An Analytical and Symbolic Test Drive

Ben Riddell-Young, 5th Year OEAS PhD (OEB)
Me next to a pretty good looking glacier. I love ice if you couldn’t already tell. This glacier is called Grenzgletscher and is near Zermatt, Switzerland. I went here as part of an excursion for an international Ice Core conference that happens once every 4 years. It was an incredible experience!

With the light at the end of the long PhD tunnel beginning to show itself, the uncertainty and anticipation of my next steps are also coming into view. Much of my apprehension stems from worries that I’m not prepared for the unknown, that I’ve grown too comfortable and dependent on my OSU network, that I’ll be overwhelmed by the independence of what lies beyond. Recently, I got a taste of what life might be like “on the other side.”

It began with a long and uncomfortably snowy drive down to the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, NV. Here, I tested a new analytical system with the ice core team at the DRI. This spring, we’re planning to take this system and a similar one operated by the DRI folks to Summit Station, Greenland to analyze ice cores as soon as they are drilled. This will test if the way that cores are handled on their way back to the US might impact analyses–specifically the analysis of methane and carbon monoxide, which is what my system measures.

In addition to being an important test drive for my analytical system, the trip also began to feel like a test drive for my career as a truly independent scientist. The solitary drive down to Reno gave me plenty of unsolicited thinking time to let the responsibility I was about to take on set in. I was to be the only expert in ice core trace gas analysis in Reno, and the only one for thousands of miles when deployed on the Greenland ice sheet. A lot was riding on my back, and for the first time, I didn’t have my advisor just a couple of doors down. The fact that I was alone and had all my hard work in the trunk of my own car added to the symbolism of it all. For me, the new responsibilities and independence associated with this trip represented the start of the next, more independent step in my life and career.

Me with my main analytical system back at OSU. This system is designed to measure the stable isotopes of methane in ice cores. Although these measurements are incredibly exciting, it can be very solitary and patient work. The trip to the DRI and the work ahead in the field will be a refreshing change.

Symbolism aside, with the exception of a couple of hiccups, the testing went really well. It was great to see all of my hard work come to fruition and eased some of my worries about using the system in the field when the stakes will be much higher. The system we were working with enables what is called Continuous Flow Analysis (CFA), where we melt sticks of ice cores at a continuous rate, and the meltwater and gas is routed to various instruments that measure chemical and physical properties in real time. Given that I’m used to measuring samples where you don’t get to see the data until it is retroactively processed, it was very exciting to see the data in real time. Further, my lab work back at OSU is typically very solitary, whereas sample measurement for CFA often involves several scientists working together. Excited preliminary interpretations and chatter were common as the data were quite literally “flowing” in. Knowing that the system works outside the comfort of OSU, my nerves began to turn into excitement for the upcoming Greenland field season.

The drive back, which was also uncomfortably snowy (La Niña, amirite?), this time provided welcome time to reflect–and to get symbolic again. This trip allowed me to peer into the murky abyss of post-graduate life. This glimpse gave me a taste of what might be to come and taught me some valuable lessons. It taught me that there will always be new relationships and communities to be build and new and old faces to support me along the way. Perhaps more importantly, it taught me that I’m ready for the next steps and that I really do have the capability to function as an independent scientist. The whole experience was very empowering. As the departure date for field deployment steadily approaches, I’m feeling more ready than ever for the unknowns, challenges, and adventures to come.

A new field, new country, and new data

Abby Hudak (She/her), 1st Year OEAS PhD Student
Seeing the Fagradalsfjall eruption in Iceland on my way to Denmark!

I have found that change, risks, and being outside your comfort zone is where the magic happens in life. As Alan Watts said, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” After leaving my comfortable and steady job as a data analyst this past summer, I dove into a series of changes as I started my journey as a Ph.D. student.

Embarking on my new adventure of starting a Ph.D. program, fortunately, began with an exciting opportunity to travel internationally, help colleagues with their research, and get my first hands-on experience with paleoclimate research. Both my master’s and bachelor’s degrees were in biology, but after learning about paleoclimate several years ago, I decided to change gears (and dive head first) into a new field of research for my Ph.D. Beginning my doctoral experience with hands-on lab work in a country I had never been to was really exciting.

Ice core science is commonly an international effort due to the challenging logistics of retrieving and storing polar ice cores and the variety of skills required to analyze them. The OSU Ice Core & Quaternary Geochemistry Lab has close colleagues at the University of Copenhagen at the Niels Bohr Institute Physics of Ice Climate and Earth. I had the opportunity to help those folks with an extensive gas measurement “campaign” (i.e., an extended period of time collecting measurements) and also learn a lot about the lab techniques I will use in my own research.

The ice used in the campaign was from Northeast Greenland in an area of fast-moving ice called an ice stream. Collecting ice from this region allows researchers to uncover how the ice stream may contribute to sea level rise and reveal past climate. The gas extracted from the ice core is derived from small bubbles locked in the ice, revealing past atmospheric conditions. (For more information on the project, check out the EastGRIP website). During the campaign, we had a team of 5-8 scientists running a continuous analysis of the dust and gas content of the core and also collected meltwater from the ice to examine the water chemistry at a later date.

An ice core melting on a hot plate continuously. Meltwater is collected through a series of tubing and instruments which can then extract the gas, count dust particles, and collect meltwater.

The campaign needed lots of hands on deck to take measurements continuously throughout the day. This approach allows for precise and high-resolution measurements. Ice was prepared and continuously melted on a heated platform. The meltwater then flowed through a series of systems that measured dust and gas and exported the meltwater to be analyzed later. Our time was spent diagnosing issues with a complicated and specialized system, cutting and preparing ice in a -15°C freezer, monitoring the measurements, and collecting discrete meltwater samples.

Serendipitously, while I was there doing ice core science, the University of Copenhagen celebrated the 100th birthday of Willi Daansgard, a Danish pioneer in ice core science. The university held a three-day symposium hosting ice core science talks and celebrating Daansgard’s achievements in ice core science. I was really excited and thankful to learn about the rich history of this field I have just joined.

Aside from the research, Copenhagen taught me the joy of commuting by bike, and I immediately bought a bike first thing when I got back to the U.S. Exploring castles and palaces, and biking around exploring the city was a fun way to spend the evenings. This trip was a great adventure experiencing a new country and learning about the new field I am so excited to now be a part of.

Find Abby on Twitter @AbigailHudak