Name: Matt Brown
Year of study: 1st year of PhD
Department: Atmosphere, ocean and planetary physics
Research Group: Stratosphere and climate
What are you researching: The energy output from the sun varies on an 11-year cycle. These variations are very small and have negligible impact on global temperature. However, because the atmosphere is a complex beast, it can lead to relatively large changes in surface climate over smaller regions. I am trying to understand the mechanisms through which this can happen.
Why should you care: For the UK, westerly winds mean warm, mild winters because of the warm air they bring from the warm Atlantic ocean. At solar minimum, when the energy output of the sun is at its lowest in the 11 year cycle, these westerly winds become less likely, increasing the chance of cold winters for the UK and Northern Europe. This is because of a weakening of the seasonal westerly winds in the stratosphere that travels downward through the rest of the atmosphere to the surface. This is just one of many factors influencing our winter climate. By investigating and understanding these influences we will be able to predict our winter climate more accurately and further in advance.
Ok, but what do you actually DO? Right now, I am attempting to run a climate model on a supercomputer, which is no mean feat! The atmosphere is complicated – and so are the computer models! This involves me sitting at a computer for more hours of the day than I would like, attempting to work out which particular line of — code has caused it to fail this time. Once I have got it running I will be writing my own code to politely ask the model to simulate the impact a solar minimum has on the winter winds and circulation in the lower stratosphere over the pole – thought to be a vital step in the solar minimum influence on N. Europe winter climate.
That doesn’t sound fun… why do you bother? I’ll be perfectly honest with you – I’m not too sure. Sure, I love learning about the atmosphere and the weather and what makes it tick, but I have found that doing actual research is very different from this. I think for me it comes down to curiosity, plain and simple. My supervisor will say something that makes me go “oooh that’s funny, I wonder why that happens?”… and off we go. I also quite enjoy the technical side of it. Atmospheric physics is very computer-based, and I actually enjoy don’t mind playing around with a complicated climate model that crashes half the time and I like designing cool little code solutions to annoying problems that I encounter. There’s a great sense of achievement when you solve these little problems, as they lead on to you solving the big problems and, if you’re lucky, maybe even the question you set out to answer.
So in summary, curiosity, a sense of achievement, and technological geekery.
Academic background: I studied my GCSEs and A-levels at a state school in South London. I was split between biology and meteorology (the study of weather and climate) when it came to applying to university. After visiting the university of Reading, one of only 3 universities in the UK to offer an undergraduate degree in meteorology at the time, and very much liking what I saw I settled on meteorology. Well that’s not quite true actually, I was swung just a little by the fact that the degree at Reading involved a year of study at the University of Oklahoma. Having never visited the USA, this was just too good an opportunity to pass up on, and looking back 4 years later, I am so glad I made the decision to go for that degree despite the higher grades required! After my undergraduate degree I then came straight to Oxford to do my PhD. I applied more on the off-chance after seeing a project that particularly piqued my interest (see above!) and really liking the supervisor that was offering it. I didn’t really expect to get in, and many of the people who apply to Oxford don’t, but there you have it – I just couldn’t turn down the opportunity to study at Oxford!
Embarrassing moments: Accidental headphone-karaoke of this brilliant meteorological song in a rather quiet office…
Best thing about a PhD: The flexibility. You decide precisely what you want to investigate, how you want to do it and, most importantly of all, when – late mornings and late nights are my speciality! ).
Worst thing about a PhD: The flexibility – it is unfortunately a doubled-edged sword! Coming straight from the very structured set-up of an undergraduate degree or a job where you are by and large told what to do and when is a huge change. It took me a long time to get used to this. There were many times during the first few months when I had no idea what I should be doing, and when I did do something whether it was the right thing to be doing. This very quickly leads to the question of ‘why did Oxford think it was a good idea to accept me?’ A very dangerous question to ask! Many PhD students go through exactly this, and I was no exception.