LA-ICP-MS course in Perugia

The first international short course on the “application of laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) to earth sciences” was held at the department of Physics and Geology, Perugia University from 25-27 May 2016. I was interested in this course because LA-ICP-MS can be used as a tool to geochemically discriminate between different volcanic ash layers found in archives – something which I am doing as part of my PhD project at the University of Oxford. Thanks to the European Association of Geochemistry (EAG) student grant, I could attend it.

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Myself presenting during the course (image courtesy of Frey Fyfe)


The course was attended by a good mix of researchers, including Masters, PhD and post-docs, all with an interest in geochemistry and LA-ICP-MS, and intrigued in how they could apply this method to their own research. These researchers have diverse projects and had come from a variety of locations, including England, Italy, Hungary, Sweden, Germany and Canada, for example. Perugia University was the perfect host for this course, as it has recently been fitted with new laboratory equipment, and has several interesting and active research projects in the Petro-Volcanology Research Group (PVRG), not to mention a wealth of expert staff in this group. We discussed projects that the PVRG are currently undertaking – one is called CHRONOS, a project which aims to improve understanding of the timescales of eruptions through the utilisation of geochemical signatures from mixing structures. This particular project is very multi-disciplinary in terms of its methods; it draws on field work, experimental petrology, modelling, physics/fluid dynamics, mathematics, geochemistry, and some seriously cool engineering in the form of the chaotic magma mixing device.


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Many of the applicants and teachers at the dinner (image courtesy of Charlotte Redler)


The course was varied, with a mix of taught lessons and practical’s, including laboratory tours and laboratory or computer work – this provided a good, focussed mentality throughout. During the course, applicants were also invited to give presentations on their research and how they intend to use, or are currently using, LA-ICP-MS in their work. The presentations were insightful and it was useful to understand the different ways in which this technique can be applied, from minerals to volcanic glass, to teeth. We soon discovered that Perugia University’s LA-ICP-MS laboratory is extremely impressive, and is filled with mostly new equipment. During the course, we learnt how the equipment works and we also managed to ablate some samples. After obtaining real data, we used Iolite to reduce the data, and Python to produce some nice figures! After having worked with R for a little while during my PhD, I can actually say, I understood what was happening!

Away from the laboratory and lecture theatre, there was even time to socialise and, of course, eat ice creams, pizzas and pastas, in accompany with the wonderful wines and beers that Italy has to offer. Perugia is a green and hilly town with wonderful architecture and well worth a visit, even if you are not interested in earth sciences!



This blog was published on the EAG website, here.

Adrian Lister and the case of the Woolly Mammoth


Professor Adrian Lister is a palaeobiologist at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. Notably his research focusses on Quaternary (2.6 mill – 0 kyr BP) mammals, and he specialises in deer, elephants and mammoths. Adrian recently came to the University of Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art (RLAHA) to give a departmental seminar where he discussed his latest piece of research. This work has been a vast collaborative effort, but co-led with Professor Anthony Stuart from Durham University. Lister and Stuart have been working on attempting to tie together new data on the extinction of our beloved woolly mammoth. Ultimately this has led to attempting to answer big questions: who killed our woolly mammoths? Climate change? Or did we?

Woolly Mammoths

During the last glaciation, occurring 110-15 kyr BP, there were a range of mammoth species. These mammoths roamed steppe tundra which consisted of grass, moss, ferns, flowers and some trees and shrubs. We know that the mammoths consumed largely grasses and herbs, as evidenced by studies of preserved carcases which have intact stomachs, still containing food matter! We also know that these mammoths were adapted for cold environments and perhaps designed to avoid frostbite, as evidenced by Lyuba’s small tail and ears. We are learning more about mammoths in recent times as global warming causes thawing, revealing our lost mammoths; in the last 15 years, we have found more mammoth remains than the last 200 years and this provides us with a nuanced understanding, for example, we know from Yuka, found in 2010, that woolly mammoths had a specialised finger/thumb adaptation for picking plants and grasses.


Lyuba – Courtesy of: AMNH

The woolly mammoths are said to have gone extinct during the ice age extinctions, a time period of 40 kyr – 4 kyr BP. This was a time when our global climate was variable. Lister suggested that scientists need to know more about all of the species that became extinct during this time period to better understand why the mammoths died out. For example, in Australia, 80-90% of megafauna (large animals) disappeared during this time, including for example, the loss of Macropus titan (a giant kangaroo) and Diprotodon (giant relatives of the wombats). We know of other large extinction events, such as the K-T (a mass extinction event occurring sixty-five million years ago whereby around ¾ of all flora and fauna became extinct), but the Late Quaternary extinction, or ice age extinction is it is often referred to, is much smaller and only seems to have only affected megafuna and not flora. So, why was it unique? Many scientists have hypothesised that it is related to the timing of human expansion. In order to fully assess this, such studies have utilised models of global extinction or modelling of single species.

An illustration of a mammoth hunt

Is this picture accurate? Courtesy of NHM

Who killed our woolly mammoths? Climate Vs Humans

So, climate and humans remain the two leading contenders for the demise of the woolly mammoth. Though asteroid impact and disease has also been proposed, Lister believes that there is not strong enough evidence to support these hypotheses.

The warming of the Holocene coincided with the demise of the mammoth steppe. During this time, there were vast changes in vegetation, including tundra moving in from the North and forest moving in from the South, replacing dry grasslands that the mammoth used to thrive on.

However, the ‘overkill’ hunting theory has long been proposed as the answer to why the mammoths went extinct. We know that humans and woolly mammoths co-existed from archaeological research. For example, ivory carvings were found at Vogelherd cave, Southern Germany (~30 kyr BP) and the use of mammoth products are known to be used in hut production. However, these findings are not definitive and are still contentious. Bone huts have been found, for example, in Poland and Czech Republic. One hut in Mezhirich, dates to ~18 kyr BP and was composed of mandibles from 96 different mammoths. Notably, this hut was produced long before the extinction of mammoths. The radiocarbon dates on these bones additionally indicates that the bones were collected over a long period of time, so perhaps these humans were additionally scavenging the bones, rather than killing the mammoths for the hut production.

What remains less contentious is the fact that Clovis Culture (a prehistoric culture, appearing ~13.5 kyr BP in North America) expanded across the continent at a similar time to which the mammoths went extinct (~13-12 kyr BP). While kill sites involving direct evidence of Clovis Culture (e.g. evidence of tools) are rare, they do exist, for example, Naco in Arazona and Lugovskoe in Southern Siberia – these mammal finds indicate direct evidence of humans hunting woolly mammoths; though it does not provide evidence of overkill. One important fact to take home here is that there was 10 million woolly mammoths in their prime and significantly less humans – could humans really kill all of these mammoths?…

What’s Lister et al. doing?

Lister has been trying to use radiocarbon dating to better pinpoint the exact times mammoths were living in particular regions. Essentially, from this refined chronological information, he can understand the contractional range and map this against the spread of humans and changes in climate and vegetation across time. Lister has produced new radiocarbon dates for mammals through collagen extraction and ultrafiltration techniques and has additionally utilised data samples from the literature and matched this to a devised criteria. In doing this, he has removed some dates, for example, those dated pre-1980, or those that had radiocarbon dates extracted from burnt bone. A total of 1870 radiocarbon dates were used in Lister’s study and finally plotted on time slice maps to assess the contractional range of the woolly mammoth.

The study has proved interesting and has shown a number of things. Firstly, there appears to be a delayed response in mammoth response to climate change. For example, during the warming climate of the Bølling, mammoth range is still large across the Northern hemisphere. During the Allerød, as cooling takes hold, the range contracts out of Europe toward cooler climates (e.g. Siberia). This indicates a slow response from the Bolling due to delayed vegetation changes; the mammoths vacate Europe first as trees replace the mammoth steppe in Europe before other regions of the Northern hemisphere, ~12 kyr BP. After this date, we find that mammoths contract into islands, for example, between 11 and 10.5 kyr BP, mammals are living in the New Siberian Islands.

The biggest find of this study is that the contraction of mammoths, which is seemingly a result of vegetation changes, causes populations to thrive in two islands ~10.5-6.5 kyr BP. St.  Paul Island, Alaska is occupied ~6.5 kyr BP and is known to have had no human influences until the historic past. Similarly, dwarf mammoths populated Wrangel Island during the mid-Holocene. The last mammoth remains have been dated to 4,333 kyr BP and 4,022 kyr BP, providing a sequence of dates on Wrangel Island. So, why did the mammoths stay so long in Wrangel? Wrangel Island’s environment is regarded as being the closest thing today as mammoth steppe and this may explain why these mammals lived so long there – the vegetation was primed throughout the Holocene to support the mammoth population.


Wrangel Island tundra – a mammoth haven. Courtesy of New World Encylopedia

But, if the environment is, even still today, suitable to host a population of mammoths on Wrangel Island, why did they go extinct? On Wrangel, humans were hunting sea mammals; we know this because we have found walrus ivory harpoon heads, dated to ~3.6-3.5 kyr BP. Therefore, timing of human arrival, occupation and hunting is scarily close to the timing of the last mammoth fossil find…is it possible for humans to have played a role in their demise? Was there a potential overlap in occupation at Wrangel?


Lister proposes a combined extinction model based on radiocarbon mapping. Mammoths were driven to a reduced population on the basis of habitat loss. Hereafter, the small and vulnerable populations were demised by hunters, though their intentions (i.e. food or culture) are still unclear.

A note to researchers about science communication in the 21st century

The Oxford NERC Environmental Research Doctoral Training Partnership were recently tasked with organising the second annual Grand Challenges Seminar Series. There were 5 seminars in this series. All of these had to embody some sort of environmental research challenge facing society and all of these had to be done within a very tight budget. The 28 strong cohort suggested a plethora of subjects and eventually the top 5 were selected, meaning the cohort were divided into 5 teams tackling relatively large research questions. Our first two excellent seminars, ‘designing cities with nature in mind;’ and ‘Are We Alone? Discourse on extraterrestrial research,’ have come and gone. I have chosen to write this blog, about our third seminar, ‘science communication in the 21st century.’ This blog will cover topics discussed through the seminar including why science is important, how we collaborate and whether our communication of science has been a success story.

Sarah Whatmore, professor of environment and public policy at the University of Oxford’s department of Geography, chaired this discussion. Sarah began the discussion by asking, “is science important?” Dr. Grant Miller, Zooniverse communications lead, said with great certainty, “yes,” stating as an example, that we wouldn’t have the internet without astronomy, though few people make this connection, or other such seemingly disconnected links. Here, Jamie Clarke, the executive director of climate outreach, added that people need to relate to science in a way that is relevant to them, through their frames and lenses. Often, as Jamie noted in his introduction, we force people to absorb information, but this causes lots of people to lose interest as they simply cannot relate to it. So, we need to focus on how we engage with issues as a whole. It’s simply too difficult for many to understand how theoretical science can improve our internet connection, for example.

So, how do we engage with those who can’t engage or simply don’t want to engage? Clarke suggested that we really need to understand the audience, for example, polar bears are used as a reference marker for climate change, but can our audience relate to this? Perhaps an image of floodwater in an urban home just like their own may be more thought provoking, and relatable, to them. He suggested visiting ClimateVisuals to better capture what you need to say to an audience. He also felt that, despite not wanting to, one should consider whether you are the best author for the job, and whether you are using the best media outlets (and I would like to add, also in the best way).

science communication

If we don’t engage with the public, the future doesn’t look great. Miller suggests that we wouldn’t even exist without it. In the past, we had a lot of good amateur scientists. Recently, we have seen a rise again in well respected amateur scientists, who perhaps can’t or don’t want to pursue academia, but enjoy knowing about it and studying it, and this is simply fantastic. They’re helping academics complete research where there are limited resources. Importantly, if we didn’t engage with them, well, a) they wouldn’t know about the research in the first place, b) the project may not even exist. Dr. Alison Daley, University of Oxford Zoology lecturer, Oxford University Natural History Museum research fellow and junior research fellow at St. Edmund Hall, states that much palaeontology work would simply cease to exist without public engagement, but also that such relationships are often necessary for grant applications these days.

Patrick Regan, TUM-IAS Science Writer and Editor at Technical University of Munich (TUM), added to Daley’s comments suggesting that often the public engagement section in grant applications are an afterthought. Passionately, he declared that as a scientist, you owe it to the public to explain to them your research, given that they paid for it. This way, you can also develop trust and promote future projects. Such projects include that of University of Oxford’s Dr. Tom Hart’s Penguin Watch, run from Zooniverse.

But, how do scientists collaborate or engage with the public effectively? Clarke suggests that some people gravitate to understanding and digesting science, while others just don’t. We need to capture those that don’t. For example, climate change in the US is sadly a representation of political stance – how can we reverse this? Clarke suggests we need to work towards understanding why people may think climate change is not real in this instance – i.e. what are the underlying reasons behind the lack of belief in the study or science? And how can we anticipate this potential lack of belief before it happens? Daley additionally suggests that we need to communicate enough so that the public pick up on an idea and want to know more; we need to attempt to inspire by offering a flavour. Perhaps we can make it interactive by demonstrating with objects, for example. Or maybe, we can explain our science to the public using Youtube videos, or podcasts.

In this case, someone from the audience asked, what is the best way to assess whether you have successfully communicated your science? Miller suggested it was easy to assess Youtube views, but much harder to determine whether the message was absorbed. Perhaps you can use analytics to see how many times a single person has come back to your blog – Google Analytics may be useful here. Clarke agreed and stated that vanity matrices, for example, Facebook likes and youtube views, are superficial and don’t represent long term understanding in the public, for example, we see lots of likes of videos of flooding on Facebook during a flooding event, but 6 months later, people aren’t talking about it because it’s not affecting them – so how do we know if the scientific message really did get absorbed?

Essentially, we need to make an effort to capture the imagination of people using media and from there, perhaps this will stimulate people to read more, or interact further with initiatives such as Zooniverse. We should be careful not to simplify science too much, or over complicate it. Using citizen science is also an amazing way to involve, engage with, and potentially inspire, different generations of the public. While this talk focussed on ‘those’ people being public, I think that realistically, this is also inclusive of researchers, given that we are in an increasingly cross-disciplinary world; using social media outlets like Twitter is a great way to make networks and see glimpses of new research that may be relevant to you or your research which is potentially cross-disciplinary, and if we can communicate our science to someone in a different discipline, it is likely that the public will understand the message too – perhaps this is a skill that we need to get better at? The true challenge of science communication at the moment seems to be determining whether our message is really being understood in the ways that we want it to be across the long term.


Seminars four and five of the Grand Challenges Seminar’s are left to run. You can find further information here.


Image source: Boon (2014), What is this science communication you speak of? (Last visited 03.02.2016)

Lord Nicholas Stern: Optimism or Pessimism for the 21st Century

Lord Nicholas Stern presented at the 2nd James Martin Memorial Lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on 19th October 2015. Stern is famous for his Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change, a critical report which discussed the implications of climate changes on the economy. As such, the talk provided an overview of current thoughts on climate change, economics, risks and our future. Naturally, the talk covered expected outcomes of the COP21 talks which are happening shortly in Paris; Stern was keen to state that Paris is different to Copenhagen (COP15), which was “a shambles.”

In addition to the COP21 talks, Stern briefly mentioned the release of his latest book “Why Are We Waiting?” to the audience of 700 people. He stated that the book is a rhetorical question and is supposed to summarise logic, science, economics and urgency; within this book, Stern supposedly describes the sort of new World we are currently making and living in. Of course, Stern is most famed for the ‘Stern Review’ and his thoughts have not changed. He still believes that “we shouldn’t be waiting; the costs of inaction are far greater than the costs of action.” Essentially, if we fail to manage climate change, we will make hostile environments for citizens and communities, in terms of living and in terms of political relationships, for example.


London School of Economics, no date,  [last visited on 05-NOV-2015]

One point that frequently comes up in climate discourse is the 2oC threshold as a 2oC warming is the government’s defacto with regards to climate change policy; this talk was, of course, no different. Stern described the 2oC change as being above the extremes and irreversible. He referred to his grandchildren, aged 0-4years and noted that the increase in temperature will certainly happen in their lifetime. “It’s not some abstract future,” he said. To make the temperature stable or decrease toward a pre-anthropogenic emission, we need to emit 0 tonnes of emissions in the next half of the century. Instead, for 2015, we are emitting 55 billion tonnes of carbon with a 50/50 chance to increase temperature beyond the 2oC rise outlined by the government, with plans to increase the output of emissions by 10%…

So, where do we go from here? Companies are currently working to reduce carbon emissions through the use of biomass, carbon capture storage (CCS), reforestation and land reclamation. But, “whatever way you look at it, the action we need to take is immense” stated Stern. One positive outcome from Copenhagen is that we have learnt economic growth mechanisms and we are now acutely aware of how infrastructure needs to develop in accordance to the demands of a changing climate and what is unattractive/attractive. From this, we can ask ourselves: what kinds of cities do we build now? How can we organise ourselves (i.e. people)? For example, infrastructure is critical in shaping the rest of the century – of a 9billion large population, 3.5billion lives in cities (70%). Stern indicated that we will obtain better defined conclusions from COP21 in terms of emissions objects and practical solutions, for example, in the form of infrastructure.

In summary, I felt that Stern was very straight with his facts and he was neither particularly positive, nor overly pessimistic. I liked that he presented both sides equally and factually. A good summary arrived during the questions of the presentation, when asked “what are the promises that inspire you, despite the fact that it’s too late?” Stern responded “being optimistic about what we can do and worrying about what we can’t do.”


Further information about the presentation including slides and video can be found here.


The Climate Justice Movement


COP21 follows from COP15, a climate change conference held in December of 2009 in Copenhagen with political leaders and players thought to play a part in our climate future. COP21 will be held in December of 2015, in Paris. While COP15 informed us of our last chance to resolve the 2oC warming issue before the end of the century, COP21 will not only raise this issue again (given we are almost certainly set to hit a very unhealthy 2oC more warming), but discuss social reform and the World as we know it. This blog post summarises a podcast from a number of influential players and experts regarding ‘The Age of Resilience.’

Climate Justice

The idea of the talk came from Naomi Kline’s influential book “This Changes Everything.” Themes within include social justice and socialism really explain that climate is not just a physical phenomenon – it is an interactive state and often affects us socially. For example, Hurricane Katrina caused widespread displacement and housing devastation. If this was not enough to cause social degradation, the clean-up is said to have caused racial discrimination and it only takes a Google search to find unfathomable articles relating to the matter. But, what is social justice? The podcast indicates that it is the justice of people who have policies in place to protect them by addressing climate change through the appreciation of social, economic and environmental differences.

Pierre Ducret, the special advisor for climate change and COP21 at the Caisse des Dépôts Group, suggested that we need to get governments and companies to take responsibility of climate, and particularly for climatic events (e.g. hurricane, storm surge). Unfortunately, climate justice is more complex than this, as Professor Catherine Larrère, teacher of Philosophy at Sorbonne University, Paris, and President of the Foundation for Political Ecology, explained. She indicated that while climate and social justice should be linked, it cannot be right now. This is because the national interest does not match that of the international society and therefore there is suffering at the international level. For social justice to work internationally, Catherine, suggests that we need international values which hold climate as the main objective; this is ultimately because marginalised groups are most affected by climate related events and typically hold the least power. Associate Professor Bronwyn Howard (Associate Professor of Political Science and Head of Department of Political Science and International relations at the University of Canterbury) agreed with this and described human rights as being undermined by climate change (e.g. right to water, heating, education, voice) and that those in lesser economically developed countries (LEDCs), small island states or marginalised groups (e.g. children, women or disabled people) are more likely to lose out to climate change and thus it is important to protect these groups with treaties and laws at an international level. Through the use of treaties and laws at an international level, government and those in power can accept responsibility and/or fault in extreme circumstances and therefore better protect these marginalised groups.

We’re Facing Catastrophe in Slow Time…

What struck me most about this podcast was how passionate Sir Geoffrey Palmer was. Geoffrey was the New Zealand Prime Minister (1989-90) and is currently the Distinguished Fellow of the New Zealand Centre for Public Law. Regarding social justice, he believes that “if we do not succeed, the future of our civilisation is very greatly imperilled at every level” for example agriculture, economy and climate. He states “I don’t think people understand that we are actually facing a catastrophe in slow time.” We are of course, looking at a future of mass migrations of climate refugees – this will become a new buzzword in the future, I am sure of that. Perhaps instead of war, people will be running from famine, drought or maybe people will be dying as a result of being too hot or their house being burnt down in forest fires as a result of strong El Nino. As Geoffrey says, “the science is clear. We know what the science is… It’s essential that these talks must succeed.”

On the other hand, Lucile Schmid, who works in the French Ministry of Economy, Finance and Industry and is the Deputy President of the think tank “La fabrique écologique” states that we can’t talk about COP21 as a failure or a success – “we already know that the agreement will be too limited.” She suggests that Pierre’s concepts on an economic revolution to a green economy (within the podcast; i.e. movements away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and the inclusion of a shift of employment sectors) is not enough because at an international level we still view each other as enemies.  Lucile proposes that we need to all cough up money. We need to change the way the World works – we need people who are enthusiastic to enter this ‘new’ World (*queue applaud from the audience*).  Ultimately, we need to challenge the global economic model; it should no longer be left or right because it’s too dynamic for that, but it should include the concept of climate justice, which can be shared by citizens, globally.

Differences in the COP’s?

So, why is COP21 different from COP15? Well, thus far, 195 countries are signed up to the Green Climate Fund (run by the UNFCCC) which aims to help developing countries to adapt and mitigate in relation to climate change. Previously, agreements were only signed by green political members, but now all these 195 members have also been backed by the minister of finance – this is hugely important because it really signifies that poorer countries are on board in the mission to tackle climate change. There is a clearly defined movement, globally, that everyone is starting to realise that climate change is real and it is happening. Pierre believes that China’s pledge to cap emissions by 2030 is a reason to hope – while it may be too late to comply with the 2oC rise (which would of course be better ASAP), it is a step in the right direction and will be a massive challenge for their huge population to begin relying on new energy resources within a law binding agreement. We should certainly be hopeful, says Pierre, because for the first time, we’re making a universal agreement and for the first time, there will be revisions to policies before the next big conference. As such, in 2020, everyone will meet again to make sure everything is in check.


While we may not keep temperature rises under 2oC, we’re tackling the larger issue of social inequality and climate justice, which is inherently important to move forward – it’s a bit like riding a bike for the first time without stabilisers. I can’t say I’m happy for our unhealthy planet, but we’ve come a long way. What we do really, really, need to improve on is looking at long term policies – as Geoffrey said, we are afraid to look at policy beyond the 3 year period because these are the terms that politicians run on (i.e. elections); is our new World not worth more than that, I ask you?


Reference points:

See here for further information on the blog:

Green Climate fund:



Quaternary Science MSc: The long, the beautiful and the ugly


As I have said in a previous blog post, I really didn’t want to stay at Royal Holloway for the Masters degree I undertook in Quaternary Science. I looked elsewhere, but to undertake this sort of course within the UK, you’re pretty limited. For a number of reasons, I ended up returning to Holloway for 1 year to undertake this course and I am glad I did. This blog post explains why.

The Cohort:

One of the great things about the course was that it was small – some Masters that I had a look at were far bigger. We were a large cohort and we only had 20 people in it; this provides an excellent opportunity for intimate learning and an ability to ask questions if you’re not following a lecture.

Generally, students had come from Geography backgrounds, but we had an archeologist and a few who had more Geology based backgrounds – if you are considering the course and worried about what background you come from, you should email the course co-ordinator. The first module in term one is designed to help bridge any gaps in education and allows fully for training and questions to be asked. Offices are open and students are actively encouraged to drop by for advice – it’s a very accessible course for all backgrounds.

Term 1

Come September, the core modules commenced. Initially, they were relatively easy and straight forward. However, as you would expect, they begun to increase in complexity throughout the year. The workload, I thought was quite challenging. Essentially, you have lectures 9-5 and then should aim to continue undertaking coursework once you arrive home after dinner, apparently also managing to find time for socializing and maintaining hobbies. I question the latter part and found that you would either do one or the other and one of these would not happen as often as previously. That said, one of our housemates successfully pinned down a job; while she found it hard and worked especially hard to compensate for lost time spent working, she managed it for Terms 1 and 2. I would not recommend anyone doing this Masters degree to have a job.

The fieldtrips were really good fun: we went to Norfolk, Swansea, Yorkshire and Scotland. They were an excellent opportunity to really get to know your peers and lecturers. In addition, they provided a good basis for learning on which the modular options of term 2 could be pinned upon. I did feel that they were too Geology based, but I think that it was necessary – subject modules such as stratigraphy and sedimentology are crucial to many aspects of climatological research and any future career in this field will inevitably require the understanding of these subjects which is explicitly covered throughout the teaching of these fieldcourses.

Term 2

This term focuses on selected modular courses and therefore your classes become even smaller – some of the modular groups can have as few as 5 people in. Tephrochronology had the largest group numbers in my year group, with 18 / 20 students taking it. Generally, these modules took the same form as Term 1: 9-4 or 5pm lectures, followed by the need for coursework generation. However, what was more exciting about these modules, I felt, was that some of them included a small lab element – for example, chironomids involved microscopy work and thin section micromorphology involved the analysis of thin section slides.

Throughout term 2, you can expect to be undertaking multiple courseworks at once as you may be doing successive modules, although in many cases you have a week or more between modules. It is important to not only select your modules carefully because you will enjoy them, but also to consider the time implications of impending coursework as a result of choosing them.

This term culminated with the fieldtrip to the Scottish Highlands. I drove myself and 3 others to Roy Bridge. If I am honest, I didn’t enjoy the educational elements of the fieldtrip. I really do not enjoy glaciology and I felt it was too heavily focused on palaeoglacial features. Part of this module allows for the choosing of a project whereby you go into the field and undertake 2 days research which forms part of your field write up – I felt that this fieldwork was much better suited to myself, but was still too rigid to the needs of the staff. Despite this, I enjoyed the bonding with my peers and I did learn a lot about the area during the LGM.

While I enjoyed the course and felt that the workload was okay, I was made angry throughout the year that the course is equivalent to other MSc’s in the department and yet the workload is so much more. To exemplify, life in the second term went something like: wake up at 7am, go to uni for 8.30am, have lectures until 4pm, begin coursework until 2am, go to sleep at 3.30am and wake up at 7am. There will be no weekends and there will be no end of term. If you’re looking for a course that offers these, I advise you look elsewhere.

End of Term 2/Thesis

You’ll be provided with the option to do pretty much anything that you want to do. You’ll piece together a proposal after speaking to your chosen supervisors and you’ll undertake a presentation in front of your cohort and perhaps your supervisors as well.

I had been planning my thesis in conjunction with the University of Adelaide since December the year before. I flew in May (2014), the day after I handed in the Scottish Fieldtrip. I landed at 8pm AUS time, went to bed at 12am and woke up 6am for labs. The day I got back to the UK, it was my birthday and the day after that, I was back in labs starting my thesis. I hope you understand, there really is not much opportunity for time off, particularly if you choose an intensive thesis with one including fieldwork or one including lots of lab work, for example. I would argue though, that these self-motivated projects and extremely work intensive periods are immensely rewarding – you and your peers will push each other harder than you ever thought possible through your sleep deprivation and you will come out feeling great (although knackered)!

I had an amazing time in Adelaide. My research was funded by the Adelaide Environment Research Institute and I initiated the collaboration between RHUL and Adelaide. The actual undertaking of the thesis though? I’ve never cried so much. It was grueling. My advice would be to pick your supervisor carefully, find out if they have any pre-booked holidays or time off, and arrange any meetings in advance so they can block book time for you. Manage your workload and establish what is a reasonable amount of work for you – ask questions like: How much sediment is reasonable for you to process across the three months? How many slides can you count per hour on a good day/bad day? How long will photographing the cores take? Will I need help with Photoshop? What problems could I encounter? Make a list of these problems and detail what you would do to overcome them if they did arise.

I enjoyed the thesis more than any other part of the year. This was because it allowed me to really explore what I enjoy and allowed me to look into avenues of research that not I or anyone else had touched before. It involved initiative that coursework just doesn’t allow you to use. It involved extensive use of labwork, including evening labs; it involved the use of illustrative programmes which consequentially improved my abilities in things like Adobe Illustrator; moreover, it meant I has to self-teach myself things such as palaeoclimatic modelling using various softwares.


I would argue that the course lacks outreach training (i.e. getting research to the public) – the website design course was archaic and classes were put on too late in the year. In addition, the course is poorly linked with the careers advice service; I doubt they are even aware of what this course is about. I also think that the Scottish Highlands fieldtrip should not be weighted at 20% and believe that this should be the same weighting as the modular options. The course may also benefit from the teaching of coding (e.g. R or Python) for modelling or graph production.

However, I have undeniably learnt a massive amount. I, personally, could not in a million years, have undertaken a PhD straight from an Undergraduate. I feel I would have lacked a lot of critical, basic information that performs the foundation for the more complex issues we often read about in journal articles. I think the lecturers at Royal Holloway, mostly, have an exhaustive amount of time to offer to their students: you can see how excited they get when someone is interested in the same things as them and this enthusiasm runs in circles.

I would recommend this course to anyone thinking of undertaking a PhD in climatic change and palaeoenvironments, but I would struggle to recommend it to anyone unsure of what they want to do. The course will certainly reduce your sleep intake, but I think you’ll feel you can do anything you put your mind to afterwards.

If you are still interested, here is some information on private accommodation as Halls of Residence in RHUL is extremely expensive:


The course supervisor will likely share all of your emails so that you and other confirmed applicants can email one another. I did just this and as a result myself and 3 other students in our year arranged to live together from September. This was great, as we all ended up getting on like a house on fire. We also lived with another housemate who I knew from my undergraduate and everyone just loved him.

One of the difficult things that a Masters student has to face is housing. You’re either in Halls, or private accommodation. RHUL is located in a small area, with private housing at the bottom of the hill in Egham itself, or in the Green (Englefield Green).

Pros of living in Egham itself:

  • It’s close to the station and Tesco
  • It’s close to Geography as this is located at the base of the campus, so ideal for 9am lectures


  • Housing is more expensive
  • If the backgate shuts (~11pm) you will be walking the whole way round, adding a lot of effort to your return journey
  • The local pub is a total dive (although The Crown is nice, it’s a short walk from most town houses)

Pros of living in Englefield Green:

  • It’s cheaper than the Town
  • Housing is more abundant
  • It’s a student village, so you’re going to be close to other students, and that means it’s ideal for house parties
  • You’re close to Village Pizza, Ruby Wines and almost ALL of the pubs in Egham
  • You’re so much closer to Virginia Waters


  • Distance from the station
  • 15/20 minute walk from Geography, depending on where you are

Acting on the Hollowegians advice (mine and Nathans), we located ourselves in Englefield Green. For reference, we paid ~£350 a month (per person, plus bills) for a 5 bed house with a living room and separate kitchen. We went with an estate agent called Mullbery’s. And we had problems with said Estate Agent (typical student estate agent out for money). I would recommend Browns – they’re much better.

Good luck if this is the path you choose!

If you need any further information, please don’t hesitate to drop me an email on

Oxford Interviews

I applied to The University of Oxford a while back now (after my MSc had ended) and was invited to interview for a NERC DTP in the Dynamic Earth, Surface Processes and Natural Hazards stream. This was, naturally an exciting, yet daunting prospect. I didn’t have a clue what to prepare, or what to wear! So, I feel that I should offer some advice to those who may be in the same boat in the future and wondering how to approach this unnerving event.

1. Contact the supervisor

Firstly, I think the most important thing to do when applying for any PhD is to develop a relationship with your potential supervisor. You need to know whether they share the same interests as you and are willing to develop the project you think you may want to push forward with. You also need to ensure that you get along – I can’t imagine that 4 years with a supervisor who you don’t enjoy the company of is much fun. So, drop them an email entitled PhD application and I am sure they will be happy to reply and have a chat with you about your ideas, regardless of whether you take them forward or not.

2. Make the application

All PhD applications are unique and request different things from their applicants. When I applied to Adelaide it was much like a job application – they really didn’t want much from me, except 3 referees. Oxford wanted a little bit more, so I had to prepare a 500 word document that discussed an issue within the NERC remit; for this, I chose to discuss the complexities between radiocarbon dating and tephrochronology as a dating method. Obviously, you’ll be expected to provide scans of your official documents (i.e. passport, academic transcripts for Undergraduate and Masters degrees etc). Adelaide did not charge me to make an application, but I know that some foreign universities do. Most UK universities do not charge UK citizens to apply for PhD’s, but Oxford and Cambridge have an application fee of £50. After the application, there is about a 1-2 month wait for a response, depending on how quickly you submit!

3. If you are successful for an interview

Congratulations! Oxford was the only place I had an interview. Adelaide did not require an interview and so I can only discuss what I know from Oxford. The interview was more of a discussion and was very informal and relaxed. There was myself and a panel of 5 academics, 2 of which were specialists in my area. Interview questions included (roughly) the following:

  • Why do you want to do a PhD? How did your interests in this science arise?
  • Why do you want to study at Oxford?
  • What did you do for your MSc research?
  • Discuss some problems you encountered during your MSc research and how you resolved these
  • Summarise your MSc thesis in a tweet
  • What would you do if your chosen supervisor was unavailable and as a result you were unable to study the proxy you have come here to study?
  • What are your intentions beyond the PhD?
  • Why are you so interested in tephra?
  • Why are you so interested in the Southern hemisphere?
  • Do you have any questions to ask?

The interview lasts for ~30 minutes. Mine lasted for 25 minutes, with 5 minutes of me asking some questions. I wore a relatively short pencil skirt with a floral chiffon shirt and suede shoe boots. Most girls wore similar and perhaps also had a suit jacket, but I was so nervous, I was sweating everywhere.. Most men were wearing suits, but I would say that suit trousers and a shirt with a tie would be perfect for the occasion – they were certainly judging the words and not the clothes. I actually had spilt a load of food down my shirt and had a massive stain down it, so there we go.

PhD interview outfitPhD Interview outfit

During the day, Oxford also put on a lunch, but as my interview was at 2.30pm, I wasn’t too pushed on eating lunch with people who had already had their interview. It was a very well prepared day though.

My interview was on the Tuesday and I had the offer e-mail by lunchtime on Friday, so it is safe to say that Oxford admissions is very efficient and a nice, smooth process. I am awaiting to be assigned a college at the moment.

My advice would be to treat it like having a chat with a fellow academic. However, be very aware that there are staff in the room who do not know your specialism like you do – perhaps refrain slightly from jargon. Also, if there is a tour offered, play nice, because they will be providing feedback to the ‘judges’ and they do have an influence on your position at the university. Good luck if you’re applying anywhere! Feel free to message or email if you want any other advice!