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My Journey as a Geography Student

Introduction

I’m Alex, a 2nd-year Geography PhD student in the School of Environment, Education and Development at the University of Manchester. My research is focused on grasslands, and using new sensing technologies to better understand the ecosystem processes that take place in them – mainly cycling of carbon, nutrients and water. I look at images taken from satellites and drones to study the landscapes over a much larger scale than would be possible on the ground, which means we can monitor how climate change is affecting these environments, and predict what might happen in the future.

In depth...

HOW I GOT HERE:

I always found Geography exciting; thinking about far-away places and the different lives that take place in them was a fun escape from the routine of school life. I visited quite a few different universities before I chose Manchester. This would be my top piece of advice if you’re thinking of moving away – you will do a lot of growing up during your university years, so it’s really important to find the right place. Take a few days to visit different options, get a feel for them, chat to people and imagine yourself living there.

The highlight of my degree was my dissertation project, which was my first taste of designing my own research tailored exactly to the things I most enjoyed. I wrote it about landscape restoration in the moorlands of the Peak District, a place I had visited and loved as a kid which I got to see from a new, scientific perspective. The other most important thing is the friends I made. There are so many ways to meet new people and make friends at university – some of my best friends I didn’t meet until my final year, when I joined circus club.

After graduating I did some conservation internships with two wildlife charities. I was sick of sitting indoors reading about the outside world, and wanted to go and spend time in it! Both the organisations have lots of volunteering opportunities if you’re interested in a career outdoors (links at the bottom). After a couple of months however I’d had my fill of the outside, and moved to the University of Leicester to work as a Research Assistant, making a map of landcover changes in the UK as part of a Europe-wide project. I met so many interesting and inspiring people at Leicester that I realised I wanted to continue my career in academia after all, and this is when I decided to apply for my PhD. There are lots of different routes into academia, so if you don’t know exactly what you want to do then it is absolutely fine to spend some time exploring, doing different jobs or volunteering. That way, when you do finally decide on your PhD topic you know it’s the perfect choice for you.

My first study site, in the Yorkshire Dales

MY RESEARCH:

For me, it is very important in research to feel that you are contributing to something bigger, important and worthwhile, but also doing something interesting and fun day-to-day.

The big picture of my research is focused around climate change, and how we can manage our ecosystems to ensure that they will continue to thrive and provide us with food, fuel, water and other essential resources in the future. I’m interested mostly in the belowground communities of soil bacteria and fungi, which are an essential part of any ecosystem as they keep soil healthy and make it possible for plants to grow, but are often forgotten about (probably because they are difficult to see). I want to know if it is possible to make predictions about these communities – for example how diverse they are, or how active they are – based on properties of the plants that we can see aboveground. To do this I use sophisticated imagery (this is the fun part!); cameras which can see the whole spectrum from ultraviolet to short-wave infrared light, rather than just the blue/green/red we can detect with our eyes. This reveals very detailed information about the plants, which I hope will hold the clues to what is going on in the soil.

Satellite image of the Dee estuary

ACADEMIC LIFE:

There are some brilliant things and some big challenges that come with academic life. The best thing is how vibrant and busy the university environment is; everyone has their own project or projects going on, and there are loads of opportunities to get involved in all sorts of activities. In the past year I have been out helping friends with their fieldwork, running events at schools and museums, helped charity projects, and been on two training schools abroad in Estonia and Austria. You will never be bored! The downside of this is that, as you are trusted to manage your own time, it can be easy to get carried away and overstretch yourself, get stressed out and feel alone in tackling your enormous workload. My main advice is to communicate honestly with your colleagues and peers if you are struggling, as you will find that there are plenty of people who feel the same and are happy to help out.

Going further...

This is a website with some introductory information and tutorials about remote sensing for secondary school learners. Topics range from mapping areas affected by the 2010 Haiti earthquake to correcting distorted images resulted from a plane being buffeted by the wind. It is developed by the University of Bonn, so parts of the website are in German. There’s plenty for English speakers too though! If you’re really keen this might be good to do in a group with a teacher, perhaps as a lunchtime club. Or you could try yourself at home!

This is a mapping project set up by Dr Jonathan Huck in the Manchester Geography department. We need your help to map remote parts of Uganda using satellite imagery, in order to deliver prosthetic limbs to people affected by war.

The Royal Geographical Society has lots of inspiring Geography content on its website. There’s a section for schools, with competitions and events throughout the year for secondary school pupils.

The Wildlife Trusts and Woodland Trust have lots of events and opportunities for getting involved, especially as a young person. Their websites are really informative and easy to navigate.

You will have heard of National Geographic, but I thought I should mention it as this magazine is what first got me into Geography. You don’t have to get a subscription yourself – your school or local library might have one.

Finally, here is the website for Geography at the University of Manchester! It has loads of information about the courses, facilities and research that goes on in the department.


 

Researching Submarine ‘Rivers’ and Salt Topography

Introduction

My name is Zoë Cumberpatch and I’m half way through a PhD in Basin Studies at the Department of Earth and Environment, University of Manchester. From a young age I loved the outdoors and wanted to understand ‘why is that hill there?’, ‘why does one river flow faster than another?’ and ‘why do the rocks in Nottingham (where I’m from) look so different to the rocks in holiday destinations?’

My enjoyment and interest of Maths, Science and Geography at school led me to study Geology, Geography, Biology and Maths at A-level, before going on to study Geological Sciences at the University of Leeds. At Leeds, I preferred sedimentary rocks rather than igneous and metamorphic rocks and that fuelled my desire to study the applied side of sedimentology (with an MSc in subsurface energy at Imperial College London). 

During my MSc I was exposed to lots of different geological techniques and methods, and I wanted to integrate a number of these techniques to answer a research question. This led me to apply for multiple PhD projects and eventually I settled on my current project at the University of Manchester. My project looks at how deep marine landslides and ‘rivers’ can be controlled and re-routed by growing ‘salt diapirs’ (which are essentially hills made of salt). The properties of the rocks deposited by these flows can be very optimal for both producing hydrocarbons and storing carbon dioxide. Geologists are the experts of the earths subsurface and are vital for the ‘global energy transition’.

My PhD combines subsurface data (think of it as an ultrasound of the earth), fieldwork (travelling the world to study analogous exposed rocks), numerical modelling (creating geology using ‘ping pong balls’ and simulating geological time) and physical modelling (literally building hills in a flume tank and letting the water in).


My PhD has given me some incredible experiences; my highlights so far include:

1) Leading a field trip to my field area (northern Spain) for 10 industrial sponsors of our research group (picture of me in a hi-vis)
2) Winning best student poster at an International Conference in Salt Lake City
3) Spending my entire August 2019 doing fieldwork in Azerbaijan, after successfully winning a grant with a colleague
4) Working as a team to construct valid flume tank experiments in Utrecht
5) Being part of a NERC CDT (Centre of Doctoral training) which gives me a cohort of like-minded researchers, and 20 weeks of broad geological training (picture below shows a group of us in the Alps on a field course).

In depth (PhD Project Summary)

Layers of sedimentary rock form much of the Earth’s continental crust. These rocks are laid down in different depositional environments (e.g. terrestrial or marine). Layers of salt accumulate in regions where seawater incursions evaporate. Due to salt’s mechanical properties it becomes buoyant when sufficiently buried and can flow over geological time (much like glass), forming salt-cored ridges and domes on the ocean floor. Gravity moves sediment from the continents to the deep ocean basins, resulting in the deposition of rocks around the salt bodies. These salt bodies, which can be growing during deposition can cause deep water gravity flows to terminate completely or reroute their course. Geophysical ‘ultrasounds of the earth’ (seismic imaging) make it possible to study the subsurface, however areas around salt remain difficult to image in these data sets due to the chaotic representation of salt on seismic. Cliff sections in the Basque Country, Spain reveal ancient deep-marine rocks originally deposited next to salt-cored topography; these are used to understand sedimentary processes operating in deep-water and their effect on the sedimentary record. Fieldwork observations are combined with subsurface seismic data from the UK North Sea and numerical and physical models to appreciate the distribution of these sediments on a variety of scales and explore how this may influence potential hydrocarbon or carbon storage distribution and quality around salt bodies.

Going Further

For more information about all things geological, including resources for schools and colleges see the Geological Society: https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/

To learn more about the research happening in my department: https://www.ees.manchester.ac.uk/research/themes/

To learn more about the research happening in my research group: http://stratleeds.org.uk/

If you’re interested in sedimentology, look no further than: https://www.sepm.org/


 

Textile Technology - Can we really grow leather in a lab?

Introduction

My name is Dana and I am a 1st year EPSRC-funded PhD student at The University of Manchester. My project is interdisciplinary, spanning across the Textiles and Biomaterials research groups. I also need to draw on the Chemistry knowledge I learned at Undergraduate level. I work within the broader Department of Materials and spend most of my time on the Sackville Street Campus. My research aims to grow leather in a laboratory using tissue engineering techniques. It is hoped that this method could potentially be more environmentally, socially and ethically sustainable than current manufacturing practices.

In Depth…

At school, I enjoyed learning about a broad range of subjects. By A Level, I narrowed my favourite subjects down to Chemistry, Biology, Maths and Textiles. Teachers advised me to drop Textiles, so I could focus on more academic subjects. However, I persevered, since I enjoyed the subject so much. Textiles is, sadly, often undervalued as a subject in schools due to a lack of understanding. It offers many more career prospects than the stereotypical fashion designer. The scientific side of the subject, Textile Technology, is a fast-growing industry, with many exciting innovations already discovered. These textile products are designed to perform specific functions, as opposed to simply looking attractive. Examples of products already developed include smart, electronic textile garments to monitor patient health or army officer location. The technology spans a wide range of industries, also including agriculture, construction and sports. In fact, it would be difficult to find an aspect of modern life without Textile Technology in action!


My journey progressed through studying a Chemistry degree at The University of Durham. I appreciated the quaint city, having originally come from a rural area, and enjoyed participation in several extracurricular societies. During my degree, I gained a strong core knowledge and skillset that would be useful in any future career path, not just scientific. I confirmed my key interests were in the Biological and Materials fields. During my Master’s, I completed a year in industry with Solvay, specialising in composite materials for high performance automobiles. This gave me valuable, first hand work experience in Textile Technology. Following graduation in 2018, I took a year out to go travelling and learn more about the world. A fascinating exhibition on ‘Fashioned From Nature’ at the V&A Museum in London really captured my interest in sustainable fashion.

Meanwhile, society has become increasingly aware of the harmful impacts that materials can have on the environment. Plastics in particular have received a lot of negative media coverage. Animal welfare activism has reached broader audiences through social media. The proportion of people classifying themselves as vegetarian, or even vegan, is growing. Even those still consuming animal products are conscious about cutting down to lower negative health and environmental impacts. I myself converted to vegetarianism a couple of years ago. Leather is a luxurious fabric used in a variety of high-end fashion and furnishing products. It does however raise animal welfare concerns as it is made from animal skin, mostly wasted in the meat industry. As more people become vegetarian, we may need other sources of leather to meet demand. We should avoid equally harmful plastic alternatives though. Human skin is already grown in laboratories for medical skin grafts, so perhaps we could use similar techniques to grow animal skin? This is exactly what I shall work on over the next few years. This topic perfectly combines my academic and personal interests.

A typical working day could involve a mixture of: laboratory work; reading literature; analysing data; writing up; presenting research or teaching. I collaborate with staff members from many different departments. This variety of work during a PhD can make it more interesting than a typical day job. I am excited to see where my research goes! Maybe one day, lab-grown leather will make high street jackets… I am very lucky to be meeting my niche subject interests through this PhD. After completion, I hope to return to industry for a while. I may either continue down the sustainable fashion route or move into lab-grown meat research.

Going Further…

If you are interested in learning more about the potential of lab-grown leather, see this paper outlining research by another group:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2589234719300193

For The University of Manchester Department of Materials website, including many other interesting research projects:

https://www.materials.manchester.ac.uk/research/

To learn more about lab-grown meat technologies see this news article:

https://www.economist.com/international/2019/10/12/plant-based-meat-could-create-a-radically-different-food-chain

For the unique courses available at The University of Manchester specifically in Textile Technology:

https://www.manchester.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/courses/2020/09900/meng-materials-science-and-engineering-with-textiles-technology/

https://www.manchester.ac.uk/study/masters/courses/list/08611/msc-textile-technology-technical-textiles/

Youtube videos introducing other textile technologies:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuXPCXEKvSo

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=smart+textiles

Career prospects:

https://nationalcareers.service.gov.uk/search-results?searchTerm=textile+technoloy