EGU GA 2014

GeoCinema Online: Saturn and its Icy Moon

It is day three of the General Assembly in Vienna, there are no sessions directly relevant to your research scheduled in the programme for this afternoon and you would really like to take a bit of a break from the hustle and bustle of the main scientific sessions. Where do you head? Down to the Basement (Blue Level) and to the GeoCinema, of course!

GeoCinema has been a regular on the General Assembly Programme for a few years now. The aim is to provide a platform for scientists to communicate their science via the medium of film; some of the movies are stunning displays of our beautiful planet whilst others focus on specific geoscientific or educational issues. It is the perfect place for conference attendees to kick back and relax whilst being taken on a journey to explore the wonders of the Earth and Space.

This year a total of 39 films were screened over the five day period, but given the host of other sessions, talks and discussions available during the Assembly, it’s not surprising you may have missed the one film you really wanted to watch! A series of blog posts (GeoCinema Online) last year, brought the films right into the comfort of your own home (or office) and we’ve continued the series this year too. Over the next few weeks you can look forward to a series of posts which will showcase films and research from some of the most exciting fields across the Earth sciences.

This week Saturn, the giant ringed planet and its moon: Titan take centre stage.

Cassini: 8 Years around Saturn

A video was created using the images taken by Cassini probe of the Saturnian system since 2004.

Propylene on Titan

Too cold for liquid water, and yet it is a lot like Earth – tune into Titan’s secrets.


Cassini 8 Years around Saturn: Nahum Mendez Chazarra (source)

Propylene on Titan: NASA Goddard (source)

Stay tuned to the next post of GeoCinema Online for more exciting science videos!

GeoTalk: Matthew Agius on how online communication can help identify earthquake impact

In this edition of GeoTalk, we’re talking to Matthew Agius, a seismologist from the University of Malta and the Young Scientist Representative for the EGU’s Seismology Division. Matthew gave an enlightening talk during the EGU General Assembly on how communication on online platforms such as Facebook can help scientists assess the effect of earthquakes. Here he shares his findings and what wonders online data can reveal…

Before we get going, can you tell us a little about you’re area of research and what got you interested in using online communications to complement our understanding of earthquakes and their impact?

My area of research is the study of tectonic structures and dynamics using different seismic techniques. The regions I have studied the most are Tibet and the Central Mediterranean. During my student days many friends wondered about my research and I felt that there was a need to reach out for the public in order to eliminate misconceptions on how the Earth works, in particular about the seismic activity close to home – Malta. This led to the creation of a website with daily updates on the seismic activity in the Mediterranean. We set up an online questionnaire for people to report earthquake-related shaking. The questionnaire proved to be successful; hundreds of entries have been submitted following a number of earthquakes. This large dataset has valuable information because it gives an insight on the demographics in relation to earthquake hazard of the tiny nation.

How can social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter be used to assess the impact of earthquakes?

Nowadays the general public has access to smart phones connected to the internet, which have become readily available and affordable. This resulted in a rapid use of social websites. People increasingly tend to express themselves in ‘near’ real-time online. Furthermore, smartphones are equipped with various technologies such as a GPS receiver and an accelerometer – the basic set up of a seismic station – and also a camera. Altogether this has the potential to provide an unprecedented level of information about the local experience of an earthquake. Its immediate analysis can also supplement instrument-based estimates of early earthquake location and magnitude.

Out in the field – Matthew Aguis in the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Matthew Aguis)

Out in the field – Matthew Agius in the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Matthew Agius)

What sort of information can you gather from sites like Facebook or Twitter, and what can it tell you?

Users can post comments as well as photographs directly on a page, say a page dedicated to earthquakes. Such post are time stamped and can also have geolocation information. Although the posted information might seem too basic, the collective data from many users can be used to establish the local feeling in ‘real time’. Another way is to have a specific application that analyses the text expressed by social media users. Similar applications have already been considered in a number of regions such as USA and Italy, and have shown very interesting social sentiment expressed during and after an earthquake shake.

How do the earthquake sentiments relate to the geology? Can you see any patterns between what people say and share online and the intensity of the quake in a particular area?

This is a new area of research that is still being investigated. Earthquake intensity, shaking and damage in a local context, are known to vary from one place to another. These variations are primarily due to either the underlying geology, the seismic wave propagation complexities, or a combination of both. So far various mathematical models have been published for famous areas such as San Francisco Bay; soon scientists will have the opportunity to compare their models with information on people’s sentiment gathered in this new way. Such sentiment is expected to relate to the geology, to some extent.

And another shot of Matthew in the field – this time from Mount Etna. (Credit: Matthew Aguis)

And another shot of Matthew in the field – this time from Mount Etna. (Credit: Matthew Agius)

What are the difficulties of dealing with this sort of data, and how do you overcome them?

This type of data compilation is known as crowdsourcing. Although it is has powerful leads, one has to take careful measures on how to interpret the data. For example one must not assume that everyone has a public social profile on the internet where to posts his/her sentiment. One also has to consider that mobile phone coverage is sometimes limited to cities leaving out large, less inhabited areas without a network. Another limitation can be related to the list of specific keywords used during text analysis, a typical keyword could be ‘shake’; users might be using this term in a completely different context instead of when the ground is shaking! I think the best way to overcome such difficulties is to combine this data with current seismic monitoring systems; upon which an event is verified with the seismic data from across the investigated region.

During your talk you proposed other ideas for data analysis, how can it be used to support civil protection services and inform the public?

Until now social sentiment with regards to earthquakes has been studied through the use of Twitter or Facebook. But citizens are also making use of other online platforms such as news portals. All this information should ideally be retrieved and analysed in order to understand the earthquake sentiment of an area better. Furthermore, such studies must also be able to gather the sentiment in multiple languages and establish geolocation information from clues in the user’s text. I think it is time to implement a system to be used by civil protection services, whereby immediately after an earthquake has been established, an automatic alert is sent via a dedicated phone app and, at the same time, a web bot crawls the web to ‘read’ and analyse what people are expressing across multiple platforms. A felt map can then be generated in real time. This could be very useful for  civil protection services during a major disaster, helping them to redirect their salvage efforts as civilian phone calls become clogged.

Matthew also mans Seismoblog, a blog dedicated to the young seismologists of the European Geosciences Union – keep up with the latest seismology news and research on Seismoblog here.

From paper to press release: making your research accessible to the wider public

During the General Assembly, EGU Media and Communications Manager Bárbara Ferreira shared her science writing skills and media know-how in a workshop demonstrating how to write a  press release or post about the latest geoscience. Here are her take-home messages…

“When you communicate science, no one else is more important than your audience.” Bárbara opened with one of the most fundamental points of science writing – you have to keep your audience engaged, and pitch your explanation at the perfect level for your peers, the press or the general public, depending on who you’re shooting for. The other fundamental: “read the paper!” was quick to follow.

The abstract, introduction and conclusion tell you almost everything you need to know to share the science effectively, but important points can still be found in other parts of the paper. Read it thoroughly and unleash the highlights in your writing – explain what’s exciting about the research and why your audience would be interested in it.

Introduction to Science Communication: from paper to press release (or blog post). View the full presentation here. (Credit: Bárbara Ferreira)

The presentation. Click the image or follow this link to view the full presentation. (Credit: Bárbara Ferreira)

If you have time, get in touch with the author. Not only can they check you’ve hit all the main points in your article, but they can also provide you with some juicy quotes to make the piece that much richer.

So how should you structure your post or press release to make sure you keep your readers engaged? Start with the main points – but don’t overstate the findings – and then move on to why the research is important and what the implications of the findings are. More detailed explanations follow. The example below sums up what you need to get across in the beginning of the text, particularly if you’re writing a press release (journalists are always busy so need the essential information at the start).

Before they even get there though, your reader has to be hooked by the title – make it snappy!

The essentials of the introduction – particularly pertinent to press releases. (Credit: Bárbara Ferreira)

The essentials of the introduction – particularly pertinent to press releases. (Credit: Bárbara Ferreira)

You’ve got the structure sorted, but what about content? Here are some of Bárbara’s top tips:

  • Assume your reader knows nothing about the research, but don’t assume they won’t understand it
  • Aim for one idea per sentence and one concept per paragraph to get your message across without overloading your audience with information
  • If you need to use jargon, explain what it means, and keep acronyms to the barest minimum
  • Use metaphors and everyday examples to share your message

Unlike this string of dos and don’ts, your article shouldn’t be a steam of facts. Create a story to guide the reader through the findings and, if you can, add a human element to the tale so readers can relate to it all that little bit better.

Once you’re done, fact-check, edit, proof and publish.

There are no hard and fast rules for science writing – this only a guide to get you going. If every science piece or release was written the same way, well, reading them would become a bit monotonous wouldn’t it? Break these rules, make your own, and keep writing until you find your own signature science communication style.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer


Finding funding: a rough guide to getting your research wishes granted

Finding funding to support your research is always a challenge, but never more so than when you’ve not done it before. During the EGU 2014 General Assembly, Grant Allen gave an excellent short course for early-career researchers on getting to grips with grant applications. His fantastically appropriate name aside, we couldn’t have asked for a better person to do the job: bursting with tips from start to finish, not a second of his course was worth missing! Here’s a summary of his take-home points…

The first thing to do, as with any endeavour, is to plan. And plan to win. Think about what you’re going to do if you get that proposal accepted and, importantly, whether you would have time to do the research if it is.

To be successful, you need to build on your previous work with something that is more than just an extension. Adding an extra room to your scientific house is not enough – break into the field next door and build on your work with a new, topical and ambitious venture. Better yet, go beyond the field next door – funders like to see you tap into the worldwide research network. Tell them you’re going to lay foundations at other institutes.

Build on your previous work, but think big – and be ambitious! (Credit: Jon Grant)

Build on your previous work, but think big – and be ambitious! (Credit: Jon Grant)

Grant proposals need to be challenging, but also achievable – otherwise they won’t be funded. This doesn’t mean that you have to make it a low-cost project (though this can also be a good thing). What’s important is ensuring you will have enough resources to do the job. Don’t under-resource it, or it won’t get funded.

It’s also important to demonstrate the potential impact of your project. This part of the application is likely to become increasingly important, so take care to consider the societal, economical, environmental and cultural benefits of your work. To get a good score for impact in your proposal, say what impact will be delivered, when and how. Be specific.

Right on the on money. (Credit: Flickr user 401(k))

Right on the on money. (Credit: Flickr user 401(k))

For a fellowship application, you also need to show that an investment in you is worthwhile: give the funders evidence of a great track record, one that showcases your potential. These applications are more likely to give greater weight to your academic excellence than the potential impact of your work.

Putting pen to paper – writing pointers

Keep it simple. Reviewers do their job voluntarily, so make sure your proposal is accessible to non-specialists. Take the reader on a journey from the general geosciences and funnel them towards something more specific, starting with the bigger picture before honing in on the project details and the plan for the work ahead. Allen recommends splitting the proposal like so: with one third on the scientific motivation, and two thirds on the work plan.

Make a proposal look good. Nobody wants to see 8 pages of text! When you’re finished, find a willing volunteer, give them a few beers, or put them in a bad mood, and ask them to check it over to see if they would fund your project. Account for the spectrum of reviewers your carefully crafted proposal might encounter. Asking friends or colleagues to take a look can also weed out any typos you might have missed, as well as any sentences that are unclear.

Putting pen to paper. (Credit: Flickr user Witheyes)

Putting pen to paper. (Credit: Flickr user Witheyes)

In the dragon’s den – what to do when meeting the panel

In the panel interview, you’ll start with a 10 minute summary of your project – this is your chance to shine. During your presentation you are in control: you can say what you like (within reason, of course), and really show off your project and its potential. Aim to have one take home message per slide, following the same narrative as your proposal.

A sobering note – what are your chances?

Despite all this good advice, your first proposal is unlikely to get funded. The success rate is 15-20% across Europe and you really have to stand out to succeed. With that though, comes a little reassurance: don’t be disheartened if your proposal does get rejected, you know the success rate is low. Instead, take that experience and learn from it so you can make your next proposal even better.

One thing you’ll often need to include is a letter of support. Look around your lab to see how many people are in your team and think about how many letters of support your group leader will be asked to write. Then think back to that success rate. If 80-85% of proposals are rejected, that’s a lot of letters. Allen suggests drafting a letter of support for your supervisor to check, change and sign – an unconventional approach, but when you consider how great the average academic workload is, you can see how they’d appreciate it.

Be confident, ambitious, bold, concise, organised and pay attention to detail. Budgets and planning are the boring constants of any grant proposal, but your science and your track record is something that can really shine, make sure you let it!

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer