Wednesday, 20 August 2014

High school students as research partners: working with Nuffield Placement Students

 by Jane Bunting (@DrMJBunting) and Rebecca Williams (@Volcanologist)

Meanwhile, back in the lab...

This week, the blog is back indoors, where Jane and Rebecca are spending August helping some Sixth Form students get a taste of 'real science' in the summer before they apply for University.  Five students have placements with us in GEES through the Nuffield Foundation Research Placements Scheme, which will enable them to be assessed for a British Science Association CREST Gold Award.

Rebecca did a Nuffield Placement herself in the summer after her first year of A Levels.  Neither the Nuffield scheme or the CREST Awards had been done before at Rebecca’s school. An eager biology teacher, Dr Bridgeman, had heard of the scheme and so started it up that year with Rebecca and two of her school friends being the first students to go through it. They weren’t provided with placements, but rather had to find them for themselves. At the time, Rebecca knew she enjoyed Geography, Science and Maths. She was also a bit obsessed with Time Team and she has blogged before about how her journey into geology really started by wanting to be a geophysicist. The only company she could find locally which did geophysics was a consultancy company for the oil and gas company, TGS-Nopec (as they were then known). Rebecca wrote a letter (no email back then!) asking if they would take her on as a work experience student and was delighted when they did. It was a phenomenal experience. Rebecca worked on a project called ‘Hydrocarbon prospectivity along the eastern seaboard, offshore northwest Europe’. She doesn’t have a good memory, but the report is sat next to her as she types this – a testament to how important the experience was. Rebecca found that the geophysical interpretation of the seismic lines wasn’t what interested her. Rather, it was the geology – how is the oil formed, where does it come from, where is it stored, how is it trapped and where can it be found? When Rebecca then had to fill out her UCAS application a month or so later, it was geology degrees she applied to, and not the geophysics that she thought she was going to do, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Nuffield Scheme really did change Rebecca’s path in life. The results from that project were eventually presented by TGS-Nopec at the PETEX Conference – the premier oil and gas conference!

Students doing placements work with a supervisor for 4-6 weeks on a 'real' research project - one where the supervisor doesn't know what will happen or be found out.  The students are expected to read around their topics, contribute to discussions about the design of experiments or studies, plan their own time, learn to use different pieces of equipment, collect data and interpret it, and produce a report and a talk or poster at the end of the placement - of course there is lots of help available, from the supervisor, from technical staff, from other students and researchers in related fields, but it is still quite a challenge.  This year's students all seem to be making the most of it, and are filling their lab notebooks with lots of lovely data.
Tinashe weighing an ear of wheat
surface of a wheat leaf: the 'squashed donuts' are the stomata

Jordan, Leah, Charlotte and Tinashe from local sixth forms at Wyke and Sirius Academy are all working with Jane and Lindsey Atkinson (@LJA_1), who also blogs here, on a pilot study of the effects of small climate changes on spring wheat, which is linked to a bigger project being run by the Network Ecology Group called "The impacts of climate-warming on farmland food-webs and ecosystem services".  In this project, 24 plots are marked out in a field of spring wheat.  Half of these are warmed by 2 oC, the sort of change in summer temperature which we are likely to see in our region within the next century according to predictive models.  Since the warming will dry out the soil, half of the warmed plots and half of the non-warmed plots are also given some extra water, so some plots are warmer and drier, and some are just warmer.  We're studying wheat plants collected from the different plots in the field experiment, and also growing our own in the controlled environment rooms in the GEES building, where special lights on timers mimic day and night cycles, the room temperature is controlled, and neither rabbits nor aphids can snack on the growing leaves - the indoors experiment should therefore help us understand how the plants respond to the climate changes without the rest of the food web complicating the picture.  Jordan is studying how biomass allocation varies (essentially 'plant budgeting', looking at how plant resources are divided between light capture, water capture and reproduction).  Charlotte is looking at the effects of the climate changes on the grain yield of the wheat plants.  Leah and Tinashe are looking in more detail at whether the plants can adapt to grow in different conditions by varying the number of stomatal cells in their leaves (an introduction to studying stomata aimed at students can be found here). 

Jordan and Leah cutting up wheat plants
These data, along with other aspects of the plants being measured by Jane and Lindsey, will form the basis for an initial paper on the response of this important crop plant to anticipated climate changes (which of course will get blogged about here) and for a grant application to extend the work; we need to show that our experiments will produce interesting results before we can ask for funding, so these projects are playing an important role in helping us develop this research area.

Jodie uses a digital camera to photograph her thin sections
Jodie joins us from Hessle High School and Sixth Form College. Jodie is interested in geology and chemistry so we’re convincing her that volcanology is an excellent subject! Jodie is doing a research project on the Green Tuff Ignimbrite from Pantelleria with Rebecca. In particular she is looking at thin sections of the ignimbrite to look for features that she can use to interpret how the ignimbrite was formed. This project is a continuation of a long-running project that started with Rebecca’s PhD in 2006. It’s a small, but important part of a much bigger research jigsaw, and the results look promising! We’ll be blogging more about the project next week. If the results look good, Jodie and Rebecca will be presenting the research at the UK’s volcanology conference which this year is hosted in Norwich; Jodie is getting real experience of working on a research project at the cutting-edge of Rebecca’s science.

The Nuffield Schemes offer a wonderful opportunity for students to try out real science; it's very different from school!  For us, it's an excellent way to communicate with the next generation of scientists and consumers of scientific findings, and gives the students involved a taste of scientific work, a boost for their university or job applications and helps them make better course and career choices.  If you're a student reading this, ask your teachers about the scheme or go to this link.  If you're a scientist, we urge you to consider taking on placement students through the scheme - it might even help you get that crucial bit of data to progress your research next summer.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Colorado Rocks! Attending a research meeting on sedimentary systems

By Lucy Clarke (@DrLucyClarke)
Continuing the blog series looking at what we have been getting up to this summer...

Last week I was lucky enough to be in the US for a research conference and I'm sharing my experiences of this with you in this blog post. This was a specialist meeting, with about 50 people attending, focusing on the “Autogenic Dynamics of Sedimentary Systems” – so basically the importance of internal processes (i.e autogenic processes) in driving change in natural systems and how this is recorded in the 'rock record'.

You may be asking yourself... why is it important to understand what's recorded in the rock record? Well, geologists use this information to reconstruct long term environmental change. Layers of material are laid down through time and over lengthy time periods these form the rocks that we see all around us (i.e. a sedimentary system). By examining the grain size, composition and structures in these rocks it can tell us information about the type of processes that formed them and what the climate was like at the time using a technique called stratigraphy. So it's important to know not only how things like climate and tectonics can influence the sediment build up and preservation as it turns to rock, but also what effect other internal processes can have on this so that a correct interpretation can be made.

Stratigraphic profile from Colorado National Monument showing a fluvial section with thick layers of floodplain with thinner, coarser bands of channel material in between
The aim of the meeting was to bring together an interdisciplinary group of researchers from ecology, geochemistry, geography, geology, and palaeontology to look at the research advances that have been made in different sedimentary systems to evaluate what, if any, ‘autogenic’ signals can be determined. Presentations covered a range of topics and included field, numerical modelling and experimental approaches that were being used to try and tackle this problem.

I presented the research that I introduced in my blog on 28 August 2013: What drives change on alluvial fans? I talked about how my experiments showed that internal processes within these landforms caused observable changes in the flow patterns. 

The sessions were really interesting and thought provoking. It was designed to be a discussion rather than just a one-way presentation of information from the speakers, consequently we had lots of time for asking questions supplemented by break out groups to follow up on ideas and think about the 'bigger picture'. I found this particularly useful as it helped me to generate new ideas as to how to develop my own research, as well as starting to think about the wider implications of my research. Additionally having the opportunity to talk to people from other related, but slightly different disciplines, has certainly broadened my perspectives.

Looking over the Colorado River to the city of Grand Junction (to the left) and the Grand Junction Main Street (to the right)
The meeting was held in the city of Grand Junction - situated in central Colorado, the town sits on the Colorado River with lots of wineries and agricultural land surrounding it. Grand Junction is a small traditional mid-West town with a population of about 60,000 that boasts a university and a quaint main street that has a night market every Thursday evening during the summer. Temperatures were around 30°C every day and despite a couple of thunderstorms at the start of my trip the weather was great. Close to the town is the Colorado National Monument, this is a national park about 85 km2 in size, containing stunning mesas and canyons. As part of the conference we were treated to a field day to experience the park's impressive geologic formations and see if we could explore, and apply, some of the conference themes in a field setting.

Colorado National Monument: looking over the national park (left) and geologists looking at a rock section showing preserved sand dunes (right)
I thoroughly enjoyed my week in Colorado. I got to explore a new area but most of all I made new connections for my research with the potential for new collaborations in the future. I learned about lots of current research from different, but related, areas that I hadn’t previously been aware of, which has rejuvenated my own research in this area - so all round it was a successful trip!

Enjoying the sunshine on the field day in Colorado National Monument

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Summer 'fieldwork', archives and hidden histories

By Briony McDonagh (@BrionyMcDonagh)

Following on from Michelle’s recent post on her fieldwork in Malta, several of us have decided to blog about what we’re up to over the summer break from teaching, specifically our summer research and/or fieldwork. As a historical geographer and landscape historian, much of the fieldwork I’m engaged in is rather different in nature to that undertaken by my physical geography colleagues. It doesn't involve flooded rivers or exploding volcanoes, dark caves or slippery climbs up glaciers. It doesn't require a great deal in the way of equipment and doesn't involve long and detailed risk assessments (for which I count myself extremely lucky). Instead it all takes place in the UK, a good deal of it within two or three hours’ drive of my office here at Hull. Much of what I do relies on a combination of landscape history fieldwork, maps, aerial photographs and documentary records. For me, fieldwork often consists of carefully scrutinizing – and sometimes photographing, measuring, and generally poking around – the landscape for traces of the past in the present. Hedges, field patterns, green lanes, boundary stones, and old buildings can all tell us a great deal about the way past landscapes were organised, resources utilized and space experienced by those who lived and worked there (for more on this kind of approach to the landscape, readers might like to check out WG Hoskins’ classic The Making of the English Landscape).

Hoskins' classic The Making of the English Landscape (paperback edition)

Yet this summer my ‘fieldwork’ hasn’t for the most part taken place in the field at all. Along with some odds and ends of fieldwork for other projects (for example, on the Diggers – on which more another time), I’m spending the summer chasing up loose ends for the book I’m writing on aristocratic and gentle women’s contribution to estate management and improvement in the long eighteenth century. This project has involved some work in the field proper – for example, visiting country houses owned by women, tracking down their grave inscriptions and identifying building work designed or paid for by them – but also a great deal of archival work. I’ve been to county record offices and private collections all over the country looking for evidence of women’s contribution to estate management and improvement, making use of collections from places as far apart as Cornwall and County Durham. So, like my physical geography colleagues, I’ve certainly clocked up the miles on this project if only within the UK. Moreover, we can think of archive work as a kind of field experience (on which see Lorimer, 2010 and Keighren, 2013). For historical geographers and others, local and national archival repositories provide spaces for collecting data and testing theories, sites where outcomes are often unknown and unpredictable, and where one may have to dig through endless boxes or volumes before alighting on something fantastic or finding just what you hoped might be there. And while they may be neither muddy nor dangerous, public search rooms and archive back offices are frequently cold and uncomfortable places and the documents surprisingly filthy.

My latest foray has been to Surrey History Centre, a new-build (and warm) archival repository on the outskirts of Woking. In my book I’m writing a bit about a woman called Jane More Molyneux, who inherited the Loseley Park estate near Guildford after the deaths of her brother and sister in 1776 and 1777, respectively. Like many of the propertied women who feature in my book, Molyneux was a dedicated estate manager and committed bookkeeper. I spent a day reading the volumes of estate accounts and records kept by Molyneux as she tried to repay the debts run up by her spendthrift brother and save the estate from financial ruin. The house was in a terrible condition: the account books contained endless payments for ‘pans to catch the drips’ and the steward was instructed to look over the exterior of the house every day in order to check that there was no stonework likely to fall and injure someone! In the winter, snow had to be shovelled out of the attics so bad were the holes in the roof. Plus the whole place seems to have been overrun with vermin.

Yet Molyneux took on her task with great resolve, renting out the agricultural estate in an attempt to raise cash to repair the house, selling off outlying parts of the estate and economizing on her housekeeping costs wherever she could. Ultimately her efforts paid off and by the early 1790s both the house and the estate finances were in a much improved position. Molyneux then made the somewhat unusual decision to lease out what was left of the land in hand including the house and gardens and move to London. Though she spent the rest of her life in the capital, Molyneux had already done much to secure the financial well-being of future generations of her family. Amongst the numerous volumes of accounts, notes and memoranda she handed on to her heir – the illegitimate son of her profligate brother – was a book recording the repairs she had undertaken on the house and estate in the 15 years she lived on the estate. This she had inscribed as ‘for my own perusal and satisfaction’, a note which reminds us of the personal sense of achievement and pride that women might take in bookkeeping, and indeed in estate management more generally – a theme which my book explores in greater detail.

One of Molyneux's account books (above) and detail from it (below).
Original at the Surrey History Centre. Photo B. McDonagh.

So all in, this was a good day’s work in Woking. I wasn't plagued by any of the difficulties which sometimes beset archive work – documents ‘not fit for production’, missing items or indecipherable handwriting – and unlike many Georgian women, Jane More Molyneux left a substantial collection of material which can be used to reconstruct the details of her life and estate management. More than once I’ve spent fruitless days struggling to find the materials needed to unlock the ‘hidden histories’ of particular female landowners, but here at Surrey my ‘fieldwork’ was a success. I’m now working on writing up Molyneux’s role in estate management for the book, and thinking about how her experience relates to that of other propertied women in Georgian England. But to find out the answer to that, you’ll need to keep an eye out for later blog posts on the project here and elsewhere. Or perhaps even buy the book!

Further reading:
W. G. Hoskins (1955) The Making of the English Landscape (Hodder and Stoughton).

Innes M. Keighren (2013) Teaching historical geography in the field, Journal of Geography in Higher Education 37.4, 567-77.

Hayden Lorimer (2010) Caught in the nick of time: archives and fieldwork, in Dydia DeLyser, Steve Herbert, Stuart Aitken, Mike Crang and Linda McDowell, The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Geography (Sage), 248-73.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Why Place Matters: Imaginative Geography and International Student Mobility (My Area Paper)

By Suzanne E. Beech (@suzanneebeech)

A little background…

Over the last ten years (or so) lots of research has looked into why students choose to come to the UK (or go elsewhere), including my own. This isn’t surprising as international students represent a key part of our student body in the UK. In fact during 2012/13 just under 20% of the students studying in UK institutions were non-UK domiciled (i.e. they did not hold a UK passport) (check out the HESA website for more information). International students are important for lots of different reasons but often research has tended to focus on the economic benefits. This isn’t surprising either, in the UK international students from outside of the EU can pay over £30,000 a year in fees (depending on where they study) and can therefore be an important financial support for some universities. However, this is only part of the picture as they can also make significant contributions to the wider economy, in 2012 the University of Exeter, together with Oxford Economics published a report which suggested that the 5,000 international students at the University of Exeter supported some 3,280 jobs throughout the South West of England (see here).

However, it is important to recognise that international students are not only important financially, they are also important culturally. We live in a world where the job market is no longer local, it’s global – so it’s really important that students leave university with an understanding of how to communicate with people from a range of different social and cultural backgrounds, international students provide a way of bridging some of these cross-cultural divides (in an ideal world). All of this means that universities (and you) have a vested interest in supporting the international student community here in Hull or wherever you are!

Imaginative Geographies and International Students

My work has tended to look at the motivations for overseas study and I have recently published a paper in Area on how international students use different imaginative geographies to decide where to study. In a nutshell these imaginative geographies come out of the perceived power relations between two nations. The term was originally proposed by Edward Said in his seminal work of 1978 Orientalism (well worth a read) in which he demonstrated how the West created an imagined, exotic East and how these perceptions spread through literature and art, as well as stories from those who had travelled to these foreign destinations and so on. We still have imaginative geographies today, and they don’t just have to be in terms of the West looking on the East, but rather anything that compares the familiar (‘Ours’) with the unfamiliar (‘Theirs’ or ‘the Other’). Think about it - we are constantly bombarded with information about the ‘Other’ – friends’ holiday photos on Facebook, television programmes which allow us to ‘experience’ somewhere else, books, travel brochures, the incredible wealth of information we can find on the Internet – all without even leaving your home.

So what (imaginative) geographies do we like to send out to our potential international students? The British Council and Education UK are responsible for promoting the UK to prospective international students and on the 28th September 2012 they published this YouTube video entitled ‘The Adventure of a Lifetime’. 

It follows a typical, female international student who is 'hard-working', 'friendly', 'intelligent' and 'fun-loving' from her arrival in the UK until graduation and all of the experiences she has along the way. It portrays the UK as exciting and diverse, a place where you will get a top-class education, but also have fun along the way. In my opinion one of the most interesting things about the video is the lack of differentiation between different regions in the UK. The British Council is usually good at this, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. The video also does something else that is very important in terms of international students’ imaginative geographies – it reiterates the ideals of academic imperialism. The UK is the place to study.

There are lots of different aspects to imaginative geography, but three in particular matter when it comes to international students:  ideas of power and postcolonialism (academic imperialism comes in here); the importance of community and shared imaginative geographies; and the evidence that imaginative geographies are not necessarily accurate they are, after all, ‘imagined’. To give you an example I will introduce you to one of my research participants, Rafiah (not her real name). She came from Trinidad and Tobago and had chosen to study in Nottingham, she was about 20 when we first met. Rafiah commented that coming from Trinidad and Tobago the UK  had seemed almost “magical”, she felt that people at home sometimes had a bit of an “inferiority complex” and that there is often a real desire to study and live somewhere else. This did not mean that Rafiah did not like her home country, but rather that her schooling, education, upbringing, and so on had encouraged her to think of studying overseas as an important alternative to studying at home. This was something that was common in her home-country, she told me that when people got the opportunity to study overseas they almost always decided to pursue it. So, here we can see how this is reflecting in part those (post)colonial ideals (the UK is better than home) and also how this is also a shared or community process (everyone who can does it). 

However this is really only part of the story, what also matters is whether all those years of dreaming lived up to the reality. Well, Rafiah was more than a little surprised when she arrived in Nottingham – the city was not as she thought it would be. This is not unusual, many international students won’t have visited their universities before they arrive and they can be shocked when they get here. Rafiah had visited London, but she had never been to Nottingham before, and she was taken aback at how different it was to the hustle and bustle that she had experienced in the capital. In fact she had believed that Nottingham would be very like London in some ways, she was a bit disappointed almost that it was a “quiet little place”. This is just one person out of the many that I spoke to, all of them had similar stories to tell – dreaming and imagining their experience was a key part of becoming an international student.

So why does this matter for us? Well, as I mentioned at the beginning, international students are a really important part of our student body. They are a financial asset to the UK’s universities but equally they are a cultural asset as well. It’s important to understand how and why they choose to study overseas and to consider what makes us an attractive destination. So where should our research go from here? I’m currently considering some new research directions, away from international students themselves and towards those who do the recruiting. Understanding how universities and the UK promote themselves will provide greater insights into how they mobilise imaginative geography when selling the ‘place’ of the university. And what about you? Well, research has suggested that contact between international and local or host students is often limited – if you are studying or working ‘at home’ why not try to make some extra efforts to befriend someone from overseas and get to know a bit more of their story.

You can find a link to my paper here:

Beech, S.E. (2014) "Why Place Matters: Imaginative Geography and International Student Mobility" Area, 46(2):170-177.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Searching for palaeoecological clues to the rise and fall of the Maltese Temple Culture

by Michelle Farrell (@DrM_Farrell)

Now, I've done my fair share of the type of fieldwork that Karen recently blogged about here. I've spent long, miserable days with my wellies full of cold, smelly bog water, being tormented by seemingly thousands of midges trapped on the inside of my midge veil. There were actually quite a few sunny days on many of my previous field trips, but in most of the places I worked sudden changes of weather frequently occur, meaning that waterproofs and fleeces could never be left behind. So when I was offered a job as a research fellow on the FRAGSUS project at Queen's University Belfast, I was very excited - not only was it a really interesting project based in a great department, I would get to do fieldwork in Malta. Sunshine! Warmth! No more lugging around a ridiculously heavy rucksack stuffed full of clothing to cover all eventualities of cold/wet/wind/sun/hail/snow/hurricane (perhaps I exaggerate a little).

Fieldwork of the cold, soggy variety in Orkney: cleaning a peat section prior to sampling, and coring at another site

FRAGSUS (Fragility and Sustainability in Restricted Island Environments: Adaptation, Culture Change and Collapse in Prehistory) is a multidisciplinary research project funded by the European Research Council. The project involves archaeologists, palaeoecologists, geoarchaeologists and numerous other specialists, and aims to explore the relationships between changing environments, natural resources and the rise of complex human social systems. We hope to be able to understand more about how and why people invested in the construction of substantial monuments, such as the UNESCO World Heritage status Maltese Temples, in what was presumably a relatively resource-poor, small island environment. It is also hoped that the project will provide insights into the processes, be they socio-economic, environmental, or a combination of factors, that ultimately led to the collapse of the Temple Culture at around 2500 BC.

The Neolithic temples of Ggantija and Mnajdra

My role, working with other palaeoenvironmental specialists, is to reconstruct the past vegetation of the islands via pollen analysis, and to search for evidence of past environmental change and human impact on the environment throughout prehistory. This will be a challenge - pollen is generally best preserved in acidic, wet environments such as peat bogs (hence the reason for all the wet, muddy fieldwork) - and being situated in the Mediterranean and composed almost entirely of limestone, Malta is very dry and alkaline. However, previous work has shown that pollen does survive in Maltese sediments and, more importantly, that the assemblages recovered can be interpretable. I will need to make some adjustments to the methods that I use to process the samples in order to maximise recovery of pollen from them, and I'll need to get used to identifying degraded grains that have not been preserved under optimum conditions. There are also a few new taxa to learn, so I'm looking forward to it!

Several sediment cores had already been recovered by my colleagues before I began work on the project, so my trip to Malta in June this year didn't involve any coring. I had two tasks while I was there. Firstly, I needed to collect samples from various archaeological contexts at the Neolithic settlement site of Tac-Cawla on Gozo, where the archaeological team have been excavating for the last four months. Archaeological pollen samples can often give insights into the ways in which structures were used, and into the range of economic activities that were carried out, so I'm looking forward to getting stuck into those when they arrive back in Belfast at the end of July.

The second aspect of my work in Malta involved collecting modern pollen assemblages in order to aid interpretation of the subfossil assemblages contained within the sediment cores. This was tricky for a number of reasons - firstly, where to sample?! Although it is thought that large areas of Malta were probably once covered with Mediterranean sclerophyllous forest, characterised by Holm Oak and Aleppo Pine, it is doubtful whether any of this remains. Agriculture accounts for 51% of the land area of the Maltese Islands, with urban areas making up a further 22%. The remaining area is made up of small patches of semi-natural vegetation such as maquis, garrigue, and steppe (see here for descriptions of these habitats). Despite the lack of woodland, I still needed to sample these other habitats as they presumably would also have been present in the past. Large enough patches were often difficult to locate, and were usually to be found in remote areas that had somehow escaped cultivation.

Garrigue vegetation with typical agricultural terraces in the background

The second problem to overcome was what to sample as the pollen trap. There are traps specifically designed for the purpose of sampling the modern pollen rain ('Tauber traps'; essentially plastic containers sunk into the ground so that the top is at ground level, with a hole in the lid to allow the pollen rain to be collected). Since there can be large variations in pollen production from year to year due to variations in seasonal temperature and precipitation, at least ten years' worth of data from these traps is required in order to provide an average, and I will only be working on this project for two years. To get around this problem, most researchers doing this type of work in northern Europe would sample a moss polster as these tend to preserve the last few years' worth of pollen rain, but unsurprisingly mosses are not particularly abundant in Malta! I had to sample the top few millimetres of soil (and even soil was hard to come by at some sites) - not ideal from a pollen preservation perspective, but pollen has been known to turn up in some surprising places, so fingers crossed that it will do in this case!

I soon discovered that my dreams of ditching the heavy rucksack were just that - in the intense heat of the Maltese summer, the amount of water that I had to carry with me more than accounted for the weight I'd got rid of by discarding all the cold and wet weather field gear! I had to adjust my fieldwork schedule to cope with the heat - normally I'd get out into the field relatively early, have a brief stop to eat a packed lunch, and then carry on until the work was finished and be 'home' for tea at a reasonably early hour. In Malta I'd be on my way by 7am and work until the heat became unbearable, then take myself and my helpers off for a long lunch and cold drinks in the shade somewhere (one of the advantages of working on small islands is that you're never far from a cafe!) before heading back out for a few hours in the late afternoon/evening. Luckily though, views like the one below and snacks of pastizzi (small pasties containing either cheese or peas, sadly not both together or the temptation to link to a certain Fast Show sketch would be too much) more than made up for any discomfort!

In spite of the challenges and adverse weather conditions, I generally consider fieldwork to be the best part of my job. It usually takes me about a week to recover from a trip and forget about all the problems, and now that I've been back in the lab/office for a couple of weeks, I often find myself wishing I was out in the field again. Unfortunately for me, a few weeks in the field can generate enough lab work and data analysis to keep me going for a year or more, so fieldwork isn't something I get to do an awful lot of! So for now, it's off to the lab to process all the samples I collected, then I'll be spending weeks at the microscope counting several thousand pollen grains...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

FoodCloud goes ‘Botton’s up’

By Deborah Butler & app; DE:FT (@deftfood)

My blog is a further update on the DE:FT research project ( which is investigating whether digital tools such as apps can be used as a way of promoting more sustainable production and consumption through reconnecting consumers and producers, but we need to know more about best to involve diverse users, what information they might need and in what form and how to promote new technologies in the face of information overload and increasing public distrust.  In order to try and achieve this we have created three prototype apps,  FoodCrowd, ShopStamp,and FoodCloud and are in the process of testing FoodCrowd in schools and the other two apps on farms and in the countryside.

Last week I had the opportunity to try the FoodCloud app out on a ‘Food Trail’ courtesy of Sue and Aiden Nelson, the joint brains behind Yorkshire Food Finder ( We have customised Food Cloud so it can be used to provide a background description of some of the different places that trails go to.  Let me explain further.

Sue and Aidan have devised a series of themed culinary trails linking Yorkshire food producers and Yorkshire restaurants.  Participants on the Food Trail get the opportunity to experience at first hand how some of Yorkshire's quality foods are created, bred or grown which can then be sampled on specially themed menus at some of the best eating places in the county.  So, you may ask, where does FoodCloud come in? I must admit, when I was at The Star, Harome eating my twice baked Yorkshire Tome cheese soufflĂ© or sipping a half pint of the Great Yorkshire brewery’s best porter in the New Inn, Pickering, I was half thinking the same. 
One of the objectives of the Food Trail is having the opportunity to learn something about the environment and cultural history of the locations the trail passes through.  At the moment this is delivered courtesy of a very informative commentary given by Aiden as we passed various places and points of interest, and this is where the FoodCloud app could be used to great advantage in adding to the information available. 
Initially FoodCloud was created to work when out on a farm walk for instance.  In order for the app to work successfully, however, the farmer needs to have created data about the farm and the crops being grown, adding information into what we call the ‘back end’ of the app.  The data inputting process is quite straightforward as we wanted a data base (the back end) which was simple and easy to use where the data added is displayed once the app is activated and opened up (the front end).  Although the Food Trail is not a walk, Sue and Aidan were able to input data about some of the key places on the food trail in the same way descriptive data could be added about a crop, which was then visible when the front end of the app was opened up. The following section describes how this worked in practice
‘Botton’s up’ Food Trail
The trail started off at The Star, Harome (, worth a visit just to look at the amazing private dining room with its painted gabled ceiling.  The app gave a brief description of the pub and what was available there which Andrew Pern, the proprietor of The Star could then elaborate on in more detail.  From The Star we drove up onto the North York Moors, passing through managed moorland, black face sheep and the occasional red legged partridge.  It was my first ever visit onto the moors and I was blown away by the vast expanse and the brown, green and purple hues of the landscape, before negotiating a precipitous descent down to Botton and the Camphill Trust Community (  The Camphill Community at Botton is one of nine rural and urban communities run by the Camphill Trust, a long established UK charity supporting adults with learning disabilities, mental health problems and other needs, supporting people in their home life, work, social and cultural activities.  The Botton centre is a rural community made up of five farms, two of which are dairy farms which supply the milk for the Botton creamery which we were lucky enough to be given a tour of by their resident cheese maker, Alistair.  We even got to taste some of the delicious hard and soft cheeses made and aged on site which can also be bought at the creamery shop and which complement some of the dishes prepared at The Star.  Next stop after lunch was a tour of The Great Yorkshire Brewery, a micro brewery located in the garden of the New Inn, Pickering, where their beer can be sampled and is on tap at The Star.  One of the brewery’s largest markets at the moment though is Japan, to where beer is shipped in kegs to be consumed by discerning Japanese beer drinkers.
Last but by no means least the trail ended at The Star where Andrew Pern gave us a guided tour of the pub, the guest rooms and the kitchens explaining how he had built the success of the pub on being able to source and use local Yorkshire produce which together with his culinary expertise had given The Star its award winning status.
Future developments.
Whilst the version of FoodCloud I took on the trail was designed more for farm walks rather than longer linear trails there is great potential to create a bespoke version of app drawing on our fieldwork ‘in the wild’ plus a little computer re-programming. In this way FoodCloud can enhance established connections between producers and consumers and help showcase the cornucopian foodscape of Yorkshire.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

How I became a historical geographer

By Briony McDonagh (@BrionyMcDonagh
Hi all! This is the latest blog in our series about how we came to do what we do. My name's Briony and I'm a lecturer in human geography here at GEES in Hull. My research interests lie in historical and cultural geography, and I’m particularly interested in how issues of power, space, identity and gender have been played out in the British landscape over the last 1000 years.

Like many of my colleagues I certainly didn't know I wanted to be an academic as a child, but I did like old and ruined buildings, Time Team and trying to figure out why the landscape looked like it did. My friends and I spent considerable amounts of time exploring an abandoned group of farm buildings not far from school (below), which it later turned out were 16th century in date and built from the ruins of a medieval monastery. For some reason I've long ago forgotten, I chose not to take History at GCSE, but ended up taking  a combination of A-level subjects which included both Geography and Classics. I applied for degree courses in a range of subjects but finally settled on a BA hons in Geography at University of Nottingham with the intention of applying for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when I left.

Haltemprice Priory Farm © Mr Gareth Parry LRPS
That didn't happen, of course, principally because I got bitten by the research bug. I took second year courses which included classes on ancient woodlands, urban histories and the mappa mundi and third year modules which involved fieldwork on Italian environmental histories and the urban plan of Revolutionary Paris, along with archival work in the University of Nottingham's Manuscripts and Special Collections. I was hooked. I chose to stay at Nottingham to complete a Masters in Landscape and Culture – which included training in standing buildings and landscape archaeology – followed by 3 years writing a PhD on the historical geographies of the Yorkshire Wolds before c. 1600. It was during this time I developed my current interdisciplinary approach to the landscape combining documentary research, maps, landscape archaeology and theoretical perspectives drawn from cultural geography and elsewhere.
The day I submitted by PhD I was offered a job with the Victoria County History contributing to a volume on the history of Howden and the surrounding region. I did this for 7 months before securing a longer-term post-doctoral position working on an AHRC-funded project researching the long-term impacts of parliamentary enclosure on the landscapes and communities of Northamptonshire (you can find out more about the project here). As part of my post, I also taught in the History department at the University of Hertfordshire, teaching a second year social history course and a third year module on the history of the English landscape, something I absolutely loved doing. Whilst working through endless boxes of archival materials at the Northamptonshire Record Office I came across Elizabeth Prowse, a committed agricultural improver who radically remodelled her estate during her 43-year widowhood (for more on Prowse, see my chapter on her here). It was as a result of researching and writing about Prowse that I began to wonder about the contribution made by other elite women to managing and improving landed estates in Georgian England. We know many male landowners pushed forward enclosure and introduced agricultural improvements on their estates, but we know almost nothing about the part female landowners played in the changes which transformed the English landscape in the century after about 1730. Women certainly owned property as widows and heiresses and sometimes even wives, but how involved were they in its management and improvement?

Wicken House (Northamptonshire), the home of Elizabeth Prowse
These are the questions that my current research project sets out to answer. Whilst still working as a post-doc in 2009, I secured a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship for the project which I then undertook at the University of Nottingham between 2010 and 2014 (the end date for the project was twice extended as a result of the arrival of two little people in my life). Running my own project was a great experience and I later managed to secure additional funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to write a book from the project. I transferred this grant to the University of Hull when I took up my post here in early 2014, and I’m now about halfway through writing up the book (to be published by Ashgate, hopefully in 2015).
So after almost 7 years of post-doctoral and fixed term posts, I finally have a permanent job. I have to admit that when I was completing my PhD, I never imagined I would spend quite so many years in post-doctoral positions. But those 7 years have given me the real luxury of being able to conduct a huge amount of research on a wide range of topics. In addition to my book on elite women, I'm currently working on projects on late medieval popular geographical imaginations, early modern anti-enclosure protest (see, for example, and the land rights movement in the 21st century (you can listen to me talk about the latter project here). I'm hoping having got all this research under my belt will stand me in good stead in my new job given all the demands on my time that a larger teaching role and increased departmental administration are likely to bring. All in, I’ve certainly got plenty to keep me busy for the next 7 years!