Science can take you to unexpected places: Meet Millie Watts

Millie Watts completed a geosciences degree with the Open University whilst qualifying as a teacher, followed by a MSc in Environmental Dynamics and Climate Change at Swansea University. She has been doing her PhD since 2013 at the National Oceanography Center, focusing on dating prehistoric underwater landslides from the Norwegian continental shelf, specifically the Storegga Region. She will be giving a talk at Soapbox Science Brighton on Saturday 29th July called: Will climate change cause more tsunamis in the UK?” 



SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

MW: My research has focussed on accurately dating a series of massive underwater landslides from the Norwegian continental shelf. The reason this is interesting, is that these landslides are capable of generating tsunamis that can reach the UK. We know that the most recent of these slides, the Storegga Landslide, which occurred 8200 years ago created a wave that was over 25 m high in the Shetland Islands, and still 5 m high around Scotland. Not only is this a fascinating field to work in, but it also involves a wide range of field and lab work that has revealed some fascinating new information about these slides. The sediment cores I work on, were collected during a month-long expedition to the Nordic Seas, and document a history of these landslides over the last 125,000 years. Through understanding the timing of these slides, and the conditions within the ocean at the time they were triggered, we can estimate the future risk to the UK population.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science? 

MW: My mum: she taught me that I could do anything I wanted and always encouraged me to pursue my interests. She taught me to work hard at school, and how to handle difficult subjects, and study effectively. I am forever grateful that she made learning fun when I was young, and that I have been able to pursue a PhD because of her continued support.


SS: How did you get to your current position?

MW: My route to a PhD was far from traditional. I did very well at school, and started a degree at university when I was 18, but had to drop out before finishing. I found a teaching role at a local college, and finished the last two years of my degree at home through the Open University, I studied hard, and finished two years of study in under 18 months, at the same time as completing a part time teaching degree with Plymouth University, and teaching A-Level geography and Geology full time. It was a very challenging two years, but I had huge support from my mum, and my employer, and I really wanted to finish my first degree and go on to get a PhD. Whilst I was teaching, we had visitors from a number of universities come in to speak to the students who were applying through UCAS, and one of them was Dr. Geraint Owen from Swansea, we were chatting and he encouraged me to apply for an EU funded Masters at Swansea. I was fortunate enough to be offered the Masters and the funding, and once I returned to studying, I was even more convinced that a PhD was the right path for me. I started looking early, and one came up working on the Arctic Landslide Tsunami Project. Natural disasters have always been a particular area of interest for me, and this PhD was focussed on Quaternary dating methods applied to the risk of tsunamis affecting the UK. It is a fascinating topic, and one with a significant real world application, and that is what has kept me interested throughout the course.


SS: Research in STEMM is becoming increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which STEMM (science, tech, engineering, maths, medicine) subjects do you use in your work? In particular, how does maths play a role in your research?

MW: My PhD has been very multidisciplinary, the wider project is led by my supervisor, Professor Peter Talling, a sedimentologist, but crosses the fields of civil engineering, risk management, marine geology, palaeoclimatology, ocean modelling and geophysics. My background is geology and Quaternary science, but through my research group I have learnt a lot about modelling, fluid dynamics and statistics. Maths, in particular statistics has been a key component of my work, I use statistics to show that my conclusions are robust and significant. My personal research makes use of a variety of methods for dating sediments, radiocarbon, tephrochronology and biostratigraphy, and each of those dating methods has a different estimate of uncertainty. The use of Bayesian statistics takes my collection of data points, and combines them to form a meaningful conclusion. In this case, being able to accurately date natural disasters that happened thousands of years ago, and use that date to understand what may have caused them.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and why Brighton? 

MW: I enjoy outreach, I think it is an essential component of research, and more PhD students should engage with events like this. Being able to justify your research and give interesting presentations to your peers is an essential skill. But it is not the same as being able to enthuse younger students, or the general public about your work. Both types of communication are important, and both take practice. I have been fortunate to have been generously sponsored by the school of Ocean and Earth Science, and given some time to develop a new activity, that should be a lot of fun – just hoping it doesn’t rain!


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – Excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

MW: Thrill.


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be? 

MW: More post-doc opportunities with longer term contracts. Short term roles are the norm for the first few post doc positions, and it can be hard to manage relocating every year or two.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

MW: Find something you love, and will continue to excite and interest you. Build a suitable network amongst colleagues and supervisors, and use the resources and opportunities available to you at the university. Whether it is additional training, demonstrating for undergraduate modules, accompanying fieldtrips or organising conferences. Experiences are valuable, and will help you develop a broad skills base during your PhD.


SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?

MW: Science is fun, it is surprising, it takes you all over the world to unexpected places. Science isn’t just maths, physics and chemistry, science is also icebergs, fossils, mud, volcanoes, and helping people understand the planet we live on, and how to adjust to a changing environment.

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