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.

My journey to Reading: Going from application to newly minted SCENARIO PhD student

George Gunn – g.f.gunn@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

Have you been thinking ‘I’ll never be good enough for a PhD’? Or perhaps you’ve been set on the idea of joining those who push the bounds of knowledge for quite some time, but are feeling daunted by the process? Well, keep reading. 

I started university with the hopes of stretching myself academically and gaining an undergraduate degree. As the degree progressed, I found myself increasingly improving in my marks and abilities. I enjoyed the coursework – researching a topic and the sense of discovery brought about by it. I became deeply interested in climate change and the impact humans have on the environment and was able to begin my dissertation research a year early because I was so motivated within my subject. 

In my final year of undergraduate studies, much of my time was pre-occupied with my role as Student President. Attending social events, board meetings, and lots of other things that didn’t involve a darkened room and a pile of books. I was very much a student who turned up, put the effort in, and then spent the rest of my time as I wished.  

Giving a speech at the Global Youth Strike for Climate, Inverness, as Student President. Extracurricular activities are a worthwhile addition to your application and were considered a lot during the interview! 

I began to look for opportunities for research degrees online, as well as asking almost anyone and everyone I knew academically if they had any ideas. Nothing came to fruition. That was until I received a Twitter notification from my lecturer drawing my attention to what looked to be an ideal PhD studentship. The snag? Applications were due to close within 3 hours of me checking the notification. 

By the time I had read the project particulars, accessed the cited literature and paced around my living room more than a few times, I had around 2 hours to submit an application. Due to my prior unsuccessful searches, I hadn’t previously submitted a PhD application and so had nothing to refer to – but proceed I did.  

Thankfully, the application was relatively straightforward. Standard job application information, details of the grades I had achieved and was predicted to achieve, and two academic references (for me, my personal academic tutor and climate change lecturer). What took time (I would advise anyone considering an application to prepare these earlier than I did!) was the statement of research interest and academic CV. My university careers service had excellent advice and resources to assist in that regard. 

Within minutes of the deadline, my application was in. I had almost forgotten about it by the time a week-or-so later I received an e-mail inviting me to Reading for an interview day. Shocked and excited were the emotions – little old me from the Highlands of Scotland, who hadn’t yet finished his undergraduate degree, was somehow being invited to one of the best Meteorology departments in the world to interview for a PhD studentship.  

No time to spare, my travel to and from Reading was booked. For the next couple of weeks, all I now had to worry about was how to do a PhD interview – though as will become clear, I need not have worried. I sought the advice of academic friends and colleagues (a calming influence for sure) and countless websites and forums (generally a source of unnecessary worry). 

Given the level of conflicting advice on PhD interviews, on arrival at Reading I wasn’t sure what to expect. At the front door I was provided with all the information that I needed for the day. I then made my way to a room with all the other candidates for a welcome talk and the opportunity to learn more about other projects on offer over lunch. 

The interview itself was very relaxed. No ‘stock’ PhD interview questions here – it was very much an opportunity to discuss my previous work and abilities, and how that might fit with the project. Importantly, it was an opportunity to meet my potential supervisors and ‘interview’ them too. If you’re going to spend 3-4 years working together, the connection needs to work well both ways. So, whilst the 30-minute interview slot seemed daunting on paper, the time flew by and it was soon time to leave. 

Fast forward a week or so and I was very surprised to receive an e-mail offering me the studentship that I had applied for: Developing an urban canopy model for improved weather forecasts in cities. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

At my desk in the Department of Meteorology, University of Reading. 

I hope that this blog post has helped you to feel less daunted to begin your PhD journey. Please feel free to get in touch with me by e-mail if you would like to chat further about beginning a PhD, or indeed to let me know how your own interview goes. Good luck! 

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.

The 2nd ICTP Summer School in Hierarchical Modelling of Climate Dynamics

Between the 1st and 12th July 2019, I attended the 2nd International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) Summer School in Hierarchical Modelling of Climate Dynamics at the ICTP guesthouse in Trieste, Italy. The focus of this summer school was on convective organisation and climate sensitivity, which is incredibly relevant to my PhD topic: Interactions between Radiation and Convective Organisation. So, I felt I had to attend this summer school (and not just because my lead supervisor, Chris Holloway, was one of the lead directors).

This was an international conference with staff and students coming together from all corners of the globe. In total there were 111 people attending the school, made up of 84 participants, 20 speakers and 7 directors. Without knowing anyone else going to this school (except my supervisor), I was initially a little apprehensive as I didn’t know what to expect but as soon as I met some of the other students I was put at ease. It was amazing to meet other people working on very similar projects to me, especially since my supervisor was the only other person I previously knew working on this convective organisation topic. So, it was great to not only make new friends but also meet potential future colleagues.

Group photo of all those involved in the summer school.

As expected, the schedule was pretty intense, with most days working from 9am until 6pm except for lunch and a couple of coffee breaks. The mornings consisted of a couple of lectures given by some of the leading experts in the field including Kerry Emanuel, Bjorn Stevens and Sandrine Bony, then in the afternoons we would do some group project work. In our groups of 4 or 5, we analysed some numerical model data, to study how convection organises within our model. I was surprised to find that our group tasks were very similar to what I’ve been doing for my first year, so I was a bit worried that we’d manage to do what I’ve been working on this past year within a couple of weeks! But actually, it ended up giving me almost too many new ideas for my own research! In the second week, each group then had to give a quick presentation on their work.

Talk by Kerry Emanuel about the consequences of climate change on our weather.

Each day, after the lectures and the group work, we were free to do what we wanted for the rest of the evening. With the venue being right on the coast, and with temperatures consistently between 26 – 32C in the day, it was perfect to relax by the sea or go for a swim. Or, if we were bored with the relentless supply of pasta in the canteen then we’d often go into town in search of pizza and of course gelato!

At the start of the second week, there was a poster session in which a lot of the participants brought posters to showcase their projects. This was the first time I’d presented my research at an event like this, so it was great to show what I’ve been working on in front of so many people. It was exciting to see so many people genuinely interested in my work and I got lots of useful feedback and ideas.

Presenting my work at the poster session.

So overall, this summer school far surpassed my expectations and I would strongly recommend attending a summer school if you get the chance. I learned so much through the lectures, the group work, through chatting to the professors and students and through presenting my work. I now have far too many ideas to explore with my research, probably more than I can realistically achieve! Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the school was being able to meet so many people working in this field. Since this topic is very niche, I have been very lucky to meet a very large proportion of the people working in the topic so I’m sure some of our paths will cross in the future and we will be able to collaborate on future projects.