#EGU16 Day 1 – Ethics, planets and fractals.

We’re here!! Day one of #EGU16 has been and gone and wow was it a cracker! I got to attend lots of interesting sessions today, starting off with the ‘Geoethics: theoretical and practical aspects from research integrity to relationships between geosciences and society‘  session in the morning, which featured some really interesting talks on the place of ethics in geoscience. Its a conversation that I feel is really important – as an interdisciplinary researcher coming from a geoscience background, I had never really considered ethics before I started the psychology side of my studies, but you would perhaps be surprised at how necessary it is to mainstream geoscience. One of the speakers Stefano Tinti discussed the difficulty of providing short term hazard assessments, as unlike long term assessments, they were harder to prove ‘scientifically’. Instead he proposed a cyclical interaction between geohazard assessors and the users.

“Science assessment needs to replace a line with a loop”

Stefano Tinti, University of Bologna

Next we heard from a colleague of mine Johanna Ickert, who is a transdisciplinary visual anthropologist studying seismic risk communication in Istanbul. Ethics is very much at the centre of Johanna’s work, so it comes as no surprise that her work had produced some very interesting results. Key amongst her findings from was the perception that locals judged the scientists to have a moral responsibility as a major player in the approach to seismic risk in Istanbul, but that the scientists expressed a reluctance to go beyond their established role as subject expert.

Johanna Ickert's talk front slide

Later in the day I attended a joint NASA-ESA-EGU Union Session and observed a talk on NASA’s planetary missions, given by Jim Spann. This was a great talk, not only because it gave insights about a whole host of different missions, but also highlighted the truly international remit of space exploration. Often I hear people bemoan the UK’s lack of a space programme, but this talk showed that it doesn’t matter which country you live in, you can still get involved in a space programme! Jim described the two main types of mission, entire (where the whole mission objective is completed in one go) or strategic (where it might take several missions to complete the objective).

Number of NASA missions with an international component

He described how many of the missions have an international component that you might be surprised by – the photo above has circles around all the mission with international collaboration, which although you can’t see any of the detail, really goes to show how much of NASA’s missions rely on the scientific, technical and logistical support of other countries around the world. Also I was surprised to hear about the unexpected durability of some of the spacecraft – the Cassini mission has been extended TWICE, which Jim said is a stamp for the success and longevity of international endeavours. He ended his slide with an image which is so far my favourite of the conference – if anyone knows where it is from, please let me know, as I think it is spectacular!!

girl blowing planet bubbles NASA

One of my final sessions of the day was one that I mentioned in yesterday’s post 5 sessions you may have missed. Yes, of course I mean the session on fractals!! Or to give it the correct name: ‘Multifractals and singularity analysis in mineral exploration and environmental assessment‘. Now maths is not one of my easiest languages – it can be quite a struggle for me sometimes, but a talk combining fractals, singularities and geology?! COME ON!!! So I went to find out about fractals. The talk I saw was presented by Claudia Oleshko, and discussed the use of fractals in geoengineering for hydrocarbon reserves. As far as I understood the talk, she said that you can’t use fractals if you have no idea of the physics of the region you are trying to model, but that if you do, fractals provide a way to combine and integrate heterogeneous data (aka data that is all different types/kinds) at a range of scales. When you do this you get better quality information about how fluid flows inside pores, that can be used by industry  to improve oil and gas extraction. And just to be clear here when I say fractals, I mean fractals like this:


What a day!! I’m looking forward to tomorrow now, what sessions have you got planned?


Rural communities and flooding

Over the last few weeks we have once again been faced with the impact of flooding on a huge scale. While we have heard a lot about flooding in the North of England (quite rightly) there has been rain all over the country and on a recent train trip I saw flooding in fields across the Westcountry, but looking back at the reports of flooding, this flooding of rural areas across the UK appears a background story to the flooding of towns – if it is mentioned at all in the general media. Farmers are much more frequently the victims of flooding, but because it is fields and livestock that are affected rather than houses and people this flooding is often overlooked. Added to this is the recent suggestion that farmers should be paid to let their fields flood, thus lessening the burden on downstream urban residents, without any real thought as to how our building practices often exacerbate the problem in the first place.

A photo (taken from the train!) of flooded fields in the Westcountry.

A photo (taken from the train!) of flooded fields in the Westcountry.

Recently, I ran a stakeholder case-study workshop for Environmental Science students in Plymouth University and one interesting issue was that the majority of students placed greater value on communicating with residents of a town affected by the hypothetical situation than the rural residents. In one example, a student playing the role of ‘National Government’ said that it was a ‘numbers thing’, but as another student pointed out in rebuttal for this statement; people in the country, although they may appear more resilient, can actually be more vulnerable due to their isolation and dependence upon the land for their livelihoods. So why do we have this focus on urban (or semi-urban) residents over rural? Is it because increasingly more and more of us live in urban centres as opposed to the country? Or because large media distributors (the gatekeepers of most of our information) are based in cities?

A picture of the board used during the stakeholder workshop to assign communication priorities. Note how many more are listed under the locat residents (t - for town) column, than there are under the local residents (c- for countryside) column.

A picture of the board used during the stakeholder workshop to assign communication priorities. Note how many more are listed under the local residents (t – for town) column, than there are under the local residents (c- for countryside) column.

Often communicators (including the media) target the easiest or most visible community, not always out of choice. Hard-to-reach audiences, whether geographically or ideologically can be a challenge to communicate with or about, without seeming patronising. The issues that are important to these communities can seem odd or irrelevant to those communicating, but by ignoring or marginalising the hard-to-reach community you are weakening any further attempt to connect. This is an important issue because these future contacts might be life or death situations and by that time, it’s too late to be feeling your way into a community. In this instance, by lessening our knowledge of the impacts and extent of flooding on rural communities, we may lessen our acceptance to finance flood defence measures that may be better long term solutions, but that focus their protection on our rural communities – the frontline of the majority of flooding in the UK – instead of urban ones.

In order to fix this issue, mainstream communication channels, such as the visual and print media, should be encouraged to take into account new research being published on how different populations approach different sciences, particularly the environmental sciences. An upcoming special issue of Natural Hazards and Earth System Science and Hydrology and Earth System Science called Effective Science Co​mmunication and Educ​ation in Hydrology a​nd Natural Hazards ​(NHESS/HESS Inter-Jo​urnal SI)​  seeks to address this issue, and I would hope that it will be used to try and improve our national communication strategy.

The closing date for this special issue if you want to submit a paper is the 15th January, so there is still time to get your research in there if you want to join in with this critical conversation.

Women can understand fracking!

Women 'don't understand fracking' article in the Times from @EbenMarks

Women ‘don’t understand fracking’ article in the Times from @EbenMarks

This morning I was sent an article from the Times titled ‘Women ‘don’t understand fracking’. This article was forwarded to me because my research into what people think about geology has occasionally brushed onto fracking and as such I have a very keen interest in how people think about fracking and what impacts on the decisions that they make about it. Professor Macdonald’s comments were perceived as controversial, and the article opened with:

“Vast numbers of women are opposed to fracking because they ‘don’t understand’ and follow their gut instinct rather than facts, according to a leading female scientist.”

The article went on to quote a study done by the University of Nottingham, which stated that 31.5% of women believe that that shale gas exploration should be allowed in the UK as opposed to 58% of men, and that 65% of women identified shale gas as the product of fracking as opposed to 85% of men (the article said ‘correctly’, but as you can extract different types of fossil fuels using fracking including oil and methane – I would want more info before drawing that conclusion).

The specific Nottingham University study itself was not made clear in the article, but it is here and it forms part of an ongoing series of studies about how we in the UK perceive shale gas extraction and fracking. The studies have provided many interesting results, but the focus on gender highlighted in this article has raised concerns. I was asked in the context of my work – had I found any gender bias in this issue of how people perceive geology? The short answer to that is not yet. The long answer is that I am less interested in the influence of gender and so am not specifically looking at that factor, and also that most of my data is still qualitative and so I would not want to draw general conclusions at this point.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if I did.

It seems to be true that there is a gender difference in the way that men and women perceive science in general and fracking in particular – the work done by Nottingham is good and should be trusted. This issue here for me is more about the context of that difference. The article mentions that women may have less access to science education because they may not have continued science (or any STEM subject) post 16, and that would lead them to feel less confident in their understanding of science. The article then continued with the statement from Professor Macdonald:

“women are more likely to form opinions based on ‘feel’ and ‘gut reaction.”

The quote is continued in another article (as the Times is behind a paywall and I only got a small part of it):

“Merely showing them more facts demonstrating that fracking was safe would not change their minds, she said.“Why are men persuaded? That’s because an awful lot of facts have been put forward,” she said. “[Men] will say, ‘fair enough, understand’. But women, for whatever reason, have not been persuaded by the facts. More facts are not going to make any difference. What we have got to do is understand the gut reaction, the feel. The dialogue is more important than the dissemination of facts.”

(continued from the Telegraph)

What this article fails to do, is separate two very important issues:  the difference between access to science for different genders, and how having a science education can make you feel more confident in discussing and debating science issues. The problem, as I see it is this:

  • Girls are less likely to access science (or STEM) post-16 than boys


  • If you have not had a science education, then fact-based science communication is harder to engage with.

What it doesn’t mean is that women are less able to engage with science than men, that’s a fallacy of logic. There are men who didn’t engage with science post-16 that struggle with fact-based science communication, just as much as there are women who have had access to post-16 science education who are completely comfortable with fact-based communication.

Working with girls from my old school on a STEM day (photo from the Herald Express)

Working with girls from my old school on a STEM day (photo from the Herald Express)

The context that is missing from this article is culture. Women have culturally, for hundreds of years, been told that science is not for them, so they don’t engage with education. When someone of any gender doesn’t engage with education, it becomes harder to understand the intricacies of that subject later in life. What I have found in my research, and what I increasingly believe to be true, is that most people regardless of their gender want to know more about fracking, but the answer to that thirst for knowledge is not just facts. As communicators we need to take into account the different influences on people’s lives and not just expect them to understand and agree with us when we present them with data.

So really I think this comes back to the title of this piece – ‘Women ‘don’t understand fracking’. Well maybe, for deeper cultural reasons, this is true – but actually I think the headline should read, ‘Women (like men) CAN understand fracking’ and it’s our job as science communicators to help make this happen.

Can you blog and write papers at the same time?

Writing for blogs and academia

Recently I have entered solidly into the marathon of writing up my thesis. Now I know that you are supposed to be doing this all the way through your PhD and yes, I have been writing the whole time. But for me, if I don’t take a big run at it and do it in one logical progression, I just can’t make it make sense. So I have loads of one two and three page word documents scattered across my ‘Thesis’ folder (a title that has inspired a small frisson of terror in me, ever since I named it), none of which connect to each other in any meaningful way!

However, since I sat myself down and said:

‘Now you are going to do this Hazel, no more procrastinating, no more waiting for data, this is the time to write and make your argument!’

I have been writing in a much more logical way, and my arguments are coming together nicely (or so I in my little writing cave of a mind think). The good thing about that is that all the ideas that I have had for papers over the last year are making a great deal more sense to me now, I can draw the threads of my arguments more confidently from my thesis writing and I feel good about writing these papers. The bad thing is that I have never written a purely acadmeic paper – I’ve been blogging.

When it comes to writing short, logical, pieces that make a case for one particular thing, the area in which I have most experience over the last year is – here. The blogs that I have written and planned over the last two years have been my most reliable source of written output during the entire last phase of my PhD, and they are written extremely differently to a paper. I write colloquially, with slang terms and I often leap from idea to idea in the way that my brain does (yes, I’m a bit of a scatterbrain – ok a LOT of a scatterbrain).

This format of writing really doesn’t mesh well with writing papers. It doesn’t seem to impact my thesis too much as I know that I am going to be writing and re-writing that until next year, but for papers I seem to get stymied in my informal writing style!

This problem reflects the issue of writing in an academic language. Academic language is what you are taught (with varying degrees of success) to write with at University as an undergraduate. In the physical sciences its most obvious expression is writing in the third person (which reflects the notion that the scientist is supposed to be completely objective about their work), but it is used in all areas of academic life – in subtle and complicated ways. In fact, the success of your use of academic language and methods of thought is one of the things which mark you out as an expert in your field, as explored in a recent paper by Dressen-Hammouda (2008) on disciplinary identity and genre mastery. So if you are attempting to write a paper to expand the boundaries of your science (whatever it might be), you need to use the right textual cues and knowledge frames. This basically means you have to know the academic language (with all the implied meaning not obvious to an outsider) you need to use to make yourself credible to your peers and you need to know how to link concepts together in the same way that another person versed in your science would do so.

The language of scince should not be used to exclude.

The language of science should not be used to exclude. (The mural is one I saw on the doors of a geology firm in Cornwall: Geoscience Ltd – the photo is my own).

But this is completly the opposite of the style used for writing for a blog (or any form of science communication to a non-expert audience for that matter). In a blog you try to make yourself relatable, understandable and sympathetic. You want people to see you as a person and not a machine of science, and you want people who are not a part of your little community to feel comfortable coming in and talking about your subject with you. 

How do you balance these two competing needs? As a science communication researcher I value the method of easy communication that blogging needs, but I also need to contribute to my field. As a possible solution I am trying something new. At the end of a day of writing towards one of my chapters I am writing a page of one of my papers. I hope that this will allow the transfer of language across from the papers I have read to the papers I am writing.


To all you bloggers out there, do you have any tips for switching between your academic and internet ‘voice’?


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Losing the joy – the love/hate nature of doing a PhD

I am currently in the final stages of doing my PhD; collecting final data and attempting to write up my monster baby of a thesis, and on an almost daily basis now I am facing the reality  of completing this project. It is a well known fact that a PhD is a marathon and not a sprint – and that you have to choose your subject really carefully because it will be, in essence, the ONLY thing that you think about for between 3 and 4 years.

Now I consider myself really lucky in the way that I came to do my PhD. I’m older, have worked in ‘the real world’ and had to leave a paying job (with an independent life) to come and do this, so it was not a spur of the moment decision. I had to think long and hard about whether it was right for me – could I really be happy turning 30, when back as a student at University again? I decided, yes, I could be happy – and what’s more not only did I want this challenge, but that it was the right challenge for me. And my subject was PERFECT.

I love my subject!

I love my subject!

I love my subject. Like, really REALLY love it – I could spend all day talking about geology, and how people understand geology and how they talk to other people about geology. It’s inspiring and fascinating at the same time. It is the only subject that I could successfully do a PhD in, because to me it is (to paraphrase the Lego Movie):

‘The greatest, most interesting, most important subject of all times.’

 But today, as with many days over the last year – I also hate it.

This is a difficult thing to admit to anyone other than another PhD student, because you are not supposed to hate your subject – not least because you have given up 3 years of your life to dedicate to it, but yes hatred is definitely the right word. I hate that I constantly feel that I haven’t done enough for my data, that they are sitting there judging me, saying ‘what have you been doing with your time?! You could have completed two independent analyses of these data in the time it’s taken you to do one!’. I hate the fear that I have gotten it wrong; not my interpretation of the data (which as a scientist I accept as part and parcel of doing research), but the analysis again – did some stupid mistake skew everything I have been doing?! I hate that I have so much time and so little. I hate that the subject is not cut and dried, there are no easy numerical answers with cognition.

The tricky thing is that a lot of the things I hate, are also some of the reasons why I keep coming back to loving this. I love that my data is constantly provoking new questions or I would be bored. I love the qualitative nature of the work and, although I don’t love it, I value that my work keeps me second guessing myself so that I don’t become complacent.

I guess what it boils down to is that on a good day, my love for my topic makes it really easy to throw everything that I have at this. I’m optimistic, driven and focused. But on a bad day I hate my PhD so much that I am barely able to look at my computer and writing anything becomes like pulling my nails out. I struggle with this dichotomy. Each day I’m pushing myself more and more to finish, to make it make sense, and remember why I started this. Some days, however, are better than others.

Thesis love/hate from http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1780

Thesis love/hate from PhDComics.com

What do you think? Has anyone else struggled with the PhD love/hate relationship, and how do you deal?

In a previous post I have spoken about the value of ‘leaning in’ to my work when I am frustrated, and I still stand by this, but now also I will add that when my hatred gets too burning, a chance of scenery helps. Not digital scenery, but actually getting up and out of the house.

So if you feel the hatred taking over, try a walk? And remember – there is life outside your PhD.