Lights, camera soil!

So as my job comes to an end it feels nice to be able to reflect on a busy and varied last week. Amongst the many tasks I had more lab work, field work, my first appearance on film and of course more cake. Monday was much the same as the work I did last week but Tuesday and Wednesday brought the chance to do more fieldwork.


The beautiful Newlands valley

The task was to dismantle the exclusion cages that were designed to keep cattle and sheep out of an area so they wouldn’t affect the vegetation or soil in the enclosures. The job basically involved lots of hammering, snipping, force and hard work, especially as the people who assembled the cages made a very good job of making them sturdy! It was nice to be outside and was a good break from lab work and the site of the farm is in Newlands valley, an absolutely beautiful part of the Lake District. I think if you’re going into research in the environment there are definitely good chances to work in some amazing places. Just speaking to people around the department students as part of their PhD get to go to places like the Scottish highlands, the Swiss Alps, China, the Amazon and the list goes on, so if you like beautiful places and travelling I’ve found there is certainly scope for that sort of thing in environmental science research.


Hard at work!

The second day in Newlands marked the beginning of my film career which I’m led to believe will be long and fruitful! (or maybe not). Basically Beth was going to the natural history museum in London to present to the public the sort of research she was conducting. She thought to make soil science a bit more interactive and interesting it would be a good idea to make a short video on how to sample soil. As Beth explained this to me I agreed that it would be a nice but I didn’t realise that it would be me as the lead actor! So slightly daunted I hastily learned the script (that beth dictated to me just before she turned on the camera) and after a few takes my acting career had begun. I’ve just got myself an agent who said that I should expect an Oscar for my lead roll! Clearly this isn’t true but it was all good fun and something a bit different.

My last couple of days was back in the lab and seemed to go really quickly. On Friday afternoon the end of my time in the soil lab was marked with cake and a good luck card for the beginning of my masters, which was a really nice send off from a good bunch of people.

So that’s it a month working in the lab and field has given me fantastic experience and provided me with a few ideas as to what’s out there in the future. My Masters starts soon and I can’t wait to get stuck into a new challenge. On that note I recently received an email saying I had been granted a departmental scholarship that would contribute towards my tuition fees. This came as a really nice financial boost as Masters degrees don’t come cheap. Talking to some friends however, some of which with a better degree than me, were unsuccessful in their application for the same scholarship so it made me think why I got it and some others didn’t. I honestly believe that the voluntary work and the subsequent paid job with Beth was a big boost to my bid for a scholarship and definitely set me apart from some people with better grades than me. So on a parting note this sort of experience is fantastic not only to set you apart on your CV, but also as way to look inside the fascinating world of research and getting to know the people involved.

Alex 🙂

Ps I seem to be unable to upload the video at the moment but I will try later on, this isn’t an attempt to avoid public embarrassment!


Carbon, Nitrogen and Cake!

Hello everyone! Just going to fill you in on my third week of the job. This week was purely lab based with two main jobs of conducting loss on ignition, and C and N testing on the soil collected in the field.

So firstly loss on ignition involves exposing soil to temperatures of 560 degrees and weighing them before and after to see what organic matter was in the soil before it was put in the furnace. Unfortunately the furnace only holds 24 samples at a time and Beth has hundreds of samples to do so it could be a while before they are all done! This job is quite easy as you just have to leave it to its own devices as samples need to be in the furnace for a minimum of 6 hours. This meant most of my time was spent on the C and N machine…



Inside of the furnace!

As the name alludes to the C and N machine measures carbon and nitrogen levels in the soil. The machine only requires small amounts of soil to test so the majority of my week was spent measuring 15mg of soil to the nearest 0.1mg into a tiny takeaway style foil tray! Obviously this is quite painstaking and repetitive work after a week of it but once you’re in a rhythm it was good especially with the radio for company. I think this work reflects broadly on what research is often like. The ideas are really interesting, and the results from research can be remarkable and really push forward the field of work. However, behind that research is a lot of very necessary but not particularly intellectually stimulating work, which is probably why Beth employed me to do it! In all seriousness, although it might not be fantastically interesting work, research couldn’t be done without this aspect to it.


The C and N machine.


Tweezers and my tiny takeaway tray!

By the end of the week a PhD student based in the lab had just handed in their final thesis so a week in the lab was rewarded with cakes all round! An excellent way to conclude the week! On the subject of cake, labs with PhD students obviously have a high turnover of people working in them so therefore lots of welcoming and leaving parties. I have therefore found that, along with birthdays added in and other tenuous excuses for celebration, cake plays a significant role in the day to day lives of environmental scientists!

Next week I’ll be back on the C and N machine for a few days, however we are going to the Lake District for some fieldwork so hopefully I can bring you some images reminiscent of those pictures brought to you by Freya and Amy earlier on in the summer.

Alex 🙂

We’re all in this together

This week in the soil lab was group project week! The soil group in Lancaster has set up an experiment investigating the effects of flooding on the soil and vegetation in meadowlands. Part of the reason behind the group endeavour was that everyone in the group could gain skills and knowledge of techniques they may not have come across. For me obviously most of the tasks were new so it was nice to get a go at many different techniques. The flooding aspect of the experiment was simulated by filling paddling pools to varying amounts of water. I’ve soon realised that there are some very sophisticated bits of kit in the lab that Helen the lab manager has tried to explain to me but sometimes simple solutions such as paddling pools do the trick!


The highly technical equipment!

So on Monday morning graduates, masters and PhD students, lab managers, postdoctoral researchers and researching lecturers alike joined forces to embark on a week of field and lab work! My first two days were in the field at hazelrigg, a field study area handily a few minutes up the hill from the university. The weather was mainly good for the two days and I was mostly given the job of cutting out vegetation that was planted in plots and left to grow since April, and sorting them into species. In some of the pots there were 9 different species so separating each species was harder than I first expected and not very kind on the back even for a relatively fit 21 year old!


Hazelrigg: the field site.

The following three days were spent in the lab, one of which being entirely devoted to sieving wet clay soil through a 2mm mesh; clearly this wasn’t the easiest task! The following days were mainly concentrated on weighing vegetation sample and getting soil samples ready for a variety of tests including finding the carbon and nitrogen content and microbial role in the soil.

I found it really interesting to get a taste of how various tests can show how important a role soil can play in shaping the environment around us. It was also really nice to work in a team for a week. I’ve found although it’s interesting work it can get quite lonely and tedious in the lab. So being part of a group experiment meant that everyone could pick each other up, especially on the soil sieving day camaraderie was definitely needed!  It was also good to get the viewpoints of everyone in the group as there is a wide spectrum of people at different stages of their careers.

So overall it was a very valuable week showing me the importance of teamwork in research as more ideas can be put forward and it certainly makes the work load lighter! Also it meant as the work came to an end on Friday eating copious amounts of cake was in order!

Alex 🙂

Who wants to do field work anyway!

Hi there! This is Alex your 3rd and final blogger of the summer. I will be Beth’s assistant for September but unlike the other two most of my work will be in the lab, so less pictures of the beautiful views of the Lake District and more of the soil in the lab!!! This may sound like I have a lack of enthusiasm for lab work, but I do feel that after the maybe more appealing fieldwork has been done (especially with the good summer we’ve had) there is important work analysing the samples that were collected to be done.


Me in the lab

Before we get started I would like to introduce myself. I have just graduated from Lancaster University with a 2:1 in Ecology. This year, like Freya I am carrying on my studies doing a Masters degree in resource and environmental management (MSc) still here at Lancaster. I have a keen interest in nature and believe strongly in environmental protection which has led my decisions in terms of what degree and Masters I would eventually go into. I volunteered with Beth last year as Amy did, so when a chance to get paid for doing similar work this summer came up I jumped at it. I know it’s been said a thousand times before but it can’t be stressed enough how valuable work experience is, so for me getting paid was a bit of a bonus! Many of my friends have graduated and are having little luck finding a graduate job so anything to boost the CV is very helpful.

Having said all this it’s not all about “CV boosting” I feel it’s nice to be able to help Beth with her PhD and it is a great opportunity to share the lab with some top researchers and in a small part at least contribute something to a part of the scientific community that do some really valuable work. Also it is quite good fun!

So, on my first day I did actually have an enjoyable day in the field using Infra-red gas analysers (IRGAs) measuring the photosynthetic rate of plants growing under different treatment. We were in a beautiful part of the Yorkshire dales with the only drawback that as we were quite high up we were working in the clouds so visibility was very poor and we couldn’t enjoy the views. Oh well, we would just have to use our imaginations! The rest of the week was lab based, where I prepared samples for a variety of tests. My work involved weighing soil and cooking it an oven and even subjecting some of it to temperatures of 560°C. I know this isn’t very technical but I intend to go into more specifics of the lab work in later posts.

560 degrees!

560 degrees!

The days have gone fast and much of the work is very repetitive but quite therapeutic in a strange sort of way. The radio keeps me amused and failing that the very strange (and slightly rubbish) music taste of the volunteer lab assistant Richard is always a talking point. As I write this blog the rain is coming down hard and persistently as is often the case in the North West so I’d like to leave you with my thoughts at the moment: who would want to do fieldwork any way…


LEC in the typical Lancaster climate.

Alex 🙂

Helloooooooooo 🙂

This week I accomplished the great feat of emptying one box of soil samples (albeit the box which Freyja had already half emptied) and it feels like I’ve made real progress! I know it seems a bit pathetic but when your carrying out repetitive tasks it’s important to set goals and it’s surprising how satisfying it is when they are reached!

I learned this week how important time management and organisation are in this career as many of the tasks follow on in a cycle where the next step can’t be started without completing the previous task. Before leaving for the weekend I had to make sure all the samples were completed to a suitable stage, ready to begin again after the weekend. I even keep my workstation nice and tidy and organised, to make sure the chance of accidents are reduced (especially after the little spillage!).


I had some very good news this week and I have managed to bag myself a job for CEH (Centre of Ecology and Hydrology) right here in the Lancaster Environment Centre! Before my week in the field with Beth I had the opportunity to apply for a Field and Laboratory assistant role working in the Plant-Soil Interactions group with the aim of predicting the environmental sustainability of bioenergy crop deployment in the UK. As soon as I heard about the job I thought it would be silly not to apply as some of the tasks related closely to what I would be doing in the follow up to the fieldwork in the laboratory for Beth. The wait was rather nerve racking but I was delighted to be invited for an interview, I was a bit anxious as I had never really had an interview with a potential employer before!  It turns out I can’t have had a bad interview as I was offered the job the next day, starting the 2nd of August for four months.

Check out the project for yourself, pretty interesting research!

It feels good to now have something sorted, it will help me expand my knowledge and increase my experience and who knows what may lead on from this. It just goes to show that by working hard and finding work experience may just lead to better things and increases the chance of receiving more opportunities!   

Freyja has now finished her time working with Sue and this next week I won’t have my lab partner 😦  I’m sure she will enjoy her masters and deserves a well-earned rest before returning! 

Why wouldn’t anyone want to stay in Lancaster with views like this! So excited for whats to come! 



Seeeee you sooooon! 

Amy . . . X

The “real” World

So I’ve been in the lab now for a whole week and it’s really odd being back on campus when it is so quiet and I am a graduate. It feels a bit more “real”.

So this is the lab, Lab A28 where most of the soil magic occurs. I didn’t even know this place existed the whole time I have been studying here at Lancaster. Crazy how much of the uni I haven’t actually explored and how much more there is going on outside of the undergrad lifestyle I was used to.


Apparently, the lab has been pretty quiet this week so I haven’t seen many new faces and I have not yet had the chance to ask them about what their projects involve and how they went about approaching such challenging research tasks. After helping with Beth, Freyja managed to land herself a few extra weeks of work in the Lab alongside Sue, a researcher working on a project funded by Defra. It just goes to show how work experience can lead to other opportunities to further your skill set and knowledge base.

I have been staying with a friend, sleeping on their couch, and every night I would return home to the question, ‘so what have you ACTUALLY been doing today?’ It seemed that, after a couple of days I began to give answers that were similar, which was the honest truth. The lab work that is essential to the project is rather repetitive but that’s what I expected after collecting such huge amounts of soil in the field!

Soooooo, here goes. This is what I have been doing

  1. Soil sieving
  2. Taking trips to the cool room (and yes, I am secretly scared that I will get trapped in there!)
  3. Weighing fresh and dry soils
  4. Testing the pH (using a super cool machine)
  5. Using a pestle and mortar to grind dry soil. If I’m lucky I get to use the ball grinder that uses ball bearings within a metal case to grind the soil to a fine powder.

My friend claims it’s a lot like what she is doing at the moment and she is busy doing lots of baking and I guess she isn’t wrong! 


The soil drying in the ovens. 

Prepping soil in the lab is the first time I have been left completely to my own devices working independently for such a long time period and I am loving being able to manage my own time. (By saving up hours during the week, today I could cut my day short and head home after lunch!) It also means that I have been improving my time management as the most effective way to work is by establishing a cycle where you’re not having to wait around and watch soil dry, LITERALLY!



So yea, it didn’t all go swimmingly. I had a bit of a mini disaster when transporting the fresh soils I had weighed and sieved. The ovens in the laboratories are in pretty high demand at the moment and as there are only two in Lab A28 they get booked rather quickly. This meant that I had to move all my prepped samples from one lab to another, (Lab J, to which I am more familiar with as it is the part 2 undergrad lab!) which was bound to end in a catastrophe. After reassuring Freyja that I would be able to make it to lab J with only 1 tray I set off on my journey, only to reach the first obstacle, hit my elbow and wobble the tray I was so ANNOYED with myself, but I had to gather the samples and labels and try to rescue what I could. This taught me that I just have to make the best out of a bad situation and there is generally a way in which things can be explained and resolved. After ringing Beth, she made me feel more at ease with the whole situation but I can assure you I’m hoping it’s a mistake I won’t be making again!!

Anyway, I’m heading home for the weekend to spend the night in a proper bed and get a good lie in!


Amy. . . x

I want to be an Environmental Scientist

Hey there, this is my first time blogging so bare with me 😛  (But you know what they say, PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT!)

So this is me, Amy, on my graduation day.Image


Graduating from university can be a daunting prospect, especially when you still don’t really know what you want to do with the rest of your working life, and it is likely to be the first time you have no solid plans for the near future. The majority of my friends seem to be in the same boat frantically looking for the very few jobs available, trying to avoid signing on. 

After looking at job description after job description and discovering the importance of experience in your desired career field, I thought I should give it a go, and it’s been surprising what I have learnt. 

Growing up near the Lake District many of my hobbies include outdoor pursuits. Mountain biking; fell walking; canoeing. I’m a pretty active girl,  and would really prefer not to be cooped up in an office for long periods of time. So when the opportunity arose for me to spend some of my summer (after my second year at university)  in the Lakes carrying out field work not too far from my house I jumped at it!

Work experience offered through any university interface (websites, emails, etc, etc) is something I would strongly recommend looking into, as I found it to be a convenient way to apply and it was relatively simple to organise. I was actually miles away in Canada on my study abroad year when I volunteered to become a field assistant to Beth (a PHD student from Lancaster Environment Center) the first time! This meant Skype came in very handy so don’t be afraid to organise a time when you can video call. It may seem a bit weird, but it’s a great way for you to discuss the reasons why your best for the job! 


This was our office for a couple of weeks the first summer in the field, where I had the opportunity to develop an understanding for the project and to gain hands on experience identifying many grass and flower species.

Beth managed not to scare me off during the time I spent with her over the summer and mentioned how she would love for me to help again the next year, however it would have been difficult for me to give up so much time as I would be just finishing uni and really should be starting to look for a job. In the penultimate term of my university life I received a general email off a PHD student, who had received funding to employ field and lab assistants and they needed to apply with an example blog and why we would be great employees. It turned out it was Beth and after volunteering the previous year it meant I had a pretty good chance at being employed this year 🙂 It also meant I had the opportunity to experience an interview. 

And this is where I ended up spending a week of my summer after graduating. Image

That’s a soil corer you can see in the picture, I spent most my time using this discovering muscles which I didn’t even know existed and getting incredibly dirty hands! After pushing this into the ground several times it soon became a relief when it managed to reach 60+ cm on the first attempt to avoid having to do it again another two times in the same place before moving to the next location!

The week consisted of lots of bag labelling, where we could put the soil samples we collected using the corer. These were then stored in many cool boxes taking over the house where we were staying (The house rabbit, Jess, was fascinated by them all!) . For each sample taken there was a series of notes and numbers that had to be recorded (on WATERPROOF paper :O) for the purpose of the write up and analysis of the samples which I will be doing in the lab next week. Using BORIS a Russian peat auger and by digging big holes we could also gather soil which will be used eventually to determine the bulk density of the soil. 

I wore shorts 100% of the time I was in the field (I was optimistic and even wore them on a day it rained the  whole time we were out!) apart from when I had to cover up in the bracken to avoid tics! The picture below shows why! 


The main vegetation in this plot is Pteridium! 

Although field work is physically and mentally challenging, it can be extremely fun, especially when the end is celebrated with a wild swim in the nearest Lake! Next week will be something new for me and I will be learning how to prepare soil for analysis and being introduced to life in the lab! 

I’ll keep you updated,

Amy . . . x