Shining light on the environment

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Geography and Environmental Sciences

Abstract

How can earthworms survive in metal-contaminated soil? How has ocean chemistry changed over the lifetime of the planet? Can we boost the nutritional value of food? How can we reduce the risks of arsenic in drinking water? How do radioactive pollutants behave in the environment?

Scientists are using the biggest and most expensive scientific machine in the UK to help answer these and many other vitally important environmentally relevant questions.

The machine is called Diamond and is the UKs national synchrotron facility. It is funded by the Wellcome trust and the UK government through the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Synchrotrons consist of particle accelerators (like a mini version of the Hadron collider in Switzerland) which fire electrons around a circle close to the speed of light. Every now and then the electrons are "tweaked" on their path and intense light is given off which is used by scientists to look at samples of soils, rocks, water and biological material at incredibly high levels of detail. Using this intense light we can look at how molecules and atoms are arranged and using this information we can help answer some of the questions posed above.

Professor Mark Hodson from the University of Reading first used synchrotrons during his PhD research in 1992 when he was working out how magma chambers solidify under volcanoes. Since then he has moved down temperature to work on problems relating to contaminated land and earthworm biology but still uses synchrotrons. There aren't many synchrotrons around in the world and because they are so expensive to build and run it is important to use them 24 hours a day. Also, despite the high level of technology involved in synchrotrons there are many "low-fi" fixes that become necessary such as holding samples in front of a beam of intense X-rays with sticky tape or blue tac. For this reason Mark, like most synchrotron users, has as many memories and experiences of trying to find a vending machine that still has chocolate in it at 3 a.m. in the morning after being up for 48 hours as he has about the scientific breakthroughs that have occurred!

Over the course of this fellowship Mark will be involved in a variety of activities. You might come across him talking at a science festival or science discussion meeting near you. Alternatively you might come across him talking to your class at school or, if you are lucky, your school might visit him at Diamond to actually see the machine he is talking about. As well as explaining how synchrotrons work he will be discussing how scientists are using synchrotrons to answer a wealth of questions relevant to climate change and the health of people and the planet. Both in his talks and also on his blog you'll also be able to hear about what it is like to be a user of synchrotrons, from the starting point of any scientific enquiry - making an observation or asking a question - to carrying out experiments, applying for beamtime at a synchrotron and then staying up for 3 days 24 7 to run samples and get some crucial answers to boost your understanding of the system that you're investigating. On the web site you'll also find a host of resources linking in to the use of synchrotrons in environmental science.

You may already have read about Mark's research in the newspapers (try googling "Metal munching earthworms!), have heard him on Radio 4 or seen him in documentaries about earthworm evolution and crop circles (and no, there's nothing in the soil that suggests crop circles are made by extra-terrestrials!) but over the course of the fellowship you should be able to hear more about his, and others, research, as he spends more time with the media, letting them know about the amazing environmental science being done at Diamond.

Publications

10 25 50

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ST/J000574/1 01/10/2011 31/08/2012 £67,050
ST/J000574/2 Transfer ST/J000574/1 01/09/2012 30/09/2014 £57,721
 
Description please see return for ST/J000574/2 - it is the same grant
Exploitation Route not applicable
Sectors Other

 
Description please see return for ST/J000574/2 - it is the same grant
Sector Other
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Science in Society Award led to development of new partnership "Oxfordshire Schools Physics Partnership" 
Organisation Institute of Physics (IOP)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Learned Society 
PI Contribution The networks established through the development of these workshops acted as a springboard for the creation of an Ogden Trust Oxfordshire Schools Physics Partnership, which is hosted by Rachel Harris (on the original SiS proposal) and is steered by myself (Dr Judith Hillier of the Education Department) and the Physics Department Outreach Officer, in conjunction with some other physics teachers from local schools and the local Institute of Physics Teaching and Learning Coach. This partnership runs a series of events: an annual KS3 Challenge Day (which utilises the Levitate and Fantastic Fields workshops along with others in a 3 year cycle), annual Girls' Physics Degree Taster Days (which also utilise the Levitate workshop) and workshops to support physics teachers (3 per year). These activities are themselves well-received and greatly enjoyed by participants, with schools keen to be involved. When this partnership was presented at a recent Institute of Physics Education Conference (March 2014), it generated much interest and enquiries as to how it was developed and the resources we are using.
Collaborator Contribution The Ogden Trust has provided the funding for the partnership - allowing us to provide food at all-day events and funding printing costs and equipment costs which were not in the original SiS budget. The Institute of Physics Teaching and Learning coach provides support in the planning and development of events and in publicising them.
Impact Engagement activities - already detailed elsewhere. Supporting Physics Teaching workshops - already detailed. Multidisciplinary - involves departments of Education and Physics at University of Oxford, as well as physics teachers from local schools.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Science in Society Award led to development of new partnership "Oxfordshire Schools Physics Partnership" 
Organisation Ogden Trust
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The networks established through the development of these workshops acted as a springboard for the creation of an Ogden Trust Oxfordshire Schools Physics Partnership, which is hosted by Rachel Harris (on the original SiS proposal) and is steered by myself (Dr Judith Hillier of the Education Department) and the Physics Department Outreach Officer, in conjunction with some other physics teachers from local schools and the local Institute of Physics Teaching and Learning Coach. This partnership runs a series of events: an annual KS3 Challenge Day (which utilises the Levitate and Fantastic Fields workshops along with others in a 3 year cycle), annual Girls' Physics Degree Taster Days (which also utilise the Levitate workshop) and workshops to support physics teachers (3 per year). These activities are themselves well-received and greatly enjoyed by participants, with schools keen to be involved. When this partnership was presented at a recent Institute of Physics Education Conference (March 2014), it generated much interest and enquiries as to how it was developed and the resources we are using.
Collaborator Contribution The Ogden Trust has provided the funding for the partnership - allowing us to provide food at all-day events and funding printing costs and equipment costs which were not in the original SiS budget. The Institute of Physics Teaching and Learning coach provides support in the planning and development of events and in publicising them.
Impact Engagement activities - already detailed elsewhere. Supporting Physics Teaching workshops - already detailed. Multidisciplinary - involves departments of Education and Physics at University of Oxford, as well as physics teachers from local schools.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Development of 2 workshops on magnetism and superconductivity for Science in Society Small Award (Oxford) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation Workshop Facilitator
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The 'Levitate' workshop has been run upwards of 30 times, to audiences of 25-60 pupils aged between 11 and 18 years. Every time, the liquid nitrogen and levitating superconducting train has generated much interest and discussion about physics and the research the speakers do in their daily lives.
The 'Fantastic Fields' workshop has been run ~3 times, to audiences of 25-30 pupils aged between 11-14 years. Again, the opportunity to play with magnets and make a loudspeaker has been interesting and generated much discussion about the role physics plays in our everyday lives.

The involvement of the Condensed Matter Research Group in the Department of Physics in the development and delivery of the Levitate workshop in particular, has fostered a much greater involvement in outreach on the part of the Phd students and post-docs within this group, along with a number of undergraduates. The workshop requires 6 helpers + a presenter, and over the years a number of presenters and helpers have been trained up in a way which makes the continuation of this workshop as a key outreach tool sustainable beyond the lifetime of the original Science in Society Small Award.
Indeed, the Outreach Officer in the department has worked closely with the group in order to adapt the Levitate workshop from its original target audience of 11-14 year old pupils to two lectures - one aimed at 14-16 year olds and the other at 16-18 year olds, thus making it a versatile and frequently used aspect of the Physics department's outreach programme, which was previously dominated by Astronomy and Particle physics.
The networks established through the development of these workshops acted as a springboard for the creation of an Ogden Trust Oxfordshire Schools Physics Partnership, which is hosted by Rachel Harris (on the original SiS proposal) and is steered by myself (Dr Judith Hillier of the Education Department) and the Physics Department Outreach Officer, in conjunction with some other physics teachers from local schools and the local Institute of Physics Teaching and Learning Coach. This partnership runs a series of events: an annual KS3 Challenge Day (which utilises the Levitate and Fantastic Fields workshops along with others in a 3 year cycle), annual Girls' Physics Degree Taster Days (which also utilise the Levitate workshop) and workshops to support physics teachers (3 per year). These activities are themselves well-received and greatly enjoyed by participants, with schools keen to be involved. When this partnership was presented at a recent Institute of Physics Education Conference (March 2014), it generated much interest and enquiries as to how it was developed and the resources we are using.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011,2012,2013,2014