By Jess

Every year the Italian city of Urbino plays host to the Urbino Summer School in Paleoclimatology (USSP), bringing students from all over the world together to learn from some of the leading scientists in the field.

So this July Rose and I said a sad (ha!) goodbye to the Canberrean winter and got on our flights to join USSP 2015 for the Italian summer.

I had researched Urbino in advance (well, I had googled it), so from the pictures I knew that the nice location of the summer school would probably compensate for the less-than-direct journey to get there, but I was still surprised by how beautiful the city was.

Urbino (Photo: Michiel Baatsen)
Urbino (Photo: Michiel Baatsen)

The medieval walled city sits on top of a hill; with an impressive Palace (Palazzo Ducale) and Cathedral (Duomo), residing over the maze of stone buildings and cobbled lanes. With virtually no modern alterations within the city walls, walking around the streets early in the morning before the town wakes up it feels as though you could have been transported back in time 500 years and you wouldn’t even be able to tell. The lovely views of the Italian countryside on all sides are only marred by a little bit of modern construction to remind you that you are actually still in the 21st century.

A lot of Urbino’s history and architecture is tied to the days of the Duke Fredrico of Montefeltro* who wanted to attract artists and scholars to the city. And although I’m sure he didn’t have paleoclimatologists in mind, when you walk around it’s hard not to feel inspired in some way.

Streets of Urbino
Streets of Urbino (Photos: Michiel Baatsen)

Our summer school days were usually filled with lectures on various paleoclimatic topics, starting off with looking at different types of paleo-proxies at the start of the course and moving onto their application in reconstructing and modelling past climate changes as the course progressed.

I found this extremely useful to build up a general background understanding of the wider field of paleoclimatology. Since starting my PhD I’ve been so focused on my specific project and the things directly related to it; it was good to take a step back and see the bigger picture, to appreciate the other stuff going on out there, and to find where my research fits in with everything. This opened up a lot of ideas (and questions) for my project, so that by the end I was really looking forward to get back to working on it.

We also had a day out in the field. I did oceanography for my undergrad, so this was my first real geology fieldtrip! I was especially excited to see the K-T boundary preserved in the rock, this marks the event which caused the dinosaurs to go extinct!

This is the K-T boundary:

The K-T boundary near Gubbio in the Umbria region (Photo: Michiel Baatsen)
The K-T boundary near Gubbio in the Umbria region (Photo: Michiel Baatsen)

Hmmm…  so I guess I am still not a geologist as I was definitely slightly underwhelmed by this. But it is pretty cool to know how much history is recorded in layers of rock, and how much has been learnt from studying them.

Although the summer school was structured around lectures, one of the most important parts of USSP is undoubtedly the chance to meet and talk to all the other researchers and students. The people there are very possibly potential future colleagues, collaborators, even employers.

So I was a bit nervous because I thought all the professors might be really intimidating, and the other students might be really competitive, but as it turned out almost everyone was just super friendly.

After lectures there were drinks on the Piazza or football games (I even scored a couple of goals – people on the pyrites team for last year’s summer league will be as surprised at this as I was),  and in the evenings the local ‘Bosom Bar’ pub or ‘El Piquero’ bar would be full of scientists and a mix of alcohol, science talk, not-science talk and dancing. We even had some free days where we could go explore nearby towns or head to the beach.

A swim in the Adriatic Sea
A swim in the Adriatic Sea

Ultimately it was the people who made USSP such a great experience; not only did they make the whole thing a lot more fun and sociable, but it was really awesome to meet such a mix of people from all over the world who, despite working on a range of different topics, all have a shared interest in paleoclimate!

Picnic overlooking Urbino on the last day (Photo: Michiel Baatsen)
Picnic overlooking Urbino on the last day (Photo: Michiel Baatsen)

I would definitely recommend USSP to any paleoclimate students, especially if you can go in the first couple of years of your PhD. For more info visit their website here:

And finally because I can’t finish this post without mentioning it; the food was amazing. I could write a whole post on the food we ate there… but unfortunately this has ‘nothing to do with earth sciences’…

* Interesting fact: The Duke lost his right eye during a tournament, so he is always portrayed in profile, showing only his good side. Following the accident he had the bridge of his nose surgically removed to increase his field of vision and hence be less vulnerable to assassination attempts. (Source: brief history lesson during USSP2015 where, following annual tradition, a distinguished scientist dresses up as the duke to give a special seminar).

The 'Duke' giving his speech
The ‘Duke’ giving his seminar speech