Introduction: What’s All The Rock About?
My research focused on the oldest rocks in Britain (3 billion years old), the Lewisian Gneiss in NW Scotland. The Fieldwork component centred on two separate regions of the Lewisian with postulated different histories. The aim was to analyse textural differences in the mineral zircon within these rocks and then date them in order to understand if plate tectonics (a key process which makes earth unique amongst the rocky planets and ultimately habitable) operated at the time. Zircons are minerals known as ‘the timekeepers of earth’s history’ as instead of getting destroyed in melting and metamorphic events they add the occurrence of the event to their rims (known as zones) like tree rings.
A labour of Love, Lab and Fieldwork
The journey to the zircon began in the field. Lola (a fellow Laidlaw Scholar) and I travelled to Durness, in the Scottish Highlands where we would be based for several days to conduct research. Here, we tagged along on the Highlands leg of an already established fieldwork trip hosted by the University of St Andrews primarily for American geology students.
During the day, whilst the other students were away mapping, Lola and I travelled independently to two separate regions of the Lewisian gneiss where we made our observations and took samples. The fieldwork was not without its challenges, trekking over thick bog in muggy weather with biting midges was not an ideal situation, but Lola kept morale high! In the evenings, the group came together, sharing stories of the days’ adventures, taking much needed respite in the hostel. My supervisor Batzi was helping to co-ordinate the fieldtrip for the international students and therefore I had the chance to speak with him in the evenings to discuss my observations.
Next up was the labs, back in St Andrews where my supervisor demonstrated how to use the various mineral separation equipment- the jaw crusher, car jack and hammer (not items you’d typically expect to find in a science lab!). The lab experience enabled me to learn various skills which I hope to apply to my dissertation project in the forthcoming years. It also made me realise that research is a very, very slow process. Whilst it might sound like a lot of action, most of the time was spent washing sieves and machinery and either waiting for samples to dry in the oven, separate in the Frantz (a magnetic separator) or drip through a filter filled with heavy liquid. A lot of patience was discovered!
Aptly Timed Interventions
At times, I confess that I did become a little frustrated with my research, feeling that it wasn’t going fast enough or that I could be doing more. Thankfully, the Laidlaw programme was designed with research woes in mind. Weekly organised talks (including a very enlightening one about imposter syndrome), socials and the team being only an email away kept my self-doubt at bay and eased the potentially isolating nature of research.
One of the most rewarding experiences I had during my six weeks of research was volunteering at a leadership event, hosted by the Laidlaw team, at the local high school. I coordinated a leadership activity for the students and helped them to reflect on what leadership meant to them. I found myself putting the skills and qualities the Laidlaw programme has taught me to the test and I thoroughly enjoyed the event, gaining further confidence in my abilities.
Conclusion: Falling Short or Falling Forward?
In the end, the fruits of my labour were many and I managed to successfully extract zircons from several samples. Unfortunately, however, the back-scatter electron (BSE) microprobe will not be in use until the fall and therefore I was still unable to date the zircons. Thus I still felt that I had fallen a little short, despite my successes.
In the beginning I had taken the weight of the whole project on my shoulders, thinking I had to see it through from start to finish or else I would have failed. However, I now understand the intricacies of research, in that I am a small (but valuable) part in the machine that is academia, where every individual involved plays to their own strengths. Academic research is not a singular, lonely road but a relay where one furthers the project and then passes the baton to the next person, all of whom strive for the same outcome- to have the unanswered, answered.
A note to say…
Thank you! To Lord Laidlaw without whom this amazing experience would not have been possible, to my supervisor Dr Sebastian Fischer, for patently answering every question I had, and to Celina who has so fabulously coordinated the Laidlaw programme this summer.