#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?


Facing impostor syndrome as an interdisciplinary PhD student

I can’t tell you how many of my fellow PhD students, at one time or another, have mentioned recognising that moment when someone describes impostor syndrome to them for the first time.

‘Hang on, you mean that feeling that you are about to be discovered as a fraud who hasn’t worked hard enough, isn’t smart enough and is about to be publicly shamed and cast out of your research institution, is an actual thing? And I’m not the only one who feels this way?!’

The grad school spiral of doubt – often followed by ‘I’m a fraud!’

Yes impostor syndrome, the crushing fear of being found out, seems to be a pretty universal PhD experience, much like sleepless nights and having moments of extreme hatred for your computer. But there an interesting aspect of this that I recently realised – and that is the experience of impostor syndrome for the interdisciplinary student. The reason that it’s different for interdisciplinary students is because, in a way, you actually ARE an impostor in your new subject. In my field I know that I can hold my own with geology, and am confident defending my position, but I only started studying psychology as a PhD student – my contemporary psychology PhDs have a depth of knowledge from their undergraduate and masters degrees that I just don’t have. 

How I feel when presenting to psychologists…

This lack of background knowledge makes it very difficult for me to argue my position, as I automatically assume that the person who has an opposing view knows better than I do, so they must be right. I get extremely stressed when I have to present my work for an audience that has a psychologist in it, and immediately loose confidence in my work – just waiting for someone to stand up and yell ‘that’s rubbish!’ from the back of the room.

Of course I know that this reaction is illogical. I have worked hard to study my adopted subject, and read as widely around my area as possible. My research is interesting and has been successfully peer reviewed. I know that it is extremely unlikely that anyone will stand up during a presentation and yell at me and in fact any time I have presented to psychologists they have been amazingly supportive, helpful and encouraging, with great suggestions. 

But that doesn’t stop the fear.

What I have gradually learned to do during my PhD is grab that fear by the neck and march myself over to people with interesting, alternative, challenging or more advanced knowledge and ask them to talk about my studies. I frequently feel my inadequacy during these conversations, but ALWAYS come away understanding my research better. It’s uncomfortable, but rewarding and I wish that I had done it more often during my PhD. Forcing yourself to examine the weakest area of your studies is one of the things I think makes a great scientist – if your work won’t stand up to criticism then it’s not worth as much, in my opinion. None of us wants to be told that years of work are irrelevant or unsubstantiated, but I would rather find that out as part of a dialogue, than be presented with it at a later stage. I hope that as I progress as a researcher I won’t let fear of being a subject impostor hold me back from questioning my research and continuing to learn.

So that one day I won’t be an impostor any more, in either of my subjects.

Ubiquitous motivating statement, but you can, in fact, do this.

Monazite – Day 2 of the Mineral Advent Calendar

This holiday season, why not get a mineral every day instead of chocolate? Today’s mineral is Monazite, find out more about it below..

Yesterday we looked at the first thing we see that makes us think of winter-joy, but today I’m going to talk about the first thing you hear, and that of course is the ubiquitous Christmas Songs Playlist, that seems to be on loop in practically every store from the end of October.

I love some seasonal music, but how would i listen to it if my speakers didn't work!

I love some seasonal music, but how would I listen to it if my speakers didn’t work!

Now personally I have always been more of a fan of this kind of music:

or this:

Than this kind of music, which is more of what you hear in the shops…

But regardless of which kind of seasonal song you like, you wouldn’t hear them at all without minerals like Monazite and that is because Monazite contains Neodymium – a Rare Earth Element (or REE) that makes all your speakers do their jazzy, seasonal thing.

A picture of Monazite (Nd) from MinDat website, taken by Enrico Bonacina

A picture of Monazite (Nd) from MinDat website, taken by Enrico Bonacina

Monazite (Nd):

  • Chemical formula: (Nd,La,Ce)(PO4)
  • Colour: Orange brown, yellow to pink
  • System: Isometric
  • Hardness (Mohs): 5 – 5 1/2
  • Can you find it in the UK? Yes
Locations registered for Monazitein the UK, from the MinDat website. The crystal in the sea between Cornwall and France, should actually be on Cornwall!

Locations registered for Monazite in the UK, from the MinDat website. The crystal in the sea between Cornwall and France, should actually be on Cornwall!

Monazite is actually the name of a group of minerals with similar chemistry and features that have different amounts of various REE in them. Monazite can be found in Cornwall and Skye in the UK, but is not commercially mined in this country.

For more information about Monazite please visit the MinDat website.


Wolframite – Day 1 of the Mineral Advent Calendar

So it’s December the 1st and across the nation people are opening the first window of their advent calendars. But instead of chocolate, why not get a mineral every day?! Over the next 25 days I will post a new mineral related to an aspect of the holiday season for your enjoyment.

After all, what says mid-winter more than sparkles!

Sparkling christmas lights

Everyone likes sparkly lights in winter, but they wouldn’t work without tungsten – and for that you need Wolframite.

To kick us off, I’m looking at the first thing that most of us notice about the season – sparkling lights! It wouldn’t be winter without strings of glittering lights everywhere, but those lights wouldn’t function without tungsten, a metal found in the mineral Wolframite.

A photo of a specimen of Wolframite form Drakelands Mine in Devon, taken by Paul De Bondt from the MinDat website: http://www.mindat.org/photo-471032.html

A photo of a specimen of Wolframite form Drakelands Mine in Devon, taken by Paul De Bondt from the MinDat website.


  • Chemical formula: (Fe2+)WO4 to (Mn2+)WO4
  • Colour: Greyish-black
  • System: Monoclinic
  • Hardness (Mohs): 4 – 4 1/2
  • Can you find it in the UK? YES
locations of wolframite from mindat website

Locations registered for Wolframite in the UK, from the MinDat website. Does not yet include new mine site just outside of Plymouth – Drakelands Mine.

Wolframite is one of the UK’s currently mined minerals, thanks to a new mining development that has recently started production just outside Plymouth in Devon. Tungsten is considered so valuable because of it’s resilience to high temperatures, which makes it ideal for use in many new technologies – including lights!

Drakelands mine visit - summer 2014 - Hazel Gibson

A view across the Drakelands mine site taken from a mine visit organised in sumemr in 2014 beofre the mine entered production stages.

For more information about Wolframite please visit the MinDat website.

For more information about the new Drakelands Mine please visit the Wolf Minerals website.

Can a geologist ever operate without anchoring bias?

Recently I was reading a paper about how anchoring bias has a strong role in how different geologists interpret data, because they base their interpretation on data they associate with a location. For example – Dover is known to have chalk cliffs, therefore if you see a cliff in Dover, it must be chalk. Which lead me to think ‘can geologists ever operate without using anchoring bias?

Just let go of the anchor!!

Just let go of the anchor!!

Before I launch into my reasoning for this, I should probably define what anchoring bias is. Anchoring bias or focalism, is a type of cognitive bias that usually happens in decision making, whereby the first piece of information (the anchor) becomes the basis for all subsequent decisions – even if this is illogical. Most often the phenomena has been tested using numbers, to quote an example given by Grau and Bohner – when participants are asked: Is the Eiffel Tower higher or lower than X meters? Followed by the question: How high is the Eiffel Tower? The answer to the second question will invariably be influenced by the value of X given in the first question. It has often been mentioned that anchoring bias is easier to demonstrate than explain (Strack and Mussweiler, 1997) which certainly seems the case, with explainations varying between selective accessibility (the anchor provides a point from which to test hypothesis and the data for it is more easily accessible – Mussweiler and Strack, 1999) to emotional state (those who are ‘sad’ and who generally demonstrate less bias – aka a more realistic view of the world – than those who are happy, seem to be more susceptible to anchoring bias – Bodenhausen, Gabriel and Lineberger, 2000) to expertise and experience (whereby experts base forecast and other data extrapolations on previous values, which may in some cases lead to very inaccurate results, Campbell and Sharpe, 2009), which bring me back to the geologists.

The reason I thought of geologists in particular being susceptible to anchoring bias is because, having worked as an Identification Officer at the Natural History Museum in London, I know that hands down the first question I ever asked someone who brought me something geological to be identified was ‘where did you find it?’ In fact I would even go so far as to say that if someone didn’t know where an object was from initally, it would be practically impossible to give a detailed ID. Yes I would be able to tell them roughly what their object was, but for detail I needed a location. This is true of all geology, where you are defines the types of rocks, mineral and fossils that you expect to find. Most intersetingly in this case however, it is just as likely to define what you WON’T find. Anchoring bias in geology precludes us from choosing certain rock types, fossils or environments of deposition in an area simply because that’s not what the maps say. And we love our maps.

And we really do love our maps!

And we really do love our maps!

But is there a problem with this? I mean, as researchers show, it’s likely that all experts experience some form of anchoring bias (in fact we all do) – so what’s the big deal? Well I guess as someone looking at communicating geoscience and trying to understand how people perceive geology, the influence of bias is a big deal in building trust, and we don’t even take anchoring bias into account. If we unknowingly encourage anchoring bias in interpreting our data, then are we skewing our results and presenting them with more confidence than we should? I wonder how many geologists would change their interpretation of soemthing just because the loaction changed? And yes, context is important, but do we let it control our interpretation too much? It may be that for geoscientists, anchoring bias is just a fact of life, but I think we should all be aware of it and try to take our own natural biases into account when communicating our data.