James Crosby - My Geochemical Life (so far...)

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My first term in Cambridge

I take this next blog post to talk about my first semester starting as a PhD student here at the University of Cambridge. Cambridge is largely an extremely serious place with high achieving academic strutting the streets and walking the halls, but thankfully I have been keeping true to myself and operating on what has gotten me to this point.

After an awesome summer of travelling, conferencing and relaxing, it was time to begin my new geochemical life at the University of Cambridge. I have always considered myself to be a small fish, but thankfully St Andrews was a nice and small town in which I could enjoy myself. Although Cambridge is small in size, it is huge in activity and academic buzz. Shortly after arriving into Cambridge I was filled with the expected “Imposters Syndrome”. A syndrome by which I immediately felt like I was out of my league compared to the academic abilities and achievements many of my peers had. Thankfully, I soon had the opinion that I had come here not necessarily for showing academic brilliance or achievement, I had come here because I was awarded the opportunity to show these traits and to fulfil my potential. And so, just as the semester had arrived my opportunity had begun.

On the 30th of September, 2017 I formally matriculated as a member of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. As with many things in Cambridge, it’s a nice formal affair in which we dress in our typical attire (long black robes, suit and tie) and take part in a traditional welcoming ceremony. The stand out moment was being addressed by the Dr John Xuereb, Dean of the college. Dr Xuereb is the person who oversees discipline, or as he refers to it “acting in a way to permit us from inhibiting the ability of another person at the college to succeed”. He is a well-spoken man who made it clear that if the only time we ever see him again was at graduation then it had been a successful relationship. Following this, I attended one of many formals provided through college. Formals are great. They are basically a formal event in which we dress in traditional attire, are greeted and dismissed by a Latin prayer, but largely involve eating lots of food and drinking more than a fair share of wine. I try not to get involved with too many of these, but resistance is futile.

In the coming days, I began my introduction to the department and my academic cohort. I was very pleased when I arrived at my office I had inherited a tank full of goldfish – Tinkerbell and Gizmo. I was also pleased at how social the department is, with communal coffee and lunch breaks to keep the mind clear. The department is split into two sites, but thankfully I am based in central Cambridge a stone throw away from all the lunch options. A highlight was the Christmas meal at a sweet pub near Jesus college where people were in good spirits (pardon the pun).

Now to the business, how has the research started? In all honesty, I have mixed feelings. I have been fortunate than I inherited an absolutely bitchin sample set from a retired professor. These wacky samples are going to largely form the first year of my academic research. I am to petrographically analyse them, geochemically investigate them and then interpret the relationship. The frustration I have is that I’ve only really done the petrographic characterisation, meaning I still have all the geochemistry to do. As a geochemist, I am excited for this but was hoping to get more done before Christmas. But when taking a step back I realise this apparent slow productivity isn’t because I was lazy, its because I spent so much time introducing myself to the PhD concepts that doing any geochemical analysis by this point was probably unrealistic.

Outside of my academic and college life, I have actually been enjoying myself. I tried my hand at rugby league, aiding in a sensational victory for the 1st team over the University of Derby. I’ve also tried my hand at scientific journalism through “New Principia”. But my key enjoyment has come through volunteering at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. It feels amazing to help members of the public learn about the evolution of Earth and I am thoroughly excited to help in the future. It feels really good when I can point at a dinosaur and be like “yo, check out this cool dinosaur”, and the person is like “wow”.  

My highlight of my time this semester has not actually been spent in Cambridge. The highlight was my graduation from the University of St Andrews. Although the ceremony was ceremonious, the most amazing thing was having so many members of my family come from the USA to visit me specifically for the event. I had my fathers and mothers side of the family make the epic trip across the pond just to see little old me. As a group of 11 strong, we stormed the St Andrews Waffle Company and had an incredibly memorable time. It is a day that I will remember for the rest of my life.

My take away point from my first semester in Cambridge is that actually, things aren’t as crazy, intense or potentially demoralising as I first thought. After only a few months I am confident to say that Cambridge is just another researching University with some epic colleges, cool people and an incredible opportunity.

Enjoy the holidays everyone - JC

My Geological and Leisurely Summer – France, Japan, USA and Skye

Hello all, welcome to the next insight into my geochemical life.

In the middle of August, I finally finished my MSc Geochemistry in St Andrews by submitting my research project. After some celebratory bevs and heavy goodbyes to my classmates, it was time to begin my summer.

First of all was to head off to Paris, France to attend DINGUE (Developments In Noble Gas Understanding and Expertise) at IPGP (Institut De Physique du Globe de Paris) and Goldschmidt at Le Palais de Congres de Paris. DINGUE was a much smaller conference, where I could meet the Noble Gas research community and see how they were using it for their own geochemical research. Goldschmidt, on the other hand, was an enormous conference, with thousands of academics attending. Here, I presented the research from my project which was warmly received by several people and closely scrutinised by other authors whom I disagreed with. Overall, a great experience. It was also great to meet some current PhD students at Cambridge who I shall be spending more time with in the near future.

Secondly was the epic voyage across Japan. An incredible 3 week journey from Tokyo through Nagano, Matsumoto, Takayama, Kurashiki, Hiroshima, Kyoto and finishing in Osaka. In addition to gaining great insight into foreign culture, I also learned a key lesson about myself – I am a country boy, not a city slicker. While in Tokyo I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the insane Japanese culture, highlighted by visits to various Temples, Shinto Shrines and unique Japanese architecture. However, my favourite experience was the fish market with the fresh sashimi. From Tokyo we went into the Japanese Alps (Nagano, Matsumoto and Takayama). The beautiful mountain setting was complemented by regionally varying food – the best of which was definitely the marbleized Hida beef. The venture to the local phenomenon of Kurashiki was fun, a preserved ancient city with an abundance of traditional Japanese architecture (likely recreated to adhere to tourist demand). The day trip to Hiroshima was sobering and inspiring. Here, we visited the Nuclear Dome ( the only piece of architecture surviving since the bomb drop), the museum and various memorials. It did a great job of not assigning blame, but instead relaying facts, showing the destruction caused by nuclear war and providing important lessons why nuclear war cannot be an option in the future. This was very sobering especially considering the topical nuclear rhetoric between the USA and North Korea. We finished the visit in Kyoto (the ancient capital before the Edo Period) and Osaka. While my time in Kyoto comprised more cultural observation, we decided to finish in Osaka to bring us back to the 21st century by visiting Universal Studios Theme Park.

The most striking observation I made while I was in Japan was how many Japanese people identify with two different religions at the same time – Buddhism and Shintoism. An interesting religious coexistence rarely observed.

Next was a 2-week trip back to where it all began: Tega Cay, South Carolina. The trip has 4 key aims, relax, play golf, eat fried chicken and visit family. Thanks to the great weather, the local golf course, Chick-Fil-A, and journey to a BBQ comedy and music festival and a NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) drag race all these goals were successful. Although watching the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium against the Buffalo Bills was a close second, the most enjoyable aspect was visiting my Brother and Niece. Having travelled all the way from Raleigh, North Carolina, we had a great weekend together for the first time in years.

Finally, the weekend before I leave to start my PhD in Cambridge I spent time with my girlfriend on the Isle of Skye. Skye is truly a beautiful island off the west coast of Scotland and I highly advise a visit. From the lighthouse on Niest Point through the striking views at the Old Man of Storr, this weekend was the outdoor enthusiasts' dream. Beware, you need a car and avoid school holidays, this island is not well equipped for the high demand of tourism.

The Sun is Setting on St Andrews

As I near the completion of my final piece of work at the University of St Andrews, I feel reflective. I am not sure if it is the 15,000 words I just typed or the mouldy blue cheese I ate stimulating thought, but I feel funny contemplating the thought of leaving this place. 

When I arrived in St Andrews I was starting my life again. I had no friends, no idea if I could thrive in such a fantastic university and no clue what to do myself. 11 months later and I can't believe how things have changed. I have established great friendships, uncovered a passion for geochemistry and made myself sick of golf (four rounds a week for two months will do that). But, what I have learned is that if I could, I would do it all over again. 

Now, as I near submission and preparation for a great summer in three different continents (see future blog posts for details) I am pleased with how everything has turned out. Thankfully, it looks like I will have academic and personal reasons to return to St Andrews. Although the sun has almost set St Andrews for me, there will be a new day soon.


My First Blog Post

Here, I have decided to elaborate on my transition from the University of Manchester to the University of St Andrews. I have approached this blog post from two different angles:
1. The research transition
2. The personal transition

In all transparency and honesty, the research transition was completely necessary. In my undergraduate life, I chose to specialise in organic geochemistry. I had chosen to do this because Manchester had a world-class department with many leading research and PhD members of staff. I enjoyed my time here working on my dissertation in the Organic Geochemistry Laboratories as part of the Williamson Research Centre for Molecular Environmental Science and being an employed research assistant. However, I decided that organic geochemistry was not for me and I would pursue other forms of geochemistry. It is in St Andrews I decided to pursue Earth geodynamic evolution, which I personally found more interesting. I have always looked at the natural world and asked questions of what I am seeing, how it formed and how this might change in the future. The University of St Andrews had a wealth of academic staff who provided me research opportunities to investigate these questions. And so it began, how does diamond form and what impact does that have for geodynamic processes? 

I would say the most challenging aspect of moving to St Andrews was the personal transition. I had developed many close friendships in Manchester (which I proudly try and continue) and I felt well integrated into the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences. I realised that all that I had worked so hard to create for myself in Manchester, I was effectively starting again. Thankfully, the department in St Andrews has a strong Geological Society (GeolSoc) and my peers in the MSc Geochemistry department were some of the friendliest people I have ever met. This, combined with communication with the very approachable department staff, welcoming societies available in the town and my willingness to meet new people ensured that my transition to St Andrews was enjoyable.

Although I have not developed the same depth of friendships I had in Manchester, St Andrews has welcomed me with open arms and it is a shame that I am the so called "honeymoon sweetheart" and only able to enjoy one year in this town. 




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