Thrilled to have won. Thanks to everyone for all your questions and too all the other scientists, #TeamDysprosium was awesome!
Favourite Thing: Finding out something new, there is nothing better than knowing you are the first to work out a problem!
I went to a state school in Merseyside from 1997 to 2002, where I also stayed in their Sixth Form for my A-Levels between 2002 & 2004. I then left for the University of Edinburgh in September 2004, starting out as a geologist, but ending up combining this with chemistry and some biology, to finish up with a degree in Environmental Geoscience in 2008. I stayed at Edinburgh untuil the summer of 2009 to do a Masters degree, where my life changed, I saw an interesting research project and wound up a climate modeller, this led me to Leeds in October 2009 and a PhD involving climate modelling and geology, where I stayed until October 2014.
GCSE’s (Maths, Science, English, Geography, History, ICT, RE – I failed Spanish!), A-Levels (Maths, Physics, Geography, General Studies), BSc (Hons): Environmental Geoscience, MSc(R) Global Environmental Change
My pre-science work revolves mostly around sport, so a squash coach at West Lancs Junior Squash Club, A general sports and activities coach (including lifeguarding) at St Bede’s International Summer School and the same at ExCel Sports Academy, and also English & Maths tutoring at Explore Learning in Edinburgh.
Climate Modeller & Antarctic Scientist
British Antarctic Survey
Me and my work
I investigate Antarctic sea ice to see what happens to it due to climate change
I am working as a Climate Modeller at the British Antarctic Survey, which is based in Cambridge. I am studying why in our climate model the way sea ice has changed in the last 30 years is different to how it has changed in the real world.
Sea ice plays a very important role in the global climate system, mainly because as a bright white colour, it reflects solar radiation (sunlight) away from the Earth. The more solar radiation reflected the cooler the Earth will be. If we melt sea ice, the bright white, reflective sea ice is replaced by dark blue ocean. The darker colour absorbs the solar radiation instead of reflecting it back into space. As a result the Earth will get warmer. The differences due to how light or dark the surface is, is called the Earth’s surface albedo. As well as controlling how much sunlight warms us, sea ice is also really important for a number of animals. Around Antarctica, this is mainly the many species of seal and penguin that live there, but it is Polar Bears in the Northern Hemisphere who are most famous for needing sea ice to survive.
At the moment, climate models really struggle to get sea ice right. In the Southern Hemisphere, sea ice surrounds the large ice sheet covered continent of Antarctica. When we are running our climate models, we melt too much Antarctic sea ice, so we over-estimate the effect of sea ice melt in this region. In the image below, it shows how Antarctic sea ice has changed in the last 30 years, a blue colour shows that the sea ice has reduced and a red colour that is has increased. As you can see it is not a simple pattern and therefore hard for our climate models.
What is a Climate Model?
A climate model is a computer program which turns the Earth and its climate into a series of maths equations. These equations represent the whole range of interactions that influence our climate, as shown in the image below.
The main forcing is the sun, we get nearly all of our energy from the sun and its energy (as solar radiation) drives the entire of our climate system. This radiation heats the Earth and interacts with the Earth’s surface, clouds, chemicals in the air and the greenhouse gases to form our climate. However, the combinations of these forcings change around the world, so the local climates are different, from desert, to tropical forests or to wet and windy Britain.
As a result, we need to divide the whole world up into boxes. At the surface each box represents the type of land that exists there, whether it is oceans, or cities or mountains. These boxes then are stacked on top of each other to represent the different layers of the atmosphere, up to a height of 85km and also the layers through the ocean down to the bottom, in places at 5km. This is shown in the next image.
To run the model, the equations inside each box of the model, come together to create calculations which represent the climate and allow all the different features of the climate in that box to be worked out. Once the calculations are run, each box shares its results with the boxes it touches and this process is repeated until the model has finished running. Luckily the computer does all the maths and just gives me the results!
Testing a Climate Model
But how do we know that these calculations produce a good version of the actual real world climate? This question is vital, if the model doesn’t represent the climate well then we have no idea what climate change will do. When the models are built, they are tested against data collected by global weather stations (since 1850) and satellites (since 1979). If the model can reproduce the patterns expected, the assumption is made that the model will produce a good prediction for the future.
Since we launched satellites in the late 1970s which have been able to accurately measure sea ice from space. Now that we have 30 years of this data, we have been able to start investigating how good climate models are at modelling sea ice. It is important because of the role they play in both controlling our global temperatures, but also for local animal life.
The climate model I use, HadGEM3 is the most current model used by the UK Met Office, a similar version to the one I use will have been used to make the weather forecasts you saw this morning. I add into it, a world leading chemistry model designed here in the UK and use this combination to experiment on the model to see how the sea ice responds to a number of different changes. These changes include altering the sea surface temperatures, the chemicals in the atmosphere and the amount of greenhouse gases. I will make these changes one at a time, and then compare the changes back to a control version of the model, in what is basically a simultaneous equation, like you might do in maths.
A + B = 5
A + B + C = 8,
then we know that
C = 3.
I will use a similar method but instead of numbers I will use the output from the model, such as temperature, wind speeds and rainfall to find out what my changes have done to the model.
More About Me
Simply I’m sports mad. I can be found playing pretty much any sport, but my main ones are Squash, Racketlon (you play your opponent at table tennis, badminton, squash and tennis and the winner is the person who scores the most points over all 4 sports) and Cricket. I have been lucky enough to be picked to play for England at Racketlon, for me it was the highest honour to selected for my country. Below, I am captured pulling a cheeky face during a badminton set at the 2014 World Team Championships in Wroclaw, Poland.
If I’m not playing sport, I’ll be watching it. This is mainly my football team, Southport FC who play in the Vanarama Conference, but I’ll go to pretty much any live sporting event! In 2015, I went over to Paris to take in the France Vs Scotland match in the 6 Nations. Although Scotland lost it was a great match which could have gone either way. Below is a picture of my fiancée and I before the match started.
Later this year I will also be heading to Cardiff for the 1st Ashes Test match in the cricket with my mum and sister. I also like to go out hiking in the hills especially the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands. I love trying new things, so have also been caving (crawling around in rock tunnels underground/occasionally under water!) and Gliding (flying in a plane without engines!). I’ll also often have my camera with me, as I love photography.
I’m also very involved in outreach programmes, taking my science into schools and to you guys. I am a STEM Ambassador and go to schools talking about science, and showing people what I do. The reason I do this is, in all honesty, that I never was top of my class. I’m not a super genius, I was born in Liverpool, I went to an ordinary state school, neither of my parents did A-Levels; I just worked hard and took a few chances when they came up. I am passionate about people knowing that no matter your background, where you come from or what people say, you can be a scientist if you want to.
I went to the University of Edinburgh, a deliberate decision to move far away from home and push myself to live my own life. I started studying geology, the science of rocks, which as well as sitting in classrooms learning about the rocks, it also involved lots of getting out into the field and seeing rocks in places such as Scotland, Italy or even Jamaica!
The key tool for a geologist is a rock hammer to hit rocks with. It’s only once you’ve hit a rock you can really find out about it, as when you break a chunk of rock off you can see a side which hasn’t been affected by the weather for millions of years! The picture above shows me hitting a section of rocks in Italy, which where 50 Million years old, made from the dead remains of sea life, such as plankton, in a rock known as Limestone.
Other bits of my training required me to work in a laboratory, doing chemistry on samples of rock, soil or water. The picture below shows the view from a laboratory in Jamaica I worked in, I don’t think it’s that bad a view, looking out over a coral reef and out into the Caribbean Sea!
But most importantly, these sorts of trips, led to me forming some great friendships, and still years later I am best friends with all the people in the photo below, I have attended their weddings and their kids christenings, travelling at times for many hours to see each other, because they are such great friends.
Since Edinburgh, I studied for my PhD at the University of Leeds, were I investigated the climate of a period of time 3 million years ago, combining my love of geology with my enjoyment of using climate models. I am very lucky that I have been able to continue my work at the British Antarctic Survey, something I am very grateful for!
So, I hope that’s what you get from me, that you don’t have to be a genius to get where I am now, you just need to put in the effort, and if it’s something you enjoy, and you have fun, you will make great friends and have a tremendous experience!
My Typical Day
Running the model on a supercomputer, looking at the results, drinking coffee and almost certainly cake!
I like to arrive in the office between 8:30 and 9am, I have a 30 minute bike ride into work which really helps to wake me up. I start up my computer, check my e-mails, load the Absolute Radio Player so I can listen to music and I’ll probably also have a quick read of my favourite web comics for entertainment, these are www.xkcd.com and www.phdcomics.com. I’ll also have a browse of Twitter, I interact with a range of scientists from different fields, but mainly climate science. From a career point of view, it is useful to be developing these informal contacts. But, as my profile bio says, it is also an account for me to show that I am more than just the stereotype of a scientist. So, my twitter feed is full of discussion of sport, tv, films, the weather and a whole host of othe random things!
The picture above shows my desk as it appears on any normal working day. My computer is the main place I work, in the image above you can maybe make out that I am editing this profile, have my e-mail open and the model working in the background. That is a fairly typical representation of how my computer screen looks. I hope to get a second screen soon, will make my life far easier! As you can see I have a couple of mugs on my desk and once I am settled in, I go and make my first cup of coffee for the day and try to scrounge some biscuits. I now have no more excuses and must get on with my work. I nearly always have a model simulation running on the supercomputer, so making sure that is running is my first piece of work for the day. After that it’s a case of looking at the results produced by the model runs I have been doing.
Another important part of my daily work is to keep up to date on what other scientists working on similar work to mine have discovered, so I spend a large amount of time searching the internet for the latest papers from scientific journals (magazines of science essentially) and reading this research, looking for new ideas I could try. Science is always changing, new discoveries are made regularly, so keeping up to date is very important.
My present employer requries me to take at least 30 minutes for lunch, away from my desk. This I think is really good, and it allows me to catch up with my colleagues. Sometimes this will be discussing some latest science development, but generally it is about what we did at the weekend or saw on TV last night! I’m more of a morning person at work, so my work gets slower in the afternoon, so to get myself through I often reward myself with some sport in the evening!
Squash is my main sport; I’ve played that since I was 11, and coached it to kids since I was 17. Since moving to Cambridge, I have joined a squash club and play for one of the teams at that club in a local league. Our team matches are on Mondays, and I play as the teams number 1 player, so often whether we win or lose the team match comes down to my result, but I thrive on pressure! Through the rest of the week, I will play squash matches in our clubs internal leagues. I am also a member of a badminton club, training once a week with them, to improve my Racketlon performances! I love racket-sports, but also will take the opportunity to play football or cricket whenever the weather allows.
Sport is great as it gives me a chance to do something very different to my work and allows me to switch off. I’m also massively competitive and so I LOVE winning!
What I'd do with the money
I want to create an artifical ice core to show school kids how we use them to understand Antarctica, it has yet to be invented!
I recently went up to Manchester to take part in an outreach event at a museum on climate change. I had my laptops with a climate model running for people to play with, I had fossils which show us how Antarctica used to be, millions of years ago when the Dinosaurs roamed the Earth. We had the clothing that scientists on Antarctica need to stay alive in the extreme cold, but we had no way to show some of their vital work, studying ice cores.
We drill cores of ice and we can study each individual layer to give us the temperature, rainfall, greenhouse gases and evidence of volcanic eruptions for tens to hundreds of thousands of years back into the past. They are an incredible source of research, but they can’t survive outside of our huge super cold (-25°C) freezers.
I would use the money to create the British Antarctic Survey’s first ever artificial ice core, so it could be taken into schools so that kids around the country could see how this science is done. I think it would go great with our field camp which we can take out and set up as it was here in at the Manchester Museum in February.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Energetic, Passionate, Dedicated
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I’m a big fan of Muse, but also love the older bands such as The Who, Queen, The Beatles & The Rolling Stones.
What's your favourite food?
Mainly italian food, especially a nice Calzone (folded pizza)
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I got chosen to carry the medals and flowers at the London 2012 Olympics & Paralympics. The best bit being when I carried the Gold medal for Mark Lee Colbourne in the Velodrome during the Paralympics (picture below). A truely incredible experience!
What did you want to be after you left school?
Train driver (Age 5), Palaeontologist (Age 8 – I blame Jurassic Park), Astronaut (Age 11), Meteorologist (Weather forecaster, Age 14), Geologist (Age 18). I’ve combined most of these now (well apart from the train driver & astronaut)
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Lots! Nearly always for being cheeky/answering back to my teachers. This is a bad habit which has continued into my adult life and one I have had to work hard to stop doing!
What was your favourite subject at school?
Geography just edging out Maths
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Swimming on a coral reef in Jamaica! It was work, honest! ;)
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
This is really hard, but I think it was mainly my own curiosity, I have always wanted to know why and how things worked and happened. I guess for most scientists, once we get into our specific science we develop “science crushes”. For me these are the early geologists, James Hutton & Charles Lyle who basically invented the concept of geology. However, my biggest science crush is for Alan Turing. He invented what we now call computers, used a machine to crack the enigma machine and in my eyes was probably the single most crucial Brit in the effort to winning World War II.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I’d be a sports photographer. Being paid to attend sports event, perfect!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) Learn Polish* 2) See my football club (Southport FC) back in the Football League, 3) Go into space! (I always wanted to be an astronaut!). * I need to learn Polish because my fiancée is from Poland, but it is a really difficult language to learn!
Tell us a joke.
I used to think an ocean of fizzy drink existed…………. but it was just a Fanta-sea
Probably my proudest moment, when I carried a Gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympics. It was a massive priviledge to be a part of his special moment, plus my family and friends got to see me on TV. I remember his race, as I already knew I was doing the Gold medal for that race, I was going mental as Mark Lee Colbourne rode to victory, just hoping he wouldn’t fall or have a problem with his bike.
With my work I have been lucky enough to travel all over, one of my favourites was San Francisco, here is me with a rather well known bridge…..
When away, it is actually to work, this can include presenting posters of my work, as I am here in Vienna
or giving a talk, such as here in Bristol
But, by far an away my favourite poster session, was this outdoors one in India 🙂
Science can be very hard work, but the (travelling) rewards can be amazing