Thursday, 20 September 2018

Geochemistry for Sustainable Development: SEGH 2018, Olivier Humphrey

Sunset over Victoria Falls
In July 2018, scientists from across the globe met in Victoria Falls, Livingstone, Zambia for the Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health (SEGH) 34th International Conference focussed on ‘Geochemistry for Sustainable Development’. The society aims to bring scientists from various disciplines to work together in understanding the interactions between the geochemical environment and the health of plants, animals, and humans.

During the conference, I presented some of my PhD research on ‘Iodine uptake, storage and translocation mechanisms in spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.)’. The aim of my PhD is to investigate iodine geodynamics and plant availability. Iodine is an essential micronutrient required for the production of thyroid hormones, which are critical for regulating energy metabolism, growth and brain function. Approximately 1.9 billion people are at risk of developing an iodine deficiency disorder (IDD). The most widely-used method for reducing IDD is dietary supplementation with iodised salt; however, poor salt treatment and food processing can reduce its effectiveness. As such, additional iodine delivery schemes are required; including iodine phytofortification. However, one of the underpinning issues associated with phytofortification is the general lack of understanding regarding plant iodine interactions. In my talk, I discussed a series of experiments I had conducted which aim to clarify the current misunderstandings within the literature. In addition to presenting my work at the conference I also co-chaired two sessions. This involved working with the chair, organising presenters and ensuring that they kept to the strict time schedule; even when the power did go out!

Group picture at the end of the epidemiology training course
As well as oral presentations and flash presentations/poster sessions a varied programme of training sessions were also available for delegates to attend including: how to use GIS, an introduction to R, and embedding ethics in geochemistry. For the morning training session I elected to attend the ‘reviewing manuscripts and getting published’ course by Professor Jane Entwistle, University of Northumbria. During the course we discussed the importance of reviewing our work, the processes involved in peer-review and the role of the reviewer. The aim of this course was to get both young and experienced researchers who are part of the society to start reviewing manuscripts submitted to the society’s journal: Environmental Geochemistry and Health.

Between training courses there was an Early Career Researcher lunch offering a networking opportunity for young researchers to meet and mingle with other young researchers as well as seasoned scientists from the SEGH community. The aim of this lunch was to start an Early Career Researcher Group which will provide a mentorship programme within the SEGH. Check out the SEGH website for more information coming soon.

During the afternoon training session I decided to attend the: ‘epidemiologic study design and interpretation- with application to cancer, health and the environment’ course run by Dr Joachim Schuz and Dr Valerie McCormack from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC-WHO). We were introduced to two study designs: cohort and case-control, commonly used in the field of epidemiology. This training course consisted of a taught lecture to introduce us to the science of epidemiology before we were given the task of designing our own case-control study in a simulated scenario in which a mine site was thought to be causing liver cancer. At the end of the course we presented our designs to the group. The course provided a fantastic opportunity to gain a valuable insight into how epidemiological studies are conducted.

Overall, the conference was very successful! It was great to share my research with the wider scientific community and engage in some wonderful training courses. I look forward to being more involved with the SEGH early career research group in the future.

The PhD is supervised under the umbrella of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry: Dr Scott Young, Dr Liz Bailey and Professor Neil Crout (University of Nottingham) and Dr Louise Ander and Dr Michael Watts (BGS).

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Arrival of the last two core Magret Damaschke

After months of preparation and anticipation, the day finally arrived. On 26 July, the last two core scanners were delivered and moved into place within the new Core Scanning Facility at BGS, Keyworth.


Many hands make light work was especially true for the BGS estates & facilities management and CBRE teams, who made it possible that both oversized instruments were successfully lifted into the building. The large window in front of the old ‘long stay cafe’ was removed and scaffolding erected. Interior work was carried out by a great bunch of hardworking staff, knocking down walls, and removing door-frames and shelves.

On the day, TEP Machinery Movement Ltd were in charge of the lift. Heavy instrument parts weighing up to 750kg were lifted up and carefully navigated through the narrow corridor with only millimetres to spare.

The first instrument to be lifted was the Itrax MC Scanner, which was delivered a day earlier from Cox Analytical Systems in Sweden. Jonny Rudolfsson, part of the Cox crew, was present during the lift to answer any questions about the scanner and to make sure that everyone took the necessary care in handling such  a delicate instrument.

The arrival of the Geotek MSCL-XYZ was equally exciting as the big lorry entered the BGS site. The whole Geotek Team helped with the process of unloading, lifting, and moving the valuable instrument.

X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) Scanners 

Both XRF scanners (Geotek MSCL-XYZ and Itrax MC) will be used to acquire elemental abundances and variations downcore and to produce 2D XRF surface maps of specific target areas of the core. Additional colour linescan and UV imaging capabilities provide records of downcore textural/compositional variation.

The scanners are able to detect a wide range of elements (Mg to U at ppm levels) and allow high-resolution scans, down to 0.1 mm, to be realised. The state-of-the-art high-throughput capability of both scanners allows several metres of core (up to 9 m) to be analysed at once.

XRF scanning is now a well-established, non-destructive technique in various geoscientific and engineering disciplines, where datasets are used to identify critical horizons (e.g., trace metals, ore deposits, cements, soils), to better understand sediment/rock provenances and to implement core-to-core and/or core-to-log correlations. Further, calculated element ratios are often used as proxies for mineralogical, matrix, or environmental changes.

Example: High-resolution image of BGS tuff sample alongside elemental surface map and downcore resolution profile for the element Calcium (Ca).  

The new core scanning facilities have been funded by the UK Geoenergy Observatories project and more information about the project is available here. The project, commissioned by the BGS's parent body the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), follows the Government's 2014 announcement that it would allocate £31 million to create world-class, subsurface energy-research test centres.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Work Experience in the Stable Isotope Facility at Samantha Newman

Samantha beside the vacuum extraction line
Hi, my name is Samantha Newman and I am a sixth form student at George Abbot School in Surrey. I am studying biology, geography and psychology and hope to do geography at university. I travelled all the way up to Keyworth in Nottingham to take part in a work experience week at the British Geological Survey, in their Stable Isotope Facility (SIF). I worked with their geoscientists and learnt about how isotopes play a key role in reconstructing past climate conditions measuring oxygen, carbon and nitrogen isotopes from a variety of materials.

At the start of the week, I was given a tour of all the stable isotope labs with a quick description of what each of the mass spectrometers are used for – to say the least it was a lot of information to take in at once! There are so many different mass spectrometers in the SIF – they can measure isotopes in methane, organic and inorganic carbonates, and within water, plants, soil, proteins, bones, teeth and hair.

For the first few days, I worked with Chris Kendrick to carry out the steps involved in preparing a carbonate sample for analysis on a mass spectrometer. The sediments we prepared were from a Scottish Loch and we wanted to use them to reconstruct past changes in the Loch’s water chemistry. To prepare the inorganic carbonate from the sediment extracted from the Loch, we first had to weigh out the sample – around 10 milligrams - and put them into small glass vials. The small vials were then dropped into bigger vessels with 4 ml of phosphoric acid inside. Next, they were attached to a vacuum line to remove all the air. After this they were left in a 25°C water bath overnight, the vials then had to be shaken to allow the acid and carbonate to react to produce CO2. Any water was removed from the CO2 using the vacuum line and an acetone water trap. Clean CO2 was then collected using a liquid nitrogen trap. These vials of pure CO2 were attached to the mass spectrometer ready for analysis.

Attaching samples to the mass spectrometer
The results we collected showed that over time the Loch had become more marine and less influenced by freshwater. This suggests there was a period of sea-level rise.
While waiting for the results, I learnt how to weigh out tiny amounts of BGS’s in-house standard for the organic carbon technique – which was actually freeze dried broccoli! I had to learn how to weigh out 0.7–1.5 milligrams of the powder and then fold it into tin buckets in preparation for the mass spectrometer.

As if I thought I couldn’t weigh anything smaller, I helped Hilary Sloane by weighing out international (IAEA) standards for another mass spectrometer that required only 50-200 micrograms (about the size of a full stop!), which is 1000 times smaller than the samples I weighed before earlier in the week! We then analysed the standards and achieved nearly perfect results!

On my last day, I learnt about how the isotope lab played a key role in the investigation of Richards III’s skeleton. Using their isotope techniques to examine different parts of the skeleton they were able to identify what Richard III’s diet had consisted of and where in England he lived. I was also given a tour of the BGS geological walk way and the National core store which is filled with drilled cores from across the UK and contains over 500 km of cores and thousands of tonnes of rock.

Overall, my week at the BGS was extremely interesting and really opened my eyes to the importance of isotopes in so many research areas of geoscience. I really appreciate all the patience the geoscientists had with me as I learnt about their jobs and completely admire the work they do. I would like to thank Chris Kendrick, Hilary Sloane, Andi Smith, Angela Lamb and Jack Lacey for all helping me throughout the week and providing me with this invaluable experience.

Samantha Newman is a sixth form student at George Abbot School in Surrey

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

DeepCHALLA goes to Nairobi, Kenya and….Lake Challa!…by Heather Moorhouse and Erin Martin-Jones

A handful of members from the UK DeepCHALLA team
This July, four scientists working on the Lancaster-BGS-Cambridge joint led DeepCHALLA project attended the African Quaternary Environments, Ecology and Humans (AFQUA) conference hosted at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi. This meeting brings together researchers who study the Quaternary period (last 2.6 million years) and are interested in past climate, ecosystem and ecological change, as well as human evolution across the entire African continent…

East Africa, is home to the East African Rift (EAR) Valley, one of the most extensive active rifts on Earth. The EAR valley represents the formation of a new ocean, created by two slowly moving diverging continental plates. This has resulted in volcanic and seismic activity, as well as producing some of the world’s most dynamic and unique ecosystems including the EAR lakes. These lakes are some of the oldest, deepest and largest in the world. Thus, these lakes have sediment records millions to hundreds of thousands of years old, capturing long-term changes in their local and regional environment. In addition, past eruptions from volcanoes along the EAR emitted ash that not only is relatively easy to date but provided excellent preservation of the remains of our human ancestors and the megafauna they hunted. This resulted in the region being termed “the cradle of mankind”, globally important archaeological sites which have advanced our understanding on the evolution of our own and other species. During the AFQUA conference, attendees were lucky to visit such globally unique ecological and archaeological sites.

The international group of scientists working on DeepCHALLA are investigating ~250,000 years of environmental change using sediments retrieved from the bottom of Lake Challa, a steep-sided crater lake on the Kenyan, Tanzanian border, close to Mt Kilimanjaro. Whilst technically not considered an EAR lake, Challa’s creation is a result of the volcanic activity caused by rifting.  Presentations and workshops were conducted by all four of the UK-based scientists working on the DeepCHALLA record, and involved how to produce reliable radiocarbon chronologies by Dr. Maarten Blaauw, Queens University Belfast and understanding the patterns and drivers of fires in Africa by Dr Daniele Colombaroli from Royal Holloway alongside others. Heather and Erin ran a workshop on how lake sediments can be used to understand natural hazards.

Lake Challa
Erin is investigating how volcanoes throughout the EAR system have behaved in the past, in order to provide an indication of the potential for future eruptions. Kenya and Tanzania are home to 28 volcanoes which are suspected to have been active over the last 10,000 years, however historical and geological evidence for the timing and size of past eruptions remains minimal. The workshop explored how we can also use lake sediments to chronicle the timing and magnitude of past eruptions.  Through time, lakes capture and preserve volcanic ash (tephra) horizons in their stratigraphically-resolved sediments, providing a picture of past volcanism that is frequently more complete than that preserved in outcrop. The geochemical fingerprint of glassy particles comprising each tephra acts allows it to be traced back to the source volcano and can be used to map out tephra dispersal, and dates on sediment sequences can be built into Bayesian age models to understanding the timing of past eruptions. Erin used the near-continous and well-dated Challa record as an example, finding previously unrecognised eruptions from cinder cones in the Kilimanjaro region over the last ~250,000 years.  Such knowledge on past volcanism is crucial to developing an understanding of the potential for hazards in this rapidly developing area, and is part of a wider effort to shed light on the volcanic record throughout East Africa using lake sediments at the Cambridge Tephra Laboratory.  

Alongside Erin, Heather spoke about how we can use fossilised algae from photosynthesisers (microscopic to larger plants) in lake sediments to understand climate and human impacts on lake ecological communities. Like many lakes globally, lakes in East Africa and those across the continent have been subject to climatic variability and pollution from the intensification of human activity and growing human populations Understanding the timing and magnitude of ecological change can help pinpoint impacts and causes of environmental modifications and ultimately guide where management should focus.

Erin enjoying the volcaniclastic deposits of the dried up river bed found
 in the catchment of Lake Challa
Post-conference, Erin and Heather were lucky enough to go on a scientific pilgrimage to Lake Challa itself, having missed the opportunity of helping with the drilling campaign in early 2017 as theit jobs had not yet begun. They walked along the top of the steep crater wall of the lake and Erin was excited to see how past volcanism had impacted the landscape at and around Lake Challa, including the thick reworked tephra accumulations in an ephemeral river bed and the numerous, and now vegetated volcanic craters. Whilst it was the dry season in Tanzania, and cool 24°C, they braved the water to take some water and rock scrape samples. These will tell them what phytoplankton or microscopic photosynthesisers are growing in the lake currently, and can be used to help interpret the historical changes documented in the lake sediment deposits.

This blog was written by Dr Heather Moorhouse, Diatom Isotope Research Technician working at Lancaster University, alongside the stable isotope facility at the British Geological Survey and Dr Catherine (Erin) Martin-Jones at the University of Cambridge.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Rock solid advice for geoscience PhD students…by Melanie J Leng and Anson Mackay

Two experienced PhD supervisors share seven steps to achieve a successful geoscience PhD, a fuller version of this article will appear in the Geoscientist in a 3 part series starting with the September issue.

Embarking on a PhD is a big decision, and completing one is a consuming task that will take up years of your life. Working towards a PhD develops you as a person and helps you to understand and solve problems, and can make you a better communicator. It can also increase your confidence time management skills, and give you deep and sophisticated knowledge in a specific scientific subset. Here we provide advice:

1. Your supervisor

Usually in the geosciences you have to work closely with at least two supervisors (a main one and a spare or two covering different aspects of your research), so check them (and their research groups) out via their online presence. Once you have secured a PhD position, take responsibility for setting the agenda during meetings and writing up minutes with actions and deadlines for comment. This should help to ensure you have the support you need from your supervisor. If at any time you feel that the relationship with your supervisor is deteriorating, seek immediate guidance from your departmental graduate tutor.

2. Organising your data

Train yourself to be competent in a data analysis and drawing package. For us, the programming language R is essential, and will augment what you can do with your data. Bespoke analytical packages for your particular field will also be essential to learn. Gantt charts are useful to plan milestones, from the experiment to thesis scale, while the workplace communication tool Slack is increasingly being used to interact with project partners.

3. Presentations

Presentations are a challenging but essential aspect of working in the geosciences, and universities offer training. Start by giving presentations to your peers and supervisors, with the long term aim of presenting at international conferences (like the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly). Many people find public speaking daunting or debilitating. Seek help and support from your peers, supervisor, postgraduate training, and welfare office. Tricks abound to lessen the stress: practise, practise, practise; use Powerpoint’s Presenter Tools; write out memory aides on small cards.

4. Writing

When writing papers, agree in advance what data you will include and who you need to co-author with. This can be tricky if you are part of a large multi-national project where data are “owned” by different people, and will be ready for publication at different times. Being very clear about expectations in developing the paper is important. Be informed about recent developments in Open Science. Set up your own Google Scholar and ORCID accounts for maximum outreach. Many academics have ResearchGate profiles, although restrictions still exist on what papers can be uploaded.

5. Training

Some expert skills for geoscience PhD students can be gained through training courses, including writing, presenting, statistics, coding, health and safety for fieldwork and laboratory work, and building CVs. Take the initiative and search out desired courses; do not rely on being told what to learn. Remember one-on-one training with your supervisors is important and needs to be factored in.

6. Get involved

Learn to say yes! Grab opportunities as they arise; everyone loves positivity and you will demonstrate energy and teamwork. Apply for positions of responsibility when they arise; early career representatives are often needed for committees. These can be great experience of finding out how learned societies work, and you can influence what and how decisions are made.
Learn to say no, if you’re simply over-committed and too busy to take on more work. Never give an immediate answer – think the request over for a day or so and consult with friends and colleagues. Saying yes should be an opportunity - not just a way to fulfil the wishes of others.

7. Work-life balance

Most academics consider their work as a vocation. Don’t be put off by this culture. Make sure you have a life outside of your PhD: spend time with your friends, participate in a sport or hobby. The mental health of PhD students is precarious: postgraduate students are up to six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population. Universities offer welfare services and you can also seek help through your doctor. It is important to get plenty of sleep, learn how to shut off in the evenings and weekends. Remember there are those around you who are going or have gone through the same experiences, so connect with your peers.

Melanie Leng is Director of Geochemistry at the British Geological Survey, UK, and Professor in Isotope Geoscience at the University of Nottingham, UK. Twitter @MelJLeng. Anson Mackay is Professor in Environmental Change at UCL, UK, and an Honorary Research Associate at the British Geological Survey. Twitter @AnsonMackay. The pair have supervised over 100 PhD students.

The fuller version of part 1 of this article can be found at: Leng, M. & Mackay, A. Essential tips for a rock-solid PhD: Part I. Geoscientist 28 (8), 28-29, 2018;, part 2 and 3 will appear in October and November issues of the Geoscientist.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Using geochemistry to study rainfall variability and human impact history of the Australian subtropics…by Charlie Maxson

The team from my recent trip to Blue Lake.
Hello, I am Charlie, a PhD student between the University of Adelaide, the University of Nottingham, and the British Geological Survey. I have recently started my PhD looking at Holocene rainfall variability and human impact in subtropical Australia…  

Rainfall variability in Australia can be extreme from year to year. Large-scale rainfall drivers like the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, Indian Ocean Dipole, and Southern Annular Mode create quite variable conditions across the country due to the ever-changing nature of these systems. The complex nature of, and interactions between, these systems create a distinct challenge in determining how rainfall will vary over a given period in Australia. This variability in rainfall and the changing climate could lead to significant economic, environmental, and water resource issues if not properly understood and addressed.

My approach to understanding rainfall variability will be an in-depth study of the lakes of North Stradbroke Island, known locally as ‘Straddie’. Straddie is the second largest sand island in the world. It formed during sea-level high stands in glacial cycles through the last million years. Sands were pushed in and settled on the location of the island, creating dunes. Dune hollows then filled with organic matter, creating an impermeable layer, into which rainfall collected, creating lakes on the island. Over 50 of these lakes now exist, with some histories going back at least 200,000 years.

Blue Lake from above.
Of particular interest is Blue Lake; a unique lake in Australia because it is particularly resistant to changes in climate through the Holocene (approximately last 12,000 years). Blue Lake is a groundwater ‘window lake,’ meaning it is an expression of the groundwater table at the surface of the island. While other lakes on the island are exclusively filled by rainfall and drained by evaporation, Blue Lake is fed by the groundwater table and drains out through a single outflow creek. The utility of Blue Lake is that it is a very stable system, so any change in the lake itself can be inferred as a change in regional climate. With the data from Blue Lake I hope to infer changes in the source of rainfall (and thus air temperatures) from isotope data going back through time. I can then quantitatively reconstruct climate on Straddie through the Holocene and better understand human impact. Ultimately, I will be inferring rainfall source (tropical Pacific or Southern Ocean), which will tell us about the influence of large climate drivers in the past.

Kangaroos on Straddie lounging about.
They're a common sight on the island.
This study will have particular importance to traditional owners of Straddie and for understanding Holocene climate variability across Australia. Ecological management will be of utmost importance in the near future to best preserve the unique natural beauty and biodiversity seen in Australia. My hope for this project is to inform the local managers of Straddie (the QYAC; Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation) of possible outcomes of human induced climate change.

Charlie Maxson is a PhD student between University of Adelaide, the University of Nottingham, and the British Geological Survey and is being supervised by Dr John Tibby, Dr Jonathan Tyler and Prof Melanie Leng. Follow Charlie on Instagram and twitter @charlie_maxson

Monday, 27 August 2018

Another One Bites The Dust: Dust-to-crop chromium transfer in Zambia – A student Sophia Dowell

Sophia in the lab
Hi my name is Sophia Dowell, I’m an undergraduate chemistry student from the University of Surrey.  I have been working at the British Geological Survey for just over a year, joining the Inorganic Geochemistry team in Keyworth, Nottinghamshire as an industrial placement student in July 2017. The majority of my work whilst here has been focused around the operation of the Agilent 8900 triple quadrupole Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) under the supervision of Elliott Hamilton. ICP-MS is used for simultaneous multi element analysis, on a wide variety of sample matrix's from ground waters through to urines and bloods. I have been working on this instrument independently since March, and now have a much better understanding of both the operation and principles. As part of my work, I have also learned how to conduct key laboratory tests, such as determining soil pH and the Unified Barge Method (UBM) analysis for looking at elemental bioaccessibility. Now that my year is coming to an end at the BGS, I have started to train Nicholas Porter who is also a University of Surrey, industrial placement student. I am training Nicholas the basics and passing on my knowledge, so that he can continue my work within the ICP-MS laboratories.

Alongside my work within the lab, I undertook a short research project looking at dust-to-crop transfer of chromium in Zambia. This links directly with Elliott’s PhD work and follows on from both Emily Leader and Lee Evans who were past placement students from the University of Surrey. Chromium (Cr) exists naturally in the environment as both trivalent (Cr (III)) and hexavalent (Cr (VI)) forms. Trivalent chromium is essential for animal well-being and is considered to be vital for insulin regulation and glucose metabolism inside the body. On the other hand hexavalent chromium is classified as a Group A human carcinogen with the respiratory tract being the main target organ for Cr(VI) following inhalation. Although chromium can enter the environment through natural processes the origin of Cr(VI) in the environment is largely anthropogenic.

SEM images with dust on the washed pumpkin leaves
The study used dusts created from the Zambian soils Elliott collected whilst on fieldwork (Elliott Hamilton’s blog) in a glasshouse study at the University of Nottingham’s Sutton Bonington campus. Pumpkin leaves were grown over a period of 3 weeks before the Zambian dust was applied to the leaves. After 4 days the leaves were harvested and brought back to BGS for analysis. The leaves were digested and analysed using ICP-MS and it was found that the chromium concentration in the leaves exposed to the dusts was elevated in comparison to the control leaves. It was later determined, with the help of Dr Lorraine Field, that this increased concentration in washed leaves was likely due to dust particles adhering to the leaf surfaces, rather than through absorption as shown by  scanning electron microscopy (SEM). The SEM images show dust on the washed leaves which was not visible to the human eye.

After I have completed my placement, I will be returning to the University of Surrey for the final year of my undergraduate chemistry degree. I hope to continue into a career in environmental chemistry research after my degree, pursuing a MSc in analytical chemistry or geochemistry. I have loved my time at BGS and in the Inorganic Geochemistry team and believe that the placement has helped me not only develop new laboratory skills that will make me more employable as a graduate, but it has also given me many positive memories of my time here!

Friday, 24 August 2018

Getting involved in 'stuff' outside your Robert Šakić Trogrlić

Robert together with other participants of the Young Water Leaders
Summit 2016 in Singapore Image source 
Hi, I'm Robert and I'm a 3rd year PhD student at Heriot-Watt University, researching the role of local knowledge in flood risk management in Malawi. I am jointly supervised by Heriot-Watt University (Dr Grant Wright, Prof Adebayo Adeloye), BGS (Dr Melanie Duncan) and Polytechnic Malawi (Dr Faidess Mwale), and funded through the Hydro Nation Scholars Programme by the Scottish Government. Throughout my PhD I have sought out a number of extracurricular activities.  They have helped me better understand my research topic, meet people from different fields and countries, and taken me across the world. These activities have, in different ways, helped enhance my understanding of my topic and helped me develop as an early career researcher.  By sharing my experiences, I hope to demonstrate to other PhD students how they could become involved in similar activities.

What was I doing and why?

When I was starting my PhD, the prospect of being dedicated to one single topic for 3-4 years of my life seemed a bit scary. No matter how much I felt passionate about my field of research (Disaster Risk Reduction), I was very keen on introducing more dynamics into my life as a PhD student. But keeping in mind that time is a valuable resource, I wanted to be involved in initiatives that are still related to my professional and academic interests.

That’s why I decided to become a volunteer with the Water Youth Network - WYN, a vibrant community of students and young professionals working as a global connector in the water sector. For the past two years, I have been a co-coordinator of the Disaster Risk Reduction working group within the WYN, and through my involvement in the WYN, I also had an opportunity to act as a Focal Point in the Science Policy Interface Disaster Risk Reduction team of the United Nations Major Group of Children and Youth.

The last two years were a joy, because I had a chance to be a part of different types of projects, from involvement in policy advocacy, organising capacity-building workshops to organisational strategic development. I got to work with unbelievably driven international community of young people working across disciplines on creating sustainable futures.

Where did it take me?

Literally, it took me places, gave me exposure and opportunity to take part in global conversations. I was involved in organising the Young Water Leaders’ Summit during the 2016 Singapore International Water Week; I was an invited speaker at the United Nations HABITAT III conference in Ecuador in 2016; I was a co-chair at the UNISDR’s Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in Mexico in 2017; I was a speaker at the ECOSOC Youth Forum at the UN Headquarters in New York City in 2018. And my favourite part –I was part of the organising team for the Pressure Cooker Event on Risk Communication during the 2018 Understanding Risk Forum in Mexico City. (Read Anna Hicks and Jim Whiteley's blog for more on this event).

Robert co-chairing a session on Disaster Risk Governance during the
Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Mexico 2017 Image source
How have all these activities benefited me and my research?

  • Exposure to interdisciplinary environments: If we are to solve global challenges, one-size-fits-all solutions are not the way forward, and sometimes very differing perspectives need to be integrated. This lesson has also benefited my PhD, because it directly influenced how I was approaching the problem I am addressing, by making my approach more interdisciplinary. One thing led to another, and now, as a trained engineer, I am doing a qualitative study for my PhD using social science methodologies.    
  • Networking and collaboration: Being part of a youth organisation gave me the opportunity to meet inspiring people, both young leaders and ‘legends’ in the field. It’s directly beneficial for my study, because I got a chance to discuss and receive feedback on my PhD from a variety of people. In addition, you never know what future collaborations might come out of your new network. For instance, during one of the events we were organising in the Netherlands, an idea emerged of jointly writing a journal paper with 9 other co-authors, which we later published in an academic journal.
  • Leaving your comfort zone: As PhD students, we are very often tied to a specific topic and we rarely get an opportunity to explore how our research can influence policy and practice. While being involved in different projects, I got not only the chance to learn new things about my field, but also to see explicit links between my research and some of the critical policy issues.  
  • Learning new skills: We are all aware of the challenges of the academic job markets and increased interest towards developing so called ‘transferrable’ skills. Getting involved in work outside our PhDs can really help us develop these skills. I was lucky to learn a lot about, for instance, working in and leading interdisciplinary and international teams, fund raising and strategic thinking.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

A visit from Freetown: Institutional strengthening of geoscience in Sierra Darren Jones

Tour of the labs given by Simon Chenery and
John Wheeler in Keyworth
Earlier this summer we had the privilege of welcoming visitors from the National Minerals Agency (NMA) and Petroleum Directorate (PD) of Sierra Leone. BGS has developed a strong partnership with these geoscience institutions since 2015 as part of a wider extractive support programme funded by the UK Department for International Development. This project has involved various BGS staff across multiple directorates over the last few years.

The trip began with a visit to BGS HQ in Keyworth, meeting our very own John Ludden who gave our visitors a great introduction to BGS, our strategy and current governance model. Following this Simon Chenery gave them a comprehensive tour of the Keyworth lab facilities from thin section prep through to the state-of-the-art equipment used across our projects.   The NMA in particular took inspiration from this as they are currently in the process of setting up a laboratory with help and advice from the BGS. No trip to Keyworth is complete without a visit to the impressive core store; Scott Renshaw provided a tour, of which I am sure, impressed our visitors.

Discussion of Mam Tor Landslide with Pete Hobbs
John Ford, Pete Hobbs and Leanne Hughes delivered an excellent day of field training in the Peak District demonstrating the use of digital geological mapping program SIGMA. We also visited the Mam Tor landslide that was of significant interest following the landslide disaster in Freetown last year. Following this, our guests were treated to some of the UK’s finest geology on a sunny day along the Yorkshire coastline, visiting classic Jurassic outcrops at Robin Hoods Bay and the Cretaceous chalk cliffs of Flamborough Head.

The trip concluded with a visit to Hull, with a special invitation to the Guildhall by the Mayor and the Freetown Society of Hull. Hull and Freetown share a historical link and are established twinned cities, so this visit was a great opportunity to share experience and celebrate their partnership. Dr Liam Herringshaw also showed us around the geology department at the University of Hull.

I would like to extend my gratitude to all of you who have been involved in organising this tour and/or worked on the project. I am sure we all look forward to continue developing this partnership with both institutions into the future.

Twinned cities united as one. Meeting of the Freetown Society
of Hull, the Mayor of Hull, Geology Department at University
of Hull, BGS and our Sierra Leone visitors

Monday, 20 August 2018

The latest BGS Innovation Bootcamp – geology and Katy Lee

Katy Lee leads the Hazard & Resilience Modelling Team at BGS, focusing on the development of BGS data products and innovations. In our latest GeoBlogy she tells us about the recent BGS Innovation Bootcamp on geology and heritage. 

Who was involved?

The BGS and Historic England (HE) have been developing joint research ideas at an ‘innovation boot camp’, held at BGS in July.

Researchers from Historic England’s Strategic Research and Partnerships Team and BGS Hazard & Resilience Modelling (HARM) Team came together to discuss new research collaborations and innovative ideas.

Part of the HARM Team’s strategy is to focus on:
  • Co-development: Explore and develop methodologies with the aim to provide and develop new and pre-existing products and innovative services.
  • Research: Ever-changing research developments result in constantly evolving outputs that product development can draw upon. For example, scientific research, developments in data analytical techniques (particularly fast-moving currently), Commissioned Research for specific users can potentially be scaled up to provide data from the broader community or even into other market sectors, and the development/release of new datasets both internally and externally.
  • Funding opportunities: All development requires funding from either National Capability or other sources and we look to bring in additional income to support our product development activities.

The bootcamp provided an ideal opportunity to explore some aspects of these aims and aspirations.

Some of the team had already had ‘bootcamp’ training last year, provided by no-nonsense innovation company ‘Nonon’, which was a great success so we were able to draw on this experience and some of the techniques for this current event. 

From L-R: Using a lean business canvas ensures we consider all factors, needs and users; Brainstorming in an innovative

What did we talk about?

We had initially discussed multiple different project or topic ideas and, in preparation for the bootcamp, had narrowed it down to 7, ranging from: coastal change impacts to factors controlling rates of organic decay/preservation of historic artefacts.

On the day, we focussed in on 4 main topics: using historic mining ponds in upland regions for Natural Flood Management; 3D borehole data interpretations for the Anthropocene and Holocene; multihazard impacts on historic assets; and Coastal vulnerability.

What did the day involve?

We used tools and techniques for developing lean business models, stakeholder analysis, and personas. This enabled us to identify research themes that we could take forward and investigate in more detail. After a short introduction, the day soon swung into action and everyone became very busy. Initial discussions soon developed into fledgling ideas and then a little more information could be added. Lots of post-it notes and whiteboard doodles were employed throughout the day. We also had a brilliant team of ‘artists in residence’ to help communicate ideas through drawings and sketches.

What were the results?

At the end of the day, each team presented their idea in a 5-minute elevator-pitch and a group vote decided that the 3D deposits/borehole interpretation idea was the winner! This idea will be taken forward by BGS and HE and developed into a feasibility project. Congratulations not only go to the 3D deposits team but also to everyone who took part, it was a fantastic day with much success and lots of ideas that we can now build on. Well done everyone.

From L-R: More coffee!...finalising the idea; Heritage and hazards: one of the sketches used to 'pitch' the idea

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Investigating natural and human impact on Eastern Australia wetlands…by Melanie Leng

Nick, Mel and Jamie at the currently dry Coalstoun lakes.
For 3 years Melanie Leng has been working with researchers from the University of Adelaide and University of Queensland on understanding natural and human impacts on sensitive wetlands along the eastern Australia coastline. With the team from Adelaide, Mel has previously helped develop climate records from the leaves of the paperbark trees that are preserved in North Stradbroke Island lakes. Here Mel tells us about a recent repeat visit to eastern Australia…

The impact of recent climate change and humans on sensitive ecosystems in Australia is a hot topic. I have teamed up with researchers from the University of Adelaide and University of Queensland to combine our expertise to try and solve some of these questions. In August, I first went with researchers from University of Queensland to the Coalstoun Lakes area, North of Brisbane. The Coalstoun lakes formed within old volcanic craters which last erupted 600,000 years ago (yet they are still amongst the youngest volcanoes in Australia). There is still evidence of the basalt lava around the craters. The track up the side of the dormant volcano runs through prickly shrubs and thicket, and the lakes area is a refuge for many birds (being surrounded by agricultural land). The forest around the crater comprises bottle trees, ash and tea-trees. Interestingly the two crater lakes were dry when we visited in August (dry/mid-winter), which is an unusual occurrence and may be an indicator that the lakes are at a critical point in their evolution (i.e. filling up with sediment) during a particular dry spell. We have taken cores of sediment through the lakebeds and plan to reconstruct past climates, and hope to better understand the causes of long-term variability of water availability in eastern Australia. This will help understand drought risk, critical for the sustainability of agriculture, the security of urban water supplies (especially for the greater Brisbane metropolitan area) and for power generation. In addition, through improved understanding of the long-term ecological dynamics and human impacts at Coalstoun Lakes, this study will also generate improved management outcomes for Coalstoun Lakes National Park. This research is being led by PhD student Nick Patton who is based at University of Queensland but with supervisors at University of Nottingham and the British Geological Survey. Look out for Nick’s future blogs!

Blue Lake on North Stradbroke Island.
I then went back to Brisbane and took the ferry to North Stradbroke Island to meet with colleagues from the University of Adelaide. We visited Blue Lake (so called because the water quality reflects the sapphire colour of the amazingly clear blue skies). Blue Lake is thought to be untouched by human impact (due to its connection to a deep and extensive aquifer under the island). The theory being that Blue Lake sediments should provide information on centennial and millennial changes in the sources of rainfall over the eastern Australian continent. Ultimately, we need to understand where and when the aquifer was filled and current recharge rates in order to protect the ecology of the island and monitor human impact. This research is being led by Charlie Maxson who is a joint PhD student between the University of Adelaide, the University of Nottingham and the British Geological Survey. Look out for Charlie’s future blogs!

Thanks to Prof Jamie Shulmeister and Nick Patton (both University of Queensland), and Associate Prof John Tibby, Dr Cameron Barr, Dr Jonathan Tyler and PhD students Haidee Cadd and Charlie Maxson (all University of Adelaide), as well as staff from the Queensland Department of Science, Information, Technology and Innovation for their collaboration.

From L-R: Koala on North Stradbroke Island; A rare Barking Owl in Coalstoun Lakes National Park.
Melanie Leng is the Director of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the BGS and University of Nottingham. Follow Mel on twitter @MelJLeng.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Working with elephants: ice breakers, interviews and interpreting Fiona Sach

I have just returned from a brilliant three week trip to Southern Africa, to present at the 34th International conference of the Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health (SEGH). The conference was held in Livingstone, Zambia on the theme of ‘Geochemistry for Sustainable development'. (See Michael Watt's blog for more information on the conference). It was followed by a quick trip to South Africa to collect elephant tail hair and faecal samples (see my earlier blog) to be brought back to the UK for preparation and multi-element analysis at BGS.

During the conference icebreaker at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, I was invited to give an interview to the Zambian Times, explaining about my PhD research and the application that results from my research may have in the future, to aid in human-elephant conflict resolution. The following day, it was extremely exciting to see the conference featured within their newspaper and on local television.

At the conference I presented some initial data from recently conducted fieldwork showing how the phosphorus levels in the soil at the mine site are significantly higher than that sampled in the surrounding areas outside of the mine site. This supports the working hypothesis of the project, that African elephants (Loxodonta Africana) are being drawn towards a mining area just outside the Kruger National Park in South Africa, due to the unique geochemistry of the area. Previous studies have suggested that the soil in areas surrounding the mine, and associated plant samples may be low in minerals such as phosphorus, causing a deficiency in the plants, and driving the elephants to seek these minerals elsewhere. It is therefore thought that the elephants may be drawn towards to the mining area due to the mineral provision in the plants, soil and water. Unfortunately, elephant incursion into the mine and nearby human settlements has resulted in human-elephant conflict, causing risk of injury and loss of income. It is hoped that the results of the project may help to inform key locations in the elephants’ home range where mineral-supplemented forage or mineral licks may be placed to reduce the drive to seek additional sources of minerals, thereby reducing human-elephant conflict.

Mineral and potentially toxic element (PTE) levels will be compared within and between elephant tail hair, blood, faecal and toenail samples, from elephants at the mine site and elephants within the wider national park. These tail hair samples from fifty animals from across the whole of the Kruger National Park, collected opportunistically over the last 10 years and stored within the SANParks Biobank, will contribute hugely towards calculating the baseline mineral and PTE levels in the species and help identify any key differences to the elephants living around the mine site. I am very excited to start working on analysing these tail hairs and beginning to interpret the data, especially as mineral levels in elephants has not previously been examined in matrices such as tail hair and toenails. Tail hair and toenails are potentially easier to collect and store in the field than blood and could offer a practical solution to assessing mineral status in the animal, both free-living and within captivity.

Method validation was made possible for this study by using samples from 20 elephants housed at 5 UK zoos. The zoos kindly donated a multitude of samples from their elephants and the environments in which they live, to enable identification of the optimum matrix for reflecting mineral profile in the species. The zoos in turn will benefit from knowledge exchange and will be able to see how mineral status in captive animals compares to wild counterparts. This may enable identification of any potential mineral deficiencies and enhance captive health and welfare.

I would like to thank the SANParks Biobank and South African National Parks Authorities (SANParks) for contributing samples to this work, and for hosting me at their lab in Skukuza to prepare the bio samples for transport to the UK. 


Friday, 10 August 2018

34th SEGH International Conference on Geochemistry for Sustainable Michael Watts

Michael Watts provides an insight into the 34th SEGH International Conference on Geochemistry for Sustainable Development that he recently attended at the Avani Victoria Falls Resort, Livingstone, Zambia from 2nd to 7th July 2018.

Delegates attending the annual Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health (SEGH) conference were treated to a spectacular conference venue alongside the Zambezi and Victoria Falls in Zambia. Thankfully we were treated to an engaging and varied programme of 45 oral presentations and 46 poster presentations to avoid VicFalls becoming a distraction to the 100+ delegates from all over the world during the scientific programme, with the following themes:
  1. Industrial and Urban Development
  2. Agriculture
  3. Health
  4. Technologies
Whilst we had specialist presentations within each theme from the impact of mining to highly focussed talks about laboratory methods and mechanisms for nutrient/pollutant pathways, delegates also had a very healthy debate about corporate and social responsibility (CSR) for mining. Discussions were also had on ethics in science, with an audience participation talk from Kate Millar-University of Nottingham to round off the conference. In addition, presenters discussed activities where environmental sciences crossover with human and animal health. Presentations covered possible links between geochemistry and cancer from IARC-WHO, use of data for hazard-risk assessment criteria for contaminated soils and air pollution to implications for nutrient deficiencies and exposure to potentially harmful elements effecting wildlife.  Implications for food production and food safety were discussed due to fertiliser overuse, urban development, pollution and with an ever increasing theme on fisheries, in particular the value of aquaculture to provide food/nutrient sufficiency, but also implications for antimicrobial resistance in fish (AMR). Conservation Agriculture to promote crop resilience and improve their micronutrient content. Laboratory method/technology development, with applications on improving the understanding of mechanistic pathways for pollutants or nutrients were discussed using isotope tracers and/or elemental speciation, along with organic pollutants, biomarkers for ecological and human health monitoring.  Overall, each session was well attended throughout.

Poster presentations

Poster presentations were run across two evenings with social events, preceded by 90-second flash presentations, which generated a great deal of amusement with the delegates, given the competitiveness of the presenters to beat the clock – otherwise the audience would applaud at 90-seconds. This approach was certainly a big factor in helping to generate a relaxed atmosphere at the conference and encourage interaction between disciplines and levels of experience.  This made for two vibrant poster sessions giving the presenters the much deserved attention and recognition posters require, where often valuable nuggets of scientific progress are to be found at conferences.

Training Day

Many thanks to the volunteers who provided the training workshops on day 4 following on from three days of presentations.  The morning began with parallel sessions on an Introduction to QGIS given by Dr Daniel Middleton (IARC-WHO) alongside ‘Embedding Ethics in Experimental Design in Geochemistry Research’ by Dr Kate Millar (University of Nottingham), followed by ‘Reviewing manuscripts and getting published’ by Professor Jane Entwistle (Northumbria University).  The afternoon followed with an ‘Introduction to R’ by Professor Murray Lark (University of Nottingham) in parallel with ‘Epidemiologic study design and interpretation’ by Dr Valerie McCormack and Dr Joachim Schuz (IARC-WHO).  Given that the courses followed the conference programme and BOMA dinner, they were well attended with 18-20 in each of the technical courses and 11-16 in each of the vocational courses, with >50% of the participants from Africa.  Another blog will follow on the SEGH website to describe further outcomes from the training courses and how we will link these into the setting up of an Early Career Researchers group – more on this later.


Prizes were awarded to Elliott Hamilton (British Geological Survey) and Lin Peng (Cancer Hospital of Shantou University Medical College) for best Oral presentations and to Nswana Kafwamfwa (Zambia Agriculture Research Institute-ZARI) and Mumba Mwape (ZARI) for best Poster presentations.  Springer-Nature Publications provided book vouchers for 2 x $250 for Oral presentations and 2 x $150 for Poster presentations.

Social programme

The evening before the conference presentations started we held an ice-breaker at the Royal Livingstone Hotel alongside the Zambezi.  A stunning setting to relax delegates and get them mixing with one another.  Local media were present, with an article about the conference and SEGH appearing on page 2 of the Zambia Times the next day and interviews with delegates shown on local TV the following night – see @SocEGH Twitter for newspaper article #SEGH2018.

Days 1 & 2 were rounded off by the poster sessions, with food and drinks, leading up to the BOMA-conference dinner next to the Zambezi, some 100m upstream of Victoria Falls.  The food provided something for everyone, with a delicious braai accompanied by a local performing traditional dance and music, which gradually swept up even the most self-conscious people to dance the night away.  The willingness of everyone to let their hair down and have fun was quite something, truly down to the warmth and fun you find in Africa.

The fieldtrip incorporated a trip to a cultural village centre which I have to admit I didn’t attend, but I heard that it was an enriching visit to understand some of the local culture and to be welcomed into people’s homes – perhaps others can explain.  However, I did make the finale of the fieldtrip, the sunset cruise on the Zambezi.  This was a fantastic way to round off the conference with a gentle trip upstream along the Zambezi attempting to spot wildlife on the banks with nice food and drinks, which of course led to more music and dancing on the boat.  Many people continued their travels connecting with friends and family to make a holiday of the visit to the Victoria Falls region for wildlife viewing or crazy activities like bungee jumping or rafting the Zambezi.

SEGH Business

Whilst a lot of new connections were made and old cemented during the conference, SEGH also had a number of key tasks to perform for its future structure.  Most of all, that included restructuring the international board to have four representatives from each of the European, Americas, Asia/Pacific regions and to set up a new section in Africa to fill a gap in multidisciplinary communities.  Nominations will be called for shortly, with elections soon after.  We will ask for greater contributions from members to drive the society forward, this could be ad hoc for information gathering or if members want to participate on the advisory council or through the Early Career Researchers (ECR) group.  SEGH2018 was a big step in setting up the ECR, for which Jane Entwistle set out future plans to develop a programme of mentorship, training opportunities and interaction over a three year supported period whereby ECR members will be connected with appropriate SEGH members.  We have an initial grouping of 25 ECR’s from SEGH2018 to develop the programme, which will become available to others to balance the demographics as we establish the programme.  We also see this grouping as a test bed and for generating new ideas to develop SEGH, improving communication with social media and hopefully for succession management to run SEGH in the future.  ECR’s will have an opportunity to develop through to a Fellowship status for SEGH (FSEGH), as will senior researchers who have been engaged with SEGH for a number of years.  Jane Entwistle will follow up with more information on this later.

SEGH Journal

We reported that the impact factor for the SEGH journal, Environmental Geochemistry and Health (EGAH) increased again this year to 2.99, continuing its success as a home for multidisciplinary science.  Members can access the journal through the log-in button on the front page of Delegates, please remember we have a special issue in EGAH for the conference.  Please indicate your interest by the 20th August.  We will aim for a submission date of 12th October.


Many thanks to the people who helped to bring together the conference – there were many!  We had a lot of encouraging words about the conference, please do post any comments on Twitter.  In particular, many thanks to the sponsors who helped in keeping the social programme inclusive for all delegates – Agilent Technologies, First Quantum, Trace2O-Wagtech, Retsch, Spectro-Ametek and Chemetrix.


We look forward to a strong programme of conferences next year, with SEGH 2019 moving to Manchester in the UK, SEGH involvement in ISEGH in China, China-Ireland Cooperation in Galway-Ireland and we hope to run some smaller 1-2 day meetings in Africa and elsewhere to maintain engagement with members – if you have some ideas, do let us know.  Keep in touch with SEGH events through the website and do offer your scientific updates, comments or stories to and through @SocEGH on twitter and upcoming pages on Facebook.  We will post an updated version of the SEGH2018 conference abstract book in a week or so to account for the last minute changes to the programme – see

Michael Watts is Head of Inorganic Geochemistry at the University of Nottingham - British Geological Survey Centre for Environmental Geochemistry.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Scientists are people too: mentoring with the Social Mobility Coleen Murty

Coleen Murty is a PhD student funded through the BGS University Funding Initiative (BUFI) who has been taking part in the Social Mobility Foundation mentoring scheme. Many BUFI students are involved with activities outside their research such as volunteering and outreach programmes, making them much more rounded and contributing further to their personal development skills. Being a world leading geological survey, the BGS is dedicated to working for the benefit of society and thus, improving the social mobility of young people wishing to pursue a career in environmental sciences is highly relevant to what they do. 

The UK has one of the lowest social mobility indexes and highest inequality in the developed world. A low ability child from a high income family is 35% more likely to be a high earner than a high ability child from a low income family. Today employers focus on past academic ability/polish rather than potential, and gender/ethnicity rather than socio-economic background.

The Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) are a charity which aims to make a practical improvement in social mobility for high-achieving young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Every year the SMF supports over 1500 year 12/S5 students across the UK, who have the ability to flourish at top universities and professions but lack the encouragement and networks to help them get there. This is my main reason for becoming a mentor with the charity in April 2018 and is the first time I’ve ever been part of such a rewarding and influential scheme that makes a positive difference to young people’s lives all over the UK. In addition to the mentoring scheme, the SMF offers other services as part of their programme such as helping students get industrial work placements etc.

Being a mentor allows me to share the knowledge and experiences I’ve had specialising in a science-based discipline and encourage future generations to pursue their chosen career path. This not only improves the skills, knowledge and confidence of a bright young person, it also allows me to develop my communication and feedback skills.  Mentoring gives you the opportunity for self-reflection, looking at how you got to where you are and what you’ve learned.

The process of mentoring generally involves providing an insight into a professional career which the student aspires to enter as you are likely to be the only person/one of the few people they’ve ever met in the sector and thus, your role as a mentor is invaluable to them. The SMF pair you with your mentee based on your profession and career sector they wish to enter.  The mentoring cycle runs for one year and mainly consists of communicating through email and possible meetings if your mentee is based in the same city (which isn’t always the case). As a mentor you can use different approaches to help your mentee reach their goals; this could be anything from providing insights of university life, giving advice on applications, personal statements or subject-specific guidance etc. Being based in Newcastle, all my e-mentoring work takes place here however the charity provides options to attend local/national meet ups where you can meet your mentee. The flexible mentoring approach allows email communications with your mentee to be as often as weekly or fortnightly, however the charity do prefer if this is at least once every fortnight so the mentee can really benefit from continual guidance and encouragement.

Overall, I highly recommend this scheme, it’s just one of the many support services offered by the SMF to help these school students in every way they can, plus it’s great to be involved with something out with the research as it can get isolating at times! The charity also provide support to mentors as we aren’t expected to know everything! So even if you’re not sure how to answer a question or provide guidance on personal statements (as it was a long time ago – I know mine was!), there is always someone there for advice in case its needed.

If you would like to know more about the Social Mobility Foundation, visit their website. There are many ways to get involved including: mentoring, providing work placements, offering venues and speakers for events etc. The charity are currently active in; Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, Manchester and London. However, they are working on regional expansion to reach students and professionals in areas with high social mobility issues.

To sign up for the next mentoring cycle with the Social Mobility Foundation then just click here.

Coleen Murty is supervised by Dr Christopher Vane (BGS) and Dr Geoff Abbott (Newcastle University). The aim of BUFI is to encourage and fund science at the PhD level. Currently the BGS supports over 100 PhD students based around 35 UK universities and research institutes. 

Friday, 3 August 2018

An in-depth look at rare earth elements from Victoria Honour

Victoria on fieldwork in Romania
I was lucky enough to work with the BGS for the research component of my MSc in Mining Geology at the Camborne School of Mines. After a whirlwind fortnight of fieldwork in north-east Romania (see my previous blog) I started looking at the rocks we collected in much greater detail than the naked eye allows. Through a combination of microscopy and geochemistry, my project aimed to provide an overview of rare earth element (REE) mineralisation from both a magmatic and hydrothermal perspective.

Rare earth elements are vital to many of today’s technologies, from electronics to green technologies; markets such as wind turbines, light technologies, hybrid and electric cars are all forecasting rapid growth in the coming years and so REE demand will rise. Ironically, REEs are not rare, their abundances in the crust are comparable to elements such as copper and bismuth. The name merely surmises the difficulties chemists first had in separating the elements from each other, and this still presents challenges for the minerals extractive industry today.

REE production and supply is dominated by China. In 2017 they supplied 95% of the world's REE. There is a global drive to reduce reliance on China for REE and the EU is providing encouragement for a domestic REE industry. 

One such, lesser known, European rare earth element deposit is where my project was focused: the igneous Ditrău Complex in Romania. It is an intrusion of magma within the earth’s crust (ca. 19 km diameter), which solidified over 200 million years ago. What makes it interesting to economic geologists is a series of carbonate veins, 1-2 m wide, enriched in REE. There are also occurrences of niobium and molybdenum within the intrusion.

Since finishing my MSc I’ve started my PhD, so writing everything up into a paper had to take a bit of backseat, but finally… our paper on the Ditrău Complex has been published! Below is a little summary of our main findings from the open access (!) paper, so if you're interested, you can read the paper in full here.

From fieldwork observations we began to see that the intrusion had been emplaced in a broadly horizontal magma chamber, which had subsequently been tilted towards the east during a large-scale mountain building event (the Variscan orogeny). The tilting meant that on fieldwork, we had a fantastic transect across the range of crystallised rocks: from the most mafic (low SiO2 contents) in the north-west to the most evolved (high SiO2) in the east. The south east of the area was really interesting: the rocks were highly altered and through a combination of field observations and geochemistry, we identified this as the roof zone of the solidified magma chamber.

This turned out to be an important observation; from previous work, the Ditrău Complex is known to have had co-existing magma and fluid phases, i.e. a hydrothermal system developed during the latter stages of crystallisation. In our geochemical results and petrography, we saw evidence of this fluid using mafic dykes as pathways, or chimneys, up through the crystallising mush, leaving a characteristic geochemical and
petrological ‘fingerprint’ of alteration. These fluids leached a range of economically interesting elements from the rocks they passed through. Ultimately, the buoyant fluids reached the top of the intrusion (the roof zone) and were deposited along fractures in the rock, plausibly due to pressure decreases. These fractures are rich in minerals such as zircon and pyrochlore. In this area of the Ditrău Complex, the most common rock we picked up on fieldwork was dusty white with a spider web of criss-crossing red fractures.

The major REE mineralisation is hosted in carbonate-rich veins that crosscut the Ditrău Complex. We wanted to establish if these veins were crystallised from the same fluid that altered the roof zone of the complex. To do this we looked at the chemistry of a particular mineral: apatite. This is a great mineral, apart from being what your teeth are made out of, it is distributed throughout the Ditrău Complex so we could use the apatite crystals to establish if they crystallised from liquids of different compositions. Crucially, these REE-rich carbonate veins are compositionally distinct from the other rocks, including the altered roof zone. So the complex had a late-stage REE- and carbonate-rich fluid that cut through the crystal mush. The source could be a later carbonatite emplaced below the complex, but this hypothesis needs to be further explored. If you’re curious about what carbonatite looks like, Ol Doinyo Lengai, "Mountain of God" in the Maasai language, is the only place on earth erupting a carbonate magma today.

This work was funded by the EURARE project, which aimed to set the basis for a European REE industry. Work on the samples collected from the Ditrău Complex is continuing, and part of this work hopes to characterise the different ages of areas of economic interest.