Friday, September 25, 2009

Media fellowship week 1: Countryfile

On my first day at BBC Countryfile, I followed the directions from Birmingham New Street only to end up at the glossy shop front of Harvey Nic’s. “There must be some mistake” thought I, but no – it turns out that in Birmingham the Beeb lives above a posh new shopping mall.

“But surely there is some kind of mistake” you might ask, “what are you doing a television studio – don’t you do seaweed studies or penguin counting or something?” I’m here because I have been awarded a Media Fellowship by the British Science Association (formerly known as the British Association, or BA, before the confusion with a well known airline got too much).

In what might best be described as ‘work experience for grown-ups’ I am going to spend six weeks working at Countryfile in order to learn how ‘the media’ works. The aim of the Fellowship scheme is to improve understanding and communication between scientists and journalists. The hope is that I’ll return to academia and spread the word that journalists do not all have horns and a trident and are quite nice actually, so long as we talk to them in a sensible language (by which I mean plain English, not jargon, obscenities or pirate).

So far, my duties at Countryfile have included watching a safety video in which Anthea Turner’s hair catches fire, opening nearly a thousand entries to the photo competition (in total there were more than 30,000 entries) and racking my brains for interesting rural story ideas. And yes, I did get to meet John Craven; I went to watch his commentary being dubbed over some underwater footage for a piece on marine nature reserves.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

My PhD acknowledgements

First and foremost I would like to thank my supervisors Gill Malin, Alex Baker and Tim Jickells for endless insight, interest and allowing me just enough independence. I have always felt very lucky to have such an excellent supervisory team, whose support has been a major factor in making my PhD journey an immensely enjoyable experience.

Many other people have also provided me with invaluable help during my PhD research. I’m grateful to all the ENV technicians at UEA for help in the labs, but in particular, I’d like to thank Liz Rix for efficiency, not to mention the occasional loan of closed toe shoes, Graham Chilvers for patience with the ICP-MS, and Gareth Lee for more than just technical support. I would also like to thank Michael Steinke and Dan Franklin for help with microbiological techniques, Keith Weston for answering numerous questions about elements other than iodine, Manuela Martino for help with voltammetry, and Susan Parry at Imperial College for trying to solve the problems with neutron activation analysis.

When I was eight I had a huge poster of Antarctica on my wall, and I still can’t quite believe I made it there. Twice. So I am deeply indebted to those who made it possible, in particular Martin Miller at BAS. I’m also very grateful to all the people I met while ‘South’ for being both helpful and fun. Of special note but in no particular order are: Captain Jerry Burghan and crew on RRS James Clark Ross, Adele Chuck (then at UEA), Nathan Cunningham (BAS), the Rothera Marine Assistants Paul Mann and Helen Rossetti, Dave Stevens (UEA), Andy Clarke (BAS) and Mags Wallace (BAS). I am also very grateful to NERC for funding the whole escapade and to UK SOLAS and the US NSF and NOAH for flying me to a few warmer spots as well.

Throughout this PhD I’ve been entertained and supported by too many friends to name, so to the rabble of housemates, hedonists, intellectuals, yogis, Antarctic heroes, travelling companions, fellow PhD students, new pals and long losts: thank you all for being you, and making me, me. Individual thanks must go to Claire Hughes though, who has not only become a great friend, legendary drinking buddy, running partner, and fellow iodine person, but has been instrumental in getting me some fantastic opportunities and provided me with a great deal of help and advice from the very start.

I’d also like to thank my sisters Laura and Emma for providing a soap opera back drop to the past four years; one of the great things about this PhD was being able to live in the same city as them. To Casey Ryan, who gave me a lot of support in the first few years, I’d like to say thank you and sorry. Finally, the biggest acknowledgement of all must go to my Mum, Dad and step-Dad Paul, without whose love, help, guidance and friendship I would never have got so far.

My PhD abstract, or what I've been up to for the past four years...

The majority of iodine in seawater takes the form of iodate (IO3-), but in surface waters significant quantities of thermodynamically unstable iodide (I-) are observed and have been attributed to biological activity. In this thesis, experimental investigations of the influence of marine algae upon the reduction of iodate to iodide are presented alongside spatial and temporal surveys of dissolved inorganic iodine speciation in the Southern Ocean.

Laboratory incubations of microalgae showed the ability to reduce iodate to iodide was highly variable with algal species and more pronounced in two cold-water strains studied than three temperate strains. In the cold-water cultures 50 to 100% of the consumed iodate was converted to some other form, possibly dissolved organic iodine (DOI). A preliminary investigation into the measurement of DOI by ICP-MS was conducted. Attempts were also made to measure
particulate iodine: the molar I/C ratio in a diatom species was found to be < 5 x 10-5. In tidal pools, the brown macroalgae Fucus serratus appeared to facilitate light independent reduction of iodate to iodide, and to release stored iodide, while green macroalga of the genus Ulva did neither. Incubation experiments suggested four other macroalgae also produce iodide.

In the Scotia Sea and Drake Passage, surface iodide was typically very low, at 10 to 20 nM. Horizontal gradients in iodide distribution did not appear to be related to nutrient or chlorophyll a concentrations and were best explained in terms of physical oceanographic features. Subsurface iodide maxima associated with temperature minima were observed. Iodide levels were similarly low (< 10 nM) during winter and spring at Marguerite Bay, Antarctica, but gradually increased during the intense summer algal blooms to reach up to 60 nM. Iodide accumulation was strongly correlated with biological productivity. Field experiments also demonstrated the photochemical reduction of iodate to iodide.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

That New Scientist competition entry...

In case you care to read it, I've posted my entry from the New Scientist 2006 essay competition below. It is about the research I was doing in Antarctica last year.

R x

An elemental enigma: unravelling the iodine cycle in Antarctica

The first time I went seawater sampling at Marguerite Bay, a penguin jumped clean out of the ice strewn waters and landed in our small orange inflatable. This was the Antarctic after all. Unperturbed by our laughter, it peered curiously around, presumably wondering what on earth we were doing lowering a bundle of sensors 500 meters down into the chilly depths. And well it might ask.

We were there to investigate the dramatic algal bloom that turns the waters of Marguerite Bay to a dense soup every summer. Here, on the coast of the great white continent, all the necessary nutrients are present for microscopic marine algae to thrive. As the spring dawn melts the sea’s lid of ice, daylight floods into the surface waters and a lush marine jungle flourishes. The water turns green as tiny plants happily photosynthesise away, changing the chemistry of the surrounding water as they do so.

My particular role was to find out how this slimy explosion of algal life changes the iodine in water. Now, while I admit to finding the chemical quirks of this charismatic element fascinating, I appreciate that the rest of the world might ask ‘why should we care?’

Firstly, iodine is an essential part of our diet – deficiency leads to goitre, stillbirths and impaired mental function. Insufficient iodine intake remains a major public health problem in many countries, and shockingly, is the number one cause of preventable brain damage in children1.

Secondly, iodine is an important player in the complex chemical reactions that occur in marine air. As a halogen, it is capable of destroying ozone in the swirling masses of the lower atmosphere, which in turn affects the ability of the air to cleanse itself of greenhouse gases. Iodine atoms can also cluster together, forming tiny seeds on which clouds can form. Because of these processes, the amount of iodine in the air can ultimately impact on the Earth’s climate.

In both cases, the iodine originates from the sea. Iodine gases escape from the surface of the ocean to join the chemical dance in the air, and some is blown onto land and incorporated into the terrestrial food chain. The mechanism of sea-air transfer, and the way this might be affected by climate change, remains a crucial missing link in our understanding of the iodine cycle. And here we open a Pandora’s box of shifting chemical forms and intimate relationships with phytoplankton.

Most of the iodine in seawater combines with oxygen to form iodate, enjoying a happy, stable, and thermodynamically predictable relationship. However, in the brightly lit gardens of the surface ocean, up to half of the iodine goes it alone, as the negatively charged iodide ion (analogous to chloride in common salt). Iodide is unstable, and not expected to form in seawater, so how did it get there? And how do these inorganic forms get converted to the volatile compounds that can cross the air-sea boundary?

When the going gets tough, marine chemists like to invoke a little biology to explain things. Marine algae have been shown to produce iodine-containing gases2, and tantalizing evidence suggests that they might also be to blame for the presence of iodide in surface waters.

And this is where I come in, bobbing about on a boat at 67 degrees south, fending off icebergs and penguins, and trying to demonstrate a link between iodide and algae. Alongside me is Dr Claire Hughes, looking at the production of iodine-containing gases during the algal bloom. Antarctica offers unique insights on the iodine cycle because, in the chilly waters of the South iodide levels are exceptionally low, but the atmospheric iodine signal is strong.

Back home comes the tricky bit - unraveling the interplay of biology, light and moving water masses. In the rather more mundane surroundings of the laboratory, we try to coerce jars of algae to reveal the secrets of their relationship with iodine. The picture that is slowly emerging is complex, and rarely what we expect, but one day I hope to fit my own little piece into the jigsaw that is the iodine cycle.

1. World Health Organisation Global Database on Iodine Deficiency (2004) Report: Iodine Status Worldwide, Geneva.

2. e.g. Manley & de la Cuesta (1997) Limnol. Oceanogr. 42, 142-147.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy Christmas and New Year!!

Hi everyone,

Just a quick message to wish you all a very happy Christmas/winter solstice (OK I know that was a few days ago...)/whatever floats your boat this time of year. I hope the New Year brings you all lots of happiness! Thanks so much to everyone who has sent a card, I'm afraid I have yet again failed to send any this year, so don't be offended you don't have one. I'd like to pretend this was due to my tree hugging conscience, but really its just organisational failure.

My Hawaii and California photos are finally up on the web, follow the links on the right. I know most of you prefer pictures to words so I won't say any more about it except that, for those that I haven't told, Dave and I got mugged for our crisps by a bear!

So that's it, 2006 nearly done. Have a fantastic time over the New Year, I hope to see you all in 2007!!!!

Lots of love

R xxx

Friday, November 03, 2006

I'm sure we left the car here somewhere...Thanks to Anouk for the following photos of Hawaii. Posted by Picasa

Damn, I knew I shouldn't have left the ring at home... Posted by Picasa

Frodo and Sam, sorry - Anouk and Rosie, crossing the volcanic wasteland Posted by Picasa

After the Earthquake - the only trouble we had was some closed roads Posted by Picasa

Waikiki beach, from our hotel :-) Posted by Picasa

Thursday, November 02, 2006

DISCO inferno


In case you've been fretting about me gadding about the world courtesy of the good British tax payer, this post describes a jolly paid for by a new benefactor - the American government.

On 7th October I flew to Honolulu, Hawaii, for DISCO XX, a meeting less groovily also known as the twentieth Disertations Symposium in Chemical Oceanography. For those of you that care about such things (or physical oceanography - there is a sister meeting called PODS) I would totally recommend it. Contrary to tales of high competition and American narcissism, there were only about 60 applicants for 25 places, and half the delegates were from outside the US. We were very well looked after, with a swish hotel on kitsch Waikiki Beach and a generous daily allowance. During the extremely taxing group activity day we went to contemplate the scarily big waves on Oahu's North shore and picnic on papaya.

Not one to turn down a free holiday, I took the opportunity to spend an extra week on the Big Island of Hawaii. I had such a good time I even felt the earth move, thanks to a 6.6 earthquake one morning. The most fun I've had in a while... ;-)

We started in the rainforested timewarp of Puna in the South, where we shared a black sand beach with the local hippies. Then we headed, via the cockroach-infested southernmost motel in the USA, to the more popular west coast to snorkel with sea turtles and fat tourists. Rounding the northern tip of the Island, we came to to a beautiful series of steep green valleys, sliced open by towering sea cliffs.

Finally, we spent some time at Kilauea - the volcano. With its barren steaming craters, billowing sulpurous vents and acres of black lava flows engulfing the forest, this place beats even Willesden Junction as a contender for Mordor. We hiked as close to the active erruption as you can, where a massive plume of acid and steam marks the entry of the molten rock to the sea, but (slightly disappointingly) you cannot currently see glowing red 'rivers of fire'.

I was travelling with Anouk and Sandy, whom I met at the DISCO meeting, and I could not have wished for better companions - thanks guys! Anouk has put some photos on the web here, and I'll put my own efforts up as soon I get my films developed.

Prior to jetting west, other notable events have included discovering anarchism, my funding running out and meeting Johnny Ball (you know - Zoe's Dad). I cultivated my media whore skills further by working in the press centre at the BA Festival of Science (some of the articles here are mine) and punished my liver at the carnage that was the Challenger Conference for Marine Science in Oban. Those of you that were at the latter - hope you've all recovered by now.

So, thanks for reading so far, I'm off to look for a job at the University of Hawaii... Part II of my American adventures, in which I survive bears, Berkeley and an unfeasibly large pizza, will follow soon.

I hope you're all well, look after yourselves and keep in touch (you could even post a comment!).

Lots of love

R x

Friday, August 04, 2006

Claudia, Liles and me at DrOSTOCK, follow the link on right for more photos... Posted by Picasa

Stumbling over the finish line in a disppointing time - it was just way too hot for this sort of madness... Posted by Picasa

Norwich half marathon, 11th June 2006: Antarctic heroes prepare to run 13.1 miles under the hot English sun Posted by Picasa