Friday, 20 June 2014

Durham today, Warrington tomorrow

Just back from another catherdralled city, Durham, and the Earth Science department at the University there where I've spent the last two days as "external examiner" for the Environmental Geoscience BSc.

The great Durham cathedral, almost as wonderful as our own York Minster!
External examining is an important aspect of the UK academic system. Colleagues from other institutes look at a particular degree programme and highlight the good, the bad and the ugly. This generally involves reviewing exam papers before they are set and then, after the exams, sitting in a room full of boxes of paper, looking at exam answers, course work and marks. All told the degrees and students were excellent.

An anonymous room, somewhere in Durham full of geology and earth science exam scripts

It's not all hard work of course. External examining is a great opportunity to meet colleagues and spread good practice between departments. The department took us to an excellent Italian restaurant, Oro, and put us up at the Seven Stars which was very comfy and welcoming and where the externals were able to discuss the important question of whether it was better to sample the Lagavulin before or after the Laphroaig!

External examiners Douglas Paton (Leeds, Uni), myself, Ian Alsop (Aberdeen Uni) and Iain Stuart (Plymouth Uni) considering the merits of Glen Kinchie, Lagavulin, Highland Park and Laphroaig in the bar of the Seven Stars.
Now I'm back at base and preparing for this evenings lecture on earthworms and climate change in Warrington, feel free to pop in if you're passing!

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

5000 analyses later

Darwin once said (in his famous earthworm book)

"Even on the same field worms are much more frequent in some places than in others, without any visible difference in the nature of the soil"

We have a project with Ron Corstanje at Cranfield and Paul Eggleton at the Natural History Museum to try and solve the puzzle of why earthworms are where they are.

Last week Jo, myself and Jess finally finished processing our 500 odd soil samples (analysed for pH, soil organic matter, nutrients, bacterial activity etc) and David at the Natural History Museum finished identifying all the earthworms. We are now the proud owners of an incredible data set. For seven farms dotted around the UK we have full soil property information and know what earthworms are present. We have passed the information on to Ron Corstanje at Cranfield our geostatistician to tell us what it all means. Hopefully in five or six months time we'll be able to predict what controls the occurrence and diversity of earthworms in grassland sites in the UK.

However, there's no time to be idle. The summer term at university is always rather odd. With little teaching it always feels like there should be lots of spare time however there is lots of marking to be done. I've also been up to Glasgow to act as external examiner for their environmental chemistry degree and, yesterday was in Leiden, The Netherlands to help examine Hao Qiu's PhD thesis that he completed with Martina Vijver and  Willie  Peijnenburg. It was a long day ( up at 5 for a flight from Leeds Bradford to Schipol and back into Leeds Bradford at about 9.20 in the evening) but a good thesis and an excellent meal afterwards. The European system is interestingly different to that in the UK. In the UK the PhD student is grilled for 1 to 4 hours (or even all day in extreme cases) by a single examiner. It is a real academically challenging rite of passage which I'm sure is valuable though draining. In the Netherlands we had a panel of 7 examiners with 5 to 8 minutes each to question the candidate in front of an audience so it's a completely different experience. Both systems have their merits. I'm not sure about the robes we had to wear during the viva though...

Hao Qiu (and his wife) in front. Far left is Willie Peijnenburg, far right is Kees von |Gestel. I am next to Kees and Martina Vijver is next to me.

Schipol airport concourse
Outside Schipol airport
It was good to see all the orange in The Netherlands ready for the World Cup.

Getting ready for the World cup in the Netherlands

World Cup fever is beginning to take root in the Environment department as well. We did the World Cup sweep stake today and I was delighted to draw Brasil (though as I was organising the draw this raised some questions from my colleagues) - roll on the finals.