By Rachel Devine
For those who don’t know, INTIMATE stands for INTegrating Ice core, MArine and TErrestrial records, just to get that one out of the way. In Quaternary Science, the INTIMATE network aims to better understand the mechanisms and impact of climate change by bringing together scientists to reconstruct and model past climates by integrating palaeological records. From 5th – 11th June this year, I took part in the INTIMATE Example Research Training School in Stara Kiszewa, Poland, alongside 20 other early career scientists.
The training week was aimed at graduate students and early stage researchers with an interest in palaeoclimate and palaeoenvironmental records across Europe and the North Atlantic. We undertook training through a mixture of lectures, discussions, lab work and fieldwork, and here are my top 10 highlights.
- Meeting new people with different scientific backgrounds
- The strengths and limitations of different climate proxies, such as using fossilised insect remains to reconstruct past temperatures, or pollen to reconstruct past vegetation.
- Comparing information across a range of scales from localised research sites to global interpretations.
- Dating precision, and how to compare environmental records with different chronological resolution.
- The impact of humans on the environment, and when this began versus when it is actually visible in palaeo records.
- Defining the cut-off point for outliers in our datasets.
- Seeing the Polish landscape through Quaternary tinted glasses
- Learning new skills
- Seeing Polish varves in the flesh
- Gaining the confidence to ask questions
- Palaeo in the present
- Top tips from the experts
- Traditional Polish entertainment
- Making new friends
We all do it – we see the same faces every day in our department and when it comes to talking science we can often get trapped in a little departmental bubble. It is always great to talk about science with new people, a good example of this was on the first day when we worked in groups to identify the key research topics that underpin our research. We began by explaining to the rest of the group some of the key questions in our own research, or questions we have generally about aspects of Quaternary Science. We identified 5 keys areas:
Despite our varied scientific interests across sedimentology, archaeology and biochemistry, we all had similar fundamental scientific questions but approached them from completely different angles. This was a real eye opener for me, as I could see first-hand how different fields of science take different approaches to palaeoclimate questions.
But it’s not all about science sometimes. Whilst in Poland I met other scientists who are at a similar stage in their career and we had good fun talking about the highs and lows of PhD life. It was reassuring to know that some of my worries about starting off in the big world of research are completely normal.
Every geologist/geographer loves field work. Let’s face it, it’s the best thing about the job. But how often do we get the opportunity to visit a new country and be given a tour of key sites by the very experts who conducted the original research? A huge thanks to Prof. Mirosław Błaszkiewicz, Dr. Dariusz Brykała and therest of the Polish team for organising a fantastic tour of Stara Kiszewa and its Quaternary history.
For my PhD, I study glacial lake sediments which are essentially devoid of organic material. Well, maybe not completely devoid – there’s always pollen! The low rates of sedimentation that we see in some glacial lake systems mean that organic matter is buried very slowly. As a result, organic material is rarely preserved in the geological record, due to decomposition during burial.
This means that the sediment records I work on are not exactly teeming with biological material that could be used to infer the past climate and environmental conditions. For example, the remains of insects such as beetles and non-biting midges (chironomids) can be used to infer past temperatures, but in glacial lake systems they are usually present in very low numbers or not present at all. So by default, I have tended to avoid training on biological proxies in the past, but prior to the INTIMATE training course, my supervisors suggested that I take the opportunity to develop my wider research skills and take full advantage of the expert training available in Poland, particularly on biological proxies. On the Wednesday morning of the training course, I took part in training sessions on testate amoebae, pollen, chironomid and macrofossil identification lead by Prof. Mariusz Lamentowicz and Dr. Stefan Engels. This was incredibly interesting and will be useful for my PhD as I’m hoping to find some macrofossils which may be suitable for radiocarbon dating.
Now those of you who know me will wonder why this isn’t top of the list, and some of you will be wondering what on Earth a varve is. Varve is a Swedish term referring specifically to a type of sediment or sedimentary rock, with layers that represent one year of sedimentation. Throughout the Quaternary period, the low oxygen conditions of the lakes we visited in Stara Kiszewa, have been ideal for varve formation. Being a varve chronologist, I relished the chance to see and learn about new varve records and it was ace to be able to core some Polish varves and talk to the scientists who are working on these records. Bravo Poland, you have epic varves!
I’m not sure if I can speak for every PhD student, but in the past I’ve always been terrified to ask questions at conferences. What if people think my question is stupid? What if I make a complete and utter fool of myself for mispronouncing this obscure terminology I’ve only ever read and never spoken out loud? Isn’t question time for the big names in science? For me one of the best things about the training course was that every evening we had a talk from a Quaternary Science expert, and they were there to answer our questions… no matter how basic or complex they were. Essentially we got to pick their brains! It was fantastic and I have come away from the training week no longer terrified to ask questions! The reality is that all scientists love to see people who are engaged, no matter their level of knowledge.
In my very limited time as a scientist, I have noticed that some palaeoclimate scientists get lost in the mysteries of the past and forget about how the climatic reconstruction of a particular lake, river or forest compares to current conditions and its implications.
It was a welcome addition to the training course to have sessions on the modern context of the palaeo records we were investigating. The ongoing lake system monitoring at Lake Głęboczek is particularly interesting, and with the help of Dr. Dariusz Brykała, we even had the chance to conduct some analyses of the lake system ourselves.
We had guest talks from Prof. Didier Roche, Dr Michal Slowinski, Prof. Christopher Bronk-Ramsey, Prof. Sune Rasmussen, Prof. Achim Brauer and Dr. Rik Tjallingii, all of which were incredibly informative, interesting and accessible.
The unique thing about the INTIMATE Example course is that it provides a really relaxed environment for guest speakers to present and also for the audience to ask questions. We had some great scientific discussions in the evenings and all of the speakers were more than willing to offer both specific and more general advice for the next three years of my PhD research.
Yes, one of my highlights was the range of sedimentary environments we encountered both in the lab and in the field. We retrieved and analysed peat cores, varved and non-varved lake sediments as part of our field training. We also conducted sediment logging at an exposure in Bożepole Szlacheckie, where approximately 5m of low-level lake sediments are overlain by 10m of glacial sands.
Okay – so not exactly science-related, but this was a memorable end to our final night. Live music complete with cymbals, accordion and dancing. Top tip for any PhD student at an international training course – never go to bed early on the last night!
This PhD business is tough and it’s absolutely crucial to keep expanding your friendship circles. I made some great friendships whilst in Poland, and since returning to the UK I’ve made the journey over to Swansea to meet up with new friends from the course. After the training course, I really do feel welcomed into the INTIMATE network. I’m sure we will bump into each other at conferences in the future!
For anyone considering an INTIMATE Example Summer course – do it! Epic science, you’ll learn new skills, develop existing ones, and meet some awesome people along the way. Many thanks to the guest speakers, the organisers, and all the participants for a memorable week of Quaternary-fuelled fun.
This blog was also posted on QuatBlog.