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General Assembly

GeoTalk: Matt Taylor of ESA’s Rosetta Mission

GeoTalk: Matt Taylor of ESA’s Rosetta Mission

In November 2014, space exploration history was made. Millions of kilometres away, orbiting a piece of ice and rock, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission sent its probe Philae to become the first spacecraft to soft-land on a comet.

rosetta_tweet1

After the tense 7-hour wait that followed the separation from the main orbiter, a tweet confirmed that the little lander had successfully completed the first part of its mission. Following a 10-year journey through space, on the back of the Rosetta spacecraft, Philae had successfully touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Tweet_rosetta

The story of Rosetta and Philae will go down in the history books, like others before it, and ignite the imagination of children and adults alike, for whom space is the ultimate frontier.

These great stories of space exploration have inspired the 2016 Geosciences Information For Teachers (GIFT) workshop: The Solar System and Beyond, which took place during the EGU General Assembly in Vienna. The symposium combined presentations on current research by leading scientists with hands-on activities presented by science educators for 80 teachers from 20 different countries.

The keynote lecture was given by Matt Taylor, the Rosetta Project Scientist at ESA, who told the remarkable story of Rosetta and its companion, Philae. I was lucky to catch up with Matt during the conference and we spoke about the GIFT workshop, science fiction, and life after Rosetta (with the mission end now confirmed for September 2016).

 

Matt, thank you for talking to me today. Before we get stuck into details about the Rosetta mission and your time at the conference, could you tell our readers a bit more about your role as project scientist for the mission?

I basically act as a link between the scientific community and ESA. There are many instruments on board Rosetta and Philae, with each of their operations being coordinated by a lead scientist. With such a mix of instruments, all pointing in different directions and with different goals, it’s up to me to coordinate the work of the lead scientists and ensure that we get everything we need to do, done. I try to make sure everyone is happy, or unhappy, as the case may be!

I also provide outreach support for the mission, by giving public lectures and taking part in projects such as the GIFT workshop here at EGU 2016.

The aim of the GIFT workshops is to spread first-hand scientific information to science teachers which they can then use in the classroom to inspire their students and engage them with science. Often, outreach efforts are directed towards the students themselves, so why do you think it is important to inspire teachers about science too?

Matt Taylor speaking at the 2016 General Assembly. Credit: Laura Roberts/EGU

Matt Taylor speaking at the 2016 General Assembly. Credit: Laura Roberts/EGU

It is fundamentally important. Teachers are the ones who really engage school children with a subject. But to do that, it is important to equip them with the right tools, while at the same time trying to engage and inspire them too. That way they can take those tools back to the classroom.

Truth be told, I find it inspiring talking to teachers. After the lecture today I was struck by how motivated and engaged the teachers participating in the GIFT workshop are! One of the teachers, who teaches science at a city school, told me how good it was for them to see science in action [at the conference] and be exposed to STEM subjects.

 

And what is it about space, do you think, that captures so many people’s imagination and is such a great tool to engage the masses with science?

Space has that ‘WOW’ factor. Yet it is also relatable because you can look up and perceive it through the night sky.

Then there is that adventurous aspect to it. It’s the going out there and exploring the unknown. It makes us appreciate we are so tiny and really draws on the idea of ‘where do we come from?’

It is to do with how you package it, and science fiction helps really helps with that. Take the Star Trek films.

And pictures really help. Images allow you to put science ideas across very easily and in a very engaging way – and space gives us a lot of incredible images to work with.

Comet 67P on 14 March 2015 – taken by the NavCam. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Comet 67P on 14 March 2015 – taken by the NavCam. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

There is no doubt that the Rosetta mission caught the attention of the media and public alike! So let’s talk about it a little bit more. What about the mission, would you say is, scientifically speaking, the most exciting?

Comets are the building blocks of life. Studying them has a real connection to the bigger picture stuff: where do we come from, how did the solar system form? For me, the findings of the mission contributing to that has to be the most exciting part.

And on a personal level, what is it like working on the mission and why is it exciting?

It’s, actually, just a normal job.

Day to day the work can be quite boring. A lot of my time is spent coordinating projects, going to meetings… same as anyone else. It’s when I give talks and take part in outreach events such as the ones here at the General Assembly that I am reminded about how cool this mission really is.

Recently, I’ve been excited to work on the final trajectory scenario and deciding how are we going to ‘end’ Rosetta.

Not so cool, are the conspiracy theories and being trolled on twitter, repeatedly, about whether Philae actually ever landed on comet 67P.

You mention the end of Rosetta, what is next for the mission?

The mission will end, operationally, in September. After that we’ll be focusing 100% on the science including ensuring all the data from the mission is in the best format for future scientists. There will be findings coming out of the mission for some time yet! In fact, school students now will be able to work on Rosetta data in graduate school! That’s how important and groundbreaking this mission is.

And once the mission is over, what is next for you?

Chances are I’ll be allocated to another mission, but that will depend on what the science community are pushing for [in terms of new missions] currently and whether my expertise are a good fit.

It’s unlikely I’ll work on something as big as Rosetta again. Funding for space missions is allocated well in advance and there is nothing in the pipe-line on the scale of Rosetta.

But I’m ok with that. I’m actually looking forward to a quieter life. Working on Rosetta has meant letting a few things go by the way side and I’ll now have time to start exercising and looking after my health a little more!

Even though there won’t be another Rosetta, which upcoming missions do you think are ones to watch?

I, personally, don’t think there is anything like Rosetta coming up soon. Rosetta has lots of elements that make it so attractive: the science is exciting, it takes us to the limits of space exploration, it was the first known comet and yet before we got there we had no idea what 67P looked like….

That said there are some exciting missions coming up: JUICE – JUpiter ICy moons Explorer – which is headed to Jupiter in 2022 and will study the gas giant and three of its icy moons. It gets there in

Matt is a self-confessed metal head. Credit: Matt Taylor

Matt is a self-confessed metal head. Credit: Matt Taylor

2030 – the year I’m due to retire!

I’ll also be keeping my eye on BepiColombo, ESA’s first mission to Mercury, and the Solar Orbiter, which will make the closest approach, ever, to the Sun and study solar wind.

I thought we could finish the interview on a light note. In the past I’ve asked scientists I’ve interviewed to come up with a brand new chemical element. If you could invent an element, what would it be and what would it do?

It would have to be Limenium – after Lemmy, frontman of the rock band Motörhead. It would allow you to exude rock & roll!

[As well as being a physicist, Matt is a self-confessed metal head, so much so he was recently awarded the Spirit of the Hammer of the Golden Gods].

 

Interview by Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

 

Further reading:

  • The Rosetta Blog: For all the science prior to and after the comet landing.
  • Find out more about the Rosetta mission: http://rosetta.esa.int/
  • DLR, the German space agency, played a major role in building the Philae lander and runs the lander control centre.
  • The Philae Blog: to recap exciting moments of the little lander’s mission.
  • Ambition, the film: a short science fiction film that tells the story of comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta

Shape the EGU 2017 scientific programme: Call-for-sessions is open!

Shape the EGU 2017 scientific programme: Call-for-sessions is open!

Do you enjoy the EGU’s annual General Assembly but wish you could play a more active role in shaping the scientific programme? Now is your chance!

From today, until 9 Sep 2016, you can suggest:

  • sessions (with conveners and description), or;
  • modifications to the existing skeleton programme sessions

Explore the EGU2017 Programme groups (PGs) to get a feel for the already proposed sessions and to decide which PG would be the best fit for your session. When proposing a session, make sure you consider gender diversity (i.e. is there at least one female convener?), diversity in countries/institutes, and the inclusion of early career scientists as conveners. A minimum of three conveners per session is generally desirable.

Does your idea for a session fall under the remit of two (or more) PGs? Co-organization is possible and encouraged between PGs! Put your session proposal into one PG, and you will be able to choose other PGs that you believe should be approached for co-organization.

A new Programme group, Interdisciplinary Events (IE)was introduced in 2016. IE looks for links between disciplines in a coordinated and coherent effort, trying to create new approaches that would not be possible if handled separately. IE has four sub-programme groups that highlight new themes each year. If you plan to propose an Interdisciplinary Event, please submit your proposal in Programme group IE and indicate relevant other Programme groups in the session description or comment box. For IE sessions we kindly ask to identify another Programme group that becomes the scientific leader of the event. Accepted IE sessions will be part of the session programme of the scientific leader in addition to the IE programme.

The PG officers are on-hand to answer questions about the appropriateness of a specific session topic, so don’t hesitate to contact them if you have queries! You can also find more information about the call for sessions (and the orgaisation of the scientific programme in general) on the EGU 2017 website.

The EGU’s 2017 General Assembly, takes place in Vienna from 23 to 28 April, 2017. For more news about the upcoming General Assembly, you can also follow the offical hashtag, #EGU17, on our social media channels.

 

Gender equality in the geosciences: is it a numbers game?

Gender equality in the geosciences: is it a numbers game?

Here’s a tricky question for you. Try and name a woman in geoscience who has won an award for their studies in the last 5 years? How about a man? Chances are it is much easier to think of a male geoscientist who has won an award than a female one, but is that because more men win awards in geoscience than women (compared to the number of male and female geoscientists)?

This was the question that was raised at an innovative session co-organised by the European Research Council on ‘Promoting and supporting equality of opportunities in geosciences’, at the European Geosciences Union’s General Assembly in April this year. The session focused on gender based equality, and addressed the experiences of women from subject-based, institutional, national, and organisational levels. As well as the individual experiences described in the session, questions were also asked more broadly of the role of large organisations such as the publishing houses (including Nature and Science), the European Research Council and EGU – with a particular focus on recognition and awards.

Awards are not only useful for career progression for early career scientists (ECS), but also raise the profile of the researchers gaining them, who act as role models for junior staff and students. If women are missing out on awards that could not only impact negatively on the career prospects of those individuals, but also reflect a bigger issue in how women in geoscience are rewarded (or not) for their work.

The EGU has a unique insight into the question of gender equality in the geosciences as it has some data from its members, but also presents several of our discipline’s most prestigious awards and medals, to both advanced and early careers scientists. Alberto Montanari, the outgoing Chair of the EGU Awards Committee, presented the results of an investigation into the balance of male and female award winners.

First, some numbers. Every year the European Geosciences Union awards dozens of prizes to some of the world’s leading geoscientists. These prizes cover Union Medals and Awards, Division Medals, and Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Awards (previously known as the Division Outstanding Young Scientists Award) . All award or medal nominees must be members of EGU to be eligible. The 2016 awards received 155 nominations, of which 16% were for female scientists. Of the total 49 prizes given this year eight were for female scientists (three of those were for early careers scientists). What is also important to note is the total number of EGU members divided by gender. In 2015, 69% of members were male and 31% were female, with the difference between male and female member proportions more pronounced for early careers scientists.

How visible are women in geoscience? (Mapping the Algerian shoreline credit: Filippo Dallosso, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

How visible are women in geoscience? (Mapping the Algerian shoreline. Credit: Filippo Dallosso, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Secondly came an interesting question – how do we compute gender equality for award winners? Do we calculate the total number of female award winners per female membership percentage, or the total number of female award winners by the whole population of members – male and female? This question raises an interesting dilemma as both methods have positives and negatives. If we calculate the number of female winners by the population of female members then essentially this is saying men and women have an equal chance of winning within their gender grouping. However this masks the potential for women to be underrepresented within the organisation, as is currently the case in EGU right now.

On the other hand if we calculate the number of female award winners by the total population of members (male or female) the female winners become equally as visible as the male winners. This can act as a catalyst that places the EGU as a gender balanced society, which could in theory encourage greater female membership. On the negative side, it does make it more competitive (proportionally) for members that want to win an award, and this is not what gender equality should be about.

When asked which of the two approaches he thought would be more useful in promoting greater gender equality in the geosciences, Montanari said:

“My opinion is that it is more appropriate to refer to the percentage of female awardees over the female membership. I think this is much more protective for women themselves, as awarding excessive recognition weakens the value of awarded women. Many women have confirmed this interpretation.”

He also added:

“This is a delicate question that would deserve a more profound discussion.”

One final thought on this issue, came, repeatedly from both the audience and the speakers. Although it is vitally important that gender equality is addressed in geoscience, it is not the only type of equality that needs to be examined. We need to be aiming for parity in racial, national and disability accessibility, to name just a few areas and it is hoped that in the future, EGU sessions like this one will continue to challenge our preconceptions of equality and fairness in our science.

By Hazel Gibson, EGU General Assembly Press Assistant and Plymouth University PhD student.

Hazel is a science communicator and PhD student researching the public understanding of the geological subsurface at Plymouth University using a blend of cognitive psychology and geology, and was one of our Press Assistants during the week of the 2016 General Assembly.

 

Finding Funding: a how to guide to applying for research grants

Finding Funding: a how to guide to applying for research grants

Drafting your first grant proposal can be daunting. Grant writing improves with experience, so how do early career scientists compete on an equal footing with those who are more established?

At this year’s General Assembly we tackled this very question at the Finding Funding (SC46)  short course. Grant Allen, an atmospheric scientist, who has plenty of experience in applying for funding  spoke about the key steps to building confidence in your research ideas, how to frame those ideas into a clear grant application for reviewers and funding agencies, and how to structure your proposals to make sure your proposal fits the goals of the organisation you are applying to.

Grant has authored a book, entitled “Effective Science Communication”, which contains detailed chapters on grant writing, as well as other aspects of science communication from conference presentations to dealing with the media. Keep an eye out for this this summer. It will be released as an e-book by the Institute of Physics, UK.

It is all about confidence

There is no doubt that your first grant application will be daunting, not least because so much of your career can hang in the balance while you prepare it and because it is so far removed from anything you may have done before. Start by accepting it is outside your comfort zone and most importantly: be confident in yourself and your research ideas.

An investment in you

It may be counterintuitive but funding bodies are looking to fund you and your potential as a future research leader, almost as much ) as they are looking to invest in a great research idea (especially in the case of research fellowships).

That’s why your application should showcase you as a great potential researcher. This means highlighting your track record as a way to demonstrate your future potential. Show reviewers what skills and experience you already have and show that you can look forward and think of your career beyond the project by establishing partnerships and knowledge exchange opportunities throughout the duration of the grant.

The funding procedure

typical porcedure

The typical funding procedure. Credit: Grant Allen

Each funding body has its own application structure, so we won’t go into too much detail here. It is worthwhile spending some time, before you put pen to paper, getting to grips with the stages involved in the process. The funder’s handbook is usually a good place to start.

A typical procedure will be orchestrated by the funding body, who will bring in reviewers to rate your proposal in the first stage of the application process. You may get the opportunity to rebut the reviewers’ comments before a final decision is made on whether your proposal is to continue on in the selection process (more detail on this, as well as dos and don’ts of rebuttals in Grant’s slides). Should you be successful, you may  go on to present your research idea and yourself to a panel or committee who will make the final decision on who gets the award.

Writing your proposal

Remember reviewers will read upwards of 40 proposals at a time, so put yourself in their shoes – make reading your proposal easy!

Overall, you should aim to keep things simple, logical and concise. Start off with the bigger picture using general language, and slowly build up a narrative as you guide the reviewer through the application by giving greater detail about the approach. It helps to remind the reviewer about the key points throughout and to structure each subsection clearly with a start, middle and end.

Do:

  • Use the present perfect: ‘although much work has been done’
  • Use constructive phrasing: a problem is in fact, a challenge
Writing tools. By Pete O'Shea via Flickr

Writing tools. By Pete O’Shea via Flickr

You’ll have heard this endlessly since you were an undergraduate, but it is never truer than in a grant proposal: a picture is worth a 1000 words. Include carefully chosen informative figures, which add value to the written content and make your proposal look good at the same time.

It is heart-breaking how many great proposals get thrown out by reviewers because the applicants don’t follow the formatting guidelines or text includes typos, spelling mistakes and/or poor grammar. Just as it pays to understand the application process in full, take the time to follow all the guidelines, no matter how fastidious they may seem.

And finally, remember that the majority of proposals are unsuccessful, especially the first time. Accept this, learn from any feedback you are given and be resilient and try, try again. It will be worth it in the end.

Budget

Writing your thesis/papers will have prepared you, at least to some extent, for authoring the proposal, but one area which presents a bigger challenge still is the budget of your project. Figuring out how much money you need to see your project through is no easy task, so it is worth asking for some help from a mentor, senior researcher or your faculties finance team to make sure you get it right.

Less is more? When it comes to preparing the budget for your project this doesn’t necessarily apply. In fact, don’t under resource your project. Proposals don’t fail if the bottom line is high, they fail if it isn’t justified or if the reviewers get the impression that your numbers are ‘too good to be true’. Use the resources you need, nothing less and nothing more.

Panel Interview

By Vector Open Stock - http://www.vectoropenstock.com/ [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Use the panel interview to shine and show the panel what makes you and your research unique, interesting and achievable. By Vector Open Stock –  CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The final stage of the application process (especially in the case of fellowships) will involve a panel interview, where you present your research idea and project to a funding committee. Use this opportunity to shine and show the panel what makes you and your research unique, interesting and achievable. The focus of your presentation should be fully, and solely, on the science. Details of the methodology and budgeting shouldn’t feature in your presentation, but do have some extra slides prepared on these topics should it come up in the subsequent Q&A.

Structure your slides carefully and anticipate questions by addressing issues that may have been thrown up by the reviewers of your proposal. While it may be tempting to cram in lots of information to your slides, the less is more approach certainly applies now. Stick to approximately one slide per minute and have no more than one take-home-message in each sheet. Finally, make sure you dedicate some time to explaining why you are the right person for the job and why the time and place are right for the project.

Do’s and Don’ts

You’ll find plenty more details on each of the topics covered above in the Grant’s slides, be sure to take a look at them and use the comments section of this post to share your tips for grant writing too. We’ll finish with a short selection of do’s and don’ts.

Do:

  • Be ambitious, passionate, clear and concise
  • Write for decisions makers – make sure there is enough detail without it being inaccessible for non-specialist-scientists
  • Stress how your research will contribute to solving economical, societal and/or cultural challenges
  • Follow the format guide
  • Get letters of support from project partners if you have any
  • Use your CV to prove your track record
  • Do ask for help!

Don’t

  • Your application shouldn’t be a simple extension of your supervisor’s current project (if you are a PhD or PDRA) – emphasise what is new.
  • Use negative or defensive language (in your proposal, rebuttal or presentation Q&A)
  • Treat the proposal as a paper
  • Be afraid to ask for help!

 

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

This blog post is based on the presentation by Grant Allen at the Short Course: Finding Funding (SC46) which took place at the 2016 EGU General Assembly in Vienna. The full presentation can be accessed here.

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