Earlier this year I was lucky enough to get to go over to California for a few days all in the name of science. We stayed up in the hills behind Berkeley, a short walk away from the instrument we were using. The view from our hotel room was pretty amazing with views across San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean.
Last year myself and fellow PhD Jessica Lowczak organized a geological field trip for 19 students through Central Australia. This was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done, and despite there being many a stuff-up along the way, I am quite proud of the experience as a whole. It is nearly 2016, and therefore time for the new cohort of students to start thinking about where they want to go on the next trip, and how they are going to organize it.
Just recently I was given a healthy reminder that some stereotypes are really hard to break. I am very open about the fact that I was always interested in science, however when I hit 16 I was more interested in being cool. Unfortunately I had no role models that were cool scientists which led me to make some decisions that would lead me away from science* for over a decade**. And so during my time at the Research School of Earth Sciences I have gladly been involved with the university’s Equity and Diversity Unit, that most recently included participating in their ‘Who are scientists?’ workshop that was held for 14 year olds from regional school along the coast.
The 8 representative ‘scientists’ were jumbled in with other staff from our coastal campus, and when singled out the 120 kids were asked to stand if they thought that person was a scientist. Of 120, guess how many stood for me……
So you may have heard talks about the Earth Physics group within the RSES. You may not know this, but you do know some of them! They allegedly show up at morning teas and student lunches. Also various on and off campus gatherings. Some of them are quite loud, or so I was told1.
You may also have heard talks about this group being unsocial – this is a lie. I infiltrated this group about a year and a half ago and people are far from unsocial. They are lovely, witty, hilarious, social, warm and fuzzy and more than anything PhD students – just like you lot – and they in fact do love to party!
You may have also heard talks about Fluid Dynamics group. This is a group within the Earth Physics group. Everything I just said about the Earth Physics group applies to this small group too – basic tautology and Venn diagrams taught us this. But I have to admit here and now, that it is – unfortunately – very true, that we don’t see much of them. I don’t know why this is. I tend to believe that some horrible Mexican-like standoff went down – way-back in the days that separated this group from the rest. It’s not unlikely in the academia.
It may have been some water-level rise dispute, office space, or a maniac running around with an axe2. I don’t know – but what I do know is that from my limited contact with some of the people within this group, I can almost guarantee that they are amazing!
This is why I decided to go around all the prejudice and smugness and invite this group to our Cake Friday morning tea. I was told they would be there. They weren’t. Well, with the exception of one person who confirmed to me that the invitation DID spread out through the group (thank you my ambassador of goodwill – you know who you are and I appreciate your effort).
I found out later from the ambassador of goodwill that this group has their regular meetings at this particular time when the rest of us are stuffing cakes down our pie holes. Rumor has it they asked to have this moved to a different time. This is positive, eh?!
The revolution has started everyone! We will reunite once again – sooner or later. I am not giving up on this. I was called names for trying – I was accused of wanting more friends. I was told that the universe might explode because of something so improbable … probably happening. Well bring it on universe! Call me a friend if you want! In spite of all of this I have negotiated peace talks with the Fluid Dynamics group and we have successfully moved on. Some bribery in form of cake may or may not have been involved (people talk). Fluid Dynamics group is very welcome to gatherings, teas, lunches and whatnot. I am looking forward to see them there soonish. I’m inviting all of you to join me in this crusade and make them feel so welcome that we can all quickly forget that any separation ever happened.
1 The people, not the gatherings. Oh well, actually…
The recently released budget plans of the Australian government have been heavily debated over the last few weeks. I will not bother you with my (general) opinion about the budget (or the current government) as
a.) People, more skilled in writing, can do that much better.
b.) This blog should be mainly about Research and PhD student life and not political issues.
c.) I don`t feel like driving my blood pressure too high today.
What I want to talk about is something that is affected by the budget and makes a crucial impact on (PhD) student lives as well: The price of education.
Before I discuss this, I just find it fair to give you some information about me, that can help you to understand where my viewpoint is coming from and where my opinion might be biased the one way or the other:
I`m from Germany and received my whole education (before starting a PhD) there. That means, in a country where education (yes, even studying) is generally free (of cost!) for everyone. Of course, there are problems with the german education system as well, but the basic idea that education should be free to everyone is something that I feel very strong about.1
At the moment I`m in a PhD program at ANU, and this is only thanks to Australian scholarships that cover my university fees and living costs. And I`m deeply grateful for this opportunity.
Now, you might think that the latter point might have told me the lesson, that (in theory) in a system, where students have to pay a fee for studying, everyone can study (through credits, scholarships, savings) regardless of their financial starting situation. And that therefore these systems are as good as non-fee university systems.
I agree that this statement would be true, in a perfect world, where everystudent has either enough savings, can get a scholarship or has no problem to get and to pay off their student loan.
I yet haven’t been convinced we live in such a world.
Even if, it would still make a difference for someone who thinks about studying, if they have to take the financial risk of a student loan (or burning a big hole in their savings) into account, or whether they don`t have to bother about that.
Anyway, I actually don`t want to discuss the pros and cons of fee and non-fee education systems here. I can see why a fee-system is very attractive for Australia with all those cash cows around, ready to milk. These cash cows being countries (e.g. China, Chile) who (more or less) happily pay the fees to send their students to esteemed Universities in Australia.
For me this shows the mind-set behind the fee-system: Education as a business.
If, at least, this system would provide solid funding for the education of domestic students. They`ll probably going to need more support when the university fees start to skyrocket …
“At present, the student contribution to their education is fixed by the Commonwealth and varies by discipline. From 2016 universities will be able to set the amount of the student contribution. There will be no cap on this amount provided it does not exceed the amount which the University charges international students in that same discipline.”
That`s a thing that won’t go in my head: The goal of a university fee is that the students pay for their education, right? Or did I misunderstand the concept? Now, shouldn`t that mean, that your own students should only pay what their education costs? That one charges more to foreign students, okay, that`s the “Edcuation is a business” approach. But your own students – they are an investment in the countries future.
But now it can happen that domestic students have to pay the same as foreign students. In my opinion that will mean one thing:
They`ll pay more for their education than it costs!
Where will that surplus of money end up?
Presumably in the other area, universities are there for: Research2.
Don`t get me wrong: More money for Research? Superb!.
But I think it should come from the institutions (e.g. the state or companies) that are interested in the results.
I can follow the internal logic of a system where you require students to pay for their education (even though I personally don`t think it`s the best solution).
What I can`t, is to see the rationale behind what (I think) is looming at the horizon:
A system where students have to subsidize research, because the government doesn`t want too fund it properly!
2 Of course not directly. But there are a lot of things in a university that are needed for education and research as well (e.g. infrastructure, staff). If you assign a bigger amount of money for these basic costs to the education sector you effectivly subsidize the research sector of the university. I could be wrong with that, so if someone knows more about where this surplus of money is going to go, please share that information in the comments.
After finally completing my thesis and graduating I thought I’d try something a bit different, something I probably haven’t done in a long while; read a book for fun! However it was during a somewhat starry-eyed cruise through the science section at a local book retailer that I spotted something that instantly ruined the entire endeavour.
“Taxing Air: Facts and Fallacies about Climate Change”
By Bob Carter and John Spooner
Inevitably I purchased the book if only to remove it from the shelf, and to see if it had any legitimate arguments. It didn’t take long belong I stumbled across one premise that was quite troubling.
“…it has never been demonstrated that warming above today’s temperature would be harmful [to humans].”
This claim is really a trick of language, sure, we have scant evidence for the effects of warming on humans, and there is little in the way of precedent. However, we have a large body of evidence for some of the other effects from warming, and, it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination how these will impact humanity.
We know that warming will raise sea level through the melting of land ice and the expansion of water as it warms. Rising sea level presents a threat to the coastal infrastructure of many nations and threatens many of the smaller island nations existentially. Sea level rise could cause the displacement of millions of people from some of the poorest parts of the globe.
I could continue to cover many similar premises, but they all fall into a similar category of being implied criticisms based on ignored or cherry picked information.
The overarching reason that finding this book annoyed me is because the way arguments like this are constructed to distort people’s understanding. This problem becomes apparent when we view the discrepancy between the debates about climate change in the public and scientific sphere. This book would not be as transparent to someone who hasn’t studied climate change for the good part of their undergraduate degree.
So kudos to the people that communicate their science and the scientific communicators for their efforts in eventually drowning out the claims such as those expressed that book.
Well, the answer depends on what we mean by the “origin of life”. One could say that it all started 13.8 billion years ago with the birth of the universe – the “shock and awe” process we call the Big Bang. The impetus that kick-started the processes which led to primitive life-forms may have come from the seeding of our planet with molecules such as amino acids on asteroids, comets, stardust, or other cosmic bodies crashing into our young planet. Perhaps, the jolt to bring inanimate abiotic molecules together to form the precursors to biological molecules could have come from lighting strikes. This process of prebiotic synthesis was first experimentally tested back in 1952 by a graduate student Stanley Miller.
The now famous Miller-Urey experiment was an impressive attempt to show that it was possible to synthesis life’s building blocks by simulating conditions of the early Earth. With nothing more than hydrogen, water, methane and ammonia, Miller was able prepare a concoction of amino acids – the building blocks of everything alive on Earth. Continue reading “Did life originate with a bang?”→
As anyone who closely follows the this blog might have noticed, my blog output has dropped considerably in the past few months. This is, of course, related to the fact that I want to be done my PHD in the next few months. During the past few weeks, I can noticeably feel the levels of stress increasing past thresholds never experienced in the past.
When doing my masters thesis, I cruised to an easy victory, so it seemed. I finished on schedule and my defense went off without a hitch. When the biggest criticism from your external examiner was failing to put scale bars on maps, I think it was a good indication of success. My current supervisor told me recently that he would never have accepted a student who had to work extremely hard for their honours/masters.
A PHD is a different beast. You have much longer to finish relative to a masters degree, though the expectations are far higher. There is no course work to help you along, so you must be self motivated to learn all the skills required to finish on time. Things don’t always work out as planned, and delays inevitably happen. At the end, there are things that conspire to raise stress levels: running out of money, the need to find a job, deadlines for graduation, summer holidays. Will I be able to go on a holiday this summer? That is a question I will not be able to answer right now. Will I find a nice post-doctoral fellowship somewhere? Can I finish my thesis before my money supplies start depleting, and to get my graduation papers by June 2014? These are all things that drive me right now. And of course, there is always that lingering feeling of imposter syndrome.
To compound the problems are computer troubles. Because of limited time, I needed to change scripts that run programs. Of course, nothing ever works perfectly first time, but it can be extremely frustrating to track down mystery bugs. I got it working, but it took nearly three work days. I am going to the AGU Fall Meeting in December, so I need results! It is getting close, but I think it is possible to get the required results by then.
What possible way is there to get out of this period of high anxiety? This is a fairly new experience for me, but I think the best cure is to work hard and get things done! Ultimately, finishing solves all the problems. I think it is a good idea to step out and breathe some fresh air sometimes (and maybe play some ultimate frisbee!)
Last week the RSES Student Conference was upon us. This is an annual event that gives the students at RSES the opportunity to present their research to the School in a short 5 minute presentation. The more than 40 talks covered most of Earth History and reflected the huge range of projects going on in this school.
For those that don’t know me, I’m a third year RSES Geology kid currently on exchange to the University of Leeds. Each year Leeds runs a 2-week field class to Cyprus during the Easter break to check out the cool geology there. For the unaware, Cyprus is a small island in the eastern Mediterranean, nestled between Syria and Lebanon to the East and Turkey to the North. But what’s so special about Cyprus? The answer to that is ophiolites. The Troodos ophiolite in Cyprus is one of the best exposed and preserved in the world. Ophiolites are complete slices of oceanic crust, from lithospheric mantle through to pillow lavas and surface sediment that have been tectonically emplaced above other crust.
The purpose of our trip was to study the structure of the Troodos ophiolite and compare our observations to existing ophiolite models (eg. Penrose model), and the structure of the oceanic crust, as inferred by other more incomplete data sets (largely based on geophysical measurements). Interestingly enough (but not that surprising), there are some discrepancies between the geophysically-inferred oceanic crust structure and the observed ophiolite structure. To build our model of the ophiolite’s structure we worked our way through the Troodos mountains and all its forgotten villages in our mini-bus, playing “Who am I?” (see Inglorious Basterds) on our helmets with marker pens.
I searched into the dictionary and the first meaning of the word “change” is “to make or become different”. Now, not everybody appreciates changes and I can see why. Usually a change is accompanied by the fear of the unknown and the possibility of being thrown into a very different world is always scary. Talk to an Italian and ask him/her why their politicians seem to be always the same. Most of them will answer that they tend to vote for the people they already know even if they are aware that these people are not good politicians. The fear of not knowing what or who could come next is so big that they prefer to make the wrong decision and vote again for somebody who already showed his faults (sooo many) and virtues (sooo few).
Given this quick explanation of change, allow me to introduce a second word that next to the previous one, might scare you even more.
Change of supervision.
No, it is not a myth or the monster that stands in your wardrobe. It happens for real and I think we should talk about it. I won’t use names and I will be extremely neutral (even if somebody thinks I won’t). Continue reading “Failures or Opportunities?”→
Just a little something for those who haven’t had the pleasure of wandering the halls of the Research School Of Earth Sciences at the ANU. Here we have the promotional video for the undergraduate department, where we all love fieldwork, and have aspirations to go on to geological greatness…Sigh, I remeber wanting to be great, now I’d be happy with submitting!
For a look at the research side of things click here, or here for a number of academic profiles.
After a night of wining, dinning, sky gazing and chess, getting ready in the morning was a bit slow. A cold shower, some Saturday morning New Zealand TV and a muffin later, we were all packed up and back on the road towards Kaikoura.
On route to Kaikoura down state highway 1, we visit major faults that make up the Marlborough fault system. First stop the Awatere fault, the only fault in Marlborough to offset a major Neogene basin.
Highlight of the day, was a hike along the Waima river, following orange triangles directing walkers in and out of the riverbed. Being the last day of fieldwork, and considering the strict customs protocols of New Zealand and Australia, most people were weary of getting their boots wet. This was a tough task since we had to cross the river several times before the route leaves the riverbed for a short time then meets Isolated Creek. “But I think Mike pulled it off”. After a while we reach the Saw Cut Gorge. A narrow gorge sliced into solid limestone. Still nursing sore muscles from the Dun mountain climb, I couldn’t imagine this hike was easy for most people. But I am sure a cool swim in the river, made it worthwhile.
A few more stops at other fault zones and Alex declares the field trip officially over. About time too….Did I have a pie today?
The day ended with dinner and of course, beers and some singing. Awesome trip folks!!!
French geological maps have a curiosity compared to those in other parts of the world. They include the surficial geology, rather than just the bedrock. This surficial geology includes river gravels, glacial deposits and the like. All things which aren’t strictly rock, but could be one day. The reason for this is that these surficial sediments control the type of soil that lie above them, like most rock types do. Therefore a French geological map is a far better indicator of soil type (although interpreting structural features is far harder).
Why do the French do this? Because the soil type is of utmost importance to the French, for it is the crucial “la terroir”. And it has a great effect on the wines that are produced above, having large influences on flavour. After climbing Dun Mountain, and discovering lots of hard rock geology, we took a rest day and decided to take a close look at some surficial sediments and their influence. All in the name of science, of course. Continue reading “Day 10: Geology: Marlborough Style”→