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Work-life balance: insights from geodynamicists

Work-life balance: insights from geodynamicists

Maintaining a good work-life balance is essential for a steady career and happy life in academia. However, like with all good things, it is not easy. In this new Wit & Wisdom post, Jessica Munch, PhD student at ETH Zürich, explores how to achieve a good work-life balance.

Jessica Munch
Credit: Manon Lauffenburger

Research is a truly amazing occupation, especially in geodynamics (okay, that might be a bit biased…). However, disregarding the position you have academia, research is also a job asking for a lot of commitment, an ability to deal with pressure, (very) good organisational skills and an ability to deal with everything on time to (hopefully) stay in academia (if you want to learn more about stress and pressure effects on researchers, there are plenty of articles related to that on the web – if you did not experience them by yourself already – yay!) Hence, it seems that this dream job can sometimes turn into a nightmare, which could partly explain why so many people quit academia.

The solution to avoid having to make such an extreme decision as quitting? The legendary work-life balance: how to reconcile a job that you cannot get out of your mind once you’re done with your day (it’s not like you can easily switch off your brain once you leave your office and forget about all the questions you are trying to answer with your research, right?) with your private life, hobbies, and families?

I wanted to try to figure out what a work-life balance really means. At the very least, I wanted to find a more meaningful answer than wikipedia’s definition:

Work-life balance is a concept including the proper prioritisation between work (career and ambition) and lifestyle (health, pleasure, leisure, family)

The definition I would give based on my limited experience, is that a work-life balance is an (often rather fragile) equilibrium between academia and your private life that allows you to stay efficient and motivated about your research without losing the link with/neglecting the world outside. All of that while being happy and healthy. Easy, no?

Given my restricted experience with this balance, I wondered how other researchers at different stages in their career deal with this. I contacted several researchers and they took the time to reply to my questions although they had a very tight schedule (thanks you very much!).

A first insight comes from Susanne Buiter, Team leader at the Geological Survey of Norway: “I guess the fact that I am writing you in the weekend, on a Saturday evening says something about my balancing work and private life at the moment!”. Sounds quite tough, but then she gives some explanations. She appreciates that everyone is very dedicated to their research in our field. This often leads to long and rather unconventional working hours for research and teaching duties. This is fine as long as it is voluntary, but it should not become an expectation. Susanne’s take on this is that there should be flexibility from both sides, and that it is absolutely fine that some weeks are very busy as long as other times can be more relaxed. Considering her research not only as a job but also as a hobby seems to allow for a lot of dedication while keeping being her both happy and motivated. She also raises the question if anyone is able to actually do all the work he or she has to do when only working regular hours.

A second opinion on this precious work-life balance comes from an early career researcher, Marie Bocher, a postdoc at ETH Zürich. When discussing with her, she first points out that a work-life balance is not necessarily a condition to do a good research: one should not directly link the lack of balance in your life to a burnout. For Marie it is okay to work a lot, as long as her research is meaningful to her and she is efficient and motivated. Sometimes you work really hard, do not have a real balance, have no time for hobbies, etc., but this does not necessarily mean you are going to end up with a burnout. These kind of moments can actually be enjoyable, because you often notice that you are efficient and making progress, which is quite rewarding. Hence, what you need in research (even more than a balanced life) is a meaning to what you are doing or a reason for going to work every morning. This is what will prevent you from having a burnout and will help you to be a happy researcher. Support and validation from peers can also help.

However, Marie wonders if the work-life balance issue has always been an issue in academia. She mentions the fact that sometimes people feel pressure to have a balanced life according to someone else’s definition. Sometimes colleagues comment on the fact that you work late and that this is not normal, and that you should have a hobby (pressure to have hobbies, quite paradoxical, no?). This might result in you pushing yourself to do activities even though you would prefer to for once hang out at home and relax during your weekend. Not everyone needs to have an hyperactive life. Instead, people should just try to live a life they enjoy.

Finally, she raises the point that work-life balance is actually a dynamic equilibrium: it is something that changes depending on your situation. You cannot organise yourself the same way if you are single, if you have a partner, or if you have kids. It is a hard to find balance and that evolves with life and responsibilities.

Potentially dangerous/lethal way of working on your work-life balance
Credit: Antoine Grisart

Speaking about kids and family, the third and last (but definitely not least) thoughts on this topic come from Saskia Goes, lecturer/reader at Imperial College London. For her, having a balanced life means having time for other things besides works and occasionally time for herself – a definition she is not sure she could apply to her own life where she constantly has to juggle between work and family. Saskia explains that it is a continuous challenge to do enough work to keep the department happy and functioning, but to also say no to enough work so that she still has time for her own research, students and her family. She also points out that she has very little time to do research herself – only a few hours now and then. Her main research activity at the moment actually consists in working with students and postdocs on their papers.

When asked how she reconciles family life with her work, Saskia replies that it is doable, but only with sufficient support in the form of a partner, school care, family or friends. Moreover, she emphasises that you need to accept that you simply cannot keep up with people who work 60 to 80 hours every week and can attend three to four conferences a year. Some types of research do not work with a family, unless you have a partner who can significantly help out for a while. Bringing up the fact that a job in academia often implies a lot of moving (research positions in different countries, etc.), Saskia mentions that until now, she only moved once with her kids. The main challenge was then the lack of support (for instance from friends and family) when you move to the new place.

Finally, when I asked her for tips on how to manage all of this, she suggested to make lists to keep track of what needs to be done when, and to then divide and plan the tasks day by day, week per week so that they look manageable. The main challenge lies in trying to balance the amount of things you take on with the time you have!

According to these different insights on the work-life balance, a universal definition seems impossible. Instead, the precious balance appears to be quite personal. It depends on your situation in life, on how much your time you can actually dedicate to your project, and your ability to manage the tasks you need to do (or refuse to do). Hence, the work-life balance is a very personal concept everyone has to figure out for him/herself. Ultimately, it is just a matter of being happy with what you do.

From hot to cold – 7 peculiar planets around the star TRAPPIST-1

From hot to cold – 7 peculiar planets around the star TRAPPIST-1

Apart from Earth, there are a lot of Peculiar Planets out there! Every 8 weeks, give or take, we look at a planetary body or system worthy of our geodynamic attention. When the discovery of additional Earth-sized planets within the TRAPPIST-1 system was revealed last year, bringing the total to 7 planets, it captured the minds of audiences far and wide. This week, two of the authors from a 2017 Nature Astronomy study on the TRAPPIST-1 planets, Lena Noack from the Department of Earth Sciences at the Free University of Berlin and Kristina Kislyakova from the Department of Astrophysics at the University of Vienna, explain more about this fascinating system. 

Blog authors Lena Noack and Kristina Kislyakova

For Earth scientists, it often seems like a huge endeavour to talk about the geodynamics and other interior processes of the other planets in our Solar System like Mars or Venus. But what about exoplanets? It’s very daring! We have almost no information about the thousands of planets that have been discovered so far in other places of our galaxy. These planets orbit other stars, of which some are quite similar to our Sun whereas other stars behave very differently. But how much do we actually know about planets around these stars?

Exoplanet hunting missions like Kepler have shown that the majority of exoplanets are actually small-mass planets – not huge gas giants like Jupiter – and are often smaller than Neptune, with some being even smaller than Earth. We have a pretty good idea of what some of these planets could look like, for example we know their mass, their radius, we might even have some spectral information on their atmospheres, we know how much energy they get from their star, and we might even know something about the star’s composition. This information hints at the composition of the planetary disk from which planets are made, and how much radioactive heating they may experience during their later evolution. Putting all these pieces together gives us several clues on how the planets may have evolved over time, and is comparable to the wealth of information we had of our neighbouring planets before the age of space exploration.

However, in contrast to our Solar System, we cannot (at least not with our technological standard of today) travel to these planets. The only way we can learn more about exoplanets is if we combine geophysical, thermodynamical and astrophysical models – derived and tested for Earth and the Solar System – and apply them to exoplanet systems.

 

Artist’s impression of TRAPPIST-1e, ©NASA

One exoplanet system that is quite intriguing is the TRAPPIST-1 system, which has been observed by several different space and ground-based telescopes including TRAPPIST (short for TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope, or otherwise known as a European monastery-brewed beer) and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

The system contains at least 7 small, densely-packed planets around an 8 Gyr old M dwarf. All planets have masses and radii close to Earth – from TRAPPIST-1c and -1h, which are both ¾ the radius of Earth, to TRAPPIST-1g, which is 13% larger than Earth. For comparison, Venus, our sister planet, has a radius 5% smaller than Earth, and Mars, our small brother planet, is only half the size of Earth. And the greatest news: TRAPPIST-1 is actually in our direct neighbourhood, only 39 light years away. This is literally around the corner! For comparison, our closest neighbour planet outside the Solar System is Proxima Centauri b with a distance of 4.2 light years. Its star belongs to a system of three stars, the most well-known of which is Alpha Centauri, the closest star outside the Solar System. Some day, it may actually be in our reach to travel to both the Centauri system as well as TRAPPIST-1. So we should learn now as much about these planets as possible.

What makes the TRAPPIST-1 planets truly peculiar are their tight orbits around the star – the closest planet orbits at a distance of 0.0011 AU – so only 0.1 percent of Earth’s orbit. Even the furthest planet in the system discovered so far– TRAPPIST-1h – has an orbit of only 0.0063 AU. In our Solar System, Mercury, the closest-in planet, orbits at a distance of 0.39 AU. Does this mean that the planets are boiling up due to their close orbit? Not necessarily, since TRAPPIST-1 is a very dim red M dwarf, which emits much less light than the Sun in our system. If we would place Earth around this red M dwarf star, it would actually need to orbit at a distance of about 0.0022 AU to receive the same incident flux from the star. Actually, if we look at the possible distances from the star, where (depending on the atmosphere greenhouse effect) liquid water at the surface could theoretically exist for a somewhat Earth-like atmosphere (that is, composed of gases such as CO2 and N2), TRAPPIST-1d, -1e, -1f and -1g could potentially contain liquid water at the surface and would thus be habitable places where Earth-like life could, in principle, form. Of course, for that to occur several other factors have to be just right, as well. This zone, where liquid water at the surface could exist, is called the Habitable Zone or Temperate Zone, and is indicated in green in the illustration of the TRAPPIST-1 system compared to the inner Solar System below.

TRAPPIST-1 system compared to the inner Solar System below showing the green region of a Habitable Zone. © Caltech/NASA

So, should we already book our trip to TRAPPIST-1? Well, there are other factors that may endanger the possible habitability of these otherwise fascinating planets. First of all, TRAPPIST-1 is really different from the Sun. Although it is much dimmer and redder, it still emits almost the same amount of harsh X-ray and extreme ultra violet radiation as our Sun, and in addition, produces powerful flares. For the TRAPPIST-1 planets, which are so close to their star, it means that their atmospheres are exposed to much higher levels of short wavelength radiation, which is known to lead to very strong atmospheric escape. A nitrogen-dominated atmosphere, like the one Earth has, would likely not be stable on the TRAPPIST-1 planets in the habitable zone due to exposure to this short wavelength radiation for gigayears, so carbon dioxide Venus-like atmospheres are more probable. Besides that, stellar wind of TRAPPIST-1 may be very dense at planetary orbits, powering strong non-thermal escape from planetary atmospheres and leading to further erosion of the atmosphere.

Another interesting feature of the M dwarfs, especially such low-mass ones as TRAPPIST-1, is their extremely slow evolution. On the one hand, this means very long main-sequence life times of such stars, with stable radiation levels for many gigayears. Could this maybe allow very sophisticated life forms to evolve? On the other hand, when these stars are young, they go through a contraction phase before entering main sequence, which is much longer than the contraction phase of G-dwarfs such as the Sun. During this phase, the stars are much brighter and hotter than later in their history. For TRAPPIST-1 planets this would mean they have been grilled by hot temperatures for about a billion years! Can they still retain some water after such a violent past? Can life form under such conditions? We don’t really know. In any event, it seems that water retaining and delivery might be a critical factor for TRAPPIST-1 planets’ habitability.

Since the planets are so densely-packed in the system, the masses of neighbouring planets as well as the mass of the star have a gravitational effect on each other – just as the Moon leads to high and low tides of Earth’s oceans. Only, the tidal forces acting on the TRAPPIST-1 planets would be much stronger, and could lead to immense energy being released in the interior of the planets due to tidal dissipation. Furthermore, the star itself appears to have a strong magnetic field. An electrical current is produced if a conductive material is embedded in a changing magnetic field, which is used, for example, to melt iron in induction furnaces. Similarly, the mantle of rocky planets are conductive and can experience enhanced energy release deep in the upper mantle due to induction heating.

Both induction heating and tidal heating can have a negative effect on the potential habitability of a rocky planet, since strong heating in the interior can be reflected by equally strong volcanic activity at the surface. This would lead to a hellish surface to live on! The interior may even be partly molten, leading to subsurface oceans of magma, which actually may be the case for TRAPPIST-1b and -1c. Even TRAPPIST-1d may be affected by strong volcanic events due to both induction and tidal heating of the interior. TRAPPIST-1f, -1g and -1h might be too cold at the surface to have liquid water, and might rather resemble our water-rich icy moons orbiting around Saturn and Jupiter. Hence TRAPPIST-1e, which receives only a little less stellar flux compared to Earth, may be the most interesting planet to visit in the system.

But what would life look like on such a planet?

The tidal forces described above also lead to a different effect: the planets would always face the star with only one side (this is called a tidal lock). Therefore, planets would have a day side that was always facing the star, and a night side immersed into eternal darkness and where no light ray is ever received from the star. Such a tidally-locked orbit is similar to the Moon-Earth system, as the Moon shows us always the same face – the “near-side” of the Moon. The other side, the “far-side” of the Moon, is only known to us due to lunar space missions. Can you imagine living at a place where it never gets dark? On the other hand, the luminosity from the star is very weak. Life on the TRAPPIST-1 planets might therefore actually look different than on Earth. To obtain the needed photons used in photosynthsesis (if this process would also evolve on these planets), life might evolve to favour a large variety of pigments that would enable it to make use of the full range of visible and infrared light – in other words, plants on these planets would appear black to us.

TRAPPIST-1 planets certainly still harbour many mysteries. They are a very good example how diverse the planets in the universe can be. If we set our imagination free… Black trees under the red star in the sky, which never sees a sunrise or sunset, powerful volcanoes filling the air with the ash and shaking the ground.
Very different from our Earth, isn’t it?

Further reading:

Kislyakova, K., Noack, L. et al. Magma oceans and enhanced volcanism on TRAPPIST-1 planets due to induction heating. Nature Astronomy 1, 878-885 (2017).

Gillon, M. et al. Seven temperate terrestrial planets around the nearby ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Nature 542, 456-460 (2017).

Kiang, N. et al. The Color of Plants on Other Worlds. Scientific American, April 2008, 48-55 (2008).

Barr, A.C. et al. Interior Structures and Tidal Heating in the TRAPPIST-1 Planets. Astronomy and Astrophysics, in press.

Luger 2017 A resonant chain (about the tidal heating – we should mention it here)

Luger, R. et al. A seven-planet resonant chain in TRAPPIST-1. Nature Astronomy 1, 0129 (2017).

Scalo, J. et al. M stars as targets for terrestrial exoplanet searches and biosignature detection. Astrobiology 7(1), 85-166 (2007).

Ramirez, R.M. and Kaltenegger, L. The habitable zones of pre-main-sequence stars. The Astrophysical Journal Letters 797(2), L25 (2014).

Happy new year!

Happy new year!

It’s 2018! Another year to finally publish that paper, finish your PhD, find a new job, finish that project, and be happy! The EGU Geodynamics Blog Team is looking forward to keep brightening your Wednesday mornings with the most interesting and funny blog posts. In this first post, we wish you all, of course, a happy new year!

Iris van Zelst

 

 

I wish everyone a very happy, productive, writing-guilt-free 2018 with lots of publications, funding, success, and happiness!

 

 

 

Anne Glerum

 

 

Wishing everybody a happy, inspiring and fruitful 2018! Time to start with a clean slate and write another adventurous chapter of life!

 

 

 

Luca Dal Zilio

 

Run, run, run
It’s time to have
fun, fun, fun 🙂
Sprint to the tree,
it’s the season to be jolly!
Happy Holidays is what you’ve won!

 

Grace Shephard

Greetings from EGU’s Geodynamics Blog team
We’ve enjoyed our first year and look forward to twenty eighteen
We’ll report on Earth’s secrets from the frontlines
And wish you fruitful collaborations, realistic expectations, and manageable deadlines.

The fluid dynamics of wine

The fluid dynamics of wine

The Christmas holidays: the one time of year that you don’t need to think about work. Instead, you are focussed on your family (including the in-laws), the massive amount of food still left (a miscalculation every year), and you’re starting to think about your New Year’s resolutions (because we give it a try every year, right?). So, this is definitely not the time to go and read a blog post (or write one, for that matter).
Lucky you: there is a blog post anyway! But, in the spirit of the holidays, it has a festive theme. We are concerned with geodynamics. In numerical modelling we even assume that the Earth flows like a fluid on geological timescales. So what could be more festive than looking at a different timescale today by looking at the fluid dynamics of wine (‘oenodynamics’)? Pour yourself another glass, swirl it around a bit, and sit back for a relaxing post about how the swirling of wine works.

If you are unfamiliar with the process of wine tasting, let me give you a short introduction (although I am by no means an expert): to fully appreciate and taste a wine, you need to follow five basic steps: color, swirl, smell, taste, and savor. To make this a bit easier to remember after a couple of glasses, these five steps are also known as the ‘Five S’ steps:

See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Savor

From a layman’s point of view, the see, sniff, sip, and savor might make some intuitive kind of sense. However, the swirling step might be less intuitive. This swirling of the wine releases the so-called bouquet (‘the total aromatic experience’) of a wine. You usually swirl a glass of wine by a gentle circular movement of the glass. This creates a wave along the glass walls, which enhances the oxygenation and mixing of the wine. The shape of this wave formed by the swirling of the wine (or ‘orbital shaking’: the motion on a circular trajectory, at a constant angular velocity, of a cylindrical container maintaining a fixed orientation with respect to an inertial frame of reference) has been investigated by Reclari et al., 2011.

Now before you ask why on Earth it would be useful to investigate this (other than to satisfy a healthy dose of academic curiosity), the authors provide a very sensible reason: this orbital shaking has been applied to large scale bioreactors for the cultivation of antibodies in cells. Of course, looking at the swirling of wine is a less expensive experimental setup to study the physics behind this orbital shaking and, let’s be honest: it just sounds like a really fun, slightly quirky, research project.

To simplify the experimental setup, Reclari et al., 2011 use cilinders instead of wine glasses. The free parameters that Reclari et al., 2011 consider are the inner diameter of the cilinder D, the diameter of the shaking trajectory ds, the elevation of the water at rest H0, and the angular velocity ω. Varying these parameters results in a variety of wave shapes. Reclari et al., 2011 identify three dimensionless parameters:

đsds/D,

Ħ0H0/D,

Fr22ds)/g

These dimensionless parameters define the wave shape of the wine and ensure the similarity of the free surface between experiments with the same dimensionless numbers.

For a comprehensive demonstration of their findings have a look at their video, which illustrates their methods very nicely and shows you lots of swirling wine. Hopefully, you will now have another interesting story to bring to the dinner table during the holidays.

Cheers!

 

 

Reference
Reclari, Martino, et al. "Oenodynamic": Hydrodynamic of wine swirling. arXiv preprint arXiv:1110.3369 (2011).
Reclari, Martino. Hydrodynamics of orbital shaken bioreactors. (2013).