Bog standard: Doing a PhD about peat (or anything else for that matter) – part 2


Here’s part 2 of my plethora of peaty PhD pointers. Please feel free to leave comments about your own experiences!

  1. Distractions
    1. Friends
    2. The Blogosphere, Twitface and KittehCam
  2. Here be dragons. Statistical dragons
    1. Rarr. Rarrrr! Arr. R.
    2. Hug a statistician
    3. What are you doing again?
    4. Graph it
    5. Stopping
  3. Writing and talking
    1. Referencing software
    2. Write your thesis in 6 short weeks with this amazing tip!
    3. Zen
    4. Imagine them in their underwear
  4. Getting it together
    1. Word is not your friend
    2. All styles, and substance
    3. Graphs and images
    4. Fields of pain
    5. Keeping it together
  5. The End
    1. What happens at the end
    2. The V-word
    3. After the end

4. Distractions

Friends

I’ve been lucky to have been included in three different research groups, with fantastic people in each. My friends have provided a venting mechanism, sounding board, debating forum, vast amounts of good advice, and – most importantly of all – a jolly good time. Get to know people when you start your PhD and keep on making friends throughout, get out there and join in – you never know when you might need them! My experience has been made richer by the people I’ve been surrounded by.

The Blogosphere, Twitface and KittehCam

If you’re reading this, well, excellent. But if you’re in the middle of a PhD, perhaps you should stop here and save the rest for your lunch break! Procrastination is an art easily mastered, but apparently never perfected: you just have to keep going back for more practice. Access to high-speed internet is both your best friend (papers! access to distributed computing! downloadable software!) and your worst enemy (long reads on The Guardian! KittenCam! Wimbledon!). It’s good to have a break, and the consequences of getting entirely distracted are less severe at the beginning of a project, but like anything else, time becomes more valuable as it diminishes. To get my PhD finished on time, I had to be very strict with myself, actually signing off Facebook and Twitter for two months so that I wasn’t tempted to procrastinate. There are services you can sign up to that will restrict your access to distracting websites for you, but why bother? I found the threat of not actually being finished on time was enough!

The lure of doughnuts was too much for the author.

The lure of doughnuts was too much for the author.

5. Here be dragons. Statistical dragons.

Rarr. Rarrrr! Arr. R.

If you’re doing a PhD in any sort of quantitative discipline, chances are that you will come across R at some point. Whispered along the corridors of educational institutions, and enough to prompt feelings of fear and uncertainty in the uninitiated, the 18th letter of the alphabet has become infamous among PhD students all over the world. Actually, it’s not that bad. In fact, it’s really great. R is a stats package and a programming language, which has several advantages over the competition:

  • It’s free
  • It has an ever-expanding library of functions and help manuals written by users, for users
  • It’s infinitely flexible
  • You get kudos for using it
  • You get to pretend you’re a pirate

There are two disadvantages. Firstly, because R has a command-line interface, you can’t just point-and-click your way through functions, resulting in a steep learning curve. Secondly, when you do turn to the help, or online messaging boards, for assistance, you’ll probably find it rather hostile and obtuse. But don’t be put off – there are lots of great, accessible books on R out there for all disciplines, and so many people use it, there’s bound to be a helpful PhD student or post-doc you can turn to for help.

Hug A Statistician

You might be lucky enough to know precisely what you want to do with your data, once you’ve collected it, but for most of us, choosing the best method for testing a hypothesis can be a tricky problem. This is where your institute’s statistician comes in. I found that the discussions I had with the statistician at my institite were helpful, not condescending, and versed in a way that was simple enough for me to go away and process the information into a decision. Not every institute will have such an approachable statistician, but the maths department might offer consultancy as a service to PhD students, or there’s your fellow students and post-docs. Many minds can often be better than one.

What are you doing again?

Once you’ve got your head around the statistical wizardry, it can be easy to plough ahead and start creating a host of complicated models. At this stage, I found it helped to return to my original questions. What questions was I trying to answer? Which techniques would be best for answering them? Once I had these ideas settled in my head, I drew a flowchart, starting with the data, stating the question, and finishing with the desired method I would use to answer it (usually an R function). The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to keep track of what you’re doing, and what you’ve already done – if you end up repeating tests without realising you’d already done them a couple of days ago, you certainly won’t be alone! In this respect, it’s a good idea to keep a journal for your stats, in the same way as you’d keep a lab book for your work in the lab.

Too much time doing stats can do funny things to some people.

Too much time doing stats can do funny things to some people.

Graph it

Drawing plenty of graphs, at each stage of your analysis, will help you to interpret your results in the context of the real world, and discuss what your data are really showing, rather than confusing your audience with coefficients (while necessary, these aren’t the most reader-friendly way of communicating your results).

Stopping

Remember when you were doing your fieldwork, and you decided to stop because you had enough data to answer the questions you’d set yourself? The same approach can be applied to your statistics. Once you’ve answered your questions using your chosen method, and your happy that your results are robust, don’t go back and try another couple of different methods, just for fun and because you want to flex your new-found statistical muscle. There be dragons! And much wasted time. Stick to the plan, otherwise you could be there forever.

6. Writing and talking

Referencing software

This is important, and worth getting right before you start. Knowing your way around a referencing software package will make your life many orders of magnitude easier when it comes to writing up: a good package will, as a minimum, maintain a database of papers you’ve read, insert references into your documents and compile a bibliography in your chosen style. This is neither the time, nor the place, for an exhaustive review of different packages – among the most well-known are EndNote, Papers, Mendeley and Zotero. I prefer Mendeley personally – it’s free, comes with plenty of cloud storage for pdfs (which you can upgrade for a fee), and is easy to use. Whichever package you decide to adopt, it’s worth learning how to use it properly before you get elbow-deep in writing, then sticking with it until the end, because you won’t want to be working out how to transfer databases between packages with deadlines to meet!

Write your thesis in 6 short weeks with this amazing tip: the ‘chapter a week’ programme

So you’ve spent many backbreaking hours in the field and lab, followed by numerous late nights in front of your favourite statistical package, analysing those hard-won results. Now the time has come to put all that work into words. When I was finally ready for this, time was short, so my supervisor suggested a radical new programme: I would write a chapter in a week. Easy!

Monday: Monday is methods day. The methods are the easiest place to start. Write down what you did, and while you’re at it, write an abstract: what was the worldly problem, what questions did you ask, what were the answers and the implications?

Tuesday: Results text, tables and graphs. Be prepared to cut your graph-tweaking time short – there’ll be time for polishing later.

Wednesday: Back to the introduction, which is composed of five bits: background, knowledge gap, questions, objectives and hypotheses.

Thursday: Four days into the week, you should still be feeling fresh, and a good thing too, for today is discussion day. Put those findings in context! Don’t forget to write a conclusion and discuss the implications of your work.

Friday: Go back to the start and review the whole lot. 5pm is pub o’clock.

Hiding from your PhD won't help.

Hiding from your PhD won’t help.

Zen

Giving a talk before an audience is probably one of the most dreaded aspects of the research experience – I know plenty of postdocs who still get sweaty palms over it, despite years of experience. When I embarked upon my PhD, I knew that this was something I wasn’t terribly comfortable with, so I decided to make the best of it, rather than avoiding the issue. One of the best tips I can give is: be prepared. In reality, this is sometimes difficult, but it’s worth getting your talk ready well in advance and practicing it in front of a substitute audience. This will give you an opportunity to check that you run to time, and take some constructive criticism from colleagues. The less you leave to chance, the less nervous you’re likely to be when the time comes to face your audience for real.

Imagine them in their underwear

Of course, standing up and talking about your work can be very nerve-wracking. There are three coping mechanisms that tend to work for me (the above isn’t one of them). Firstly, do something you enjoy beforehand, to put your mind at ease, and stop you worrying too much. Secondly, be confident. Or at least appear confident – you may well be quaking inside, but once you get through the first couple of slides with an air of authority, you’ll have your audience’s attention and will have generated some momentum to carry you through the next slides. Thirdly, smile and try to enjoy the experience – you deserve to be there, communicating your work.

7. Getting it together

Word is not your friend

It’s probably a given that most people will, at some point, fall foul of Microsoft Word’s irritating and often seemingly random formatting system. Since this is the system that most people (aside from those brave souls who have embraced LaTEX – all power to them, too) will use to write up their theses, I’ve taken some time to outline a few tips that might help to save you from text-based strife.

See this chap: ¶ – clicking the Pilcrow symbol on the Word toolbar will toggle formatting marks on and off. Some might find that leaving it switched on makes the screen a bit too crowded, but I find it useful for understanding the mechanics at work inside a document. It’s particularly useful when you’re working with page, section and column breaks, which can all be employed to good effect to reign your text in and keep it where you want it.

All styles, and substance

Styles in Word can be used to automate the process of setting up a table of contents, which will be much appreciated when you’re at the end of the writing process and just want to get shot of the thing. Headings one to five can be used to create indented headings in the table of contents, which can be automatically updated as you edit your document. This is one of those labour-saving devices that I found really useful.

Graphs and images

Inserting images in Word documents is always a bit of an unpredictable affair. I like to try and hang on until I’ve finished writing the main text before I go ahead and insert the images where I’d like them to appear in the final document – if you’re still moving large chunks of text around, you can put money on the likelihood of Word doing something absurd with the text wrapping or anchor placement, leaving your image several pages from where it should be. Once you’re happy with the text, switch on those formatting marks (¶) and create spaces where you’d like your images to sit – usually just one line is enough. With the cursor where you want the image to be, press the insert button, try not to panic about what might have just happened, and set the text wrapping to ‘in-line’ with text. I do things this way for two reasons: firstly, you know where you are, and your image won’t wander the pages unduly; secondly, in order to speed up scrolling through your document once you’ve accumulated several images, you can tell Word to just display the placeholders (Options | Advanced > Show document content) – this option only works with in-line images.

Formatting turned out to be a tricky affair.

Formatting turned out to be a tricky affair.

Fields of pain

Reference software is jolly useful, but can have one drawback connected with the creation of the table of contents, or tables of figures. Because reference software often uses active fields to link to the reference database – these show up with a grey background when you click on them in your document – they can conflict with the table of contents, which also uses active fields. To avoid any unseemly conflicts, once I’d finished inserting all my references and the bibliography, and was happy with them, I used the option to export the document without active fields to create a ‘clean’ copy – all the references and bibliography are exported as plain text. Most reference packages will have this option, and it’s worth using if you want to avoid potentially confusing conflicts between field codes. Something to bear in mind, however, is that once you’ve exported the document without the field codes, there’s no longer any link to the reference database, so you’ll have to make further changes manually.

Keeping it together

At this stage, you’ll probably be quite good at keeping it together emotionally. After all that time spent writing those precious words, it’s vital to be organised and keep your stuff together physically, too. At the very least, keeping your files backed up will save you having to do everything all over again. This is where cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, SpiderOak, Skydrive, etc., come into their own. As long as you have an internet connection, you can synchronise a folder on your computer at university, continue to work on your documents, then go home, synchronise the folder on your laptop, and work some more. These services aren’t infallible, but they’re much more robust and less easy to loose than portable hard drives and USB sticks. For those with tech-savvy supervisors, you can use shared folders to send your work to supervisors as soon as you’re ready, which avoids those awkward missed emails and filled inboxes.

The author, multitasking.

The author, multitasking.

8. The End

What happens at the end

Congratulations – you’ve made it! Three / four years’ work, all summed up in an epic thesis. Now all there is to it is to print the thing, get it bound, and hand it in. At this point, if you haven’t already (in which case, you do like cutting it fine, don’t you!) a thorough read of your institute’s guidelines on thesis submission comes highly recommended. Even if you’re really up against it, keeping a couple of days free to get your thesis printed and bound will avert any last-minute crises. You may well be stressed and sleep-deprived, so getting your friends involved – particularly when out-sourcing your proof-reading – is a good idea!

The V-word

After all the parties and holidays have dwindled and your life has returned to (an albeit empty-feeling) state of relative normality, it’s not a bad idea to start thinking about your viva. Picking up the thesis and reading it through can be a dispiriting exercise, especially if you had as many spelling mistakes as I did, but it’s absolutely necessary. Pre-viva nerves can be effectively mitigated by knowing the answers to some simple (!) questions:

  • What did I set out to find out / achieve?
  • How did I structure my project, and why?
  • Why did I use those methods? This is a big one: you have to show that you’ve understood the limitations of the methods you used, for data collection and analysis. You’ll need a scientific basis for all the decisions you made – ‘it was what everyone else did’ won’t cut it with your examiners.
  • What did I find?
  • How do my findings fit in the context of other work?
  • What would I do differently?

Like the PhD itself, viva examinations are very personal, and it’s quite likely that someone else will come up with a different set of questions to those above. Asking around can be another good coping strategy for pre-viva nerves.

After the end

What I’ve written about here is based on my experiences of a very personal thing – the PhD – and I’m sure that not everyone will agree with the points I’ve made above. But one of the aspects of being a postgrad that I’ve enjoyed the most is being able to share experiences with other students in a similar position. If you have points and comments of your own to add, please do add them below!

It was worth it in the end.

It was worth it in the end.

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Bog standard: doing a PhD about peat (or anything else, for that matter), part 1


Since finishing my PhD, I’ve felt the need to share my experiences: the great wealth of hints and tips that I was lucky to glean from friends and mentors, as well as that most helpful and elusive of things – hindsight. PhDs are intensely and uniquely personal experiences, and this series of experiences, hints and tips could only ever be a personal account. Nevertheless, I hope it makes amusing reading at the very least, and perhaps it might even be of use to you!

  1. Beginnings
    1. So what are you doing?
    2. The Temple of All Knowing
  2. On fieldwork
    1. Forgetting
    2. Slaves
    3. Let’s be sensible
  3. In the laboratory
    1. Hours. And hours and hours and hours…
    2. Rise of the Machines
    3. Take a break!

1. Beginnings

So what are you doing?

Starting a PhD certainly shouldn’t be a decision that is taken lightly – you’re about to embark on a three/four/five year odyssey of scientific endeavour, a quest for knowledge that will take you to the very edge, and back again, probably several times. Battles will be fought and lost, but victory will also be yours. Some things will have to be sacrificed. You might cry. But you will also laugh, and probably get drunk. On Fridays, you will do both. Without becoming further tangled in the brambly bush of tangents, suffice to say, you’d better like the topic you decide to study, or at the very least find it interesting. Otherwise boredom might quickly turn to resentment and loathing.

Having said that, the decision to begin a PhD is rarely as simple as deciding whether or not you’re into the research topic. I ended up stumbling into mine, as it was suggested at the back end of a job interview. Neither me, nor my potential supervisors, could have any idea of the true nature of the perilous voyage ahead, but I was quite into plants and soil, and liked the sound of carbon cycling, and three years of funded research (i.e. a job) beckoned, so I was in.

The Temple of All Knowing

Beginning a PhD can be a bewildering experience – there are many new people to meet, IT and lab technicians to get friendly with, maybe other supervisors to meet, and stipends to chase. Before getting too involved, it’s really worth getting to know the library (at each of your institutions, if there are more than one): how many books you can get out, how to access their journal collections, how to get access from home using VPN or a password, how to get inter-library loans organised, or request new material. Knowing your stuff about the library will save you time when it comes to writing your literature review, and make your job much easier. They might also offer courses on how to search databases effectively, or use reference manager software (more on that later).

2. On Fieldwork

Forgetting

Picture the scene. After walking a mile across bumpy ground, through knee-high shrubs, following a two-and-a-half hour drive, I stop, put down my box (heavy with expensive kit) and – relieved – take off my rucksack. The relief, however, is short-lived. Rummaging through my box of sampling equipment, I can’t find four unassuming black modules, which are vital components of the sampling that is the sole purpose of my trip. Without them, I can’t do anything. The unthinkable flashes through my mind as I throw items of clothing from my rucksack. I pick up my phone. At first, the report from my friend is positive: he can’t find anything small and black on my desk – oh, wait, might these small black modules be the ones I mean?

I hang up. All I will have achieved is five hours of driving, and half an hour of yomping over rough ground: a waste of half a tank of diesel and most of a day. This was by far the worst experience of forgetting I had while on fieldwork, but by no means the only one. After that, I made a comprehensive list of things I’d need for each sampling trip, and ticked it off rigorously each time I loaded up the pickup to go sampling again.

The author gets his priorities right.

The author gets his priorities right.

Slaves

Or volunteers, as I believe they like to be called. Unless you’re really efficient and have sampling that is achievable in a human lifetime with two hands, you’ll need some help at some point. I’ve been lucky to work in some great groups, where the help has been readily available on the condition that the favour is returned in kind in the future. This system works really well. Apart from the promise of favours returned, cake, sweets and beer are also excellent incentives. Remember to keep your slaves volunteers well-fed, watered and entertained, and they’ll probably come again.

Let’s be sensible

There comes a time in any project where you have to take a step back to consider the bigger picture, particularly concerning how much time you have left and the questions you still want to address. Fieldwork is demanding, expensive, and exhausting if you’re doing it right, so it’s worth regularly considering whether you’re collecting the most appropriate data. Collaborating with others is a great way of sharing the load and is beneficial for both parties. Don’t just continue fieldwork for the sake of it – if it’s not addressing one of your questions, you’d be better off going back to the drawing board and doing something that does.

'adversity'

‘adversity’

3. In the laboratory

Hours. And hours and hours and hours…

The only thing that takes nearly as much time as fieldwork is labwork. It can take absolutely ages, so you should be prepared for much tedium. Investment in some form of portable music device, or even a pair of speakers for the PC in the lab, will stop you from going mad, or at least delay the process. Another good way of saving time is to keep a really thorough notebook – if I had done this right from the beginning, I would have spent much less time hunting for samples I’d diligently hidden deep in freezers. Write everything down, because you never know what might happen.

So many samples...

So many samples…

Rise of the Machines

It’s worth becoming familiar with the instruments (in a purely professional manner, obviously) before it’s your turn to use them, if you can, perhaps by offering to run samples for other people when they are away, in exchange for some tuition. This is where all those hours invested befriending the lab technician will come in useful. If it’s not clear exactly how an instrument is supposed to be used or maintained, or how many standards should be included in a run, it’s worth finding out before starting to analyse those precious samples. If there isn’t a protocol, write one – it’ll be appreciated eventually, and you’ll bask in the glory of being the go-to expert for that machine.

It's a good idea to get stuck into lab duties.

It’s a good idea to get stuck into lab duties.

Take a break!

All those hours spend sieving, drying, weighing, pipetting and extracting can take their toll on the soul, so it’s a good idea to structure your lab work so that you can take breaks to regain your sanity and remind yourself what people look like. This generally involves not leaving your lab work until the last minute, so that you don’t have any choice but to plough on through into the early hours. Setting yourself regular breaks during the day for coffee / email pit-stops will act as an incentive, and the less tired you are, the more effective you’ll be, and the fewer mistakes you’re likely to make.

Continue to part 2
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Plant talk

How often have you heard the phrase ‘I heard it through the grapevine’? New research has potential to give new meaning to the famous lyric, and the findings point to the importance of being well-connected.

Plant scientists at the University of Aberdeen, The James Hutton Institute, and Rothamsted Research have shown that plants use underground fungal networks to warn each other of impending aphid attack. Similar to a particularly hilarious cat photo doing the rounds on Facebook, or Twitter erupting over Ryan Gosling, plants communicate the threat of impending aphid attack to their neighbours through networks of fungal mycelia. Mycelia are thread-like, branching networks that form the vegetative parts of fungi – unlike the fruiting bodies, which appear at the surface, mycelia operate underground, continuously harvesting nutrients. The new findings suggest that they may also act as a rudimentary sort of World Wide Web for plants.

To test the idea that plants connected by fungi warn each other of attack, the researchers grew bean plants (Vicia faba) in groups of five. Three of the plants were allowed to grow fungal mycelia between their roots, while the other two were prevented from growing the mycelia. One of the plants in each group was infested with aphids, causing the plant to release chemicals intended to repel aphids and attract wasps, one of the aphids’ natural predators. The plants were covered with bags to prevent chemical communication through the air.

Aphids

Some aphids discuss their next move. Image courtesy of pennstatenews (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pennstatelive/).

Plants that were not infested with aphids, but were connected to the infested plant by the fungal network, also started to produce the defensive chemical response, while the plants that were isolated from the fungal network did not produce the defensive response. The plants connected through the fungal network received advanced warning of the aphid attach, and were able to defend themselves, while the isolated plants remained vulnerable. The plants were probably using the fungal network to communicate using chemical signals.

The arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi that grow the interconnecting networks of mycelia commonly live in symbiosis with a wide range of plants, including many agricultural crops. The researchers behind the study think that there might be great potential for turning the ability of plants to gossip using the fungal net to our advantage: by identifying the chemical compound used to signal to other plants, and using a plant vulnerable to aphid attack to trigger a defensive response in others, plant scientists could develop a natural and sustainable method to limit the damage done to crops by aphids.

The research is published in Ecology Letters: Underground signals carried through common mycelial networks warn neighbouring plants of aphid attack. This post draws upon the following James Hutton Institute news item: Plants use underground networks to communicate danger.

Bogs and the wrong sort of wind

Wind turbines can often be a contentious issue, as Donald Trump’s recent spats with Alex Salmond have shown. Despite this, electricity generation using onshore wind turbines is projected to continue making a large contribution to the UK’s renewable energy budget. Peat bogs are often identified as suitable locations for wind farms, but what impact will wind turbines have on these important ecosystems?

So I’ve heard that peat bogs are important…

They are. Over the last 10,000 years, peat bogs have captured carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, storing it in deep organic deposits. Scientists estimate that the UK’s peat bogs store at least 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon – losing 12% of this would be equivalent to the total greenhouse gas emissions from the UK population over a whole year. Peat is regarded as a non-renewable resource, due to the long periods it takes to accumulate, and there is a compelling environmental argument for its protection.

How do wind farms affect peat bogs?

Many of the UK’s onshore wind farms are located in upland areas where peat bogs are often found. Peat bogs are attractive sites for wind farms, because they make poor agricultural land and are frequently windy, but construction of wind turbine foundations, access roads and works compounds can have major effects on peat bog health. The most serious problems are:

  • Removal of peat and vegetation for turbine construction prevents the peat bog from capturing carbon. Instead, the affected area becomes a source of carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide and methane.
  • Drainage is often necessary in the construction of turbine foundations and access roads. Lower water levels can lead to increased emissions of carbon dioxide.

Are the impacts of wind farms on peatland important?

The release of greenhouse gases associated with wind farm construction has the potential to cancel out the carbon emission savings associated with wind energy. These effects can be summarised as the carbon payback time. Carbon payback time is an important aspect of wind farm development. It is the period of wind farm operation necessary to generate sufficient carbon savings to balance the emissions incurred during development. Wind farms only start to achieve carbon savings after the payback time has elapsed, so if the payback time exceeds the lifetime of the wind farm, no carbon benefits will be achieved.

A study by Dr Dali Nayak of Aberdeen University for the Scottish Government calculated that carbon losses from wind farms built on peat bogs could cancel out up to 77% of the potential carbon savings associated with wind power.

The future of UK wind

The UK Government is committed to a target of 15% renewable energy generation for the UK by 2020 and wind turbines are one of the most established renewable technologies – the largest source of renewable energy, second to biomass. The Department of Energy and Climate Change expects onshore wind generation to increase between four and five times in order to meet the 2020 targets.

Finding a balance

There is pressure to expand the UK onshore wind energy resource so that it forms a key component of the UK’s renewable energy mix by 2020. Upland peat bogs are often perceived as ideal wind farm locations because there is little land use pressure from agriculture and they are typically windy places, but greenhouse gas emissions from peat bogs caused by disturbance from wind farms can cancel out the benefits associated with renewable energy. The bottom line is: to ensure the best returns from wind farms, you have to be careful where you put them – and peat bogs may not be the answer.

The power of peat

A wintery sun begins to set in the north pennines

A wintery sun begins to set in the north pennines

Last August I was lucky enough to be one of thirty budding scribes shortlisted for the inaugural Guardian / Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize. I was invited to spend an afternoon at a science writing workshop at the Guardian HQ, hosted by Alok Jha, where the shortlistees had the opportunity to extract some top tips from established science writers James Randerson, Michael Regnier and Stephen Curry. The evening consisted of a glitzy awards ceremony, hosted by Dara O’Briain at the Wellcome Collection, in which the winners Tess Shellard and Penny Sarchet were announced.

The event was very inspiring and I had a fantastic time; creative juices were in full flow and it was great to have the chance to chat with so many like-minded people. My writing has since had to take a back seat while I finish my PhD, but it’s worth noting that the 2012 Science Writing Prize is to be announced soon!

Below is my original entry to the competition, an edited version of which was published on the Wellcome Trust blog not so long ago.

The power of peat and the climate challenge

When: Sometime after lunch, Tuesday 15th March 2011.

Where: 600 metres up in the north Pennines.

The temperature is supposed to be ten degrees centigrade, but it feels much colder. It’s raining, horizontally – a puddle has actually formed on the page of my notebook. My fingers are frozen, everything is sodden. Every effort is bent on protecting the £5000 box of electronics that I’ve been entrusted with on this important mission, which cannot be allowed to get wet. Why am I here?

My mission, as I chose to accept it nearly three years ago when I started my PhD, is to study an upland peat bog. As a vital part of our planet’s life support system, peat bogs are up there with the rainforests. While the trees in Amazonia are doing the glamorous part, being the lungs of the world and providing us with clean air to breathe each day, peat is sitting there on lonely fell-tops and windy tundra, quietly soaking up the rest of the emissions we produce and swallowing up the occasional sheep. Without peat, we’d be further along the path to a warmer world than we are right now.

Since I began my research, I’ve discovered that working in a landscape that is classified as sub-Arctic, despite its location more than one hundred miles south of Edinburgh, comes with its own set of challenges. Peat is ninety per cent water. Both equipment and field workers can get stuck in the bog all year round, while in the winter blankets of snow cover everything.  In summer, tufts of white cotton grass bob gently on the breeze and sometimes it stops raining, causing swarms of midges to descend upon the unwary scientist. Linnaeus felt the weight of the fieldwork challenge, investigating the mires of Lapland back in 1732:

“The whole of this Lapp country was bog, which is why I call it the Styx. No priest has ever painted Hell so vile that this does not exceed it, no poet described a Styx so foul that this does not eclipse it.”1

He wasn’t keen then. It’s not surprising that peat bogs have a bit of an image problem. But it’s their inhospitable nature that makes them so vital. The cold and wet conditions help peat to lock up CO2 from the atmosphere, storing it as organic carbon. Since the end of the last ice age over ten thousand years ago, our rainy bogs have been soaking up more than a quarter of all the organic carbon stored in soils globally. All that carbon is stored in dark brown, wet deposits many metres deep, with the texture and colour of chocolate sponge cake but none of the charm.

The problem is that, if the sponge cake starts to dry out, thousands of years’ worth of accumulated carbon will start returning to the atmosphere as CO2 faster than the peat can store it, ruining our attempts to slow our changing climate. A loss of less than two per cent of our planet’s peat bogs would be equivalent to the amount of CO2 released by humans annually2. So much for cycling to work and buying organic. Once our peat bogs start losing CO2, it might be difficult to stop them.

There are many threats to peat bogs: drainage for farming, extraction for fuel, wildfires and erosion are four of the more serious. Luckily our attitude towards peat bogs has improved since Linnaeus’ day, and that’s why I find myself crouching in the heather, trying not to sink into the peat while keeping my expensive scientific equipment dry.

My research focuses on the carbon side of the peat bog story. How much do peat bogs store away? How much do they release, and are they storing it away at the same rate? Those are two of the questions I’d like to answer. There is a great variety of research taking place on peat bogs, with topics ranging from erosion to heavy metal pollution, from reconstructing past climates to the importance of peat as a wildlife habitat. They might be under-appreciated, but our peat bogs provide us with a wealth of services: they hold a vast amount of water, provide space for recreation and are a refuge for many rare plant and animal species. Perhaps most importantly for us, they are a crucial tool in our efforts to slow our changing climate. There’s the power of peat.

References:

1 Quoted in Rydin, H. and Jeglum, J.K. 2006: The biology of peatlands. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 262.

2 Figures from presentation by Smith, P., given at ‘Investing in Peatlands – the Climate Challenge’ conference, Durham, 28-29th September 2010.

Peatlands are carbon cycling hotspots

Last week I gave a talk at the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting in Sheffield – you’ll find it embedded below. If you view the talk on SlideShare, you’ll be able to see notes for each of the slides (under speaker’s notes). The story is similar to the previous talks that I’ve uploaded, but I’ve included a bit more information about the microbial communities in this one, along with some preliminary greenhouse gas emission data.

The quality of the talks and thematic sessions at the BES meeting was generally very high – I’m very much looking forward to attending next year’s.

Cycling on a windy day

This is my first post for a while, and may well be the last for some time – I’m settling into PhD-finishing mode. I’m still finding time for some fun things though, like cycling…

The weather in Lancaster today has been… exciting. After battling the rain-filled headwind all the way to work, I heard news of major delays on the railways and motorways after extensive flooding. This evening was a different story. The wind had, if anything, intensified during the day, blowing the rain away and whipping the tempestuous clouds across the sky at an alarming rate. I left campus and pedalled hard south into the wind again, then turned north to ride back home along the Lune estuary path.

What a ride it was. The cross-wind kept threatening to shove me into the trees – at times it felt more like sailing than riding a bike. Despite the need to concentrate, I couldn’t resist throwing glances back over my left shoulder and out to sea. The wind was piling the waves up into the estuary, brown seawater swelling high over the normally dry and grassy salt marsh. A dazzling silver-gold light spilled over the lush, now ponded fields, accentuating all the colours in the late summer vegetation. Rarely have I seen the grass such a vibrant green. Cows moved together to investigate the new watering holes. On the estuary path, trees raged sideways in the gale, scattering twigs and leaves, apples and galls across the way.

I arrived back at the dockside tired, ready to make the most of the generous tailwind. There’s nothing quite like spinning easily back home in top gear, the wind in your back, tyres zipping up the tarmac.

Today’s verdict? Cycle on rainy days. You’ll have adventures.

New 2020Vision promo video

You might have read my previous posts about 2020Vision, the multimedia initiative that is all about documenting the links between healthy communities and healthy ecosystems. I’m not actively involved in the 2020Vision project, but I think it’s a great idea. Here’s their new promo video, showcasing some of their most stunning images and the principles behind the initiative:

Capturing the wilder side of Britain

At a recent IUCN Peatland Programme meeting I met Mark Hamblin, web designer and image manager for 2020Vision.

2020Vision is a multimedia initiative, designed to promote the links between healthy people and healthy ecosystems. With a team of 20 photographers, they aim to communicate the value of healthy ecosystems to the public and key decision-makers. To do this they’ve created 20 ‘assignments‘, which focus on key ecosystems, one of which (of interest to me) is peatlands.

I can thoroughly recommend the 2020v blog, which regularly features stunning images, like the one below: