23 June 2015

Laugharne, a year on

Last year it was being thrown in the deep. This year I was ready.

Two months into my job here in Wales I went to the 3rd year student fieldwork in Laugharne, south Wales. It is a two week event during which the students spend each day studying another aspect of the estuary. They may do CTD measurements on the tidal river one day, understand the processes going on at the beaches the other day, survey the whole estuary in to see at what speed it gets filled in by sand the day after, etcetera. One of these days they go out and sample a surface transect of modern foraminifera samples, and then later that day study the assemblages in the lab. That day is associated with James, but he had asked me (already during the job interview) if I would be willing to join, were I to be given the job. He wanted to go on holiday during the second half of the fieldwork, and needed someone to take his place. Well, modern salt marsh foraminifera assemblages, that's right up my street! So I had said I was willing indeed. I didn't worry about the taxonomy, but of course there is more to a fieldwork than that.

When we got there I realised I would have to give a general lecture in the field, on this site, and on the whole process of palaeoenvironmental reconstruction. And then another one on forams and their applications. And I had to oversee the coring of the fossil core, of which the students would have to interpret the fossil foraminifera assemblages. I had no idea what the students would do with the core, or with the foam data. It was a steep learning curve.

This year I would clearly start better prepared. I would kick off, and a week in James would appear, and he would take over. I was confident, but also a bit apprehensive, as our improvised lab is very small, and this year we would have very many students. We would have six students most days, and then the lab is rather full. The only ways to get to a student with a question tend to be clambering over furniture or through a window. But I would have assistance! Our former student Zoe (she had just finished her masters) who had been with us on the ship last year would come to help out. Great! Even though that would mean even more people in the lab...

My first job was to get there; I drove a minibus with five students south. When I got there I had to unpack all the boxes and turn their contents into our lab. The next day would be a doddle; just a walk during which someone else did the talking. I had done that day the previous time, but it was good to jog my memory. I can refer to that during my own field lectures. And that day also has a lot of hilarious tidal creek crossing. So I went along!

Students overlooking Pendine Beach

Laugharne castle (difficult to avoid adding a picture of it)

The next day the proper work started. I had a full lot! This time, though, the field part of the trip was nicer; I had changed the exam a bit, taking questions out I found silly, and adding some I found interesting. This time my talk was less a copy of James' and more an inspired lecture. Went well!

After lunch the students analyse their samples; that takes forever. Last year we had had several 14 hour working days, albeit with a one hour break. This year started well; the students needed less than 12 hours! And they were rather nice and enthusiastic. And every evening, all the staff come together for dinner, and tend to discuss what they think of the students they have had during the day. Everybody came back with good stories! This was clearly a good year, albeit somewhat busy. And something else I liked is that I had taught many of them already earlier in the year; people are nicer if you know them!

There were some more improvements; we had a microscope-with-camera setup, which was great for being able to point particular features of the forams out to students. It worked a treat! And I had streamlined the sample preparation a bit; some of it was probably a relic of earlier times and had lost its significance.

Student taking a sand flat sample

Working hard

The next day was even better. Nice and fast students. They needed even less time than the previous lot; I forgot if it was this lot or the next, but one of them managed in ten hours! And the second day batch not only brought tea bags, milk and sugar, but even left some for the students of the next day. It's a lovely bunch. The last batch that I had to do were rather varied; all nice, but one was incredibly fast, and two others very slow, leading to an old-fashioned 12-hour day. And that was with the fast ones helping out the slow ones (which again was very nice).

 Sharp timing: the tide coming in there and then

In between all the forams I managed to get a few runs in. I had been scouting the area a bit, and found some of the back roads rather good for running. One morning we even went with four people! Lots of runners this time. One of them was our local sports hero Suzie, who last year had been in training for  the European rafting championships. European! Blimey. This year she was training for an iron man event. She doesn't do things by half. Soon two of the ladies (it had accidentally been a female-only run) had to turn back. But I kept up! That boosted my confidence. And the route was great too, thanks to Suzie also being less of a Luddite. I just run about a bit in a trial-and-error fashion, but she immediately came up with a handy app and had a circular route planned literally in seconds. Spiffing! We decided to do that route again.

Another perk of Laugharne is the cooking; staff take turns, and tend to cook to an amazing standard. And that is good for everybody, but best for the micropal group; we tend to be pretty much the only ones having lunch in the chalet park, so we can eat all the leftovers! It was an excellent year again.

After four days of assemblage counting my time was up. That night, James would appear, and take over. He was amazed by our new set-up. I think he'll enjoy his part of the field trip! I drove home tired but satisfied. Maybe again next year?

Another first: cattle on our route to the salt marsh

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