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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.