University of Edinburgh logo British Antarctic Survey logo National Oceanographic Centre logo University of Leeds logo

Watch this space – SENSE students complete Earth Observation and machine learning training course

The first cohort of NERC SENSE CDT students have finished 8 weeks of intensive training in Earth Observation and advanced data techniques, split into an Edinburgh block and a Leeds block. This training aims to give this next generation of Earth Observation experts an overview and the skills they need to succeed in their PhD, as well as create a bonded cohort of students.

The multi-disciplinary training included weeks on software carpentry, vegetation, machine learning and cryosphere and solid earth. In the future, students will have sessions on oceanography and fieldwork (postponed due to covid).

Software Carpentry programme icon
Vegetation: LiDAR & Polarimetry programme icon
Land Surface: Optical & SAR programme icon
Time series analysis & filtering programme icon
Atmosphere: Spectometry & Radiometry programme icon
Machine Learning & AI programme icon
Cryosphere: Interferometry & Altimetry programme icon

“The breadth of topics covered on the training allowed me to think outside of the world of glaciology for a while and consider some other approaches I could take forward in my project, such as machine learning. And despite everything running virtually, we were able to get to know each other better as a SENSE cohort. I think we will all be a valuable support network for each other over the next few years and hopefully could lead to some exciting scientific collaborations!” 

Bryony Freer, British Antarctic Survey and University of Leeds

Many hands make satellite work

A key part of this training is the group work aspect, allowing the students to network, share expertise and work together on ideas. The final piece of group work was to design a new Earth Observation mission, and present this to a panel. Here are the exciting new satellite missions that they have created!

INSPECT: the Insect, Pathogen and Environmental Change Tracking Satellite.  

The main purpose of the mission is to monitor distribution and potential expansion of certain (sub-)tropical environments that are the preferred habitat of mosquitos – a known vector of many deadly diseases including malaria. The hyperspectral sensor (with thermal bands) onboard INSPECT will be able to map temperature, humidity, vegetation conditions and location of stagnant bodies of water. These observations will allow the distribution of the species to be modelled as a function of environmental conditions.

Comprehensive Atmospheric Radiation Records After Ten PM (CARRAT)

The proposed Earth Explorer mission Comprehensive Atmospheric Radiation Records After Ten PM (CARRAT) came about by asking ‘who knows what happens when the sun goes down?’. The aim of this satellite is to monitor the Earth’s atmospheric composition and pollution of cities at night by observing the atmospheric scattering of city lights. It will provide an insight into night time pollution and chemical species that contribute to global warming, as some chemical species go through photochemical and dark chemical cycles. In addition to monitoring the atmosphere, CARRAT has the potential to monitor urban development and observe lightning, bioluminescence, airglow and zodiacal light.

Have they (or)bit off more than they could chew?

WEL: Water Exploration Lidar

A mission to study land water sources as climate change and population growth continues to put stress on the worlds water cycle and increase water scarcity

Collaboration and wider impact

The training included a JASMIN workshop from the CEDA (Centre for Environmental Data Analysis) team. JASMIN is a globally unique supercomputer for environmental science, which many of the students will use to process their satellite data and investigate topics such as global warming and environmental change. The CEDA team regularly runs hands-on interactive training workshops for users of JASMIN, and the workshop for SENSE students was the first to be held virtually. This had 25 attendees and included a mixture of live lectures, recorded talks, exercises and tutorials. The CEDA team is funded by NCEO (National Centre for Earth Observation) and NCAS (National Centre for Atmospheric Science).

The machine learning week also featured an Alan Turing Institute – SENSE hackathon event. The goal of this challenge was to automatically identify sea, ice and land in satellite images of Danmarkshavn on the east coast of Greenland. Seven Alan Turing Institute PhD students joined the session, and using Sentinel-1 images the students worked in small teams to build and train a model to classify sea, ice and land in a dataset spanning a year, using data prepared for the ExtremeEarth project.

SENSE’s training programme is extremely important to the centre. Of the students who filled in the feedback from, 100% of students agreed or strongly agreed that SENSE’s training programme affected their decision to apply to or accept a PhD position at SENSE. The training was an opportunity to the students to learn a variety of new skills and to bond as group.

The training not only benefitted SENSE students, as we opened it to first-year students at Edinburgh, Leeds, NOC (National Oceanogrpahy Centre) and BAS (British Antarctic Survey). Nineteen PhD students joined the SENSE cohort for at least one week training from across these institutes.

The SENSE training has introduced me to a broad range of Earth observation tools and methods which have given me a good basis for the start of PhD and beyond. It was also a great opportunity to work with other PhDs during the group projects and allowed me to get to know the SENSE cohort which would have been difficult otherwise with the current restrictions.”

– Emily Dowd, University of Leeds

Where there’s a skill there’s a way

As well as learning technical details of Earth Observation and advanced data techniques, the training featured ‘soft skills’ sessions, to teach the students to be all-round academics and researchers. Tom Richardson from Nature Geoscience gave a presentation on ‘Publishing with Nature Geoscience’ with eighty-six attendees. Tom Lyons from STEM Centre and Andy Clarke presented on outreach and how the students can engage, which led to a number of students signing up to be STEM ambassadors. The students learnt valuable tips and tricks for working with the media in a session by Ian Rosser from the University of Leeds press office. Finally, Jurgen Neuberg gave the students some dos and don’ts for face to face and online presentations – which will be useful for the students in their first-year presentations and future conference contributions.

A SENSE of direction – looking to the future

In their second year, the SENSE students will do a 3-day Science Communication and Outreach course, run by Professor Mark Brandon and colleagues at the Open University. They will then do a 1-week Space Industry week, hosted by the Satellite Applications Catapult and European Space Agency (ESA) in Harwell. In their third year, the students will do a residential course in ESA’s ESRIN facility near Rome, Italy, as well as doing their 3-month industry placement. And finally in their final year the students will have career and CV coaching sessions, along with courses on Entrepreneurship and Intellectual Property.

As the students embark on their exciting new PhD projects, SENSE are thrilled to give the students this expert training, which will equip the students with skills, knowledge and confidence to thrive in their PhDs and future careers.

Girls just wanna have fun(ding for their scientific research)

Last week was International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11th of February). The SENSE CDT students ran a hugely successful twitter takeover, you can read it in full below.

Hello! Emily, Bryony and Sophie here. We are some of the first cohort students on the SENSE CDT and today we are taking over the twitter feed to celebrate UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. We will be highlighting past and present women scientists who work with or inspire the current SENSE students.

First up, SENSE Student Sam (@spiruel) has been inspired by American scientist and inventor Dr Valerie Thomas, who in the 1970s played an important role in the launch of the Landsat programme. She started in NASA’s Landsat team in 1970 and quickly became the expert on data storage.

Nowadays, the success and subsequent open-access of Landsat data is seen as a major point in the history of Earth Observation – where it could be said that ESA’s Copernicus programme wouldn’t be as successful as it is now without the previous achievements of Landsat.

Additionally, Dr. Thomas oversaw the first successful demonstration of applying space-based remote sensing to global crop monitoring and headed a team of the Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment (LACIE) to predict wheat yield worldwide.

Her work links directly with Sam’s PhD project, where he is developing a new methodology for assessing future food production based on machine learning, remote sensing and crop models.

Earth Observation achievements aside, Dr. Thomas is also responsible for inventing the ‘illusion transmitter’ in 1980 – a technology that enabled the creation of modern-day MRI medical imaging. What a trailblazer for women and girls in science!

Katherine Johnson studied Mathematics and French at West Virginia State College in the US. Her historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist has been an inspiration to our resident SENSE mathematician Amber.

When asked to name her greatest contribution to space exploration, Johnson would talk about the calculations that helped sync Project Apollo’s Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle & early Landsat missions, and authored 26 research reports.

Katherine is depicted as a lead character in ‘Hidden Figures’, a 2016 film following the African-American female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race.

Decades after the pioneering work of Dr. Thomas and Katherine Johnson, SENSE are keen to promote the work of the @LadiesofLandsat community, established as a way to connect fellow scientists who are gender and minority peers, offering a platform to reach out and chat about anything from finding research partners to starting a family. 

Now with over 5000 followers they are one of many growing online communities working to improve inclusivity in the geosciences. 

Founders @morganahcrowley & @katefickas believe that “by building up each other’s confidence and celebrating our wins, we lift, retain and attract women in the field”. SENSE students love all the work you do ‘spreading badassery with STEMinism’


#WomenWednesday is just one of the great initiatives run by @SistersofSAR, an inclusive online community for women in SAR at all stages of life, inspired by @LadiesofLandsat. With many SENSE students using SAR data on the daily, we’re here for everything you do!

Taking it right back to the 1800s, the pioneering paleontologist and fossil collector Mary Anning has been an inspiration for SENSE student Megan Udy and we’re sure many other Women in STEM.

Growing up on the Jurassic Coast, Mary’s father was an amateur fossil collector and taught her how to look for and clean fossils. This sparked her passion, and despite not having any formal education, she taught herself geology and anatomy.

The fact that Mary was a woman of poor background with no education led to the community being reluctant to recognise her work. Male scientists would often buy the fossils she found, which she had to sell to support her family, and pass them off as their own work.

The Geological Society of London refused to admit Mary, and continued to refuse to admit any women until 1904. She died at the age of 47, still in financial difficulty, with little recognition and not knowing the impact her finds had/will have on geology and palaeontology.

More recently a campaign (@MaryAnningRocks) was set up to create a permanent memorial in Anning’s hometown of Lyme Regis, with a statue set to be put up as a reminder of Mary’s discoveries in the region and her contribution to science.

Centuries after her death, Mary continues to inspire young girls to take an interest in science, as we will see with our next inspirational girl in STEM.

Born over three centuries after her hero Mary Anning, 11-year old Evie Swire started the campaign @MaryAnningRocks to raise money for the erection of a statue in Lyme Regis recognising the remarkable work of Mary Anning.  

The campaign believes that a visual celebration of Mary Anning’s incredible contributions to science is the perfect way to address the gender imbalance in STEM, to create an example, especially for our young women to follow. 

They hope that this statue will set in motion a wider debate, a discussion for all the forgotten women of history and their marginalised and forgotten contributions to the world we now all live in.

Evie is a fantastic role model for Girls in Science and has said that when she grows up she wants to go into outer space. We wonder if Evie has heard of Earth Observation? Maybe she could be a future SENSE student?!

SENSE student Eszter is proud of the Hungarian-born scientist Katalin Karikó. She developed the patent on which the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is based.

In 1985, she and her family emigrated to the US, hiding the money from the sale of their car in her daughter’s teddy bear. She reckons she would have been a mediocre scientist if she stayed in Hungary. Instead, she has persisted in her field and now a Nobel Prize isn’t off the table!

SENSE Student Nick Homer is inspired by Prof. Sarah Gilbert. She co-developed the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine with the Oxford Vaccine Group. This vaccine was developed in record time and is now one of the main vaccines being used against the disease around the world.

It is hoped that the vaccine will be valuable in reaching less developed parts of the world because, unlike the other vaccines, it can be stored at regular fridge temperature and is therefore much cheaper per dose. What an amazing, world-changing achievement!

Dr. Catherine Nakalembe is an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Maryland, USA and @NASAharvest Africa Lead. Her research uses remote sensing and machine learning to aid agriculture, foodsecurity and climate change.

She is a 2020 African Food Prize Laureate for improving the lives of farmers by harnessing satellitedata to guide agricultural decision-making. Her work aims to predict either drought or rainfall estimates, helping farmers plan and prepare.

Dr. Nakalembe grew up in Kampala, Uganda, never expecting to become an environmental scientist. The PhD programme as University of Maryland enabled her to learn about remote sensing while working in Uganda and around her home continent.

Dr. Nakalembe now mentors young black women to encourage them into environmental science. “In the diaspora, I go to meetings and I am the only one who looks like this. It feels lonely when it is a new country or space.”

Her work in utilising satellite data for land management is linked to a PhD project by SENSE’s Lucy Wells, who will research the response of savannas and dry forests to global change! Dr. Nakalembe is a great role model for women and girls worldwide

Dr. Chelle Gentemann (@ChelleGentemann) is currently a senior scientist at Farallon Institute advocating open science and inclusivity. Dr. Joellen Russell (@DeepBlueSeaNext) is a Professor at University of Arizona researching the ocean’s role in climate!

Both are PIs on upcoming NASA Earth mission proposals, if either are selected, they will be the first female in history to lead a NASA Earth Science Mission! What better role models than these two amazing oceanographers! Good luck from the students at SENSE!

Kimberley Bryant (@6Gems) is an electrical engineer and computer scientist from the US. She started a non-profit called @BlackGirlsCode in 2011, with the aim to introduce girls from underrepresented communities to computer programming.

The organisation has the goal to educate 1,000,000 black girls in programming by 2040. While not directly related to Earth Sciences, SENSE student Jacob Connolly thinks computer programming is vital for all our PhD projects in SENSE.

@BlackGirlsCode is a really important organisation for the next generations of scientists!

Conversations like this with @AlisonJ_Cook helped SENSE student Bryony Freer to see the possibility of a future career in Antarctic science, and is why she wants to highlight the amazing work of female lecturers and PhD students who continue to inspire the next generation of women in STEM.

The enthusiastic teaching and fieldwork experiences with @AntarcticPippa, @DrTashaBarlow, @AlisonJ_Cook, @AilsaGuild, @GeographyCris were particularly inspirational during her Geography degree at @GeogDurham.

And the incredible women of the #PCAS course at @GatewayAntarct1, including Daniela Liggett, @drmichellelarue, @UrsulaRack and Gemma Brett, who’ve helped prove there’s no limits to women working in Antarctic science.

Women now account for >50% of all STEM postgrads at UK universities, yet science faculties are still often very male-dominated at the senior level. So to all those female role-models out there working for gender equality in STEM, we appreciate everything you do!

Dr. Judith Wolf (@JudithWolfNOC) is a physical oceanographer based at National Oceanography Centre, Liverpool, and a visiting professor at the Univesity of Liverpool. Her extensive career has involved developing and validating models to aid coastal impacts of climate change and tidal energy and is currently the supervisor to SENSE student Sophie Durston.

At the start of her career in 1976, all Dr. Wolf’s colleagues were men. Over time, she witnessed the gradual improvement to the present day where more than half the scientific staff are at National Oceanography Centre in Liverpool are women! For the first time, the NOC’s director of science is a woman: Prof Angela Hatton!

Recently, Dr. Wolf has been working on two projects, one based in the Caribbean and one in China, focussing on coastal climate change resilience and management in collaboration with local stakeholders!

“Having strong and empowering role models, like Judith, in a once male dominated field allowed me to believe that I could succeed with my PhD. I feel honoured to have Judith as a supervisor to inspire and guide me!” – Sophie Durston

Ruth is a co-supervisor for @emily_dowd_ on the SENSE CDT. She completed a PhD in Astrophysics but her focus shifted to the environment and went on to do an MSc in Environmental Science with a strong focus on climate change.

She specialises in atmospheric composition and air quality. She strives to carry out useful research so her focus is also on the health impact of air pollution. This work is very important when air pollution is responsible for 7.7% of world mortality.

In Ruth’s spare time she helps pupils at her local high school prepare for university interviews, inspiring the next generation of scientists.

Alice Marzocchi (@allygully), SENSE Student Phoebe’s supervisor, is currently in the Southern Ocean studying the impacts of the A68a iceberg. Make sure to look at some of her amazing photos! Her research, at National Oceanography Centre, has a focus on understanding understand climate dynamics.

Dr. Isla Myers-Smith (@IslaHMS) is a researcher and lecturer in Global Change Ecology at the University of Edinburgh. Through fieldwork, data science, big picture thinking and scientific collaboration, Isla’s work helps us understand the impact of climate change on Arctic tundra ecosystems.

Founded by Isla, @TeamShrub is a dynamic research group conducting a range of exciting Arctic science, using everything from teabags to drones! Many Team Shrub members are early career researchers, developing their scientific careers with Isla’s mentorship and encouragement.

Science communication is a key focus of Isla’s, as she works with organisations such as National Geographic and Wired UK to share her findings with society. Seeking novel and engaging methods of communication, she encourages conversation around climate change in the Arctic.

Listed in this year’s WIRED25, Isla contributes substantially to Arctic tundra research. Her science communication inspires and engages wide audiences with her work, while her mentorship enables next generation researchers. She is supervisor to Calum Hoad on the SENSE CDT.

SENSE Manager, @ruthamey, would like to highlight two brilliant women in science. Dr Laura Gregory (@theearthquakes) has endless enthusiasm and interest in anything earthquake and fault related, and is a friend and mentor to many aspiring scientists.

Ruth would also like to highlight Dr Sam Giles (@GilesPalaeoLab) for devoting significant time and effort into challenging the scientific community, to make science a better, fairer, more equal place (and for tweeting cool pictures of fossils).

The National Oceanography Centre manager for SENSE is Dr. Christine Gommenginger, a physical oceanographer who specialises in new and improved observations of the ocean from space!

In recognition of Dr. Gommenginger’s achievement in her field, remote sensing, she was awarded the title of Honorary Professorial Fellow from the University of Southampton!

Dr. Gommenginger’s impressive career features extensive multi-disciplinary collaborations across academia, industry, and government. Who better to help manage the SENSE CDT?

Helen Fricker is a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the director of Scripps Polar Center, San Diego. A prominent glaciologist, she has authored over 100 publications in the field of remote sensing of Antarctic ice shelves and active subglacial lakes.

Growing up in the UK, Helen attended @AGGSchool where her physics teacher Melissa Lord encouraged her onto a path to become a scientist. Mrs Lord must have been quite the inspirational figure, with the oceanographer @helenczerski also a talented kind graduate of her classroom!

In more recent years, Helen has played a central role in developing @NASA_Ice‘s ICESat and ICESat-2 laser altimetry missions, and we’re sure she will be an invaluable source of advice for SENSE student Bryony Freer who Helen is co-supervising on her ICESat-2 PhD with British Antarctic Survey.

At the end of 2020 @helenafricker received the ultimate honour a glaciologist could wish for, when an ice piedmont in Antarctica was named after her by @AntarcticNames. This marks decades of her pioneering satellite altimetry work on the continent! Congrats from all the SENSE family!

Our wonderful SENSE Co-Director Dr. Anna Hogg is an expert in Earth Observation and Associate Professor at the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, where she uses satellite data to monitor remote ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

Dr. Hogg’s impressive career so far has included involvement in 17 international research projects funded by ESA (European Space Agency), NERC (National Environmental Research Council), UKSA (UK Space Agency) and NASA as well as participating in five major field campaigns in Antarctica and Greenland.

Without Anna’s enthusiasm for science and training the next generation of #EarthObservation experts, SENSE CDT may well not have even existed – so us students have a lot to be grateful for!!

To round up our takeover we wanted to highlight the current SENSE cohort! Currently 60% are women who are able to support and inspire each other across a wide range of topics but with one goal: to become experts in Earth Observation!

Announcement: Alan Turing Institute – SENSE Hackathon

Join us on Thu 25th and Fri 26th of February for a mini-hackathon challenge, organised by the Alan Turing Institute and the SENSE Earth Observation CDT.  The goal of this challenge is to automatically identify sea, ice and land in satellite images of Danmarkshavn on the east coast of Greenland. Using Sentinel-1 images you will work in a small team with SENSE PhD students to build and train a model to classify sea, ice and land in a dataset spanning a year, using data prepared for the ExtremeEarth project.

There are a limited number of places for Turing PhD students. Some familiarity with python or a similar language and knowledge of machine learning is required. Apply to join here, deadline Fri 12th February:

The Alan Turing Institute logo