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Storm in a teacup? Journey to a PhD | Thomas Wilder

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

I remember doing an art project back in school on the ideas of surrealism; constructing a bedroom with an upside-down door, and the moon shining through a window with a Cheshire cat smile…..

Well, to be starting a PhD is almost surreal for me, because back in college I felt adrift and lost, and flunked my first year AS Levels. However, university seemed the only option for me, especially since I came from a family where it was the thing to do, so I went ahead and applied. Starting my final year of college, I experienced some personal life changing moments, and I think these helped drive me, obscurely, to achieve some respectable grades in the end. Until then it had seemed to me that those who were “high achievers” were naturally talented. I didn’t realise that by working hard I could also achieve great things – I needed to have more faith in myself!

Alas, after a year out, a false start on a course I had no interest in, and a desire to study maths, I found myself on an undergraduate course in Mathematics at Oxford Brookes University. I knew I enjoyed maths as I found it fascinating that almost everything around us could be explained by its concepts; how integral it is to our daily lives. The weather forecast would not be what it is without mathematics, or without Edward Lorenz, a pioneer in meteorology and Earth sciences. While learning about him I became captivated by what he called, the butterfly effect, where a slight change in an initial condition can lead to very different results. Putting numbers into a computer programme to approximate a real-life process - now this was something that I wanted to explore further.

I embarked on a masters in Applied Mathematics at The University of Manchester, and I felt like I’d been thrown into the abyss of equations and computer programmes, whilst endlessly roaming through maths and computer help forums. After some tough coursework and a few grilling exams, I felt like I’d beefed up my maths stock considerably and had a clearer sight as to what I wanted to do. Mathematics applied in an environmental context, and my summer project was the perfect place to dive in.

The project essentially was, what happens if you fill a container up with water and then rotate it? The answer is lots of physics, which we like to call spin-up. This even happens in a cup of tea when we stir it from rest, we’re spinning up the tea. Knowing this, now makes making tea far more interesting!

Persistently working hard and discovering my academic passion finally led me to the mecca of all places environmental, UEA. It is a complete melting pot of science, sustainability, and green living; exactly the type of place I want to be at to conduct my research. Building on my love of spin-up (tea or otherwise) my research focusses on the study of rotating ocean currents, or ocean eddies, and how they interact with the atmosphere above. But why is this important? A significant amount of heat, as well as salts, carbon, and pollutants like plastics, are transported across the ocean, and eddies can influence this process massively. If winds over the ocean begin to change due to our human induced impact via CO2 emissions, then what effect will this subsequently have on the overall global ocean circulation? It is therefore crucial to investigate further and increase our understanding of the impact we are having on our ‘beloved’ planet. There hasn’t been a more important moment in history to act.

So, what does the future hold on this PhD journey? Pain? Headaches? Falling? Happiness? It probably contains a myriad of all emotions and mental states. But what I’ve learnt over the past few (maybe eight) years, is that the only way to overcome what stands in front of you, is to work hard, find your passion, and have fun in the interludes.

Is there a pub quiz this Friday? Yes, please!


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