My path to a PhD

Hi everyone! My name is Vicki and I am a first-year PhD studying at the National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton within the Palaeoceanography and Palaeoclimatology research group.

I have always been a naturally very curious person, with an interest in the environment and oceans. If you asked me when picking my A-level subjects, however, I would never have predicted that 6 years later I would be here writing a blog post about how I became a PhD student!

At A-level I took Biology, Chemistry, Maths, History and Geography mostly because I enjoyed the subjects. It wasn’t until I did my EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) on the past and potential future variability of the thermohaline circulation that I realised Earth Sciences was the subject for me!

The amazing lab facilities at Southampton and the research-led teaching made my decision to study here for a BSc Physical Geography and Oceanography an easy one. One of the things I enjoyed the most about my time as an undergraduate here was how easy it was to get involved in active research and so I spent a lot of time helping out various research groups with laboratory work, gaining lots of additional practical experience to supplement my degree. This also fed into me being able to undertake a substantial piece of research for my undergraduate dissertation……and that was me hooked on research!

Two u-channels taken from a core at Eirik Drift (southern tip of Greenland), which I worked on for my undergraduate dissertation. Here I am in BOSCORF slicing the u-channels into discrete samples ready for microfossil and palaeomagnetic anaylsis.

I ended up staying on for an MRes in Marine Geology and Geophysics and by this point I knew academia was where I wanted to be and so that meant undertaking a PhD.

After the samples taken above have been dried and weighed they need to be washed through different sieve sizes so that we can look at the microfossils and minerals in the sediment. Just to be confusing, this photograph is from a sample off the coast of Newfoundland and is around 25 million years old (whereas the u-channels in the above photograph are only 8000 years old).

And so here I am, 4 months into the first year of my PhD! The diverse research community and facilities at NOC made it a very hard place to leave and I am very excited about spending the next 3.5 years in this research environment. Right now, I am actually rather far away from Southampton in much sunnier Texas and you will hear more about that soon!

After the sample has been washed, I look at it under the microscope. There are hundreds and thousands of foraminifera on that picking tray and I have to look through them all to find particular species that I want to pick out to analyse the isotopic composition of.

In the meantime, a brief introduction to my research. My research focuses on reconstructing global climate teleconnections throughout the last 66 million years in relation to ice volume fluctuations. In short, global climate teleconnections refers to how the different parts of the climate system over different regions ‘communicates’ to each other. So, for example, when we experience cooling in the North Atlantic this leads to aridity in Asia. How? We don’t have a very good understanding of this yet, and so this is one of the questions I would like to try to answer. Why is this important? Well, I am particularly interested in how the monsoon systems respond to changing ice volume throughout the Earth’s history. Currently, over a billion people in Asia alone rely on the summer monsoonal precipitation and so it is really important that we understand how this might change in the future. Often, the best way to predict the future is to reconstruct what happened in the past and this is what I am aiming to do. One important time slice for my research is the Eocene-Oligocene Transition (EOT; occurring ~34 millions years ago). The EOT marks the transition between a greenhouse climate and an icehouse climate state, with Antarctica growing a stable ice sheet for the first time. This, therefore, represents a pivotal tipping point in the development of the modern climate system. We have very little understanding of how the monsoons responded to this event and what teleconnection mechanisms were in operation – another big question I hope to answer! You will hear more on this from me in later posts….

An excuse to show two of my favourite Indian monsoon photographs from the National Geographic (http://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/monsoon/). This one depicts what most people imagine when they think about the monsoon – the summer monsoonal precipitation
However the other side to the monsoon and its shear strength are shown very well in this photograph. The winter monsoon can bring aridity and high winds to India and the force of these winds causes the trees to grow off at this angle! (National Geographic http://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/monsoon/)

For me, the great thing about studying the oceans is how interdisciplinary it is and it is amazing to see all the different backgrounds you are coming from to learn about them. One thing that I am sure is becoming apparent is, while we know a lot, there are still many remaining mysteries about the oceans and like all my peers at the National Oceanography Centre, we are hoping to be able to contribute to solving such mysteries.

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