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Public engagement on a boat – how one PhD student shared her research at the Eisteddfod

21 August 2018

Public engagement is an important aspect of any research journey. Many of our PhD students got involved in this year’s National Eisteddfod – from demonstrating miniature wind turbines to chatting about paleoclimate in the dedicated Cardiff University science tent. One activity that caught the attention of visitors was the RV Guiding Light – a research vessel docked in the Bay for the duration of the Eisteddfod, welcoming guests onboard to take a look around. We caught up with Sarah Gore, a PhD student from the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, to find out more about her research and how the Eisteddfod helped her share it with an audience of families and festival-goers.

So tell us about your research…

I’m researching the environmental response to a carbon dioxide removal approach which is aiming to store more CO2 in the ocean by changing the chemistry of the ocean and increasing the alkalinity. We’re in such a state with the climate that we need to not only reduce the amount of emissions but also start to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to try to stop the world from heating up too much.

The ocean naturally stores a load of CO2 anyway so what people are thinking is that if we can engineer it so that the ocean stores more, that will help. This is not without its risks and could cause large changes to the ocean chemistry so we have to be careful. These are the tests I’m working on. I spend a lot of time on the coast picking up samples of sea water and seaweed!

How did The Guiding Light come to be part of this year’s Eisteddfod?

Initially part of Cardiff University’s planned involvement with the Eisteddfod was to run the big science tent with the theme Science of the Sea. The organiser contacted one of my colleagues at the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences to see if we wanted to be involved and I think the idea of using the boat came up quite quickly because, well, it’s quite cool! Also it wasn’t in use at the time so we thought – why not?

Sarah onboard the Guiding Light

About 3-4 months ago we were coming up with all kinds of different ideas for it, but in the end we decided simple is better, which was showing visitors what we would normally do. We decided we’d have the boat docked here and get some of the instruments we usually use. This boat is normally used by students doing the Marine Geography course. It doesn’t go out very far, normally just 20 miles off shore – the Bristol Channel usually, and they carry out surveys. What we have onboard is some simple equipment like a Secchi disk which is a disk that you lower into the water until you can’t see it anymore, and this gives us information about how transparent the water is and how far the light is traveling through the water. This is really important due to vegetation needing light, so it’s a really important quality to look at. But it’s a simple method and one that kids can easily do themselves, which they find really fun.

We also have another simple piece of equipment which is a metal rod with measurement markers on for kids to measure how deep the water is. We make sure they guess the answer first, which has ranged from one metre to 10 thousand metres! And then we get them to measure it properly and find out it’s 3.5 metres, which they find really interesting. Then we can take them inside and show them the more complex equipment like an echosounder, which is essentially a more fancy version of the stick! It’s a more modern way of measuring the ocean floor using sound pulses that go down and get bounced back up.

The most fancy bit of equipment we have on board is the side scan sonar that gets pulled behind the boat and sends out acoustic signals that go through the water column, hit the sea floor and get reflected back up. It sends that information to a computer screen and builds up an image of the sea floor. We did this for the bottom of the Bay and have been showing people, which is really cool as we can point out features such as the aeration vents. A lot of people don’t even realise they are there, as well as things like the dredging marks from when it was originally dredged, cables from when they do the boat races, etc. When you look out at the Bay you wouldn’t know any of that is there! Also not many people have been on a boat like this before so they really love it and find it really interesting – for example a lot of people don’t realise that the Bay is fresh water and how that came to be the case.

We’ve had a really good response, with a constant stream of families coming on board. A lot of people have been saying how strange it is to actually have a boat at the Eisteddfodd as it’s not usually possible due to location. But any chance we get to use the boat for outreach again, we will!

The Doctoral Academy actively encourages researchers to develop their engagement skills and share their research. Do you think this is an important element of doing a PhD?

I do think it’s important as I think some people can get really wrapped up in their research. But I think we are lucky in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences as I get the opportunity to do loads of outreach and talk about my research all the time. For example I’m involved with The Brilliant Club which is one way of getting research out there. Another example is when Cardiff University sponsored the World Ocean racing in the Bay and myself and a couple of other researchers were involved in running a workshop over there.

Everyone is really interested in our research, it seems, so we’re really lucky and we get a lot of requests for social outreach. I think there are opportunities for engagement if you know where to look, but maybe some people aren’t too sure where to start.

The Doctoral Academy offers lots of different opportunities to get involved with public engagement, from sharing a poster at one of our Student Conferences, to showcasing your research visually through our Images of Research competition, or presenting your research in just three minutes at our 3MT heats. We also offer funding for you to create your own interdisciplinary activity, which is a great opportunity to share your research in an innovative way.

If you fancy sharing your research virtually, why not pitch us an idea for the Blog? We’d love to hear from you. Get in touch at or via Twitter @CardiffDA