A day in the life of a first year palaeoceanography PhD student

Ever wondered what a standard day in the life of a PhD student at NOCS is like? Well, firstly, the day for two PhD students from two different research groups will look slightly different but here is an insight into my typical day at work as a first year PhD student in the Palaeoceanography and Palaeoclimate research group…..

Most days start with reading and emails. There is never enough time to read and always far too much literature to get through so I always try and get in early to at least read a few papers before my day really gets going.

My research project is very lab-intensive (which is great!) and so I essentially live in the labs. We are very fortunate at NOCS to have so many fantastic purpose-built lab facilities to use. First lab tasks of the day normally involve checking samples that have been drying in the oven overnight and helping masters project students. Training and helping supervise masters project students is a key part of my day; in a similar way to this MOOC it is great to get to share the topic you are intensively researching and passionate about with other people. We also have lots of student workers who help out in the labs over the summer (and keep me company during long days on the microscope!) – having so many active research groups, state-of-the-art lab facilities and students in one building is fantastic, it makes for a really rich research community and getting lab experience whilst an undergraduate student here really enriched my own university experience (and helped with the PhD applications!).

At the moment, a significant portion of my days are spent at a microscope picking foraminifera and fossil fish teeth.

After sieving the sample, we spread it across a picking tray (often it takes more than one tray!) and use very fine paint brushes to manipulate the foraminifera so we can identify them and pick them out into slides

So much information about the past oceans and climate are locked up in these tiny tests and teeth. By analysing their geochemistry I hope to reveal what the ocean temperatures, ice volume and ocean currents were like in the past.

Example of a planktic foraminifera under a light microscope. Planktic foraminifera live in the surface ocean whilst benthic foraminifera live on and in the seafloor.
An example of what the samples look like when I look down the microscope. Here you can see planktic and benthic foraminifera as well as fossil fish teeth and some biogenic silica microfossils.

After picking the foraminifera, they need to be weighed individually which takes a while and a lot of practice to make sure you don’t lose any!

The microbalance scales are so sensitive we can’t touch the weigh boats (that piece of folded weighing paper on the tray) with our hands and instead have to use tweezers.
When weighing very small individual foraminifera it can be difficult to see what you are weighing but I promise you there is a benthic foraminifera on my weigh boat! This individual weighs around 1 microgram which is 0.000001 grams (for reference a teaspoon of sugar weighs around 4 grams).

Then they need to be crushed and cleaned. Trust me when I say this is a lot trickier than it sounds! Also, after you have spent hours and hours picking out the best looking specimens the last thing you want to do to these cute little critters is crush them but it is all in the name of science and good clean data (fingers crossed!)!!

Mud. Mud always features quite prominently in my day. Or more correctly, deep sea sediment.

We have to wash the ‘mud’ through sieves to extract the microfossils for picking as above. We then keep all the fine fraction that washes through the sieve for further geochemical analysis.

Most days include some mud washing to rescue the microfossils contained within and some crushing of bulk sediment for various different measurements. Despite spending a lot of time carefully picking out the best foraminifera with a paintbrush, I also spend a fair amount of time dissolving them so I can analyse the terrigenous component of marine sediment.  This includes both dust and material weathered from the continents that makes it way into the oceans by rivers, runoff and wind.

Here I am rinsing out the acid that I have been using to remove the carbonate (which includes the foraminifera I spoke about above) from the samples which involves a lot of centrifuging!
There is always crushing of bulk samples to do and I normally use this to fill the small gaps within other lab procedures

Being part of such a large and diverse active research community at NOCS means most days are broken up by seminars, guest lectures, discussion groups and meetings.

Days are usually finished off in the same way they are started: emails, reading, notes and writing (depending on how well my brain is functioning after a long lab day!). One of the best things about being a PhD student:  despite how repetitive the lab work can be at times (especially with the drive towards producing higher resolution records) very rarely are two days exactly the same and you get to work with people from all over the world whilst doing so.

If you think you would be interested in doing an Ocean and Earth Science degree of any level or related career, don’t be afraid to ask any of the mentors or educators who will all be more than happy to offer some advice, especially as most of us with have taken slightly different paths to where we are today…..the one thing we all have in common though is a passion for learning about and protecting our oceans and environment!

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