Monday, 27 November 2017

Stable Isotope PhD training at the Melanie Leng

In November the BGS hosted the second PhD training course in “Principles and Practise of Stable Isotope Geochemistry in Earth and Environmental Geosciences”. This intensive 2 day course attracted 30 PhD students from across the UK (from St. Andrews to Exeter) who are researching a diverse range of subjects including stable isotopes in Martian analogues, mantle perdotite, Mesolithic artifacts and Namurian shales!

The course had the aims of providing an introduction to general principles of isotope geochemistry (which are very similar across a range of disciplines), understanding notation and standardisation, to mass spectrometry physics. There were also lectures on isotopes and the water cycle and how these get transferred to palaeoclimate archives, how isotopes are used to trace nutrient and pollution cycles, isotopes in ecology and archaeology and also how we apply isotopes to a variety of geological questions, including the genesis of volcanic magmas, ore deposits and geothermal systems.

The course included a tour of the BGS Geological walkway (thanks to Steve Parry), the National Core Repository (thanks to Simon Harris), and the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry (including the stable isotope laboratories).

The responses from a Survey Monkey on the course were overwhelmingly positive, with the course being given an overall rating of 82%. When asked how clearly the course content was presented over 80% of the participants thought the background material and the application of stable isotope science content was presented either “very” or “extremely” clearly. Students were very happy with how their questions were dealt with, all respondents answering either “extremely” or “very” well. The students were also very impressed by the opportunities to network provided throughout the event. The comments about the course were positive: for example “Fantastic course with fantastic staff would like to be kept informed of other events hosted by the BGS” and “Enjoyable and useful course - locating it at BGS also useful for gaining insight to facilities and meeting staff”.

Thanks to all the students who attended (and gave 2 minute / 2 slide fast track presentations on their research which was extremely diverse!) and to the speakers: Adrian Boyce and Jason Newton (from SUERC); Jack Lacey, Angela Lamb, Melanie Leng, Andi Smith (Stable Isotope Facility, BGS)  and Kyle Taylor (Elementar). The course was sponsored by Sercon, Elementar, ThermoFisher and Elemtex. Next year the course will be held at SUERC in East Kilbride.  Check our web or social media or contact Adrian Boyce.

Twitter #stableisotopetraining
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Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Measurement and modelling human dermal bioavailability of potentially harmful organic soil Jack Lort

I am a PhD student who recently started a NERC and BBSRC funded studentship through the STARS Centre for Doctoral Training, working with Prof Paul Nathanail, Dr Christopher Vane and Dr Darren Beriro. Prior to starting my PhD, I studied at Aberystwyth University, gaining a first class degree in BSc Environmental Earth Science and then continuing onto study MSc Environmental Monitoring and Analysis, which I completed in September. These two courses focused heavily on geochemistry, laboratory techniques and contaminated land.

One aim of my PhD project will be to standardise an in vitro method for quantifying the dermal absorption of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from soils. The project is currently very relevant to the UK, as PAHs are commonly found in elevated concentrations within the soils of brownfield land, especially sites such as former gasworks where PAHs are formed through the incomplete or inefficient combustion of organic materials. There is over 660km2 of brownfield land in England alone, which is larger than the area of the Greater Manchester Built-up area (630km2) which includes: Manchester, Bolton, Stockport, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford and Bury. The Government aims for at least 60% of new builds to be on brownfield land.

What is Dermal Absorption?

The skin is comprised of three principle layers: epidermis, dermis and hypodermis. The Stratum Corneum is the outermost layer of epidermis which is a protective layer to protect underlying tissues. There are four major pathways for a compound to be absorbed through the skin: intercellular (between cells), transcellular (through cells) and two fissure pathways, via hair follicles and sweat glands. There is a distinct difference between the bioavailability and bioaccessibility of a compound. Bioavailability is the proportion of the total concentration of an organic compound in soil that, following exposure, is absorbed into any part of the skin that then may remain local, or be potentially available for uptake by the blood compartment or tissues for storage, release and distribution to one or more target organs. Bioaccessibility is the total amount of a substance available for absorption, which can therefore be used to estimate bioavailability.

What is dermal absorption?

What Are PAHs?

PAH’s are hydrocarbons composed of multiple aromatic rings (organic rings with delocalised electrons) and are hydrophobic (repels or fails to mix with water) and lipophilic (dissolves in lipids or fats) in nature. Although they can be volatile and water-soluble as low molecular-weight hydrocarbons (< 3 rings) such as benzene. PAH have the tendency to bio-accumulate in plant and animal tissues and are a risk to human health as some are known to be mutagenic and carcinogenic. Although there are over 100 PAHs, the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) 16 are commonly analysed to assess PAH levels to reduce lab costs and to allow long term trends to be easily identified. Of these, benzo[a]pyrene is the most common marker, due to its highly carcinogenic nature.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

‘Killer facts’ supporting geology in schools and colleges... Prof. Chris King

What ‘killer facts’ will help you to ‘bang the drum’ when you want teaching geology in schools to continue in this climate of austerity, staffing cuts, course closures or you want to launch a brand new geology course in your school/college?

These may be the key ‘killer facts’ for you:

  • students perform better in geology than they do in other science subjects'
  • AS to A2 staying on rate is better in geology than in other science subjects
  • geology contains elements of all the STEM subjects – critical for those who want to continue studying a science 
  • geology is seen as a ‘relevant’ and accessible subject, often more so than other science subjects 
  • geology gives the school/college a ‘unique selling point’ (USP) 
  • geology interests both girls and boys 
  • geology is a popular subject 
  • the UK needs geologists! 
  • geologists are well paid 
  • geology plays a vital role in supporting the economy of the UK 
Download the full Killer facts article originally published in Teaching Earth Sciences, complete with supporting evidence.

Students perform better in geology than they do in other science subjects 

An Ofqual analysis in 2015 showed that A-level geology candidates achieved between 0.6 and 1 grade higher than students of an equal general ability who took other science subjects i.e. biology, chemistry or physics. 

The AS to A2 staying on rate is better in geology than in other science subjects 

Data produced by the inter-board Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) shows that the ‘retention’ (or ‘staying on’) rate for geology from AS- to A2-level for the past three years was significantly higher than for biology, chemistry or physics.

Geology contains elements of all the STEM subjects – critical for those who want to continue studying a science 

Nikki Edwards, ESTA Chair, has recently carried out an analysis of GCSE geology which clearly showed that the geology specification contains significant elements of biology, chemistry, physics, maths and engineering (the STEM subjects). 

Geology is seen as a ‘relevant’ and accessible subject, often more so than other science subjects 

Experience has shown that geology can explain the physical outdoor world in ways not readily accessed by other science subjects. 

 Geology gives the school/college a ‘unique selling point’ (USP) 

Teaching geology gives a school/college many strong selling points that can be used to promote the institution. A particular case study is Truro School, which employed a company to identify its strengths and weaknesses in terms in attracting students and parents – the results showed that the fact that geology was an excellent department, and achieved higher grades and success than other subjects, was a major factor. 

Geology interests both girls and boys 

Candidate data in recent years has shown that A-level entries have been around 2/3 male and 1/3 female. However, in the past two years, whilst male entry has declined, female entry has remained stable. See Figure 2.

Probably the ‘killer facts’ discussed so far are the most likely to persuade senior management of the importance of continuing/launching a GCSE or A-level geology course.

Geology is a popular subject
Morocco fieldwork

Geology is usually a popular subject in institutions where it is offered, and in some school/colleges, it is the most popular science subject.
Chae Cruikshank, Science Subject Advisor and Geology Subject Officer for the Awarding Body OCR, has written:
‘In centres which offer A level geology, it competes very well with the other sciences, and attracts students who may not otherwise take a science A level; an analysis of A level entry data by OCR showed that in 1:10 centres of all sizes, geology was the most popular science by entry, and in most other centres, competed with chemistry as the second science, it was only in those centres where other factors were imposed (such as a limit numbers or reduced time allocated) that geology was less popular.’
Students on geology courses are the happiest with their degrees. Discover why Geology rocks.

The UK needs geologists 

That the country needs geologists is evidenced by the fact that the latest published UK government ‘Shortage Occupation’ lists ten geoscience-related shortage jobs (including geologist) and only one physics-related job (geophysicist), one chemistry-related job (geochemist), one biology-related job (bioinformation technician) and no geography-related jobs.

More than 40% of applicants for undergraduate geology degrees have A-level geology (UCAS data 2010 and 2012).

Approximately 44% of students who gained A-level geology that went on to university studied for a geoscience degree (Earth Science Teachers’ Association, ESTA, data 2009-2014).

Geologists are well paid

The salaries of geologists are higher than those of many other professionals. Geologists at Imperial College London have emerged as the top earners in a league table of graduate salaries published in the Sunday Times Good Universities Guide, 2017. Their average wage of £73,267 six months after leaving university surpasses that of medics and engineers. What do graduates earn’ section of the Complete University Guide lists mean professional starting salaries for subject groups for first time graduates who completed their degrees in 2014-15. This shows that, of the 70 subject areas listed, geology is 17th at £24,818.

Geology plays a vital role in supporting the economy of the UK 
Construction minerals map

A recent Council for British Industry (CBI) report has highlighted the key role played in particular by the minerals industry, in supporting the UK economy.
The UK Mineral Extraction Industry report carries the following comments:
‘Minerals directly contribute to the UK economy by generating £235bn in gross value added, representing 16% of the total UK economy.’ (p5)
‘Excluding oil and gas, mineral extraction employs 34,000 people and is 2.5 times more productive than the UK average.’ (p6).
The economy simply could not function without minerals; without them, life as we know it could not be sustained on its current scale. The message is clear: minerals underpin everything in the UK economy.

A longer version of this article was originally published in Teaching Earth Sciences, Vol. 42 No. 2 2017. 

Monday, 13 November 2017

ISOcycles – conference Monte Verita, Andi Smith and Angela Lamb

Andi Smith and Angela Lamb.
In October 2017 a small group of researchers descended on the Monte Verita conference centre in Ascona, Switzerland. This fantastic conference centre is the venue of choice for Congressi Stefano Franscini, the international conference platform of ETH Zurich. The conference was aimed at bringing together experts from a range of scientific disciplines to discuss the topic of “Reaching an integrated use of stable isotopes to constrain biogeochemical nutrient cycles.” Andi Smith and Angela Lamb attended from the NERC Stable Isotope Facility at the BGS and here Andi discusses the conference in more detail...

The Monte Verita conference centre is perched on the top of a hill in the Swiss Alps not too far from the Italian border and offers an idyllic spot for a scientific conference. In the early 1900s this hilltop sanctuary was home to a vegetarian colony, nudist retreat and then sanatorium. More recently, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have adopted the venue as their main conference centre and host a range of events throughout the year.

ISOcycles 2017 was aimed at bringing together researchers who were currently using stable isotope science to help understand nutrient cycling within the environment. The conference was filled with a number of diverse keynote talks and shorter presentations by PhD students, as well as several dynamic poster sessions. One key difference from many conferences was that time was set aside for breakout discussions.

From L-R: The view from the balcony at Monte Verita: at the far side of the lake you can just about see Italy; Even during
 the day trip away from the conference centre there were lots of discussions about isotopes and nutrient cycling,
between enjoying the view and taking some photos that is…
Once broken up into teams we were given a series of “homework” assignments all of which aimed towards us becoming a more integrated group of researchers and asked the question “can the integrated use of stable isotopes help to constrain biogeochemical nutrient cycles in more detail than is currently possible using one isotope approach”. This topic was hotly contested, but the general consensus was that we should become more integrated, using multiple isotopic systems to help understand nutrient cycling as a multidimensional process rather than a diverse set of stand-alone processes. Hopefully by starting these discussions the community will work more closely together in the future to tackle some of the remaining questions in nutrient cycling and dynamics. We are already looking forward to the next ISOcycles in 5 years’ time.

Andi Smith and Angela Lamb are part of the Stable Isotope Facility at the BGS.


Thursday, 9 November 2017

Stable Isotope Geochemistry Training course at Charly Briddon

A bit about me…

Hi, my name is Charly and I am a second year PhD student at the University of Nottingham in the School of Geography and part of the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry at the BGS. Let me start by introducing what I do. I am investigating the impact of aquaculture (in this case, the high intensive farming of fish in cages) in freshwater lakes on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines. I will be using the physical, chemical, and biological information (i.e. proxy data or indicators) preserved in sediment profiles to help me reconstruct how past environmental conditions have changed within these lakes.  Stable isotope analysis is an important part of my research as I will be using carbon and nitrogen isotopes to determine changing levels of productivity and sources of organic matter (terrestrial vs. algal) within these lakes. This will help to disentangle the impacts of aquaculture from other catchment effects such as climate.

So  a bit about the stable isotope course…

On the 31st October I joined 29 other PhD students for a two day Stable Isotope Geochemistry Training Course held at the British Geological Survey.  Since we all intended to use stable isotope analysis as part of our research it was an ideal opportunity to learn more about this technique and its many applications. Over the next two days we were treated to a number of very informative lectures starting with an introduction to stable isotopes (Dr Jack Lacey, BGS) and how a mass spectrometer works (Kyle Taylor, Elementar) to the palaeoclimate applications of oxygen isotopes (Prof Melanie Leng, BGS) and nutrient cycles (Dr Andi Smith, BGS).  We also got to appreciate the diverse uses that stable isotope analysis can be put to. For example, in the field of archaeology stable isotope analysis by Dr Angela Lamb (BGS) on the remains of Richard III has been used to give an insight into his life. This has ranged from using oxygen isotopes to determine where he lived at different stages of his life to using carbon and nitrogen isotopes to see changes in his diet after he became king. Other interesting applications are the use of a range of different isotopic ratios from animal tissues to understand changes in food web structures and animal diets (Dr Jason Newton, SUERC) and isotopes in geological applications (volcanic hazards and mineral deposits, Prof Adrian Boyce, SUERC).

Guest speaker Adrian Boyce (University of Glasgow and SUERC) lecturing
on the geological applications of stable isotopes.
One of benefits of attending the course was to make contact with other students and on the first day each of us was called on to give a speed talk on the subject of our research. It was fascinating to see the wide range of projects being undertaken using stable isotopes from using carbon and sulphur isotopes to determine flame retardant contamination from land fill sites in the UK gull populations to the use of strontium to help find people missing in Guatemala.

One of my personal highlights of the course was a tour of the geological walkway and the geological repository.  The geological walkway is a selection of different rocks from each of the geological periods in the Earth’s history from the Precambrian to the Quaternary. Here we got to see Lewisian gneiss, the oldest rock in Britain! On our second day a tour of the National Geological Repository included a stop to see 500km of sedimentary core archives, its sheer size making you realise the huge amount of scientific research that is carried out at the BGS.  We also got to see the isotope facility, 16 different mass spectrometers (!) that are used in analysing the different isotopes such as oxygen, silicon, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulphur (and then there are all the heavier mass isotopes in the radiogenic part).

Wow, the National Geological Repository at BGS, showing the storage of both
onshore (left) and offshore (right) sedimentary cores from different geological
periods from in and around the UK.
I would like to thank Prof Melanie Leng and all the other educators (from both BGS and SUERC)  that made this course so informative and useful. On a personal note I made many new friends who I am sure I will keep in touch with throughout my academic career.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

How to draw pictures in the sand on a sunny(ish) beach Catherine Pennington

Dr Jon Lee helping us interpret the geology at Happisburgh, Norfolk
Dr Jon Lee helping us interpret the geology at Happisburgh, Norfolk
I've just got back from a new field-based BGS training course that I enjoyed so much I want to tell you all about it.  It's called Quaternary Deposits, Processes and Properties (catchy title) and is designed for geoscientists who undertake geology-based fieldwork or 3D geological modelling who want to gain experience in describing Quaternary deposits.

It was four days in total.  The first day was at our headquarters in Keyworth where we were given an introduction to the geology of East Anglia, human evolution in the area and an overview of current coastal management issues.  After this followed the nitty gritty of how you describe, interpret and classify Quaternary deposits according to the most recent British Standard. 

Then it was off to Sunny Norfolk for the next three days to put all this into practice.


We started in Happisburgh, a site well known for its coastal erosion and somewhere we have monitored as part of our Slope Dynamics Project since 2001.  The beach here is around 900 metres long and we were tasked with interpreting the entire cliff section to understand what's there and how it got there.

Starting the cliff section at Happisburgh, "draw what you see...."
Starting the cliff section at Happisburgh, "draw what you see...."

Over half of the bay had geology that looked like this, a nice gentle layer-cake affair:

The cliff section at Happisburgh. From top to bottom: Happisburgh Sand Member, Ostend Clay, Happisburgh Till
The cliff section at Happisburgh. From top to bottom: Happisburgh Sand Member, Ostend Clay, Happisburgh Till

But then the further south we went, the more complex it became.  There was quite a bit of head-scratching, debate and even argument (!) about the palaeoenvironmental conditions (what the environment was like when the sediments were deposited).

tting stuck-in at understanding the geology and Happisburgh
Getting stuck-in at understanding the geology and Happisburgh
And then we all drew our different theories in the sand:

Professor Emrys Phillips drawing his interpretation of the Happisburgh cliffs
Professor Emrys Phillips drawing his interpretation of the Happisburgh cliffs
Another sand drawing of the cliffs in front of us.  No idea who drew this.   It definitely wasn't me.
Another sand drawing of the cliffs in front of us.  No idea who drew this.   It definitely wasn't me.
My first attempt to interpret the 900 m cliff section at Happisburgh
My first attempt to interpret the 900 m cliff section at Happisburgh

East Runton

The last morning was spent at East Runton where we were again asked to interpret the cliff section.  This time, we were more confident and were able to use everything we had learned over the previous two days at Happisburgh.  Again there was debate and a lot of drawing in the sand but we came to an agreed interpretation that I would like to tell you all about here but that would spoil it for those going on the course in the future!  Instead, here are some pics...

The cliffs at East Runton, Norfolk
The cliffs at East Runton, Norfolk
Field sketch of the cliffs at East Runton, Norfolk
Field sketch of the cliffs at East Runton, Norfolk

So how exactly do you describe, interpret and classify Quaternary deposits?

Dave Entwisle teaching us how to tell the difference between a silt and a clay by their behaviour
Dave Entwisle teaching us how to tell the difference
between a silt and a clay by their behaviour
After drilling or mapping, often the only remaining evidence of what was discovered is the description provided on the borehole log, section or notebook.  This can vary enormously depending on who made the description and which classification they were following, if any.  High-level decisions can be based ultimately upon these descriptions as, for example, structures are build or tunnels dug.  So what might seem like a small part of the work on the day is actually very important to get right.

BS5930 : 2015 is a description of the behaviour of engineering soils based on material and mass characteristics.  An engineering soil is an aggregate of mineral grains that can be separated by gentle agitation in water.  Most Quaternary deposits are engineering soils.  BS5930 : 2015 aims to standardise description and terminology to reduce ambiguity and error, no matter who describes them. 

Sounds easy right? Well, once we'd got the hang of it, it was actually.  It's a systematic examination process where everything is considered in a logical sequence so you are guided through your description from beginning to end.  Whilst a more sedimentological description may have been what some of us are more used to, everyone could see the merit of the engineering description.

Getting to grips with the Munsell Colour Chart...