Monday, 30 October 2017

Ghosts, witches and zombies: 'terra'-fying tales from Northern Kirstin Lemon

The island of Ireland is known for its ghost stories, with every nook and cranny of the island having a tale or two to tell. Halloween is one of our favourite times of year; a great excuse to dress up, have a bit of fun and generally make fools out of ourselves. It is known for its Celtic origins, being synonymous with the festival of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win), marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. It was a time when cattle were brought in for the winter, livestock were slaughtered and bonfires were lit to fend off evil spirits. It was also said to be a time when the boundary between this world and the 'otherworld' were blurred so the souls of the dead could come back for a visit.

In Northern Ireland, there are a huge amount of spooky stories, many of which have been passed down from generation to generation. Over the years they will have been exaggerated and added to, all with the intention of scaring the life out of everyone listening, and there is no better night to tell these than on Halloween. Many of the stories have their origins in the diverse landscapes of Northern Ireland, and in some cases these were a way of helping to understand geological processes before science had helped to provide the answer. Here's just a few of the best ones and please let us know if you can think of any more.

1. Benaughlin

View of the Cuilcagh Mountains with Benaughlin in the front right.
Our first port of call is Benaughlin in Co. Fermanagh. Translated literally as 'peak of the speaking horse' this limestone hill is renowned locally for the legend of Donn Binn Maguire. Being one of the ancient Kings of Fermanagh, Donn Binn Maguire used to go hunting across his lands and on one particular evening he caught sight of a beautiful white stallion. After giving chase, Donn Binn Maguire found that he was completely lost, and before he knew it he had chased the horse into a cave, of which there were many in west Fermanagh. The horse had been a lure to the underworld of the fairies, known to most Irish people as 'the good folk', a strange kind of dangerous supernatural being that was not to be messed with. Donn Binn Maguire was held captive in the underworld where he became undead, being nether dead or alive, and was allowed to go back to the real world on certain nights of the year including Halloween, to bring back a human being for company. It is still a tradition for people to hang a branch of mountain ash above the door to ward off Donn Binn Maguire who may try and take away the prettiest girl, the best scholar or the strongest athlete. Thanks to the Lower Carboniferous limestone geology, there are hundreds of caves in Co. Fermanagh, many of which are steeped in superstition.

3. The White Lady

Located near the Co. Antrim town of Glenarm , the White Lady is a relict sea stack carved out of Cretaceous limestone (more commonly known as chalk) by the action of the sea. At one time, this sea stack would have been surrounded by the sea, but relative lowering of sea level has left it stranded and is one of many similar features including relict sea caves that can be seen all along this coast. The White Lady is so called because it resembles a female figure as you approach and it shares the same name as the ghost that supposedly haunts the nearby Ballygally Castle. Legend has it that the castle is haunted by Lady Isobel Shaw who leapt to her death from a window after her husband locked her in her room because she couldn't produce a male heir.

3. The Vanishing Lake

Looking into Loughareema. Image courtesy of Tourism NI.
Loughareema, or the Vanishing Lake, in Co. Antrim has been a source of puzzlement for decades. To scientists, Loughareema is regarded as one of Northern Ireland's most enigmatic geological sites. This ephemeral or temporary lake lives up to its title as the vanishing lake as it may be empty of water one day and be completely full the next. To most other people however, Loughareema is best known for its ghost stories. Local legend tells us of the drowning of a coach and horses in the 19th century as they tried to cross the lake when it was full. Bizarrely, a road had been built through the lake when it was empty so in the dead of night it was impossible to tell if water levels were high or low. It is said that on nights when the lake is full, a phantom ghost haunts the shoreline, and together with the prospect of the sight of a kelpie, or water-ghoul, Loughareema is not short of a story.

4. Calliagh Bera's Lake

Slieve Gullion in Co. Armagh is part of the Slieve Gullion Complex, made up of three distinct units of igneous rock that were intruded during the Palaeogene period. Slieve Gullion is made up of layers of igneous rock of varying chemistry which adds to the geological interest of the region. The complex geological history of this area on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has led to a diverse range of strategic landscapes that have been the location for many historical battles. They are also the source of many myths and legends including that of Calliagh Bera, a witch-like creature who took the form of an old woman or 'hag'. One of the best-known stories involves the most famous of all Irish legends, the giant Finn McCool. Finn McCool was said to be captivated by a beautiful young woman on Slieve Gullion called Calliagh Berra. She claimed to have lost her gold ring in the nearby lake and asked Finn to retrieve it for her. He searched for the ring and eventually found it, only to discover that Calliagh Berra had put a spell on the lake and that he had been transformed into a wizened old man. Finn’s men later found Calliagh Berra and managed to persuade her to change him back, but even though he returned to his former self, his hair remained grey. The lake on Slieve Gullion still bears the name of Calliagh Bera.

5. Lough Neagh

True colour satellite image of the north of the island of Ireland with
Lough Neagh visible in the centre of Northern Ireland
Lough Neagh is the largest lake by area in the UK and Ireland with five of the six counties of Northern Ireland having shores on the lake. The depression occupied by the lake formed during the Palaeogene period as a result of crustal stretching and thinning associated with the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is known as a pull-apart basin where subsidence generates space for the deposition of sediments. However, over the generations there have been many alternative theories as to how Lough Neagh formed. One such story includes a well that stood in the centre of the area where Lough Neagh is now found. The waters were supposed to be under the influence of the fairies and were looked after by a local witch. One day the witch forgot to close the gate through which the water flowed and it overflowed causing her to drown and the water that escaped gave rise to Lough Neagh. An alternative story is associated once again with Finn McCool who is said to have scooped up a chunk of earth too throw at his rival Scottish giant. The chunk of earth landed in the Irish Sea forming the Isle of Man, and the crater left behind is now Lough Neagh!

6. Fairy Wells

There are hundreds if not thousands of holy wells dotted across the island of Ireland. Most of these are natural springs, present in abundance due to the dominance of Carboniferous limestone geology. A great number of these springs were given links to Saints after Christianity reached Ireland, but prior to that, many of these would have had spiritual importance for pagan rituals, as water seemingly appeared from nowhere. A lot of these sites were said to be 'fairy wells' and were said to be the homes of fairies so were looked after for fear of angering the 'good people'. Around the edge of the Belfast hills there are records of an abundance of 'fairy wells' and many of these natural springs have now been covered over. There are however stories of strange goings-on including apparitions close to the site of where the 'fairy wells' were located. After all, if you mess with the fairies then you will live to regret it!  

Monday, 23 October 2017

Kick starting the new Red River Delta project in Vietnam…by Ginnie Panizzo

Ginnie sampling waters
Earlier this year, four members of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (Suzanne McGowan and Ginnie Panizzo; University of Nottingham with Chris Vane and Melanie Leng; BGS) travelled to Hanoi, Vietnam to meet their Vietnamese Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) collaborators on a new 3 year project. The project entitled “Assessing human impacts on the Red River system, Vietnam, to enable sustainable management” was awarded to  Suzanne McGowan (UK) and Do Thu Nga (VN) under the Newton Fund RCUK-NAFOSTED Research Partnership Call and includes a 10 strong research team. Here Ginnie tells us about the trip…
The Red River in Vietnam supports 20 million inhabitants, includes a major rice-growing region, the mega-city of Hanoi and a range of industries each of which have expanded in recent decades. The Red River Delta (RRD) delta area of the river is the agricultural heartland of the region and provides crucial ecosystem services, including the retention and removal of nutrients and pollutants for groundwater (drinking water) and marine resource protection, carbon processing and flood protection. With increasing upstream and downstream pressures on this resource, the aim of our research is to assess the current status of riverine physical parameters, ecology and pollution (e.g. nutrient loading, heavy metals) as a means to best mitigate against further impacts (e.g. climate change and the future expansion of Hanoi).

The team in Vietnam
Our trip began with meetings with the Directors of the different institutes of VAST. A tour of the VAST facilities was given and an introduction to other colleagues at the Institute who also have an active research interest in the RRD. On day two, we hit the field, how quick was that! Having gathered all of our research equipment the team set off to sample (for waters and sediments) the upstream reaches of the Red River and its tributaries (the rivers Da, Thao and Lo). Along the way we engaged with stakeholders including meteorological monitoring stations situated on the river banks. Our first overnight stop was Hoa Binh Reservoir on the Da river, where we were given a tour of the inside workings of the hydropower dam built in 1988. Until recently and during its peak capacity, this dam had the potential to provide most of Vietnam’s power. An impressive feat! However, the downstream implications of this intensive river management (reduced nutrient and sediment delivery) have been noticed and one of our work packages is to asses the rates of these changes via palaeolimnological techniques. The following day the team collected four sediment cores from the deepest reaches of the reservoir. This was quite a challenge given the size of the reservoir and involved reaching a depth of 80 m. Nevertheless, this was a great success and the team extruded the cores on site ready for storage and future analyses on biogenic silica content, organic stable isotopes, algal biomarkers and particle size analysis. The following days we travelled to the other tributaries of the Red River Delta (RRD), along the Thao and Lo rivers. Further cores were also collected from Thac Ba reservoir before returning to Hanoi. The final stages of our fieldtrip involved visiting the lowland regions of the RRD. Here the noticeable shift in land use was seen from Acacia, tea and rubber forestry (upstream) to one of lowland rice paddy fields and shrimp farms.

A total of 6 sites were visited from close to the mouth of the Day estuary to more upstream locations, south of Hanoi. Noticeable differences could be seen just in the colour of the waters as well as dissolved oxygen content, compared to sites upstream of Hanoi, indicating the impacts that intensive agricultural practices and pollution sources have had on the waters of the RRD.

Thac Ba reservoir
At the final meeting at the end of the visit some key decisions were made on future sampling and laboratory practices and procedures over the next two years of the project. The UK partners will be visiting Vietnam again in Spring 2018 to conduct the next wave of river sediment sampling, as part of our pollution impacts work package. Overall, we had a thoroughly enjoyable and exciting field campaign and we are in no doubt that this will lead to a very fruitful collaboration between the partners and future PhD students on the project.

Ginnie Panizzo is a Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham and Visiting Research Associate at the BGS.

Take a look at the Red River Project Facebook page.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Northern Ireland's Geodiversity Charter: safeguarding our rocks and Kirstin Lemon

The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI) has just launched Northern Ireland's Geodiversity Charter. Kirstin Lemon, a Team Leader at GSNI and co-author of the Charter tells us more.

What is a Geodiversity Charter?

A Geodiversity Charter is a guidance document that sets out a clear ambition to recognise geodiversity as a vital and integral part of the economy, environment heritage and future sustainable development. This is necessary to safeguard and manage geodiversity for both current and future generations.
The aim of a Geodiversity Charter is ultimately to better inform decision makers and support policy at a strategic level as well as encouraging stakeholders to work together and take a more holistic approach to conservation management of geodiversity. By raising the awareness of geodiversity at a variety of levels it will lead to better protection of geological heritage, and the ability to sustainably manage natural resources, so that the full range of economic, social, educational and environmental benefits can be realised.

Why does Northern Ireland need a Geodiversity Charter?

Northern Ireland for its size, is one of the most geologically diverse places on Earth and it is this geodiversity that has helped shape the fabric of our every day lives. Geodiversity has not only shaped our natural and built environment, but it influences our historical and cultural heritage, biodiversity, education, the economy and our health and well-being so it provides essential benefits for our society.
Geodiversity in Northern Ireland is often overlooked despite the fact that it is an integral part of our natural environment. As a result, it can be taken for granted and it is constantly under threat. By increasing the understanding of the true value of geodiversity in Northern Ireland, the economic, social, cultural and education benefits will be realised. By changing the attitude, it will be possible to achieve a better and more sustainable outcome for every person in Northern Ireland.

Is this the first Geodiversity Charter in the UK?

No, there are already Geodiversity Charters for Scotland and England. Scotland had the first Geodiversity Charter in the world which was published in 2012. It has been very successful in widening the appreciation of Scottish geodiversity and its impact on society, and now has over 60 signatories.

Who will benefit from the Geodiversity Charter?

Northern Ireland's Geodiversity Charter will benefit every citizen in Northern Ireland but specifically a number of key sectors have been targeted who will not only benefit from the Charter but can help to achieve some of the main objectives.
  • Individuals and Communities: Who can experience and enjoy the local landscape and geodiversity and appreciate its value and importance.
  • Landowners and Managers of NGOs: Who can take into account the geodiversity of the land that they manage, try to work in sympathy with natural processes and consider how geodiversity can be appreciated and understood.
  • Industry and Business Sector: Who can endeavour to ensure that new industry and business opportunities take geodiversity into consideration and strive to meet best practice standards.
  • Local Authorities and Public Agencies: Who can ensure that due consideration, management, enhancement and promotion of geodiversity are an integral part of decision-making.
  • Education: Who can share and promote the values and applications of Northern Ireland's geodiversity through teaching at all levels.
  • Academia and Research: Who can continue to develop the geodiversity framework of Northern Ireland including its wider values and applications.

What does the Geodiversity Charter mean for the future?

To date, there are over 20 organisations that support Northern Ireland's Geodiversity Charter. This collective voice will help to maintain and enhance our geodiversity and achieve the future vision of raising awareness, policy integration, enhanced conservation, and continued research. As the success of the Charter spreads, it is hoped that more organisation will add their support, which will help to achieve the overall objective of safeguarding and managing our geodiversity appropriately for current and future generations.

Northern Ireland's Geodiversity Charter was produced by Kirstin Lemon and Sam Roberson at the GSNI with financial assistance from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affair's Environment Fund (2016-2017). Funding was awarded under Theme 2: Promotion of health, well-being, resource efficiency and sustainable economic development, realising the full value of our environment.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Geoscience for Sustainable Futures... by Joel Gill

At the end of September, the British Geological Survey launched ‘Geoscience for Sustainable Futures’, at an evening reception at the Geological Society of London. The event gathered representatives from civil society, the private sector, government, and academia to hear about and discuss our ‘Official Development Assistance’ programme of collaborative research and capacity building.

The world faces many challenges that span the interface between Earth science and human activities. For example, ensuring access to sufficient and nutritious food, identifying and protecting water resources, developing sustainable cities, tackling energy poverty, understanding the impacts of environmental change, and increasing resilience to natural hazards. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to address these challenges. The 17 SDGs aim to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and ensure environmental sustainability.

Engagement of Earth sciences is critical in delivering these 17 goals around the world. Geoscience for Sustainable Futures will draw on our research expertise in natural resources, urban geoscience, and natural hazards to develop three platforms of research and capacity building, addressing multiple SDGs. This programme aims to enhance the lives and livelihoods of some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.
Research platforms will be characterised by a collaborative approach, working in partnership, especially in-country, with diverse sectors to deliver enhanced economic and social development. Platforms will contribute to improved understanding and management of natural resources (e.g., soils, energy, minerals and water), infrastructure, and urban environments, together with the strengthening of Earth science services, training, and skills.

Research Platform 1: Integrated Resource Management in Eastern Africa
Eastern Africa faces natural resource challenges due to exponential population growth, rapid urbanisation, and economic development. We aim to improve human welfare and future economic development by characterising resources in the context of a changing natural and social environment.
A key research theme is to understand the links between geology, soils, water and agriculture to help tackle micronutrient deficiencies (so called ‘hidden hunger’). Our hydrogeological expertise will investigate the diverse natural and anthropogenic stresses on groundwater resources, aiming to improve and ensure water security and quality. Research on the location, extent and characteristics of critical metal resources, essential for use in many technologies, will help to inform natural resource governance.
Agriculture in Tanzania (Public Domain)
Research Platform 2: Resilience of Asian Cities
Asian cities are exposed to multiple natural hazards and environmental stresses, rapid urbanisation, and significant uncertainty in their resilience to environmental change. We aim to improve their resilience by integrating geoscience knowledge in urban subsurface planning and decision-making, and urban-catchment science in India and south-east Asia.
Key research themes include using data informatics, sensor technologies, and modelling systems to improve integrated urban planning, identify new and economically viable uses of the subsurface and its resources, and avoid conflicting and potentially harmful subsurface uses. Research on the diverse stresses faced by cities and the sub-urban surroundings will help strengthen development of planned and resilient city networks.
Urban Development in Vietnam (Public Domain)
Research Platform 3: Global Geological Risk
Geological hazards (such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and landslides), and their associated risk and impacts, are of key concern to long-term economic growth. Understanding these dynamic processes, and using this information to improve disaster risk reduction, can increase the security and sustainability of development, and protect lives and livelihoods.

We aim to characterise complex, multi-hazard processes in Latin America and the Caribbean, eastern Africa, and Asia. A key research theme is to integrate citizen science, innovative technologies, and understanding of environmental processes, hazards and impacts to strengthen resilience.

Eruption of Montserrat (© NERC)
Follow our progress and get involved

We will be sharing further information and outputs from Geoscience for Sustainable Futures on our website and the BGS Global Twitter pages over the coming months and years. Whether you represent an organisation in one of the countries that we will be active in, are a UK-based academic or development practitioner interested in collaborating, or a member of the public interested in the application of geoscience to international development - we would be delighted to hear from you.

Discussing Integrated Resource Management in Eastern Africa at the launch of
Geoscience for Sustainable Futures.

Advance of the Agonic – what does this mean? Susan Macmillan

Global map showing declination from the World Magnetic Model at 2015.0
The agonic is a line on a global map along which the directions to true north and local magnetic north coincide. In other words it is where magnetic declination, sometimes simply referred to as magnetic variation, is zero. The global map shows declination from the World Magnetic Model at 2015.0. Shown in green is the agonic line. 

For the past 350 years in the UK and Ireland declination has been westerly (magnetic north west of true north) and the agonic line has been advancing from the east. In 2017 the agonic line arrived at East Anglia and Kent and is due to pass slowly over the British Isles during the next few years with declination becoming easterly behind it. Susan Macmillan of the Geomagnetism Team explains a little more.

Magnetic declination at mid-2017
At the BGS regional and global models of the Earth’s magnetic field are derived every year to keep accurate track of the slow changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. These models use data from observatories, satellites and repeat stations and are widely used for navigation and orientation. The map shows how declination currently varies across the UK and Ireland in more detail than the global map. Also shown are locations of ground-based observatories and repeat stations. The BGS run Lerwick (LER), Eskdalemuir (ESK) and Hartland (HAD) observatories and UK repeat station network and Met Éireann runs Valentia (VAL) and Irish repeat station network.

What is causing this gradual change in direction of magnetic north?

The Earth’s magnetic field is sustained by a dynamo process in the liquid outer core of the Earth. Interactions between the flow of the molten iron-rich material in this region and the magnetic field generate electrical current that, in turn, creates new magnetic field which sustains the field. Energy sources for the fluid motions are primarily convection - as the Earth slowly cools down, warmer fluid ascends and cooler fluid descends and solidifies onto the inner core. This in turn changes the chemical composition of the fluid, and buoyancy forces result. The effect of these deep Earth processes on declination at the four observatories in the UK and Ireland can be seen in the graph. Note several sharp changes in trend in this graph, for example at 1925, 1969 and 1979. The cause of these so-called geomagnetic jerks is not fully understood.

What does this mean for compass users in the British Isles?

Magnetic declination at the four observatories in the UK and Ireland
The advance of the agonic line to the UK and Ireland will affect compass users when swapping between map bearings and magnetic bearings. A common mnemonic to help remember whether to add or subtract magnetic variation when converting from map bearings to magnetic bearings is “East is least, west is best”. This mnemonic is applicable for any type of map and anywhere in the world, no matter whether the north lines on the map are true north lines or grid north lines or whether magnetic north is west or east of map north. “Least” in this context means “subtract” and “best” means “add”. If converting from magnetic bearings to map bearings, as one would if locating one’s position on a map using back bearings from known features, the sense of the correction should be reversed.

Some mnemonics, however, will no longer work when magnetic variation is easterly. Examples of mnemonics which are soon to be redundant in the UK and Ireland are “grid to mag, add - mag to grid, get rid” and “MMM (Magnetic to Map Minus)” – can you think of others?

Monday, 16 October 2017

Survival at sea as part of ORCHESTRA: Part Chris Kendrick

Chris, Mel and Carol undertaking survival at sea training in
readiness for their ORCHESTRA cruises next year
The British Geological Survey (BGS) is a major partner in a scientific programme called ORCHESTRA (Ocean Regulation of Climate through Heat and carbon Sequestration and Transport) which has been running for over a year. The project aims to improve our ability to understand and predict the role of the Southern Ocean currents to modulate global climate. The BGS’s contribution to this research is to analyse the oxygen and carbon isotope composition of waters from the World’s oceans over a 5 year period. The carbon data will be used to investigate where carbon is ether absorbed by the ocean or expelled into the atmosphere. This is particularly important as the oceans regulate atmospheric CO2. The oxygen will help us to track currents and understand where freshwater enters the oceans.

 Next year three of the BGS staff (myself, Carol Arrowsmith, and Melanie Leng) will be going to sea to collect samples across 3 transects of the World’s oceans: I will sail along the 24°S parallel between Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, Carol the Falklands and Cape Town via the Weddell Sea, and Melanie across the Drake Passage.

 As part of the preparation for going to sea, we had to undertake personal survival (at sea) training, in case we have to abandon ship! We did this training at the Humberside Offshore Training Association (HOTA) facility in Hull. We spent a day learning about the ship on-board safety equipment (survival suits, life rafts, location devices), as well as how to abandon ship safely (jumping into a very cold pool from a few metres high), how to board and right a life raft etc. Overall we learnt that the key to survival is team work and will power. (Incidentally, and according to a quick search on the web, only two dozen or so large ships sink at sea each year from a cohort of 50,000 large ships, that’s 0.05%).

See our previous blogs about ORCHESTRA:

The start of a major new research Carol Arrowsmith

The ORCHESTRA project is led by the British Antarctic Survey. For further details please go to our website. Twitter @ORCHESTRAPROJ  Facebook: Orchestraproject

Friday, 13 October 2017

Carbon capture and sequestration in peat in response to positive and negative Coleen Murty

I am a PhD student who recently started an EPSRC-funded studentship in collaboration with Newcastle University and the Organic Geochemistry Laboratory at the British Geological Survey, working with Dr Geoff Abbott and Dr Christopher Vane. The project will focus on harnessing the carbon-storage capacity of peatlands by investigating a series of organic supplements which can release phenolic compounds and test whether these can suppress greenhouse gas release.

In spite of various studies focussing on enhancing carbon capture in the oceans and on land through afforestation, there has been no known attempts at increasing the carbon storage capacity of peatlands or utilizing them to store externally captured carbon.

Why study peatlands?

Northern peatlands are one of the largest terrestrial carbon sinks on the planet, storing approximately one third of global carbon stocks, equivalent to ~547 Gt of carbon.  Ombrotrophic peats dominate in high latitudes, temperate climates and are characterised by acidic conditions and low microbial degradation rates which result in net carbon sequestration. Evidence suggests that global warming is amplifying the global hydrological cycle, thus causing periodic variations in the water table across the northern peatlands. Resulting implications could mean changes to feedback mechanisms controlling rates of carbon accumulation/decay in peatland areas – potentially converting a current global carbon sink to a carbon source.

Sphagnum moss is the dominant peat-forming species which is abundant in acidic ombrogenous bogs. They contain biologically active phenolics which act as structural support components and inhibitors of microbial decomposition. Sphagnum cell walls are very recalcitrant, as they biosynthesize high amounts of phenylpropanoids (e.g. trans-sphagnum acid). Sphagnum acid is a phenolic secondary metabolite produced to restrict plant degradation by providing structural support to cellulose within the cell wall and increasing the cells water-holding capacity.

This research aims to investigate sphagnum acid in more depth by determining which form it primarily exists within peat - in its free form or bound form within the cell. Results could give insights into the best way of preserving carbon. In order to answer the question of whether capture and sequestration of carbon in peat is feasible, the chemical nature peat organic matter must be understood at a deeper level.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

A model for Quality Assurance, Lab Management and Good Laboratory Practices for David Samoei

My Name is David Samoei from the University of Eldoret (UoE) in Kenya. I work as a Senior Technician in the School of Environmental Studies, Department of Environmental Biology and Health. I assist in the project that explores links between soil geochemistry and the spatial incidence of oesophageal cancer in Kenya (see previous blog from Michael Watts). I undertook a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship (CSCUK) 2017 alongside a colleague, Takesure Tendayi who is also a Chief laboratory technician from the University of Zimbabwe School of Agriculture and Soil Sciences. This training took place with the Inorganic Geochemistry team at the British Geological Survey (BGS) in Nottingham.

Our training exposed us to the use of state of art laboratory equipment i.e. ICP-MS, IC and NPOC. Due to the sensitivity of these equipment, I have an improved understanding of the importance of proper sample collection, sample handling, preparation of bulk reference materials and their need for Good Laboratory Practices that require clean environments, good protocols for sample and data traceability.

As a result, we were exposed to Quality Control (QC), Data Management and Interpretative Skills with the use of simple excel spread sheet tools incorporating formulas to manage simple statistics, QC performance charts for laboratory equipment, handling of data outputs through to the client/end-user, importance of using certified reference materials and many more controls.  All of which provide confidence in data issued from a laboratory for use in a regulatory, industry or peer review environment. We were introduced to the concept of Quality Assurance (QA), which is comprehensively wrapped up in ISO 17025. Whilst not every laboratory requires ISO accreditation, the maintenance of a quality management system is crucial to a laboratory, again for confidence in data outputs.  The overview of principles of QA, which includes documentation, Standard Operating Procedures (SOP's), Quality Control samples and monitoring processes will help us develop our own systems in Africa and understand the challenges to implement them and possibly even aim for appropriate accreditation. Our collaboration with the BGS laboratories will act as a bench mark to this monumental task. This can be achieved in a stepwise and staggered manner. Accreditation is possible for Africa laboratories.

Health and Safety, Waste Management is an integral part in all the processes and systems in laboratories in general, to safeguard staff safety, comply with legal and regulatory frameworks, ensure control of chemicals, hazardous equipment or procedures to minimise risk where possible. The safety designs, training instruction, and personal protective equipment (PPE) made a good impact on me, being asthmatic I was able to work in soil sample preparation laboratories without any complication, an area which could otherwise be dirty and dusty without extensive controls in place to protect staff and minimise sample contamination. This knowledge will be used to introduce simple steps to gradually improve awareness of health and safety, and waste management in our laboratories back in Africa.

We experienced field collections visiting Colchester Zoo for Fiona Sach’s PhD project (see Fiona’s previous blog), introducing QA from collection through to reporting. We explored more the UK during our training, which coincided with four bank holidays; these gave us opportunities to tour and interact with the wider British National Cultural Heritage. These moments were good refreshing breaks from the intensive training within BGS laboratories. We visited tourist sites around the country in London, Cardiff and Portsmouth experiencing the history and variety in the UK.

African and overseas linkages: BGS is strategically placed to build networks by bringing scientist and specialist together from their already existing linkages and collaborations. Interactions between both myself and Takesure from Zimbabwe, Nottingham University and wider email correspondence with project partners, previous and future CSCUK Fellows has enabled us to develop a network to which we will support one another across Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi to develop laboratory capabilities and design and implement improvement plans appropriate to our setting. There are further opportunities for collaboration in many areas including exchange of scientific ideas, University laboratory management and Inter-laboratory Standardisation, which will build synergies and improve the laboratory confidence output in our laboratories. 

While the program was intensive, the holidays, particularly the bank holidays allowed for visiting of places of historical interest, below Takesure Tendayi relaxes at some of the notable places of interest.

Clockwise from top left: Chatting with Senior citizens at the acclaimed ‘oldest pub’ Ye Old Trip to Jerusalem (Nottingham),
 Internationally acclaimed TV Personalities (Cardiff), HMS Warrior Ship (Portsmouth Historic Harbour, Portsmouth), 10
 Downing Street, Westminster, London, The Great Oak Tree, Sherwood Forest, Mansfield, George Green’s Windmill,
 Sneinton, Nottingham, Soccer Fanatics, World renowned Martial Arts Experts (Nottingham).
Our next step was to attend joint training activities in Lusaka in September as part of a wider Royal Society-DFID project, linking laboratories from eight organisations across the four countries. The emailing and WhatsApp groups is help to one another in planning appropriate strategies for improving our laboratories, such as our own round robin analytical exercises using our own in-house produced reference materials which will provide a measure of performance for analytical data.