I handed in my thesis! Finally! Looking forward to catching up with all of your questions :D keep them coming!
Current JobEarth Sciences PhD student
Favourite thing to do in my job: Labwork using fancy, shiny machines and telling other scientists about what I do at conferences.
My Work: I study the chemistry of tiny plankton fossils that are 50 million years old to understand more about how they used to live and past climate change
I study the chemistry of tiny plankton fossils that are 50 million years old to understand more about how they used to live and past climate change. Plankton are organisms which float with ocean currents.
The plankton I study are called foraminifera. Foraminifera are made up of one cell, and live in the surface waters of the ocean and are the width of a pinhead, with skeletons made from calcium carbonate (same material as chalk). When they die, their skeletons sink to the seafloor and build up in layers. Whilst they may not look special to the naked eye, they’re actually the best storytellers I know. As foraminifera make their skeletons in the seawater they live in, they record the conditions around them, like temperature and how much ice there is on land. This is similar to how your hair and teeth might record what you ate for lunch. This is why scientists who study climate really like to use them to investigate environmental conditions in the past.
However, the lifestyles of a foraminifera can affect the chemistry of their skeleton (and so the climate signals that we get from them). Some foraminifera live with algae, and when some get bigger, it means their skeleton chemistry also changes. It is important to understand whether this happens in a big or small way, to understand whether the climate signals that we get from them are the real condition or are actually bigger/smaller because of these “life effects”.
I look at foraminifera from two time periods, the Miocene (around 23 million years ago) and the Eocene (50 million years ago). These are important time periods for us to understand because they had similar conditions to what we think our future climate will be like. Therefore if we understand the past, we will understand the future better 🙂
My Typical Day: Right now, just writing up all the data I've collected in my 4 years as a PhD student into a big book called a thesis.
A PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy, and is a 4 year programme (in the UK, in other countries it can be longer) where you investigate a topic that hasn’t been looked at before. Generally years 1-3 are full of experiments and collecting data, and year 4 is the dreaded writing year. You write up your experiments into a big book called a thesis, which is essentially a big essay that can’t be longer than 100,000 words. It normally has 6-7 chapters (with at least 3 cool science stories):
- Exciting Science Story 1
- Exciting Science Story 2
- Exciting Science Story 3
- Synthesis (tying the story themes together) [not everyone does this…it depends on whether your stories link well…
- Conclusions and Future Work
As a mini scientist-in-training (what I am – a PhD student!) you generally have two types of typical day – writing filled or data collection.
A data collection day for me is mostly like this:
- Wash down sediment samples (mud) and dry them in an oven at 40 degrees (one fifth of the power needed to make chicken nuggets in an oven at home).
- Sieve the sediment to separate the plankton fossils and dust sized sediment (mud)
- Put plankton fossils in a small glass bottle called a vial
- Empty fossils from the vial very carefully and in small amounts into a little black tray. I put the tray under a light microscope and try to find the species I need for my chemical experiments. I pick the fossils from the tray using a paintbrush and water. The water makes the plankton stick to my brush, and then I put them into a slide.
- Put plankton fossils under a very powerful microscope called a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to make sure I have found the right ones. The SEM makes the fossil images around 1000 times bigger than they would be under a light microscope.
- If I have found the right ones, and they look good for chemical experiments, I use different machines to look at the chemistry of the plankton. This includes seeing the chemistry is the same in the plankton fossil wall or shows variation.
- I use the chemistry to look at climate in the past and how the plankton used to live using the amounts of magnesium, oxygen and carbon that they have.
A writing day is pretty much writing all day…with a little bit of making lists and mind-maps. And reading scientific journal articles to see what other scientists have found before. Once I have finished writing a chapter I send it to my supervisors and anxiously wait for their comments…
What I'd do with the prize money: Visit schools in disadvantaged areas of the UK to tell pupils about the exciting work the International Ocean Discovery Program does.
I would like to do mini workshops/presentations at schools in disadvantaged areas to tell them about the science that the International Ocean Discovery Program does.
The International Ocean Discovery Program is an international group that has different science ships and drilling platforms to investigate Earth history using sediments and rocks from the sea floor. It’s really cool and hundreds of scientists have taken part in expeditions worldwide. The data is always new and each expedition brings back things that people have never seen before!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Friendly, enthusiastic, musical (I play the violin)
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
1) My geography and geology teachers at school 2) Curators and researchers I've volunteered with at the Natural History Museum
What was your favourite subject at school?
Geography and Chemistry (I can't pick between them!)
What did you want to be after you left school?
Geophysicist. Somehow have ended up looking at climate change!!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not at school. As a PhD student yes.... (but everything has been resolved now!)
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Probably own a cafe full of fancy cakes. Or an ice cream parlour.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
Chocolate chip cookies
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Abseiled down the Broadgate Tower in east London (>500 feet!)
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) Being able to write faster 2) Being able to stop time so I could do multiple things at once 3) Be invisible
Tell us a joke.
How many moles are in a guacamole? Avocado's number