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.