STUDENT STORY: Looking back over my first year as a PhD student
By PhD Student Bronwyn Matthews (Sounding Out the River)
In September 2020, I started my PhD amidst a global pandemic of which I had no idea about when I applied in January 2020. I found the PhD opening for a project entitled ‘Sounding out the river: Seismic monitoring of bedload mobilisation and transport in mountain rivers’ whilst working in my previous job as a Hydrologist. The project involved the application of seismic sensors to try to monitor bedload transport in rivers with a focus on the River Feshie in Scotland. It instantly caught my attention as it seemed to combine my undergraduate degree in Geophysics and Geology with some experience I had studying river processes through my Masters dissertation on Scottish hydropower potential and my Hydrologist role. It felt like it was meant to be; a perfect fit. Having studied my undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh within the same field (geosciences), I had already been taught by the supervisors on the PhD project (Dr Mark Naylor and Prof Hugh Sinclair). I remembered both Mark and Hugh as being very knowledgeable and very approachable, and so I was excited at the possibility of working alongside them. Long story short, I got accepted on to the PhD project and so came a summer of getting increasingly excited, but also nervous, to start.
When September came around, I couldn’t wait to get started. However, the nerves hadn’t gone and were probably more prominent than before. Starting a PhD is hard – getting your head around a completely new project, tackling the admin of the first couple months, getting to know your supervisory team, etc. However, there have been added complexities as a result of researching during a global pandemic, which I know are not unique to myself. Although it interrupted and slowed certain aspects of my PhD work, the area I believe was hit hardest were the social interactions. Since everyone was working from home I wasn’t able to get to know my officemates and build friendships with other PhD students. It even made it difficult to initially build relationships with my supervisory and project team since all meetings were held online, and it’s just not the same as interacting in person. I have often found it hard to put myself forward and build those relationships even in person, and so having to try and do that online was extremely difficult for myself, as I’m sure it was for many others. However, the pandemic was not completely inconvenient for several reasons. One being it meant I could work from my current house, avoiding having to pay extortionate Edinburgh rental prices. I have been able to work in an environment I feel comfortable in and have actually found working from home relatively easy as I’ve found I am quite focussed in my own surroundings. Home working has also allowed me to attend many conferences I may not have been able to attend if they were in person, opening up my connections to the wider research community. I have been asked by many people over this last year if I have found it difficult starting a PhD during a pandemic, which I find hard to answer as I have not experienced what doing a PhD is like out of a pandemic. Ask me the question again once everything returns to some sort of ‘normality’ and I may be able to give a better informed answer.
As for the PhD work, I used the first few months to get stuck into researching around the topic area as well as developing my basic coding skills. However, I think it’s important to note that this was a slow process and at times I felt like I wasn’t making much progress. But these initial tasks are all necessary and vital first steps in a PhD to develop understanding of the project and ideas on how to approach the research. The first few months also gave me a chance to get to know how I work when undertaking research, which was great for learning how best to work alongside supervisors and the wider project team. As my coding progressed and I developed a better understanding of the project background I began delving deeper into the data, making a start at trying to decipher the seismic signals from bedload transport.
On top of data analysis, I have been incredibly lucky that I have been able to undertake fieldwork through the first year of my PhD where many students have not, especially if their work relied on international travel. I feel for those students as I can’t imagine how much extra stress that places on them and their projects. I managed to have five fieldtrips up to my main study site, the River Feshie in the Cairngorms, in the first year of my project, with the first trip happening as early as three months in. If you haven’t been up to Glen Feshie I would highly recommend it. The area is absolutely stunning and the river is fascinating. In recent years Glen Feshie has undergone extensive rewilding with native vegetation allowed to prosper under natural conditions and the landscape is so unique compared to the majority of Scottish hillscapes (Figure 1). The outdoors is definitely my happy place and being able to undertake fieldwork in such a gorgeous area makes it 100 times more enjoyable, even in the rain and snow!
Figure 1: Glen Feshie, looking upstream from the centre of the study reach.
These five fieldtrips allowed me to meet the project team in person and were extremely useful for building relationships that are quite challenging to build through online conversations. It also enabled me to gain a better understanding of my project by visiting the study site and getting a feel for the nature of the landscape and river, as well as learning how some of the equipment works. The first trip in December 2020 was used to scope out the area and deploy a few seismic sensors so that we could collect some preliminary data over the winter period when high flows were expected. We managed to deploy six seismic sensors, two time-lapse cameras and a laser stream gauge sensor during our first trip. The seismic sensors were deployed along the small stretch of river we are focussing on to capture ground vibrations as a result of moving bedload. Time-lapse cameras were deployed fairly central to the stretch to capture visual evidence of the river state and the stream gauge sensor was deployed at the same site as the cameras to measure the changing height of the local water surface. In March we returned to the site to collect data, replace batteries on sensors and deploy a couple more seismic sensors in the area. In April, we returned again to test the use of other equipment including an ADCP (Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler) that will be used to get water velocity and discharge measurements and hopefully provide some information on when bedload is transported if deployed during high flows. In June we spent five days in the study site scoping out the landscape, downloading data from sensors, servicing the instruments, and testing other equipment. We also worked alongside Dr Richard Williams of Glasgow University (also an external supervisor of mine) to perform a drone survey of the area acquiring high resolution images that will be used for topographic surveys and gathering information on large scale grain size distributions. The final trip at the start of September was just a service run to download data and replace batteries from all sensors as well as deploy an updated stream gauge sensor setup. Being able to undertake these fieldtrips has meant that I have had actual field data to get my teeth into over the first year of my PhD. I am honestly not sure where my project would be if this was not possible.
Now it’s September 2021 (one year on from the start of my PhD) and Covid-19 restrictions are beginning to be lifted across the country. Hopefully the relaxation of restrictions will bring an exciting new chapter to my PhD research and ease interactions with other PhD students. I am very excited to undertake more fieldwork and start getting in to the nitty gritty of data analysis over the next few months. Although I can see a very long road ahead of me in terms of understanding the data I’m handling and developing my project, I feel so much more confident about my skills and ability and where my project is heading. Looking back on this last year I am very impressed with the progress I have made from where I started last September. It was definitely helped by the incredible support of my supervisors and the wider project team who have encouraged and guided me through this first year and have made it a very enjoyable experience. One call I had with a member of the project team a couple months back helped me realise how far I had come in the first 9-10 months of my PhD. She had simply just told me how much more confident I seemed when chatting to her about my project and how much I seemed to have picked up and learned along the way. That little comment from a team member was really touching and it gave me the boost that I needed in a period of my research that was feeling a little quiet and slow.
These first few months went so quickly and it’s crazy to think that I’m now one year into it. They say ‘time flies when you’re having fun’! This year has definitely been challenging but I have learned a lot, a whole lot more than I could have imagined at the start. Although I know I have still got a long way to go I am excited to embark on this journey and see where it takes me.
I encourage anyone who is considering undertaking a PhD to give it a go. It is hard work but it is so rewarding at the same time.
Stay safe and stay healthy!