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 🙂