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.

 

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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

On relocating to the Met Office for five weeks of my PhD

Some PhD projects are co-organised by an industrial CASE partner which provides supervisory support and additional funding. As part of my CASE partnership with the UK Met Office, in January I had the opportunity to spend 5 weeks at the Exeter HQ, which proved to be a fruitful experience. As three out of my four supervisors are based there, it was certainly a convenient set-up to seek their expertise on certain aspects of my PhD project!

One part of my project aims to understand how certain neighbourhood-based verification methods can affect the level of surface air quality forecast accuracy. Routine verification of a forecast model against observations is necessary to provide the most accurate forecast possible. Ensuring that this happens is crucial, as a good forecast may help keep the public aware of potential adverse health risks resulting from elevated pollutant concentrations.

The project deals with two sides of one coin: evaluating forecasts of regional surface pollutant concentrations; and evaluating those of meteorological fields such as wind speed, precipitation, relative humidity or temperature. All of the above have unique characteristics: they vary in resolution, spatial scale, homogeneity, randomness… The behaviour of the weather and pollutant variables is also tricky to compare against one another because the locations of their numerous measurement sites nearly never coincide, whereas the forecast encompasses the entirety of the domain space. This is kind of the crux of this part of my PhD: how can we use these irregularly located measurements to our advantage in verifying the skill of the forecast in the most useful way? And – zooming out still – can we determine the extent to which the surface air pollution forecast is dependent on some of those aforementioned weather variables? And can this knowledge (once acquired!) be used to further improve the pollution forecast?

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Side view of the UK Met Office on a cold day in February.

While at the Met Office, I began my research specifically into methods which analyse the forecast skill when a model “neighbourhood” of a particular size around a particular point-observation is evaluated. These methods are being developed as part of a toolkit for evaluation of high resolution forecasts, which can be (and usually are) more accurate than a lower resolution equivalent, but traditional metrics (e.g. root mean square error (RMSE) or mean error (ME)) often fail to demonstrate the improvement (Mittermaier, 2014). They can also fall victim to various verification errors such as the double-penalty problem. This is when an ‘event’ might have been missed at a particular time in the forecast at one gridpoint because it was actually forecast in the neighbouring grid-point one time-step out, so the RMSE counts this error both in the spatial and temporal axes. Not fair, if you ask me. So as NWP continues to increase in resolution, there is a need for robust verification methods which relax the spatial (or temporal) restriction on precise forecast-to-observation matching somewhat (Ebert, 2008).

One way to proceed forward is via a ‘neighbourhood’ approach which treats a deterministic forecast almost as an ensemble by considering all the grid-points around an observation as an individual forecast and formulating a probabilistic score. Neighbourhoods are made of varying number of model grid-points, i.e. a 3×3 or a 5×5 or even bigger. A skill score such as the ranked probability score (RPS) or Brier Score is calculated using the cumulative probability distribution across the neighbourhood of the exceedance of a sensible pollutant concentration threshold. So, for example, we can ask what proportion of a 5×5 neighbourhood around an observation has correctly forecasted an observed exceedance (i.e. ‘hit’)? What if an exceedance forecast has been made, but the observed quantity didn’t reach that magnitude (i.e. ‘false alarm’)? And how do these scores change when larger (or smaller) neighbourhoods are considered? And, if these spatial verification methods prove informative, how could they be implemented in operational air quality forecast verification? All these questions will hopefully have some answers in the near future and form a part of my PhD thesis!

Although these kind of methods have been used for meteorological variables, they haven’t yet been widely researched in the context of regional air quality forecasts. The verification framework for this is called HiRA – High Resolution Assessment, which is part of the wider verification network Model Evaluation Tools (which, considering it is being developed as a means of uniformly assessing high-resolution meteorological forecasts, has the most unhelpful acronym: MET). It is quite an exciting opportunity to be involved in the testing and evaluation of this new set of verification tools for a surface pollution forecast at a regional scale, and I am very grateful to be involved in this. Also, having the opportunity to work at the Met Office and “pretend” to be a real research scientist for a while is awesome!

Email: k.m.milczewska@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Going Part-time…

Email: r.f.couchman-crook@pgr.reading.ac.uk

**Scroll to the bottom for picture of a bearded dragon.**

A full-time PhD is not always what you see yourself doing. Perhaps you don’t like the idea of being an academic, going through the realities of post-doc life, and battling for the few research roles out there. Maybe you want to get a job in industry, but keep your hand in the research pool. Maybe you have other commitments, meaning that your time is limited but you want to still learn and build your research skills. Whatever the reason, there is always an option to go part-time.

After doing a year and a bit full-time, I knew I wanted to work outside of academia in something more practical than an office-based PhD. Wanting to make use of the work I’d already started, myself, my supervisors and my funders agreed that a part-time MPhil gave the outcomes that all parties wanted. It means I can finish my studies sooner and have something tangible for the years of study, but it also provides new research into my topic that can be used by subsequent researchers.

But how to broach the subject in the first place? You need to take a bit of time to look at the reasons why you want to change, but not so long that you end up regretting never actually saying how you’re feeling at least. It’s really important at this stage that you assess your options, and think about the practicalities, like how it will affect your funding.

It is important to work out how your new schedule will fit together. Part-time doesn’t mean a few hours a week, it means half of what a full-time PhD student would do. With my hours, it means I do 12 hours a week and then work during school holidays. Realistically I won’t get much time off, but it is workable into a roughly 8-6 schedule. It’s important to keep your weekends as free as possible, because social time will help keen you sane!

And in terms of touching base with your supervisor, for me that means coming in once a fortnight, and keeping a record of everything I’ve been up to each day, so I know exactly where I am on my project objectives. You and your supervisor need to be realistic about how much you can complete in a given time, and that your work won’t happen as quickly, so regulating expectations is important. And if things aren’t working, then it’s important to look at them again, perhaps with the help of your Monitoring Committee, to keep you on top of your work.

It’s also important to learn to say no – anyone who knows me knows I struggle with this! People might be under the impression that you have more time to take on other stuff now that you’re part-time, but you have to know what you can make time for in your schedule (like writing a short blog), what might bring other benefits (little bit of open day volunteering), and what really isn’t your problem to worry about!

Having gone part-time, a lot of the stresses seem to have relaxed; it’s nice to not feel like the PhD is all-consuming, and I’m finding it easier to manage my targets each fortnight. If anything, knowing I only have a limited window for work seems to increase productivity! And my job as a lab technician now means I’m gaining a whole other range of skills, can leave that work at work, and make friends with a whole host of school reptiles!

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My tips, strategies and hacks as a PhD student

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

Having been a PhD student for a little over 3 months I am perhaps ill-qualified to write such a ‘PhD tips’ type of blog post, but write one I appear to be doing! It’s probably actually more accurately titled ‘study tips in general but ones which are highly relevant to science PhDs.’

The following are just my tips on what have helped me over the course of my studies and may be obvious or not suitable for others, but I write them on the off-chance that something here is useful to someone out there. No doubt I will have many more such strategies by the end of my time here in Reading!

Papers and articles
As a science student you may have encountered these from time to time. The better ones are clearly written and succinct, the worse ones are verbose and obscurantist. If you’re not the quickest reader in the world, getting through papers can end up consuming a great deal of your time.

I’m going to advocate speed reading in a bit but when you start learning speed reading, one of the things they ask you to think about first is “Do I really need to read this?”. If the answer is yes, then the next question is “Do I really need to read all of it?”. Perhaps you only need to glance at just the abstract, figures and conclusion? After all, time spent reading this is time not spent doing something else, something more profitable perhaps, so do check that it really is worth your time before diving in.

So once I’ve ascertained that the article is indeed worth my time, I sit down with a pencil (or the equivalent for a PDF) and read through the sections I’ve decided on. Anything that makes my neurons spike (“oh that’s interesting….”), I underline or highlight. Any thoughts or questions that occur to me, I write in the margin. If I feel the need to criticise the paper for being insufficiently clear then I write down these remarks, too.

Once I get to the end, I put the article away out of sight and sit down with a blank piece of paper (or on a computer) and try and write something very informally about what I’ve just read. Quite often my mind will go helpfully blank at this point, so I try and finish the following sentence: “The biggest thing (if anything) I learned from this article was….”. Completing this one sentence then tends to lead to other stuff tumbling out and in no particular order I jot these all down. Only once the majority of it is down on paper do I take a peek at the annotated piece to see what I missed (For heaven’s sake avoid painting the article yellow with a highlighter!)

Please, please, please, don’t.

This personal blurb that you have produced is then a good way to quickly remind yourself of the contents of that article in the future without having to reread it from scratch. This post-reading exercise need not take more than 15 minutes but if you’re worried about spending this extra time, don’t be. You’ll save yourself a heap of time in future by not having to reread the damn thing.

Random piece of advice – if you are unaware of the Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Sciences, then check it out. Whatever your PhD topic I guarantee there’ll be 10 or so shortish entries which are all highly relevant to your particular PhD topic and consequently worth knowing about!

Speed reading
Really still on the previous paragraph but as is often the way, between the valuable articles that you really should be reading and the stuff for which life’s really too short there’s a grey area.
For such grey areas I am an advocate of speed reading.
For any electronic texts check out this free website:

Just copy, paste and go! https://accelareader.com/

The pace the words flash up doesn’t have to be particularly fast (I suggest trying 300 wpm to start with) but the golden rule is to never press pause once you’ve started. No going back to read stuff you’ve missed (well not until you’ve reached the end first at least!). This method of reading is especially useful for any articles that feel like quagmires into which you are slowly drowning. Paradoxically reading faster in such instances often increases one’s comprehension.

A good way to develop the skill of speed reading is to start on articles you see posted on social media, articles that you are not too fussed about getting every single detail. Just let it wash over you!

Talks and lectures
I have found it useful to make audio recordings of these. I don’t usually tend to listen back, but if there is something that was particularly interesting or dense that might be worth revisiting then it can be very worthwhile. I make a note of the time this something was said at the time it was said and can thus track it down in the recording fairly painlessly afterwards.

One tip about note taking that has stayed with me since I first heard it several years back was the following: after writing down the title, only make notes on what is surprising or interesting to you, just that! This may result in many lines of notes or no lines at all, but whatever you do, don’t just make notes of everything that was said. This advice has been very useful for me.

Organising
Ask me in person if you would like to know my thoughts on this.

Programming to help physical intuition.
This is probably more relevant to students like me who didn’t come from a maths or physics undergrad and consequently aren’t quite as fluent in the old maths….or perhaps undergrads for that matter…
….but in my undergrad (environmental science) I spent quite a lot of the time spent studying maths (and to a lesser extent) physics involved memorising complicated procedures. The best example of this was a lecture on Fourier Series where the professor took the whole hour to work through the process of getting from an input (x^2) to the output (first n terms of the Fourier series). Because it took so much space/effort for me to remember this lengthy process, it ended up crowding out the arguably more important conceptual stuff, such as what a Fourier series actually does and why it is it so useful. When all is said and done and the final exam is handed in, these concepts are what should (ideally) stick with you even if the details of how, don’t.
So here’s where I think programming can come in. Firstly, there’s nothing like coding up some process to check whether you understand the nuts and bolts of it, but more importantly once it has been coded up properly you can then play about with the inputs to see how these affect the graphed outputs. Being able to ‘play’ about like this gives you a more intuitive feel for the model/process that wouldn’t be possible if you had to manually redo the laborious calculations each time you wanted to change the input parameters. 3 examples of where I have done this myself are the following:
1. Getting my head around the thermal inertia of the oceans by varying the depth of the surface and deep layer of the ocean in a simple model.
2. Playing around graphically with dispersion.
3. Convincing myself that it really is true that in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere summer the north pole receives more energy per day than the equator.

And you?
So do you have any hard won study/research tips? If so do email me as I would be interested in hearing about them!
Which study hack do you think I (or others) are most lacking?

Night at the Museum!

On Friday November 30th, Prof. Paul Williams and I ran a ‘pop-up science’ station at the Natural History Museum’s “Lates” event (these are held on the last Friday of each month; the museum is open for all until 10pm, with additional events and activities). Our station was entitled “Turbulence Ahead”, and focused on communicating research under two themes:

  1.  Improving the predictability of clear-air turbulence (CAT) for aviation
  2.  The impact of climate change on aviation, particularly in terms of increasing CAT

There were several other stations, all run by NERC-funded researchers. Our stall went ‘live’ at 6 PM, and from that point on we were speaking almost constantly for the next 3.5 hours – with hundreds (not an exaggeration!) of people coming to our stall to find out more. Neither of us were able to take much of a break, and I’ve never had quite such a sore voice!

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Turbulence ahead? Not on this Friday evening!

Our discussions covered:

  • What is clear-air turbulence (CAT) and why is it hazardous to aviation?
  • How do we predict CAT? How has Paul’s work improved this?
  • How is CAT predicted to change in the future? Why?
  • What other ways does climate change affect aviation?

Those who came to our stall asked some very intelligent questions, and neither of us encountered a ‘climate denier’ – since we were speaking about a very applied impact of climate change, this was heartening. This impact of climate change is not often considered – it’s not as obvious as heatwaves or melting ice, but is a very real threat as shown in recent studies (e.g. Storer et al. 2017). It was a challenge to explain some of these concepts to the general public – some had heard of the jet stream, others had not, whilst some were physicists… and even the director of the British Geological Survey, John Ludden, turned up! It was interesting to hear from so many people who were self-titled “nervous flyers” and deeply concerned about the future potential for more unpleasant journeys.

I found the evening very rewarding; it was interesting to gauge a perspective of how the public perceive a scientist and their work, and it was amazing to see so many curious minds wanting to find out more about subjects with which they are not so familiar.

My involvement with this event stems from my MMet dissertation work with Paul and Tom Frame looking at the North Atlantic jet stream. Changes in the jet stream have large impacts on transatlantic flights (Williams 2016) and the frequency and intensity of CAT. Meanwhile, Paul was a finalist for the 2018 NERC Impact Awards in the Societal Impact category for his work on improving turbulence forecasts – he finished as runner-up in the ceremony which was held on Monday December 3rd.

So, yes, there may indeed be turbulent times ahead – but this Friday evening certainly went smoothly!

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

Twitter: @SimonLeeWx

References

Storer, L. N., P. D. Williams, and M. M. Joshi, 2017: Global Response of Clear-Air Turbulence to Climate Change. Geophys. Res. Lett., 44, 9979-9984, https://doi.org/10.1002/2017GL074618

Williams, P. D., 2016: Transatlantic flight times and climate change. Environ. Res. Lett., 11, 024008, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/11/2/024008.

Reflecting on starting a PhD

Now that Christmas is just around the corner, and us first year students have settled in to the swing of things, I thought it would be nice to write a short piece on what it’s like starting a PhD.

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Reflecting on my experience so far, my first thought was to remark at how I’d only been a PhD student for a little over two months. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever learnt so much in quite so short a time before. This was an encouraging thought, because often in the moment progress can seem very slow indeed. However, when you put it all together and zoom out a little, you realise how far you’ve come. If you feel like you’ve wasted a day lost in code, or just generally lost, it’s never wasted; it’s your PhD and is a constant learning process. I’ve found it really rewarding sometimes to simply explore what I find interesting, or practice different ways of making figures. I would recommend that if something, anything, sparks your interest, investigate it, and read up about it. If it comes to nothing, or if you’re not ready to write a journal paper at the end of the day, well, the skills and familiarities you picked up may eventually go towards doing so! Don’t be afraid of not doing the perfect job first time or making a mistake.

The day-to-day life of doing a PhD is also very dynamic. Perhaps I thought I would only spend long hours sitting at my desk in front of a monitor, but every day is different. Research groups, seminars, and social activities really add variety and inspiration to each and every day, even if it means pulling myself away from my data for a small amount of time! I’d recommend to any first year to get involved as much as possible. It is the best way to get to know people in your department and beyond and how they do science! I will admit it took me a little while at first to treat all these different aspects of a typical day as “PhD work”, but that’s the right mindset to be in.

Finally, getting to know other PhD students and researchers has been one of the best and most eye-opening elements so far. In fact, I would say it is almost a crucial part of the process. I am always grateful to those higher up the academic chain, who, despite being busy, are continually happy to offer advice from the small to the big things. At first, I felt like I would be some sort of annoyance asking other people for help on something, or that I should be able to work it out for myself. However, one comes to realise everyone is delighted to help and share their expertise with you. That’s what being a scientist is about, right? As Google Scholar reminds us on each visit: “Stand on the shoulders of giants.” Those older PhDs may scoff at being referred to as giants, but to someone starting a PhD, daunted at how far there is to go and how much there is to do, well… they’ve done a large part of it!

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It’s not possible to always see the positives all the time, especially with research. However, one thing is for sure: you not only grow huge amounts as a scientist, but generally as a person, and I think if you keep that in mind, it all makes that little bit more sense.

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

SPARC (Stratosphere-troposphere Processes And their Role in Climate) General Assembly 2018

I was very fortunate to recently attend the SPARC 6th General Assembly 2018 conference in Kyoto, Japan (1-5 October) – the former imperial capital – where I had the opportunity to give a poster presentation of my research and network with fellow scientists of all ages and nationalities. SPARC is one of five core projects as part of the World Climate Research Program (WCRP), with a focus for coordinated, cutting-edge research on the interactions of both chemical and physical processes on Earth’s climate, at an international level. The main themes of the conference included: chemistry-climate interactions; subseasonal to decadal climate prediction; atmospheric dynamics and their role in climate; the importance of tropical processes; advances in observation and reanalysis datasets; and importantly, societal engagement of climate-related atmospheric research.

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Attendees of the SPARC 6th General Assembly 2018 in Kyoto, Japan (1-5 October 2018)

Despite the best efforts of Typhoon Trami to disrupt the proceedings, the conference went ahead largely as planned with only minor revisions to the schedule. An icebreaker on the Sunday afternoon provided an opportunity to meet a few others who had braved the deteriorating weather over snacks and refreshments. The conference opening ceremony finally got underway at lunchtime the next day with a traditional Japanese Taiko performance (a musical display involving drums and percussion instruments), followed by a talk from Neil Harris (the co-chair of SPARC). He discussed some of the challenges the General Assembly aimed to address over the week, including the provision of information for governments and society to act on climate change and how we as scientists can help to assist governments and society to take action. He emphasised the need for a holistic approach to both atmospheric dynamics and predictability.

Each day contained up to three oral presentation sessions, usually commencing with keynote talks from some of the leading scientists in the field, followed by poster sessions similarly organised by theme. The conference was noteworthy in its absence of parallel sessions and a strong focus on poster sessions, with over 400 posters presented during the course of the entire week! For the early career researchers (ECRs) amongst us, there were prizes for the best received posters in the form of a generous sum of money courtesy of Google’s Project Loon – a mission to increase internet connectivity in remote regions and developing countries by using a network of balloons in the stratosphere. The awards were presented during each of two ECR poster award ceremonies during the week, with the winners determined by a panel of assigned judges during each poster session. A dedicated entertainment and networking session was also organised for us ECRs on the Monday evening. Hosted by several senior scientists, who shared their expertise, the event proved extremely popular.

The Wednesday offered a short window of opportunity for sightseeing around Kyoto in the afternoon before the scheduled conference dinner (followed by dancing) was held in the evening at a local hotel venue. A wide range of Japanese, Chinese and Western buffet food was served, in addition to a variety of Japanese beers, wines and whiskeys. The event was ideal in facilitating networking between different research themes and offered me the chance to hear people’s experiences ranging from their current PhD studies to managing collaborations as leaders of large international working groups.

The conference drew to a close late Friday afternoon and culminated in a roundtable discussion of the future of SPARC initiated by members of the audience. The session helped to clarify aims and working objectives for the future, not only over the next few years but also in decades to come. As a PhD student with hopefully a long career ahead of me, this proved highly stimulating and the thought of actively contributing to achieve these targets in the years to come is a very exciting prospect! I am very grateful for the opportunity to have attended this excellent international meeting and visit Japan, all of which would not have been possible without funding support from my industrial CASE partner, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL).

Email: r.s.williams@pgr.reading.ac.uk