Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Lab coat? check. Goggles? Check. Elemental Analyser? Check

The public image of science often plays to the idea of men in white coats. It can be women, but the cliché is generally male.  Labs are intimidating places. For our first year undergraduates one of my aims is to get them to enjoy being in labs, relax a little, not be intimidated by the hardware most of which I do not know how to use either. It is a tricky balance in the day to day struggle to detach 18-21 year olds from their mobile phones, which should be safely put away in lockers. Perhaps there is a specific psychology around labs versus field work. Put me in a swamp with mosquitoes, dragonflies and toads and I’m happy. The unpredictability of fieldwork (nudists, motorbike gangs, stoats trying to help....) is the charm. Field experiments and surveys are inherently prone to interesting (mis)fortune. The interplay between the predictable, systematic processes and the unexpected strikes me as an irresistible core to the natural world. Conversely I know scientists who find the uncertainty of nature troublesome but they are superb sleuths for the precision and detail that a lab allows. It is easy to paint this as a difference between whacky explorers versus OCD geeks but that is a daft conceit. Both outlooks represent a fascination with deep and troublesome problems, often working best when brought together.

Pete and Scott spend a great deal of time out in the field at Druridge Bay, slogging through the mud, digging out sediment  cold and battered by the wind, but are equally good in the lab. Here they are getting to grips with the new elemental analyser. This will allow them to measures organic carbon in their cores and wetlands much more exactly.  “Elemental analyser” is also hard to say. Try it out loud. Perhaps this is my lab-angst showing itself. I watched for a little while but was generally superfluous to the training. Scott and Pete have been working with undergraduate project students Paul White and Chris Maguire who are measuring sediment carbon from new sites along the Bay but also some restored peri-urban landscapes in Gateshead where wetlands have been engineered into old industrial sites. Two years ago those same undergrads might have been just as uncertain in the labs as our current first years, but, given the opportunity to get involved, flourish.

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