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GeoTalk: Meet Anna Rabitti, winner of I’m a Geoscientist, Get me out of here!

22 Aug

Earlier this year we ran the first ever I’m a Geoscientist, Get me out of here! event, an online chat-based game show in which school kids vote for their favourite geoscience communicators. In this week’s GeoTalk, Sara Mynott  talks to Anna Rabitti, an oceanography PhD student and winner of this year’s I’m a Geoscientist…

 

Meet Anna. (Credit: Anna Rabitti)

Meet Anna. (Credit: Anna Rabitti)

First, for those who haven’t been following I’m a Geoscientist, can you tell us a little about yourself and what made you decide to take part in the competition?

My name is Anna, I am Italian, and I moved to a tiny Dutch Island in the North Sea almost five years ago (after getting my masters in Physics) to work on my PhD project in physical oceanography at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, NIOZ.

My PhD project is about internal waves in the equatorial ocean, and how they may interact with the peculiar ocean dynamics at the equator. I use observations of current speed, temperature and salinity from the deep equatorial Atlantic, as well as other analytical tools to find out more about internal waves in confined basins. In the last year I have been also involved in a big European project called MIDAS, helping to characterise the oceanographic conditions of sites that could suitable for deep-sea mining.

I have always liked to share the things I learn and work with people who are not directly involved in science – I see it as compelling responsibility to society. However in the last few years it has been very difficult for me to fulfil this desire as I live in a foreign country whose language I do not really master.

That is why, when I saw the I’m a Geoscientist initiative advertised by the EGU, I did not hesitate to apply for it. It is in English, you can do it from your office, and it gives you the opportunity to be in contact with many kids and teachers from different countries. It is really a great educational experience, for all sides.

Have you done any geoscience outreach before?

In the past, I have been involved in initiatives to promote scientific thinking as a tool that every citizen can use to make conscious social and economic choices. However, I have never really focused only on geoscience before. So far, my experience has been limited to classic public debates and workshops and I’m a Geoscientist was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to interact with so many people through online chats and forums.

What was your toughest question during the competition and how did you respond?

Any of the questions that involved ethical or moral choices. For example this one: “Don’t you think that if a person was to cut a whole tree off, then they have to plant 10 more trees so that the levels of global warming can decrease?”

I am sure that this was asked with the best intentions, and that the student asking this was really willing to positively act to mitigate human induced climate change. However, I found it hard to explain the importance of reconsidering our attitude towards the exploitation of natural resources.

Why, first of all, did the person cut that tree? We are experiencing a very difficult time in human history, when access to resources like fossil fuels and water are the causes of social and economic tension. By the time those ten trees have grown, it might be too late to change our habits. These are very delicate and important issues. Explaining them is crucial, since the actual situation is definitely asking for immediate action, but is also very challenging – especially when you do not have your audience in front of you and you cannot appreciate their reaction immediately. I really hope I succeeded in communicating the urgency of the issue, without scaring the students too much.

What was the question you appreciated the most?

We received so many good questions from the students, some of them very challenging, from life on our (and other) planets to what it is like to travel at the speed of light; from the role of waves in the ocean to the mitigation of earthquake hazards. However, if I have to pick one, I guess I will vote for “How do you know what it is inside of our planet, if no one has ever been there? Suppositions?”.

I find it a very direct and honest question, driven by pure scientific curiosity – I see a brilliant scientific mind behind it!

Among the non-scientific questions we received, I would definitely go for the question asking if Atlantis ever existed. There’s been no scientific proof of Atlantis so far, but my advice is to keep an eye open when sailing on the Atlantic Ocean… you never know what you might find! Students need to know that scientists are allowed to have dreams too.

The ferry between Den Helder and the island of Texel, where the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, NIOZ, is located. The ferry is equipped with scientific instruments measuring, at each crossing, several properties of the water: temperature and salinity via the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth sensor), velocity via the two ADCPs (Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers) and colour of the sea and sky via the on-board radiometers. Data are then displayed in real time to all passengers thanks to two screens on the main deck. (Credit: Eric Wagemaakers)

The ferry between Den Helder and the island of Texel, where the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, NIOZ, is located. The ferry is equipped with scientific instruments measuring, at each crossing, several properties of the water: temperature and salinity via the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth sensor), velocity via the two ADCPs (Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers) and colour of the sea and sky via the on-board radiometers. Data are then displayed in real time to all passengers thanks to two screens on the main deck. (Credit: Eric Wagemaakers)

You’re the lucky winner of 500 euros, how do you hope to spend it?

The island where my research institute (NIOZ) is located and the mainland are connected with a ferry service that sails every half hour. Since 1998 the ferry has been equipped with scientific instruments that take measurements of current velocity, temperature, salinity and other parameters of the water, such as suspended matter and chlorophyll content, every time the ship crosses the channel. These data are used by my colleagues here at the institute to monitor and understand the delicate ecosystem of the Dutch Wadden Sea, but they are also displayed in real time to passengers on two huge screens.

The institute’s other scientific activities are also shown, as well as pictures taken during research cruises or laboratory or field experiments – I think this is a very effective outreach activity, since it shows citizens, locals and tourists that someone is studying the sea right there, and right then, and that they can be proud of having such an institute on this tiny island.

Highlights of scientific findings are shown to the public with simple pictures: once on dry land, they will perhaps think about the science behind waves, seals, local fish and seaweed, and about the delicate balance that links all these elements together.

Back to the prize. In late 2015 a new ship will start sailing along with the old one. Building a big ship, as you can imagine, takes a lot of time, and we are already planning which instruments, display screens and facilities will be put on board, continuing and improving this precious time series. I thought to add the prize to the money already invested for the scientific equipment on the upcoming new ferry. Unfortunately, no oceanographic instrument can be purchased with 500 euros (they are expensive!), but a new, possibly interactive way to display the measurements to the passengers (an extra screen? An interactive tablet to surf the real time data?) could work.

What’s your top tip for aspiring geoscientists?

Being at the beginning of my career, I consider myself an aspiring geoscientist too, therefore a tip, but also a reminder to myself, could be: being a (geo)scientist is a job like many others, so be professional and make sure you are treated professionally. Being passionate about what you do as a job is sometimes dangerous, because the line between hobby and job gets blurred, and you are likely to give up some work rights with the excuse of “doing what you like”.

It is important then to remember that being a good scientist is a challenging task, it requires time, imagination and discipline (and, often, money). It follows that good working conditions and at least some job security are at the base of good science, but these things are aren’t always available in the academic system. It is the responsibility of the whole scientific community to improve this situation, not only for the scientists of today, but also for those aspiring (geo)scientists that will make up the community tomorrow.

Would you recommend taking part to I’m a Geoscientist to your colleagues?

Sure, no doubt about it! If you are interested in scientific outreach and in the interaction between science and society, I think I’m a Geoscientist can be a very good starting point: it asks you for only two weeks of your time, and a few hours per day, and you do not have to move from your office.

In turn, it gives you the opportunity to interact with many students and teachers from all over the world, as well as with the other scientists taking part to the initiative, and helps you to form opinions about so many different topics that you will surely learn a lot yourself. I would definitely recommend it to scientists of all ages: I think students would also largely benefit from the interaction with scientists at different stages of their careers.

By Sara Mynott, former EGU Communications Officer, as of September Phd student in marine biology at the University of Exeter.

GeoEd: The Future’s Bright

20 Aug

What got you hooked to science in the first place? More importantly, what or who persuaded you that making science your career was, not only worth considering, but should be actively pursed? I’m sure, I am preaching to the converted; we all think science is not only cool, but a worthwhile and rewarding career path; so why is it that we can’t enthuse the younger generations that it is the case too? In this GeoEd post, Sam Illingworth highlights STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers and why maybe it’s time we broke down some old stereotypes.

The Wellcome Trust Monitor was originally conceived in 2009 as a means to track over time the UK publics’ interest in, attitudes towards, and experience and knowledge of science. Of the 306 young people, aged between 14 and 18 years, interviewed for the 2013 report, 82 % stated that they found their school science lessons to be interesting. However, whilst 82 % of them also considered science to be a good area of employment to go into (citing good pay, interesting work, and the ability to make interesting discoveries as the main reasons for thinking so), 63 % of them said that they actually knew little or nothing about careers in science.

Are students not getting enough science-specific career information? (Photo credit: BrokenSphere)

Are students not getting enough science-specific career information? (Photo credit: BrokenSphere)

The prevailing view of the typical science career progression is that young children initially have a high level of interest in science, but that, as they move through the educational system, interest is lost at every stage. Whilst the results of the Wellcome Trust’s survey would seem to indicate that there is still enthusiasm in science subjects at the secondary school level (11 – 18 years old), they also suggest that science-related careers may not be pursued by young people because of a lack of information, rather than because of a lack of desire.

With most young people saying that they received careers advice from either their family (67%) or teacher (49%), there is the possibility that their future career paths are being biased towards areas in which these sources are able to provided guided support. Even more alarmingly, only 10% of young people thought that careers advice from a real-life scientist was amongst the most useful that they could receive. Is this because they do not wish to pursue a science-related career, or because they do not identify with scientists as people like them, but rather see them as stereotypical caricatures?

Would you approach this man for careers advice? (Photo credit: antilived)

Would you approach this man for careers advice? (Photo credit: antilived)

It is important for school students to realise that pursuing a science degree at University does not mean that you end up working in a laboratory wearing a white coat and safety goggles. Whilst this might be perceived as an ideal job for a small proportion of students it is by no means the norm, and so as scientists, and as science graduates, we have a responsibility to not only highlight the wide diversity of science and scientists, but also the large number of other opportunities that are available to science graduates outside of the realms of academia and research.

At my institution (Manchester Metropolitan University), some of the job roles that our science graduates were pursuing within 6 months of graduating included: aviation security officer, custom bike designer, defence officer, education assistant for a charitable organisation, web content writer, restaurant owner, and professional rugby player! This is obviously a very varied list, and the fact that almost 90 % of all our 2012/13 Science & Engineering leavers went into work and/or further study 6 months after graduation is representative of the demand for science undergraduates, even in the current economic climate.

A scrum of science graduates? (Photo credit: Thomas Faivre-Duboz)

A scrum of science graduates? (Photo credit: Thomas Faivre-Duboz)

As scientists we have the opportunity to encourage school students to contemplate a career in science as an achievable and exciting option, and also to encourage them to think about the different opportunities that a science degree could afford them. We can do this through a variety of school outreach activities such as career fairs, one-to-one interviews, and the sharing of resources with both the students and the educators. One great resource that we could share is EGU’s database for undergraduate and postgraduate courses, which has a list of a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses spanning the geosciences across Europe, and which has been designed specifically for those who would like to search for courses based on a specific subject area, rather than by university. It is worth noting that the EGU also offers a platform for job seekers to find vacancies in the Earth, planetary, and space sciences. Research positions relevant to both recent graduates and early career researchers can be found here.

As well as showcasing the interesting research with which we are involved, as scientists we have a responsibility to make ourselves more approachable to students as a source of relevant and useful career advice. So the next time you are in front of a group of school children demonstrating the fun and fascinating world of science, be prepared to spare a moment to discuss your own scientific journey, and the many varied and exciting career paths that studying science at undergraduate level and beyond can result in.

 

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

GeoTalk: Matthew Agius on how online communication can help identify earthquake impact

8 Aug

In this edition of GeoTalk, we’re talking to Matthew Agius, a seismologist from the University of Malta and the Young Scientist Representative for the EGU’s Seismology Division. Matthew gave an enlightening talk during the EGU General Assembly on how communication on online platforms such as Facebook can help scientists assess the effect of earthquakes. Here he shares his findings and what wonders online data can reveal…

Before we get going, can you tell us a little about you’re area of research and what got you interested in using online communications to complement our understanding of earthquakes and their impact?

My area of research is the study of tectonic structures and dynamics using different seismic techniques. The regions I have studied the most are Tibet and the Central Mediterranean. During my student days many friends wondered about my research and I felt that there was a need to reach out for the public in order to eliminate misconceptions on how the Earth works, in particular about the seismic activity close to home – Malta. This led to the creation of a website with daily updates on the seismic activity in the Mediterranean. We set up an online questionnaire for people to report earthquake-related shaking. The questionnaire proved to be successful; hundreds of entries have been submitted following a number of earthquakes. This large dataset has valuable information because it gives an insight on the demographics in relation to earthquake hazard of the tiny nation.

How can social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter be used to assess the impact of earthquakes?

Nowadays the general public has access to smart phones connected to the internet, which have become readily available and affordable. This resulted in a rapid use of social websites. People increasingly tend to express themselves in ‘near’ real-time online. Furthermore, smartphones are equipped with various technologies such as a GPS receiver and an accelerometer – the basic set up of a seismic station – and also a camera. Altogether this has the potential to provide an unprecedented level of information about the local experience of an earthquake. Its immediate analysis can also supplement instrument-based estimates of early earthquake location and magnitude.

Out in the field – Matthew Aguis in the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Matthew Aguis)

Out in the field – Matthew Agius in the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Matthew Agius)

What sort of information can you gather from sites like Facebook or Twitter, and what can it tell you?

Users can post comments as well as photographs directly on a page, say a page dedicated to earthquakes. Such post are time stamped and can also have geolocation information. Although the posted information might seem too basic, the collective data from many users can be used to establish the local feeling in ‘real time’. Another way is to have a specific application that analyses the text expressed by social media users. Similar applications have already been considered in a number of regions such as USA and Italy, and have shown very interesting social sentiment expressed during and after an earthquake shake.

How do the earthquake sentiments relate to the geology? Can you see any patterns between what people say and share online and the intensity of the quake in a particular area?

This is a new area of research that is still being investigated. Earthquake intensity, shaking and damage in a local context, are known to vary from one place to another. These variations are primarily due to either the underlying geology, the seismic wave propagation complexities, or a combination of both. So far various mathematical models have been published for famous areas such as San Francisco Bay; soon scientists will have the opportunity to compare their models with information on people’s sentiment gathered in this new way. Such sentiment is expected to relate to the geology, to some extent.

And another shot of Matthew in the field – this time from Mount Etna. (Credit: Matthew Aguis)

And another shot of Matthew in the field – this time from Mount Etna. (Credit: Matthew Agius)

What are the difficulties of dealing with this sort of data, and how do you overcome them?

This type of data compilation is known as crowdsourcing. Although it is has powerful leads, one has to take careful measures on how to interpret the data. For example one must not assume that everyone has a public social profile on the internet where to posts his/her sentiment. One also has to consider that mobile phone coverage is sometimes limited to cities leaving out large, less inhabited areas without a network. Another limitation can be related to the list of specific keywords used during text analysis, a typical keyword could be ‘shake’; users might be using this term in a completely different context instead of when the ground is shaking! I think the best way to overcome such difficulties is to combine this data with current seismic monitoring systems; upon which an event is verified with the seismic data from across the investigated region.

During your talk you proposed other ideas for data analysis, how can it be used to support civil protection services and inform the public?

Until now social sentiment with regards to earthquakes has been studied through the use of Twitter or Facebook. But citizens are also making use of other online platforms such as news portals. All this information should ideally be retrieved and analysed in order to understand the earthquake sentiment of an area better. Furthermore, such studies must also be able to gather the sentiment in multiple languages and establish geolocation information from clues in the user’s text. I think it is time to implement a system to be used by civil protection services, whereby immediately after an earthquake has been established, an automatic alert is sent via a dedicated phone app and, at the same time, a web bot crawls the web to ‘read’ and analyse what people are expressing across multiple platforms. A felt map can then be generated in real time. This could be very useful for  civil protection services during a major disaster, helping them to redirect their salvage efforts as civilian phone calls become clogged.

Matthew also mans Seismoblog, a blog dedicated to the young seismologists of the European Geosciences Union – keep up with the latest seismology news and research on Seismoblog here.

GeoEd: Working together

1 Aug

When a geoscientist steps into a classroom, set to share their wonders of the Earth with a host of eager young minds, they are heading straight into unknown waters. Which students will rock the boat? What works well for this class and what should you steer well clear of? Not knowing the answers can turn a terrific outreach activity into a sinking ship. Fortunately, there’s a navigator on board. Sam Illingworth shows the importance of working together with teachers to avoid rough waters and make your outreach activity a success…

Albert Einstein once said, “A foolish faith in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” Einstein was talking about a reluctance to accept the authority of another person’s, scientific or religious dogma, without first rationally testing that person’s claims, but he might just as well have been talking about scientists who participate in outreach activities without attempting to involve a teacher.

Scientists are good at science, that after all is what we are paid to do, and for the scientists that engage with school children and the general public many of them are also good communicators. Some of the scientists might even have teaching experience, but in the vast majority of cases they are not teachers, and to assume that they do not need the help and assistance of the classroom educators is ignorance bordering on arrogance.

As I have written about in previous posts, good outreach activities will build on what the students already know, rather than taking a deficit-model approach to teaching. Building on what the students know involves not only a detailed knowledge of the curriculum, but also an in-depth understanding of the needs and abilities of each of the students in the classroom. This is a lengthy process (here is an excellent blog post about ditching the deficit model from a teacher’s perspective) that cannot be fast-tracked, nor is there a need to do so when the teachers already have all of that information at their fingertips.

Even those scientists that participate in outreach activities, and who have experience of teaching at a pre-university level need to ensure that they actively engage with the teachers in the learning process. After all, whilst they may have experience of teaching in a classroom environment, they will not have experience of teaching in this classroom environment, and will be unfamiliar with the different learning styles and social nuances of the student cohort.

Every classroom is different. (Credit: isafmedia)

Every classroom is different. (Credit: isafmedia)

In developing an outreach activity for school children, I would suggest involving a teacher in the design process as early as possible. Their knowledge of the curriculum and of general learning behaviours within the school environment will ensure that the message you are trying to convey through your outreach activity does not fall on deaf ears. They will also be able to provide constructive feedback as to what they know will and will not work in their own teaching environments.

Once the outreach activity is beyond the design stage and is ready to be unleashed upon its intended audience, I would suggest beta testing it with a teacher (and their class) with whom you are well acquainted. Providing that the teacher knows that this is the initial airing of the activity, they will be able to offer you incredibly useful feedback to improve upon the event for future iterations. Such feedback is also incredibly useful in forming some of the structural basis of the evaluation of your project, which can (and should) be used if writing up the process for peer-review.

Working with teachers during the development phase of an outreach activity is excellent practice. (Credit: Robert Hruzek)

Working with teachers during the development phase of an outreach activity is excellent practice. (Credit: Robert Hruzek)

Once the initial beta testing has been completed, it is good practice to carry out a similar exercise with the teacher of every class that the activity is delivered to. It is wrong to assume that what works for one group of students will work for another, and by sending in a basic précis of the planned outreach to the teacher that you will be working with beforehand, they will be able to give incredibly useful feedback as to what they perceive will and will not work well with their students. This step can be the difference between engaging with the classroom in an effective and genuinely two-way dialogue and talking at a group of disinterested pupils whose minds have long since left the learning environment.

Working with the teacher at the time of delivery is also essential for a successful outreach event. The teacher will be able to assist with basic logistics such as room setup, and will also be able to ensure that the class is grouped (where necessary) to avoid wanton disruption.

Teachers are well placed to split up potential troublemakers, to avoid scenes like this one. (Credit: Carlos Villela)

Teachers are well placed to split up potential troublemakers, to avoid scenes like this one. (Credit: Carlos Villela)

It is sometimes easy to forget that outreach work should also be a learning experience for the scientists that are involved. The knowledge exchange that can be gained from observing the teaching and classroom management style of a good educator are skills that are directly transferable into key facets of research life; from communicating to a variably engaged audience to working with difficult co-workers. As the great American writer J.P. McEvoy put it, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

 

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