Name: Kaja Fenn
Age: 31
Year of study: Second year DPhil
Department: School of Geography and the Environment
Research Group: Landscape Dynamics research cluster

What are you researching: I am working on Quaternary loess (dust) deposits, with the aim of determining both the time at which they were deposited and their source.

The Quaternary Period is part of the Cenozoic Era, spans the last 2.6 million years and is a subdivided into two epochs; the Pleistocene (2.6 million – 11.7 thousand years ago) and the Holocene (11.7 thousand years ago to the present day). Despite quite a short span this is a particularly important time in the Earth’s history as it experienced extraordinary climatic and environmental changes marked by continued switching between glacial and interglacial stages. This is also the period during which human evolution took place, making it an important time to understand. Unlike during older geological periods, the position of continents, oceanic currents, and atmospheric patterns were similar to the present day allowing for easier comparisons and analogues between past and present. Deciphering Quaternary environmental responses can also help with predicting future climate change, as well as providing a base for testing climate models. Also, unlike with the more distant geological periods, more dating techniques are available including radiocarbon (C14), dendrochronology (tree rings), annual ice-layers, varve chronology (annual lake sedimentary deposits), optically stimulate luminescence (OSL), Uranium-Thorium, Potassium-Argon, and tephrochronology. Where possible these techniques are often used in combination to increase the precision and accuracy to create chronologies for the environmental changes. As a result, it is sometimes possible to reconstruct paleoenvironments down to seasonal differences.

Studying loess in particular has the potential to increase our understanding of the Earth’s systems. Identifying source regions sheds light on the mechanisms behind the production and transport of these vast quantities of dust. It can also provide an insight into regions which may become far dustier as a result of climate change, since it is likely that areas which were dust emitters in the past will become ones again in the future. You can read about my project in more detail here.

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Taking a well earned break after a day of sampling in Serbia

Background: Most recently I studied for an MSc in Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway University of London after getting a BSc in Geography and Environmental Management from University of the West of England. However I began my long, and slightly complicated, journey to academia at 19. I started an undergraduate degree at the University in Gdansk (Poland) straight from high school. Despite having a real interest in physical geography and geology, I settled for a degree in economics as I was doubtful what job prospects I would have on completing a degree in geography. After studying for 1.5 years (at Polish universities students’ complete semesters rather than years) I decided to take a semester off and move to the UK to work on my English. After 6 months in the UK I decided not to go back to the subject I did not enjoy. For a few years I worked at a variety of jobs (bars, restaurants, travel agent) whilst deciding what to do. I missed academia however, and was determined to go back to higher education, even though at the time it meant studying and working part-time. I decided to follow my heart, choosing to study a subject I really enjoyed, and haven’t look back since!

Motivation: Apart from just satisfying my never-ending curiosity, academic research is not your usual 9-5 “job”. Although there are days when things get a bit monotonous (sieving sediment for several weeks straight is definitely not one of my favourite jobs), in general no two days are the same, which makes it an exciting career choice. Also, as cheesy as it sounds, I find it really motivating that I am helping to understand how the world works.

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Sampling in Croatia

Funniest fieldwork story: It is surprisingly (worryingly?!) hard to pick one! I managed to hit myself in the forehead with a hammer, as I swung it too hard and was not expecting the amount of recoil. The PhD student who was helping me out with fieldwork at the time thought that was absolute comedy gold. Another time, local people were amused by how devoured by mosquitos I was – and took pictures of me! I stopped counting at 139 bites just on my core and arms, which made me look like I had measles. Personally, I thought it was pretty funny that, as we were crossing the border from Serbia to Croatia on the way to a site, the border control guards were concerned that the Serbians driving were attempting to sell me!

The best moment of the PhD so far: The best is probably the fieldwork. Despite inevitable problems, it is just so much fun and in truth all those issues make for the best stories (once enough time has passed that you can laugh about them).

The worst moment of the PhD so far: As for the worst… hmmm, hard to say, but probably all those days when nothing seems to go right. The machine is not working, the computer is freezing, people you are trying to work with are just extra difficult…

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