Quaternary Science MSc – A Taster

So, I am almost a term into the Quaternary Science MSc at Royal Holloway (UoL) and despite having coursework to do, I feel it’s high time I provide a quick taster of what the Quaternary Science MSc is all about.

I really wanted to leave RHUL after doing my undergraduate there. Not because I didn’t like the department – it’s an amazing place. It just has this vibe… there is so much support, encouragement and enthusiasm from all the staff; it’s just a truly fantastic place to be. I wanted to leave because Egham is quite a small town and after three years, I felt I had outgrown the area. However, I couldn’t justify leaving the Centre of Quaternary Research (CQR) to do an MSc elsewhere that would not even begin to touch the Quaternary in ways I wanted to… so I stayed. And I am so glad I did, because the past 3 months have been fantastic and i’m learning a lot and I feel like I am part of a special community: the Quaternary community.

The course is intense. People are shocked at the amount of contact time that we Quaternarists receive. It’s 10am-5pm each day for term 1, which equates to ~30hrs p/week. Obviously you then have your coursework on top and any readings you need to do to understand the course content. You also have fieldtrips in the first term which may reduce your time to complete coursework assignments. So far, I have been to Wales, Norfolk and Yorkshire. In April I will go to Scotland. I’ve handed in one piece of coursework, which was work 5% of the MSc; it was a sedimentology and stratigraphy report discussing our findings from Wales and Norfolk. Although a great piece of work, I found it challenging as it wasn’t exactly what I am interested in, but was great as it has provided me with the essentials that I need to understand stratigraphy… the results come out next week, so wish me luck!

Courses so far have been compulsory (i.e. everyone has attended). These include:

– palaeoclimatology

– sedimentology and stratigraphy

– principles of Quaternary research

– palaeoecology, dating methods, quantification

Right now, I am writing up my coursework for the palaeoclimatology coursework (due on Friday 6th Dec 2013). This is a NERC-style grant proposal with a max. word count of 3,000 words, exceeding no more than 4 pages or 3 figures, including size 10, Arial font. I have chosen the title ‘Regional variability of abrupt climate shifts across Great Britain: How does the magnitude and expression of the 8.2kaBP event vary across Great Britain?‘ I’ve chosen this project as I am interested in abrupt climate change and the use of oxygen isotopes in carbonate rich lacustrine sediments. Moreover, recent research by Lane et al. (2013; Geology) has highlighted the importance of studies in the future to investigate the variability of rapid climate events and how their magnitude of expression differs across small-scale regions. I’ve enjoyed this project a lot and it’s definitely given me full peace of mind that I am doing the right thing and that a research career is the way forward for myself.

During the write-up for this coursework, I have also applied for a PhD which utilises isotopes. So another thing I will need some considerable amount of luck for! Although we are encouraged to apply for PhD’s this academic year, it is highlighted that we are fighting against people who have already got an MSc grade under their belt. It seems it doesn’t matter what career route you go, there will always be some level of competition. At least I am enjoying myself and will end up in a career that I am passionate about and love.



John Lowe’s retirement – London Quaternary Lectures at Royal Holloway 2013 – Quaternary Science MSc: old and present


Chris Turney and myself with Antarctic ice, aged from the Younger Dryas at the London Quaternary Lectures at Royal Holloway


Myself on the stratigraphy fieldtrip in Norfolk, November 2013

Course details here: http://www.rhul.ac.uk/geography/coursefinder/mscquaternaryscience.aspx


Another graduate on the block & a word of thanks.

It’s pretty much as the title says… I am a newbie Geography graduate with an unknown number pending above my head – a number that will stick to my name for as long as I live. I hated the last few months of university, and I can’t deny that. I despise examinations. I have anxiety issues and the pressure and stress is just so unnecessary. I feel that it is a memory exam, personally. And my memory is not great. I learn by doing and I can’t ‘do’ revision; I can’t feel or see it. Despite the many hundreds of mind maps I do, I just cannot retain the vast synoptic information, case studies and facts. I blank on who said what and who wrote what, especially when there are six examinations, on topics ranging from glaciers to dust in Africa. And, while I say that I hope that the examinations don’t annihilate my hopes of getting a 2:1, at the end of the day I don’t actually care what number is attached to my name… This was my post-exam facebook status, and I don’t think I could re-capture the words and feelings again if I tried..

Today, I finished my degree. It’s been three years of literal blood, sweat and tears. But it’s also been three years of laughter, love and fun. I’ve overcome so many things personally in my life just to get to uni, let alone get myself through the degree. And, these last few weeks, I have realised that university was never about the qualification: it was never about the degree classification… It was about healing myself, learning about life, testing my own abilities, making life long friends (and losing life long friends). It was about finding myself and venturing beyond what I knew to be the box that I called life, by pushing boundaries and learning. I definitely couldn’t have gotten through these three years without my parents, Kate and Sean, or Grandad and Dingle. I couldn’t have gotten through these past few years without my teenage best friends Emily, Jaz and Kat. A special mention to my dog, Bella, who has provided me with many snuggles, wet kisses, early mornings and opportunities to pick poo up. And, through all the tears, tantrums, high bloods, low bloods, angst, fury, love loss, essay deadlines, laboratory problems and other general dramatic doings, my university best friends and friends have all been there when I have needed them and you know who you are. I’ve been inspired at university by many and today marks, not the end of an era, but an era of new beginnings. A new platform on which I will be able to continue my learning. It doesn’t matter what grade I get, because I am still here and I am still breathing and living and learning. Thank you, everyone: i’ve enjoyed the ride.
To permanently mark and symbolise what I have achieved just to gain a common qualification, I had this tattooed:

  It means a number of things to me. Stemming from Buddhist mantra that I learned when I was 15 and searching for a religion to follow, it calmed me as I meditated. Some may call that silly, but for me it was a life line for stressful times. For example, on my very last day of secondary school, our year group was having a party and cake to celebrate. I had 3 missed phone calls from Mum. When I called back secretly, I collapsed, weeping. My brother had a head-on car crash at 50mph with another car who was also travelling at 50mph. He had been resuscitated three times and we were told he would be unlikely to make it after needing over 100 stitches to a deep wound in his head and breaking a bone in his neck. I had last spoken to him three months previously, with my last words being ‘I hate you.’ Such a malicious word that is only given to people you actually love. If you really hated someone, you wouldn’t care enough to be mean. Mine and my brothers relationship was turbulent, and after years of not speaking, even after the crash, we made up in January. For the first time in 6 years, he came to my 21st birthday party last week


It’s things like this that have made me realise, life is too precious to care about a number. I’ve tried hard and I have enjoyed myself. Life will continue whether I get a 1st or a 3rd, and you’ll only be upset if you attach feelings or expectations to materialised objects.

So, I am digressing. But the point is, all graduates should be happy with what they gain from their degree. They gained more than a number; they gained 3 or more years of memories and hopefully are enthused with passion for the subject that they study because the staff in their university inspired them. I need to say thank you to all the people that have been there for me, through all the rubbish times and all the awful times, so here comes a huge list of names, and I apologise if I have missed you out, but my brain has deflated since I pumped all my knowledge out in the exams. And these are in no order, so don’t be upset if you’re last…

My family – mainly my devoted parents: Mum and Dad and my brother, Dan; my Grandad and his wife, Dingle. They have provided me a home, food, support, belief, encouragement, laughter, love and the financial support to be able to live.

My best friends – Emily, Jaz, Ali, Ayisha, Sophia, Cathy, Ioannis, Josh, Cal, Kat, Charlotte, Emma. All of these people have been there to wipe my tears, to give me hugs when I have felt that I would fall over. They’ve made me smile, laugh and believe in myself. They’ve held me together when I was close to falling apart and they have surprised me with their eternal love, generosity and support.

Simon Blockley – he gave me the opportunity to do lab work as a young fresher, which only enthused my passion for Quaternary science. He has encouraged me, provided support on both an academic level and on a personal level, as a person to listen to my academic related hissy fits. He has given me the opportunity to do field work in Yorkshire, and provided me with a clearly amazing reference in order for me to do work experience at the Centre for Ice and Climate. He’s an all round good guy and only provides encouragement and support in academia.

Simon Armitage – he has been my personal tutor for three years. He supported me when I was naive and didn’t really know what a Geography BSc was all about. He’s always got an ear and I am sure that he will continue to provide encouragement as I venture onto the MSc.

Ian Candy – we both share a passion for abrupt climate shifts… He has supported my interest and acted as a good role model. I aspire to be like Ian in many ways as he will always take time out of his busy schedule for a chat and is so patient. He was my dissertation supervisor and has always had time to explain things to me, over and over again, when I was too simple to take in even the simplest of facts. I thank him for teaching me about isotopes. 

Adrian Palmer – for my dissertation, I got roped into doing thin sections. At the time, I was thinking ‘ahhhh, another proxy, this is going to be awful, I won’t fit it into 10,000 words.’ But, thin sections are so pretty and I love the way micro-sediments can tell you about environmental shifts. He is another lecturer who always has time to take a moment out to explain things.

David Gilbert – he’s the departmental head. His first year lectures were pretty fun. Doreen Massey  and all the ‘space’/’place’ stuff! He’s been so supportive throughout my degree, always asking how things are going and how I am doing and has been particularly supportive with Geogsoc –  a society that has become very close to my heart since becoming a social secretary on the committee. He’s passionate about what he does and that can only be good.

Alice Christie – has been so, so supportive of all the students in the  department. She is secretly known as the mum of the department, and is extremely supportive of Geogsoc, helping to integrate lecturers with the students even more than they already are and helping to support the events that we put on. 

John Lowe – although he hasn’t taught the smaller second and third year lectures, he taught us in first year for the ‘oceans and atmosphere’ course. I was fascinated and he, I suppose, really sparked my enthusiasm for climate change in the first instance. I didn’t really think that a Geography degree would enable me to do the things that I wanted to do, but he showed me that actually, it’s the perfect degree for my interests.

Other staff members in the department who have been particularly helpful include:

Thomas Stevens, Varyl Thorndycraft, Katy Flowers, Ian Matthews, Elaine Taunton, Jenny Kynaston and Danielle Schreve

Twitter has led me to interact with a number of people. This has acted as a support mechanisms, when I have been fed up with my degree, and encouraging me to push myself further. These people have helped provide me with PDF files and have generally supported me:

Adam Griggs, Richard Betts, Mark Brandon, Tom Hill, Richard Gravelle, Rena Maguire,  Eric Skoglund, James Pope and Matt Pope.

I would not have been able to go to Copenhagen to do my work experience placement if it was not for these people:

Sune Rasmussen, Lone Hansen, Paul Vallelonga, Anders Svensson, Catalin, Magnus, Helle, The Swansea Tephra Group: Peter Abbott, Siwan Davies and Eliza

A word of thanks for my school geography teachers:

Andy Housten – he was the worst teacher ever. So, so bad. He had no interest in teaching and didn’t care. But I did care, so I demanded our entire class got the education we were entitled too and Beth took 8 weeks before our GCSE’s and taught us the entire syllabus.

Beth Bowles – A brilliant teacher who was always smiling and so into fair trade and ethical consumption it was unreal. She taught us the entire syllabus in 8 weeks.

Crofty – AKA Richard Croft – he liked volcanoes and wanted to take us to Stromboli island, but no one could afford to do this. He was my AS and A-level geography teacher and my personal tutor. His claim to fame was that his son played rugby for England and he was just an all round good guy.

Matt – I can’t remember his last name! That is awful. He taught as all about alien species and geopolitics. I hated human geography, even back then. He also used to tell us all about the parakeets that had invaded his neighbourhood and kept him awake.

And finally, the thing that has gotten me through my degree more than anyone, is my dog: Abella. She’s been there to provide me with snuggles, a soggy kiss, the opportunity to play with her and make me laugh. She is a fluffy bundle of joy and I don’t think I would be here today if it wasn’t for her. She’s my best friend and I love her more than life.


So thank you for three years. This last month, I was so close to not doing the MSc, because HE is so expensive and there is no governmental support. At the end of my MSc year, I will be roughly another £18,000 in debt. But, I know it will be worth it, because this is what I want to do. This is my passion, and life is too short to not chase the things that make us happy. Happiness is eternal, money is ephemeral.