In my project, we’ve often had to have discussions about boundaries – where does our system begin and end.
Since we are dealing with river catchments, the catchment boundary is defined by basic physical processes, essentially the force of gravity directing water that rains down in this bounded area to accumulate towards a common point (called an outlet), based on the elevation profile of the wider region. And this can be computed using an established method called catchment delineation. Still, some decisions are more up for debate – do we look at the widest definition of the drainage basin, where the final outlet discharges into the sea? Or the subcatchment that is most feasible to reach for field work, with the outlet being the junction point with the next major river?
And what about the beginning, the source? Which point do we designate as the # in our sampling strategy? There are many first order streams which feed into the top part of the catchment, or indeed, across the entire area. Which one should be given precedence – the longest tributary, the one that diverges the least or bears the same name? And at the source itself, there is normally a gradual process of many trickles seeping out of the ground or from overland flows and building eventually to what we might identify as a stream, as opposed to a single origin point where the stream suddenly comes into existence.
Which is a long-winded way to say that often times, in science and in life, there are many ways to define a starting point, depending on which perspective you choose. And it may well be that there is no clear cut-off point, but a more diffuse, gradual process.
This is something I’ve also experienced throughout my PhD journey. There have been many points where I had the feeling that “NOW, my PhD can begin in earnest!”.
Now that I have had my first supervision meeting.
Now that I have met the i-CONN cohort virtually for the first time!
Now that I’ve written a project proposal!
Now that I finally have Data! (an entire journal entry or indeed, temple, should exist just to show the reverence that PhD students have towards that all-treasured and sometimes illusive mythical beast that is Data).
Now that I’ve moved to my host university in the UK! Now that I have my campus card! My own desk in the office! My work computer! And I’ve met my supervisors in person!
Now that I’ve finally traveled to an i-CONN event and met the entire cohort…
My most recent “NOW” moment has been to finally go out into the field, in my proposed study area. Much preparation had gone into it – from agonizing over pro-con lists for all the candidate study sites, to getting health and safety approval for all steps and persons involved; from comparing protocols for sample collection, processing and storage, to taking refresher driving lessons to come to grips with the UK’s left-side driving. As a scout, I live by the motto “Be prepared”, which I sometimes interpret to mean “there’s never enough preparation”, but there’s a much stronger argument to be made for drawing a line and then trouble shooting as you go.
And so, a line was drawn, a date set, and finally, on a typically cloudy british day, I went out with my supervisor Sim Reaney to explore sampling sites and take some test samples from locations along the entire length of the river. As we’ve all had to learn over the last couple of years, there are many perks of doing remote work, in terms of accessibility, convenience and sustainability, but nothing quite makes up for the sense of being physically present, seeing first hand what you are dealing with and re-contextualizing the notions you had before seeing the actual thing. Armed with these new insights, the cherry on top of a fine day in the great outdoors (and occasionally in sprawling urban centers or next to wastewater outlets, as is the nature of studying pharmaceutical contamination, unfortunately) were the always amusing fieldwork mishaps – a sample bottle cap carried away by the stream, a water collection device (a.k.a. bottle on a stick) proving less than up for the job of collecting water from atop a bridge, and the customary missed train.
Pictures from my first field trip – moments before the bottle cap was
sacrificed on the altar of science.
I have often theorized that my habit of losing items while traveling is a cosmic way of settling tabs – a memorable trip might cost me a lost hat, or scarf, or pack of playing cards. If the theory is to be believed, then I should only have to show you the last photo that my phone took before unceremoniously expiring* during my following field trip in order to demonstrate what a valuable time I had on that occasion, and I say this unironically, despite the pesky rain. In the photo is Laura Turnbull-Lloyd, another member of my supervision team, who joined me on this visit to the headwaters of the Aire river.
Last photo taken by my poor mobile phone on my second trip to the Aire catchment.
And as it happened, while visiting the purported source of the Aire, at the base of a vast limestone amphitheater, I was amazed to see a large torrent seeming to appear out of bare rock – I had never seen anything quite like it. But just as I was re-evaluating my stance on defining beginnings after being confronted with this undeniable example of a clear single point of origin, Laura informed me that in fact the water that we were seeing gushing out from seemingly nowhere was actually the outflow stream of a glacial lake further uphill – Malham Tarn – which goes underground before re-emerging in this dramatic fashion.
Malham Cove, a source for the Aire river, courtesy of Laura Turnbull-Lloyd.
So I believe now, as I prepare to have my samples analyzed in the lab and get on to the even more interesting task of using network tools to interpret the results, I can expect to have even more “NOW” moments going forward, or perhaps at the end, with a birds-eye view of the entire experience, I will be able to trace back some less obvious moment as the true start of it all.
More information on the very interesting geology of Malham Cove and surrounding landscape features here.
* Lastly, I am pleased to announce that my phone has, in fact, survived the ordeal, after a quick fix-up in the shop.