All posts by Katherine

Costa Rica team photo, Newcastle University, Raleigh International

Raleigh Expedition to Costa Rica

In this blog post Lizzie, a Stage 4 Civil Engineering student, tells us all about her involvement in the Raleigh International expedition to Costa Rica…

It is true that nothing in the lead up to departure can prepare you for your Raleigh expedition. After a long and weary 24 hours of travelling (not to mention the 3am start), a tired bunch of 11 engineers arrived in San Jose. Exhausted, we longed for a bed and a goods night sleep… how naïve we all were.

Training base location
Training base location

We were taken to a school sports hall where we spent our first night on the floor, before being taken to the training base location at Grana de Ore. Spirits were running high after being treated to a traditional Costa Rican breakfast of Gallo Pinto, (little did we know we would be subject to porridge for the next 40 breakfasts). We completed our four days of training, giving us an insight into what was in store for us.

Typical sleeping arrangement
Typical sleeping arrangement

Tsirbäklä

Next stop, Trisbäklä A two-hour minibus ride, followed by a four-hour trek through the jungle and across some questionable bridges, rucksacks fully laden, we arrived in Tsirbäklä – home for the next three weeks. A quick duct tape job of our ‘bedroom’ (recommendation: don’t miss off the kit list, it will become your best friend against spiders and cockroaches), mosquito nets up, roll mats down and we were ready for our first meal, rice and beans.

 Trek route into Trisbäklä
Trek route into Trisbäklä

Panic not, whilst rice was the staple component of every meal, including one breakfast, we had a cook sent from heaven who treated us to 4pm snacks every day of the most delicious pancakes and empanadas – food was no issue. Every effort was made to make the environment as homely as possible for everyone, with cleaning rotas, ‘family’ dinner times, more card games than I’ve ever played and competitive quizzes. I settled into the routine surprisingly quickly and was ready to tackle the school build.

Further along the trek route
Further along the trek route

Construction Phase

The main purpose of the expedition was to construct a kindergarten, extending the educational opportunities of the community we were staying in. The process was hard work, starting first with excavating and levelling out the ground, using tools very different to those in the UK and struggling with unpredictable weather conditions.

The site pre-construction
The site pre-construction

Teamwork and determination saw us onto the next stage: building the frame. I personally found this difficult due to my sufficient lack of experience in carpentry skills. With encouragement and tips from my peers, I soon had the hammer work nailed! Up went the frame and we began the concrete mixing and pouring, for the floor. Again, very strenuous but incredibly rewarding as work was fast paced by this point and the final result was in sight. Half a splash of paint to the building (the school children were to finish painting the rest of the building) and voilà, a fully constructed kindergarten was successfully delivered within three weeks. Sounds easy writing it out, but there were many challenges and lessons learned along the way.

Site after construction
Site after construction

The greatest challenge was the large team, comprising people from different backgrounds, nationalities and languages, working in such a small space. It very quickly became apparent that patience and communication were vital for success. My interpersonal skills increased and I learnt how to compromise in finding solutions, as this was very different to usual solutions at home . The words “Mañana Mañana” will forever ring in my ears, reminding me of the laid back and relaxed attitude of the locals.

Community Integration

Whilst our main purpose in Tsirbäklä was to deliver the school, it was also an opportunity to integrate with the local community, experiencing their culture and learning why the project was important to them. From house visits to adopting Pablo the local dog, we truly felt welcomed and appreciated during our stay. Weekly football matches between the community and our team turned very competitive as we showcased some of Newcastle’s finest football talent, successfully taking the final win.

Weekly football match with the locals
Weekly football match with the locals

Teaching English lessons every morning to the school children and visiting the homes of community members gave us a real insight into the community lifestyle and into the opportunities that would be further available as a result of our work here. Our final day concluded with a community celebration where we sang, ate and played together. It was at this point where the realisation of how much the school meant to the community hit me; I have brought this home with me and remain very self-aware of opportunities that surround me, conscious not to take things for granted.

Community house visit
Community house visit

Trek Phase

The final phase of the expedition concluded with a six-day trek, covering 75km across the mountainous region. This was the hardest physical and mental challenge I have ever faced, pushing me out of my comfort zone and achieving things I didn’t think were possible. The relationships formed with my team were surprisingly strong over such a short amount of time; we supported, encouraged and helped each other to reach our goal. The views will remain some of the most breath-taking, spectacular memories I have experienced.

Views from the final trek phase
Views from the final trek phase

Home

Upon my return, I have been asked countless times for a single highlight of my trip. This is impossible for me; I am unable to single out one aspect of such as amazing experience. The number of memories experienced in only five weeks in such an amazing country are endless, and there isn’t a single one that hasn’t left a lasting story in my mind.

Whilst clichéd, I find myself profoundly agreeing with the famous Saint Augustine saying, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only one page”. I simply wish that everyone could receive the fantastic opportunity of completing a Raleigh expedition.

If you would like to find out more about studying Engineering at Newcastle visit our webpages here: https://www.ncl.ac.uk/engineering/undergraduate or chat to one of our students on our Unibuddy instant messaging platform (scroll to the bottom of the page).

ROV Testing Session

The wonderings of an engineering student

Today we are featuring a guest post from Jun Wei Fan – a naval architecture student who tells us about his experience with the Newcastle University Marine Projects Society.

rover (noun) a person who spends their time wandering

Towards the end of my first academic year, I found myself wondering – how do I make my time in university more fulfilling? It felt as though there was just something lacking from my life. Lost, I was. That was until I made an impromptu decision to run for President of the Newcastle University Marine Projects Society, succeeding and becoming Team Captain of the Newcastle University ROVers. Perhaps it’s no mere coincidence that I joined the ROVers to both start and stop roving – as in start building ROVs and stop wandering around aimlessly like a lost soul.

At this point, the unacquainted might be puzzled. What’s a ROV? Who are the ROVers? Well, simply put, the Newcastle University ROVers is a competitive team comprising members of the Newcastle University Marine Projects Society coming together to build a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). 

We started off with our roots within the Marine, Offshore and Subsea Technology group. Initially, the competitions we partook in were very marine-centric and teams comprised of only Marine Technology students, but in the years since, we’ve evolved to take on bigger, more challenging projects. In line with the new integrated School of Engineering, and the Head of School’s (Prof. Phil Taylor) encouragement of interdisciplinary projects, the Marine Projects Society now cherishes the benefits of working in multidisciplinary teams. This has allowed us to harness the full potential of each member from the various field of engineering! Rather than having marine tech students attempting to do everything from ground up, we are now able to draw upon the expertise of students from computing/electrical/mechanical/etc., accomplishing more at a faster pace.

3D CAD model of ROV
Computer Aided Design (CAD) Model of the ROV

In the outside world, employers expect graduates to work in interdisciplinary teams, leveraging on the complementary skill sets of each individual. In university however, us students are, more often than not, confined to working within our respective courses. And that is why the Marine Projects Society has embraced Prof. Taylor’s vision for a truly integrated School of Engineering, with students and faculty working seamlessly across disciplines to produce ground-breaking solutions.

Joining the society has given me the unique opportunity to experience what it’s like to work with other engineers and to understand their concerns; and working on the ROV project has forced me to take a broader view of matters at hand. In the past year, I’ve learnt how to fully consider the different aspects of an engineering project and as Captain, I’ve had to balance conflicting demands from the different sub-teams (electrical, marine, mechanical, systems) to achieve the optimum solution for the ROV.

Team enjoying dinner after a work session
The Team out for a late-night dinner after a long work session

The ROV project has also taught me many valuable skills and lessons – things which you’ll find hard-pressed to pick up in your daily lectures – but most importantly, it has allowed me to become a practical engineer. Theory is indeed important and as engineers, when we set out to design something, we too rely on theoretical knowledge to produce an initial design. But you’ll find that many things often work theoretically and yet fail in reality. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the notion of producing the perfect design.

Realistically speaking however, a number of different factors will hinder one’s ability to achieve that grandeur. Budget, size, material availability, these are all limitations that affected us while designing & building the ROV – and these challenges will differ from project to project! But learning how to work within and around these constraints has allowed all of us to become better engineers, engineers who are not just tied down by theory but are capable of thinking on our feet, adapting to changing circumstances. 

The internal electronics of the ROV
Internal Electronics of the ROV sitting inside our watertight housing

One of the reasons why we chose to embark on this ROV project is the unique set of challenges associated with designing something for prolonged operation in water. Water is a harsh and unforgiving environment, something us Marine Tech students will gladly tell you all about. It’s also common knowledge that water and electricity don’t mix well, which is why our team spent considerable efforts to make sure everything was watertight, and waterproof where we were unable to keep water out. This involved extensive use of O-Rings, silicon grease, stinky epoxy, coating of exposed elements with resin, and slathering sealing points with more disgusting pump grease than we’d like to admit. All that was critical in ensuring that no water could come into contact with electricity for risk of rendering the entire water body live and electrocuting ourselves.

The ROV ready for testing in our towing tank 
The ROV ready for testing in our towing tank

But all that would not have been possible without a few key people. Having a dedicated advisor to guide us on this project was vital in ensuring that we could come as far as we did. Dr Maryam Haroutunian went above and beyond in her role, always setting aside time to advise us and listen to our updates and to join us on testing sessions. She even came back to the labs on a weekend just so we could drop the ROV into the water for ballasting and test runs!

We also have the hydrolabs team to thank for helping us with the more technical construction aspects and for tolerating us. Special mention goes to Bob Hindhaugh and Ian Howard-Row for their continued support in allowing us to use the hydrodynamics laboratory’s facilities and for offering insights from their wealth of experience, and for allowing us the freedom to exercise our creativity even when you know some ideas might not work out ultimately.

The Team during an overnight work session
The Team during an overnight worksession

But, it’s not just all work and no fun! (although work can be equally fun if you’re passionate about it) Members of the Marine Projects Society also had the unique chance to interact with the industry. The society hosted a talk by Nick Ridley, Principal Engineer of Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD), and we also got the chance to visit SMD for a site tour and see how they build ROVs up close. Both the talk and the trip gave our team some inspiration and guidance on designing ROVs, and was a delightful experience for all whom attended!

Site Visits to SMD 
Site Visits to SMD
More from the site visit to SMD
More from the site visit to SMD

Throughout this amazing journey, our team has gained valuable experience and knowledge that we now treasure deeply. Armed with this, we’re looking forward to the academic year 2018/19, where we hope to take the society to greater heights! In the pipeline are projects such as the ROV2.0 and other exciting (but still pending) ideas such as a Solar Car/Boat. It is our greatest wish that many new engineers will join us for a thrilling year of roving!

ROV Testing Session For myself, I’m equally exhilarated about starting on Stage 3 – a year where we begin to specialise in more advanced Naval Architecture concepts and reinforce our fundamentals through design projects and more. If anything, working on the ROV project has enhanced my desire to master not just the relevant technical know-how but also the interpersonal skills necessary for working on interdisciplinary projects after graduation! That is something I feel all Engineers should possess!

International Asteroid Day!

What is an asteroid?

You may be wondering what the difference is between an asteroid, meteor, meteorite and every other name given to a shooting star or flying clump of rock in space. Well we have broken it down into an answer that is simple….. Sort of. It all starts with an asteroid.

An asteroid is a large rocky (planet looking) body, in orbit of the sun, that is too small to be classified as a planet. In space there are millions of asteroids and lots of them are a potential threat to Earth. Asteroids range in size from hundreds of miles to several feet in diameter.

A meteoroid is a particle of an meteoroid that has broken off and is now orbiting the sun. If a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere it is then known as a meteor. A meteor shower is a group of meteoroids all travelling in parallel trajectories from one point in space. Most meteors burn up when they are travelling through our atmosphere and therefore never hit the earth’s surface. The meteors that do hit earth are called meteorites.

Asteroid defence?

Over the past 4.5 billion years since the Earth was formed, about 4.5 billion meteors (the sizes of cars) have made their way through its atmosphere. Yes, that’s around one automobile sized meteor every year. Although, these are meteors and not meteorites, therefore they create a substantial fireball but burn out before hitting the ground.

Scientists these days are able to tell if an asteroid or meteor is en route to earth 30-40 years before it does. This is enough time for us to destroy it before it destroys us. We can do this by exploding the asteroid or meteor, although sometimes we can divert them away from earth instead.

When is the next meteor shower?

Unfortunately you will have to wait a couple months for our next meteor shower, it is called Perseid and will be peaking in our skies on the 12- 13th of August. In order to get the most out of your meteor shower view, we recommend getting out into the middle of nowhere where there is little to no light pollution; bringing a friend or your family and a warm blanket (also a telescope if you’ve got one). Once you’re comfortable, sit tight and wait for the spectacular starry show!

Visit asteroidday.org to find out more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pacific discoveries show wealth of life still present in our oceans

To celebrate #WorldOceansDay we hear from Dr Alan Jamieson and Dr Thom Linley about their most recent exciting discoveries in the deepest parts of the Pacific.

We live in a time where the marine environment is rarely reported in the media without mention of the negative impacts of human activity.  As important as this awareness is, we must be conscience that it does not overshadow the beauty and splendour of the oceans and the fascinating research being done in science and exploration.

One of the last great frontiers in marine science are the deepest places on Earth, the Hadal Trenches, mostly located around the Pacific rim in areas where tectonic plates collide and plunge the seafloor to depths close to 11,000 metres (~7 miles).

Groundbreaking technology

At Newcastle University, we have been pioneering technology for the exploration of these ultra-deep environments and have to date completed nearly 250 deployments of their ‘lander’ systems. Recently we embarked on an expedition on board the German Research vessel Sonne to the Atacama Trench in the SE Pacific off the coast of Peru and Chile where we deployed our baited camera system 27 times across the depths of the trench including the deepest point, Richards Deep, at just over 8000 metres.

On our previous missions the group have amassed multiple successes such as obtaining the first ever video footage of fish in the hadal zone (greater than 6000m deep), and video the deepest living fishes in many Pacific trenches and more recently, described the deepest fish in the world.

Life in the deep

These record breaking fishes are of the Liparidae family, commonly known as snailfishes.  They are small, semi-transparent, pink in colour with small black eyes and do not conform to the preconceived stereotypical image of what a deep-sea fish should look like.  In fact they look and behave a lot like their shallow water counterparts, some of which can be found in estuarine systems, even the River Tyne.

The Atacama Trench expedition produced a wealth of new information about the species inhabiting these extreme depths which is also interesting in that the trench is very isolated from the other Pacific deeps, by ~12,000 kilometres of deep sea floor.

Discovery of new species

Perhaps the most fascinating result of the latest expedition was the discovery of three new species of snailfish living between 6500 and 7500 metres. These species are so new they haven’t been officially classified yet and are currently affectionately known as the pink, blue and purple Atacama snailfishes. We obtained hours of footage of these new snailfish swimming, foraging, preying upon small crustaceans, and on one dive filmed all three in a single video.

We also filmed some astonishingly rare footage of long-legged isopods, known as Munnopsids, which are about the size of a hand. These crustaceans have small bodies, extraordinary long legs and swim backwards and upsides down, propelling themselves with paddles on their ventral sides before righting themselves on the seafloor and spreading their long walking legs out like a spider. What species these are is unknown.

The discovery of so many new species of fish and these large isopods, and capturing it all on high definition video from one expedition, is testament to the progress that is being made at the extreme marine frontiers. Discoveries like these are a reminder that the ocean is a big place and there is still a lot to learn, to find and to celebrate.

Links for more information

For more information about the marine research that we carry out at Newcastle University, visit our webpages.

Information about Dr Alan Jamieson’s work

Information about Dr Thom Linley’s work

World Bee Day | Bee Facts

It’s World Bee day and we’ve compiled some interesting facts about our flying friends. We’ll try to keep the bee puns to a minimum because bee puns always sting. We really don’t get what all the buzz is about!

Fun facts about Bees:

Honey bees beat their wings around 190 times a second; that’s 11,400 times a minute! The speed of their flapping wings is why we hear the “buzzing” noise when they fly past.

The average worker bee will only make around 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.

It would take 1,100 bees to make 1kg of Honey, and they would have to visit 4 million flowers!

Newcastle University research has shown that the initial sweetness a bee tastes when they feed on nectar can last up to 10 seconds – this is much longer than in other insects! Find out why bees have such a sweet tooth here.

In every hive there is a queen bee, the queen bee can live up to five years. The summer is the busiest month for her as she can lay up to 2,500 eggs a day.

Did you know bees are also excellent dancers? When a worker returns to the hive, it will give it’s hair a quick brush with a ‘honeycomb’… and will perform a “waggle dance”. The bee will move itself in a figure of eight motion and will waggle its body to indicate where the best food source is.

Fossil evidence is sparse for these tiny creatures, but scientists believe bees have been around for more than 100 million years!

Not so fun facts:

Unfortunately the number of bees is declining very fast, in the past 15 years, whole colonies have been disappearing. Billions of bees across the world are dying, this is called ‘colony collapse disorder’ – in some regions 90% of bees have disappeared.

The reasons why bees are declining in numbers are very hard to determine although one known cause is the pesticides farmers are spraying on their crops. These chemicals are entering the hives from the worker bees who are out collecting pollen; if the chemicals are too toxic they will kill the bees.

Another factor leading to bees disappearing is the Vaorra mite. This mite attacks the worker bees and infects it with the varroosis disease. This disease will then kill the bee.

How you can help?

Make sure you are not using pesticides on your plants and you are carefully checking your plants to see if they have been pre-treated with any harsh chemicals.

If you are going to plant flowers in your garden or local area, always use bee friendly plants that bees can use to make more honey. Some examples are Crocuses, hyacinths and English marigolds. Surprisingly no bee-gonias!

You may not have known this but bees are thirsty; so along with all the beautiful flowers you are going to plant, place a small basin of water beside them and allow your busy visitors to have a drink.

Remember bee puns are good for your health, they give you lots of vitamin Bee!

 

 

Physics, forces and flipping

Ever wondered what makes the perfect pancake flip? Let’s look at the physics behind getting those pancakes flying through the air.

If we start with our pancake at rest in the pan, the pancake will not move unless a force is put upon it. This is Newton’s first law of motion, an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force. In order to launch our pancake in the air we therefore apply a force to it. We can use an energy equation to work out the velocity (speed with a direction) needed to launch the pancake into the air as follows:

m – Mass of the pancake

g – Gravitational field of the earth 9.81 metres per second

h – Height of pancake flip

 v – Launch velocity

We now need Newton’s second law of motion to find out how fast we need to flip the pancake. Newton’s second law of motion states that a force, acting on an object, will change its velocity by changing either its speed and/or its direction. In the case of our pancake the flipping force will increase the velocity and send the pancake in an upwards direction. The energy equation can be rearrange to give the pancake launch velocity:

If we want to flip the pancake 1 metre in the air we need a launch velocity of 4.4 metres per second. If our launch velocity is over 6 metres per second however, our pancake will get stuck to the ceiling! We also have to be fast to catch the pancake as it falls back down or we could be left with pancake on the floor! For a flip of 1 metre we only have 0.9 of a second to catch our pancake. We can calculate the air time (t) of our pancake using the following equation:So when you are flipping your pancakes today think of all the wonderful physics behind that perfect flip!

A day in the life of… a Mechanical Engineering student

Jenny Olsen mechanical engineering student

In this blog post mechanical engineering student Jenny Olsen takes us through a typical day for her, and explains what she loves about her course and being in Newcastle.

I chose Mechanical Engineering as I wanted to study a degree that covered lots of different areas of STEM. I’m really interested in Bio-Mechanical Engineering, but I’m also a big motorsport fan – studying Mechanical Engineering allowed me to pursue many things I was interested in whilst also keeping my career options open.

In a typical week I’d expect three full days of lectures, a day in the lab working on my group project and one day either on an industrial visit or a half-day practical assessment. The industrial visits were really fun. We got to learn some great skills – my favourite visit was to Caterpillar in Peterlee where I got a tour of the facilities and learned how to weld!

My most varied day is Friday – where I spend the morning in lectures and the afternoon working with my engineering team on our group project in the lab. Here’s a look at what you’d be studying if you decided to join us as a Mechanical Engineering student:

9am

To start the day, a mechanics lecture. I was really worried when I joined University that I’d struggle with mechanics because I didn’t study Physics at A level. Thankfully, first semester is mainly just a recap over topics covered at A level and our lecturer explained them really well. I managed to keep up and actually really enjoy the subject!

10am

Next, a maths tutorial. Here’s your chance to ask your lecturers or tutors any questions you have regarding the work covered during the week. This year, there are around 150 first year Mechanical Engineering students – this means that having the opportunity to get  1 to 1 help from a tutor or lecturer is really helpful! Most modules have tutorial sessions throughout the week.

11am

circuit board
We were taught to solder a simple circuit board in an Electrical Engineering practical session

Back to lectures for an hour. In a week, on average only 13 of your contact hours are lectures. Mechanical Engineering is a very diverse subject so expect lots of variety in your timetable. In addition to the lectures and tutorials I’ve already mentioned, you’ll have lots of practical sessions to do – for example I recently completed an Electrical Engineering lab where we learned to solder a small circuit board! This was a great experience – it was lots of fun and quite a challenge as it’s something I didn’t expect to learn as a Mechanical student. Like soldering, lots of the practical skills you’ll learn are not only relevant to the course but really useful for everyday life!

12pm

Time for lunch – an hour off to rest before the practical session on the afternoon. My favourite place to have a relaxing lunch would be the Quilliam Brothers Teahouse, just off Haymarket metro. Alternatively, I’d also recommend bringing a packed lunch, sitting outside and taking in the scenery of the campus – it looks amazing in Spring!

Tulips on campus at Newcastle University
A photo of the tulips outside of the Old Library, where you can sit outside and enjoy lunch

1pm

As an engineering student you’ll learn how to use CAD (Computer Aided Design) software to make digital models of your projects. This is a really useful skill for industry as many engineering companies require you to be comfortable using CAD and digital modelling software. Before the practical session starts, we get a short lecture about a CAD technique that we can use when we’re working on our projects.

Then, we all head to the labs in the Stephenson Building to work in groups on our projects. In first year, my group project has been to build a small turbine. This is the most ‘hands on’ part of the degree, and in my opinion the most fun. We started the year by making a turbine from recycled components, then improved our design and made another from new parts. This involved budgeting, sourcing parts and learning practical skills in the lab to assemble our turbine.

Mechanical engineering students and stage 1 wind turbine project
Two of my team members and myself with our completed turbine ready to be tested in the Stephenson Building

5pm

Time to head home – I don’t live near campus as I live at home, but thankfully there’s plenty of transport links to and from the city centre such as the Metro or the Buses. This also makes it really easy to see other parts of the North East! After a long day in lectures why not take a trip to Tynemouth Beach or Jesmond Dene to relax?

I’ve really enjoyed studying Mechanical Engineering at Newcastle, it’s been a challenge, but definitely worthwhile! I’ve learned so many practical skills that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise and made some great friends. I’ve also been lucky enough to take part in some great extra-curricular activities such as being a Street Scientist and having fun with ‘Give it a go’ activities.

My journey from ‘Life in the Freezer’ to the ‘Blue Planet 2’

Will sailing past South Georgia on the RRS James Cook
Will sailing past South Georgia on the RRS James Cook
In this blog post, Dr Will Reid shares his story of how he became a marine biologist and the inspiration that led him to his exciting career choice

Blue Planet II is well underway now and for many a marine biologist, like myself, it is an opportunity to say, “I work on those” and get a bit giddy with excitement. We have seen some wonderful footage of walruses, the graceful Ethereal snailfish and colourful coral polyps. The bobbit worm seemed to get the hospital that my partner works at very excited and I’m sure last week’s episode about plastic pollution will get many people thinking about the impact our daily lives have on the ocean.

For me personally, sitting watching the second episode of Blue Planet II and seeing those hydrothermal vents was a personal highlight. It will also go down as a big landmark in my research career. I spent about four months at sea in the Antarctic across three research expeditions, during my PhD at Newcastle University. I was part of team working on the hydrothermal vents where those crabs covered in bacteria live. The inspiration that lead me to sitting on a ship, watching a video feed from a remotely operated vehicle over two kilometers below, began with another David Attenborough documentary. This was not Blue Planet I but an even earlier BBC documentary series called Life in the Freezer, which planted the seed in my mind about becoming a marine biologist.

Becoming a Marine Biologist
St Andrew's Bay, South Georgia showing hundreds of penguins
St Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia showing hundreds of penguins

Life in the Freezer aired in 1993. I was thirteen at the time. The opening scene where David Attenborough was standing in a vast snow and ice landscape was mesmerising. The series covered the ebb and flow of the ice around Antarctica and the animals that depend on the productive waters of the Southern Ocean. The part that really caught me was all the amazing life on the island of South Georgia. The coastal areas were packed full of elephant seals, fur seals, penguins, petrels and albatross. Little did I know that in just over ten years I would be living and working on the island.

I realised during that series that I wanted to be a scientist but not just any scientist, one that went to the Antarctic. I took Maths, English, History, Biology and Chemistry Highers and got onto a marine biology degree course. In my final year, I got my first opportunity to do some work related to South Georgia. I spent hours watching video footage of the deep-sea Patagonian toothfish and crabs attracted to baited deep-sea landers as part of my final year project. This was very fortunate because just as I was about to graduate a job working for British Antarctic Survey was advertised for a two-year fisheries scientist working on South Georgia on these animals. I applied. I got an interview. I didn’t get the job.

First disappointment, then an opportunity

The great thing about getting an interview is that you can often ask for feedback. So, I just asked the question “What skills and experience do I need to get the job?”. The answer sent me on a two-year mission in order to get what I needed second time round. This included: going back to university and doing a masters in Oceanography; learning to drive boats; sea survival training; and going to sea as a fisheries observer on a Portuguese deep-water trawler off Canada. My decision paid off because the job was advertised again. Once more I applied. Once more I got an interview.

Second time lucky
Working as a fisheries scientist - setting weekly fishing nets in Cumberland Bay
Working as a fisheries scientist – setting weekly fishing nets in Cumberland Bay

I got the job at British Antarctic Survey second time round. I was finally going to South Georgia! The next few weeks were a whirlwind of activity: medicals; advanced boat driving training; first aid courses; and learning to drive a JCB. Then I was finally deployed. I flew to down through South America to the Falkland Islands with part of the team that I would living and working with for the next two years. We sailed from the Falklands on the UK research vessel, the James Clark Ross, to South Georgia. I arrived in South Georgia on the 22nd November 2004.

The island of South Georgia was truly stunning. I spent two years on the island doing science that helped manage the commercial fisheries around the island. The research was varied. I worked on fish larvae, managed an aquarium which housed crabs, aged Patagonian toothfish using their ear bones called otoliths, undertook diet studies on icefish and went on fish stock assessments around the island.

The scenery and animal life were also truly amazing. I would go camping and hiking in order to visit Gentoo, king and rock hopper penguin colonies; climb snow-capped mountains; walk where explorers like Shackleton had been; and visit old abandoned whaling stations. The research base where I stayed was also in front of an elephant seal breeding beach for a couple of months of the year. I even met my current partner on the island. She was the doctor in my second year. But life on South Georgia had to come to an end.

Getting into hot water in Antarctica

Once I left South Georgia, I had a couple more months working for British Antarctic Survey back in Cambridge. I was wondering how on earth I would ever get back to the Antarctic. I stumbled across my next opportunity in the photocopy room. On the wall was an advert for a PhD at Newcastle University working on Antarctic hydrothermal vents. I applied. I got the PhD position. I moved to Newcastle.

The PhD was part of 5 year NERC programme trying to find and understand hydrothermal vents in the Antarctic. Hydrothermal vents are sites on the seafloor that release very hot fluids, rich in minerals into the water at the bottom of the ocean and are surrounded by high densities of life.

In 2010, I went back to the Antarctic as part of the first scientific expedition to sample these truly amazing habitats. We sailed on the UK science vessel, the James Cook with scientists from different universities around the UK.  When we arrived at our first location, we used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to dive down over 2 kms to hunt for the vents. After a number of hours searching the seafloor we eventually found our first hydrothermal vent field. There was a huge amount of relief on the boat as the scientists got to work.

We visited a series of sites over the next 6 weeks along the East Scotia Ridge. We discovered whole new communities and species and mapped where the different animals lived around the vents. My work focused on what the animals were eating and constructing food webs at each of the sites we visited.

Hydrothermal vent crabs
Hydrothermal vent crabs (Kiwa tyleri)

This brings me back to those hydrothermal vent crabs in The Deep episode of Blue Plant II. The crabs live in areas where hot water pores over them which provides the conditions for the bacteria to grow. We collected the samples from the vents using a suction sampler on the ROV Isis. I then looked at the biochemical composition of the crabs and the bacteria. They were very similar. This indicated that the bacteria living on those crabs were its food source.

These large-scale scientific expeditions are collaborative efforts. Scientist never undertake their work in isolation on these types of projects. They are a team effort, bringing together scientific disciplines. I worked with scientists that had backgrounds in chemistry, geology, microbiology, biology, computer science and supported by mechanical and electrical engineers, technicians and a large ships crew. There is no way I could have undertaken this work without the support of so many scientific and technical disciplines. They helped me add meaning to my work and place the results in the context of the system.

The scientific party involved in sampling hydrothermal vents in the Antarctic
The scientific party involved in sampling hydrothermal vents in the Antarctic
Will there be another Antarctic adventure?

Watching Blue Planet II the other weekend gave me a huge amount of personal pride. To sit there with my kids and my partner and show them on TV the Antarctic crab that I helped discover felt like a massive landmark in my scientific career. I was even there at the moment when the crab stuck its claw into the hot water. Life in the Freezer was the series that inspired me to work in the Antarctic, which set me on the road (or boat) to South Georgia for 2 years and then to studying for my PhD at Newcastle University.

For many people, Blue Planet II will inspire them too, some of whom will go into marine science as well. Whether you are into maths, biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, geology or microbiology, there is a career for you that involves our Blue Planet.

For me, I am about to start another Antarctic adventure. Next year, I am going to explore the seabed that has not been exposed to open waters for approximately 120,000 years. I’ll be spending about 3 weeks working in the area where a large chunk of the Larsen C ice-shelf broke off. The research team has been assembled from a number of different universities and institutions and will once more be a collaborative effort. It just goes to show that sometime adventures never truly end.

Find out more….

British Antarctic Survey

Marine research at Newcastle University

The Larsen C ice shelf mission

Measuring the Lake District

Every year our first year Surveying and Mapping  Sciences and GIS students take part in an eight day field trip to the Seathwaite Valley in the heart of the Lake District. In this blog post Tim Hajda tells us about his experience of it last Easter.

We arrived at Glaramara House, our hotel which served as a base for the fieldcourse, on Thursday morning after a scenic two-and-a-half hour coach ride from Newcastle.  The setting was stunning: a pastoral valley of green fields, dry stone walls and streams, surrounded by craggy fells, waterfalls and oak forests.  Our mission was to create a detailed map of the valley, so our first task was to lay the foundations by creating a network of known reference points.

Newcastle University surveying students setting up targets
Practicing setting up targets in front of the Glaramara House, our base for the fieldcourse

Shortly after arriving we donned our high-vis and waterproofs to brush up on the surveying skills we’d be using over the next eight days.  The valley is famous for being the wettest inhabited place in England, and it definitely lived up to its reputation.  After a soggy afternoon of measuring angles and levelling, we dried off and enjoyed what would be the first of many delicious dinners.

On Friday morning we enjoyed a full English breakfast before beginning our next task: establishing the primary control stations (reference points) throughout the valley.  We were divided into teams and taken by minibus to our assigned locations.  We spent the rest of the day measuring the angles and distances between points.  We would be using this data later to compute the coordinates of the stations.  The blustery weather was a challenge but we persevered.

Saturday’s assignment was to determine the height of points around the valley using spirit levelling.  Simple enough…or so we thought.  My team quickly realized that those lovely green fields were essentially giant mud pits and the stone walls an endless maze to navigate through, but it was a great feeling when we arrived at our last benchmark.  Another job finished and I’ve never been more grateful for a hot shower!

On Sunday the GIS students joined us, along with the sunshine – and we went out in teams to create secondary control networks around the valley.

Geomatic students walking in the Seathwaite Valley
Heading out into the field to design a control network.

One of my favourite aspects of the fieldcourse was working with my course mates.  It provided a great opportunity to get to know each other better.  Certain team members had particular strengths and we all worked together to complete our assigned tasks.  At the end of the exercise it was a great feeling to look at our finished maps together and be able to say, “we made this!”

I learned a lot of valuable lessons – good communication was vital, not only among team members but also with other teams to make sure everyone got the measurements they needed.  I also learned the importance of checking instrument settings before going out into the field and how important it is to book accurately and clearly with good sketches.  There are few things as frustrating as trying to decipher muddled notes after a long day in the field!

Newcastle University geomatics student surveying the Seathwaite Valley
Enjoying a sunny day of surveying in the beautiful Seathwaite Valley.

Another part of what made the fieldcourse enjoyable was the support of the staff and the surveying industry.  Throughout the trip, the staff were always ready to patiently answer questions, transport us to and from the field and give us helpful tips.  One evening, representatives from Leica Geosystems visited to present information about their company and entering the surveying industry.  It was a great opportunity to learn more about the jobs we’ll be doing after graduation.

All in all, it was a fantastic week at Glaramara and it shows what makes Newcastle University’s geomatics courses different from other universities’.  The hands-on learning approach using top-of-the-line equipment, in a beautiful setting, all with the constant support of a knowledgeable and patient staff, made it a truly fun and rewarding experience.

Find out more about our geomatics courses: https://www.ncl.ac.uk/engineering/undergraduate/geomatics/

Marie Curie’s legacy lives on at Newcastle University

Marie Curie in her laboratory
Marie Curie in her laboratory

Today we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marie Sklodowska-Curie. She was a remarkable scientist whose ground-breaking research into radioactivity led to the development of cancer treatment with radioactive isotopes, and mobile X-ray units for field hospitals during World War 1.

Dr Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize, and the first person ever to win it twice and in two different sciences (Chemistry and Physics).

The Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship

The European Commission set up the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellowship Programme which provides two years of funding for researchers across the world and promotes interdisciplinary research and collaboration.

We talked to Dr Ruth Rodriguez-Barrueco, one of the recipients of a Fellowship, about her research in Newcastle University’s Institute of Genetic Medicine:

Dr Rodriguez-Barrueco, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow, Newcastle University
Dr Rodriguez-Barrueco, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow, Newcastle University

What does your research involve?

Ruth’s research is looking at finding a new therapeutic approach to certain aggressive types of breast cancer. She is targeting a small population of cells found within tumours that have stem cell characteristics and is hoping to describe the vulnerabilities of these cells so that new drugs can be designed that target them specifically.

Ruth is using new technologies called CRISPR libraries which allow the elimination of different pieces of DNA to identify which genes are essential for the cancer cells to survive.

All of her findings will then be published in international journals and the CRISPR library will be deposited in a public repository which is available for other cancer researchers to access.

What brought you to Newcastle University?

Ruth is originally from Barcelona and has spent time working in Spain as well as at Columbia University in New York. She explained that she enjoyed the collaborative aspect of working at Newcastle University. The proximity of the Royal Victoria Infirmary and the Northern Institute for Cancer Research also means that she is able to work on real patient tissue samples to validate her findings. She went on to praise the supportive environment within the University and her colleagues.

What do you hope your research will lead to?

Ruth hopes that the  long term result of her research will be the development of new drugs that will target these currently incurable breast cancers. She would also like to see the clinical trials happening at Newcastle as there is a good structure and resources available that would allow this to happen in a short time frame.

What has the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship allowed you to do?

Ruth explained that the Fellowship has allowed her to establish the methods and collaborations which will lead to a bigger research project. She started her research in March of this year and has already started to see the benefits of the Fellowship.

 

“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done”

Marie Sklodowska-Curie