Sampling on the Skerne: highlights of an ENVISION research Pyar Pandit

Dan Martin-Mallin and I preparing the samples with some curious onlookers!
When I sent off my application for an ENVISION research placement at BGS, I didn’t think I would be using liquid nitrogen, running a mass spectrometer, going out in the field to collect my own samples and I certainly didn’t think I would get accepted, but fortunately here I am, writing my first blog about my time at BGS and what an amazing experience it has been! My name is Pyar Pandit, and I’m a 1st year undergraduate chemistry student from the University of Nottingham. I have been working at BGS for about 8 weeks now on the Skerne project, under the supervision of Dr Barbara Palumbo-Roe and Dr Angela Lamb, aiming to determine the origins of high sulphate in stream waters in north-east England.

If you were to ask me to sum up everything I did within those 8 weeks in just a few sentences I simply couldn’t since every week I ended up working on a different aspect of the project in a different location. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I first started working here and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a bit nervous, but I quickly settled down thanks to the help of my supervisors and colleagues and was ready to tackle any challenge that came my way. The first week largely comprised of desk work in the James Hutton building, which involved managing past records of borehole data from the target region and reading through several articles for me to get me to grips with the basics of geology, the latter being very interesting since I had no prior knowledge regarding this subject. I was also taught how to use a HACH colorimeter to test for sulphate concentration and how to take field readings and calibrate all the field probes.  

The aftermath of the flooding
Soon after, I was sent on my first field expedition to a town in County Durham called Darlington to collect water, rock and soil samples for analysis back in the Stable Isotope Facility. As we arrived at the first site, a large quarry, we soon realised that a huge storm had hit the area and had flooded large parts of the River Skerne. Later that day we also travelled to the main site on which we would be working on (a small farm which the river passed through) to assess the situation, and to our surprise, a few piezometers with data loggers that had previously been installed had been damaged due to the intense flooding. Although this was a setback to the project, we were able to recover most of the data loggers and made quick work of meeting our primary objectives for that expedition. I was able to observe how a typical groundwater field expedition was carried out and taught how to auger (ranging from a depth of 0 - 1.75 metres) and sample the material we collected. Furthermore, I was also given more insight into the geology of the area and what it could tell us about the different processes occurring such as surface water and groundwater interaction in the river or predict where areas of acid mine drainage could be happening, leading to an influx of sulphate. The next day we travelled to 3 different sites and collected surface water samples whilst taking measurements of the field parameters, followed by a collection of 28 groundwater samples from various borehole sites across Darlington in collaboration with the Environment Agency.          

A couple of weeks later, I was part of another expedition at the same location in which we collected groundwater and porewater samples at different depths alongside constant monitoring of the field parameters. Aside from some curious cows, field probes that refused to stabilise, and a terrible case of hay fever, fieldwork was definitely one of the more exciting parts of the placement and it was quite satisfying to be able to help collect the samples that I would be analysing back in the lab. Even though it could get quite challenging at times, the trip to the pub for food every night definitely made up for it.

With the samples safely collected and stored, I was sent to the Stable Isotope Facility to process and analyse them for their sulphur isotope composition (a method that can help to determine the origin of the sulphate). I was looking forward to this part of my placement the most as it would involve improving my skills as a chemist. As soon as I put on a lab coat and a pair of nitrile gloves I felt right at home and soon began processing the samples. I was taught several experimental techniques by Dr Angela Lamb and Dr Andrew Smith to help support me to prepare the water samples for mass spectrometry. Before using the mass spectrometers, I was taught how to weigh out my samples (between 0.6-0.7 milligrams), a tedious process which could either be quite relaxing or incredibly frustrating depending on how the day was going. I then loaded my samples onto the mass spectrometer and learned how to analyse the data it produced. This gave me an insight into normalization procedures and reference material selection, all being extremely fascinating and hopefully giving me a head start with analytical chemistry next year!  

As part of my time in the labs, I was given a tour of all the stable isotope labs which was very useful as I gained insight into different types of mass spectrometers. I also had the opportunity to carry out a small project - analysing carbonate samples for carbon and oxygen isotopes from a sediment core taken from a Scottish Loch which had experienced periods of sea water inflow. The aim of the project was to generate an accurate depiction of how the water chemistry in the loch developed overtime. This project further helped to demonstrate the importance of isotope analysis and was a great change of pace to the usual lab work. 

These past 8 weeks have truly been an amazing experience and I’m incredibly grateful for being offered a research placement here. This placement had a huge impact on my life as living on my own, working with new people, tackling difficult challenges and delving into a new field of research has allowed me to reflect on myself, develop my independence and gain a better understanding of which direction I want to lead my career into. I have also developed a new-found respect for geology, geochemistry and the importance of isotopes and look forward to working with these areas a lot more in the future. I would like to thank everyone who helped me out throughout these 8 weeks and really appreciate the patience they had with me.

Pyar Pandit is currently starting his 2nd year of an undergraduate chemistry degree at the University of Nottingham