2021 Academic Visiting Scientist – Tim Woolings 

Isabel Smith – i.h.smith@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Every year, the Met PhD students at the University of Reading invite a scientist from a different university to learn from and talk to about their own project. This year we had the renowned Professor Tim Woolings, who currently researches and teaches at the University of Oxford. Tim’s interests generally revolve around large scale atmospheric dynamics and understanding the impacts of climate change on such features. We, as Met PhD students, were very excited and extremely thankful that Tim donated a week of his time (4th-8th of October) and travelled from Oxford for hybrid events within the Met. building. Tim told us of his own excitement to be back visiting Reading, after completing his PhD here, on isentropic modelling of the atmosphere, and staying on as a researcher and part of the department until 2013.  

The week started with Tim presenting “Jet Stream Trends” at the Dynamical Research Group, known as Hoskin’s Half Hour. A large number of PhD students, post-doctorates and supervisors attended, which was to be expected considering Tim has a book dedicated on Jet streams. After a quick turnaround, he spoke at the departmental lunch time seminar on “The role of Rossby waves in polar weather and climate”. Here, Tim did an initial review on Rossby wave theory and then talked about his current fascinating research on the relevance of them within the polar atmosphere. The rest of Tim’s Monday consisted of lunch at park house with Robert Lee and the organising committee, Charlie Suitters, Hannah Croad and Isabel Smith (within picture). Later that evening Tim visited the Three Tuns pub with other staff members, for an important staff meeting! The PhD networking social with Tim on Thursday was a great evening where 15 to20 students were able to discuss Tim’s research in a less formal setting within Park House pub.  

Tim Woolings (2nd left) and the visiting scientist organising committee

Tim’s Tuesday, Wednesday (morning) and Thursday consisted of virtual and in-person one on one 15-minute meetings with PhD students. Here students explained their research projects and Tim gave them a refreshing outsider perceptive. On Wednesday afternoon, after Tim attended the High-Resolution Climate Modelling research group, he talked about his career in PhD group (A research group for PhD students only, where PhD students present to each other.). Tim explained how his PhD did not work as well as he had initially hoped, and the entire room felt a great weight of relief. His advice on keeping calm and looking for the bigger picture was heard by us all.  

On Friday the 8th, a mini conference was put on and six students got to the “virtual” and literal stage and presented their current findings. Topics ranged from changes to Arctic cyclones, blocking, radar and Atmospheric dust. The conference and the week itself were both great successes, with PhD students leaving with inspiring questions to help aid their current studies. All at the University of Reading Department of Meteorology were extremely grateful and we thoroughly enjoyed having Tim here. We wish him all the best in his future endeavours and hope he comes back soon! 

COP Climate Action Studio 2021 and a visit to the Green Zone, Glasgow  

Helen Hooker h.hooker@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

Introduction 

SCENARIO DTP and the Walker Academy offered PhD students the opportunity to take part in the annual COP Climate Action Studio (COPCAS) 2021. COPCAS began with workshops on the background of COP, communication and interviewing skills and an understanding of the COP26 themes and the (massive!) schedule. James Fallon and Kerry Smith were ‘on the ground’ in the Blue Zone, Glasgow in week 1 of COP26, followed by Gwyn Matthews and Jo Herschan during week 2. Interviews were arranged between COP26 observers, and COPCAS participants back in Reading who were following COP26 events in small groups through livestream. Students summarised the varied and interesting findings by writing blog posts and engaging with social media.

Figure 1: COPCAS in action.   

Motivation, training and week 1 

Personally, I wanted to learn more about the COP process and to understand climate policy implementation and action (or lack thereof). I was also interested to learn more about anticipatory action and forecast based financing, which relate to my research. After spending 18 months working remotely in my kitchen, I wanted to meet other students and improve formulating and asking questions! I found the initial training reassuring in many ways, especially finding out that so many people have dedicated themselves to drive change and find solutions. During the first week of COP26 we heard about so many positive efforts to combat the climate crisis from personal actions to community schemes, and even country wide ambitious projects such as reforestation in Costa Rica. A momentum seemed to be building with pledges to stop deforestation and to reduce methane emissions.

Green Zone visit 

Figure 2: Green Zone visit included a weekend full of exhibitors, talks, films and panel discussions plus a giant inflatable extracting COvia bouncing!

During the middle weekend of COP26, some of us visited the Green Zone in Glasgow. This was a mini version of the Blue Zone open to the public and offered a wide variety of talks and panel discussions. Stand out moments for me: a photograph of indigenous children wearing bamboo raincoats, measuring the length of Judy Dench’s tree, the emotive youth speakers from Act4Food Act4Change and the climate research documentary Arctic Drift where hundreds of scientists onboard a ship carried out research whilst locked into the polar winter ice-flow.  

COPCAS Blog 

During COPCAS I wrote blogs about: a Green Zone event from Space4climate, an interview by Kerry Smith with SEAChange (a community-based project in Aberdeenshire aiming to decarbonise old stone buildings) and Sports for climate action. I also carried out an interview arranged by Jo with WWF on a food systems approach to tackling climate change.

Ultimately though, the elephant in the large COP26 Blue Zone room had been there all along…

Interview with Anne Olhoff, Emissions Gap Report (EGR) 2021 Chief scientific editor and Head of Strategy, Climate Planning and Policy, UNEP DTU Partnership.

Figure 3: Source: UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2021 updated midway through week two of COP26 accounting for new pledges. 

Time is running out, midway through the second week of COP26, the United Nations Environmental Partnership (UNEP) presented its assessment on the change to global temperature projections based on the updated pledges so far agreed in Glasgow.  

Pledges made prior to COP26 via Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) put the world on track to reach a temperature increase of 2.7C by the end of the century. To keep the Paris Agreement of keeping warming below 1.5C this century, global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 55% in the next eight years. At this point in COP26, updated pledges now account for just an 8% reduction – this is 7 times too small to keep to 1.5C and 4 times too small to keep to 2C. Updated projections based on COP26 so far now estimate a temperature rise of 2.4C by 2100. Net-zero pledges could reduce this by a further 0.5C, however plans are sketchy and not included in NDCs. So far just five of the G20 countries are on a pathway to net-zero.

Anne’s response regarding policy implementation in law: 

“Countries pledge targets for example for 2030 under the UN framework for climate change and there’s no international law to enforce them, at least not yet. Some countries have put net-zero policies into law, which has a much bigger impact as the government can be held accountable for the implementation of their pledges.” 

Following my own shock at the size of the emissions gap, I asked Anne if she feels there has been any positive changes in recent years: 

“I do think we have seen a lot of change, actually…the thing is, things are not moving as fast as they should. We have seen change in terms of the commitment of countries and the policy development and development in new technology needed to achieve the goals, these are all positive developments and here now, changing the whole narrative, just 2 years ago no one would have thought we’d have 70 countries setting net-zero emission targets…we are also seeing greater divergence between countries, between those making the effort to assist the green transition such as the UK, EU and others, and those further behind the curve such as China, Brazil and India. It’s important to help these countries transition very soon, peaking emissions and rapidly declining after that.”   

I asked Anne how countries on track can support others: 

“A lot of the great things here (at COP) is to strengthen that international collaboration and sharing of experiences, it’s an important function of the COP meeting, but we need to have the political will and leadership in the countries to drive this forward.” 

Summary 

The momentum that was apparent during the first week of COP26 seemed to have stalled with this update. Despite the monumental effort of so many scientists, NGOs, individuals and those seeking solutions from every conceivable angle, the pledges made on fossil fuel reduction are still so far from what is needed. And at the final hour (plus a day), the ambition to ‘phaseout’ burning coal was changed to ‘phasedown’ and the financial contributions from developed nations pledged to cover loss and damage to countries not responsible for, but impacted now by climate change, have not been realised. I think this is the first time I have really felt the true meaning of ‘climate justice’. Perhaps we do need a planet law, as it seems our political leaders, do not have the will.

Overall, the COPCAS experience has been enjoyable, slightly overwhelming and emotional! It has been great to work together and to share the experiences of those in the Blue zone. It was also an amazing learning experience; I think I have barely touched the surface of the entire COP process and I would still like to understand more.

Fluid Dynamics Summer School 

Charlie Suitters – c.c.suitters@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

Every year, Cambridge and École Polytechnique in Paris alternate hosting duties of the Fluid Dynamics of Sustainability and the Environment (FDSE) summer school. This ran for two weeks earlier in September, and like many other things took place online. After talking to previous attendees of the summer school, I went into the fortnight with excitement but also trepidation, as I had heard that it has an intense programme! Here is my experience of a thoroughly enjoyable couple of weeks. 

Structure 

The summer school brought together around 50 PhD students and a few postdocs from all over the world, from Japan to Europe to Arizona, and I have to admire the determination of those students who attended the school at unsociable times of the day! We all came from different backgrounds – some had a meteorological background like myself, but there were also oceanographers, fluid dynamicists, engineers and geographers to name but a few. It was great to hear from so many students who are passionate about their work in two brief ice-breaker sessions where we introduced ourselves to the group and I got to appreciate how wide-reaching the FDSE community is. 

Each day consisted of four 1-hour lectures – normally three ‘core’ subjects (fluid dynamics basics, atmospheric dynamics, climate, oceanography, etc.) and one guest lecturer per day (including our very own Sue Gray who gave us a whistle-stop tour of the mesoscale and extratropical cyclones). After this, there was the opportunity to split into breakout groups and speak to the day’s lecturers to ask them questions and spark discussions in small groups. On the final day, we also had a virtual tour of the various fluid dynamics labs that Cambridge has (there are a lot!) and a few of the students in the labs spoke about their work. 

Core Lectures 

Figure 1. Demonstration of a density current (blue) of salty water in a tank of less dense tap water. Taken from Jean-Marc Chomaz’s lecture

These lectures were given by very engaging specialists including Colm-Cille Caulfield, John Taylor, Alison Ming, Jerome Neufeld and Jean-Marc Chomaz; and provided the perfect opportunity to see lots of pretty videos about fluid flows (Fig. 1). Having done an undergraduate course in Meteorology, a lot of these gave me a refresher of things I should already know, but it was refreshing to see how other lecturers approach the same material. 

The most interesting core lectures to me were those regarding renewable energy, given by Riwal Plougonuen and Alex Stegner. Plougonuen lectured us on wind turbines, telling us how they worked and why they are designed like they are – did you know that actually the most efficient wind turbines have 2 blades, but the vast majority have three for better structural stability? On the other hand, Stegner spoke to us about hydroelectricity, and I learned that Norway produces nearly all of its electricity through hydropower. Other highlights from these core lectures include watching a video of a research hut being swamped by an avalanche (Nathalie Vriend, see video at the link here), and seeing Jerome Neufeld demonstrate ice flows using golden syrup (he likes his food!) 

Guest Lectures 

Figure 2. Flow patterns around a sash window with both slots open – the blue arrows showing incoming cold air and the red arrows showing warm flow to the outside. Taken from Megan Davies Wykes’ lecture.

For me, the guest lectures were the highlights of my time at the summer school. These lectures often explored things beyond my area of expertise, and demonstrated just how the fluid mechanics we had learned are highly applicable to many different areas of life. We had a lecture about building ventilation from Megan Davies Wykes, which made me realise that adequately ventilating a room is more than simply cracking open a window – you have to consider everything from the size of the room, outside wind speed, how many windows there are, and even the body heat from people inside the room. Davies Wykes’s passion about people using their sash windows correctly will always stick with me – turns out you need to open both the top and the bottom panes for the best ventilation (something she emphasised more than once!), see Fig. 2.  

Figure 3. Demonstration of how droplets and plumes of air from the mouth are kept closer to the body when wearing a mask (Bhagat et al. 2020).

Fittingly, we also had a lecture from Paul Linden about the transmission of Covid, and he demonstrated how effective masks are at preventing transmission using a great visualisation (Fig. 3). It was great to have topics such as these that are relevant in today’s world, and provided yet another real-world application of the fluid dynamics we had learned. 

Breakout Discussion Sessions 

Every afternoon, the day’s lecturers returned and invited us to ask them questions about their lectures, or just have an intelligent discussion about their area of expertise. Admittedly these sessions could get a little awkward when everyone was too tired to ask anything towards the end of the long two weeks, but these sessions were still incredibly useful. They provided us the means to speak to a professional in their field about their research, and allowed us time to network and ask them some challenging questions. 

Concluding Remarks 

Of course, over the course of the two weeks we learned so much more than what I described above, and yet again demonstrates the versatility of the field! The summer school as a whole was organised really well and the lecturers were engaging and genuinely interested in hearing about us and our projects. I would highly recommend attending this summer school next year to any PhD student – the scope of the school was so broad that I am sure there will be something for everyone in the programme, and fingers crossed it goes ahead in Paris next year! 

References 

Bhagat, R., Davies Wykes, M., Dalziel, S., & Linden, P. (2020). Effects of ventilation on the indoor spread of COVID-19. Journal of Fluid Mechanics, 903, F1. doi:10.1017/jfm.2020.720 

Helicopter Underwater Escape Training for Arctic Field Campaign

Hannah Croad h.croad@pgr.reading.ac.uk

The focus of my PhD project is investigating the physical mechanisms behind the growth and evolution of summer-time Arctic cyclones, including the interaction between cyclones and sea ice. The rapid decline of Arctic sea ice extent is allowing human activity (e.g. shipping) to expand into the summer-time Arctic, where it will be exposed to the risks of Arctic weather. Arctic cyclones produce some of the most impactful Arctic weather, associated with strong winds and atmospheric forcings that have large impacts on the sea ice. Hence, there is a demand for improved forecasts, which can be achieved through a better understanding of Arctic cyclone mechanisms. 

My PhD project is closely linked with a NERC project (Arctic Summer-time Cyclones: Dynamics and Sea-ice Interaction), with an associated field campaign. Whereas my PhD project is focused on Arctic cyclone mechanisms, the primary aims of the NERC project are to understand the influence of sea ice conditions on summer-time Arctic cyclone development, and the interaction of cyclones with the summer-time Arctic environment. The field campaign, originally planned for August 2021 based in Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic, has now been postponed to August 2022 (due to ongoing restrictions on international travel and associated risks for research operations due to the evolving Covid pandemic). The field campaign will use the British Antarctic Survey’s low-flying Twin Otter aircraft, equipped with infrared and lidar instruments, to take measurements of near-surface fluxes of momentum, heat and moisture associated with cyclones over sea ice and the neighbouring ocean. These simultaneous observations of turbulent fluxes in the atmospheric boundary layer and sea ice characteristics, in the vicinity of Arctic cyclones, are needed to improve the representation of turbulent exchange over sea ice in numerical weather prediction models. 

Those wishing to fly onboard the Twin Otter research aircraft are required to do Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET). Most of the participants on the course travel to and from offshore facilities, as the course is compulsory for all passengers on the helicopters to rigs. In the unlikely event that a helicopter must ditch on the ocean, although the aircraft has buoyancy aids, capsize is likely because the engine and rotors make the aircraft top heavy. I was apprehensive about doing the training, as having to escape from a submerged aircraft is not exactly my idea of fun. However, I realise that being able to fly on the research aircraft in the Arctic is a unique opportunity, so I was willing to take on the challenge! 

The HUET course is provided by the Petans training facility in Norwich. John Methven, Ben Harvey, and I drove to Norwich the night before, in preparation for an early start the next day. We spent the morning in the classroom, covering helicopter escape procedures and what we should expect for the practical session in the afternoon. We would have to escape from a simulator recreating a crash landing on water. The simulator replicates a helicopter fuselage, with seats and windows, attached to the end of a mechanical arm for controlled submersion and rotation. The procedure is (i) prepare for emergency landing: check seatbelt is pulled tight, headgear is on, and that all loose objects are tucked away, (ii) assume the brace position on impact, and (iii) keep one hand on the window exit and the other on your seatbelt buckle. Once submerged, undo your seatbelt and escape through the window. After a nervy lunch, it was time to put this into practice. 

The aircraft simulator being submerged in the pool (Source: Petans promotional video

The practical part of the course took place in a pool (the temperature resembled lukewarm bath water, much warmer than the North Atlantic!). We were kitted up with two sets of overalls over our swimming costumes, shoes, helmets, and jackets containing a buoyancy aid. We then began the training in the aircraft simulator. Climb into the aircraft and strap yourself into a seat. The seatbelt had to be pulled tight, and was released by rotating the central buckle. On the pilots command, prepare for emergency landing. Assume the brace position, and the aircraft drops into the water. Hold on to the window and your seatbelt buckle, and as the water reaches your chest, take a deep breath. Wait for the cabin to completely fill with water and stop moving – only then undo your seatbelt and get out! 

The practical session consisted of three parts. In the first exercise, the aircraft was submerged, and you had to escape through the window. The second exercise was similar, except that panes were fitted on the windows, which you had to push out before escaping. In the final exercise, the aircraft was submerged and rotated 180 degrees, so you ended up upside down (and with plenty of water up your nose), which was very disorientating! Each exercise required you to hold your breath for roughly 10 seconds at a time. Once we had escaped and reached the surface, we deployed our buoyancy aids, and climbed to safety onto the life raft. 

Going for a spin! The aircraft simulator being rotated with me strapped in
Ben and I happy to have survived the training!

The experience was nerve-wracking, and really forced me to push myself out of my comfort zone. I didn’t need to be too worried though, even after struggling with undoing the seatbelt a couple of times, I was assisted by the diving team and encouraged to go again. I was glad to get through the exercises, and pass the course along with the others. This was an amazing experience (definitely not something I expected to do when applying for a PhD!), and I’m now looking forward to the field campaign next year. 

CMIP6 Data Hackathon

Brian Lo – brian.lo@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

Chloe Brimicombe – c.r.brimicombe@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

What is it?

A hackathon, from the words hack (meaning exploratory programming, not the alternate meaning of breaching computer security) and marathon, is usually a sprint-like event where programmers collaborate intensively with the goal of creating functioning software by the end of the event. From 2 to 4 June 2021, more than a hundred early career climate scientists and enthusiasts (mostly PhDs and Postdocs) from UK universities took part in a climate hackathon organised jointly by Universities of Bristol, Exeter and Leeds, and the Met Office. The common goal was to quickly analyse certain aspects of Climate Model Intercomparison Project 6 (CMIP6) data to output cutting-edge research that could be worked into a published material and shown in this year’s COP26. 

Before the event, attendees signed up to their preferred project from a choice of ten. Topics ranged from how climate change will affect migration of arctic terns to the effects of geoengineering by stratospheric sulfate injections and more… Senior academics from a range of disciplines and institutions led each project. 

Group photo of participants at the CMIP6 Data Hackathon

How is this virtual hackathon different to a usual hackathon? 

Like many other events this year, the hackathon took place virtually, using a combination of video conferencing (Zoom) for seminars and teamwork, and discussion forums (Slack). 

Brian: 

Compared to two 24-hour non-climate related hackathons I previously attended, this one was spread out for three days, so I managed not to disrupt my usual sleep schedules! The experience of pair programming with one or two other team members was as easy, since I shared one of my screens on Zoom breakout rooms throughout the event. What I really missed were the free meals, plenty of snacks and drinks usually on offer at normal hackathons to keep me energised while I programmed. 

Chloe:

I’ve been to a climate campaign hackathon before, and I did a hackathon style event to end a group project during the computer science part of my undergraduate; we made the boardgame buccaneer in java. But this was set out completely differently. And, it was not as time intensive as those which was nice. I missed not being in a room with those you are on a project with and still missing out on free food – hopefully not for too much longer. But we made use of Zoom and Slack for communication. And Jasmin and the version control that git offers with individuals working on branches and then these were merged at the end of the hackathon. 

What did we do? 

Brian: 

Project 2: How well do the CMIP6 models represent the tropical rainfall belt over Africa? 

Using Gaussian parameters in Nikulin & Hewitson 2019 to describe the intensity, mean meridional position and width of the tropical rainfall belt (TRB), the team I was in investigated three aspects of CMIP6 models for capturing the Africa TRB, namely the model biases, projections and whether there was any useful forecast information in CMIP6 decadal hindcasts. These retrospective forecasts were generated under the Decadal Climate Prediction Project (DCPP), with an aim of investigating the skill of CMIP models in predicting climate variations from a year to a decade ahead. Our larger group of around ten split ourselves amongst these three key aspects. I focused on aspect of CMIP6 decadal hindcasts, where I compared different decadal models at different model lead times with three observation sources. 

Chloe: 

Project 10: Human heat stress in a warming world 

Our team leader Chris had calculated the universal thermal climate index (UTCI) – a heat stress index for a bunch of the CMIP6 climate models. He was looking into bias correction against the ERA5 HEAT reanalysis dataset whilst we split into smaller groups. We looked at a range of different things from how the intensity of heat stress changed to how the UTCI compared to mortality. I ended up coding with one of my (5) PhD supervisors Claudia Di Napoli and we made amongst other things the gif below.  

https://twitter.com/ChloBrim/status/1400780543193649153
Annual means of the UTCI for RCP4.5 (medium emissions) projection from 2020 to 2099.

Would we recommend meteorology/climate-related hackathon? 

Brian: 

Yes! The three days was a nice break from my own radar research work. The event was nevertheless good training for thinking quickly and creatively to approach research questions other than those in my own PhD project. The experience also sharpened my coding and data exploration skills, while also getting the chance to quickly learn advanced methods for certain software packages (such as xarray and iris). I was amazed at the amount of scientific output achieved in only three short days! 

Chloe: 

Yes, but also make sure if it’s online you block out the time and dedicate all your focus to the hackathon. Don’t be like me. The hackathon taught me more about python handling of netcdfs, but I am not yet a python plotting convert, there are some things R is just nicer for. And I still love researching heat stress and heatwaves, so that’s good!  

We hope that the CMIP hackathon runs again next year to give more people the opportunity to get involved. 

The EGU Experience 2021: a PhD student perspective

Max Coleman – m.r.coleman@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Chloe Brimicombe – c.r.brimicombe@pgr.reading.ac.uk

The European Geoscience Union General Assembly is one of the big annual conferences for atmospheric science (and Earth sciences more generally). The two of us were fortunate to have the opportunity to attend and present our research at this year’s vEGU21 conference. As has been done in previous years like in 2019 we’re here to give you an account of our EGU experience 😀 (so you can compare our virtual experience with the previous posts if you like 😉) 

Entrance hall to virtual EGU (Source: Linda Speight) 

What was vEGU21? 

EGUv21 was the general assembly for 2021 online. It took place from the 19th to the 30th April EGU. Through an impressive virtual conference center and mostly Zoom. 

What was your presentation on? 

Chloe –  I presented borderless heat stress in the extreme heat events session, which is based on a paper currently under review at Earth’s Future, where we show that heat stress is growing in the area during the month of August. The invited speaker to the session was Laura Suarez-Gutierrez and it was a great presentation on the dynamics of increasing heat extremes with climate change across Europe. I really enjoyed learning about the latest research in the extreme heat area. 

Max – I presented on my work using model nudging to study aerosol radiative adjustments. I presented in the session ‘Chemistry, Aerosols and Radiative Forcing in CMIP6-era models’, which was convened and hosted by Reading’s very own Bill Collins. There were many interesting presentations in this session, including presentations on the balance between climate and air quality benefits by Robert Allen and Steve Turnock; a summary of the Aerosol Chemistry Model Intercomparison Project (AerChemMIP) findings by UoR’s Gill Thornhill; and a personal favourite concerned the impacts of different emissions pathways in Africa on local and global climate, and local air pollution effects on mortality, presented by Chris Wells. 

Chloe presenting: would win an award for most interesting screenshot. (Source: Maureen Wanzala) 

What were your favourite aspects of the conference? 

Chloe – Apart from my session one of my favorite’s was on climate services. This focused on the application of meteorological and hydrology data to services for example health heat impacts and growing grapes and olives. I also enjoyed the panel on the climate and ecological emergency in light of COVID-19 including Katherine Hayhoe and the session on equality, diversity and inclusion; it was interesting how ‘listening’ to those impacted was an overlapping theme in these. The weirdest, loveliest experience was my main supervisor sending me a colouring page of her face

Max – As with any conference it was a great opportunity to learn about the latest research in my specific field, as well as learning about exciting developments in other fields, from machine learning applications in earth science to observational studies of methane emissions. Particularly, it’s a nice change from just reading about them in papers.Having conversations with presenters gives you the opportunity to really dive in and find out what motivated their research initially and discuss future applications. For example, one conversation I had went from discussing their application of unsupervised machine learning in classifying profiles of earth system model output, to learning about it’s potential for use in model intercomparisons.  

Katherine Hayhoe in the session Climate and Ecological Emergency: can a pandemic help save us? (Source: Chloe Brimicombe) 

What was your least favourite aspect? 

Chloe – I did manage to do a little networking. But I’d love to experience an in person conference where I present. I have never presented my research in real life at a conference or research group/department seminar 😱. We also miss out on a lot of free food and pens not going to any in life conferences, which is what research is about 😉. Also, I find it difficult to stay focused on the conference when it’s online.  

Max – For me the structure of two minute summaries followed by breakout Zoom rooms for each speaker had some definite drawbacks. For topics outside one’s own field, I found it difficult to really learn much from many of the summaries – it’s not easy to fit something interesting for experts and non-experts into two minutes! In theory you can go speak to presenters in their breakout rooms, but there’s something awkward about entering a zoom breakout room with just you and the presenter, particularly when you aren’t sure exactly how well you understood their two minute summary.  

In light of your vEGU21 experience, what are your thoughts on remote vs traditional conferencing? 

Max – Overall I think virtual conferencing has a way to go before it can match up to the in person experience. There were the classic technical issues of anything hosted remotely: the ‘I think you’re on mute’ experience, other microphone issues, and even the conference website crashing on the first day of scientific sessions (though the organisers did a swift job getting the conference back up and running). But there’s also the less obvious, such as it feeling actually quite a lonely experience. I’ve only been to a couple of in-person conferences, but there were always some people I knew and could meet up with. But it’s challenging to recreate this online, especially for early career researchers who don’t have as many established connections, and particularly at a big conference like the EGU general assembly. Perhaps a big social media presence can somewhat replace this, but not everyone (including myself!) is a big social media user. .  

On the other hand, it’s great that we can still have conferences during a global pandemic, and no doubt is better than an absence of them entirely. Above all else, it’s also much greener and more accessible to those with less available funding for conference travel (though new challenges of accessibility, such as internet quality and access, undoubtedly arise). Plus, the facility to upload various display materials and people to look back at them whenever they like, regardless of time zones, is handy.  

Chloe – I’d just add, as great as Twitter is and can be for promoting your research, it’s not the same as going for a good old cup of tea (or cocktail) with someone. Also, you can have the biggest brightest social media, but actually be terrible at conveying your research in person. 

Summary 

Overall it was interesting to take part in vEGU21, and we were both glad we went. It didn’t quite live up to the in person experience – and there is definitely room for improvements for virtual conferencing – but it’s great we can still have these experiences, albeit online.  

Demonstrating as a PhD student in unprecedented times

Brian Lo – brian.lo@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

Just over a month ago in September 2020, I started my journey as a PhD student. Since then, have I spent all of my working hours solely on research – plotting radar scans of heavy rainfall events and coding up algorithms to analyse the evolution of convective cells?  Surely not! Outside my research work, I have also taken on the role of demonstrating this academic year. 

What is demonstrating? In the department, PhD students can sign up to facilitate the running of tutorials and problems, synoptic, instrument, and computing laboratory classes. Equipped with a background in Physics and having taken modules as an MSc student at the department in the previous academic year, I signed up to run problem classes for this year’s Atmospheric Physics MSc module. 

I have observed quite a few lectures during my undergraduate education at Cambridge, MSc programme at Reading and also a few Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as a student. Each had their unique mode of teaching. At Cambridge, equations were often presented on a physical blackboard in lectures, with problem sheet questions handed in 24 hours before each weekly one-hour “supervision” session as formative assessment. At Reading, there have been less students in each lecture, accompanied by problem classes that are longer and more relaxed, allowing for more informal discussion on problem sheet questions between students. These different forms of teaching were engaging to me in their own ways. I have also given a mix of good and not-as-good tutorial sessions for Year 7s to 13s. Good tutorials included interactive demonstrations, such as exploring parametric equations on an online graphing calculator, whereas the not-as-good ones had content that were pitched at too high of a level. Based on these experiences and having demonstrated for 10 hours, I hopefully can share some tips on demonstrating through describing what one would call a “typical” 9am Atmospheric Physics virtual problems class. 

PhD Demonstrating 101 

You, a PhD student, have just been allocated the role as demonstrator on Campus Jobs and are excited about the £14.83 per hour pay. With the first problems class happening in just a week’s time, you start thinking about tools you will need to give these MSc students the best learning experience. A pencil, paper, calculator and that handy Thermal Physics of the Atmosphere textbook would certainly suffice for face-to-face classes. The only difference this year: You will be running virtual classes! This means that moist-adiabatic lapse rate equation you have quickly scribbled down on paper may not show well on a pixelated video call due to a “poor (connection) experience” from Blackboard. How are you going to prevent this familiar situation from happening? 

Figure 1: Laptop with an iPad with a virtual whiteboard for illustrating diagrams and equations to be shown on Blackboard Collaborate. 

In my toolbox, I have an iPad and an Apple pencil for me to draw diagrams and write equations. The laptop’s screen is linked to the iPad with Google Jamboard running and could be shared on Blackboard Collaborate. Here I offer my first tip: 

  1. Explore tools available to design workflows for content delivery and decide on one that works well 

Days before the problems class, you wonder whether you have done enough preparation. Have you read through and completed the problem sheet; ready to answer those burning questions from the students you will be demonstrating for? It is important you… 

Figure 2: Snippet of type-written worked solutions for the Atmospheric Physics MSc module. 

  1. Have your worked solutions to refer to during class 

A good way to ensure you are able to resolve queries about problem sheet questions is to have a version of your own working. This could be as simple as some written out points, or in my case, fully type-written solutions, just so I have details of each step on hand. In some of my fully worked solutions, I added comments for steps where I found the learning curve was quite steep and annotated places where students may run into potential problems. 

Students seem to take interest in these worked solutions, but here I must recommend… 

  1. Do not send out or show your entire worked solutions 

It is arguable whether worked solutions will help students who have attempted all problems seriously, but the bigger issue lies in those who have not even given the problems a try. As a demonstrator, I often explain the importance of struggling through the multiple steps needed to solve and understand a physics problem. My worked solutions usually present what I consider to be the quick and more refined way to the numerical solution, but usually are not the most intuitive route. On that note, how then are you supposed to help someone stuck on a problem? 

It may be tempting to show snippets of your solutions to help someone stuck on a certain part of a problem. Unfortunately, I found this did not work very well. Students can end up disregarding their own attempt and copy down what they regard as the “model answer”. (A cheeky student would have taken multiple screenshots while I scrolled through my worked solutions on the shared screen…) What I found worked better in breakout groups was for the student(s) to explain how they got stuck.  

For example, I once had a few students ask me how they should work out the boiling temperature from saturated vapour pressure using Tetens’ formula. However, my worked solutions solved this directly using the Clausius-Clapeyron equation. Instead of showing them my answer, I arrived at the point where they got stuck (red in Figure 3), essentially putting myself in their shoes. From that point, I was able to give small hints in the correct direction. Using their method, we worked together towards a solution for the problem (black in Figure 3). Here is another tip: 

  1. Work through the problem from your students’ perspective 

Figure 3: Google Jamboard slide showing how Tetens’ formula is rearranged. Red shows where some students got up to in the question, whereas black is further working to reach a solution. 

This again illustrates the point on there being no “model answer”. As in many scientific fields, there exist multiple path functions that get you from a problem to a plausible solution, and the preference for such a path is unique to us all. 

There will always be a group of diligent students who gave the problem sheet a serious attempt prior to the class. You will find they only take less than 30 minutes to check their understanding and numerical solutions with you, and they might do their own thing afterwards. This is the perfect opportunity to… 

  1. Present bonus material to stretch students further 

Some ideas include asking for a physical interpretation from their mathematical result, or looking for other (potentially more efficient) methods of deriving their result. For example, I asked students to deduce a cycle describing the Stirling engine on a TS diagram, instead of the pV diagram they had already drawn out as asked by the problem sheet.  

Figure 4: A spreadsheet showing the content coverage of each past exam question 

I also have a table of past exam questions, with traffic light colours indicating which parts of the syllabus they cover. If a student would like to familiarise themselves with the exam style, I could recommend one or two questions using this spreadsheet. 

On the other hand, there may be the occasional group who have no idea where equation (9.11) on page 168 of the notes came from, or a student who would like the extra-reassurance of more mathematical help on a certain problem. As a final tip, I try to cater to these extra requests by… 

  1. Staying a little longer to answer a final few questions 

The best demonstrators are approachable, and go the extra mile to cater to the needs of the whole range of students they teach, with an understanding of their perspectives. After all, being a demonstrator is not only about students’ learning from teaching, but also your learning by teaching! 

I would welcome your ideas about demonstrating as a PhD. Feel free to contact me at brian.lo@pgr.reading.ac.uk if you would like to discuss! 

Visiting Scientist Week Preview: Laure Zanna

Kaja Milczewska – k.m.milczewska@pgr.reading.ac.uk

As per annual tradition in the Meteorology Department, PhD students have chosen a distinguished scientist to visit the department for one week. Previous years’ visitors include Prof. Tapio Schneider (Caltech), Prof. Olivia Romppainmen-Martius (University of Bern), and Prof. Cecilia Bitz (University of Washington). This year’s winning vote was New York University’s Prof. Laure Zanna, who will be visiting the department virtually1 between 2 – 6th November. 

Laure is an oceanographer and climate scientist whose career so far has spanned three continents, won her an American Meteorological Society (AMS) Early Careers’ award for “exceptionally creative” science this year, and netted her 600 citations in the last two years.  Her research interests encompass ocean turbulence, climate dynamics, predictability, machine learning and more. Some of the many topics of her published papers include the uncertainty in projections of ocean heat uptake; ocean turbulence parametrisations; predictions of seasonal to decadal sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic using simple statistical models and machine learning to inform prediction of extreme events. Besides being an exceptional scientist, speaker and educator, Laure is a down-to-Earth and friendly person, described by the Climate Scientists podcast’s Dan Jones as ‘a really great person who helps to tie the whole community together’.

As someone who had received their PhD only just over a decade ago, we thought Laure would be the perfect candidate to inspire us and our science through sharing some of her academic experiences with us. Before her visit next week, Laure kindly answered some interview-style questions for this week’s Social Metwork blog post.

Q: What inspired you to research oceanography and climate in the first place?

A: I always enjoyed math and physics. The possibility of using these disciplines to study scientific problems that I could “see” was very appealing.

Q: Why were you drawn to machine learning?

A: The power of machine learning (ML) to advance fields such as natural processing language or computer science is indisputable. I was excited by the premise of ML for climate science. In particular, can ML help deepen our understanding of certain aspects of the climate systems (e.g. interactions between scales or interactions between the ocean and atmosphere)? Can ML improve the representation of small-scale processes in climate models? ML, by itself, is not enough but combined with our physical understanding of the climate system could push the field forward.

Q: Can you give us an idea of what’s the most exciting research you are working on right now?

A: This is impossible. I work on 2 main areas of research right now: understanding and parameterizing ocean mesoscale eddies and understanding the role of the oceans in climate. I am passionate and excited about both topics. Hopefully, you will hear about both of them during the week.

Q: When did you realise/decide you were going to remain in academia?

A: I decided that I wanted to try and stay in academia in the last year of my PhD.  I was lucky enough to be able to.

Q: What is your favourite part of your job?

A: Working with my group!  The students and postdocs in the group have different expertise but all are passionate about their research. They make the work and the research more fun, more challenging, and more inspiring.

We are honoured to have our invitation accepted by Laure and are eagerly anticipating answers to more of these kind of questions throughout next week’s conversations.  Laure will be presenting a seminar titled, “Machine learning for physics-discovery and climate modelling” during the Monday Departmental Seminar series, as well as another seminar in the Climate and Ocean Dynamics research group, titled “Understanding past and future ocean warming”. She will also give a career-focused session at PhD group and, of course, engage with both the PhD students and staff on an individual basis during one-to-one meetings. We are grateful and delighted to be able to welcome Laure to the Meteorology department despite the various difficulties the year 2020 has posed on everyone, so come along to next week’s events!


1In true 2020 curve-ball style, of course.