Favourite Thing: Any kind of labwork! So far I’ve got to shoot X rays at powdered igneous rocks called basalts (X Ray Fluorescence), drilled holes in microfossils using a laser (Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Mass Spectrometry), measured ions that have been deflected through a magnetic field from specially treated powdered rock samples to work out specific isotopic ratios (Thermal Ionisation Mass Spectrometry) and used a microscope that fires electrons at materials coated in gold to see what they look like in more detail (Scanning Electron Microscopy)! Picking microfossils (literally just using a paintbrush and water!) is a big part of what I do, and getting to look at a sample for the first time is really exciting too :-) especially since most of the time no one has ever looked at the samples before so I’m the first person to do so! One of the awesome things about doing a geology degree is being able to go on fieldwork. Pretty much everywhere all over the globe has a story to tell, whether its within a mountain range or at the bottom of the ocean or even in the air! So far I’ve got to go to Iceland, Tenerife, Scotland, Wales, Spain and various parts of England.
Croydon High School (1998-2007) Newstead Wood School for Girls (2007-2009), Royal Holloway University of London (2009-2013), University College London (2013-present)
Geoscience MSci degree
Country I live in:
Many places! Ranging from a Marine Micropalaeontology department at the University of Kiel, Germany to a geological company in North Wales. I also currently volunteer at the Natural History Museum in London with a scheme called V Factor!
I am studying for a PhD and am a ‘V Factor Volunteer Leader’ at the Natural History Museum in London
University College London and the Natural History Museum
Me and my work
I study tiny fossil plankton called foraminifera and look at the chemistry of their skeletons to look at how climate has changed through time
Hi! I’m Rehemat, I’m 23 and from south London. I did my undergraduate degree in Geoscience at Royal Holloway (Uni. of London) and graduated last summer. I’m currently at UCL studying for a PhD and am in my first year.
I also play the violin and am part of two orchestras, and enjoy surfing, snowboarding (although I haven’t been for a few years), and more recently – rock climbing!
Plankton are microscopic organisms which float around the ocean and cannot swim against a current. There are two types – zooplankton (animals with one cell) and phytoplankton (plants). Foraminifera (forams for short) are zooplankton with a body (shell, also called a test) made from calcium carbonate (calcite) – thats the same material as the white stuff you can find in your kettle. They have one cell and come in many different shapes and sizes, and have different living habits too. Planktonic forams float in the uppermost part of the ocean (top 500 metres) and benthic forams live on the ocean floor. There are also larger benthic forams – the best and probably the most impressive place to find one species of these (Nummulites) are in the pyramids in Egypt – each building block contains thousands of Nummulites! Forams eat lots of things including phytoplankton, copepods (like shrimp) and bacteria. Some forams even build their bodies out of any material which surrounds them. They’re called agglutinated forams.
I study fossilised planktonic forams from a time period known as the Eocene (56 – 33.9 million years ago). During the Eocene there was lots of carbon dioxide and global temperatures were much higher than they are today. Scientists use the Eocene as a parallel to what our climate could be like by 2100. Although the Eocene is characterised by a gradual cooling, but had periods of extreme warmth called hyperthermals. These include the Palaeocene-Eocene-Thermal-Maximum (55.7 million years ago, the Palaeocene is the time period before the Eocene) and the Middle Eocene Climatic Optimum (40 million years ago). There’s also one called Eocene Thermal Maximum, also known as the ELMO event – the scientists who discovered the event found a change in a *red* carbonate poor clay rich horizon. Its good to know climate scientists have a sense of humour too!!!
Foram test chemistry can be used to work out lots of different things including depth habitats (so if the forams lived in surface water or deeper in the ocean), whether they had symbionts (like algae) and past sea surface temperatures (using the ratio of magnesium to calcium and putting this into a mathematical equation). Just like animals in their natural environments, forams respond to different environmental conditions (vital effects) in the ocean. However we can’t actually work out exactly what they did in the ocean and we don’t know exactly how different elements ‘fit’ into the crystal structure of foram calcium carbonate either. So really all past climate chemistry data from foraminifera has to be questioned in terms of this! Part of my work will be looking at this problem and working out exactly how accurate the data we get from forams are.
My Typical Day
Reading, microscope work, sometimes labwork and writing. And tea breaks.
I normally start the day by checking my emails and reading any papers that have been published recently – I get alerts through to my email every time a new publication/journal issue released and personally I find it easier to just read them when I get the email otherwise sometimes I forget! Next, I normally make a list of the things I have to do and then start on that.
Right now, I have a set of 52 samples which are between 54.4 and 38 million years old from a time period known as the Eocene. Each sample has to be washed down and sieved in order to turn them from a hard block of sediment into sand sized grains, so I can work with them. In every sample I’ve got to identify which foraminifera species are present. So first, I empty some of the material into a small black dish which has a grid on it. Then I use a technique called foraminifera picking. This involves using a paintbrush (and some water to wet the bristles of the paintbrush so the forams will stick to them) and then literally picking a foram from the picking tray into a slide. Its a very careful and slow process and its really important to have a steady hand and hope your forams don’t ‘jump’ out of your picking tray if they don’t stick to the bristles. There are so many different foram species and sometimes it is quite hard to tell them apart, especially if they look very similar! Using a scanning electron microscope is very useful, and can help to identify different species and look more carefully at the appearance of a foram too.
As my project is partly geochemical based, I will also be doing some chemistry on my forams and putting them into different machines called mass spectrometers to find out the amounts of different elements in their skeletons. The preparation techniques for every type of mass spectrometry analysis are different:
For solution ICP-MS analysis (where I’ll need to use at least 30 forams per sample) the preparation is much longer and involves a lot more steps and lots of different chemicals like nitric acid and hydrazine; forams also have to be crushed using two glass plates – you have to place them on one glass plate, line them up then slowly place the other glass plate on top so you can crush them.
For LA-ICPMS analysis (where I’ll be analysing about 10 forams per sample) the preparation is much simpler. The forams need to be cleaned in deionised water in a test tube. The water is replaced in the test tube 4 times, and after the 4th time the test tube with the forams in is placed in an ultrasonic bath which shakes the water very fast for about 5-10 seconds (or less depending on how fragile the forams are) in order to make any clay particles fall off the forams. Sometimes scientists use a water-methanol mix for this step.
I did some LA-ICPMS analysis in early May: This picture shows a bit of what I did!
ICP-MS: Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry
LA-ICPMS: Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry
/* Style Definitions */
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
What I’ll be up to during “I’m a geoscientist get me out of here!”
One of the perks of working within the world of research and science is you get to travel. So from June 3rd-8th and 17th-22nd I’ll be at a summer school in Urbino, Italy. The summer school is all about foraminifera, and is mostly focused on learning about foraminiferal biology and ecology, how they can be used for past environment (palaeoenvironmental) and past ocean condition (palaeoceanographic) interpretations. There are four parts to the summer school (an intro to forams, larger benthic forams, benthic forams and planktonic forams), and I’ll be taking the foram intro and planktonic foram classes. I’m really looking forward to learning more about forams and everything I learn at the summer school will definitely help me when I get back to England and start doing my PhD work again!
MAJOR apologies if you don’t get an instant reply from me during those dates I *promise* to get back to you on the same day and I’m definitely going to be uploading pictures of what I’ll be up to!!
I’m also going back to Italy in early July to present a poster at a conference – if anyone wants to have a look at it I’d be more than happy to send it to you 🙂
What I'd do with the money
A workshop focused around micropalaeontology, climate change and oceanography for primary and secondary school aged children (5-18)
I would like to host a 2 day workshop for primary (age 4-11) and secondary school (age 11-18) children at my university, with each age group having their own day. This would involve both hands-on acitivities and talks. There would be microscope work looking at different types of microfossils (foraminifera, diatoms, nannofossils and pollen), and at the end anyone attending would be able to take home a slide with their sample on it. There would also be a session about how to prepare foraminifera, diatom and nannofossil slides, the International Ocean Discovery Program and scientific cruises and climate change.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Friendly. Musical. Organised.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Right now? First Aid Kit, Fossil Collective, Beyonce and Idina Menzel
What's your favourite food?
Chocolate chip cookies
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Going backstage at ‘Chicago’ in the West End. Hanging out in an Icelandic hot spring. And surfing in Cornwall.
What did you want to be after you left school?
When I left school I was most interested in geophysics. However, being a palaeoclimatologist/oceanographer were two things that had crossed my mind previously when I was younger.
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Not really. I very nearly got a detention once.
What was your favourite subject at school?
Chemistry, physics and music
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
So far? Getting to work at Science Uncovered at the Natural History Museum. BEST SCIENCE NIGHT EVER!
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
Physical geography and chemistry lessons at school and the teachers that taught me those + trips to Canada and driving through the Rockies – always wondered exactly how the mountains formed!
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I really have no idea. Maybe owning an ice cream parlour?
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
That I could grow a bit taller, write faster and draw better!
Tell us a joke.
How many moles are in a guacamole? Avocado’s number
My favourite place on earth is?
Sennen Cove, Cornwall and Landmannalaugar, Iceland
[myimage1#] This is the lab I do all my microscope work in
One of the foraminifera species (known as a Hantkenina!) in my sample. Its roughly 38 million years old and from a time period called the Eocene. They’re one of my favourite foraminifera species as they are spiky!! They’re about 100 micrometres in diameter (0.1 mm)
Pouring liquid nitrogen into the Thermal Ionisation Mass Spectrometer! The liquid nitrogen keeps the mass spectrometer cool so it doesn’t overheat
A few years ago I went to Iceland for an igneous geochemistry field trip – this photo of my friends (Steph and Ros) and I was taken at Stafnafell on the Snaefellsness peninsula in Western Iceland
Another photo from Iceland! We visited the Jökulsárlon floating icebergs in Southeastern Iceland too, and the day we visited there were LOADS of puffins!
The scheme I volunteer with at the Natural History Museum works with researchers and curators from different departments. The very first collaboration was with a research project called ‘Throughflow’. The researchers in this project went on a field trip to East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, and collected many fossil samples including corals, giant clams, coralline algae, larger benthic foraminifera and bryozoans. Our part as volunteers was to process and wash the fossil coral specimens collected on the field trip. Throughflow’s work and the scheme I volunteer with was showcased for about 3-4 months in a cabinet in the museum – here’s a photo of it!
I did some laser ablation analysis on my forams during May. This picture shows the foram (its scientific name is Pseudohastigerina wilcoxensis) on double sided tape – at this point there was a 30 second delay before the laser started to zap it which is why there isn’t a bright spot on it. Just to clarify, this isn’t technically ‘my lab’ – I was at another university doing my analysis as my university doesn’t have a machine with the right specifications.
This isn’t what I look at anymore (I used to during my undergraduate degree) but I still find it really cool! This mineral is called plagioclase and it can be found in many igneous rocks including basalts from which this plagioclase crystal was found in. The texture that you can see is called a disequilibrium texture. This basically means that the black and white parts of the mineral have different chemistries. The disequilibrium texture in my plagioclase crystal just happened to look like a whale. HOW AWESOME IS THAT!
This is me on the summer school field trip at the Contessa Highway Section near a town in Italy called Gubbio. It is a famous location as it is the first place where the Iridium spike was found at the Cretaceous Tertiary boundary (when the dinosaurs went extinct!)