Smoke screen

by YPU Admin on May 13, 2013


Hello, I am Simon O'Meara, I'm a PhD student in my first of three years at the University of Manchester. 

research atmospheric science, which involves the gases (like nitrogen), liquids (like water droplets) and solids (like dust) that make up the atmosphere. Have you ever been on a street when a vehicle emits a load of smoke?  If enough smoke is released it can even decrease the visibility of objects behind it.  

My research is all about particles in the atmosphere such as those produced by cars.  When I say particles here I don't mean single molecules or atoms; rather, I mean solid or liquid objects that need a high power microscope to be seen.  The reason these are important is that, when particles enter the atmosphere they can reduce how much sunlight reaches Earth's surface by reflecting it back into space.

In Depth

What degree did you do?

After doing A levels in biology, chemistry, physics and maths my first degree was Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia, which is in Norwich.  After that I did a masters course at the University of Leeds.  Having come from Birmingham, my studies have let me experience living in a variety of British 


What was the highlight and biggest challenge of your degree?

The biggest challenge was being responsible for my own study because I was used to being set most of my work by teachers.  The highlight was the final year project where we did our own unique research into an area we found interesting.  It was this opportunity that made me realise I wanted to do a PhD. 

What impact will your PhD have?

If less sunlight reaches Earth's surface the surface will cool down - the opposite effect to greenhouse gases.  

The particles emitted during the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 (pictured) cooled the global temperature by around 0.2 oC.  These particles might be really important factors in determining the temperature at Earth's surface and therefore the climate we experience.  At the moment the Earth's temperature is rising because of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, but these particles are probably limiting the amount of temperature rise.  In order to understand past, present and future climates we need to know what these particles are made of to estimate what effect they have on Earth's temperature.  My research we help to show the composition of particles.  Climate affects everybody, so this research will be of benefit to society, which is motivational to my work.

What's a normal day like?

Having cycled in I write down the main things I did the previous day and list the next actions that need to be taken.  Often an action will be finding and reading a piece of work with an answer to a question I have, such as whether a specific chemical has been measured in the atmosphere.  My work also involves laboratory measurements so I might make some of these, for example measurements of the vapour pressures of chemicals.  Most evenings I train with the University's cross country club. 

Going Further

The website of my department (School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences) gives information about what students can study, including the exciting field trips they get to go on.

My department also produces a podcast (The Barometer) where some of our scientists talk through everyday atmospheric issues in an easy way to understand 

The Royal Meteorological Society have introductory articles about climate, including how particles (scientific name aerosols) affect it.  You can calculate your carbon footprint from this page too.

NASA doesn't just look into space, it also looks down at Earth.  NASA satellites provide information about temperature and particle emissions as well as many other variables.

To find out more about climate check out the information sheets produced by the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.

You can see what some other scientists are up to at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, which organises research campaigns and employs scientists to study atmospheric issues. 

Finally, Bright Knowledge has lots of useful information about studying courses relating to Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences (including Chemistry, Physics, and Environmental Studies), as well as guides to careers in those areas. 

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