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.

RMetS Student and Early Career Scientists Conference 2019

Email: d.w.j.jones@pgr.reading.ac.uk

This year at the University of Birmingham, from the 2nd to the 5th of July, the Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS) held two national conferences. The first, the Atmospheric Science Conference, was well attended by staff and post-docs. The second, the Student and Early Career Scientists Conference, was attended by PhD students, including some of us from Reading. It proved a great opportunity to share research and best practices as well as network with both old and new colleagues from other institutions.

The Student and Early Career conference is open to all students and researchers just embarking upon their science career. It aims to give those in the field the opportunity to meet and present work before going on to attend more specialized conferences. For some of the Reading delegates this was the first opportunity to present work outside of the department to a wider audience who they weren’t already familiar with, or in quite the same field as. Presentations from Reading students ranged from topics such as thermal updrafts to atmosphere and ocean model coupling (summaries below). There were also keynote sessions that discussed important topics in atmospheric sciences as well as addressing the impact and reach that social media can give research.

There was also time to socialize, with an ice-breaker event on the Wednesday before the conference and a conference dinner on the Thursday evening. Keen to give the participants an opportunity to maximise their networking time, on Wednesday several scientists who had attended the Atmospheric Science Conference that day volunteered to stay behind, share their experiences during their careers and chat to the Early Career conference delegates over a few drinks.

Having also attended events through other institutions (such as the doctoral training partnership SCENARIO) there were also many friendly faces from outside Reading in attendance, and it was a great opportunity to catch up and share progress on our work. One of the delegates was even an old friend from when I was an undergraduate, so you never know what familiar faces you might find!

The student conference is organised by a committee of students and early career scientists (usually but not always attendees from previous conferences) from around the UK. Being a member of the committee is a fantastic opportunity to hone one’s organizational and planning skills, as well as getting invaluable practice for things like chairing sessions. If you’re interested in helping organise next year’s conference please do get in touch with Catherine Bicknell at RMetS (catherine.bicknell@rmets.org) or if you’re thinking about attending then you can start by joining the society where you’ll hear about all the other great events they host.

Highlights of the work presented by Reading students:

  • Kris Boykin presented work on clustering ensemble members in high resolution forecasts in order to extract likely scenarios and assign probabilities to each one.
  • Liam Till presented results from tracking thermals in deep convective clouds using the world’s largest fully steerable meteorological radar.
  • Sally Woodhouse presented a study of the effect of resolution of atmospheric models on heat transport into the Arctic using a coupled ocean-atmosphere climate model.
  • Emanuele Gentile presented a poster on his work determining how coupled models can improve extreme surface wind predictions using storm Helene as a case study.
  • Jake Bland presented a poster on the humidity biases in the stratosphere in the Met Office operational model assessed relative to experimental radiosonde data gathered during the North Atlantic Waveguide and Downstream impacts EXperiment (NAWDEX) field campaign.

PhD Visiting Scientist 2019: Prof. Cecilia Bitz

r.frew@pgr.reading.ac.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

cuteness_on_ice
Photo Credit: Cecilia Bitz

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

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

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

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

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

GroupPhoto
PhD students with Cecilia Bitz before the Careers Discussion.

EGU 2019

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

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

PhD students from the department present their research at EGU

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

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

poetry

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

– Sally Woodhouse & Kaja Milczewska

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


#traintoEGU – Sally Woodhouse

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

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

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

 

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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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