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Lots of exciting science at our REP showcase

Today SENSE held a showcase event for our REP (Research Experience Placement) students. The REP scheme is funded by NERC and allows undergraduate students to complete a short paid research placement with one of our supervisory teams during their summer vacation. The purpose of this is to allow the student to get taster for what completing a PhD would be like and also gain experience working as part of an active research team. SENSE took part in the programme in 2021 and many of our REP alumni were successful in obtaining either PhD studentships or places on masters programmes.

The REP showcase was a hybrid event taking place in person in Leeds and Edinburgh and also online and allowed each of the students to give a short presentation about their project to some of the current students and staff working with SENSE. It was also a networking opportunity to allow them to meet each other and those currently part of the centre.

We currently have six students working with SENSE

At the University of Leeds

Sara Bennie

Using big data to identify glaciers that surge

Supervisors: Professor Duncan Quincey & Liam Taylor

Isabelle Wicks

Using remote sensing to analyse Himalayan glacial lake thermal regimes

Supervisors: Professor Duncan Quincey & Alex Scoffield

At the University of Edinburgh

Nathaniel Edward-Inatimi

Using machine learning to predict the timing, magnitude and impact of solar flares from satellite imagery

Supervisors: Professor Kathy Whaler & Dr. Ciaran Beggan

Qiusi Zou

Using machine learning to identify buildings and land cover from very high-resolution satellite images 

Supervisor: Dr Sohan Seth

Arnav Sinha

Multi Satellite Weather Files for Net Zero Developments

Supervisors: Dr Daniel Fosas De Pano & Dr Dru Crawley

Thomas Gilliespie

Designing future lidar satellites for monitoring Net Zero

Supervisor: Dr Steven Hancock

Everyone was very impressed with the quality of the students presentations and there were lots of interesting questions. The variety of the projects and subject areas covered demonstrates the many and incredibly varied application of satellite data. The REP students are all at different stages of their projects but once they are complete we will be sharing more information about their results and how they found the experience. Thank you very much to NERC for allowing us to extend this opportunity to them.

Investigating the Dry Tropics Brazilian Style

In May 2022 SENSE student Lucy Wells travelled to Brazil for field work looking at the dry tropical areas. Lucy is a student at the University of Edinburgh and is supervised by Dr Casey Ryan. Here Lucy reports on her visit to Brazil

Dry tropical ecosystems are broadly made up of two main biomes – dry forests and savannas. These are the largest tropical land cover type, globally covering more area than rainforests, yet receiving far less research attention. In addition, they have unique and ancient biodiversity and are home to more than 1 billion people. Consequently, they are incredibly important ecosystems.

My PhD project is focused around using earth observation data to investigate the vegetation structure in these biomes, to try and understand their distribution. This is a challenging question because dry forests and savannas occupy the same climatic space, and so their distribution is controlled by different things, including soil type and fire.

The first half of my PhD looks at the Brazilian dry tropics, particularly the Caatinga, which is an area of dry forest located in the North-East of Brazil. During May-June 2022 I was able to visit the Caatinga, to help with some fieldwork that was taking place, and to visit different areas of the Caatinga to understand its vegetation.

Map here: https://maps-brazil.com/maps-brazil-geography/brazil-vegetation-map

The Caatinga is generally characterised by the presence of relatively hort trees, which have leaves in the wet season (December-June), but are lost in the dry months of the year (July-November). The trees commonly have spines, and there are often cacti present. However, as I learnt, there are lots of variations on this theme!

I visited three sites with a team of Brazilian scientists, who were resampling trees in plots that had previously been established. Tree plots are an area of forest (in this case, a rectangle 100 metres * 50 metres), where every tree is recorded. At each plot, the diameter of every tree is measured, its species recorded, and other measurements taken such as the tree height, health of the canopy and overall status of the tree, for example, whether it has multiple stems, is alive or dead. Ideally, the plot is recensused a few years later, to understand how these measurements change over time. This recensus is what my team were doing, five years after the plots were set up in 2017.

This information has a wide range of uses, for example understanding which tree species are present where, tree mortality and recruitment, and competition between species. I work within the SECO project, which is a research project aiming to generate estimates of the carbon fluxes of the dry tropics. Carbon fluxes in dry tropical ecosystems are important to understand, as they currently both mitigate and exacerbate climate change, but the processes are poorly understood. The plot data provides information how much carbon is stored as biomass by the trees on these sites, and is used in conjunction with radar remote sensing to understand the carbon dynamics of dry tropical ecosystems.

Plot 1 – Serra das Almas. This plot is in a nature reserve at quite high elevation, which means there is more rain than typical dry forest. The trees are therefore relatively tall here.
Plot 2 – Lagoa Grande. This plot was more what I was expecting, small trees and lots of spiky plants! Although it rained the days that we visited, it was the end of the wet season and you can see that the trees (not the bushy undergrowth) are losing their leaves.
Plot 3 – Serra Talhada. This plot was interesting to visit because it is in an area of farmland, and so experiences some disturbance from livestock.

These plots are part of a large network of plots which are spread across the worlds tropical forests, collated by ForestPlots.net. FP.net hosts data from over 6000 plots across the tropical biomes, where the trees are measured using standardised techniques, allowing them to be compared.  The network also aims to promote equitable science via collaborative networks throughout the tropics. I’ve included some links to resources about ethical and equitable tropical forest science at the bottom of the article.

I was also able to visit another collaborator, Desiree Ramos, in Brasilia, which is located in an area of cerrado. The cerrado is the Brazilian area of savanna, the difference from dry forest being the grassy understory underneath the trees. This grassy layer provides fuel for the fires which characterise the savanna ecosystem. Desiree and I visited several areas of cerrado around Brasilia, and she demonstrated her exciting work with phenocams, which take daily photographs of the vegetation, providing information on the timing of things like flowering, and when the leaves become green.

Cerrado, Brasilia – much more grass underneath the trees!
Cross-section of a tree stump in the cerrado. The star-shape around the tree is the bark, which is really thick to protect the tree from the natural fires that occur in this ecosystem.

Overall, the trip was a great experience, and has greatly improved understanding of these ecosystems which I can now apply to my research – I’ve got lots of new ideas! As I’d never worked on dry tropical ecology prior to my PhD it was great to learn from knowledgeable Brazilian people on the ground, and establish links with scientists there.

https://forestplots.net/upload/publication-store/itm_183/Lima_Phillips_et_al_Making_Data_Fair_NatureEcolEvo2022.pdf

https://forestplots.net/upload/publication-store/itm_166/Seidler%20et%20al.%20Confronting%20ethical%20challenges%20in%20long-term%20research%20in%20the%20tropics%20BiolCons2021.pdf

https://forestplots.net/upload/publication-store/itm_172/ForestPlotsnet_et_al_Taking_the_pulse_of_Earths_tropical_forests_BiologicalConservation_June2021.pdf

Not Another Wellbeing Workshop: Summary and Feedback



Organising Committee: Heather Selley and Fran Morris

On the 23rd August 2021, Heather Selley and Fran Morris in collaboration with SENSE and with help from panelists ran a ‘Not Another Wellbeing Workshop’.

The session consisted of an introduction (Powerpoint can be accessed here) followed by two
panel discussions. The first panel focused on mental health issues as a PGR and the second
tips and tricks about how to manage your mental health. Finally, the University of Leeds
Counselling and Wellbeing Service outlined some of the support they can offer. After the event
the powerpoint with collated resources for both the University of Leeds and Edinburgh were
circulated as well as two further coffee breaks later in the week for if attendees wish to continue
discussions.


Padlets were used to identify key themes for the panels and allow questions to be asked
anonymously. These will remain live:

This was the first attempt at this kind of event and as such relied on volunteers coming forward
to be on the panel as such it resulted in a panel of people who were all white women.
There were 50 people present (42 attendees, 5 panelists, 1 chair, 2 support staff).
The mental health issues discussed by the panel included anxiety, depression, eating disorders,
mood disorders, neurodivergence, chronic illness, bereavment, suicide and stress.


Statistics from polls and the feedback form:
● 90 % of attendees have struggled with their mental health as a PGR with the remaining
10 % uncertain.
● A third of attendees had taken time out of their research because of their mental health.
● 100 % of attendees found the workshop useful.
● 95 % of attendees would like similar events to run more regularly, with the remaining 5 %
not sure.
● 56 % of responses felt the workshop very much helped them empathise with those who
have struggled with their mental health and 44 % helped them.
● 45 % felt they had learnt many ways to help colleagues with their mental health and 33
% learnt a few ways to help.
● 63 % felt their mental health struggles were very much reflected by the panel.


Feedback:
Parts of the session people particularly enjoyed:

● The honesty and openness of the panel
● Having a variety of career stages represented especially those who have completed their
PhD.
● Candidness about the issues of the academic system and what hadn’t helped them.
● The range of experiences covered by the panel.

“The honesty throughout the whole session”

“I really appreciated how open the panel were with their experiences, it was very
refreshing to hear PGRs and those beyond PhD talk about their own mental health. After
attending the workshop I feel so much less alone and like my feelings have been
validated. The resources and suggestions I will take away from the session will really
help me, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.”

“Hearing an honest reflection of how people felt I thought having Rachel on the panel
was very helpful as she had the perspective of someone at a different stage of her
career”

“Panel sharing their own experience, the range of experience in the panel and seeing
people at different career points talking about mental health”

“I liked how brutally honest the panellists were about what hadn’t been helpful and their
annoyances with many of the systems in place”

“I liked how open and frank it was”

“Hearing others’ experiences was really interesting”


Topics they would like to be seen in future events:
● More discussion/help/tips on asking for help with both supervisors, support staff and
peers.
● More about University of Edinburgh resources and how this compares to the University
of Leeds.

“Not that I can think of”

“It would be good to hear more about the UoE support and services and how these
compare to what is on offer at Leeds”

“I think a good range of topics were covered, I can’t think of any of interest that were not
addressed”

“More discussion/help/tips on having conversations asking for help. Ways to approach
people when struggling to reach out, maybe in terms of asking supervisors or peers.”


Improvements for future sessions:
● Panellists with more diverse backgrounds and experiences including parents and
part-time students.
● Collating some of this knowledge into a handbook or added to current ones
● More similar events.

“I think collating some of this knowledge to be included in student handbooks would be
helpful”

“Include panel members with diverse backgrounds and experiences (as they noted).
Including parents doing PhD’s and part-time students.”

“I would like to see more similar events!”


Key themes and issues that arose from mental health panel session and padlets:


● The pandemic, lack of additional resources for example funding has led to additional
stress. The communication from management has been hostile and it’s been difficult to
integrate into the department.
● Loneliness and isolation, especially with working from home for the past year.
● The stigma and judgement associated with being diagnosed with a mental health issue.
● Lack of accountability in the academic structure for unacceptable views and comments
around mental health.
● Advocating for yourself is really hard and often is the only way to get help.
● The academic system being elitist, ableist, racist, sexist and often discriminatory. There
is a general feeling of not belonging.There was a lot of feedback that by just
acknowledging these issues the feelings and struggles of attendees were validated.
● Imposter syndrome is very prominent.
● The workload and culture of overwork. Lack of role models above you with a good work
life balance. Also, lack of transparency about how many hours you should work.
● Motivation, it’s difficult maintaining a steady pace particularly when so much is going on
in the world.
● The burden of educating on issues that affect you often falls on those most affected with
no compensation.
● PhDs can feel like your life is on pause whilst others around you are buying houses and
reaching milestones. There’s almost a silent expectation that a PhD should be your
whole life.
● Inaccessibility of information, whilst there is induction often this information gets lost.
There needs to be better information which is more intuitive to find. Also, clarity about
who to go to if you’re having issues that’s not just your supervisor.
● Issue of no maternity and sick leave, it leads to people working when they’re not well/
shouldn’t be because of time/financial pressures. This is also poorly communicated and
seems a lot of staff are unaware of the process/rules.
● Navigating that middle zone/grey area – are you staff or are you students? – greater
clarity needed here, and how you can access the right resources, i.e. student resources
are not always right, ditto staff ones.
● Some supervisors need to just be better, but how do we get them to engage, care, listen,
etc.
● Perfectionism and how difficult it is to gauge how well you’re doing.
● The low pay and lack of worker rights leads to feeling undervalued.
● It is easy to become overwhelmed and difficult to know what to focus on.
● There is a big power dynamic issue with supervisors having a big impact on your future
career which often results in people hiding or masking their issues.
● The uncertainty of what’s next after PhD/Postdocs is highly stressful to many.

Key themes and issues that arose from tips and tricks panel session and padlets:


● Having more than one thing that helps you is really important. For instance, exercise is
great but what if you break your leg and then can’t.
● What works for one person may not work for another.
● Depending on where you are on your mental health journey different things will help.
● A coping mechanism can become unhealthy if used too much.
● It is okay to feel the way you do.
● The importance of trying to access help before reaching crisis point and investing into
yourself when you’re on the upswing.
● The best thing to do if you think someone is struggling is to check in, ask if they’re okay
and offer to be there for them. However, you need to understand that you may not be the
person they want to confide in but just saying you’re there if they need you does a lot.
● You don’t have to disclose everything. You can just share that you’re struggling a bit at
the moment and don’t go into specifics.
● It’s okay to not have the answer. A lot of the time the person themselves won’t know
what will help. Just by giving space to share concerns can be enough.
● Toxic positivity doesn’t help anyone and often adds to the guilt that comes with having a
mental health issue. The ‘someone has it worse’ narrative doesn’t help anyone.
● Medication isn’t always the answer but can be really helpful. There are many different
ones so you may have to try a few to find one that works for you.


Takeaways/thoughts:


● Acknowledging the issues of the academic system, not just adding another wellbeing
session validated attendees experiences and brought comfort that they’re not alone. The
university messaging often comes across as selling the wellbeing sessions as the fix to
everything when in reality there is only so much resilience you can build.
● Support and set expectations to have a life/work balance for students and colleagues.
Clarity on expected working hours and how many days you should take for holiday as a
minimum. Reassessing workload allocations/expectations.
● More clarity about who to go to if you have issues with your supervisor and they also
need to be approachable.
● A minimum requirement of supervisors to know what to do/where to point people if
someones struggling and what the process is to pause or move to part time PhD.
● Supervisors don’t have to/shouldn’t be your only source of advice and help but clarity
about who else you can go to and services. This at a minimum could be sharing the
PowerPoint from the workshop.
● There is an appetite for support networks/community among PGRs focusing on mental
health and struggles as unique to PGRs.
● More regular events, like this workshop, to come together and discuss mental health and
the issues in academia, especially for first years starting remotely.
● Working towards creating a culture where people feel comfortable disclosing about their
mental health issues if they wish to but also aren’t obligated.
● More transparency from people further through academia, if they’re comfortable, about
their experiences with mental health/struggles. Anonymous survey of staff’s attitudes
and experiences with mental health. The PGRs surveys and workshop has given us a
variety of statistics to report and a gauge of attitudes in the population. There are a lot of
assumptions that more senior staff (PGR+) may be less receptive and understanding of
mental health. It would be useful to know if this is representative or not
● Moving away from minority communities having to invest extra time to educate on issues
with all the associated work falling on them without compensation.
● To encourage openness Mental health in academia posters could be placed around the
buildings and included in welcome information.
● Consider incorporating active bystander training which teaches you how to respond in a
safe non-confrontational way towards any type of inappropriate behaviour or
discrimination.


Questions asked at the panels:


Panel 1
• What do you think it is about the academic environment that causes a toll on mental health of
PhD students at large?
• Have any experiences of events during your PhD which affected your mental health?
• Do you have any thoughts on the classification as PGRs as sometimes students and
sometimes staff?
• [to panelist who’s finished their PhD and Postdoc and now works in a research lab] Do you
have any reflections on these experiences looking back on your PhD?
• Do you ever have days where you feel like you get nothing done? (also touched on How do
you deal with guilt associated with taking time off?)
• Have you ever thought of quitting your PhD, and if so why did you choose to stay in
academia?


Panel 2
• When you’re dealing with poor mental health, what do you do in the moment to help you cope
with a crisis?
• What have you done in the long term to develop strategies to cope with mental health
struggles?
• How do you deal with isolation, especially currently?
• How do you talk to your friends about mental health without feeling
• How do you talk to supervisors about being overworked?
• How do you deal with supervisors who are unsupportive about mental health?
• What’s the worst thing that someone can say to you when you’re struggling with mental health
/ What are some ways that you can support your colleagues with mental health?

SENSE REP’s Iceland Experience

Hannah Barnett did a Research Experience Placement funded by NERC through SENSE in the summer of 2021, working with Duncan Quincy and Liam Taylor at the University of Leeds. As part of this, Hannah went to Iceland to collect data. Here is her blog of her trip:

 My Iceland Experience

As part of my SENSE Research Experience Placement (REP), I was lucky enough to be asked if I would like to accompany my placement supervisors (Liam Taylor and Professor Duncan Quincey from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds) to Iceland, to help collect some data for Liam’s PhD.

My first job was surveying a range of potential secondary study sites, to identify which would be more appropriate for testing the range of a sensor. This involved travelling to 6 glaciers with a range of different sizes, gradients and terminus types (e.g. proglacial lake terminating). At each of these sites, we estimated the distance to the terminus of the glacier and the height of the face, took photos from a range of angles and locations, and recorded a description of the area. This information was then presented to Liam at the campsite, allowing him to make an informed decision about where to test the sensor. I was also able to help Liam more directly, by taking GPS measurements and recording the photo IDs associated with each location he chose. Back at the campsite I wrote this up, along with the data from other days, into a central space.

Whilst Liam was collecting his data, I was able to collect some of my own. I trialled structure from motion (SfM) –  I learned the theory of this technique in my degree but never had the chance to put it into practice. SfM uses photogrammetry, matching overlapping points from a series of photos to create a model. I used my camera to take approximately 250 photos of the calving face of Fjallsjökull from a range of angles. When I returned to Exeter, I uploaded these into a SfM software, and created a series of point clouds and mesh to produce a textured 3D model of the glacier terminus. The first result of this is shown in the figure below. I really enjoyed trialling SfM, it is an accessible technique with a range of applications and I am sure I will use it throughout the rest of my degree.


Figure 1 | The 3D model of Fjallsjökull produced from my Structure from Motion survey, with two particularly clear sections of the face highlighted and showcased below

I had never seen a glacier before, but thanks to this trip I even got to walk on one! I learnt how to put crampons on correctly and how to hold an ice axe. We climbed across moraines (large sediment ridges) to reach the glacier and from there navigated our way along the crevasses.  The section of the glacier we were on was debris-covered, although you can see sections of clean ice in crevasses in the photo (to the left). Whilst glacier walking, we also discussed the basic processes and mechanisms of glaciers, as well as remote and in-field techniques used to measure mass balance and flow velocity. This allowed me to revisit my cryosphere knowledge from first year and build upon it, seeing many features resulting from these processes in person!

I really enjoyed my time in Iceland, it was incredible to see in-person the landscapes I have been studying all summer in my REP. I can’t thank SENSE, my supervisors and the School of Geography at the University of Leeds enough for giving me this opportunity, and I hope it might inspire future REP interns to apply!

Research Experience Placement: Hollie Black

Hollie Black

Hollie is a student from the University of Strathclyde who worked with Dr Gary Watmough and his Geospatial Livelihoods group on a project entitled Supporting the development of a Children’s vulnerability to climate change index in Uganda

What are you studying?

A Masters in Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Strathclyde

Tell us a bit about the project you have been working on this summer?

I have been working on creating a subnational Children’s Vulnerability to Climate Change Index for both Uganda and Tanzania. Currently the Children’s climate risk index (CCRI) is being created on a national level and we are investigating if there should be further funding to create the index on a subnational level as countries will have different scores across the districts within the country. However, the current CCRI only gives one singular vulnerability score for each country. This is also not as useful as a subnational index for policy makers as the subnational index will allow governments to look within their own country and determine which areas need help and for which sector e.g. education.

What new skills have you learned while doing this internship?

I have learned how to use arcMap which is a GIS software, have learned about using STAN in R as a multilevel modelling code type, learned how to do principle component analysis in SPSS and mostly learned about climate change and the social economic vulnerability it causes especially to children.

How have you found working with your research team here at the University of Edinburgh?

Working with my research team has been great everyone is very supportive and helpful. I think it is very important that you feel comfortable asking questions to your supervisor and I definitely did which made the experience more enjoyable.

What has been the highlight of the internship for you?

The highlight for myself has been being able to present my index to the creators of the Children’s Climate Risk Index which is an team containing academics from the University of Southampton, the University of Leeds, the University of Edinburgh and UNICEF.

How has doing this internship changed your plans or thoughts about your future career.

This internship has pushed me towards applying for a PhD within geoscience as I found the project very interesting and enjoyed the research I carried out.

Research Experience Placement: Ilaria Stolberg

During summer 2021 SENSE have been involved in the NERC Research Experience Placement Scheme and hosted 14 interns with our supervisory teams. The purpose of the REP scheme is to allow undergraduate students from their final or penultimate year of study to gain experience of working on a research project by completing a short paid internship with some of the SENSE supervisors and their research groups. This will hopefully allow the students to learn about what being a research student would be like and encourage them to apply for a PhD in the future.

Because due to Covid the placements were able to be offered remotely we attracted a large number of excellent applicants from across the UK and the competition for places was tough. We had some excellent interns who have blown us away with the amazing work they have done in a really short space of time. In addition to the placements we have also been providing the interns with opportunities to network and make connections with other interns and current PhD student through the Space Hub Yorkshire Intern Network.

First off we have Ilaria Stolberg who is a student from Scottish Association for Marine Science. Ilaria worked with Dr Amber Annett (University of Southampton), Dr Alice Marzzochi (National Oceanography Centre) & Dr Sian Henley (School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh) on a project called A multidisciplinary approach to quantifying oceanographic pathways around Antarctica and their impacts on climate

What are you studying?

I am currently in my 4th and last undergraduate year studying Marine Science at the Scottish Association for Marine Science – with a focus on oceanography and the endless uses of robotic platforms in marine research.

Tell us a bit about the project you have been working on this summer?

My project, which I lovingly nicknamed “Finding iron”, was “A multidisciplinary approach to quantifying oceanographic pathways around Antarctica and their impacts on climate. In the Southern Ocean, iron controls the very foundations of the food web, and it is extremely scarce. Using data from an expedition in 2018, I built a 2D section of the Drake Passage showing the concentration of various radioisotopes, which are naturally occurring “chronometers”. Radioisotopes help us understand how long ago a water mass has been in contact with sediment, a major source of iron in the Southern Ocean. By looking at other environmental properties, such as temperature, oxygen, and salinity, I also tried to find out where these water masses were coming from – were they the cold, dense waters that spill into the depths of the Southern Ocean as ice forms, or warmer waters travelling from the Equator, or eddies breaking off from the churning currents of the Drake Passage?

What new skills have you learned while doing this internship?

Asking simple questions to smart people! And programming, and networking, and finding my own answers when no one else could help. Handling “raw” data also showed me that a single sentence in a textbook is likely the tidy, clean result of years of someone’s efforts. I truly got to experience what the scientific method is all about – less of a linear road, and more like a windy, unpaved (and exciting) trail.

How have you found working with your research team here at the University of Edinburgh?

My research team (Dr. Sian Henley, Dr. Amber Annett, and Dr. Alice Marzocchi) proved to me that academia can be a welcoming space. Being trusted to produce sound results and to advance my own hypothesis were such important milestones for me, as an aspiring scientist; I was listened to and treated as an integral part of the team. My supervisors also made plenty of time to discuss my future, point me to useful resources, and encourage me to pursue an academic career – I had many eye-opening moments.

What has been the highlight of the internship for you?

Getting to know the paths that brought my research team to where they are, definitely! Learning the behind-the-scenes of the scientific community opened the gates to a world that always seemed “a bit too far”.

How has doing this internship changed your plans or thoughts about your future career.

I have taken a leaf from my team’s book – I am much more intrigued and knowledgeable about polar biogeochemistry than when I first started my internship. I now dream of (and work towards) getting my own laboratory to study the processes that govern the polar seas, and how climate change might affect them (and us). Environmental policy is also a field that I became interested in during this internship – as a result, I am researching opportunities that bring biogeochemistry and the “human factor” together.