Geochemical work experience at the Grace Nicholls

Liam and Grace in the Stable Isotope Facility
Hi, I’m Grace, a sixth form student at Rushcliffe School. This past week I have been doing work experience at the British Geological Survey (BGS), a world leading geological survey who work to research environmental processes. I have a keen interest in geography so wanted to experience real life research into the relationship between past climates and the world as we know it today. This week I have been in the Stable Isotope Facility working in the geochemistry labs undertaking a wide range of techniques that are used in environmental change, pollution and hydrology. Overall I have found it fascinating seeing all the different scientific analysis that underpins climate change research, as well as how chemistry and geography work hand in hand with one another.

For me the week has been mind-blowing and so technical - working with mass spectrometers and vacuums! Scientific equipment that I have never even seen before, this made the week even more intriguing for me as I have been doing things that I have never ever dreamt of! To begin with myself  and Liam (another student on work experience) kick-started the week with vacuum extractions of soil samples, whilst using liquid nitrogen! Wow! I felt like a real life scientist, working with intriguing gases and chemicals. On Tuesday I was given the job of micro-carbonate preparation. This entailed weighing micrograms (very very small amounts) of sample material and carefully putting the sample into tiny vials that were to be later put into the mass spectrometer where their isotopes would be measured.

Grace aliquoting samples for analysis
On Wednesday I did carbonate preparation for isotope analysis in the morning, and in the afternoon we measured isotopes in water. The water samples came all the way from the Antarctic as ice cores from the ice cap!! It was interesting discussing with one of the geoscientists, Carol, about how ice cores from the Antarctic ice sheet are used in her research on climate change from 750,000 years ago to present. The water put into the mass spectrometer was measured for oxygen isotope ratios (18O/16O) and this data is converted into past temperatures. Carol has been able to show that Antarctic temperatures have changed over time and the western Antarctic is one of the fastest warming parts of the world. On Thursday Liam and I did some more carbonate extractions of carbon and oxygen isotopes where we had to prepare and extract the samples using a vacuum line and later used the mass spectrometer to find out the different carbon and oxygen values. Later that day we also went around all of the labs with Mel to help with a safety audit in order that she could keep a check on safety in the laboratories.

Grace working on a vacuum line which extracts and
collects gases for analysis
Lastly but not least, on Friday we did a follow up on the data produced from our carbonate samples the day before. The samples we analysed were from a sediment core of a Loch, which had experienced periods with an inflow of marine water from the sea. Our data depicted a distinct difference in samples from those of freshwater and those from a marine environment from different periods of time. The change in the environment becoming more marine suggests that the change must be due to a sea level change (melting ice caps and glaciers that result in an increase in sea level) leading to marine water being able to reach the freshwater environment. Evidence of climate change, and the planet heating up!

Overall, I have had a fantastic week that has opened my eyes to geochemistry and how the scientific analysis is so important into determining past climates. I would to like to say a huge thankyou to all of the staff for all the help, time and effort you have put into making my work experience so useful: Chris Kendrick, Jack Lacey, Carol Arrowsmith, Andi Smith and Melanie Leng.

Grace Nicholls and her fellow student Liam Curtis are sixth form student at Rushcliffe School.