Common errors in (student) science writing

Ah, the glories of Twitter led me to this marvellous short handout by David Schulz titled “How to improve upon common errors in student science writing“. At only 7 pages long theres little excuse not to read this document and it helps me answer my colleagues questions on scientific english as well. So many small editorial aspects that I was never formally taught.

“For Critical Literature Reviews, dissertations, and other research papers, rather than just mentioning in passing the lack of consensus in the literature or the gap in the literature, motivate it in the introduction by describing how the lack of consensus is affecting the science. If there is a debate, provide enough evidence for and against to motivate your reader. The reader should understand your concerns. Can you provide an example? Can you quantify what the failure to address this issue is doing? Otherwise, readers may not get the sense from what you’ve written what the debate is all about and why they should care.”

David M. Schultz is a Professor of Synoptic Meteorology at the Centre for Atmospheric Science of the University of Manchester, Chief Editor for Monthly Weather Review, and author of “Eloquent Science: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Better Writer, Speaker, and Atmospheric Scientist“. His website is full of other tips and tricks.


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Climate inaction tops WEF risk assessment for 2021

How interesting!

Every year, the World Economic Forum analyzes the top risks in the world in its Global Risks Report. Risks were identified based on 800+ responses of surveyed leaders across various levels of expertise, organizations, and regional distribution. But look at the danger zone in the top right:

Totally dominated by environmental factors. If this is the opinion of the World Economic Forum, I’m curious to see how and when this will translate in to prioritised action. The main message is though that in principle environmental campaigners and those they are lobbying to make changes actually appear to be on the same side, no?

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Earth surface and energy uptake in the climate system

I recently came across this striking graphic illustrating the partitioning of Earths surface:

It made me think of regenerative agriculture … and wonder which countries we should focus on? If the largest 6 countries would change their agricultural or land use practices would it be sufficient to make a planetary impact? All have quite large areas of non-agricultural land, but for example in Brazil there is concern that deforestation of the Amazon basin will reach a point where it can no longer support a rain forest.

The original graphic is from Visual Capitalist website here.

It also nicely illustrates a fact that many of us know: that the Earth surface is 70% ocean.  A lesser known ocean fact is that 90% of the excess energy accumulated by the climate system from 1971 to 2010 due to human greenhouse gas emissions has been absorbed by the ocean. After the ocean, the extra energy has been consumed by melting ice and warming the continental land mass. Atmospheric warming comes next. What this means is that the rising atmospheric temperatures are just the “tip of the iceberg” of energy change in our climate system.

This is well shown in this IPCC graphic 3.1:

This plot shows the energy in Zeta Joules (1 ZJ = 1021 J) that has been accumulated in different components of the Earth’s climate system from 1971 to 2010 unless otherwise indicated. Ocean warming (the change in heat content) dominates, with the upper ocean (light blue, above 700 m) contributing more than the mid-depth and deep ocean (dark blue, below 700 m) because it takes time to stir the water to greater depth. Uncertainty in the ocean estimate also dominates the total uncertainty (dot-dashed lines about the error from all five components at 90% confidence intervals).

Highlighting a classic challenge in earth science data, its worth noting that not all the data in this plot was available as far back as 1971: Estimates of ocean heat below 2000 m start from 1992; though glacier melt records start in 1971, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet estimates of melt start from 1992, and Arctic sea ice data is from 1979 to 2008; the atmospheric warming estimate starts from 1979. make smaller contributions.

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Habilitation Thesis

In the german-speaking world in order to progress in an academic career it is important at some point to complete something like a second PhD thesis in the form of a Habilitation thesis. This generally consists of a collection of your post-doctoral scientific research publications and an assessment of your teaching activities, with the purpose to demonstrate that you are a successful working research/teaching academic. Its an alien concept to me as a Brit, but I submitted by Habilitation in 2019 and was successfully awarded it in 2020.  I can now apparently call myself ‘Priv.-Doz. Dr. Assistant Professorin Lindsey Nicholson B.Sc., Ph.D.’.

Many thanks to the generous reviewers Tad Pfeffer, Andy Kääb, and Andrew Mackintosh, scientists and humans for whom I have the greatest respect, for taking the time to review it, and for providing me with very encouraging reviews of my work so far. It is much appreciated. My habilitation thesis can be accessed at the University of Innsbruck library here:

The Habilitation thesis consists of 11 peer reviewed publications completed between 2012 and 2019 that all address aspects of understanding debris-covered glacier systems. These papers (i) lay out conceptual frameworks for understanding debris-covered glaciers systems, (ii) use detailed field observations to identify the significant controls on small to medium scale processes operating on debris covered glaciers, (iii) integrate debris covered glacier surfaces into coupled surface-atmospheric models, (iv) use satellite data to understand glacier scale processes affected by debris cover and (v) develop advanced numerical modelling tools for furthering our process-understanding of debris-covered glaciers.

“One aspect of Dr. Nicholson’s scientific career to date stands out with particular prominence, and this is the breadth of her expertise and interests.” Its so rewarding to see this attribute commended, as I sometimes feel like a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’, although I also realise my broad experience helps me collaborate well in interdisciplinary science.

“… to a large extent thanks to Dr. Nicholson’s work, effort and success, debris cover on glaciers is currently one of the main research topics within mountain glaciology worldwide.” I never saw my contribution this way, although I certainly love the topic and enjoy seeing the resurgence in interest in researching debris-covered glaciers.

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Imposter syndrome and nurturing work envionments

I’ve heard discussion of, and read some articles about,  ‘imposter syndrome’ with a fair amount of interest as I am someone who has suffered from regular feelings of inadequacy in all aspects of my life for all of my life so far.

Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.” Harvard Business Review, 2008.

Imposters! Not even wearing  underpants on the outside can make these people superheros …. extra points if you know any of the undoubtedly special and beautiful nerds in this picture.

I really thought that I’d developed robust strategies to overcome my low sense of self worth, by focussing on my practical achievements and learned capabilities while also fairly acknowledging my weaknesses and developing strategies to improve, or deal with them. Also my innate interest in, and dedication to, my job and its activities is pretty helpful, as my will to do it well often over-rides my insecurities, allowing me to perform the tasks required of me in a professional and acceptable manner, no matter how I might be feeling inside. Actually, I believe a degree of self doubt is a positive asset in the process of scientific inquiry, so I tried not to consider it a ‘problem’, but instead frame it as an opportunity.

Then, one day this imposter feeling went really bad and un-fun.

I was giving an important presentation, in front of many colleagues and friends. Being in front of people who knew me, I should have felt supported, but instead, I was convinced they had turned up out of sympathy for me – it felt like they knew I would fail, and that they were there out of pity for me that I was about to be exposed publicly. I was convinced that I was a total fraud, incapable of doing any valuable scientific work or teaching, and that this was clear to everyone. In my mind, they would all be wondering how I even got to where I am now. Despite all my previous experience of feeling inadequate, this was a different level, and made me realise what imposter syndrome really feels like and how it must utterly prevent people from making their valuable contributions. This time round, it was not possible for me to reason myself out of this deep-rooted sense of doom, nor shift my unhappiness and intimidation about being inside these feelings. I literally could not reach my practical, positive voice, and could not use my brain to resolve this situation. I was mentally crippled by the imposter syndrome. Uh-oh.

So, in the spirit of learning from, well, everything in life, I have gone back to basics and addressed some of the causes of the discombobulation that contributed to this experience. In addition to that, I decided that from my perspective developing a work-environment culture in which people are accustomed to receiving both positive and negative feedback in a supportive environment might go a long way to offsetting imposter syndrome, because it lets you experience trust in both your own and others opinions. There are many ways in which people can become vulnerable to impostor syndrome, and some people have experienced truly wounding situations of being belittled or otherwise devalued, or abused, but whatever the cause, I want to fight against people feeling this way about themselves. Life is short and sometimes challenging enough – there is no time for additional imposed misery. I will work towards myself, my colleagues, and everyone else feeling valued, and able to make their contribution in a secure and respectful environment. As a start to this, I began my new role as Assistant Professor at the University of Innsbruck with a team exercise for the Ice and Climate Unit to identify our shared priorities and values about the kind of work environment we want to co-create. In doing this I was inspired by the ‘Lab Book’ (“living manual of our values, guidelines, and protocols”) of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), which is a feminist, anti-colonial lab specializing in monitoring plastic pollution (thank you!). I have much to learn in terms of strategic development of nourishing work environments, but I am on the road, and have a great team with which to share the journey.

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