EGU Blogs

Geology Jenga

Goodbye…… for now

Goodbye…… for now

After 3 years of blogging, (can you believe Jenga has been going for 3 years already?!), the time has come to wave goodbye to the EGU Blog network.

Dan and I have very much enjoyed being part of this active, fun and engaging community of geoscience bloggers. However, our circumstances have changed signifiantly since we embarked on this journey. We no longer work at the same Univeristy, nor are we even in the same country and juggling our current commitments with Jenga hasn’t been easy, especially over the past 12 months! It’s with a heavy heart that we say farewell, at least for now. Follow Dan and I on twitter for news on our future plans for Jenga.

We are grateful for the opportunities that have come from being a part of the network, especially for the friends we’ve made along the way. A big shout out to all those who have contributed great guest posts to the blog and to all those who read our posts too!

If you want to keep on reading, and make use of the guides and tips on science communication and the PhD journey we’ve shared in past, you’ll still be able to find them all here.


Geoscience outreach- why it matters and how to get involved

Geoscience outreach- why it matters and how to get involved

This post is brought to you by Natasha Dowey, a dear friend and a volcanologist turned petroleum geologist. Just like us, Natasha has a passion for outreach. In this post she explains why it matters and a number of ways you can get involved.

The importance of communication in geoscience is becoming ever more widely recognised. Researchers are being encouraged to step out of their comfort zones, lose the jargon and welcome the outside community into their (typically highly specialised) world. To be truly digestible by the masses, their research ‘stories’ must have a strong focus on narrative and context, and the scientists themselves must be engaging and confident in their approach.

The past decade has seen a shift in how scientists interact with the public; for example, social media is now used widely to report and debate findings, giving scientists a much-needed platform to reach a broader audience (search for #geoscience on Twitter and the variety of topics is mindboggling). To be able to find a place in the ever-more public and publicised world of science, it is vital that early-career geoscientists become adept in breaking their topic down, finding its relevance, and engaging thoughtfully with people from a variety of backgrounds.

An excellent way to gain experience in doing just that is through science outreach.

Outreach can take many guises. Activities may involve performing experiments, giving careers talks, developing fun and messy games that highlight scientific themes, or mentoring students through science projects. Outreach can be done in person (e.g. at schools, museums or science fairs) or digitally (via email interviews and skype chats). Activities not only benefit local communities, where STEM subjects remain particularly undersubscribed by women and minority groups, but also allow scientists to develop valuable transferrable skills. Getting involved in outreach enables researchers to more fully appreciate the relevance of their work, both to the wider world of science and the general public, and to build up crucial presenting, writing and demonstrating skills. Outreach pushes scientists to find interest, fun and clarity in their research, to inspire the next generation of scientists.

Why aren’t more geoscientists involved with outreach?

It is important for early career geoscientists to see science outreach as a significant part of their well-rounded career, be it within academia or industry. However, there is a noticeable lack of geoscientists at outreach training and activities I have attended. The reasons for this aren’t clear. Perhaps geoscientists take the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) banner too literally, and assume that earth science topics do not fit. Chemistry, physics and maths are certainly popular with schools for outreach activities, but schools are also keen for diversity, particularly to highlight the variety of STEM careers out there. In my experience, students of all ages love discovering more about the dynamic earth. As a geologist with experience in volcanology and petroleum, I am often an interesting novelty for students, and questions inevitably lead to career pathways.

It is important for early career geoscientists to see science outreach as a significant part of their well-rounded career, be it within academia or industry. Credit: Natasha Dowey

It is important for early career geoscientists to see science outreach as a significant part of their well-rounded career, be it within academia or industry. Credit: Natasha Dowey

Another possibility is that geoscientists may feel there are no obvious demonstrations or activities to show off their research to young students. However, it’s surprising what you can come up with when you think outside the box (such as encouraging primary school children to ‘drill’ through cake layers with straws to reach treacle ‘oil’!) It’s also important to remember that science outreach can be a careers talk, a presentation, an Q and A interview or some mentoring, and doesn’t necessarily have to involve a hands-on activity. The key thing is to know your audience and adapt your approach for each group you work with.

A lack of free time is likely to be a significant deterrent to early-career geoscientists (and to scientists in other fields). The PhD years of a passionate geoscientist are typically filled to the brim with fieldwork, experiments, writing (…re-doing experiments, re-writing…), dealing with paper submissions, thinking about post-doc applications and attempting to maintain sanity. The life of a post-doctoral researcher, or a geoscientist in the first years of an industry career, is similarly manic. Although time can often feel tight, the diversity of outreach opportunities out there and the availability of the internet as a medium for communication means that time doesn’t have to be a hindrance to getting involved.

Awareness of opportunities may also be an issue; the level of active encouragement to become involved in outreach varies between different universities and employers. I know of many PhD researchers who simply were not aware of the importance of outreach during their postgraduate studies. There are, in fact, a huge amount of activities and events going on all the time; it’s all about knowing how to become involved.

Getting into science outreach

If you are keen to become involved with outreach, a good start is to find out what your institution or employer already has in place. Most universities get involved with local schools through open days, and it may be possible to volunteer to gain experience in familiar surroundings. These events tend to feel similar to demonstrating to undergraduate students, but with fun experiments tailored to the age of the audience. For industry geoscientists, some companies have their own outreach schemes and allow days off for outreach activities, but may not advertise them widely; a little digging may throw up surprising opportunities.

Why not join societies, local geology or science groups, and organisations that promote STEM subjects? Credit: Natasha Dowey at the Oxfordshire Science Festival.

Why not join societies, local geology or science groups, and organisations that promote STEM subjects? Credit: Natasha Dowey at the Oxfordshire Science Festival.

Joining up to societies, local geology or science groups, and organisations that promote STEM subjects (such as Science Grrl) will provide more opportunities for getting involved in a wide variety of events and science festivals. Societies may offer training days in specific outreach activities, which can be a great help if you’re keen to do something but you’re not sure what (such as the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain’s “Exploration Game” training). Twitter is a great medium for getting involved in outreach, where large networks (e.g. @STEMNET) and independent outreachers (check out @SarahBearchell) advertise their upcoming events and highlight opportunities to the science community.

One of the most effective ways of getting involved in science outreach is to become a STEM Ambassador. You are given induction training at a local branch, which includes an all-important DBS police check. You have an online profile where you can document your activities (handy for your CV), and emails are sent to you letting you know what events are happening in your local area. You can also attend free training and networking events (such as the People Like Me WISE initiative), where you are able to meet like-minded people, brainstorm activity ideas, and build up a network.

Making the most of it

Getting involved with outreach provides geoscientists with an opportunity to interact with people of all ages and from all backgrounds, to hear new opinions on their research (that are bound to be very different from those uttered by peers and colleagues), to develop professional skills and to get engaged with the local community. The break from the daily grind and the fresh perspective is often invaluable, and most importantly, it’s FUN! Once a geoscientist is able to weave a story to explain how geochronology works to a class of primary school students, or can get a room of fourteen year olds excited by geochemistry without the jargon, the world is their oyster- and science communication throughout their career will seem that little bit easier to tackle.


By Natasha Dowey

natasha-downey-cropNatasha Dowey is a Geoscientist in the energy sector, specialising in understanding the stratigraphic and tectonic evolution of sedimentary basins. She has a PhD in volcanic geology from the University of Liverpool, and enjoys getting involved with science outreach and communication whenever she can. Natasha tweets at @DrNatashaJSmith.

10 minute interview: Louise Hawkins at AGU 2015

It’s been a shamefully long time since I last posted, or carried out a 10 minute interview, for the blog. What better place to find willing recruits and interesting research to showcase than the largest annual gathering of geoscientists: the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting?

For those of you who’ve been before, there is no doubt that attending the AGU Fall Meeting is a daunting experience. Add to that presenting your work, as an oral presentation to boot and it becomes quite a beast.

I popped along to one of the geomagnetism sessions at this year’s Fall Meeting to listen to Louise Hawkins’s talk on the strength of the magnetic field during the Devonian. Despite the imposing setting and a room was packed with experts in geomagnetism, Louise delivered a pitch perfect presentation and navigated the questions with ease. I caught up with her later to have a chat about her research and we also spoke about her experience at the meeting.

Vital Statistics

Meet Louise! (Credit: Louise Hawkins)

Meet Louise! (Credit: Louise Hawkins)

  • You are: Louise Hawkins (
  • You work at: Liverpool University
  • Your role is: PhD – 2nd Year.

Q1) What are you currently working on?

We think the geomagnetic field 360 million years ago, during the Devonian, was much weaker than it is presently. It may also have been flipping, or reversing, much more frequently than at present but we don’t have much direct evidence either way at this point..

It seems that leading up to a Superchron, a long period of time when the magnetic field does not reverse, the field behaves in this way, i.e., is weaker and prone to flipping more often. So, is there a pattern going back in time? If there is, the time it takes to switch between the two behaviours ,indicates that it may be controlled by mantle convection.

Why does it matter? We are able to model the recent field, but we know that the field’s past behaviour could be more extreme (long periods of no reversals, for example). The only way to understand its most extreme behaviour is to go back in time and find evidence for it. Importantly, if we are seeing a transition in the behaviour of the field in the Devonian it tells us something about Earth internal structure at that time.

Q2) What is a typical day like for you?

I don’t really have a typical day.

As soon as I get to the lab, I get started with experiments. I measure the strength of the field and I do this on Tristan – the microwave palaeointensity system. Tristan is pretty unique: it is the only instrument of its kind in the world.

In my experiments, I take tiny, tiny rock sample (5mm diameter), microwave them in order to heat them and extract information about the ancient magnetic field. I average about 2 hrs per sample – so I’m only able to complete 3 to 4 experiments in a day. It’s quite a tedious process which doesn’t need all my attention continuously, so you’ll often catch me trying to do some work, or watching Netflix while I’m running the experiments.

If I’m not doing experiments, I’ll be analysing the results of my experiments at the computer.

There is also lots of training as part of my PhD programme. At the moment I’m taking a maths course and another course in software carpentry, teaching me to use tools like Python and how to programme. In the past I’ve attended courses on how to run a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), for instance.

Q3) Can you provide a brief insight into the main findings of your recent paper/research?

The samples I’m working on are Devonian aged rocks from Siberia: intrusive rocks, such as dykes and sills. When I measure the strength of the magnetic field recorded by the samples, they suggest that the field at the time they were formed was very weak. This isn’t too unexpected as it fits the pattern in geomagnetic behaviour before a Superchron.

However, I’ve also had some interesting results. When my samples are heated and measured, a lot can go wrong with experiment e.g. the magnetic grains can alter, etc., so we perform checks to make sure the results are reliable. My samples have all behaved in a way that might suggest that the experiments have gone wrong but they pass all of the usual, and not so usual, checks. It seems this bad behaviour is a natural phenomenon as opposed to resulting from alternation or anything else. I came to the AGU hoping to start a discussion about that and get others people’s view on the subject.

Q4) What has been the highlight of your career so far? And as an early stage researcher where do you see yourself in a few years’ time?

Coming here (San Francisco) and presenting a talk at AGU in the second year of my PhD features high up there.

In the future I’d like academic career. I’d like to do a post-doc(s) after my PhD and hopefully one that would allow me to travel abroad as part of that.

Alternatively I could open a cake shop! Why a cake shop? Cake is delicious and why not? Baking is the other thing I love to do.

Louise on fieldwork, with the help of the Geomagnetism Lab Technician, Elliot Hurts, who featured in the first ever 10 minute interview! (Credit: Louise Hawkins)

Louise on fieldwork, with the help of the Geomagnetism Lab Technician, Elliot Hurts, who featured in the first ever 10 minute interview! (Credit: Louise Hawkins)

Q6) To what locations has your research taken you and why?

I’ve been to Scotland for field work – collecting samples – near Dundee. I’ve previously attended a conference in Prague (IUGG) and now I’m here in San Francisco.

Q7) What is your highlight of attending the AGU 2015 Fall Meeting?

I really enjoyed the Bullard Lecture given by Steve Constable. I’ve also enjoyed ‘fan-girling’ on big figures in palaeomagnetism too.

Q8) If you could invent an element, what would it be called and what would it do?

Fubarium – If it accidently gets mixed in with your experiment, then everything goes completely fubar , i.e., a disaster movie, but it has a short half-life so you just need to wrestle your results from Godzilla for two weeks, or save your lab from an oncoming meteorite and then you’ll remember you’ve got to get back to your thesis.

Louise completed her undergraduate degree (MSci) at Liverpool University – including a research project in sulphide mineralogy of North Wales and its deformation textures. Then she went onto a 2 year career in industry working for CGG Robertson as a mineralogist before joining the core magnetics group, were she carried out work in the fields of– magentostratigraphy and magnetic fabrics of cores for the oil industry. She is now back at University doing a PhD in Geophysics and studying the Earth’s past magnetic field.