Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Food security in Malaysia... by Diriba Kumssa

Food security and sustainable development are a high priority for scientists around the globe and this summer a multidisciplinary team from the UK travelled to Malaysia to help build collective research partnerships between various government and non-government organisations (NGOs). Here Diriba Kumssa, a PhD student working on geospatial aspects of food security tells us more about the trip.

The team I'll be travelling with for this one week mission to Malaysia comprised of staff from the Centre for Environmental GeochemistryProfessor Martin Broadley (plant nutritionist) and Dr Scott Young (soil chemist) from the University of Nottingham (UoN) and Dr Louise Ander (geochemist) from BGS.

We visited the Crops for the Future Research Centre (CFFRC), which is a non-profit research Organisation that was established in 2011 and currently based at the UoN Malaysia Campus, in Semenyih near to Kuala Lumpur. They presented the activities in their various research programs to provide us with the bird’s eye view of what they are planning to implement both in the short run and long-term. Besides, we visited their ongoing research activities at their research site on Napier grass adaptation and propagation experiment, Bambara ground nut adaptation trials, the research site (geochemical) problems, and substantial idle land under power pylon throughout Malaysia that makes up to 80,000 hectares.
My PhD research is sponsored by the CFFRC and I presented my research progress on spatial aspects of mineral nutrient deficiency in Asia. After discussing outcomes from my research, a research plan was agreed. The future plan included understanding the role of soil geochemistry and land-use in constraining the adoption of underutilized crops, and improving nutritional intake and income.
On 24 April 2014, we visited the Malaysia Rubber Board (MRB) where we were taken to see the International Rubber Products Exhibition Centre (right); The Material Characterization Laboratory; a Jatropha adaptation trial site; Rubber grafting and seedlings nursery (below left); and a rubber plantation, and even engaged in practical rubber tapping sessions! The Material Characterization Unit conducts plant and soil samples analyses for internal and external clients with a standardized equipment, procedure and global recognition from the International Standards Organization.
The MRB Agronomy research staff described ongoing research and extension activities to integrate small holder rubber plantation and crop production to optimize land use and increase farmers’ income per unit area. This is done in two ways: intercropping by making use of the rubber inter row space at the early stage of a future mono-crop rubber plantation establishment before canopy closure (a.k.a., Taungya system); and intercropping by increasing the inter row spacing between rubber trees so that farmers are able to grow some food crops in that space all the time.
Overall, there is a great sense of motivation and fertile ground for collaboration among this group which will span soil geochemistry, agronomy, food security, and human nutrition. I will return to CFFRC Malaysia for a more extended visit later in summer 2014.

by Diriba Kumssa
PhD student Nottingham-BGS Centre for Environmental Geochemistry.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Prize winning Joy... by Michael Watts

It's with great pride we share with you the super achievements of one of our sponsored PhD students Edward Joy. Edward is a student of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (CEG) and has won prizes both at the University of Nottingham (UoN) and BGS for his PhD research. His BGS supervisor Michael Watts sent us this...

Edward in his panama hat out in Malawi
Edward is a fantastic student and all his supervisors at the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, include myself, Dr Louise Ander (BGS), Professors Martin Broadley, Colin Black and Dr Scott Young (UoN) are very proud of his achievements.

The 'University of Nottingham Andrew Hendry prize' was presented in May 2014 to the University’s top postgraduate research students. Here is Professor Colin Black's testimonial about Edward:

Edward Joy is a third year PhD student in the Plant & Crop Science Division who is working on the supply of mineral micronutrients in human diets throughout Africa. His multidisciplinary work includes teams of soil and plant scientists, economists and human nutritionists in the UK and Africa.  Edward has already published 4 peer-reviewed papers regarding the risk of micronutrient deficiency in Africa and another recently submitted. He has completed geospatial analyses of micronutrient intake in Malawi after analysing many hundreds of soil, crop and water samples. His work has contributed greatly to our global understanding of dietary nutrient risks at a continental scale 

Edward has also made major contributions to wider University life through the Sutton Bonington Allotment Society, which received an RHS award in 2013, and numerous sporting activities in UK and Malawi.  You couldn’t hope to find a more pleasant, motivated and integrated PhD student.  Indeed, several Malawian “Mammas” have “adopted” him after he worked so effectively in their villages! 

A thoroughly deserved award for one of the next generation of leading UK agroecologists!”

Edward far right with his fellow BUFI prize winners
Edward also won a commended prize for his poster presentation on Dietary Mineral Supplies in Malawi at the BUFI (BGS University Funding Initiative) Science Festival on June 16th 2014, at which BGS sponsored PhD students presented updates on their research.

We cant wait to see what the future holds for Edward, keep your eyes peeled for this rising science star.

by Michael Watts

Friday, 18 July 2014

Peter Hobbs – a pioneering engineer... by Hazel Gibson

Hi, I’m Hazel Gibson, a PhD researcher from PlymouthUniversity, who is interested in what people think about geology and how that affects how we as geoscientists communicate it. For the last two weeks I have been up at the British Geological Survey speaking to the scientists about their work, what makes them passionate about it and why they think it’s important to us. The following is a series of short 'people posts' about the real faces behind the BGS.

Peter, next to the SHRINKiT instrument he helped to invent.
It’s easy to look at the British Geological Survey and imagine that it has always been this way – a high-tech organisation, with precision gadgetry and computer models for any situation that may need investigation. But in fact only 40 years ago much of the equipment that today’s geologists and engineers would find indispensable didn’t even exist. In the Engineering Geology section of the BGS, the section that deals with finding solutions to engineering problems that have a geological side, much of the essential equipment introduced over the last four decades was championed by Peter Hobbs. 
Peter started his career as a civil engineer, but during his degree studies he had to complete two six month industry placements and his second was with the British Geological Survey, which at the time was based in what is now the geological section of the Natural History Museum, London. He enjoyed his experience so much that when he finished his degree and was offered a job, he took it. At that time, Engineering Geology was a subject in its infancy – it had only been an actual subject for about 10 years and there were only 10 people working in the dark and dusty basement area that focussed on it specifically. This however, was soon to change.

Archive picture of the Geological Survey Museum
in Kensington
, where the BGS was based until 1976  
The challenges of our modern society that relate to engineering geology are now very obvious to us. Anyone who remembers the train line at Dawlish collapsing into the sea, is interested in the development of HS2, has had subsidence under their house (I have – we had cracks in our wall I could put my hand in!!), even the difficulties of new builds in cities like London and Glasgow all need the solutions provided by engineering geology. Often the traditional ways of learning more about the soils and clays we build our society on, just aren’t safe anymore! For instance Peter has been instrumental as a part of the team that developed a new piece of equipment – the SHRINKiT – that measures the shrink and swell behaviour of clays. This instrument uses a laser scanner combined with a digital balance, to measure the changing volume and weight of a piece of clay as it dries out. This important information produces a value called the ‘shrinkage limit’ or the point at which the soil or clay will not lose any more volume regardless of whether it loses more moisture. The shrinkage limit helps engineers know how the soil or clay is going to behave. Previous to Peter’s team inventing the SHRINKiT, the most common way of testing this property of the clay was to dip it in mercury, which can’t have been good for anyone’s health!
This crooked house may look funny, but subsidence
causes £100s of million in damage each year.
Another technological innovation that Peter advocates for is called LiDAR, a remote sensing system that is a kind of light based radar that is used by geoscientists all over the world to help detect ground movement. In Britain it is particularly useful when looking at landslides, a type of geological investigation that really highlights the dangers of engineering geology. “There was once a rock fall on the Yorkshire coast, which landed where a colleague and I had been standing two seconds earlier and we literally just missed it by the skin of our teeth!” Peter told me, but by using LiDAR to survey the cliff faces, engineers and geologists don’t have to put themselves in these difficult and sometimes dangerous positions as often.

Despite the dangers, Peter really loves engineering geology, especially the team-working ethos! He continues to invent new technology to help engineers understand rock and soil behaviour and he is instrumental in helping to re-interpret geological maps so they are more understandable to engineers and other (non-geologist!) people that have to use them. He is even involved in speaking with the public – helping to develop a brilliant demonstration of what quicksand is by using a special sand tank and sacrificing a Playmobil Lifeguard in the name of science! 

So despite an illustrious 40 years of inventing and engineering for the BGS, Peter Hobbs shows no signs of resting on his laurels.

by Hazel

Exploring geochemistry and health in Malawi... by Kate Knights

BGS geochemists Louise and Kate recently took a trip to Malawi to join agricultural scientists and nutrition experts to study the factors that can impact the nutritional benefit of foods grown and eaten by the Malawian population (recent paper). Here they tell us more about the exciting trip and the ongoing joint research between BGS, University of Nottingham and collaborators in Malawi...

We were greeted by heavy rains when we landed in Malawi but they cleared in time for our drive to the north of the country to Mzuzu, a city with all the hustle and bustle of commerce, markets and a thriving university - where staff and students are working on programmes to ensure good sanitation and maintaining quality water supplies form pumps and well.

We visited the SMART centre at the University, where Rochelle Holm  gave us an overview of activities since our previous visit last May and Chrissie was kind enough to show us around the WASH demonstration area, with examples of wells and ground pumps and water filters, and latrines and composting solutions (photo left).

We shared experiences between our institutes on how we collect data on private drinking water supplies by travelling together to some local villages with hand-pumps installed, and demonstrating to each other the types of information we typically gather.

Kate demonstrating the filtration of a small
sample volume  typically used in BGS to
gather information on the chemistry of waters
Colleagues at the Mzuzu University Centre of Excellence in Water and Sanitation taught us about a mobile app they’d developed to perform questionnaires with a smartphone. This innovative tool allows for digital data to be collected, and referenced, for all their fieldwork in the area.

Rainy season in Malawi means being careful not to get the vehicle stuck up a road that might become impassable in heavy storms. Here is the view from the back of our 4x4 as, with perfect timing, we finish up at that village and depart with the storm clouds gathering.

We also caught up with our long-standing collaborator  Dr Allan Chilimba, Director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Lunyangwa Research Station, Mzuzu. We walked the experimental fields, and were particularly pleased to see Edward Joy’s pot experiment of maize looking very healthy (photo below left).

Healthy looking maize
Maize is a really important crop for the people of Malawi, so improving the supply and quality can make a real difference to the people that rely on it. For more information on the importance of micronutrients and health, see one of Edward’s previous blogs. After such a great time in northern Malawi, we travelled back south via the lake road, taking time to admire the geological splendours of the southern end of the East African rift valley – and of course the lake itself!

Back in Lilongwe, we caught up with staff at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources –LUANAR (formerly Bunda College) for the day and see all the exciting new initiatives that they have and current research projects on soil and crop assessment and micronutrient status.  

Storm clouds gathering

Later we meet with the LUANAR soil scientists in a visit that was an equivalent of that to Zambia and Zimbabwe, previously undertaken by some of our other colleagues (see Michael's blog). We are all involved in helping to develop a PhD training programme for Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The idea is that in the future students will have opportunities to primarily study in their home country and also benefit from additional skills transfer through annual placements in the University of Nottingham, BGS, and the partner African countries. This type of work could really strengthen the academic and scientific communities in these countries, and is a great opportunity for UK scientists to experience working with overseas counterparts too.

After two weeks we bid farewell– and it was certainly a great trip to Malawi, with the warmth and hospitality that we have come to know so well and we look forward to continuing to work with all those we visited in the years to come!

Kate & Louise

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Secrets of Ascension... by Charlotte Vye-Brown Vye-Brown, BGS volcanologist, visited the remote (but British) island of Ascension last fortnight to begin unravelling it's eruptive past. The island might look like a tropical paradise but it isn't everything it seems. The Island is actually a huge volcano that rises 3-4 km above the surrounding sea floor, 90 kilometers west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It's just the very tip, 1% of it's total volume, which pokes out above the crystal blue sea. Very little is known about the eruption history of the Island and no one knows what might be in store in the future. Enter a team of researchers from the BGS, University of East Anglia, Durham University and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre with a Leverhulme Grant...
I departed from Brize Norton RAF station in Oxfordshire on a chartered plane which was routed for the Falkland Islands and was only stopping off at Ascension to refuel. We flew through the night and arrived in time for sunrise over the island. As the plane circled to reach the runway at the southwest end of the island we could see the central Green Mountain towering over thick rubbly lava flows forming aprons which have extended the coastline of the island into the sea and high steep-sided cinder cones from which eruptions produced fire fountains of lava.
Vegetation is sparse and concentrated around the aptly named Green Mountain leaving the fresh-looking lava flow tops well-exposed over the remainder of the island ready for geologists to investigate. We have to share our territory with colonies of birds that leave evidence of their visit on the otherwise pristine lava surfaces and land crabs.
We're on the island to look at the volcanic deposits, to map and sample deposits to reconstruct the past volcanic eruptions which have formed this island. We also met with many people living and working on Ascension to improve our understanding of island life and how a future eruption might impact on this community.
We visited sites all over the island, from the rhyolite lava flows and trachyte domes forming Green Mountain, to cinder cones, lava flows, pumice and ash fall deposits that blanket the surrounding land. Representative samples were taken and shipped for analyses back in the UK. They will take 6 weeks to get back to the UK but once there they will be processed to disentangle the magmatic and volcanic history of the island. We will soon know much more about this fascinating island and be able to answer questions such as ‘when was the last eruption?’, ‘why is Ascension volcanic?’, ‘what have previous eruptions looked like?’, and ‘what might happen if Ascension erupts again?’
Follow me and the rest of the BGS Volcanology team on Twitter @BGSvolcanology

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Random variables: directions, turtles and rocks... by Murray Lark

Murray Lark is our hero and master of spatial statistical methodology for earth sciences. Here's another insight into the random variables he came across whilst exercising his craft and publishing his latest paper...

Back in the late 1960s an American marine biologist captured 76 turtles and took them out to sea where he released them and noted the direction in which each swam away. You can see the directions in Figure 1 below.  This is a 'rose diagram,' which is a sort of histogram for directional data. It shows that most of the turtles headed north-east by east (the direction of home), but several headed 180 degrees the other way (as if they knew where they wanted to go, but had the map upside down).

Figure 1
This data set has become a classic in directional statistics, the methods used for variables which are measured as angles.  Such data are common in the earth sciences.  Some examples are the direction in which the bedding planes of a sedimentary rock dip, the direction of ocean waves or the orientation of horizontal faults in rocks or cracks in a drying soil. 

Directions are not as easy to analyse as you might think.  Imagine a repetition of the turtle experiment where the direction of home was due north (zero degrees).  Our turtles are all better navigators than their predecessors, so we get the following ten directions:  0, 2, 358, 355, 7, 1, 358, 0, 355, 357.  None of the turtles deviates by more than five degrees from the way home, but what is their average direction?  If you simply compute the average of the ten data above you get 179 degrees, which is almost due south.  The reason for this is that angular data don't behave like ordinary real numbers, or even real numbers with a maximum and minimum.  On the scale of compass bearings the numbers "wrap around", zero degrees is equivalent to 360, and two observations, one of 358 and one of 2 degrees are very similar.

Directional statistics has to deal with this tricky behaviour.  One tool of the trade is the von Mises distribution.  A statistical distribution is a mathematical function that we can use to compute the probability that a random variable will fall in a particular interval.  The von Mises distribution can be used for data which are "wrapped around" the circle.  However, like its relation the bell-shaped "normal" distribution that we use for non-directional random variables, it has a single peak or mode.  
At BGS we have been exploring some alternative distributions for circular data in collaboration with a colleague from the CSIRO in Australia. 

Figure 2
One distribution, of considerable interest, is called the projected normal distribution.  While the mathematical account of this distribution is a bit complex, it is not difficult to understand intuitively.  Imagine that we consider the location where the turtles were released as the origin of our map with coordinates {0,0}.  We can generate a random direction from the projected normal distribution by selecting a random coordinate pair {x,y} which have a joint normal distribution.  The random direction is that of the line which joins the origin of the map to the random pair.

Figure 2 shows the projected normal distribution fitted to the turtle data.  The area between the red line and the black circle is one, and the area between the red line and the black circle over some range of angles (e.g. between North and East) is the probability of a turtle swimming in that direction.  Notice the large bulge in the distribution in the direction of home, and the rather smaller bulge 180 degrees away.

There is an open access paper which presents our work with the projected normal distribution, its comparison with some alternative models and a new related distribution. 

By the way, I have never been able to find out whether the marine biologist rescued the turtles that set off in the wrong direction.

Stephanie Zihms – an inventive experimenter... by Hazel Gibson

Hi, I’m Hazel Gibson, a PhD researcher from PlymouthUniversity, who is interested in what people think about geology and how that affects how we as geoscientists communicate it. For the last two weeks I have been up at the British Geological Survey speaking to the scientists about their work, what makes them passionate about it and why they think it’s important to us. The following is a series of short 'people posts' about the real faces behind the BGS.

Stephanie likes to be patriotic!
At the moment, Stephanie Zihms has more on her mind than just her usual interest in how fluids move through rocks. Stephanie, who has spent most of her life in Germany, has a serious stake in Sunday night’s game. Anyone walking into the office where Stephanie’s desk is has no problems finding her; “It’s the desk with the German colours on it” were my directions and she wasn’t kidding! But besides being an enthusiastic German football supporter, Stephanie is also a Fluid Processes Geoscientist and investigates how fluids (aka liquids and gases) move through different kinds of rock. Now this might seem pretty obscure to most of us, but what Stephanie is researching right now is really important to one of our biggest problems – our energy future. She is looking at the difference in fluid movement between natural and man-made systems, so Carbon Capture and Storage (natural) and Radioactive Waste Disposal(man-made).  She is also, for the first time at BGS, investigating the effect that heat has on these processes.

In order to do this Stephanie has to design an experiment from scratch and follow it all the way through to its conclusion. She does everything from designing and helping to construct the massive experiment equipment called constant volume cells, to collecting and interpreting the data. This is no easy task; Stephanie’s last experiment ran for 200 days. The longest experiment of this kind has been going for 15 YEARS! But Stephanie really likes the control that it gives her over her experiments “It means that if anything leaks, it’s down to me, but also I think of the question – what do I want to find out, and design accordingly to find the answer” she told me. This means Stephanie is always testing her ideas – recently she had to stop using the traditional stainless steel canisters, because using heat was causing them to expand and affect her experiments. She also really likes the transparent nature of working at the British Geological Survey, in that whatever she finds out, she has a responsibility to tell people about it – her work is unbiased. 
What working in the lab is like..
Stephanie takes communicating her work very seriously. She goes to communication conferences and is interested in running tours around her lab, but also she told me about a brilliant science demo that she uses to talk about Carbon Capture and Storage – Angel Cake Storage! By ‘drilling’ a straw down through the layers of angel cake, Stephanie ‘injects’ coloured fluids into the cake, which then spread through that layer until they reach the icing. The cake is porous – like the soft rocks that the CO2 would be stored in, but the icing is impermeable – like the cap-rocks. As such, you can demonstrate how the carbon would not go into other layers. Stephanie understands the importance of talking with young people as she remembers her aunt giving her a rock and mineral collection when she was 6 that sparked her interest in Earth Sciences and the environment.
Mmmm...angel cake!
You may be wondering how Stephanie got from Germany to Nottingham, but she came to the UK during her degree, for a year’s exchange placement in Scotland and liked it so much she never left! After working for a geotechnical company and completing a PhD with Glasgow University, Stephanie finally moved to the BGS in September last year. Although she enjoys the applied nature of working here, she has found it a challenge to change her working style from the complete academic style of the PhD, where you control every aspect of your day, to the more flexible working needed in a big, multi-disciplinary team like this one. She has, however, taken on a big role in representing the Athena SWAN award here at the BGS, which encourages organisations to raise their diversity and promote equal opportunities for women. It’s a great symbol of how much at home Stephanie feels here after only a few months that she is not just challenging herself by designing experiments from scratch, but also challenging the BGS as a whole to improve opportunities for all women. 

To see Stephanie in action discussing her favourite science, don’t miss her speaking at PubHD on Wed 16th July.