Fair brother Lecture now on YouTube!

Here’s the final film of the public lecture I gave in May. Have a look, I absolutely promise it should be accessible to everyone, that’s the idea! Some of my friends were worried about coming incase they wouldn’t understand it and reviews have been pretty nice so I hope you will enjoy it too…


The Three Minute Thesis Experience- Is it worth it?

The call for people to enter Reading University’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition is currently being sent round so I thought now would be a good time to reflect on my experiences of this event two years ago.

For those of you who don’t know, 3MT competitions happen worldwide and PhD students get 3 minutes and 1 slide to explain their research to a general audience. This is surprisingly quite tough; to say what you do and explain why people should care in that timeframe is tricky.

I found preparing the talk and practicing it a really useful experience. Not only does it focus your mind on why you’re doing your PhD, something it’s very easy to lose sight of once you get buried in data and coding, but it also helps with thinking about how to explain your work to friends and family who often do want to know what you do but worry they won’t understand. Through doing it you realise that, although you probably know to avoid jargon in general, words like ‘model’, which seem to have such an obvious meaning to you actually have a very different meaning to the bulk of the population! It also means that when you get asked to give your ‘elevator pitch’ of your PhD, be it in a job interview, at the pub or in an actual elevator, you’re more than ready.

I was lucky enough to be the runner up at the Reading competition which was a great piece of recognition and also meant that I got to represent my university at the national 3MT semis in York. The Reading competition was really nice and friendly, I got loads of feedback and enjoyed the whole thing a lot. And there was free wine after.


Giving my talk- just about remembering which way was up after the previous week at Glastonbury…


The Reading finals audience

However, at the semi-finals I started to be less keen on the competition. Many of the audience felt that the judges picked some finalists on how much they liked the project rather than presentation skills, which surely is only part of the point. For me it was clear that what the Reading judges wanted was different from what the York ones did, which was a shame but that that point I was starting to get a bit disillusioned/ questioning how much time I’d traveled as a ratio to speaking time. I think by that stage you’ve done the talk so many times that it stops being an exciting communication opportunity and starts being an attempt to follow a set of predefined rules that you think you know from the style of past talks, but can also change depending on who’s judging you… and it seems a lot of effort to put in for such a short talk!

I also do wonder how good it is to compare PhD projects. They’re all so different and go at different speeds. Although most of us can always get better at communicating and being made to do it so concisely is definitely a good exercise.

So in short, I’d say do it, just don’t do too well…

To get an idea of the style of talk here’s my rehearsal for York filmed at the Reading graduate school, ignore the faffing at the start!


Fairbrother Lecture

I’m very excited to be able to reveal that I’ve been asked to give Reading University’s Fairbrother Lecture for 2016.

Named after Jack Fairbrother, who in 1929 became the first student to be awarded a PhD from the University, the Fairbrother Lecture is an annual event at which a current, or recent, Reading doctoral researcher will present their work to a wider audience.

A wider audience means that it should be accessible to everyone so please do come along to hear about my work as well as some more general information about the polar regions.

It’s free but ticketed: more information is available here.

Wednesday 4 May, 19.00, Henley Business School, Whiteknights, University of Reading

Fairbrother 2016 photo


The official announcement:

“The Graduate School is pleased to announce that Sammie Buzzard, a final year doctoral researcher from the Department of Meteorology, will give the Fairbrother Lecture in 2016. In this lecture, Sammie will discuss some of the key issues around global warming and climate change; in particular, the collapse of ice shelves in Antarctica. Sammie’s doctoral research aims to help us better predict the speed and rate at which these ice shelves – one twice the size of Wales – will continue to melt and she will explain the wider impact of this occurrence. Sammie will also highlight some of the challenges of researching one of the most inhospitable places on earth. 

Sammie Buzzard holds a Natural Environment Research Council studentship and had previously been a finalist in the Graduate School’s Three Minute Thesis Competition. 

In addition to her studies, in 2015 Sammie completed a Research Council Policy Internship at the Government Office for Science. 

If you wish to attend this lecture, please book your place using the online booking form: http://www.reading.ac.uk/news-and-events/about-event-register.aspx

Is the climate changing or are we just lost in translation?

We can spend a lot of time worrying about unlikely probabilities. (Image news.com.au)

We can spend a lot of time worrying about unlikely probabilities. (Image news.com.au)

Fear of flying- it’s something that many of us have, and even those who don’t can at least understand what there is to be afraid of. Planes crash, there’s no two ways about it. Yet to have a fear of climate change? That seems a lot less logical. Why is it we focus on the remote probability but often don’t spare a thought for something that is a lot more likely to have an impact on us?

Maybe for the case of climate change it’s due to not knowing the numbers involved- is this “dangerous” level of climate change politicians like to focus on something that will actually happen? If we somehow manage to keep carbon dioxide concentrations at the current level of about 400 parts per million, (bearing in mind that this level was exceeded in May 2013 at Mauna Loa in Hawaii for the first time since 1958 and in April 2014 became a monthly average) then the chances of 2 degrees warming in relation to pre-industrial levels is 30%. 2 degrees is a figure that should be prevented according to the UN and the EU and is often quoted as being a dangerous level, bringing with it global consequences including significant increase in wildfire, sea level rise and decreasing crop yields. But 30% likelihood doesn’t sound so bad, or does it?

Put this into a context we might better understand and this figure doesn’t look so good. There are currently an average of 30 fatal flying accidents per year. If the probability of fatal flying accidents was the same as the chance of 2 degrees warming this figure would rise to over 9 million. That’s over one thousand fatal flying accidents per hour. Increase carbon dioxide concentration to 450 parts per million and this figure nearly doubles.

But then again even if we knew the statistics, would that matter? Maybe it’s an inherent fear of numbers that GCSE or O level maths leaves countless people with but in the UK we as a nation tend not to be comfortable with probabilities. European weather forecasts frequently give a percentage likelihood of rain but here the closest we really get is being told there is a slight chance of showers.

This does lead to another problem though, what does “slight chance” actually mean? Do I pack my umbrella? In the case of climate change it may well be the wording that is the problem not the numbers. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the ‘IPCC’) use a scale of phrases to describe the probabilities of events ranging from ‘virtually certain ‘ to ‘considerably unlikely’.

A study by the University College London, Cardiff University and Shandong Normal University in China showed just how big the problem with these terms is. Only 20% of UK participants could correctly put the IPCC’s terms into the order of increasing likelihood that they were intended to represent, let alone determine what ranges of probabilities that they are trying to demonstrate. Chinese participants scored even lower than this with only 9% completing a correct order. The understanding of the terms used for the Chinese version of the IPCC report for most native Chinese speakers did not agree with the IPCC’s definition, especially for the higher probability terms such as ‘very likely’ which the IPCC believe should represent over 90% probability but was being interpreted by Chinese participants as only 70% likely. So we have an intergovernmental report, designed to give a clear guide to the world on the best that science has to tell us about the state of the climate but a wide range of ways people interpret the terms they’re using.

Maybe using numbers is the way forward, or maybe scientists are just not using the right words. Many of those with a science background have constantly been told throughout school, undergraduate degrees and beyond that climate change is happening. Perhaps for scientists the language is less important and we just don’t think how a choice of words can affect those who are less convinced.

There is much debate around whether or not scientists should get involved in policy or try to get certain messages out to the public. Some feel that science should be done just for science’s sake whether or not everyone else can understand it. But with funding bodies demanding outreach work and big publications, coupled with a great deal of taxpayers’ money funding research, the science has to be shared, regardless of how people choose to interpret it. For this to happen it needs to be clear what scientists are actually trying to show when they use probabilities and it seems that in the case of climate change this is still not happening. Will this change in the future? I’d say it’s very slightly somewhat considerably likely.


  1. Statistics created using http://global-risk-indicator.net/index.html It’s a really cool tool, go and play with it.
  2. Study mentioned: Lost in translation? Interpretations of the probability phrases used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in China and the UK- Harris et al, Climatic Change (2013), 121:415–425, DOI 10.1007/s10584-013-0975-1