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 🙂


Welcome to ‘So, you want to be an environmental scientist?’

From July 5th to September 30th three young environmental scientists from Lancaster University will be creating a weekly blog, telling you about their experiences doing field work in Cumbria, England and working in the laboratory – we encourage you to post questions and comments. Image

This is me, Beth, conducting my MSc field work

The scientists are all recent graduates from Lancaster Environment Centre and they are starting their careers by working for a month on my PhD project ‘The ecological and social implications of using remote sensing to assist farm environment planning’. This project is looking at how we can use satellite imagery to help us improve the environmental outcomes of upland farming in the UK and how this might affect the farmers themselves.

The three project assistants – Freyja, Amy and Alex – are funded through the Lancaster University Friends’ Fund and they will be helping me complete my field work, working with me on interviews and processing samples in the lab. We think that their thoughts, experiences and tips will be of interest to those of you considering environmental science as a career or if you are just interested in finding out more about what we academics do.

This project is an example of an environmental science and social science project and of course is not representative of every research project. If you’d like more information on different types of projects please get in touch and we’ll try and help you find out more.

This project was made possible through funding awarded by the Lancaster University Friends’ Grant Programme.