Monday, 29 May 2017

EGU: A First Impression

The European Geosciences Union (EGU) is the most established geosciences organisation in Europe. Created in September 2002 as a merger of the European Geophysical Society and European Union of Geosciences, EGU now hosts over 17 different scientific journals and has over 12,500 members from students all the way up to retired seniors. However, EGU is probably most well known for its Annual General Assembly, which is the biggest geosciences event in Europe. Held in April every year, it attracts over 1,100 scientists to attend its event from all over the globe. This year, I had the chance to attend EGU as a representative of Bristol Earth Science's Diamond group. This was my first multidisciplinary international conference and with just six weeks of planning (I was asked to attend at fairly short notice), I couldn't wait to tick this off my academia bucket list.  

In 2017, EGU brought together 14,496 scientists from 107 countries (two from Bangladesh, woo!) to Vienna, Austria. Since the first General Assembly in France, it has now always been held in the Austria Centre Vienna (the largest conference centre in Austria). Participants are in charge of arranging their own accommodation and transport but luckily EGU provides a free public transport pass during the days of the conference and it's easy to get to the centre via the U-Bahn (stop Kaisermuhlen). I actually made the mistake of thinking that the conference was held at the Vienna International Centre so when I exited the station, I saw a huge crowd turning left and walking into the "visitor" entrance of the VIC. So like a fool, I followed them into the security check. This should have set alarm bells in my head but instead I was naive enough to think "Huh, this is pretty high level security for a geology conference". None of the guards thought my presence was odd even though everyone else in the queue was at least twenty years older than me and it wasn't until I made it all the way through that I realised I was in the UN centre... d'oh! After a smooth exit and a lost in translation moment (damn, five years of German did not pay off), I found myself at the correct venue.

At the entrance of the EGU General Assembly

With almost 5,000 oral presentations and over 11,000 posters, EGU can be overwhelming for newcomers, especially early career scientists. The EGU General Assembly website posts the programme on their website and you can filter the events by division, date and time. The best part of the website is that you are able to build your own personal programme by "starring" the talks you are interested in. The only criticism I have for the personal programme is that if you have quite a few sessions you are interested in and they overlap in time, the list design can make it difficult to plan. If I had more time, I would have made a timetable but perhaps it's something the EGU web designers can integrate into the website.

It was the session titled "What do diamonds and their inclusions tell us about processes in the deep Earth" that lured me to the EGU General Assembly. Although it was a small session, it had speakers from the US, France, Italy and Amsterdam. Conferences are a great way to see the current research and progress that has been made in your subject but also to keep check of what you know: when you're a PhD student, it can be easy to focus your reading in a certain direction. In the recent years of diamond research, there's been a lot of progress in the understanding of diamond forming fluids-melts (DFFM) and Graham Pearson's talk showed that DFFM found in fibrous diamonds have also been found in monocrystalline diamonds, suggesting that both the diamonds were formed through the same process(es) and went on to suggest that perhaps trace elements in fluid inclusions can be used to "identify" diamonds.  

I also took advantage of exploring other fields and dropped into talks ranging from studies into craters on Ceres to the impact of North Atlantic warming on European Summers in the early 20th century and even more familiar topics such as evidence of magmatism in Burma during the Cretaceous and Cenozoic. How much I gained from the talks really depended on the level of technicality and enthusiasm of the speaker, for example I didn't enjoy much of the talks on Kimberlites as I expected to (despite being the sessions most related to my field) but quite a few geophysical talks were really insightful. Regardless of your scientific background, I would encourage everyone to attend as many of the talks presented by EGU medal and award winners. I'm not sure if they aim for their presentations to be accessible to general audiences but I found all the ones I attended really easy to follow and every speaker was so passionate about their subject which reverberated in their talks. I would warn members next year to get to your favourite talks early because there were a number of cases where a talk was too popular and members were blocked from attending.

"Make Facts Great Again" symposium

As it has such a large attendance with members from a range of experiences, EGU is able to hold quite a few "union wide" events everyday and these include sessions on outreach, networking and debates. Initially, I never investigated these events because I was so focused on the academic talks but while I was at EGU, I was kicking myself for missing out on certain talks or prioritising one event over another. Some of the great debates and symposiums are based on how the scientific community can progress (such as the "Make Facts Great Again" symposium about how the scientist can engage with the general public - I was very unsatisfied with this talk, more on it another time) while others are about changing the structure of academia (group debate about if ECS should be judged on their publications). There are also chances to meet fellow Earth Scientist bloggers and tweeters as well as opportunities to explore your creative side with poetry and photography sessions. The special scientific events are really what makes EGU enjoyable.

Obligatory selfie with my first poster presentation in an International Conference

Every day, the Exhibition Halls host posters of the sessions that were held earlier in the day. You can view the posters any time of the day but if you want to speak to authors, the best time to come drop in is between 5 - 7 pm when scientists are required to stand by their posters. This was my moment to shine because I was specifically at EGU to present my results on lithospheric diamonds. Although a poster isn't as prestigious as a talk, the main advantage is that you're more likely to interact and receive feedback from other scientists. Speakers are only given 15 minutes to present including Q&A and I noticed that the majority of speakers actually didn't have enough time to answer any questions. During the poster session, I managed to personally meet quite a few scientists in my field and discuss my work and have the odd debate over a contentious summary. I actually found this the best way to network especially as someone who is very shy and didn't have their supervisor to introduce them to others.

One of the many networking events at the General Assembly

For some, EGU is their favourite conference while for others it's an experience only worth one visit in their academic career. The types of sessions are so diverse and how much you will get out of it will depend on your field of research: for a petrologist like me studying silicates in diamonds, there was only one session relevant to me but volcanologists on the other hand may find there is a lot to gain from the conference. This could make networking very difficult - every young scientist I met prior to my session was a Climate Scientist. The EGU conference however is great if you have a broad interest in Geosciences and would like to understand what is happening in a variety of fields or you are interested in extra-curriculum activities such as outreach. It is a conference that is definitely worth considering if you have the opportunity.

When my supervisor asked me to attend EGU in his place, I was very apprehensive. No one in my department was going to attend the General Assembly as a participant and there was only one small session I was interested in. In the end, I do not regret going at all and I found myself most times as giddy as a child in a candy store as I ventured into all the different sessions. In all honestly, there is so much going on at the conference that it doesn't feel lonely at all (though having lunch by yourself can feel a little awkward, you can go check out some stalls, posters or even work to ease the feeling). I spent two full days at the General Assembly and I felt exhausted by the second day - if you're going for a full week, I recommend breaking up the time with a bit of sight seeing - after all, EGU General Assembly is held in a very beautiful city.

I'm not sure if I would attend EGU conference as a PhD student again but if anything, it has prepared me for future multidisciplinary conferences I may attend in the near future.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

A weekend in... Ireland

I knew I would kick myself if I didn't take advantage of Bristol's proximity to Ireland and Wales to explore the west side of the British Isles. We didn't manage to get decent flight prices last year because we always remembered to book flights when it was too late but this year we were prepared. Now planning a city break in Easter isn't very easy and with the added conservative nature of Ireland's Catholicism, it's necessary to plan your stay ahead of time. 

The weekend away began with an early flight from Bristol's airport to Dublin on Thursday. Our first stop was Beanhive Cafe for some brunch: I had the vegetarian brunch and James had the standard Irish breakfast. Both of us struggled to finish the meal, but only because they were excessively generous with their portions. We headed straight to Trinity College to walk around the college grounds (and to walk off our breakfast). I couldn't help but be surprised how small the university felt, like the size of just one college in Cambridge University, but I had to remind myself that the whole university was still spread across the city. Nevertheless, it felt a little familiar while walking around. We also went ahead to see the Book of Kells and the beautiful Old Library Exhibition also hosted in Trinity College. 

We wandered around Temple Bar area a little, crossing the River Liffey via Ha'penny Bridge and stepping into Temple Bar itself for a drink. We were still too stuffed from our brunch to have any food (that's how generous the portion was!) so we took a bus to Kilmainham Gaol. The jailhouse itself cannot be explored without a tour and as it is so popular, I strongly recommend booking ahead of time. We completely overlooked this and as I was scrolling through top sites of Dublin on the Tripadvisor app on our bus from the airport, I saw the warnings from previous tripadvisor reviewers. We instantly went on the Kilmainham Gaol website and saw that the next four days were booked out and only a few places were available on Thursday. Lesson learnt. The tour itself was excellent and gave us so much insight into the independence and partition of Ireland. On our way back to the city centre, we took a stroll through Phoenix Park.   

No one can escape Dublin without a night in the Temple Bar area so we went back there for dinner at a Spanish tapas place The Port House Pintxo. Now if we fell in love with one thing in Ireland, it was this place. From the cheese and honey dishes, the burgers and especially the empanadillas... We couldn't get enough of the menu. The restaurant itself had a pretty cool vibe to it, perfect for a date night. James was convinced that we had found the place and that we should have all our meals here. Even though we didn't return, because I'm pretty strict on trying as many different places as I can on a short city break, my tongue still dreams of this place.  

We started promptly on Friday as we were driving up to Belfast. Good Friday is considered a "dry" day because of a ninety year old law banning alcohol on particular christian holidays. This meant that all the pubs, and restaurants serving alcohol, would be closed and all the other restaurants and museums were likely to have shorter opening hours. Northern Ireland doesn't have the same laws and any information we found online suggested that everything was going to be open as normal, so we thought we would be making the most of our time spending the next two days in Belfast and around.

We couldn’t leave without having some breakfast and the cute little bakery Queen of Tarts near the Temple Bar area was on the top of our list. I opted for the smoked Irish salmon with free range scrambled eggs and toasted home-made brown soda bread and James tried the smoked bacon and leek potato cakes with poached eggs and roasted cherry tomatoes. Of course we needed something sweet from the bakery and we had the chocolate pecan tart and apple crumble to complement our savoury dishes (both were double YUM).

I wish I could say more of the drive up to Belfast, but in all honesty, I was asleep for most of it. We drove straight to the Titanic Belfast museum for the “Titanic Experience” exhibition. We originally planned to stay there for two hours…. Three at most, but we ended up staying til 6 pm (four hours!). It’s a very detailed museum, giving you details from how Belfast changed as a city during the industrial revolution to what the different class of rooms looked like on the Titanic. We drove a little around the harbour side to see the famous port that made Belfast what it is today.

The city still faces strong tension between the Catholic and Protestant communities and one of the ways this manifests is through the Peace Walls that have been built in a number of cities to separate the two and reduce "inter-communal" violence. The first Peace Wall was built in 1969 as a temporary solution to the Northern Ireland Troubles and the 1969 riots. However, they've only increased in number and size since then and approximately 109 Peace Walls are thought to exist across the country. The biggest and longest Peace Wall separates Shankill Road and Falls Road, which is the one we went to see. Although a poll in 2012 showed that 69% of residents believe the Peace Walls are still needed, the first Peace Wall was broken down in 2016 on Crumlin Road. The Northern Ireland Executive Committee has promised that by 2023, all the Peace Walls will be broken down (with permisson)! Alongside the Peace Lines, many murals and other street art can be seen around Northern Ireland as a result of the political nature of the city.

In the evening, we walked around Cathedral Quarter to find a place for dinner. A few places were already pre-booked, which again we didn’t expect for Belfast as it never looked busy, but they had a table for two in The Strip Joint where I tried the Hannon 35 day Himalayan salt beef steak. We stayed in Cathedral Quarter in the evening especially as I was pleasantly surprised how beautiful this area looked. We walked across the alleys and popped into Dirty Onion for the live music.

Saturday started with us walking around Dublin’s town centre. We went past the infamous Europa hotel, which is supposedly the most bombed hotel in Europe, on our way to breakfast at the Harlem Café (sorry, but the decor here put me at constant unease) and then strolled around the City Hall. Then in the late morning we visited Stormont Estate to see the Parliament buildings. 

We headed to Giant’s Causeway in the afternoon and had a little lunch at the National Trust café before enduring the harsh winds and rain on our walk to the rocks. Around 50-60 Ma, the region experienced intense volcanism. Basaltic magma intruded through the older chalk beds which formed part of the Thulean plateau, Europe's most "extensive" lava field. As the lava cooled, they contracted horizontally forming the polygonal pillars that makes the Giant's Causeway famous. The large igneous province that was broken up during the opening of the North Atlantic ocean making Giant's Causeway one of the few remants of the Thulean Plateau. I’ve seen many volcanic columns around the world but the best part of Giant’s Causeway is that you can climb the columns and see the actual polygonal features up close. 

A quick drive from Giant's Causeway is the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge that is famous for its small 20 m rope bridge that connects the mainland to Carrickarede. The bridge was first built in 1755 to help Irish fishers to catch Atlantic Salmon. Since then, it has be altered and reconstructed several times to make it safer. Salmon fishing has stopped in the region because of the dwindling population of the fish and now the bridge is solely a tourist site. Sadly, there were high winds on the day we visited and so the bridge was off limits to cross. As a compromise, we didn't have to pay an entrance fee, so we still committed ourselves to seeing the little rope bridge and the stunning geology that continued on from Giant's Causeway.  

I was feeling a little down on Sunday so I ended up having a lie in while James tried to find breakfast. I didn’t leave the hotel until after midday but we knew it was the only day we had left to visit the Chester Beatty Library on the grounds of Dublin Castle. While Lonely Planet likes to boast that this is one of the best museums in Europe, one cannot help but feel wary that this is just a white man's obsession with the orient during the late British Empire.

The rest of the late afternoon was spent exploring St. Patrick's Cathedral. We had dinner at the "mexican" restaurant 777, where every item of the food menu was unsurprisingly priced at £7.77. From the outside, the restaurant looks closed, we even walked away to find another restaurant because it looked shut down but we saw people coming out. We were lucky not to have missed out because everything on this menu was great (James recommends the Bisrec Tostados)!

After breakfast at Lemon Crepe on Monday, we meandered through St. Stephen's Green. You cannot have a city break without a tour of one of its brew houses or distilleries. Never a huge alcohol fan, we chose to go to the Guinness Storehouse on Monday as it seemed the more bearable one out of whiskey and beer. Even if I didn't consider the expensive price of the ticket, I would say that I felt a little disappointed, I expected to see a part of the actual factory but all you see is a replica of a few of the machines in a tour very detached from the actual brewhouse and very basic information about Guinness itself. There's an exhibition on the history of Guinness's advertising but even that feels limited. I would say a tour of the whiskey distillery would probably be more worthwhile. 

James insisted we visited Smithfield Square, the Hipster neighbourhood of Dublin, but the Cruinniu na Casca event had taken over the Smithfield Stage so we were pretty much getting a different vibe from what we expected. I wish we explored all the street food (we found a Stormzy mural just hidden behind them!) that was around but we decided to give ourselves a challenge at Meat Wagon. The late after noon was spent walking through the city centre, past the General Post Office (the headquarters of the rebel leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising) and Grafton Street. Of course we thought the best way to tie up our Ireland trip was a drink at the Stag's Head and an Irish Stew at Hairy Lemon