This year we are initiating a new series of interviews with early-career researchers to highlight the dynamism of the SASQUA research community! From pollen to isotopes to digital landscapes, we’ve got it covered!

Dr Abi Stone: silly for sand

Digging a hole…

Our latest blog post interviews Dr Abi Stone, senior lecturer at the University of Manchester, who tells us about the drama of desert fieldwork and the importance of sand.

What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding that people have about your discipline?

Footprints in the Namib Sand Sea

This is a great question, and there is a range of answers depending on which group of people I think about, and I’ll consider two examples. First, there can be a perception from people who know little about drylands and deserts that they are both unpopulated and rather empty and static. In fact the landscapes, environments, climate and weather conditions within drylands are extremely dynamic from seasonal-scale right up to the 100 ka paced Milankovitch cycles. In addition, drylands today are home to more than 2 billion people, and a large part of the story of the evolution of our species can be found in dryland regions.

Secondly, as a scientist who focusses on providing chronological control for dryland sand-rich sediments and carbonates, within the research community there can be a misunderstanding, or simplified perception, that producing the chronology is the straightforward bit, and that dates for samples can be ‘bought’ through shipping samples to a commercial service. In fact a full appreciation of the field setting and a full appreciation of the intricacies and limitations of the chronological methodology need to come together in order to produce numbers that are meaningful. It is relatively easy to produce numbers (with error ranges) but these numbers can all too easily be incorrect within the context of dating an event. In short, the numbers will be meaningless unless you understand the process by which your material got to a site and understand the suitability of the characteristics of the sample to the various laboratory protocols that are available and continue to develop at pace. Therefore, if you want to reconstruct the past you need to work carefully and holistically as a geomorphologist, a geochronologist and a Quaternary Scientist.

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests – how did you get interested in dryland climates?

Science outreach

I was a Geography undergraduate student and became particularly fascinated by Quaternary Science and Geomorphology. In particular learning that glowing sand contained information about how long it had been buried, and that this could allow us to step back into the past and reconstruct how landscapes and environments changed through time. Following an MSc I applied for a PhD that offered me the opportunity to explore Quaternary dynamics within Namibia. There was flexibility to develop a broad perspective and set of research objectives that included exploring both dryland dunefields and semi-arid hydrological systems through applying luminescence dating and uranium-series dating. Once I was in Namibia for fieldwork, and in a dryland for the first time, I was hooked. The landscape. The open horizon. The sense of a vastness that is both stretched out for the eye and stretches your imagination as you consider the time and range of processes it took in order for the landscape to be presenting that view to you at that moment. 

I’ve been working within southern Africa and in Saudi Arabia over the past decade and it was a pleasure to work as the secretary of SASQUA for two years, getting to know a wider spectrum of the Quaternary community working in South Africa.

What was your path to your current position in Manchester?

Swimming in the sea near Dune du Pilat, France

Following my PhD I had a slightly atypical progression toward my current senior lectureship in Manchester, in that I did not have a postdoctoral research position. This owed in part to the job market and in part to some unexpected health challenges that saw me yo-yo in and out of the surgical theatre. However, there was the flexibility to work part-time in various jobs as a receptionist for the Wellcome Trust, as a live-in carer for someone with MS, and as a Junior Dean (or pastoral warden) at an Oxford University college. Through some persistence, continuing to write papers, and through the support of amazing mentors, such as Heather Viles and Richard Washington, I then had a part-time research position working on building stone decay and a range of teaching duties across a number of the colleges in Oxford. I was awarded a Thesiger-Oman Fellowship at the time that I was also offered a job with the UK Met office, and was delighted to take the opportunity to continue with drylands research. The clouds from those few darker years continued to clear when I got a full time job as an Early Career researcher and tutor (or Supernumerary Fellow in the baffling language of Oxford University) at St John’s College. At this time I had the great fortune to work with the late Mike Edmunds, during which time I expanded my drylands research interests into the world of hydrogeology, and also worked as a teaching fellow for the groundwater science component of an MSc course. I moved to Manchester to start my lectureship in 2014 and then on through the academic hoop-jumping to senior lecturer in 2018. I continue to contribute as a guest lecturer on the MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management.

I am extremely grateful to colleagues and collaborators, particularly for the teamwork during navigating fieldwork, laboratory work and puzzles of data analysis, and also for the fantastic friendships, encouragement and excitement for science that gets fostered through conferences and during work for research associations.

You spend a lot of time out in dry, dusty places – what advice would you offer someone heading out to do research in the desert for the first time?

Assessing the damage

It is wise to invest in a good pair of desert boots to protect your feet and ankles but also allow your feet to breathe a bit. If you are going to be heading somewhere remote and off-road, look into a 4×4 off road driving training course to build your confidence and certainly at the least learn how to change a tyre. I am very grateful to Dave Thomas for the brief airport carpark tutorial about where to position a jack underneath a Toyota Hilux, as a few days later I was faced with not one but two punctures on the C27. More generally, spend plenty of time planning your research trip, including who you can be in contact with locally on the ground and where you will get your fuel, and make sure to carry spare fuel, water and food.

What do you do in your spare time?

Ginnel gardening with neighbours in Manchester

I love to keep moving, whether that is travelling (not just to drylands but to a range of rural and urban locations across the world) or during the working week swimming, cycling, and playing 5-aside football. Manchester is also a great place to socialise with friends and loved ones for food and drinks, live music, theatre and sporting fixtures. I’ve also recently had the chance to hone some DIY skills and gardening (or yardening and ginnel-gardening) on the canvas of a very Mancunian early 1900s red brick terraced house.  I also love to take photographs, including whilst on fieldwork in drylands.

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