STEM for Britain Competition

On Wednesday March 13th I’ll be presenting my research to MP’s at the Houses of Parliament in the final of the STEM for Britain Competition. You can find my research poster on modelling the spread of pollution in the oceans here.

Read coverage of my entry by the Oxford Maths Institute, St Edmund Hall, St Hugh’s College and the Warrington Guardian. The press release from the London Mathematical Society is also copied below.

Dr Tom Crawford, 29, a mathematician at Oxford University hailing from Warrington, is attending Parliament to present his mathematics research to a range of politicians and a panel of expert judges, as part of STEM for BRITAIN on Wednesday 13th March.

Tom’s poster on research about the spread of pollution in the ocean will be judged against dozens of other scientists’ research in the only national competition of its kind.

Tom was shortlisted from hundreds of applicants to appear in Parliament.

On presenting his research in Parliament, he said, “I want to bring maths to as wide an audience as possible and having the opportunity to talk about my work with MP’s – and hopefully show them that maths isn’t as scary as they might think – is fantastic!”

Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chairman of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, said: “This annual competition is an important date in the parliamentary calendar because it gives MPs an opportunity to speak to a wide range of the country’s best young researchers.

“These early career engineers, mathematicians and scientists are the architects of our future and STEM for BRITAIN is politicians’ best opportunity to meet them and understand their work.”

Tom’s research has been entered into the mathematical sciences session of the competition, which will end in a gold, silver and bronze prize-giving ceremony.

Judged by leading academics, the gold medalist receives £2,000, while silver and bronze receive £1,250 and £750 respectively.

The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee runs the event in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Biology, The Physiological Society and the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, with financial support from the Clay Mathematics Institute, United Kingdom Research and Innovation, Warwick Manufacturing Group, Society of Chemical Industry, the Nutrition Society, Institute of Biomedical Science the Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Research, and the Comino Foundation.

Where does river water go?

It might seem like a simple question, but just think about it for a second… Water falls from the sky as rain, it flows over and under the ground and enters into a river. The river flows downstream, maybe passing through a few lakes along the way, until it reaches the ocean. Now what happens? The water has to enter the sea and will eventually be evaporated by heating from the sun and end up back in the atmosphere to form rain again. A lovely full-circle route called the water cycle – you probably learnt about it in Geography class. But, what if we could track a raindrop from the sky, into a river and then into the ocean. What would happen? Does it just flow into the ocean and then get mixed up and thrown around in the wind and waves? Or do tides drag it out further to sea? And what about the fact that the Earth is rotating? Perhaps not so simple after all…

Water-Cycle-Art2A.png

Image credit: https://pmm.nasa.gov/education/water-cycle

This is essentially what my thesis is about. When water from a river enters the ocean, where does it go? It took me almost 4 years to figure it out – or more accurately to understand more about what’s actually happening… I certainly do not have all of the answers (as you’ll see). My plan is this series of articles is to try and explain 4 years’ worth of laboratory experiments, fieldwork, computer simulations and of course maths, so that anyone can understand what I’ve done and why it is important.

That’s probably as good a place to start as any: why is it important to understand more about where river water goes? Also known as the classic question faced by all researchers: why should we care? The grand big-picture answer is of course that by understanding more about the world around us, then and only then, can we begin to answer the fundamental questions about the meaning of life, the universe and our very being. That all sounds a little too Brain Cox to me so let’s try a simpler reason… pollution.

From waste outflows leaving factories to fertilisers used by farmers, it all flows into our rivers. And we want to know where this pollution will end up so that we can try to stop it causing too much damage. If we know where river water goes, then we know where pollution goes – easy (or so we hope). Pollution from fertilisers is a particular problem because it’s difficult to stop. If a factory is pumping out pollution into a river we can tell them to stop and to dispose of the waste properly by some other means. If we tell farmers to stop using fertilisers then they produce less crops, which means less food for us – hopefully you can see the issue.

The fertilisers used on crops seep into the soil and enter the underground water supply. This then flows into rivers, which flow into the sea. Fertilisers contain lots of nitrogen and this is great for growing plants – they love the stuff. The problem with having lots of nitrogen in the ocean is that it causes huge plankton blooms. Plankton are little plant-like things floating everywhere in the ocean, basically tiny sea plants. If you get lots of plankton blooming at the surface of the ocean, it blocks the sunlight from reaching the plankton beneath the surface and so they can’t photosynthesise to produce food, which means that they die. Lots of dead material means lots of bacteria. These little critters break down the dead plant material and when doing so use up oxygen in the water until eventually there’s none left. This is very bad news for fish – they need oxygen to breathe – and so they end up dying too. It’s basically a big circle of death which we scientists call eutrophication.

The good news is that if we know where the river water ends up and therefore where the fertiliser ends up, we can put measures in place to stop eutrophication from happening. So no more dead fish – hooray! At least not until they are caught in giant nets, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish… (pun very much intended).

So there you have it: knowing where river water goes means we can control pollution and stop fish from suffocating to death. And of course by understanding more about the world around us we can begin to answer the fundamental questions… nope I can’t do it. I’ll leave the star-gazing to Brain Cox.

 

All of the articles explaining my PhD thesis can be found here.

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