Sunday, 30 April 2017

Week 30: (24th April to 30th April 2017) or "European Geosciences Union"

The first sprint was complete. The feet of seven elongated monsters that had charged so vehemently north across the land curtailed to a halt alongside a south London platform. They yawned together in collective fatigue; their gaping mouths exposing a large cavity upon which a dozen humans jumped out, and another dozen climbed aboard. In synchrony, the yawns concluded and the lips of these seven monsters pursed together once more. Off they went, accelerating steadily and then darting furiously through the air...

I was in the belly of the fourth sprinting beast. Riding with me was a mother and her 2 year old daughter. Is there anything more curious than a baby's face? A grown man or woman can at times furbish a mask of intrigue, even when behind the guise they are in a state of boredom and secretly pondering about something entirely different. But a baby, enveloped within their cherubical web, has not yet mastered the art of masquerade. Their searching eyes and the inquiring configuration of their lips is an outward expression of a genuinely inquisitive mind. I pretended to gaze out of the window, but really watched the reflection of a mother unzipping the wonders of life on Earth.

"Look, a luggage rack," she exclaimed, channelling her offspring's eyes towards a series of metal bars. How such a mundanity so suddenly transformed into an adventure playground! The baby crawled over the bars, watching as the mother became the pilot of her doll; she gazed in amazement at how the doll glided with a swish and a whoosh in and out of the rack. If only we could fly?

"Look, a plane," the mother pointed out the window to a jet, flying low over London. Other facets of interest arose: a wall of graffiti, a pigeon, a skyscraper. The baby did not - could not - comment on these articles. But in her own quiet, pensive way, she was absorbing everything. Her mind, hoovering up the sights, smells and sounds of life, was fuelled not by salary nor by reward, but by authentic curiosity. It is that yearning spirit for truth, that thirst for knowledge, and the incessantly ravenous desire to question everything that turns babies into scientists. I looked down at the bottom of her pram. Outcropping from a pile of blankets and spare nappies was a book. It was simply called Baby Einstein. Turning back to the mother and her creation, I saw not a baby but a future scientist.

Curiosity is a curious thing. It brings 14,000 people together every year at an event known as the European Geosciences Union General Assembly, commonly known as the EGU. For five days, scientists from around the world exhibit research, pose questions, instigate debates and exchange knowledge at an overwhelming magnitude. Each and every single one of them is an expert in a closely defined niche; each has etched the fragments of his or her wisdom into the chapters of Science and each defends their contributions with obstinate persistence. And to think, each and every single one of them started life as a baby; crawling sponges absorbing the wonders of the world. In essence, little has changed. Though they may walk with a professorial stride, and are often inclined to passionately debate their ideas, that essential brooding for answers remains just as strong as it did when they were still weaning.

The EGU was established in September 2002; a non-profit international union of scientists who are engaged, to varying degrees, in geoscientific research. The membership stretches from students to their retired, emeritus idols. I am in the belief that these emeritus professors are similarly envious of the sprightly young, up-and-coming 'early career researchers' who display the vivacity that they, themselves, experienced 'all those years ago'. Every year, the EGU holds a General Assembly in Vienna where the discourses of volcanology, atmosphere, climate, energy and the Earth's resources congregate.

I have just returned from attending this year's assembly. I was one of 14,496 scientists from 107 countries in attendance. Being an Early Career Researcher, I was in a majority; over 53% were under the age of 35 years. That said, it is an overwhelming experience. If one is ever equipped with the desire to experience what a TARDIS is really like - bigger on the inside than the outside - come to the Austria Center, Vienna in late April. You do not step foot into a building. You step foot into a world; a world where mysteries float on the backs of question marks, where the knowledge from distant places is unzipped and unpackaged, where the data from probes deep underground or far out into Space are decoded and disseminated.

A scientist attending the EGU can often be found outside the EGU. He or she will make no attempt to hide their royal blue lanyard. If one of them appears to be striding down the backstreets of Vienna, or along the banks of the Danube, it is rarely the case that they are lost, but taking a moment's respite away from the slightly overpowering intensity of the conference. For beyond the Austria Center exists a reassuring reality; a mundanity where the cells of intelligence can recharge and the appetite for Science can be re-established. I had several experiences of this...

An opera house. In the grandiose wings, ahead of a performance, I stood watching the lordly procession of some of Vienna's most gracefully refined populace. They approached the bar with their programmes, scanned through the glass at various mezes, and parted with aperitifs. Petite specimens of salmon outstretched on beds of cheese seemed to be particularly favourable. Every now and again, the grand doors would open and in would come an expensive broach, or a curiously patterned bow tie. Seats began to become occupied. A conductor emerged. The first bars of an Overture began....a curtain was lifted... an operatic diva sang out... sweet and fragile like a a bird...

Like the birds in those trees, and now... I am in the park! In an oasis of tranquillity beside the Austria Center, the hubbub of the EGU is sedated by a natural serenity. Often, in between the sessions, I would walk into this garden, taking a pew at one of the benches and allowing my thoughts to return to more placid, unperturbed things. Occasionally, a fellow scientist would be seen harbouring their thoughts under the shadowy canopy of the trees or meditating upon the deepest of questions as they wandered up the petal-laced paths. The fluff of a spent blossom would often descend like miniature woollen clouds upon us.

A park, such as the one that sits upon the fringes of the Austrian Center, is not too dissimilar to the EGU itself. Look at the foliage and then look at the people! There are giant, established trees anchored, no doubt, with roots that stretch for many hundreds of metres underground and there are the established, seminal scientists whose contributions are similarly rooted deep into the heart of their respective disciplines. There are the young saplings, germinating and sprouting, aiming as high (if not, higher) than their fat-trunked counterparts, and there are the Early Career Researchers who, at this stage, can only dream of reaching their idol's canopy of scientific reputation and impact. The biodiversity is great; try and count the many species of flowering plant that bless the eyes of amblers, and then try and count the organizations represented at the EGU. Try and fathom the plexus of language, of dialect, of culture on display at this conference! Birds tweeting in the trees, scientists tweeting on their phones... the similarities appear endless.

I attended so many sessions and absorbed so much Science. What were my highlights? Among the medal winners was the Emeritus Professor Johan Bouma. I had read much of Bouma's work previously and enjoyed an audience with him on Thursday morning. Between us was only experience (him being superior in this respect) as we share the same passion for Soil Science and agree that the future of the discipline requires pedologists to sustain field research, even when the comfortable armchair and the lure of satellite datasets is appealing. I listened to Johan presenting his Alexander Van Humboldt Medal lecture. Here he summarises a key message.

Johan was also one of the convenors for a PICO session that I participated in. The PICO is a format especially designed by (and for) the EGU General Assembly.

"PICO is short, precise, and scientific. PICO combines the advantages of both oral and poster presentations in an innovative type of presentation which provides the opportunity to interact with the audience. Every PICO author first presents his/her work orally. Afterwards, all session attendees have enough time to watch the presentation again, to hold discussions with the author and with their colleagues, and to network."

The aim for my PICO was to introduce my Soil Productive Lifespan concept, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it was received. You may watch it below:

Friday marks the final day of the EGU. Poster boards are stripped; microphones stands are retracted; the crumbs of a trodden twiglet are vacuumed up. Scientists leave the centre as easily as they arrived. How more difficult it would be, I thought, if networking was not virtual; if scientists connected with one another throughout the week with lengths of string. Few would escape entanglement because nearly everyone establishes new contacts and new networks. In the age of social networking, turbo-fuelled by the great rush of technological innovation, the architecture of these networks exists for a second in a handshake, and then persists only in cyberspace. Like the great web of interlocking roots underground in the parkland garden, the links between scientists now revert back to the day-to-day email. But what a chance the EGU provided to add to one's address book!


As I write, a baby is being born. Another is taking their first steps. Another is gazing out of a car window. Curiosity is being cultivated. Questions are being asked. As I write on this parkland bench, 1000 meters but seemingly a world away from the EGU Conference Centre, I think back to the baby on the train; the Baby Einstein. Maybe, one day, she'll end up here, presenting a PICO at her first EGU. Maybe she'll sit here, on this bench, and reflect, as I did, how wonderful a life spent wondering, thinking and questioning really is.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Week 29: (17th April to 23rd April 2017) or "A Shared Future: Early Career Researcher Conference"

It is a formidable, if not unsurmountable challenge; that of seeing into the future. Those enticed with such an agenda have often invested heavily in crystal balls and scrying mirrors. In the unmapped backstreets of most cities, palms are first shaken, then fondled, and then read. The body owning the palm in question will later emerge back into reality in receipt of some elaborate foretelling, either overjoyed or pained about their prospects. With some degree of certainty that always astounds me, millions traipse into small corner shops every weekend and lighten the weight of their wallets in the belief that they will return the next day and collect an altogether more hearty wedge of banknotes.

The future of the British Society of Soil Science needs no crystal ball nor scrying mirror, for there exists an event altogether more beseeching. This week, Lancaster University hosted the British Society of Soil Science's Early Careers Researcher conference. In attendance were the next generation of Soil Scientists. For two days, the future of the society congregated in positive, inspiring discourse about the engaging work currently taking place within the discipline.

In so many ways, this conference was just like any other. Lanyards, draped around necks, were blazoned with names and affiliations; screens were brandished with academic posters; blood-red chairs floated around circular tables in unoccupied spaces, waiting patiently to harbour new friendships and partnerships. Business cards were busily migrating from pocket to pocket. Mouths were speedily ventilating research; sending complex knowledges skimming through the air and skipping over the films of herbal teas and buffet lunches.

In so many other ways, this conference was exceptional. The programme did not boast of world-leading experts nor did it flamboyantly label any particular talk as keynote, as some conferences often do. The atmosphere within the main discussion chamber was calm and cordial. I had the tremendous pleasure of chairing a session of oral presentations on the first day. There I would stand, offer the audience a taste of the upcoming talk, and pass the microphone like a baton in a relay to the presenter. Each and every time, I glanced into their eyes and saw neither dread nor foreboding, but a genuinely rhapsodic scientist, eager to narrate the splendid tales of their research.

And what great diversity our eyes and ears were treated to. We all rode aboard a great carousel of science. The wonders of soil underpinned each and every talk, but we would often ride out - far out - into the world of drones and dung, radishes and rye, seeds and synthetics, worms and weeds, always returning at the end to the soil.

The conference fell on the 70th anniversary of the British Soil Science Society. According to the BSSS Auger Magazine (December 2016, Page 18):

"The first meeting of Council took place on 4th June 1947 at the Institute of Archaeology, Regent's Park, London. Before this date, there was the first Ordinary Meeting of the Society at the London School of Economics, Houghton Street, Aldwych, London which saw 50 people attending on Tuesday 15th April 1947. A presentation was given by Dr R K Schofield on 'A New Approach to Problems of Soil'."

"It seems that the idea for the British Society of Soil Science was originally discussed at a meeting of the British Empire Section of the International Society at the Bonnington Hotel, Southampton Row, London on 28th March 1946 and then formally accepted at a further meeting on 13th December 1946. The provisional committee of the Society met at Rothamsted on 7th January 1947 where a set of rules and recommendations were made for submission to the next meeting of the Society."

I had read this some time ago, in a special feature article within The Auger (a society magazine I receive). I realized that 70 years has not yet eradicated the 'problems of soil' that Dr Schofield must have addressed in that first meeting. In some corners of the map, soils are degrading faster than ever before. But with speculation from some that Pedology is "dead and buried", the problems are not solely confined to the soil alone but the way we do soil science. In my own work, the biggest bug-bear is that studies of soil erosion and soil formation, for example, are rarely presented together; with the former receiving much of the attention. But, as I suggested in my own presentation, a bank balance is always calculated based on outgoings and incomings. In this context, the sustainability of our soil must consider rates of erosion but also the rates of formation too. Uniting both rates together to form a soil productive lifespan is just one way to revive the role of pedologists in contemporary soil science.

Flavouring our conference were the spices of scholarly wisdom, notably the wisdom of Professor Phil Haygarth (Lancaster University), Professor Margaret Oliver (Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of Soil Science), Professor Mike Goss (Editor-in-Chief of Soil Use and Management), Professor Liz Baggs (President of the BSSS), Paul Newell-Price (Consultancy, BSSS) and Mary Ockenden (Lancaster University). From the art of grant writing and publishing in Soil Science, to the multiple careers one can achieve from a PhD in the discipline, this was not just a conference to highlight the student's current research, but one which invested the time to explore their future career.


"Why are you doing this PhD?"

Professor Mark Reed had not travelled all the way from Newcastle University to ask each of us that question, but to get us to think collectively, as early career researchers should ponder every now and again, what makes us do what we do. Why am I doing this PhD? As Mark quite rightly said during a session on 'Research Impact', there are times during this three year journey of discovery when you realize that this is not only the best job, but the only job for you.

So very often I have written about the individualistic nature of doing a PhD. Its execution is self-governed, self-reliant and self-determined. Naturally, therefore, it is easy to forget the great plexus of people that enmesh you. This week, I learnt - above all else - just how tessellated I am within a wider society of pedologists; the British Society of Soil Science. It is a sharing society.

I won 1st Prize for the Best Student Oral Presentation but not wholly for my own contribution. After all, I could have executed the very same talk in a different building, rattled out the same string of atrocious puns and even answered the same questions to thin air, but it would not have won a prize. It proves, I think, that the truly wonderful accolade a speaker can receive is not the opportunity to speak per se, but the opportunity to share with others, be it knowledge, data, passion or vision. It is by sharingrather than just speaking, that ideas are exchanged, revised, enhanced and acted upon. It is through a shared vision, a shared belief, and a shared hope that the British Society of Soil Science will continue to prosper into the future.

Cluster by cluster, I watched as my fellow Early Career Researchers departed the conference room on Thursday afternoon; the next generation of Soil Scientists were beginning to disperse once more. As the final few bid me farewell, a room that had been packed with the energies of an inspirited future began to transform back to a very realistic present. A dropped business card. An empty cup. A forgotten pen. It was my turn to depart. Clutching my spade, I walked out; more determined than ever before to dig deeper, wider, and to aim higher than ever before. Not for myself, but for the future of the British Society of Soil Science.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Happy Easter from Dan's PhDiary


The STARS (Soil Training and Research Studentship) Programme has launched a series of online videos this week that discuss the ways to effectively communicate scientific research and build collaborative knowledge exchange. Watch Dan's interview and many more from the link below. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Week 26: (27th March to 2nd April 2017) or "Fieldwork 'Site'-seeing tour"

A few metres away from where I tap little black squares, sowing letters into words, is a large wooden table. It sits opposite my kitchenette. Taking temporary residence upon it is the most significant ingredient for any kitchen. Without a doubt, it is the most fundamental virtue of any recipe, be it chestnut veloute, bresse duck or prune soufflĂ©. No chef could sport a hairnet without realizing the incalculable and salient contribution this ingredient has made to their menu. In many ways, it is too special for the Specials Board!

And yet, despite its prominence in nearly every recipe, few - if any - kitchen cupboards stock this valuable ingredient. It's does not get inked onto shopping pads nor does it sit in aisles waiting to be hurled into metal trolleys. It does not tantalize the taste-buds nor remedy a hungry stomach. In spite of this, it remains the most critical component of any culinary concoction. It is one of the seminal ingredients for the recipe of life. I would live unhappily without steak. However, I would not live at all without this one, cardinal ingredient.

Deceptive readers may have already guessed the important facet that currently occupies my kitchen table. It is, of course, soil; the womb from which every foodstuff, every recipe, and every dish is born. Few items are boiled, sizzled or fried without having experienced the brown vaults of goodness that lie await in the soil. For most of their lifespan, the soil is a nutrient-rich blessing to the root vegetable; a line of defence against the daily torment inflicted by local bunnies. But perhaps a question is still yet to be answered: why do I have soil all over my kitchen table?

I am relieved to quash any lingering curiosity or concern. Many, I expect, may be starting to wonder (or fear) that this soil is part of some new home-grown food business, or perhaps a way of reducing food miles to food inches. (If only the great catalogue of flavours could be cultivated from a small plot on a kitchen table!) No, the soil on my table is the evidence of a week of both hard work and field work.

It is also evidence for a wonderful journey.

There are many lanes in the backyards of England which appear to transcend the constraints of space and time and exist solely as vestiges of some distant past or the shadows of a great idea. To many, the hollow tree-lined tunnels that weave through the countryside do not exist at all until the moment your tyres roll through them. They are so pristine, so unsullied, so unhinged from the world of technology, that you cannot help but wonder how these lanes possibly link up to a world of civilisation. You would not be surprised to turn around the bend and find the lane is still being built ahead of you. Neither would it surprise you to turn around to see the road dissolving back into the green glory of the English countryside. As a young boy, growing up on similar tracks, I became enchanted by these single-lane passages; paths upon which one could cycle along for two, three, five miles without so much as a glimpse at accompanying traffic. But then, along these great grassy alleys of wonder, traffic does not exist. Quite simply, it's just you, sandwiched between the hedges, enveloped by the trees, slipping deeper and deeper into the great hush, as you pursue a course through the corridors of wonder and mystery, ushered along by an unspoken tranquillity.

I write having spent the best part of the week roaming through these tender passages. They do feel tender and I often felt that the great van upon which I was travelling was too ferocious for these dainty lanes. How more appropriate it would have been, had I been perched on a pew in a horse-drawn cart! Alas, I was on a mission to visit five of my study sites and had only three days to negotiate 300 miles, through Somerset, South Wales, Herefordshire and Shropshire. I was also hauling a considerable amount of fieldwork equipment, and having struggled with carrying it a few hundred yards, I could not conceivably put any poor, unsuspecting mammal through that burden, however disaffected it might have appeared.

The task was simple. I would visit my sites, collect samples of soil down to the bedrock and extract a sample of saprolite (weathered bedrock) which, effectively, is the material that I'm most interested in. For a Soil Scientist to admit that the most valuable material is not soil, and instead it is the weathered rock - in this case, sandstone - directly below it, is perhaps ruffling the feathers of a scandal. But, I must retaliate; the soil is formed from this weathered rock! Thus, my visit was a 'quick check' (otherwise, more technically known as a reconnaissance survey) to see whether my sites would be suitable. It was a 'site-seeing' tour.

Allow me to introduce Dr Andy Tye, from the British Geological Survey. I have very few photographs of Andy without the hand auger that he so effortlessly corkscrewed into sandy, silty and clayey underworlds. That's perhaps explained by the fact that he seemed so naturally fond of the task! I took over the auguring for less than five minutes before the apparatus was repossessed. This was to some relief, given the fact that some soil profiles are extremely difficult to drill through.

At each revolution of the auger, a column of soil is displaced from its position and becomes trapped in the blade. It is then carefully lifted out of the hole and placed onto a plastic sheet or mat. The process then takes place again, until you find that the auger is not drilling any deeper. That then is a signal that you have reached the saprolite! It is generally good practice to photograph the soil on this sheet, before sub-sampling some of the material into bags for further analysis. Some profiles revealed very interesting colouration changes; these are known as horizons in the trade.

What can one learn from the soil in the field? The answer is: quite a lot. Pedologists rarely need to employ expensive, time-consuming laboratory missions to describe the soil they have extracted. Many of the key variables can be ascertained by a quick 'finger' test, in the field. The next time you're engaged on a Sunday stroll across the fields, take five minutes to rest the legs, and perch down on the ridge and furrows. Take a handful of soil. The following procedure is, I admit, moderately dirty but assuredly great fun if one executes it with an open mind.

So, with your handful of soil, pour water droplets over it, without it becoming too wet. (It's a trial-and-error process). I am also assuming, here, that you have a bottle of water in your possession. If not, make it a priority to take a bottle on your next stroll. Those who have water to hand, pour it as instructed and start to form a ball with the soil. It will begin to feel like moist putty. Next, try to squeeze the ball. If it collapses under the stress, the soil is most likely to be described as a sand; in other words, the soil is comprised of a majority of sand-sized particles. If the ball remains in tact, place it between the thumb and the forefinger and gently squeeze it into a ribbon. Before too long, the ribbon will break, but that is okay, as it is the length of ribbon which we are interested in. (I'm also assuming you're still interested). A small ribbon of less than 2.5cm is likely to be a loam; if it feels smooth, it's a silty loam, if it's gritty, call it a sandy loam. A strong ribbon that extends beyond 5cm is likely to be a clay. Once again, if it feels smooth, it's a silty clay; if it's gritty, it's a sandy clay.

Take another handful of soil. How is it structured? Is it structured? Can soil ever be structured?

Soils are often structured into aggregates; lumps of soil particles which, given enough force, can often be broken down into smaller clusters. Some soils are finely aggregated, with aggregates seldom exceeding 6mm in diameter. Some are very coarsely structured, with clumps measuring up to 50mm! Soil structure was once described as "the architecture of the soil" by Sir John Russell, and indeed, it is one of the most essential properties. I have a nice book, written by Tom Batey, that was given to me once. Inside is a nice analogy of soil structure:

"Just as a building consists of rooms, corridors, a framework to provide stability, a roof to protect the upper surface and coatings to prevent deterioration, the physical construction of a soil possesses equivalent components. The primary building materials in the soil consist of mineral particles, ranging in size from stones to sand and clay. Organic products and clay bind the larger particles together...If a building is hit by a large force, it can be reduced to rubble and dust and so can a soil."

Another technique equally easy to accomplish in the field is an assessment of soil colour. Often, this attribute is given a hard press, but it can provide a crude idea about the state of the soil. A soil that is particularly dark at the surface hints at the presence of organic matter. A soil that has streaks of blue and grey often indicates a lack of oxygen, perhaps caused by a considerable period of waterlogging. If you meet a Soil Scientist in the field, ask them to open their fieldwork bag for they are often equipped with a series of colour charts. They are usually engaged in one of the following activities. Firstly, they are planning to redecorate the lounge, and the colour charts were accidentally brought out on fieldwork. Secondly (and more likely), these are the Munsell Soil Colour charts, with each possible soil colour linked to a universally-adopted code.


Soon, I shall be entering the next phase of my PhD. Having spent the majority of the last 6 months engaged in experimental planning, I will shortly begin one of the most exciting chapters: data collection and my fieldwork campaign. Having established the suitability of my sites, now it's time to intricately hatch a plan of action; a fieldwork schedule!

Later this month, after an Easter break, I look forward to attending the Early Career Researchers conference, here at Lancaster University and the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna.