A trip to Exeter for the QRA Postgraduate Symposium

This week I’ve been at the Quaternary Research Association (QRA) Postgraduate Symposium, hosted by the University of Exeter’s Geography Department. This is an informal PhD student-only conference that gives Quaternary postgrads the chance to meet up and do trail runs of posters and presentations in a chilled-out atmosphere. I went along because I’d heard it was a good laugh, to get some more presentation practice and to spend this year’s remaining research training grant.

The conference started with an optional field trip to Dartmoor on Wednesday, led by the incredibly knowledgeable Dr Tim Harrod. Unfortunately for those of us on the fieldtrip, the weather was against us and it tipped it down on and off all morning. This limited our options as we didn’t want to spend too long outside the nice dry minibus and the low cloud meant that we couldn’t see much even when we did venture outside. Still, the misty cloud did lend a nice atmosphere to the landscape, very ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’! Tim more than made up for the inclement weather with his interesting insights into the area’s history, geography and geology. A particular highlight was the visiting the Bronze Age village at Grimspound with its resident Dartmoor ponies. After a tasty pub lunch, the weather improved and we were able to escape the minibus to have a look at the local peat and to climb one of the area’s granite Tors, which was warm in waterproof trousers but worth it for the view from the top. In the evening after the field trip the other delegates arrived and we had our welcome drinks before heading into town for large and surprisingly cheap pizzas at the Old Firehouse, which is apparently an Exeter institution.

Thursday saw the start if the conference proper, which consisted of a range of postgrad presentations and posters as well as a keynote talk by Prof. Dan Charman about career progression post-PhD. We also received a tour of Exeter’s new palaeo fire lab, including a demonstration of burning things in one of their instruments. Everyone loves a bit of fire so this went down very well! Friday was similarly structured, with the last of the postgrad talks followed by the QRA PG AGM. One of the primary aims of this session was to choose a new junior PG rep (congrats to Nottingham’s Jack Lacey) and to choose a venue for next year’s Symposium. I was particularly pleased with the choice of Cambridge as this is my home town and because having Jenny Roberts as chief organiser means that we should have a strong showing of ice and climate/ ocean postgrads. Maybe we’ll even get a look into the ice core rooms in the British Antarctic Survey (if we’re lucky and promise not to touch anything)!

One thing I have to say about this year’s meeting in Exeter is that the food was great. Most of us were staying in some very posh undergrad halls (I couldn’t get enough of the rooms – so much nicer than the prison block I lived in during my 1st year!), which did a particularly good cooked breakfast with nice sausages and even fried bread. I hadn’t had fried bread since I was a kid and had completely forgotten how good it is with baked beans. Then of course there were the pizzas that I mentioned above and the very yummy conference dinner that came with a respectably large amount of wine. And of course there are the obligatory cakey treats during the coffee breaks; we even had a Devon cream tea on Thursday. Honestly it was worth the registration fee, which was very reasonable, for the food alone. Thanks have to go to Nicole Sanderson and the rest of the Exeter team for doing such a fantastic job arranging all of this.

So if you’re reading this in 6 months’ time when the advertisements for the next QRA PG Symposium come out, then I’d definitely recommend that you go along. There will be interesting people, some kind of field excursion, nice food and it is a great chance to air your research in a low-stress environment. See you in Cambridge!


Life after upgrade and a quick review of the new ESRI Geonet forums

I’ve been a little quiet on this blog since my flurry of posts about surviving the MPhil to Phd upgrade intact. I don’t really have a good reason for not posting; I guess I just haven’t been able to think of much worth saying.

This is not to say that I haven’t been doing anything, far from it! But I’ve discovered that, although we don’t get the long summer breaks to which I’ve become accustomed, life does slow down somewhat over summer for PhD students. This has allowed me to focus more time on actually doing some research – especially now that I’ve cleared the upgrade hurdle (that’s right, I’m a proper ‘official’ PhD student now).

At the moment I need to automate a GIS process for measuring various features of glacier valleys. For those of you who aren’t geoscientists, GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems, which are computer programs for handling spatial data. They’re used for everything from cartography through to choosing the best locations for a new wind farm or supermarket. In fact, you probably use GIS regularly without even realising it – Sat Navs and Google Maps are both types of GIS.

I use a program called ArcGIS for my research, which is made by ESRI. This program is very powerful and can perform all sorts of operations, but it isn’t the most user-friendly and takes a long time to learn how to operate. Previously you could get help with ArcGIS problems via online forums but earlier this year ERSI replaced these forums with ‘Geonet’. This is an online community that operates a lot like LinkedIn but for users of ArcGIS. Apparently they’re working on a Geonet mobile app and there’s even a cheesy promo video.

Interestingly, a range of polls on Geonet have mostly rated it as worse than the previous ESRI forums. I have to beg to differ – I always found the previous forums to be a total pain to find anything on whereas I find Geonet much easier to navigate. Perhaps part of this is due to the social media feel of it; which might appeal more to someone like me, who pretty much grew up using these platforms, rather than to users of the old ESRI forums. I just find the whole thing much friendlier and less tech-y, by which I mean it’s more intuitive for people who don’t already know a fair bit about ArcGIS. These people are likely to be a significant part of the audience for help forums and online communities like this, so I feel the new set-up is an improvement. Sure there are a few glitches and poorly thought out bits but the Geonet set-up is a complete departure from the previous forums, so I’d expect some teething issues.

Enough with the comparison to the old ESRI forums – if you are using ArcGIS and you have a problem should you bother going to Geonet? I’d say absolutely yes. Search the site and you may find that someone else has already had your problem and received a solution. Failing that, set up a profile and get asking your questions. I’ve done this myself and have been amazed at the speed and usefulness of the responses. I swear some people must be on Geonet practically all the time. Maybe that social media aspect is paying off?

Finding the appropriate ‘places’ and posting your questions there can also be a great way of getting relevant experts to see your post and tell you what you’re doing wrong. I find this especially useful for using Python scripts in Arc – my coding skills are limited at best so my scripts often throw errors that the good people of the Python place routinely correct for me!

I should note here that my other go-to source for GIS assistance is the GIS StackExchange, a useful site that is much more in the mould of the old ESRI forums. This is the place to go if you really can’t stand the new look Geonet. On the StackExchange there is a discussion of the pros and cons of Geonet, worth a look if you want more information about the new site than this brief review can give you.


p.s. The image for this post is a screenshot from a recent session of mine in ArcGIS. I particularly hate unspecified errors but posting information about what I was doing on Geonet did led to a solution on this occansion.