My Research: Helen Pearce - PhD Student, University of Birmingham
Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to where you are today
I grew up in Cheddar (Somerset) as the youngest of a sporty family and the daughter of two maths teachers. After attending the local village schools, I gained a place to study Geography at the University of Birmingham (UoB) in 2013 and have been there ever since. The physical sciences have always been a passion of mine, and after completing my undergraduate degree I wanted to pursue this further. I enrolled on the Applied Meteorology and Climatology masters course to fulfil my enjoyment for physics, weather forecasting, and cloud spotting. It was only during the summer exam period of my masters that I weighed up my potential options for when the course would end, and applied for a PhD project. I ended up being the lucky candidate, and signed myself up for another three years as a student!
Describe your PhD project in one sentence
Using models to link real-time traffic information, emissions estimations, and physical processes, to gain a better understanding of the quality of air we breathe in our cities.
Why is your work important?
Air pollution reduces life expectancies globally by 20 months, and it’s the fifth leading risk factor for mortality worldwide, ahead of both malaria and road traffic collisions. Cities are typically where the highest pollutant levels are reached, and where there are the greatest number of people exposed to such levels. Hence why efforts such as ‘Clean Air Zones’ are focused on these areas, as there is the largest potential for improvements. Due to the diverse nature of our urban areas, pollutant concentrations can differ considerably over small distances, for example from the side of a road to the middle of a park. While it’s cost prohibitive to have direct measurements at this resolution for a whole city, advances in computing power have enabled models to try and capture some of these variations.
Why do you do what you do?
There are three main reasons that drive me to work on my project. Firstly, the content itself addresses one of the main environmental and health issues of the present day, and to help towards potential solutions is a great responsibility. On a more practical note, holding a doctorate shows a certain level of skill and in turn will (hopefully) make me more employable. The final reason, which any PhD student will jovially say, is so that you can put the elusive ‘Dr’ in front of your name (without any obligation to save someone’s life).
Overall, what are you aiming to achieve?
I’m aiming towards having a working and tested model that can be applied to individual streets and a wider city network to identify locations where pollutant concentrations need to be reduced to ensure the safety of the people in those areas.
..and how are you going to do the above?
Most recently I’ve been working on harnessing the data that is generated and stored when people use mapping products (e.g. Google Maps) as navigational aids while driving. If you are familiar with such platforms, you will know all too well the sinking feeling when you see a red section of road up ahead. Not only will this add on time to your journey, travelling at lower speeds with short-lived accelerations and decelerations significantly increases your vehicle’s emissions. Such emissions during congestion events are typically overlooked when generating average or total inventories. Therefore I am developing a way to integrate real-time queries to these platforms with speed-related emissions calculations to identify these peak events. This information will then feed into a physical and chemical box model to work out how the pollutants interact with the surrounding environment.
What would be a ‘typical’ day for you?
Arguably, there is no ‘typical’ day as a PhD student, but I try and keep to a routine to help stay focused and productive. I may have meetings with supervisors, seminars, a conference to attend, or a relatively flexible day to focus on a specific task. I always make a ‘to do’ list of things to achieve that day to hold myself accountable.
What would be your top three pieces of advice for anyone contemplating doing a PhD?
- Think about why you want to do a PhD. Everyone’s reasons will be different, or at least value certain aspects more/less than others, but as long as you’re clear on why you want to study for another 3-4 years, that’s the most important thing.
- Money, money, money… while you’re probably aware that you’re not going to be earning megabucks whilst studying, it’s important that money doesn’t add to any other stresses you may be having throughout the whole process. I would strongly recommend a funded PhD; they are available and some are even in conjunction with industrial partners, giving you the option to explore some work experience as well.
- If you go for an interview see if you can find some PhD students to talk to while you’re there. Every department in every institution is different, so it’s great to get an insight into what it’s like to study there day-to-day. Plus, you may bump into someone who’s also supervised by your prospective supervisor, giving you a chance to ask less formal questions.