Oh no, I'm gone! It's been great guys, a really fun couple of weeks, thanks for everyone for making it happen! Alas it was my time!
I went to a state school in Merseyside, where I also stayed in their Sixth Form for my A-Levels. I then left for the University of Edinburgh, starting out as a geologist, but ending up combining this with chemistry and some biology, to finish up with a degree in Environmental Geoscience. I stayed at Edinburgh to do a Masters degree, where my life changed, I saw an interesting research project and wound up a climate modeller, this led me to Leeds and a PhD involving climate modelling and geology
GCSE’s (Maths, Science, English, Geography, History, ICT, RE – I failed Spanish!), A-Levels (Maths, Physics, Geography, General Studies), BSc (Hons): Environmental Geoscience, MSc(R) Global Environmental Change
My pre-science work revolves mostly around sport, so a squash coach at West Lancs Junior Squash Club, A general sports and activities coach (including lifeguarding) at St Bede’s International Summer School and the same at ExCel Sports Academy, and also some tutoring at Explore Learning.
University of Leeds
Favourite thing to do in my job: Finding out something new, whether it’s from my work (the best feeling in science!) or just learning something new and interesting. I really enjoy being challenged, so I’m really looking forward to your questions because I’ve found you guys ask the trickiest and most fun questions!
I run a climate model set up for 3 million years ago to find out what a world with a warmer climate is like.
I’m a PhD researcher at the University of Leeds, studying Palaeoclimatology, which simply means I study the climate of the past.
The change to climate being caused by humans known as “Anthropogenic Global Warming” is the single biggest challenge to our continued existence, with the possibility to impact upon food & water availability, the areas in which we can live, the spread of disease, the ecosystems of the planet and ultimately the lives of billions of people. The big problem we have is that we don’t know exactly what will happen, there is no laboratory experiment we can run, no test version of the Earth to see what happens, all we can do is make a prediction, and for that we use climate models.
What is a Climate Model?
A climate model is a computer program which turns the Earth and it’s climate into a series of maths equations. The surface of the earth is divided into boxes of equal size and each box has layers either up into the atmosphere or down into the ocean. This is shown in the image below, which is based on the model I use, which was made by the Met Office, and is called HadCM3.
HadCM3 has different parts to it, called components. These are: Atmosphere, Ocean, Land (including vegetation) and Ice. These components are joined together in a process called coupling, and enables the calculations in each component to affect the calculations in other components.
To run the model, the equations inside each box of the model, come together to create calculations which represent the climate and allow the climate variables in that box are worked out. So in the atmosphere component, these calculations include things such as how cloudy it is, and what type of clouds have formed which affects temperature, rainfall and other elements of the climate. Once the calculations are run, each box shares it’s results with the boxes it touches and this process is repeated until the model has finished running.
Using a Climate Model
But how do we know that these calculations a good version of the actual real world climate? This question is vital, if the model doesn’t represent teh climate well then we have no idea what climate change will do. When the models are built, they are tested against data collected by global weather stations (since 1850) and satellites (since 1980) and the model is tested against this data, if it can reproduce the patterns expected, the assumption is made that the model will produce a good prediction for the future.
But the climate has only warmed by close to 1°C in the last 150 years, how can we know if the model can predict a climate 3°C or more warmer in the future? To test that palaeoclimate scientists run the model in the geological past, thousands or even millions of years ago, at times where the world was either very much colder than today (the last ice age) or warmer than today. This tests the models skill at creating climates very different to that of the last 150 years, with the assumption that if a model can do the last ice age, a warmer world and the present day, then it will produce a good prediction for the 2100 climate.
I am a palaeoclimate scientist, and I work on a time period called the Pliocene, which ran from 5.3 to 2.6 Million years ago, but I focus on about 3 million years ago, when the world average temperature was 3°C warmer than the present day temperature, this is about the level where global warming is likely to be by 2100.
My work focuses on changing the calculations in the atmosphere component of the model. I can do this because we are not sure that we have these calculations exactly right, so by changing some of these calculations, which are called ‘parameters’ , I can take one model and run a lot of different versions of this model and look at the way the climate changes in the model as a result.
This image shows the temperature results from my first model runs. The “High Sensitivity” version had parameters changed so that it would be a warmer version of the model than the “Standard Version”, the “Low Sensitivity” version the opposite, with it changed to be a cooler version of the model. The image shows the difference between the model runs, (A) “High sensitivity minus the Standard” and (B) “Low sensitivity minus the Standard”.
This sort of result could be produced for the future, but the real strength of palaeoclimate is that I can test my results against data from the Pliocene and see how my model does. I work with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), who have created a dataset of sea temperatures using microscopic plankton, which we can look at to find out the temperature, either by doing chemistry on their shells or by looking at what species they are and where that species ancestors live today.
The image above shows my three model runs, (A) the “Standard simulation” , (B) the “High Sensitivity simulation” and (C) the “Low Sensitivity simulation” against the data from the USGS and see which model does better. The closer the colour in each circle is to zero the better the model has done. This image shows that the “High Sensitivity” did best of my three model runs.
This result could mean that we need models set up to run warmer to better predict future global warming, but when I tested the same results against data from land plants, the “High Sensitivity simulation wasn’t as good as the “Standard simulation”. This means I am continuing my work to see if I can find out more detail from my model and maybe a better version to use.
More About Me
Simply I’m sports mad. I can be found playing pretty much any sport, but my main ones are Squash, Cricket and Racketlon (you play your opponent at table tennis, badminton, squash and tennis and the winner is the person who scores the most points over all 4 sports). If I’m not playing sport, I’ll be watching it mainly my football team, Southport FC who play in the Blue Square Bet Premier, but I’ll got to pretty much any live sporting event! I also like to go out hiking in the hills especially the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands. I’ll also often have my camera with me, as I love photography.
I’m also very involved in outreach programmes, taking my science into schools. I am a STEM Ambassador and go to schools all over West Yorkshire talking about science, and showing people what I do. The reason I do this is, in all honesty, that I never was top of my class. I’m not a super genius, I was born in Liverpool, I went to an ordinary state school, neither of my parents did A-Levels; I just worked hard and took a few chances when they came up. I am passionate about people knowing that no matter your background, where you come from or what people say, you can be a scientist if you want to.
I went to the University of Edinburgh, a deliberate decision to move far away from home and push myself to live my own life. I started studying geology, the science of rocks, which as well as sitting in classrooms learning about the rocks, it also involved lots of getting out into the field and seeing rocks in places such as Scotland, Italy or even Jamaica!
The key tool for a geologist is a rock hammer to hit rocks with. It’s only once you’ve hit a rock you can really find out about it, as when you break a chunk of rock off you can see a side which hasn’t been affected by the weather for millions of years! The picture above shows me hitting a section of rocks in Italy, which where 50 Million years old, made from the dead remains of sea life, such as plankton, in a rock known as Limestone.
In the picture above I am at the boundary between the last period of the Dinosaurs (the Cretaceous – below the grey) and the time of mammals (the Cenozoic – above the grey) which we are in now. As I am a bit of a geek I’m ducking from the incoming meteorite that kills the dinosaurs. The grey rock was formed 65 million years ago when the impact happened and is seen all around the world, this bit is found in Gubbio in Italy.
Other bits of my training required me to work in a laboratory, doing chemistry on samples of rock, soil or water. The picture below shows the view from a laboratory in Jamaica I worked in, I don’t think it’s that bad a view, looking out over a coral reef and out into the Caribbean Sea!
But most importantly, these sorts of trips, led to me forming some great friendships, and still years later I am best friends with all the people in the photo below, I have attended their weddings and their kids christenings, travelling at times for many hours to see each other, because they are such great friends.
So, I hope that’s what you get from me, that you don’t have to be a genius to get where I am now, you just need to put in the effort, and if it’s something you enjoy, and you have fun, you will make great friends and have a tremendous experience!
My Typical Day
Running the model on a supercomputer, looking at the results, drinking coffee and almost certainly cake and/or biscuits!
I like to arrive in the office at 8:30 (ish). I start up my computer, check my e-mails, load the Absolute Radio Player so I can listen to music and I’ll probably also have a quick read of my favourite web comics for entertainment, these are www.xkcd.com and www.phdcomics.com
I’ll (very quickly) have to go and make my first cup of coffee for the day and try to scrounge some biscuits. I now have no more excuses and must get on with my work. I nearly always have a model simulation running on the supercomputer, so making sure that is running is my first piece of work for the day. After that it’s a case of looking at the results produced by the model runs I have been doing.
During the morning, we have one of my favourite parts of the day, I’ll go and have a tea break, with other scientists from my department. Conversation is (sometimes) about science, but more often as not about last nights football or TV such as The Apprentice. As we have lots of weather forecast researchers in my department, there is lots of chat about the weather as well, especially anything unusual either here in Britain or abroad.
Another important part of my daily work is to keep up to date on what other scientists working on similar work to mine have discovered, so I spend a large amount of time searching the internet for the latest papers from scientific journals (magazines of science essentially) and reading this research, looking for new ideas I could try. Science is always changing, new discoveries are made regularly, so keeping up to date is very important.
In all this I’ll include lunch with my friends, some more coffee and hopefully some cake! I’m more of a morning person at work, so my work gets slower in the afternoon, so to get myself going I’ll go play sport of some kind!
Squash is my main sport; I’ve played that since I was 11, and coached it to kids since I was 17. But depending on the weather and the day of the week it changes, Mondays are 5-a-side, Tuesdays and Thursdays are cricket, Wednesdays are squash and Fridays are badminton or tennis (weather depending), during the summer I spend lots of time hoping it’s dry so I can play some more cricket.
Sport is great as it gives me a chance to do something very different to my work and allows me to switch off. I’m also massively competitive and so I LOVE winning!
What I'd do with the prize money
I want to show the general public what a climate model is, how it works, why it works and what we can use them for.
If there is one big failure within my branch of science, it’s that we (climate scientists) have been really bad at actually explaining what our models are, how they work and what we can (and can’t) use them for. I think this is part of the reason for some people who don’t think that the climate is changing due to human activities.
What I’d want to do with the money, is to work with the Met Office and other climate scientists to produce a guide to climate models, for schools, for the public, for everyone, so that people can see what we work with. I’d also want to do some of this in a public lecture style (and because I always have crazy big ideas) this would be really big and very public, so something like the big screen in Millennium Square in Leeds, to a crowd of people like this
Ignoring my crazy ideas for a second, anthropogenic climate change has the potential to affect billions of lives, and change ecosystems & natural habitats all over the globe. To reduce the effects of the change, we need to act, but doubt and disbelief is stopping this, so I hope that opening up about climate models will help reduce this doubt.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Energetic, Passionate, Dedicated
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Swimming on a coral reef in Jamaica looking for signs of it’s health and recovery from hurricane damage 10 years before I visited
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes, generally for answering back to teachers and being cheeky!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I have a selection of bands (and being a scientist I can’t make a decision) so Muse, The Beatles, The Who, Coldplay, Travis, The Verve
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I have had two recent experiences that were just brilliant for getting the heart beating, Caving (crawling around in rock tunnels underground/occasionally under water!) and Gliding (flying in a plane without engines!)
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) Have a career as a research scientist, 2) See my football club (Southport FC) back in the Football League, 3) Go into space! (I always wanted to be an astronaut!)
Tell us a joke.
What cheese do you use to hide a horse? (Mascarpone)