EGU Blogs

early career researcher

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.

How to survive your PhD – A free online course

Image Credit:  Graduation Cap Cupcake  by   Clever Cupcake (distributed via  flickr).

Image Credit: Graduation Cap Cupcake by Clever Cupcake (distributed via flickr).

“The Ph.D. is an emotional roller coaster, and how well students react to these emotional pressures is crucial to their success, ” says Inger Mewburn, of The Thesis Whisperer fame and Director of research training at the Australian National University.

With the emotional and personal strain a PhD can cause, I couldn’t agree with Inger more. During my PhD journey, this was an aspect that I felt was often overlooked by my institution, and frankly, a lot of the time by me too! Making a proactive decision to find a work-life balance, whilst at the same time striving to produce quality research, is difficult.

I stumbled upon an article in Science Magazine’s Career section which advertises the upcoming, totally free, online course on ‘How to survive your PhD‘. It does start tomorrow, but you can definately still enroll. Given that the start of a new academic year is just around the corner, and the beging of new PhD programmes to boot, this might just be perfect timing to take part.

There is plenty of information and details of the course on Inger Mewburn’s blog and you can also watch a video trailer, see below.

If you do enroll, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the course and how you thought it was valuable, so be sure to share them in the comments sections below!

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Help! I’m appearing as a scientific expert on TV

Help! I’m appearing as a scientific expert on TV

At the beginning of the year, the small village of Rutland, in the heart of the UK, was hit by a 3.8 Magnitude earthquake. The quake didn’t cause any significant damage or injuries, but hit the headlines as seismic activity is a bit of a novelty in the UK!

In the wake of the quake, the UK press and media picked up the story and sought the opinions of experts to take part in interviews and give their views on the ground motions. Amongst those approached was my colleague and friend, Steve Hicks, a final year seismology PhD student, at Liverpool University. Steve took part in a BBC children’s TV programme called Newsround. On hearing of his TV appearance, I asked Steve to write a guest post for Jenga; I thought his personal account of his experience with the might be useful for other researchers too. Steve gives a brief account of his TV experience before listing his top 10 tips for talking to the media. You can watch Steve’s appearance on the children’s news programme here.

On Wednesday afternoon at 1.30 pm, our research lab in Liverpool received a call. The caller was a member from the production team of the BBC’s Newsround programme – a national news show aimed for children. They wanted someone from our research group to appear live on their afternoon bulletin at 4.20 pm to talk about a significant earthquake that had occurred the night before.

Our Prof. was tied up with meetings all day. No one else in the lab seemed particularly keen on the idea. I decided to go for it. And I’m so glad that I did.

Preparation was key

Although I didn’t know I was going to be appearing on TV, the preparation actually began the night before. A magnitude 3.8 earthquake struck England’s East Midlands region; it was felt by thousands of people. That night I kept myself updated – mainly via Twitter – with reports from the earthquake and what preliminary results were telling us about this seismic event.

A seismogram being recorded by a seismograph at Weston Observatory in Massachusetts, USA.

A seismograph being recorded by a seismograph at Weston Observatory in Massachusetts, USA.

As part of an on-going outreach project that our research group is involved with, one of my roles is to produce informative PowerPoint slides about significant earthquakes in their immediate aftermath. These resources are aimed at educating schoolteachers, pupils and the general public to educate about earthquake science and their associated hazards. This outreach work meant that I was already fairly clued up about the earthquake, its context, and how to explain some complex scientific ideas to a non-specialist audience.

I had previously taken part in a practice radio interview at a public engagement course; this made me feel slightly more confident, but still, a live TV interview was a massive step up. I felt that with the TV show being tailored for children, if I messed up the interview, then I could maybe get away with not many people knowing about my cock-up!

My colleagues in the lab were awesomely supportive and very helpful. They offered to help me prepare and to get anything I needed to take with me.

Before I knew it, my transport had been organised by the BBC and I was about to arrive at the studio in Manchester.

A surreal experience

As I arrived, I was sat down with a cup of tea and got straight into a discussion with the production team about their proposed plan for my section of the show. Due to issues with booking my transport and the fluid nature of news that day, the production team were a little stressed – there were only 20 minutes left to prepare until we went live on air. I’m sure they are used to such last-minute stress, yet they were still hugely friendly and made me feel very relaxed. The team openly discussed with me the type of questions the presenter will plan to ask. They were even open to me changing the questioning slightly! This freedom made me feel much better and more in control. I knew what they were going to ask me and I could tailor a nice ‘model’ answer.

We went into the control room and I was fixed up with a microphone. Now I was starting to get nervous. However, I did get a view of the famous Blue Peter studio and managed to rub shoulders with some of its presenters! A big tick off the bucket list!

Screenshot of Steve's appearance on the BBC children's programme, Newsround.

Screenshot of Steve’s appearance on the BBC children’s programme, Newsround.

The countdown starts … 5,4,3,2,1, … and the show is on air! In a flash, the show is over. Surprisingly, I wasn’t as nervous as I had expected. I have definitely been more nervous when giving conference talks. Maybe it had something to do with not having an audience in sight. There were only four crewmembers in the studio and talking with the presenter felt like a fairly regular conversation. I’m very glad I chose to bring a couple of props to explain the earthquake. I brought a seismometer and a trusty slinky, which were very popular with the production team and presenter.

I hate hearing my own voice so I haven’t yet watched the full video without the audio being muted!

My Top 10 Tips for Giving a Media Interview

  1. Get involved in outreach and public engagement projects

Getting accustomed to outreach work will you to get you used to telling stories about your field of research that can capture the imagination of a lay audience.

  1. Get involved with the conversation on social media.
Use social media as a source of information. ( SMM-Jigsaw-Banner, by greyweed pn Flickr)

Use social media as a source of information. (
SMM-Jigsaw-Banner, by greyweed on Flickr)

Using Twitter and Facebook will help you to find out more about a topical subject and will give you an idea of what your fellow scientists in the community are saying about a newsworthy topic.

  1. Get on a public engagement short course.

Public engagement courses may be offered by a society or funding body in your field. Your PhD support funds may be able to pay for such a course. I attended the Natural Environment Research Council’s excellent public engagement training course. This was free and were able to carry out a valuable mock radio interview with an actual radio show presenter. Laura, do you know of any other media training courses here that you add here? Your University/Institution’s Press Office may also be able to provide some basic media training.

  1. Try to get a gig on local radio.

Speak to your University/Institution’s Press Office and say that you would like some media interview experience. Most local radio channels will love to hear about some ground-breaking research that is being done at their local university. This can be a great way to get some media experience without having to face a camera and a large audience. Try to persuade your Press Office to add you to their directory of experts, which media outlets often use to get people they want.

  1. Don’t rely on your undergraduate degree / PhD research alone to get you through the interview.

In all likelihood, your audience will not be interested in convoluted theories and innocuous scientific methods. The educational pages of a well-known institution in your research field that regularly communicates with the public and media can be priceless. I found the British Geological Survey and IRIS websites particularly helpful for ideas on answering frequently asked questions and for providing me with a few basic statistics that I could recite.

  1. Speak to your supervisor/boss before accepting any offer to give an interview.

Many outlets – depending on the programme and audience – may prefer to interview someone more youthful than an ancient Prof. It is also likely that your supervisor is an old hand at media interviews, but they may be too busy and might offer an interview to another member of the research group. If they have media experience, they may give you some valuable tips and will tell you whether or not they think you will cope with the interview.

  1. Props are priceless.

The production team are always keen to have a ‘hands on’ aspect during your piece, especially if the audience is quite young. A prop or two may also mean that you do not have to think on your feet for as much time.

  1. Be prepared for a last-minute call up.

Keep some key props in your lab that you can take to an interview. Your look: maybe keep a smart-ish shirt in your office in case you get an emergency call-up. But, you need not look too smart. I hadn’t shaved and my woollen jumper still had dog hairs on from my previous home visit! But nobody seemed to care or notice. They didn’t give me any make-up either!

  1. Be patient with the production team.

The show’s team have probably had just as much, if not more, of a stressful day as you. The show structure will constantly change as breaking news comes in. They have got to get guests in at very short notice. Making a live TV show is hard work! It is also possible that someone has asked you to appear on their show, but you get cancelled at the last minute; news programme schedules change fast, so this can happen often.

  • Most importantly of all, go for it!

You’ll regret it if you don’t take the opportunity and it will any future decision a little bit harder. Body language is key – smile, keep your back straight and enjoy the moment!

By Steve Hicks, PhD student, University of Liverpool