On the process, the end and new beginnings

Four years ago I packed up my car and drove to somewhere I’d never been to before, moved into a flat with strangers and started a PhD in a topic I knew little about.

In four years, a lot happened.

I fell utterly in love with science, the the idea of it, the knowledge, the questions, the debates and the endless opportunities to learn new things. I spent hours in the lab, read papers and attended conferences. I drank beer and ran a marathon. I met another crazy scientist and fell in love. I made amazing friends, shared an office with great people and laughed and cried and argued my way through three years of hard work.

To fill you in, I submitted my PhD in March, defended it successfully in May and graduated in July. In between I moved to Germany to start a postdoc working on this project.

Back in 2010 I started this blog to help me connect with the wider scientific community and maintain some creativity through hours of failed experiments in the lab. Looking back over 133 posts I’m grateful for this tiny corner of the web, the experiences it led to and the people I met. However, times change and it’s time to call and end to this little corner of the blogging universe. As I don’t have a personal webpage via my new employer I have just set up a personal page for myself here. I may maintain a pared down version of the blog there, so please do hop over and follow if you’d like to keep up to date with my work and ideas.

To you all, thanks for reading, commenting and listening over the past three years.



Opinion :: NERC PhD skills review

NERC (the National Environmental Research Council), a major funding body for Environmental Science PhDs (and research in general) recently announced the outcome of a skills review, publishing “Most Wanted II – Postgraduate and Professional Skills needed in the Environment Sector”. In particular it highlights skills that NERC believes are in short supply in the UK workforce.

The results can be found here.  A summary of their top 15 most wanted skills..

1. Modelling
2. Multi‐disciplinarity
3. Data Management
6. Fieldwork
7. Risk and Uncertainty
8. Taxonomy and Systematics
9. Soil Science
10. Environmental Epidemiology
11. Sustainability Science and Planning
12. Microbiology
13. Energy Supply
14. Food supply
15. Freshwater Science

To me, this list is highlighting knowledge gaps, not necessarily skills gaps.  If you’re pre-PhD or in the early stages of your career this could be useful in highlighting fields with a good possibility for opportunities and career progression. But for those of us who’ve already specialised in a field, can this help?  It’s hardly practical for a volcanologist to go out and learn some freshwater science, or a social scientist to moonlight in microbiology.   The first few options, however, provide key information for everyone.  NERC is looking for adaptable, multi-disciplinary scientists with a key understanding of high performance data analysis and computing techniques.  From my perspective  data collection techniques in atmospheric science are getting better all the time.  Two decades ago massive equipment could collect maybe one sample an hour, now we have portable field devices collecting several samples an hour, and lab-on-a-chip could soon lead to all data, all the time.  Excel probably isn’t going to cut it any more, and I’m hoping to dedicate some time this year to learning new data analysis techniques.  Starting from scratch isn’t going to be easy, and it’s a hard thing to step out of my comfort zone and feel stupid all over again, but hopefully it will be worth it in the end.

What do you think of the skills review?  Have you challenged yourself to learn anything new recently?

Liked this? You may also like: NERC doctoral training programmes, Is it time for a PhD reform?, and “A PhD don’t come for free?”

Art/sci shorts :: Gardens of Alcatraz


Alcatraz never seemed far from view when I was in San Francisco last autumn, peeking between tall buildings or dominating the skyline from the coast. We did the tourist trip out to the island (hint: a summery dress and the SF wind do not a dignified boat trip make) and I wondered; will people, one day, glorify the crazed killers of our century the way they do Al Capone? Daring escapes and dingy cells aside, my favourite bit of the island was the gardens. Alcatraz really was ‘the rock’ before people first arrived, but imported soil and plants during its first occupation as an army base in the mid 1800s began to transform the rock into a garden. It’s a perfect example of how plant cover encourages the establishment of further plant growth by breaking up rocks with their roots and increasing soil nutrients through leaf litter. With the abandonment of Alcatraz in the 1960s the formal structure of the gardens may have fallen into disrepair, but imported plants continue to flourish all over the island, alongside birds and other wildlife.



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Living Sculpture: Neukom Vivarium / Nature in Islamic Art / Underwater Sculpture

Darwin’s lost fossils


Last year some of Darwin’s fossils were refound in a British Geological Society cabinet. How good would that find feel? Perhaps an incentive for a quick clear out at work? After all, it is (almost) time for a good spring clean…
Image above from the BBC.)

Publications, finally!

It can seem like a long, long, loooong slog until you see the seeds of your scientific labour bear publication fruit. First drafts, second drafts, co-author comments, third drafts, track changes, endless literature searches for that one critical reference, tenth drafts… And then post-submission there’s reviewers’ comments, corrections to make and resubmission.

Kind of like buses, I’ve waited a long time and suddenly several papers I’m involved in have been published in one month.

Firstly my own paper is in Biogeosciences Discussions – this is open access so y’all can go check out my awesome science (and apparently excellent figures) here. In this paper I discuss some of the first measurements of halocarbons from tropical seaweeds, talk about reasons for potential differences within/between studies and discuss aquaculture (seaweed farming) and the impact that may have on tropical halocarbon emissions. With this journal the review process is done online – so this is the original and un-reviewed/edited manuscript. You can watch the review process as it happens (probably a little like watching paint dry, but slower) or comment if you have some critical comments on our take on tropical halocarbon production from seaweed. Fingers crossed for some decent reviews…

Secondly I helped with sample analysis for this paper* on iodine chemistry in the marine boundary layer.

Thirdly my friend and Malaysian collaborator Fiona just published work on the impact of light on halocarbon emissions from seaweed, see the paper here*. Fiona started her Masters at the same time I began my PhD so we’ve learnt lab techniques together and worked in the field on many occasions. She also happens to be my provider of food, transport and sanity whilst I’m in Malaysia.

*These two articles are behind a paywall (you have to subscribe to the journal to access them) but please let me know if you’d like a look. With this sudden flurry of publication action I’ve also been interested to read about self-archiving – a post on that coming up soon!