26 July 2016

Dr Amy Valach describes her journey from studying an Ecology degree at Lancaster University to becoming a research scientist working in Antarctica for the British Antarctic Survey.

I am sitting in my office surrounded by a 360 degree view of flat white ice, but it is one of the best views in the world because I am looking out over Antarctica.

I work at the Halley research station on the Brunt ice shelf in Antarctica for the British Antarctic Survey as the wintering atmospheric scientist - read more about the scientific work we do at Halley in my earlier blog. .

In February a BBC film and radio crew visited Halley to make a Horizon program about the station and the science that goes on here. The question that I was asked the most was “what is your background?” to which the answer is: “ecology”.

How I went from studying ecology to being the atmospheric scientist at Halley is a bit puzzling, so let me tell you about how it happened.

Ecology at Lancaster - linking theory and practice

I enrolled on an Ecology degree at Lancaster University in 2008. Lancaster was one of the few universities to offer that type of degree at the time. The appeal for me was the diversity of the course incorporating good foundations in environmental sciences in general and, of course, atmospheric sciences. It included many practical aspects such as field courses and excursions bringing the subject matter to life.

I thoroughly enjoyed the course and learnt much about how everything comes together in nature to form functioning ecosystems, which we all rely on to sustain life on Earth. This understanding of the links between what are usually considered separate areas of science influenced the direction I wanted to take in my career.

Studying for a PhD

I started a PhD project at Lancaster looking at how plants interact with the atmosphere by emitting very reactive, but short-lived chemicals. This project was based in the Brazilian Amazon and needed a lot of planning and preparation so, for the first part of my PhD, I was lucky to be given the chance to work on other projects in London and Italy.

The project in London was looking at how air quality was affected by similar reactive, short-lived chemicals, but this time mostly from manmade sources. I had never considered working in this area of research, but I discovered that it is an important subject and impacts on everyone’s lives.

Working on big collaborative projects is fantastic, as you get to know researchers at all stages of their careers and you can start building your network. Also I highly recommend going to summer schools and conferences to meet people, exchange ideas, expand your knowledge and just to inspire you and see what is out there.

Throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I was an active member of various university sports clubs and societies, which gave me confidence and discipline both physically and mentally, but I also learnt practical skills that help me in the environment I am in now.

Air sampling in the Amazon

I only started the work in the Amazon during the third year of my PhD, where I spent several months in the rainforest running our measurement instruments. To be able to sample the air at the top of the forest canopy we needed to use towers, which sometimes required climbing to the top. Few people will ever be able to look down and see the vast expanse of the rainforest canopy stretching hundreds of kilometres all around them.

The beauty of the forest and the wildlife within was exceptional and I feel very privileged to have been allowed to live and work in that environment. Little did I know that the skills I learnt as part of my undergraduate and PhD would open the way to live and work in an even more remote and wild place.

Open spaces and open minds

Last year, after long deliberation, I applied for the job of Antarctic Atmospheric Scientist, because I simply could not justify missing the opportunity to go to Antarctica. Previously I would have thought that the chances of me going to Antarctica were as low as for me to go into space. 

All the things I’ve done during my education or pursuing extra curricula activities, have given me the skills I needed to achieve my goals.

If I could pass on a message to my younger self it would be to keep your mind open and never be afraid to try something new and do things differently.

 

 

Author biography

Dr Amy Valach is an atmopheric scientist working for the British Antarctic Survey. She has a PhD in Environmental Sciences and an Ecology degree from Lancaster University. Her area of research interest is to understand the effects of surface exchanges to the atmosphere in the Earth system.

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