Public Speaking – Facing my Fears

By Jess

Everyone has listened to people who are exceptional public speakers. When they stand up to talk they appear perfectly at ease, they hold the audience’s attention and convey exactly what they want with a confidence that leaves little room for people to doubt them.

These speakers appear to have been born with this superpower, while on the other end of the spectrum are other people, like me, who most definitely weren’t.

I have always hated the feeling of standing up in front of a crowd and talking. I get incredibly nervous and this seems to create a mental block on everything except the overwhelming awareness of how awfully I am doing as I speak. As if that wasn’t bad enough there are all the unpleasant physical side effects of being exceptionally nervous1.

So since giving my first (traumatic) presentation in school when I was 12, I had always made every effort to avoid this painful experience. Which was in fact very easy for me to do, especially with studies focused on science subjects. Although this was great at the time, it meant that I have never got used to standing up and talking in front of an audience; and I never shook off my fear of public speaking.

Even now, it would still be possible to continue dodging giving most presentations. However, it turns out public speaking is kind of important in the academic world, and if I want to succeed (which I intend to do), it’s something I need to improve on, and hopefully even get good at.

So I was actually very eager to sign up on the ‘Science Communication Workshop’ offered at ANU2 after having it recommended by several other students at RSES. This two and a half day course is run by a friendly, experienced team and is aimed at helping you improve your written and spoken science communication skills. The written communication part was great, you can read what some other students previously got up to on this side of things in the ‘Not quite News yet’ posts. But here I will focus on my experiences with the verbal communication part.

Going back to when I said I was eager to sign up, I should emphasise: I was eager only to sign up and then benefit from the results of having attended, not to experience the actual course itself. This is because I knew it involved giving presentations in front of the group every day, which, as I think is probably clear by now, is not something I particularly enjoy.

The grand finale on the last day was to present your research project to the group, trying to put into practice all that you have been taught over the last couple of days. And everyone gives you feedback so that you can learn from it.

I learnt that during presentations I don’t smile and I have no humour and I ‘erm’ on average 25 times per 5 minutes of talking (thank you to those who counted).

And in case the feedback from your audience isn’t enough, they film you too and provide you with your very own DVD copy. This way you can see all of your mistakes for yourself and replay them as many times as you like3.

So to be honest the workshop didn’t give me the confidence boost I was hoping for. But I am still glad I went. Why?

  • It’s good to know what you need to improve on. And sometimes you need a room full of strangers who have no motivation to spare your feelings to tell you what that is. I mean, I knew I erm-ed a fair bit but didn’t know it was that bad.
  • Lots of tips to improve the quality of your presentations, some I would have never thought of.
  • And probably most importantly I learnt that there is no miraculous solution someone can teach me that will cure my fear of speaking in public, but the only way I will improve is to practise, and practise, and practise.

1 Shaking hands, sweaty palms, stomach tying itself in knots, etc.

2 Workshop delivered by the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science

I’m sure there is also something constructive behind this. Unfortunately I still haven’t worked up the courage found the time to watch my DVD…

The process

By Laure

In the modern research world, a lot of attention is given to results and accomplishments. One’s worth is determined by how many publications and awards they could obtain and in how short a time. It is seen as a great motivation and drive to succeed in projects and push science further, faster and with more efficiency. ‘Successful individuals’ or ‘high achievers’ are the ones who very early on master the art of acquiring results, and later progress onto populating places such as our dear RSES. Struggling to keep up with expectations (them being personal or external) despite what samples/experiments/ instruments/life gives you generates stress and frustration. This sometimes a big hurdle towards progress, it can make us feel like giving up.

Laure 1

The way ahead (My husband Pierre-Do in a rainy 6h rogaine SW of Canberra)

A lot of us seek relief from this stress by taking part in other activities such as sports. Letting go of the PhD-related problems to free up the mind and grow as a more balanced individual. But before we know it, we reproduce in sports the line of thinking we have been conditioned for since school: we develop high expectations and seek successes and results to match. The consequence is that a secondary activity might relieve some of the work-related stress but generates a whole new layer of self-judgement and frustration. Bad news: in that way, sports can be highly addictive, as are high achieving habits. Trapped in the world of the overwhelmed 12 year old who wants to get good grades.

The good news is, if one is ready to let go just a little, sports is a great playground for exploring the world of the mind, the maze of our motivations, the ranges of past and present expectations, rivers and oceans of limitations and frustration, but also for seeking the treasure chest of inner peace. (Spoiler: there is no treasure chest.)

My drug of choice in that area is cross-country navigation in the form of rogaining or orienteering. I was introduced to the sport by a fellow PhD student who you will probably recognise, in a bitter period of injury and frustration in my previous rock-climbing career. By starting something new, you are granted a precious gift: the beginner’s mind. Every step is progress, every improvement a revelation. No expectations, just curiosity and learning. Orienteering and rogaining are so rich in exciting things: exploring new bush areas, running into wildlife (literally), learning the tricks of day- or night-time navigation, discovering how fast you can dance your way through scrub, how fast you fly on a track, how far you can walk in 24h or how easy it is to trip on a rock. But after a few events, the expectations sneak in. Orienteering is a competitive activity like tennis or soccer, unlike yoga or painting. Because you need a map and controls out in the bush, you go to events that result in a list where there is the one who comes first, and the one who comes last. Whenever you run fast, you make navigational mistakes; whenever your navigation is spot-on, you feel like you could have been faster or taken bolder route-choices. Whenever you come first in the women’s, you think of who did better overall.

This is when the magic of the beginner’s mind wears off, and when you need to grow up and start observing the mind. This is when it gets harder and more enriching at the same time. Reflect on what it is that drives you to do that sport, and what it brings you in return. Find the strength to commit and come back from that injury or set back (reflecting is an energy-consuming process that rarely comes without a trigger). Separate the intent that drives you to progress from expectations that only generate angst and frustration. Learn to find enjoyment in the process and let go of the result. Do your best at resuscitating the beginner’s mind and be open and curious. Realise that if it was easier you wouldn’t learn as much from it.

A year after a knee injury and 6 months after breaking my big toe (an unfortunate living-room accident), I am now back to a practice of orienteering and rogaining that I am satisfied with. This came from analysing and improving my running posture but mainly from learning not to expect too much. Committing to long-term improvement but being observant and making the most of what every moment brings. Nevertheless, this morning I refreshed the orienteering website results page five times to see ‘how I did’ on the weekend: still a long way to go…

My PhD journey has so far led me into wild, boring, amazing, sometimes surprising landscapes including the dreaded valley of shit and dangerously close to the pit of despair. My situation feels very different from three years ago though. I have learnt that by being perseverant, patient but curious, research unfolds. Whenever it does not work the way we want, we are presented with a good opportunity to observe, change and try again!

Be persistent with your intent, but don’t get distracted by focusing on the result.

The tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth

By Hannah

In a research school dedicated mainly to studying rocks and the environment, I like to think studying human remains is a bit of a novelty. I am part of the Archaeogeochemistry group, (introduced a few weeks ago by Kelsie), who work on using scientific methods for archaeological research.

My research focuses on using stable isotopes, mainly oxygen (δ18O) and strontium (87Sr/86Sr), in human teeth to answer questions about past human migrations and ancient diets **

The kind of people I like working with

The kind of people I like working with.

By measuring isotopes in human teeth we can roughly identify the geographical or geological location of the food an individual was consuming during the time the teeth were forming. This sounds like witchcraft I know, but it’s true! Let me explain.

Oxygen isotopes differ in rain, due to the temperature and the amount of rain in a particular region which creates this beautiful geographical distribution. Oxygen in all it’s isotopic forms, is incorporated in all human tissues as carbonates, phosphates, hydroxls etc.

Global values of oxygen isotopes (δ18O)  in precipitation (Figure from, Bowen 2015)

Global values of oxygen isotopes (δ18O) in precipitation (Figure from, Bowen 2015).

Strontium isotopes differ in bedrock, due to the age and composition of the rock which becomes the bioavailable strontium in the plants and animals of that area. Strontium then substitutes in the place of calcium in human tissues.

Map fo France showing strontium (87Sr/86Sr) values (IRHUM database, Willmes 2015)

Map fo France showing strontium (87Sr/86Sr) values (IRHUM database, Willmes 2015).

The oxygen and strontium isotopes in the food you consume are worked into the teeth and as teeth are not remodelled throughout life, the childhood values are retained into adulthood.

By looking at modern maps, like those shown above, we can compare the values in human tissues to those predicted in that region. Matching values indicate an individual has either not migrated or lived in an area with the similar values in childhood. If values don’t match then perhaps the individual has migrated and that’s where it gets exciting.

Like many other scientific methods though, isotope analysis does not give us definites, rather a variety of possibilities. By interpreting this data alongside archaeological, historical and cultural evidence, isotope analysis can help fill in the blanks and shine light on archaeological questions which were pretty hard to answer previously.

In most archaeological settings people would have had little chance to eat non-local food, but in a modern age where the majority of your supermarket options are foreign, our isotopic signatures are getting messy. So to assist future archaeologists please eat local produce and drink local rainwater, that way you will have a local isotopic signature and your geographic origin will be identifiable!

** When I mention ancient diets, people often assume I am talking about identifying the Paleo Diet, that diet craze which basically promotes eating like a caveman. My work has nothing to do with the Paleo Diet, but I have ranted about the Paleo Diet to the Archaeogeochem kids over coffee, my major issue with it being the archaeological inaccuracies, nerdy I know.

The diet is based on what is believed to be the diet of humans during the Palaeolithic time period. This gigantic time period encompasses the first appearance of modern human ancestors, the evolution of homo sapiens and then the development and expansion of modern humans.

My issues are:

  • Human diets (and humans themselves) would have changed during this time period. Identifying the diet of past populations is not straight forward and identifying particular resources is sometimes as hard as milking a bull.
  • Available resources would differ across the globe, do you pick a particular region and eat only foods available in that region, or do you cheat and eat like a Palaeolithic global traveller?
  • Modern domesticated plants and animals differ from their Palaeolithic versions, after years of selective breeding. Take Brassica oleracea, a native species to coastal southern and western Europe, which has been selectively bred to become cabbage, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, brussel sprouts and broccolini.

Animals have also gone extinct both during and after the Palaeolithic, which would have been utilised by modern humans and their ancestors. If you were hungry enough you would probably eat most of the animals which went extinct during this time period, see the link below for recipe ideas. (Quaternary extinctions; animals once available for eating)

HJ 4

Visiting the IODP Marum Core Repository in Bremen Germany

By Alan Brenner


Statue of Bremen’s town musicians


Brothers Grimm fairy tale







The International Ocean Discovery Program has three main core repositories. They are located in Japan, the United States, and Europe. The European repository in Bremen, Germany is responsible for the Arctic and Atlantic sea-floor cores. The IODP has been known as the DSDP (Deep-Sea Drilling Project and ODP (Ocean Drilling Project).

The Bremen repository takes about 30 hours to reach by plane from Canberra, and it is worth the journey. Upon arrival in Bremen, the first stop is to rub the donkey’s hoof on the statue of the Bremen town musicians, from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale.


IODP repository in Bremen

After this tourist duty is completed, take the tram to the Universtat Bremen which is home to the largest marine sediment core repository in the world. In the cold-storage at Marum, massive walls of sediment core casings are arranged by expedition and cruise number. Cores are split into a working half and an archive half. More than one hole may are drilled at a site to provide earth-scientists with a continuous record of spliced material. Initially, the working halves are sampled, while either the working or archive halves are used for non-destructive analysis.

The primary objective for the visit to the Marum, was to take ~70 meters worth of U-Channels from a single sediment core from the Western Mediterranean.  For reference, this is about a million year’s worth of sedimentation in this location. Secondly, X-ray Fluorescence Scanning needed be done to get an idea of various elemental counts down each section of core at centimeter intervals.

Alan at work

Taking U channels

The core of interest was taken nearly 20 years ago from the Mediterranean and has dewatered over that time which meant that taking UChannels was difficult because a channel could not simply be pressed into the sediments – they were too resistant. To overcome this, a knife was used to cut grooves into the sediment and it was then possible to press the channel in. After insertion of UChannel into the middle of the core, a wire was pulled underneath the channel, the filled UChannel pulled out, and a lid capped to the top.


XRF machine

We have an XRF at the ANU RSES, but it was important to do the count-scans before taking out the ‘U-channels’.  Taking measurements with the Scanner on the sediments in the original liner are more reliable then scans taken on the U-Channel because there has been less disturbance at that point. Scans are run at 1 cm resolution for each of 3 ‘runs’ (50, 30, 10kVs).

These yield a suite of heavy (Ba), medium(Br, Zr, Sr, Rb), and light (Al, Si, K, Ca, Ti, Mn, Fe) elemental counts.

As mentioned previously, there are many types of analyses that can be done on marine sediments. Some of these are non-destructive, and others are destructive. Even though destruction sounds like a negative thing, the data yielded from said procedure can be invaluable. For me, it is difficult to reconcile that such invaluable material is to be ‘destroyed’, but taking into account that sediment cores have a shelf life on the order of decades and it makes logical sense to do good science on them before their expiration date.

Some of the experiments that I will be doing for my PhD involve the destruction of a few grams of sediment per data point, but the data obtained from this are Mediterranean-temperatures from the distant past.  I will post more on this procedure in a future installment. Thanks for reading!

Colour in scientific graphs – part 2

Last time we had an introduction to colour in scientific graphs, where we had two categorical data series. What happens if we have continuous or sequential data, plotted over an area?

Here are two X-ray maps using the classic ‘rainbow’ colour scheme, the first of Ti in allanite:


Looks good, no? We can see the background that has very little Ti compared to the allanite. The allanite has a Ti rich “core”, intermediate “mantle”, and a Ti-poor “crust”. It is also possible to see some “hotspots” of Ti in the mantle.

Let’s see another example, this time of Mn in epidote:


Not as good as before, but we can see the important things. The epidote is mostly in the ~40 area (green), with some Mn-rich zones (blue and violet). The other mineral in the top is low on Mn (yellow).

If you’ve read my last post, then you can already see the problems in this. First of all, this will go bad in black and white printing. Let’s simulate that:


See how the colour scale makes absolutely no sense? The second obvious problem is the accessibility: the use of both red and green makes it difficult for people with colour deficiency to properly understand the figure.

In plots such as this, there is a third problem – the way our eye perceives colour. The computer “sees” the data as continuous. However, when plotted with different colours (hues) our brain interprets what it sees as discrete colours. You see green, red, blue, violet, etc. The problem is exacerbated because not all colours have the same numerical range. If you look at the scale, you can see that you have only one orange whereas you have several greens. Therefore, differences within different shades of the same colour are lost.

In order to make better colour schemes, luminosity should be used instead of hue. The human eye and brain can detect subtle differences in luminosity, especially when it is the same colour. Let’s see how it works for our two X-ray maps:



Oh my, now that’s beautiful. And clear. I used two different schemes – white to dark colour and black to bright colour. Both work fantastically. You can now see that the allanite is actually sector zoned in respect to Ti, and it has a weird Ti-poor ring surrounding its core. You can also discern the delicate details of Mn zoning in the epidote. Notice that I used only one colour! This also works great in grey scale printing.

What happens when you have a certain middle value (such as 0) where the values are diverging from it? It is a good idea to use two different colours and a neutral middle colour:



Even though it doesn’t make much sense to use it in mineral chemistry X-ray map, the result is surprisingly beautiful. It is, however, quite useful in topography (below and above water), geophysics (magnetic anomalies), meteorology (temperature), etc. Just be sure that you’re using colour blind friendly colours.


The Art in Science

This gallery contains 13 photos.

by Louise Schoneveld Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in the science and the data we forget that what we are looking at is truly beautiful. Sometimes, I think we need to step back and just look, turn off the … Continue reading

Game of Python: You Win or You Win

They say procrastination is a bad thing. I found that I always come up with some good ideas while I procrastinate from work. The fact that these ideas are rarely ever related to my work is a different matter entirely, and I might write something on that topic some other time because right now I wish to tell you about how one of those procrastination sessions resulted in something good not just for me, but for others at RSES too.

During this particular procrastination session a couple of months back I was trying to find courses in Python I could attend. If you don’t already know, Python is one of multitude of available programming languages. It is freely available to everyone under open source license. There are heaps of free courses online the purpose of which is to teach someone the basics (and then some) of Python. I always failed to complete any of these – not because they are in any way bad or difficult – on the contrary! – but because I have to organize my life in such a way that I spend some time every day paying attention to them. Something would usually happen and then as soon as I wouldn’t have time to stick to it for 2-3 days in a row – it was done, I wouldn’t go back to it. Why Python? Because it’s powerful, intuitive, easy to use, and because it would enable me to do all my data loading, processing, plotting… what have you… in one go. So far I have used several different pieces of software to do my research. I run the important bit of my code in Fortran, then use shell scripts to process Fortran’s output into something meaningful that I can then plot with GMT. This is tedious, and prone to mistakes. I can do all of this in one Python script. Also did I mention that big companies such as Google, NASA and Walt Disney Animations also use Python?


Python wishing you hello! (source:

As I was looking for courses I realised it would require me to go from Canberra into Sydney (the closest) and cash out around $500 for a one day course. I was looking for something short – couple of intense days of learning so I could get back to my work as soon as possible. One or two day courses were anything between $500 and $750. And so I thought to myself – someone should organise a course at ANU. I started looking and inquiring around ANU, but there was no such thing as a quick Python course. There is a whole semester of Python at Department of Computer Science – but that is semester two. And it’s a whole semester – time one Phd student cannot afford. The only other possible solution I had in front of me was – I will try to organise it. Before I did anything I talked to a couple of guys at RSES geophysics group who I know are using Python on daily basis. I asked them whether they would be willing to teach Python if someone were to organise a course. Since all of them preach how everyone should use it, and how people should finally use more modern methods in their research they readily accepted and decided to put their action where their words are. And so Rhys Hawkins, Christian Sippl and Erdinc Saygin became my first volunteers and principal teachers in a hypothetical Python course. This was a good choice – they are all three wonderful guys, incredibly patient. I know this, because they all work with me and see me every day and they are still my friends.

This was then followed by my email to kea student list (unofficial students list at RSES) with a short description of Python and a simple question – would you like to learn it? I expected around 5 answers in total, most of them coming from geophysics group. I received more than 20 emails within first half an hour. These were emails from students all over RSES – not just geophysics group – all of them interested in learning Python. I was overwhelmed by this response, as it became clear that somehow I managed to pinpoint a need within our department.

After such a response my teachers and I decided we really have to ask these people about their programming background and/or skills. Have you ever programmed before? If so, what did you use? What do you expect from the course? How are you processing your data now and how do you wish to improve it etc etc. It turned out that around 40 interested people spanned the entire spectrum – from those who never wrote one line of code in their lives, to those who use Python every day and just wish to learn something new – and everything and everyone in between.

This was now getting difficult. How do you create a course that can cater to the needs of such a large and varied group? Around a month and a couple of meeting and brainstorms later the four of us had a general plan of the course, booked classroom, requirements for the course (participants had to bring their own laptops) and we have agreed on the distribution to be used. We figured everyone should have the same – so we all get same errors and have one universal way of doing and demonstrating things. Julian Byrne joined at this stage and also offered his help and valuable insights on the material we presented.

The course was scheduled for a whole week after Easter weekend, every day from 9am to 5pm. Because the student group interested was so large, I decided to help my principal teachers and teach on the first day. It was my duty to show everyone the very basics of Python but also to introduce new programmers to the act of programming. I knew just enough Python to do this (and I have been programming since the age of 12), and later I would join the rest of the students as a student too.


Everyone hard at work.

Out of 33 people officially registered for the course, around half that number appeared on the first day. This was to be expected – a lot of people pulled out because they are finishing their theses, or have other duties they cannot cancel. It was my first time to teach anything. I did my best to keep students not overly bored or confused while going through the “what” and the “how” of Python, promising them the “why” at the end of the day. I probably failed a few times, but tried to compensate by asking questions and making people think. This is how my first programming teacher taught me, and I think she did a good job. After going through the most important and common variable types in Python, I showed students how and why to use the if-statements, for and while loops. This is a lot of information for everyone – especially those who never programmed in their life. At the very end of the day I made my students re-type line by line a script that I prepared for them (with Rhys’s help where fancy new Python syntax was concerned). This script was short and simple, performed a simple task but contained everything they have seen throughout the day. Line by line we went through it all together, me gesticulating a lot and heavily using the whiteboard, and them concentrating, intensely. By exactly 5pm they understood it, and ran their first script.

Hmm… what could have gone wrong there?

A proof that they did understand how it all works came in the following days, when they knew exactly where and why they would use a for loop and they were familiar with variable types, indices and string formatting. All of this while learning new things every hour! And they asked very good questions. Also after a question about how and why Python is better than Excel spreadsheets and plotting in Excel, the OTHER STUDENTS answered this. Personally I was very proud of group of students who were just introduced to programming and yet instantly saw the advantage of using Python scripts in their research. You are all a great, bright bunch of students :)

Teaching style obviously changed from day to day as all of us (teachers) are different and because we had a difficult task of going through a lot but not to overkill it. I was a student as well the following days and I learned a lot, not to say that I was completely blown away by some features of Python and an incredible advantage of those features over Fortran and other pieces of software I have been using.

Everyone in the end did a good job – my volunteer teachers and the students. It was difficult to present the material properly at a reasonable pace, and it was difficult to stay focused and interested every day form 9am to 5pm. But in the end we all did it. My biggest reward comes in the form of feedback I am now reading as it is coming into my inbox. Definitely my favorite type of feedback was a dataset plot created in Python and saying “I just need to add a legend now” (thank you Laure, that made my day) and another little email that said “I am using Python now” (thank you Mari, I am glad you find it useful).



Thank you Rhys, Christian and Erdinc – thank you so much for agreeing to take your time and do this. Thank you Julian for you support and insights. Thank you Daniela Rubatto and Ian Jackson for allowing me to this and for your support.

And more than anything – thank you students, for your interest and commitment. This wouldn’t at all be possible without you.

In the end we all learned something new and we are winning big time.


The survivors on Friday afternoon with some funky basemap plots in the background.