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SENSE Spotlight – Ross Slater

Name: Ross Slater

Institution: University of Leeds

PhD Project Title: Ice sheet-ocean interactions: using satellite data to understand ice dynamic change

A headshot of Ross stood on a small cliff, with the sea behind him and waves breaking on rocks. He has dark brown hair and a short ginger beard, and is wearing light brown glasses, a blue hat, a green jacket, and a red jumper.

What is your background?

I am a 2nd year glaciology PhD student with the SENSE CDT, based at the University of Leeds. I studied for an MPhys integrated masters degree in physics at the University of Edinburgh from 2015-2020 and while doing so I became very interested in programming. This was really unexpected as I has no prior experience, but I loved the endless possibilities and creativity which it allowed. I realised how vital software is to solving problems in every scientific field and after I graduated I worked as a data scientist for an Edinburgh based Earth observation start up. I continued this until I started my PhD in October 2021 and I’ve brought my love of coding with me into my PhD, where I am analysing very large satellite imagery datasets using High-performance computing.

Tell us about your project and the area of environmental science you are most excited about

My project looks at the interaction between the Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Southern Ocean. I’m using satellite imagery to measure the speed of the glaciers flowing into the ocean, which we do by tracking the movement of features on the surface of the ice such as crevasses. The satellites I use are part of the Sentinel-1 constellation, which is able to take images over almost the entire Antarctic coast as frequently as every 6 days. This has given us unprecedented amounts of data compared to previous missions (which could only provide this speed measurements around once per month) and helps us monitor shorter term variations in the speed of the ice. Changes in the temperature of the ocean at the edge of the ice sheet can affect the flow of the ice, causing changes in the amount of ice flowing into the ocean and contributing to sea level rise. I’m aiming to compare ocean temperature observations to my measurements of ice speed to examine how ocean temperature is causing ice acceleration. Understanding how our planet’s ice sheets interact with the climate is vital to predicting future rates of sea level rise and I’m very excited to be able to do research which contributes in part to this goal.

Map of ice velocity ranging from 0 to 4000 metres per year over Pine Island Glacier in the Amundsen Sea Embayment, West Antarctica. The data was processed from two sequential images from the Sentinel-1 satellites in October 2021.

Was using satellite data at the core of your PhD project important to you?

Using satellite data was a deal breaker for me when it came to selecting a PhD. I wanted to be able to combine climate and space science, and satellite data was the perfect means for me to do this. I also knew I wanted to work with satellite imagery as I enjoy the visual aspect of the data. Satellite data is vital to studying the whole extent of the Antarctic Ice Sheet and without it we would struggle to cover the vast extent of the continent. Conveniently it also means that you can do this kind of glaciology research from anywhere in the world as long as you have a computer, as access to the satellite data I use has been made free and open by the European Commission’s Copernicus Program. I really enjoy the challenge that the volume of satellite data poses and the new tools and infrastructure which the scientific community are developing to perform environmental science at this scale.

Why did you decide to enter the space sector?

I always had an interest in the space sector while I was an undergraduate and knew I would definitely like to work in it in some capacity, but it was only when I discovered Earth observation that I realised I could combine my interest in the physics and engineering side of space with climate science. Space also led me to polar science in a roundabout way: I learnt that certain Antarctic research stations were sometimes used as analogues for deep space exploration, which I thought was really interesting, and from this I quickly became interested in exploring and studying the polar regions and eventually focused on glaciology.

Ross standing in front of his poster at the European Space Agency Living Planet Symposium in Bonn, Germany in May 2022. The poster is titled “Steady ice flow on to Sulzberger Ice Shelf in 2017-2021 from feature tracking of Sentinel-1 imagery“.

What does equity, diversity and inclusion mean to you?

I think it is important that everyone feels welcomed and supported at work and is able to be themselves. Academia can be a particularly confusing system to navigate for people without any prior experience and so I think it is vital that everyone is given the opportunity and support to thrive in their research discipline.

What are your hopes for future PhD students?

SENSE is doing a great job at making sure we are supported through wellbeing and EDI work and this has definitely made the transition to studying for a PhD a much easier process. It would be great to see more this kind of support become the norm for PhD students, regardless of whether they are part of a larger cohort such as a CDT/DTP.  There is a growing push to see PhD students treated as employees of the university (as in many other countries) and I think this would be a great benefit to all PGRs, giving us the rights and benefits which come from proper employment.

Ross standing beside a tall blue sign showing the logo of the British Antarctic Survey outside their headquarters in Cambridge.

Any tips for those interested in applying for PhDs?

Find a topic/project which you’re really curious about and can see yourself studying in detail for the next 3-4 years. Talk to potential supervisors but also reach out and talk to the PhD students in research groups you might like to join – it’s a great way to get a better understanding of what it’s like to work in that environment. If you’re currently working, don’t forget to explain the experience and skills you’ve gained since graduating in your application. Even if the work is not directly related to the project, what you’ve learnt will almost certainly be of use at some point in your research!

Read more about Ross here.

Follow Ross on Twitter @rossawslater and Linkedin.