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Geotalk: Connecting geoscience and archaeology with Sophie Gangl

31 Jan

This week in Geotalk, we’re talking to Sophie Gangl, a masters student from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), Vienna. Sophie tells us about the intersecting fields of geoscience and archaeology, and shares the benefits of presenting postgraduate projects at an international conference.

Hi Sophie, can you tell us a little about yourself and what you’ve been investigating as part of your MSc course?

I have always been very interested in chemistry, so I decided to do my masters project in the Department of Chemistry at BOKU. Luckily, my current advisor (Thomas Prohaska) had an open position in his working group, the Vienna Isotope Research Investigation and Survey (VIRIS). I was entrusted with a very interesting project: using strontium (Sr) isotope ratios to reconstruct migration and mobility patterns. The aim of the project is to find out if the Early Medieval population of Thunau am Kamp in Lower Austria was local, or if the inhabitants had moved to this site during the course of their lifetimes.

Say hello to Sophie! (Credit: Sophie Gangl)

Say hello to Sophie! (Credit: Sophie Gangl)

How can we use geoscientific methods to answer questions in other subjects, like archaeology?

In nature, the abundance of the isotope 87Sr varies because 87Rb decays to 87Sr over geological time periods. But the absolute amount of the other natural stable Sr isotopes (84Sr, 86Sr and 88Sr) remains constant. This is why 87Sr/86Sr ratios are characteristic for a specific region – it all depends on the age of the geology and the initial amount on 87Rb.

Humans and animals primarily take up strontium through drinking water and their diet, and since strontium has similar chemical properties to calcium, it’s mainly stored in teeth and bones. Tooth enamel is formed during early childhood and doesn’t alter much in later life. Therefore, the enamel-enclosed strontium has the same isotopic composition as the environment an individual lived in during their early years (provided that their food came from the close proximity).

Stontium isotope ratios can be measured using mass spectrometry. For the project I’m working on, Sr isotope ratios were measured using the mouthful that is multi collector-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (MC-ICP-MS)! To determine residential mobility, 87Sr/86Sr ratios in enamel samples are compared to the local strontium signature, which is specific to that area. If they match, it indicates that the individual was a local (autochthonous).

Studying strontium isotopes in the lab. (Credit: Sophie Gangl)

Studying strontium isotopes in the lab. (Credit: Sophie Gangl)

You were awarded the Outstanding Student Poster Award for your presentation at the EGU General Assembly in 2013, what inspired you to present your work at an international conference?

My advisor encouraged me to attend the EGU General Assembly 2013 with a poster presentation. At first I was overwhelmed by the idea, as I had never attended a conference before. But it turned out to be a great experience and I am grateful for the possibility to participate. I had the opportunity to talk to other scientists and discuss both my research and theirs. Furthermore, I joined several oral and poster sessions where I learned more about research fields outside my own. Participating in an international conference has reaffirmed my plan to embark upon an academic career and it has definitely expanded my horizons.

The award-winning poster presented at EGU 2013: “

Connecting geoscience and archaeology: “Autochthony in the early medieval settlement of Thunau/Kamp, Austria? A question explored by 87Sr/86Sr isotope ratios using MC-ICPMS” (see here for a larger image). (Credit: Gangl, S.; Irrgeher, J.; Teschler-Nicola, M.; Prohaska, T.)

Do you have any tips for fellow postgrads hoping to present projects at a national or international conference?

My number one tip is: just do it! I think a lot of students have concerns about whether their project is of suitable importance or scope to be presented. But everybody can attend, even if their project is just a small one. The feeling you have when other scientists are getting interested in your work is definitely worth the effort.

Finally, with a few months of your masters course to go, what’s next?

After I have finished my studies, I will continue with a PhD. I would like to do research in the field of ultratrace analysis, maybe in forensics, marine or polar research. I hope that I will find an interesting PhD position and am looking forward to starting this exciting and challenging phase of my life.

If you would like to suggest a scientist for a Geotalk interview, please contact Sara Mynott.

Photo competition at the EGU 2014 General Assembly

24 Jan

If you are pre-registered for the 2014 General Assembly (Vienna, 27 April – 2 May), you can take part in our annual photo competition! Winners receive a free registration to next year’s General Assembly!

The fifth annual EGU photo competition opens on 1 February. Up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image on any broad theme related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences. Shortlisted photos will be exhibited at the conference, together with the winning moving image, which will be selected by a panel of judges. General Assembly participants can vote for their favourite photos and the winning images will be announced on the last day of the meeting.

If you submit your images to the photo competition, they will also be included in the EGU’s open access photo database, Imaggeo. You retain full rights of use for any photos submitted to the database as they are licensed and distributed by EGU under a Creative Commons license. This means that they can be used by scientists for their presentations or publications, for educational purposes and more – as long as they are attributed to the photographer.

You will need to register on Imaggeo so that the organisers can appropriately process your photos. For more information, please check the EGU Photo Contest page on Imaggeo.

Previous winning photographs can be seen on the 20102011, 2012 and 2013 winners’ pages.

In the meantime, get shooting!

One of last year’s winners: “Icebear Rising” by Yiming Wang, distributed via

Geotalk: Matt Herod on awesome outreach and education

15 Jan

Matt Herod has long been part of the EGU Blog Network, where he writes about all things geochemistry from his base in the University of Ottawa. In this week’s Geotalk, we had the chance to talk to Matt about all the other science communication activities he’s been up to – from mentoring kids in Canada to speaking science in schools…

This year GeoSphere had its first birthday as part of the EGU Blog Network, but you’ve been sharing science online for longer than that – what got you started?

Awesome question. I was actually studying for my comprehensive exam at the time and needed something to distract me for a little while so I started a blog. I didn’t actually expect to enjoy blogging so much, but once I started writing and engaging with other bloggers and readers I started to get addicted. The real motivation, besides procrastinating, for starting the blog though was that I was deploring the fact that in Canada, and I suspect other parts of the world, geoscience is left out of elementary and high school curricula. Physics, biology and chemistry are covered extremely well, which is great, but geology, the most integrative of the four is generally left out. It is just not taught at all. I found that really bizarre since I think it is very practical for everyone out there to have a basic knowledge of Earth science. I would hear stories and read articles in the news about fracking and climate change, and mining and a whole slew of other environmental Earth science issues that people were up in arms about all over the world and think “if only they understood a bit more about geology they might not get so panicked, or they might react appropriately when something worth panicking about happened.” The people that I spoke with about geology all expressed an interest in learning more, but they just didn’t know where to start. They had all finished high school and university so they weren’t about to pick up a textbook. Ultimately, the real problem was that the desire to learn about geology was there, but not the access. So to help make geology more accessible I started blogging and have enjoyed it ever since.

Meet Matt! (Credit: Matt Herod)

Meet Matt! (Credit: Matt Herod)

As well as science writing, you get out of the office and into the classroom – what do you get up to? 

As far as science outreach goes my two favourite programs have been the Aboriginal Mentorship Program (AMP) and another called Science Travels (ST). AMP is a program run from the University of Ottawa that pairs science grad students up with one or more local aboriginal students. We go to their school and give science talks, run activities and tell them about ourselves. We then mentor them as they prepare a science fair project using our lab facilities to collect data. The students then come to the University of Ottawa for a science fair, lab tours etc. for about three days later in the year. The program involves monthly visits with the students and I participated for two years.

The other program is called Science Travels. ST sends a group of four graduate students to remote northern communities across Canada to give science presentations in local schools throughout the region over the course of a week. I have been on two trips both to northern Ontario. Often the schools that we visit are in native reserves and can often have issues such as alcoholism and drug abuse in the community. I have also participated for four years with Let’s talk science going in to local Ottawa high school and elementary school classrooms to give science talks.  

What are the highlights of working with school students in the university labs? 

The best thing about bringing students into university labs or going to their classroom is the feeling that my colleagues and I are opening someone’s eyes to science and hopefully inspiring them to consider pursuing science as a career. The goal of having actual researchers leave their labs and enter the classroom is to show elementary and high school students that science does not have to be boring and that it can also be a viable career option. By having researchers present the science it helps to bring validity to the presentation, but also makes something that might seem like a silly science demo more applied and accessible. Bringing students into our labs is also great. It is a cool experience explaining how the “black box” sitting on that bench over there can count atoms and even the most hardened “cool kid” softens when you bring them face to face with a mass spectrometer. Also, things that we take for granted like custom glassware or an oven that can reach 1000 degrees is completely new to these students and it is an eye-opening experience for them and us to teach them about how we use the tools in our labs to answer the big questions about the Earth. FYI showing off a Scanning Electron Microscope might be the best lab tour activity ever…or a flume, and I can’t wait to show of our new Accelerator Mass Spectrometer in a few months, that’ll really blow their minds!

Sharing the excitement of science in schools. (Credit: Matt Herod)

Sharing the excitement of science in a school. (Credit: Matt Herod)

And what are the challenges?

The biggest challenge with science outreach is finding the time. When we are in our own little research bubbles it can often be hard to escape and do something else, and if we do, it is easy to feel a bit guilty that we are not doing research. However, the key is to simply realise that getting out there and teaching science is totally worthwhile and that the work will always be there when we get back…at least that’s how I rationalise it. Preparing presentations and activities can also be pretty time consuming, but there are some great websites (e.g. out there with science activities for kids and if you are part of an organisation like Let’s Talk Science lots of pre-made kits exist that cover a wide range of topics. It is always nice to add a bit of personal experience to talks and presentations though and a good story can really help make the presentation memorable.

Do you have any top tips for scientists that want to work with school kids?

The best piece of advice I can give for anyone that wants to get involved in science outreach is try to find an organisation to work with. Don’t try and go it alone. Find a group that has laid the groundwork and made the connections and start there. The time commitment is as much or as little as you would like to give and the rewards for engaging in outreach and working in your community far outweigh any lost work time. Not only that, it is a great way to practice your speaking and explaining skills in front of a non-critical audience. Getting up at a conference to give a talk is nerve-racking enough even if you are comfortable with public speaking let alone if you have not given that many talks before. My last tip is don’t overthink it. If you go to a classroom and give a talk don’t worry about being perfect. In my experience the students and teachers are too happy to have a visitor, especially one who has experience in research, to try and critique every little aspect of your presentation and activity. The best thing you can do is go in, give your presentation with enthusiasm and enjoy it!

Had your fill of sci comm chat? Find out about the latest geochemical research over at GeoSphere:

Winners of the Imaggeo Photo Competition Announced!

12 Apr

Congratulations to Philipp Stadler, Yiming Wang and Eva van Gorsel, winners of this year’s Imaggeo photo competition!

Winning image: Frost by Philipp Stadler.

Second place: Icebear rising by Yiming Wang.

Third place: Regrowth after fires by Eva van Gorsel.

Imageo photos are distributed by EGU under a Creative Commons licence and are available in Imaggeo, the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their images to this repository and since it is open access, these photos can be used by scientists for their presentations or publications as well as by the press. 


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