Doctoral Training in Environmental Research in the UK

12 Nov
View of Earth from the Lunar Reconnaissan ce Orbiting Camera NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

View of Earth from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiting Camera NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

It is now a year since the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) announced the results of its first competition for ‘Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP)’, and just a few weeks since each of the 15 funded DTPs welcomed their first cohorts of doctoral students. In this time, the training landscape for PhD (or DPhil) students across the environmental sciences has changed radically.

Since we are approaching the annual round of applications for doctoral study, this post offers a short summary and perspective on ‘how to apply for doctoral study‘ which should be relevant across the UK, and for most students looking for projects that will fall under NERC’s broad ‘environmental science’ remit.

Scholarships for Doctoral Training

Through the 15 funded DTPs, NERC now support a minimum of 240 full-time-equivalent scholarships each year for research students working towards a PhD/DPhil. These 240 scholarships have been allocated to the DTPs following the 2013 competition, and broadly they will provide full funding (stipend, plus fees, plus a contribution towards research costs) for the 3.5 – 4 years of the graduate training course. Details will differ from centre to centre, but the summary rules are the same:

- if you are a UK resident then you should be eligible for a full award;

- if you are not a UK resident, but are from the EU then you should be eligible for a fees-only award, and will to find some other sources of funding to pay for living costs. All universities will have scholarship packages for this purpose, so do ask!

- if you are an international student, from outside the EU, then the NERC rules are clear that you cannot be funded by a NERC training grant. However, the quality of the UK research base relies on attracting an exceptional pool of talented graduate students from around the world – and all universities will have competitive scholarship packages to support graduate study in the UK.

In addition to these 240 studentships, NERC also support a number of Centres for Doctoral Training, and some stand-alone industrial ‘CASE’ studentships.

What is Doctoral Training?

The fifteen Doctoral Training Partnerships all offer tailored training in research and related skills, but the details of the training offered (both in terms of what is offered, what is required, and the timing of the training courses) will be different from one DTP to the next. All DTPs share the ambition of providing a programme of activities that will help students as they initiate, develop and complete their research projects, and embark on their careers – whether in science, or beyond. All of the DTPs are also partnerships – with ambitions to engage in research and related activities with partner organisations from outside the Higher Education sector.

By the same token, the DTPs all have different mechanisms in place to match up potential students with research topics, and supervisors: some will advertise lists of approved topics from the outset, while others may have no formal project lists but simply encourage applicants to apply for broad research areas of interest; or to work with particular reserchers, or research groups. My advice – don’t be passive, but make contact with the DTPs and potential supervisors, and start up a conversation well before making an application. Some DTPs may well have open days in the lead up to the closing date for applications; others may be happy for applicants to make informal arrangements to visit.

What next?

Think about what you are interested in working on for a research degree -and not just the topic area, but perhaps also what sort of project. Laboratory based? Computational? Field based? Here you need to be able to take advice: choose a topic area that will sustain your interest, but try not to be too swayed by your (positive or negative) experience of research projects so far. Give some thought to ‘why?’ you want to do a PhD or DPhil – it will be a 3 –  4 year journey that you are embarking on, so why not think about your roadworthiness before setting off?.  Think about whether the topic area seems to be ‘important’ enough to devote a large fraction of your life so far.. and why you think the problem is important enough to work on. Open ended ‘voyages of discovery’ can look very attractive at the beginning, particularly if they are tied to exotic fieldwork in a remote location, but your perspective might be very different three years in, when you are trying to work out what was the scientific rationale behind the work you have done. From the perspective of an examiner, it is surprisingly common to find that a student has worked out the ‘really obvious thing to have done’ only during the final stages of writing up the thesis, by which time there is no time or resource left.

Take advice from current PhD students, and from other researchers  in your own institution, to help to inform your choices of where to apply. Most importantly, keep your mind open to new opportunities. You may already  be specialised in one part of a discipline, but the new DTP training structures may well offer you opportunities to move into quite new areas.  Be open to opportunities in unfamiliar places: you may well believe that you are already in the best place for X (and you may be right), but don’t imagine that there aren’t excellent projects with great research groups in unexpected places – there are!

Then, once you have decided to apply, give your academic referees advance notice of your plans – and make sure that you don’t pass on your own application deadlines to them!  Don’t expect the application and assessment processes to be the same from one institution to the next (though they are likely to be fairly similar), and give yourself enough time to do as good a job as you can of the application.

After that – good luck! It is a competitive field out there, but every DTP is on the lookout for research students with great potential. If you are fortunate enough to be made a formal offer, don’t feel obliged to accept it on the spot – particularly if you have other interviews on the horizon – and do ask for an extension if you feel that you are being asked to make a decision too quickly.

Links

Disclaimer

I am the academic lead of the Oxford Doctoral Training Partnership in Environmental Research.

William Dampier and the Burning Islands of Melanesia

11 Nov Ritter volcano, New Guinea, 1700.

A tweet from Jenni Barclay about a Pirate Scientist gave me an excuse to visit the newly opened reading rooms in the Bodleian’s Weston Library..

William Dampier was a seventeenth century pirate, and later maritime adventurer, whose several books of ‘Voyages and Discoveries’ make for fascinating reading. In 1699, he set sail in HMS Roebuck to try and find Terra Australis, a mythical ‘southern continent’. His journey took him past the Cape of Good Hope to the north-western coast of New Holland (now Australia), and then on to Timor, New Guinea, and New Britain. On the way back, he only got as far as Ascension island, in the Atlantic, before his ship sprung a leak and had to be abandoned. His crew were rescued some weeks later by a party of British naval ships on their way to Barbados.

In the preface to his 1703 book ‘A Voyage to New Holland..’ he writes ‘The world is apt to judge of everything by the success, and whoever had ill fortune will hardly be allowed a good name. This, my Lord, was my unhappiness in my late expedition in the Roebuck, which foundered thro’ perfact age near the island of Ascension. I suffered extreamly in my reputation by that misfortune..’

Dampier 1703 preface

Part of the preface to Dampier’s ‘Voyage to New Holland’.  Bodleian ms. 8 S 43 Jur

Despite his pessimism over the loss of the ship, and his failure to reach Terra Australis, the expedition was a great success as a ‘voyage of discovery‘. Dampier’s book has some lovely descriptions of active volcanoes that he encountered to the east of Timor island – part of what we now call the Banda Arc – and of others along the north coast of (Papua) New Guinea, part of what is now known as the Bismarck Arc. Several of his reports of volcanoes that he encountered are the earliest written records of activity.

Banda

Banda island volcanoes – likely Wurlali and Banda Api. ‘No 6. A burning island to the East of Timor shows thus. Distance 4 leagues.’ ‘No 7 Thus shows 2 of the Bandy islands. Distance 12 leagues.’          1 league is 3 nautical miles.  Bodleian ms. 8 S 43 Jur

 

On 13 Dec 1699, the Roebuck sailed from Babao, east past Timor towards New Guinea.  On December 27th ‘ we saw the burning island.. It lies in lat 6 deg 36 minutes. It is high but small. [The top] is divided in the middle into two peaks,  between which issued out much smoak’. This is most likely Wurlali volcano,  on Damar island, Indonesia. Later they sailed past another burning island, most likely Banda Api. Then around the northern coast of present day Papua New Guinea, they encountered several volcanoes of the New Guinea arc. Wally Johnson has interpreted this portion of Dampier’s trip in his recent book  Fire Mountains of the Islands, and identified several of Dampier’s unnamed ‘burning islands’.


PNG volcanoes

Two Burning Islands offshore from the northern coast of Papua New Guinea – most likely Kadovar (to the north), and Karkar (to the south). Bodleian ms. 8 S 43 Jur

 

On the 24 and 25th March 1700, Dampier spent some time watching an eruption, now thought to be of Ritter Volcano which lies in the straits between Papua New Guinea and New Britain

Dampier passage

Dampier’s passage between New Guinea and New Britain. The erupting volcano (far right) is Ritter island. Bodleian ms 8 S 43 Jur

At ten o clock I saw a great fire, blazing up in a pillar, sometimes very high for three or four minutes..  In the morning I found out that the fire we had seen was a burning island, and steered for it.’ ‘March 25th the Island all night vomited fire and smoak very amazingly and at every belch we heard a dreadful noise like thunder and saw a flame after it. The intervals between its belches were about half a minute. Some more, some less, neither were these pulses of eruptions alike, for some were but faint convulsions in comparison of the more vigorous yet even the weakest vented a great deal of fire, but the largest made a roaring noise and sent up a large flame 20 or 30 yards high, and then might be seen a great stream of fire running down to the shore‘.

Little more is known of Ritter volcano until 1888, when it collapsed catastrophically in a non-eruptive submarine avalanche.

Further reading.

There is a wonderful interactive map of Dampiers voyage in Google Maps. Wally Johnson’s Fire Mountains of the Islands (ANU Press, 2013 – available online) is a splendid resource on the volcanoes of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon islands, and their eruptive histories. There is a also a short piece on the eruption history of Ritter island in the Cooke-Ravian Volume of Volcanological Papers (editor, R. W. Johnson), Geological Survey Of Papua New Guinea Memoir 10, 115-123 (1981).

Original source: William Dampier, A voyage to New Holland &c. in the year 1699. 3 volumes. 1703. [Several e-versions are available].

Volcano Top Trumps: the Online Game

9 Oct

VTT

After some months of testing and refining, a free-t0-use online version of Volcanoes Top Trumps has been launched by Winning Moves. This should greatly extend the reach of Volcanoes Top Trumps – which is a fun and educational game about volcanoes that has spun off from the NERC - ESRC funded project ‘STREVA‘ – Strengthening Resilience in Volcanic Areas. Why not play the online game, and then let us know what you think of it!

Credits.

Volcanoes Top Trumps was created by scientists at the University of East Anglia, the University of Plymouth and the University of Oxford.

There’s (volcanic) dust in the archives

14 Aug From the BGS archives

There’s not much that beats the thrill of discovery.. particularly when it turns up in your own backyard.  This summer, I have been on the hunt for records and reports of the 1902 eruptions of St Vincent, a lush volcanic island in the Eastern Caribbean. There are indeed many reports from this eruption, carefully documented in official records from the time. But, more surprisingly, there are samples – and many of them in the UK: packets, vials and boxes of ash; chunks of rock and more, in museum collections and archives in both the Natural History Museum, and at the British Geological Survey. Here is just a snapshot of some of the incredible samples from the British Geological Survey Archives.

From the BGS archives

Four vials of volcanic ash – all collected on Barbados. The smallest vial is of ash from the 1812 eruption of St Vincent. The three other vials are samples of ash that fell on Barbados during eruptions between May 1902 and March 1903.

Along with the samples are the original envelopes in which they were sent, and handwritten notes documenting the sample: priceless tools, when you want to look back at an eruption that took place over 100 years ago.

1902 Barbados ash

1902 Barbados ash sample sent to Horace Woodward, who was in charge of the Geological Survey’s office in Jermyn Street, London, at that time – which included the Museum of Practical Geology. Memo reads ‘Dust from Mt Soufriere St Vincent, collected on the deck of the SS ‘Statia’ lying at Barbados, 90 miles distant, travelling against a strong S E wind and covering everything to the depth of 5 inches. 1903′.

Some of these samples are timed and dated, and can be linked to particular phases of the eruption. Here is one example – of the ash that fell during the opening stages of the eruption on Barbados.

First hour

‘Volcanic dust collected at Barbados during the night May 7-8 1902. This spec. fell during the first hour’. Collected by WG Freeman, a botanist at the Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies in Barbados.

Other samples can be used to map the distribution of ash and coarser samples that fell across St Vincent – here’s an example of a ‘gravel’ grade sample from Rosebank on St Vincent.

1902 ash

1902 tephra sample collected on St Vincent by  Henry Powell, Curator of the Botanic Station on St Vincent. ‘Sample of volcanic sand which fell at Rosebank (Leeward) on night of 3rd and morning of 4th Sept. 1902′

Among the most amazing discoveries, are examples of damage to economically valuable plants – this one, a sample of Breadfruit leaf that was damaged during the latter stages of the eruption in March 1903.

image

‘A leaf of the Bread Fruit Tree (Artocarpus incisa) gathered in St Vincent about 12 miles from the Soufriere and showing perforation caused by volcanic stones etc.’ Collected by WG Freeman in 1903.

Together, these sorts of samples will allow us to go back and investigate what was actually happening during the eruption, in a way that is rarely possible, even for modern events.

Links – read more about the eruptions of St Vincent on the London Volcano blog.

Summer Reading – H is for Hawk

11 Aug

Much of my time is consumed with reading, but it is almost always for a purpose: essays, assignments, proposals, drafts of papers, re-drafts of papers, papers for classes, for review..  This almost always means reading fast, with a goal: to measure, assess, hone, distil, critique and rewrite.  Often, it means hacking through tangled and cumbersome layers of scientific prose, to reveal the central narrative.

Then, for in a few days in midsummer, I get the chance to rediscover reading for pleasure: immersion in a book that grabs hold of your imagination and translates you to another place and another time. This year, my summer reading has got off to a cracking start with ‘H is for Hawk’.

Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, alongside TH White's Goshawk.

Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’, alongside TH White’s ‘The Goshawk’

 

‘H is for Hawk’, written by Helen Macdonald and published by Jonathan Cape, is a dizzying, dazzling read that defies its rather sober classification (‘Nature Writing/Biography’). The book weaves together a deeply personal story of grief and loss, with the rediscovery of life lived through the training of a young goshawk. In places, the staccato text crunches like the twigs strewn across a forest floor; in others, it soars like the circling hawk, magnificent, alert to the slightest movements below. It contains some wonderful writing on nature, capturing the very essence of the countryside in just a few words, alongside some moving reflections on bereavement and the way that death changes in a moment the lives of the living, and our relationships with what was present and is now past. In parallel, and wrapped up closely with the training of her young goshawk, Helen Macdonald explores the life and writing of TH White, a teacher and writer of Arthurian novels who wrote of his own struggle to train a goshawk in the 1930’s.  The result is a book that works on several levels, and would reward re-reading: a beautiful and captivating read.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, published by Jonathan Cape, 2014. ISBN 9780224097000

The Goshawk by T.H. White. Reprinted 2007. ISBN 9781590172490

Update – in November 2014, Helen Macdonald was awarded the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for ‘the best non fiction book published in the UK’ for H is for Hawk.

 

An eyewitness account of the 1812 eruption of the Soufrière of St Vincent

8 Jul

davidmpyle:

Sharing a post from London Volcano

Originally posted on londonvolcano:

The Soufrière of St Vincent erupted dramatically in early 1812, in the first eruption of the volcano that was documented in detail at the time. Like the eruption of 1718, this was a fairly short-lived explosive eruption that was over in a few days. And, as with the 1718 eruption, it followed a period of several of months during which there were earthquakes large enough to be felt by the local populations.

Map of St Vincent from 1775. (JEFFERYS Thomas St Vincent from an Actual Survey made in the year 1775 after the Treaty with the Caribs. London: Printed for Robt. Sayer (1775). Image from Pennymead.com

Map of St Vincent from 1775. (Thomas Jefferys, St Vincent from an Actual Survey made in the year 1775 after the Treaty with the Caribs. London: Printed for Robt. Sayer 1775). Image from Pennymead.com

In 1812, St Vincent was a British colony, and sugar was the major export: in fact, St Vincent ranked second only to Jamaica in terms of sugar production at that time.  The total population of the island in 1812 was around 26,000, 90% of whom were…

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An account of the 1718 eruption of the Soufrière of St Vincent

8 Jul

davidmpyle:

Reblogging a post of mine from LondonVolcano

Originally posted on londonvolcano:

One of the goals of the STREVA project is to try and learn more about the effects that volcanic eruptions have on people’s lives and livelihoods by examining what has happened in the past. This throws up some interesting challenges – the geological record of past eruptions may not be preserved, while the written or oral records of past eruptions will usually be far from dispassionate or accurate. But in some cases, these written records may be all that are left, and the fun is then to try and work out what may, and what may not be, plausible.

We have chosen St Vincent in the Eastern Caribbean as the model for London Volcano because it has a rich record of historical eruptions, many of which have been documented in one way or another. The first of these was an eruption in 1718.

Map of the Eastern Caribbean, showing the locations of seismic stations used in earthquake and volcano monitoring. Source: Seismic Research Centre, University of the West Indies Map of the Eastern Caribbean, showing the locations of seismic stations used in…

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