This week the Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS) published their strategic plan for the period of 2018 to 2020, and here at Social Metwork HQ we thought it would be a splendid idea to reflect on the benefits of being a student member of the Royal Meteorological Society.
An important benefit in my opinion is that when becoming a member of RMetS you join a well-established community who hold enthusiasm about the weather and climate at its core. Members come from all corners of the world and at different stages of their career spanning the entire range: from the amateur weather enthusiasts to professionals. As a student, being an RMetS member can lead to conversations that could develop your career and bring unexpected opportunities. This has been greatly enhanced with the RMetS mentoring scheme.
RMetS host many different types of meetings, including annual conferences, meetings hosted by regional centres, and national meetings. Additional gatherings are held by special interest groups, ranging from Weather Arts & Music to Dynamical Problems. Meetings on a regional and national scale provide a platform for discussion and learning amongst those in the field. For a student, the highlight in the RMetS calendar is the annual student conference. Every year, sixty to eighty students come together to present their work and develop professional relationships that continue for years to come. This year’s conference is hosted at the University of York on the 5th and 6th July 2018 (more information). After two student conferences under my belt (see previous blog post), I would highly recommend any early career research scientist attending this event. It serves as a platform to share their own work in a friendly atmosphere and be inspired by the wider student community.
Other benefits to becoming an RMetS student member include eligibility to the Legacies Fund, grants and fellowships, and receiving a monthly copy of Weather magazine. Most importantly though, through becoming a RMetS member you support a professional society who are committed to increasing awareness of the importance of weather and climate in policy and decision-making. Alongside this week’s publication of RMetS’ strategic plan, both the Met Office and NASA have published press releases stating that 2017 was the warmest year on record without El Niño. The atmosphere and oceans of our planet are changing at unprecedented rates: rising sea levels, reductions in Arctic sea-ice, and an increased frequency of extreme weather events to name but a few climate change impacts. Becoming an RMetS student member does not only benefit your career and knowledge, but also supports a society that is committed to promoting and raising awareness of weather and climate science.
The Volcanic and Magmatic Studies Group (VMSG) held a conference from the 3-6th of January in Leeds. The Centre for Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET) held a student conference from 8-9th January in Cambridge. It was a conference double-whammy about all things volcanic – heaven!
VMSG is a joint special interest group of the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland and the Geological Society of London. The VMSG conference is a fairly small affair, with about 200 in attendance, and it brings together research in geochemistry, seismology, volcanology and related fields. Because of its size, it’s a nice informal space where there is a focus on students presenting their work to the VMSG community, but anyone is free to present their research.
Talks ranged from how tiny fossils, called diatoms, became trapped in a pyroclastic density current, to modelling of lava domes, to how local people interact with the volcano they live on at Masaya, to every aspect of volcanology you can think of. The final talk was definitely a highlight – with everyone in 3D glasses to look at volcanic plumes across Russia, it really brought the satellite images to life (and we got to keep the glasses).
90 posters on a variety of topics were presented, the majority of which were by students (I was one of them). There was of course an obligatory dinner and disco to round off the second day of talks, and a great chance to network with other people from VMSG.
The conference also provides workshops on different aspects of research, with sessions on writing papers, diffusion modelling and InSAR to name a few. These were hosted on the 6th at the University of Leeds Environment and Earth Sciences Department, and comprised a full day of talks and labs so you could get to grips with the techniques you were being shown. I attended the InSAR workshop, which gave a good introduction to the topic of comparing two satellite images and seeing where the ground had moved. There was also a session on deformation modelling in the afternoon and playing with bits of code.
Then it was onto the second leg of the conferences, which took the action to Cambridge, where students that are part of COMET met up to discuss work and attend talks from 8-9th January.
COMET is a National Environment Research Council Centre of Excellence, it comprises a group of researchers that uses remote and ground sensed data and models to study earthquakes and volcanoes. They also work with the British Geological Survey and the European Space Agency, and fund PhD projects in related fields.
The meet-up of students comprised two days of talks from students, with some keynote speakers who had been past members of COMET that had gone on to careers outside of academia. The talks from second and third years included: remote sensing and InSAR being used to examine tectonic strain in the East African Rift Valley and slip (movement) rates along faults in Tibet, modelling how gas bubbles in magma change the more crystals you add to the magma, and using cosmogenic isotopes to work out slip rates on a fault in Italy.
First years are also given the chance to give a talk lasting 5 minutes, so I filled people in on what I’d been up to in the past four months – lots of data collection! My project will be using satellite data to look at the varied eruption behaviour of Bagana volcano in Papua New Guinea, with a view to modelling this behaviour to better understand what causes it. Bagana has a tendency to send out thick lava flows in long pulses and let out lots of gas, and occasionally then violently erupt and let out lots of ash and hot pyroclastic density currents. But it is very understudied, as it is so remote – so there’s lots still to be learnt about it!
The meet-up also included a fancy meal in Pembroke College’s Old Library, with candles and it felt a bit like being at Hogwarts! Then it was back to Reading, thoroughly worn out, but with lots of ideas and many useful contacts – VMSG2019 is in St. Andrews and I can’t wait.
From the 6th -17th of November the UNFCCC’s (United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change) annual meeting or “Conference of the Parties” – COP took place. This year was COP23 and was hosted by Bonn in the UN’s world conference centre with Fiji taking the presidency.
Heading into the Bonn Zone on the first day of the COP. The Bonn Zone was the part of the conference for NGO stands and side events.
As part of the Walker Institutes Climate Action Studio another SCENARIO PhD and I attended the first week of the COP while students back in Reading participated remotely via the UNFCCC’s YouTube channel and through interviews with other participants of the COP.
There are many different components to the COP, it is primarily the meeting of a number of different international Climate agreements with lots of work currently being done on the implementation on the Paris Agreement. However it is also a space where many different civil society groups doing work connected to or impacted by climate change come together, to make connections with other NGOs as well as governments. This is done in an official capacity within the “exhibition zone” of the conference and with a vast array of side events taking place throughout the two weeks. Outside of these official events there are also many demonstrations both inside and outside of the conference space.
Demonstrations in the Bonn Zone
As an observer I was able to watch some of the official negotiations. On the Wednesday I attended the SBSTA (Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice) informal consultation on research and systematic observations. It was an illuminating experience to see the negotiation process in action. At times it was frustrating to see how picky it feels like the negotiation teams can be, however over the week I did have a newfound appreciation for the complexity of the issues that are having to be resolved. This meeting was based on writing a short summary of the IPCC report and other scientific reports used by the COP, and so was less politically charged than a lot of the other meetings. However this didn’t stop an unexpected amount of debate over whether to include examples such as carbon-dioxide concentrations.
One of the most useful ways to learn about the COP was by talking to the different people and groups who we met at COP. It was interesting to see the different angles with which people were approaching the COP. From researchers who were observing the political process, to environmental and human rights NGO’s trying to get governments to engage with issues that they’re working on.
Interviewing other COP participants at the Walker Institutes stand
A particular highlight was the ex-leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett, she spoke with us and the students back in Reading about a wide range of topics, from women’s involvement in the climate movement to discussing my PhD.
Kelly Stone from Action Aid provided a great insight into how charities operate at the COP. She spoke of making connections with other charities, often there are areas of overlap between their work but on other issues they had diverging opinions. However these differences have to be put aside to make progress on their shared interests. Kelly also discussed how it always amazes her that people are surprised that everyone who attends COP does not agree on everything, “we’re not deciding if climate change is real”. The issues being dealt with at the COP are complex dealing with human rights, economics, technology as well as climate change. Often serious compromises have to be made and this must be done by reaching a consensus between all 197 Parties to the UNFCCC.
To read more about the student experience of COP and summaries of specific talks and interviews you can view the COP CAS blog here. You can also read about last years COP on this blog here.
Clockwise from top left: The opening on the evening of Monday 6th November showed Fiji leaving its own mark as the President of the conference. The Norwegian Pavilion had a real Scandi feel, while the Fiji Pavilion transported visitors to a tropical island.
When sea water freezes it forms sea ice, a composite of ice and brine. Sea ice exhibits varying structural, thermodynamic and mechanical properties across a range of length- and time-scales. It can be subcategorised into numerous different types of sea ice depending on where is grows and how old it is.
However, climate models do not simulate the evolution of floes (they model floes as cylindrical) or the floe size distribution, which has implications for ice melt rates and exchange of heat with the atmosphere and ocean. Sea ice also hosts algae and small organisms within brine channels in the ice, which can be important for nutrient cycles. This is a developing area of earth system modelling.
How much complexity do global climate models need to sufficiently model the interactions of sea ice with the ocean and atmosphere?
The representation of sea ice in global climate models is actually very simple, with minimal sea ice types and thickness categories. The main important feature of sea ice for global climate models is its albedo, which is much greater than that of open water, making it important for the surface energy balance. So, it is important to get the correct area of sea ice. Global climate models need sea ice:
to get the correct heat exchange with the atmosphere and ocean
to get a realistic overturning circulation in the ocean.
because salt release during sea ice growth is important for the ocean salinity structure, and therefore important to get the correct amount of sea in/near deep water formation sites.
sea ice is not important for sea level projections.
So, do the complex features of sea ice matter, or are simple parameterisations sufficient?
Schematic showing some dynamic features of sea ice 3.
Which leads to a lot more questions…
Where does the balance between sufficient complexity and computational cost lie?
Does adding extra model complexity actually make it harder to understand what the model is doing and therefore to interpret the results?
Do climate models need any further improvements to sea ice in order to better simulate global climate? There is still large uncertainty surrounding other climate model components, such as clouds and ocean eddies, which are believed to explain a lot of the discrepancy between models and observations, particularly in the Southern Ocean.
A lot of these questions depend on the scientific question that is being asked. And the question is not necessarily always ‘how is global climate going to change in the future’. Sea ice is fascinating because of its complexity, and there are still many interesting questions to investigate, hopefully before it all melts!
Images clockwise from top left: grease ice 4, pancake ice 5, surface melt ponds 6, ice floes 7.
The Future Developments in Climate Sea Ice Modelling Workshop
This blog stems from a one day workshop I attended on ‘Future developments in climate sea ice modelling’ at the Isaac Newton Centre as part of a four month programme on the ‘Mathematics of Sea Ice Phenomena’. The format of the day was that three different strands of sea ice researchers gave 40 min talks giving their strand’s point of view of current sea ice developments and what the focus should be for sea ice modelers, each followed by 40 mins of open discussion with the audience.
The three (very good!) talks were:
Dirk Notz: What do climate models need sea ice for? A top-down, system level view of what sea ice models should produce from the perspective of a climate modeller.
Cecilia Bitz: What sea ice physics is missing from models? A bottom-up view of what is missing from current sea ice models from the perspective of a sea ice scientist.
Elizabeth Hunke: What modelling approaches can be used to address the complexity of sea ice and the needs of climate models?
At the beginning of September 3 PhD students from Reading, including myself, went to Cambridge to attend the NCAS Climate Modelling Summer School. This is an annual event aimed at PhD students and early career scientists who want to develop their understanding of climate models, with topics covering parameterisations to supercomputers.
The course ran over two weeks with lectures on the components of climate models in the morning, covering fundamental dynamics and thermodynamics, numerical methods and different parameterisations. This was followed by an afternoon of computer practicals and then more topical lectures in the evening, such as “User engagement in climate science” and “The Sun and Earth’s climate system”. The lectures were very fast paced but this was a great opportunity to cover so many topics in a short space of time and get a grounding in lots of different topics that I will definitely be looking over in future. A poster session on the second evening gave us the chance to learn about other people’s work and make connections with other people starting out their careers in climate science, including a few readers of the blog, that will hopefully last throughout our careers.
One of the highlights of the course was the chance to run some (rather interesting) experiments with an earth system model. This involved breaking into groups with each being given a different project. It was exciting to go through the whole process of having an idea, developing a hypothesis, thinking of specific experiments to answer the hypothesis and then analysing the results in just a week – something that takes much longer when you’re doing a PhD! My group worked on the Flat Earth experiment, which looked at the effect of removing all of the earth’s orography not, to our dismay, turning the earth into a flat disk. I learned a lot about how to run models, something which I have never done even though I use the output. It also developed my understanding of different climate processes that I don’t work with such as the monsoons, and even dynamical vegetation.
Throughout the course we stayed at St Catharine’s College. Right in the centre of Cambridge it quickly felt like a home from home, keeping us well fed to get through the intense science. Although the weekend was rainy, apparently breaking a run of excellent weather for the school, we still had plenty of time to explore beautiful Cambridge. A few people were even brave enough to go punting!
An interesting, hectic and inspiring two weeks later we may have been glad to head back to Reading for a good sleep but having thoroughly enjoyed the summer school.
Every year students from the SCENARIO (Science of the Environment, Natural and Anthropogenic Processes, Impacts and Opportunities) Doctoral Training Partnership organise an annual conference. Those invited include SCENARIO students, NERC employees and industrial partners. This year, after last year’s successful collaboration with the University of Oklahoma, it was decided that we would run the conference (Frontiers in Natural Environment Research) with the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) and London NERC DTPs, led by a variety of universities and institutions in London.
A similar conference was organised last year (Perspectives on Environmental Change) between SSCP and the London NERC DTP, which was a rousing success. This year, with the addition of Reading and Surrey, we had almost 200 delegates attending with a healthy proportion of supervisors and industry partners, with over 40 oral presentations and 40 posters from students at the various institutions. The conference was held in the Physics building at Imperial College, a literal stone’s throw away from the Royal Albert Hall.
Organising the conference was a daunting task; there was a lot of work involved between the nine PhD students on the committee! One of the challenges, (but also one of the most exciting parts of the conference), was the sheer variety of research being presented. Many of the attendees were from the Met department, but there were also students from Chemistry and Geography from SCENARIO, and students from the London institutions doing topics as varied as sociology, ecology, biology, materials science and plate tectonics. This made for a really interesting conference since there was so much on offer from such a wide range of fields, but made our lives quite difficult when trying to organise keynote speakers and sort abstracts!
As well as the student presentations we also ran workshops and panel discussions, and had two invited keynote speakers. The workshops were about communicating science through social media, and also on getting published in one of the Nature journals (similar to the successful workshop ran by SCENARIO here at Reading). The panel discussions were themed around “Science and Development” and “Science in a post-truth world”, looking at ways in which science (particularly that within the NERC remit) can help to solve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and how we communicate science in a time of “fake news”.
Perhaps my favourite part of the conference were the two keynote speakers. Finding speakers who would appeal to the majority of people attending the conference was no easy task, given the huge range of disciplines!
Opening the conference, Marcus Munafo, Professor in Biological Psychology at Bristol University spoke about the “reproducibility crisis” and how incentive structures affect the scientific process. I can honestly say it was one of the most thought-provoking lectures I’ve ever been to. His main argument was that ultimately science is done by people who have an incentive to do certain things, (e.g. publish in high impact journals), for the benefit of their careers. However, this incentivisation means that often one “big result” can mean more for the career of someone than all the work they’ve done previously, even if that result ended up being retracted or proven false later on, (he went on to demonstrate that happens a lot). One of the statistics he presented was that the higher the impact factor of a journal, the higher the chance of retraction, which I thought was really interesting and certainly made me re-evaluate the way in which I approach my own work.
The other keynote speaker was Lucy Hawkes, Senior Lecturer in Physiological Ecology at Exeter, talking about her work and career, particularly “biologging” of animals and looking at their migratory patterns. Aside from all the great anecdotes and stories (like swimming with sharks in order to plant bio-tags on them), from a meteorologist’s perspective it was interesting listening to her talk about how these migratory patterns change with the climate.
Of course any conference worth its salt has entertainment and things outside work. A BBQ was hosted in the courtyard underneath the Queen’s Tower, and drinks and comedy (the Science Showoff) in the wonderfully titled hBar at Imperial. The Science Showoff in particular was really good, hosted by a professional comedian but with most of the material coming from PhD students at the various institutes (although shamefully no-one from Met volunteered).
One of the other really useful parts was meeting students from disparate fields at the other institutions. As Joanna Haigh (director of the SSCP DTP) said in her closing speech, the people we meet at these conferences will be our colleagues for our entire careers, so it’s really important to get to know people socially and professionally. In the end I think it went really well, and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing the London students again at next year’s conference!
Recently in the department we have had a fair number of students submitting their PhD theses and awaiting or completing their viva.
For many students at the start of the PhD the viva seems a long way off and can often be thought of as a terrifying experience. So why then do many PhD students come out of their viva saying that they enjoyed it? and is it really as XKCD portray it?
With the help of some former PhD students (Hannah Bloomfield, Sammie Buzzard, Hannah Gough and Leo Saffin) we’ve come up with a summary of our own experiences and some advice for people just about to go in.
But before I get into that I’ll briefly explain a little bit about the viva. The viva is (alongside writing the thesis) the examination for the PhD. Its essentially an oral exam where you sit and talk about your thesis and the area surrounding your field. The viva can last anywhere between 90 minutes and 5 hours, depending on how much you have to talk about (and how much you or your examiners talk). The result from the viva is as follows: Fail; Major Corrections requiring another viva; Pass: Major corrections; Pass: Minor corrections (the most common) and Pass: No corrections (very rare), and at the end of the day it’s the pass or fail that matters.
So what can you expect from a viva? Well, as with each PhD each viva is different (hence why this post is a collaborative effort). Even people’s nerves are different, some go in feeling confident, whilst others are still fairly nervous about it (which of course is very understandable). I certainly was in the nervous camp, but I would have been disappointed if I wasn’t because I always feel I perform better if I am nervous beforehand. Indeed, many of us who are initially nervous become relaxed as soon as we get into the swing of things and the questions start flowing. Furthermore, many examiners (not all) will know and understand that you will be nervous so will immediately put you at ease by saying something along the lines of “I really enjoyed reading your thesis and you don’t need to be worried about the result.” This last statement is probably key for anyone going into the viva – by the time it gets to the viva your examiners have already decided the result, the viva is mainly to check that you did the work.
Looking at the recent experiences of the PhD students I have broadly classified the viva into three types, Presentation, “Traditional” and Thesis covering described below.
Presentation (Hannah Gough):
Hannah was asked to produce a presentation for her viva. She did find this useful as it was a good way to settle into the viva and bring across the aims and key conclusions of her thesis, at the same time highlight what she felt was the most important figures in her thesis. After the presentation, the examiners asked questions on her entire thesis. These ranged from points of clarification, to the wider implications of her work.
“Traditional” (Hannah Bloomfield, Sammie Buzzard and Leo Saffin):
The more “traditional” viva asks you to summarise your thesis for the first 3-5 minutes and then goes through the thesis asking about wider implications and where your work fits in, basic theory, parts of the thesis they are unsure about and implications of your work (amongst other things).
Thesis covering (myself):
Essentially, all we did was go through my thesis cover-to-cover discussing bits specifically related to my project (some minor wider implications/knowledge) and comments that they had on my work.
So why do people enjoy the viva then? Well, there is a fairly simple answer to this question. You’ve been doing work for between three and four years and now you get to discuss it in detail and the examiner can see that you know what you are talking about and will often ask some interesting and thought provoking questions that you either haven’t considered or didn’t necessarily view as important.
Other things that are worth mentioning about the viva, before going on to our collective advice, is that most of the time (unless you spend a while talking about basics of your area) the viva doesn’t feel it is taking as long as it actually is (2 hours feels like 15 minutes – I’m not just saying that, it really does!) – it’s essentially the old saying “time flies when you are having fun”.
So, that’s a brief overview of the viva and our experiences, so how do you actually survive it? Our collective advice would be as follows:
You are the expert in your thesis – so don’t panic – your examiners don’t know as much about what you did as you do.
The examiners are not there to trick you, they are just checking that you did your work – they’ve already made the pass/fail decision.
Don’t be afraid to ask for breaks from time to time (your examiners may want a break too).
Don’t look at the clock (if there is one in the room). All you will then do is think about how long you have been in the viva.
Bring food (biscuits, etc) and enough to share with your examiners.
Prepare a simple 3-5 minute overview of your thesis and know it well – generally you will be asked to summarise your thesis.
It can be useful to read a couple of your external examiners papers – just to find out a little bit about them at the very least.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions to be explained in more detail so you know exactly what they want.
Eat something before you go in no matter how bad you feel.
Try and get a good night’s sleep beforehand.
Don’t be afraid to say how you would do things differently, after having had time to look back at it.
You are the expert in your thesis – so don’t panic – your examiners don’t know as much about what you did as you do.
With that all I can say if you are facing a viva soon is good luck.
A special thanks to all the former PhD students that helped provide information for this blog: Hannah Gough, Hannah Bloomfield, Samantha Buzzard and Leo Saffin.