13 August 2013

Recent graduate, Freyja Scarborough, has just spent a month as a research assistant. She reflects on the joys of life in the field, and her new passion for extracting, sieving and analysing soil.

I’m a recently graduated 21 year old Physical Geography student from Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) at Lancaster University.  Myself, along with two other graduates, have been employed over the summer by LEC researcher Beth Brockett to help with her PhD looking at the ecological and social implications of mixed methods participatory GIS (Geographical Information Systems) to assist farm environmental planning.

We are working on the West coast of the Lake District taking soil samples and harvesting vegetation, so we can map the carbon storage and nitrogen retention across different farms. Beth and I then use this data to map what is going on below-ground.

I have just completed two sunny weeks in the field (on the edge of the Lake District) and two and a half not so sunny weeks in the lab and have enjoyed every moment of it.

Working in the field

The world is often much more complicated than textbooks make out, with processes happening on top of each other, human interference and it is all the more fascinating because of it. Personally, being able to see things for myself makes understanding how the world works so much easier.  It’s no longer just an image of a glacier or a river but instead you’re walking on the glacier, looking into the crevasses and the river is in your shoes and halfway up your leg.

The thing I love most about university field trips is that they aren’t like school field trips: there is generally much more thinking involved. You’re taken to a place and asked to apply knowledge you’ve gained and have to wrap your brain around the process in 3D. You’re encouraged to start working things out for yourself rather than being spoon fed the answers.

Research based field work is different again, because you are stepping into the unknown. On a field trip your lecturer, mostly, knows all the answers but here, working with Beth, I feel a part of some new discovery which (hopefully) will be beneficial to the farmers of this area.

My favorite part of the field work, (excluding the new muscle tone I developed from soil coring, where you physically push down an cylinder with a handle into the ground) was talking to Will, the farmer whose family owns the land we were working on. He went through, in detail, the history of each of the pieces of land we were interested in: how the land has been managed, how legislation has influenced what management occurred on the Fell, what he has done to the land recently. It was really useful when out there in the field to have some background knowledge of what has happened before.

Lab work

Soil, soil, soil and even more soil! During my time in the field what Beth and I mostly did was collect soil samples. In fact a whole fridge full of soil! It was only when I got into the lab that it dawned on me that each individual sample needs to be prepared and then analysed using several different methods to achieve Beth’s goals! For me this mountainous task consists of lots and lots of sieving. A repetitive and yet somehow soothing methodical task.

My flat mate, another BSc. Physical Geography graduate who has done exactly the same modules as me for the last 3 years, thinks I am crazy. Taking time out to see if this is something you are cut out for is always a good idea. I have found that I enjoy the series of repetitive tasks and mini goals which make up a lot of lab work. I get a little feeling of satisfaction finishing one task and starting another. Sad but true. It’s got me thinking about doing a PhD in the future. Who knows!

Find out more

If you’ve found this interesting have a look at “So you want to be an environmental scientist”, the weekly blog written by me and Alex and Amy, the two graduates who are taking over from me in the field. Here are some other really interesting blogs on field work and academia, Thesis Whisperer and Mike Whitfield. They focus mostly on writing PhDs, however, I think the advice works just as well for undergraduates.

The field work by Freya and her fellow graduates has been funded by the Lancaster University Friends Fund.



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