Frontiers in Earth Science just published an article, “Creek Dynamics Determine Pond Subsurface Geochemical Heterogeneity in East Anglian (UK) Salt Marshes” which as you can see has my name among the authors. Isn’t that weird? I mean it’s a peer-reviewed journal, plus I know you’re thinking “Hey Marci, WTF are you doing in a science project? Didn’t you get a degree in some useless humanities subject?”. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think my degree is completely useless – I graduated from Cambridge with a degree in Human, Social, and Political Sciences, but through a series of funny accidents, I specialized in archaeology within that. And it was archaeology which led me to be involved in an earth sciences project… But let’s backtrack a bit.
As with so many things I do, this story starts with hiking. I was a very active member of the Hillwalking Club during university. There, I met Gilad, a researcher from Israel working in the university who always looks like he just walked out of the Osprey outdoor gear catalog. He is very direct, not wild about the formalities of Cambridge, but a huge fan of the outdoors, hiking and exploring – we got along very well!
My dissertation project was mapping archaeological sites with a drone, creating 2D maps and 3D models as well. This was useful because it requires very little disturbance of an area, it’s super quick and very high resolution. When Gilad heard about this, he asked if we could use the same technology in one of his projects with the Department of Earth Sciences. They were working on understanding the chemistry of salt marshes in Norfolk but lacked good resolution maps or satellite imagery of the area.
Since I’m always up for a fun day outdoors, especially if it means escaping Cambridge during the exam term, I agreed to help out and go to Norfolk with the team and create a map that they could use in their project. So last spring, we headed out to the Norfolk Salt Marshes between Blakeney and Stiffkey, with Gilad, Alec (the other main researcher in the project) and Jerry (a student who came along to observe the process). We filled up Alec’s little VW Fox with the kit and climbed through a bit of mud to get to the salt marshes. We’ve already had the maps pre-planned, as we spent a good amount of time in a café with Alec and Gilad a few days prior, geeking out over satellite imagery and deciding what exactly to map.
The process itself is very simple – once the area that I want to be mapped is decided and I set the parameters for the map, the drone will just fly off and do its thing. I only need to monitor that it’s flying correctly and land it once it’s done. It’s a very laid-back process! Ideally, we’d have measured out points on the ground with a special high-accuracy GPS to make the map perfect as I did for my dissertation project, but we couldn’t really do that in a marsh and the accuracy is almost as good without it as well.
It was actually a very relaxed job for me. I just chilled out in Gilad’s camping chair, watching the beautiful landscape through the drone’s lens while the others were climbing through the mud. The salt marshes are really weird: when you are on the ground, you just see a very flat area with a bunch of ponds, streams, grass, small plants and lots of birds flying about. If you look at it from above, it becomes this beautiful maze of interconnected streams, with crazy patterns. The birds eye view is definitely the best here!
Eventually we took a break, had some fish and chips, charged the drone’s batteries and headed out to do a second area. By the end of the day, with only maybe an hour and a half of net flight time, we mapped a huge area, covering probably more than 1 000 000 m2 in the process – okay, that’s 1 km2, but it looks more impressive if I add a lot of zeroes to it! It was a really fun day, and in the process I realized that this kind of earth science project is not all that different from what archaeological fieldwork looks like, except we “dig” for different reasons.
After getting home, I created the maps in a program called Maps Made Easy, then Alec and I spent a few hours looking at it, trying to find patterns, connections between lake colors and what type of visualization works best. Alec then spent many more hours making the maps into illustrations for the paper. I don’t even want to know how much time that took him…
But what is this project really about? Well, I’m not really the right person to ask… I just wanted to help some friends out and have fun testing and perfecting the mapping method I used in my dissertation. In fact, despite Alec and Gilad’s patient explanations of the paper, I’m not even 100% sure I understand all of the conclusions of it. But a really simple summary of it is that the paper was seeking answers to why certain ponds in the salt marshes are iron-rich and why others were sulfide-rich, despite being so close to each other. And why is that? Well, you’ll just have to read the paper to find out! I’m not going to ruin it with spoilers…
So, in conclusion, no, I didn’t become an academic and I didn’t join the Department of Earth Sciences. I’m only listed as a co-author/contributor because in academic publications, you get that if you contribute data. I didn’t write any part of the article, I just worked on creating a map, had fun and helped out some friends. I’m not even currently planning on doing a masters course, but it is funny that I was already involved in a published academic article as an undergraduate! Sounds pretty fancy, right?