning about African meteorology from world experts. They did not take it for granted, in fact, it was clearly what drove them. Science wasn’t just an occupation for them, it had tangible importance, which came across in the way they spoke about their science, but also their future ambitions, hopes and plans.

Further to this, meeting people across universities, countries, and continents also brings a different perspective on your work and where it fits into the wider collection of research in the area. One sad point was learning how hard it was for African students to get PhDs. Not only do they typically have to travel much further (i.e. typically to Europe or the US) in order to get one, but they also rely on getting funding, which is often the final obstacle even after they have found the right PhD project. It’s a real shame.

So after 2 long weeks (and a very hot football game on a gravelly pitch with no shoes) I came back physically exhausted, but academically I was refreshed with lots of new ideas floating round, but even more importantly newfound inspiration. In the now famous words of the provost of the college during the closing ceremony, “let your research be SWIFT and YESS.”

Fluid Dynamics of Sustainability and the Environment Summer School

Email: m.prosser@pgr.reading.ac.uk

From the 1st – 12th of July 2019, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Fluid Dynamics of Sustainability and the Environment (FDSE) summer school held at Ecole Polytechnique on the southern outskirts of Paris. Although it was held at Ecole Polytechnique this year, it alternates with the University of Cambridge, where it will be held in 2020.

As hinted at in the title, the summer school explores the fluid dynamical aspects of planet Earth, including, but not limited to: the atmosphere, the ocean, the cryosphere and the solid Earth, and was of particular relevance to me because I study clear-air turbulence (a fluid dynamical phenomenon) and its impact on aviation. To get a better sense of the summer school, have a watch of this 3-minute promotion video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGoF0L8gqXw

It was a busy, action-packed 2 weeks. The days consisted of: 4 hours of lectures held each morning (coffee was provided), followed by either lab or numerical practical sessions in the afternoons and something social (wine was provided) such as a poster session, barbecue, and an environmentally-themed film night followed by a discussion of the film’s (The Day After Tomorrow) fluid dynamical accuracy (or not, as the case may be!). During the mid-programme weekend, we were put up in a hostel in central Paris, treated to an evening on a moored boat on the Seine (champagne was provided) and then left to our own devices to explore Paris.

The boat on the Seine even had its own dance floor.

The other students were great, with all sorts of backgrounds/PhD projects that linked in one way or another to the FDSE theme. Many interesting and diverse conversations were had, as well as a great deal of fun and laughter! No doubt many of the people who met here both this year and others will collaborate scientifically in the future.

Not having come from a maths/physics background, I found a lot of the mathematical content quite challenging, but I made copious notes and my interest in and appreciation for the subject greatly increased. As I progress throughout my PhD (I am currently still in my first year), I feel many of the concepts that I encountered here are likely to resurface in a slow-burn fashion and I can see myself returning to the lecture material as and when I meet related concepts.

In particular, gaining an understanding of what an instability is and studying the different types was eye-opening, and seeing Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities — which cause the shear that generates the clear-air turbulence I study in my PhD — form in a tube of dyed fluid was a particularly memorable moment for me.

Kelvin-Helmholtz billows forming in a tube.

Apart from being very interesting theoretically, fluid dynamics also has many practical applications. For example, insufficient understanding and modelling of the behaviour of plumes at the Fukushima nuclear reactor led to hydrogen gas concentrations exceeding 8%, resulting in dangerous explosions. Many other such examples could be given.

The summer school was well-organised and many of the lecturers and guest speakers were both highly entertaining and informative, and really bought the subject to life with their enthusiasm for it. I highly recommend it to anyone with a related PhD!

The 2019 cohort in front of Ecole Polytechnique.

Met Department Summer BBQ 2019

On Friday the 14th of June at 6.30pm the Department of Meteorology had its 2019 summer BBQ! And what a fun, pleasant and well attended affair it was.

BBQ turnout – downtime for the department!

The weather that week had been especially awful, and the prospects of being able to have the BBQ outside were looking distinctly grim, but in a rather fluky stroke of luck, the weather took a rather unexpected turn for the better… and almost unbelievably, by Friday PM the grass was deemed dry enough – and therefore safe enough – for the event to be an outdoor, in-the-sun affair!

The event required a lot of preparation. For the most part this went smoothly, save for one or two things:

1: A sudden and panicky realisation on my part on the morning of the BBQ (thanks Michael L!) that we probably weren’t going to get very far without tongs/cooking implements of some kind! (This is my first Met BBQ, okay!)

2: The butcher delivery van going seriously AWOL (even from the butchers themselves). The van apparently departed the Reading depot at 9am and must have then gotten lost as it took them some 8 hours to find us! This caused some nerves to fray…

The event took off at 6.30pm and thanks to a small army of well-trained BBQing PhD students, both meat and plant-based sausages and burgers soon began to appear and (as we had slightly over ordered on the food front) attendees got offered seconds! No one present was to go hungry!

The BBQing army.

At around 8pm the perennial Hogs Back Band & caller began their ceilidh/barn dance. Many of us were duly terrified of this part of the evening, but such concerns quickly vanished following a few nervous giggles, a couple of bungled dance steps… and of course one or two beers. Before long, everyone, both dancers and onlookers, children and staff alike were totally caught up in the band’s buoyant jig, and all feeling of self-consciousness evaporated!

2 hours of ceilidh as it turns out, is incredibly tiring! I managed about half of the 10 dances and towards the end was beginning to seriously unravel at the seams. Perhaps a prize in future years for he or she who can manage to stick out every single dance? Surely one of the Met runners has the stamina?

As the evening drew to a close at 10pm I was impressed by the sustained, voluntary and joint effort of many to return the area to its original clean state. And, for those with energy to spare, the after-party with DJ Shonk and his new disco ball awaited!

A special thanks to Dan Shipley (one of the 2018 organisers) who despite supposedly having retired the year before, provided much help and advice at all stages of the planning and on the day! Numerous others also contributed in ways both big and small to make the event the success that it was. Thank you! Long live this particular Met Department tradition!

The ceilidh in full swing!

PhD Visiting Scientist 2019: Prof. Cecilia Bitz

r.frew@pgr.reading.ac.uk

With thanks to all my helpers who enabled the week to go smoothly! Adam Bateson, Sally Woodhouse, Kaja Milczewska and Agnieszka Walenkiewicz

Each year PhD students in the Department of Meteorology invite a distinguished scientist to spend a week with us.  This year we invited Prof. Cecilia Bitz, who visited between the 28th-31st May. Cecilia is based at the University of Washington, Seattle. 

Cecilia’s research interests are the role of sea ice in the climate system, and high latitude climate and climate change. She has also done a lot of work on the predictability of Arctic sea ice, and is involved in the Sea Ice Prediction Network.

The week began with a welcome reception in the coffee area, introducing Cecilia to the department, followed by a seminar by Cecilia on ‘Polar Regions as Sentinels of Different Climate Change’. The seminar predominantly focused on Antarctic sea ice, and the possible reasons why Antarctic sea ice behaviour is so different to the Arctic. Whilst Arctic sea ice has steadily declined we have seen Antarctic sea ice expansion over the past four decades, with extreme Antarctic sea ice extent lows since 2016.

Throughout the week Cecilia visited a number of the research groups, including Mesoscale, HHH (dynamics) and Cryosphere, where PhD students from each group presented to her, giving a taste of the range of PhD research within our department. 

Cecilia gave a second seminar later in the week in the Climate and Ocean Dynamics (COD) group meeting, this time focusing on the other pole, ‘Arctic Amplification: Local Versus Remote Causes and Consequences’. Cecilia discussed her work quantifying the role of feedbacks in Arctic Amplification, how they compare with meridional heat transports, and what influence Arctic warming has on the rest of the globe.

cuteness_on_ice
Photo Credit: Cecilia Bitz

On Wednesday afternoon the normal PhD group slot consisted of a career discussion, with Cecilia. Cecilia shared some of her career highlights with us, including extra opportunities she has taken such as doing some fieldwork in Antarctica and working for the charity, Polar Bears International, her insights and advice from her own experiences, as well as about post-doctoral opportunities in the US. A few of my personal take-aways from this session were to try give yourself space to learn one new thing at a time in your career (e.g. teaching, writing proposals, supervising etc). Try to work on a range of problems, and keep your outlook broad and open to new ideas and approaches. Take opportunities when they appear, such as fieldwork or short projects/collaborations. 

A small group of PhDs also met with her on the Friday to have an informal discussion about climate policy. In particular about her experiences speaking to the US senate, being a part of the IPCC reports and about the role of scientists in speaking about climate change, and whether we have a responsibility to do so.

Thursday evening the PhDs took Cecilia to Zero Degrees (a very apt choice for a polar researcher!), and enjoyed a lovely evening chatting over pizza and beer. 

The week ended with a farewell coffee morning on Friday, where we gave Cecilia some gifts to thank her for giving us her time this week including some tea, chocolates, a climate stripes mug and a framed picture of us… 

All the PhDs had a great week. We hope Cecilia enjoyed her visit as much as we did!

GroupPhoto
PhD students with Cecilia Bitz before the Careers Discussion.

EGU 2019

From 7th-12th April, I had the exciting opportunity to attend the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly in Vienna. This was a much larger conference than any I had attended previously, with 16,273 scientists in attendance and 683 scientific sessions, which made for a whirlwind experience. I was staying with other PhD students from the department, so many evenings were spent comparing schedules and pointing out interesting courses to make sure none of us missed anything useful!

As part of the Tropical Meteorology and Tropical Cyclones session, I gave an oral presentation about my PhD work, which investigates the use of Available Potential Energy theory to study the processes involved in tropical cyclone intensification. The session included many excellent talks on different aspects of tropical meteorology, and it was great to speak with scientists whose interests are similar to mine about possible avenues for combining our work.

PhD students from the department present their research at EGU

One of the major advantages of attending such a large conference was the opportunity to learn more about areas of geoscience research that I wouldn’t normally encounter. I made a specific effort to attend a few sessions on topics that I am not familiar with, including wildfires (#FIREMIP), landslides and exoplanets. It was fascinating to see the work that goes on in different fields and I hope that being exposed to different methods and perspectives will help me to become a more creative researcher.

EGU is such a huge event that the scientific sessions are only part of the story. There were Great Debates on topics ranging from science in policy to the prioritisation of mental wellbeing for Early Career Scientists, two artists-in-residence creating pieces inspired by the science of the conference, and an extremely entertaining Poetry Slam event, which two of the Reading Meteorology PhD students were brave enough to participate in (or possibly just desperate enough for a ticket to the conveners’ party).

poetry

So now it’s the end of EGU
I caught the train – and I flew
We both did a talk
Learnt the German for fork
“Eine Gabel bitte” – thank you

– Sally Woodhouse & Kaja Milczewska

EGU was a great experience and after the conference I was able to take some time to explore Vienna, see some historic landmarks, and unwind from an enjoyably exhausting week of science. Although to begin my break from geoscience I did go straight to the Globe Museum, so perhaps I need to work on my relaxation techniques.


#traintoEGU – Sally Woodhouse

Aviation currently contributes over 2% of the annual global CO2 emissions which, if classed as a country, would make it one of the top ten emitters. A return flight to Vienna from London adds about 0.2 metric tonnes of CO2 to your carbon footprint (the UK annual mean per person is 6.5 metric tonnes).

An important part of science is sharing our research and one of the best ways to do that is at conferences, so we can’t just stop going! But there is another way … the train (0.04 metric tonnes CO2)! And if I’m spending all that time why not have a little adventure.

With the help of the man in seat 61 (check it out if you’re getting the train anywhere it’s so helpful!) we decided to go via Zurich. We had a night’s stop in Zurich, a morning there exploring and then an afternoon train through the stunning Arlberg Pass and beautiful views of Alpine Austria. Honestly the views made the 5am start the day before and sprint for the Eurostar all worth it. It was breath-taking for the whole 8 hour journey.

 

traintoEGU_Paris_Zurich

For the return trip we took the speedy route through Germany and Belgium – this is actually doable in a day but I decided to have an overnight in Brussels. I spent a lovely day wandering around the main sites and even managed a visit to the European Parliament!

It might take a bit longer but it was a wonderful adventure and I’d definitely recommend it to everyone traveling to EGU in future – maybe I’ll see you on the train.

traintoEGU_Brussels