External speaker: Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott

The Centre for Biodiscovery was pleased to welcome Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott OBE to the National Horizons Centre. Prof. Lappin-Scott gave a talk detailing her journey from early career researcher to professor (and beyond!). As Hilary is from Middlesbrough her story resonated with many of the team. We were inspired to hear of how she became the first female professor at Exeter University and how she has used her subject knowledge and position to help highlight issues of inclusivity within the sciences. Hilary then met specifically with our microbiology based researcher to offer advice to them. We hope to welcome Hilary back to the NHC soon.

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External speaker: Professor Phil James

On Thursday 18 May the TU Earth & Environment Research Group hosted external speaker, Professor Phil James, based in the Department of Engineering at Newcastle University.

Phil leads the Urban Observatory programme in Newcastle which is a multi-million pound investment in sensing infrastructure providing millions of observations about the city. According to Phil, his expertise and research interests lie in the fusion and integration of data for analytics and visualisation.

Phil’s brilliant and well-attended talk ‘Smart, sustainable cities: Challenges in new urban data and realising future cities for citizens’ focused on the wealth of data that the Urban Observatory programme has compiled over the past seven years, how it is used, and the challenges faced when dealing with large and, at times, sensitive data. Because the data that Phil’s team are collecting are applicable to a range of disciplines (e.g., environmental management (air quality, noise), public health (social distancing during Covid), sustainable urban development, and big data), TU Earth & Environment extended the invitation to our TU colleagues in Engineering and Public Health.

You can read more about Phil and his research interests on his profile page https://www.ncl.ac.uk/engineering/staff/profile/philipjames.html and the publicly available data and visualisation tool that Phil presented is available here https://newcastle.urbanobservatory.ac.uk/. If you intend to use the data, Phil has recommended accessing the Archive Data option.

New paper alert from Dr Desire Dalton

New Publication: PAReTT: a Python package for the Automated Retrieval and management of divergence time data from the TimeTree resource for downstream analyses

Louis-Stéphane IV Le Clercq a PhD student of Dr Desiré Lee Dalton (Lecturer in Forensic Science, Teesside University) has developed PAReTT – a Python Automated Retrieval of TimeTree data. In order to study speciation (emergence of a new species, sub-species, or ecotypes) accurate fossil-calibrated, estimates of divergence times are needed. PAReTT is a biologist-friendly, easily accessible, and freely available algorithm that can be used to retrieve (1) divergence times, between an individual pair or between all species in a list, (2) evolutionary timelines, for individuals or a list species, and (3) time trees of the divergence times, either for all available species within a specified taxon or between individual species supplied as a list. Future updates will include the ability to switch between scientific names and common names for species as well as the ability to calculate diversification rates for a table of multiple lineages.

Access the publication through the publishers website with this link (DOI: 10.1007/s00239-023-10106-3)



Digging up Memories – Making a Digital Exhibit

You may remember a previous blog post when we set out 3D scanning a whole range of different wooden artefacts for the Digging up Memories – Making Connections online exhibit with Vindolanda Museum. Well here we are, looking back at all the successes and improvements after the exhibit was released to the world! We’ve recently written about online exhibits in the book Hadrian’s Wall: Exploring Its Past to Protect Its Future, but here we’re going to review through our recently published paper on the Digging up Memories exhibit.

This exhibit focused on the precious objects that comprise the Wooden Underworld collection at Vindolanda. Objects were selected by museum workers, volunteers and contributors to ensure co-curation in the exhibit, branching the breadth of roles at Vindolanda Museum. The exhibit was held on the Vindolanda website to help ongoing public engagement during limited visitation times and beyond, still remaining accessible today.

The Digging up Memories landing page – a whole range of different themes and objects to explore!

Our early priority was multimedia excitement. Yes that sounds like a bit of a buzzy phrase but essentially, we want several types of media to engage the different preferences and interests of our audience. This meant not just 3D models but also photos, sound bites, video interviews, voice recordings of contributors, lectures, creative writing, published reports, all sorts! Clearly this had some attentive impact, achieving an average 1 minute 35 seconds spent viewing per page (compared to the “typical” museum exhibit times of half a minute).

Now you may be wondering, which objects were the most popular? First, why not take a look at the exhibit yourself and pick out which one is your favourite!

Had a look? Great! The Things We Share page was the most visited, with the Toy Sword achieving the most views overall. Personally, we love the toy sword – Rhys even gave an interview about it in the exhibit!

A key question was “so… was it worthwhile?”. Yes! We had so much valuable feedback but the most valuable measure for us was that 88% of respondents felt encouraged to look further into Vindolanda and Roman history. Now that is a clear success for museums hosting online exhibits! If you’re interested in setting up your own online exhibit, check out the publication which goes into more detail, and offers suggestions and recommendations for future projects.

Isn’t technology great?

Tenerife – An Island Under Pressure

Tenerife is certainly an island under many different types of pressure and this was evident in many forms during our week long field trip there. We experienced it’s vulnerability in the climate system first hand, as the intense sunlight and unseasonal heat (>30 C) reminded us that it is on the same latitude as the Sahara. Thankfully trade winds and cooler ocean currents from the North East usually keep the island relatively cool, whilst bringing much needed moisture to the north side. This supports the amazing laurel, brezal and pine forests, we enjoyed exploring these great habitats and also appreciating their importance in the hydrological system. Particularly with the desert conditions on the south side of the island!

Water management is one of the largest challenges that the island faces and we were expertly guided through one of the water galleria mines by our GeoTenerife expert (Heimaey). He explained how passages dug into the central mountain extracted water with minimal carbon footprint, after the footsteps of many hard working miners! The geological structure of the island dominates every day life there in many ways. Thankfully Rebecca Winstanley skillfully taught us about the many lava fields, volcanic deposits, associated hazards and more with her extensive knowledge of the island. Sadly many of the millions of tourists that visit Tenerife each year do not get the same opportunity to delve into the rich geography of such a varied island. We were lucky enough to enjoy the perspective of long term residents Ignacio, Alexi and Heimaey, who have seen the island change and evolve. There are many developments towards a more sustainable future here and we look forward to enjoy exploring more in the excellent company and hospitality of all those at GeoTenerife!

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Looking for stalagmites

Recently, one of our PhD students – Fatai Ilesanmi has been on field trip.. Nigeria Field Expedition in the month of March and April 2023 

Nigeria National Geographic expedition phase 1. This is a caving expedition to identify and map stalagmite-bearing caves in Nigeria (initial reconnaissance expedition). 

The photograph shows Fatai exploring Itankpini cave and looking for stalagmites in hiding entrances


Climate change monitoring

One year has now past since Dr Gillian Taylor was involved in the installation of a weather station at Fort Magna. It is not just a weather station but also monitors ground chemistry to help us understand seasonal changes. The data has been fascinating and watch this space for updates on conference presentations later in the year..


Not content with one weather stations, in April 2023, the team also installed a similar system, provided by Van Walt across the Vindolanda site, monitoring more chemistry, more conditions and importantly watching those anaerobic areas very carefully, as we all know by now, the anaerobic conditions are important for the preservation of artefacts.

There are two other blogs posts, whom have written about the adventures of putting in the new system, so enjoy the link




External Speaker: Professor Mike Rogerson – When and Why does it rain in the Sahara?

On Monday, 24th April 2023, our TU Earth & Environment Group welcomed guest speaker, Professor Mike Rogerson of Northumbria University whose talk entitled ‘When and Why does it rain in the Sahara? (on orbital timescales)’ addressed his ongoing NERC-funded stalagmite palaeoclimate research in Tunisia and Libya.

According to Mike, the Greening of the Sahara which entails conversion of large, currently hyperarid areas into grassland during warm phases of the northern hemisphere, is one of the most spectacular examples of past climate change we have. Previous studies have revealed that the Sahara was not always the sun soaked hyperarid landscape with iconic rolling sand dunes that much of it is today. Instead, there is evidence that it was once much greener.

Future changes in Earth’s hydroclimate under greenhouse gas forcing are notoriously difficult to predict yet people living in global drylands such as along the desert margins of the Sahara,  are incredibly vulnerable to changing water availability and at risk of acute humanitarian crises under human caused climate change.

Climate models used to predict future change over large parts of African and West Asian dryzones tend not to ‘converge’ which means that different climate models subject to the same climate forcings will give different answers as to whether the region will be wetter or drier in the future. Globally, models seem to predict that wet regions will get wetter and dry regions will get drier but how accurate is this? Also, according to Mike, this pattern does not match our understanding of the Sahara under previous warm periods such as the mid-Holocene around 5000 years ago when a greener Sahara prevailed.

Mike is leading a large team of researchers from the UK, Tunisia, Libya, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, to achieve a step-change in the confidence of climate forecasts for the northern margin of the Sahara by examining the representation of rainfall in Tunisia and Libya general circulation models, and testing how consistent this representation is with new records of rainfall built from stalagmites from Tunisian and Libyan caves. Cave stalagmites preserve a record of past temperature and rainfall in their mineral chemistry as they grow. Depending on their size and growth rate, they have the potential to give us insight into seasonal scale climate variability many thousands of years into the past.

Mike gave an interesting and engaging talk that explained why this is such a difficult – and important – bit of climate science to solve, and provided us with an update on the team’s progress so far.

Mike directs research in Northumbria’s Geography and Environmental Sciences Department and has a wide range of research interests himself with a particular love for karst processes and landscapes. Mike and I have worked closely on several projects over recent years including my National Geographic Explorer project seeking to reconstruct West African Palaeoclimate and as founding members of ‘Karstaways’, a North England research collective of karst and cave researchers. You can learn more about Mike and his work here https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/about-us/our-staff/r/michael-rogerson/.

written by Dr Lisa Baldini

What came after the Woolly Mammoth

On the 26th April, Dr Ambroise Baker gave a fascinating talk about ‘What came after the Woolly mammoth’

The talk introduced some of the questions surrounding the late-Quaternary extinctions and their relevance when considering ecosystem management today. There was a focus on the consequence of this wave of megafauna extinction. Importantly, studying these consequences furthers our understanding of the ecosystem function that megafauna preformed before extinction. Understanding the loss of this function is increasingly relevant when managing ecosystems, especially when considering megafauna introduction as is the case with rewilding strategies. However, there remains many unknowns regarding the lost megafauna functions, how to re-introduce them and the benefits that can be achieved with re-introduction, pointing to the need for a thorough monitoring of current rewilding projects.