Dr Kate Littler
Published on: 17 May 2016
You can follow Dr Littler on Twitter
What can the study of the past tell us about the future? Dr Kate Littler’s research involves the study of ancient paleoclimates and paleoceanography, with the aim of understanding how the earth reacts to transient and long term climate changes.
Dr Littler is a Lecturer in Geology at the Camborne School of Mines; she will be presenting her research to the public, in June, at the Exeter Soapbox Science event – in a demonstration which involves giant fossils, and jelly and straws.
What is your current research about?
I’m a palaeoclimate scientist with general interests in reconstructing ancient climates, environments and oceanography using clues in the rock record. Specifically, I examine the geochemistry of tiny microfossils and biomarkers found within marine sediment cores recovered from the bottom of the World’s oceans.
One of my current research projects focuses on reconstructing the ancient Indian monsoon system, particularly how it behaved about 2.5 million years ago when the Earth was experiencing a period of major cooling and polar ice formation. In the modern anthropogenic world, the Indian monsoon provides water for over a billion people, so it’s important to understand how sensitive it has been to past shifts in global climate.
My collaborators and I are using new marine cores that we recovered from the Bay of Bengal in 2014 to answer a myriad of questions about this enigmatic meteorological phenomenon.
The Soapbox Science event is an outreach platform for promoting women scientists; do you think that it is important to encourage women to engage with STEM subjects?
We have a big problem in the UK with a lack of women in most STEM fields, and particularly in leadership positions. This means we are missing out on all the novel insights and contributions those women could be making in a variety of fields from physics to engineering, mathematics to palaeoclimate.
I passionately believe that one of the best things we can do to encourage more women to take this rewarding path is to provide positive role models for young women who are just starting out in their careers. So often younger girls are really interested in science, (especially intrinsically interesting things like fossils and volcanoes!) but with time a lack of encouragement and a lack of visibility of women in science careers dissuades them from going down this path.
Soapbox Science is one of the platforms, along with the STEM Ambassador program, that can help to address this issue, although we could also do with the cooperation of the media at large to raise the profile of women scientists across the board. Over the summer, dozens of female scientists will be up on their soapboxes in central Exeter and other cities around the country, interacting with the public, demonstrating experiments, and sharing their enthusiasm for their research. What could be a more fun introduction to a rewarding scientific career for the young people, especially girls, in the audience?
What is the best bit about your job?
I really enjoy the adventure of going to sea to collect marine cores with the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), but this is a rare treat that only comes around every few years. In my usual day job I like doing lab work and the thrill of getting new data, although I don’t get to spend as much time in the lab as I would like to these days.
Collaborating with scientists from all over the world is very enjoyable and I particularly get a kick out of working with my excellent PhD students. I will also admit that there is a real sense of satisfaction of a well-delivered undergraduate lecture, when you see lots of nodding heads and hopefully a few light-bulbs going on.
How important do you think it is to communicate your research with the public?
Absolutely vital. People cannot value what they cannot understand, and they cannot understand what you have not taken the time to communicate clearly to them. If we want to continue getting government funding that ultimately comes from the taxpayer, we have a responsibility to make our science accessible to the public.
Many scientists I know already do an excellent job of this, and make real efforts to reach out to the community – I think the myth of the lone academic in their ivory tower is largely a thing of the past, but we can always try to do more on this front.
What are your top tips for academics who want to communicate their research?
The internet is a wonderful way of disseminating information nationally and globally, and platforms such as Twitter make this very easy to do if used well, although figuring out how to reach a broad audience is a fine art I have not yet fully mastered. Your university press officer will be an invaluable source of help if you want to publicise your research to the wider media, so let them know in advance if you have an interesting paper or piece of research coming out.
Of course, there’s no substitute for getting out there and actually interacting with the public, so getting involved with one of the many summer science festivals or visiting your local schools and sixth forms is a rewarding way of connecting with your community.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you will be talking about at the upcoming Soapbox event?
My theme for Soapbox Science this year is to highlight all the cool research that comes out of the UK’s involvement with the IODP. Over the last 60 or so years, this organisation and its predecessors have revolutionised our understanding of fundamental Earth processes such as continental drift, palaeoclimate patterns, and the very existence of the deep biosphere.
I will be focussing on some of the amazing palaeoclimate discoveries that ocean drilling has contributed to, aided with replicas of key ocean cores and 3D printed microfossils blown up to 100s of times their real size. There will also be some fun interactive activities involving jelly and straws (!), so it should be well worth popping along on the 11th June.