Women in STEM: Fiona Llewellyn Beard
Fiona Llewellyn Beard is a PhD candidate in the Department of Earth Sciences, where she studies salt marshes and how they store huge amounts of carbon. Here, she tells us about how a childhood love of mud pies led to her current research, her love of the outdoors, and how everything in the environment is interconnected.
I study mud. To tell the truth, this is something that has interested me since about the age of three, when I enjoyed making mud pies at nursery school. I’m a bit more particular now though, and work specifically on the sediments and soils at the bottom of the ponds found in salt marshes.
These ponds are super interesting. They’re full of life, ranging from crabs and worms to rare bacteria, and all of this life interacts with and affects the mud. I’m studying how the biology and chemistry interact, in particular looking at iron, sulfur and carbon cycling. This is really important, as salt marshes can sequester and store huge amounts of carbon, which would otherwise be in our atmosphere contributing to global warming. In order to look after our salt marshes and keep the carbon locked up in them we need to understand their biogeochemistry more fully, and that’s where my research comes in.
Outside of my research, I enjoy anything to do with the mountains - climbing, walking, running, skiing - and am also a Scout Leader in Cambridge. I grew up in south Cambridgeshire, where I went to my local primary and secondary schools. I always loved science, and was encouraged by my teachers to apply to Cambridge to read Natural Sciences, which is where I’ve been ever since!
The great thing about Cambridge is the community. There are so many great scientists here, and even if they’re not quite working in my field, they’re always keen to talk science and introduce you to their numerous contacts and collaborators.
My PhD involves a lot of travel, and I’m generally doing something different every day. This could be computational modelling, writing, lab work or fieldwork, depending on what I’m working on. My work is very interdisciplinary, so it’s good that I can visit other places to discuss my science with other experts!
The days I enjoy the most are when I go out to take sediment cores from the marsh ponds. I built corers out of a plastic tube, which is about 60cm long, and to take sediment samples I push it into the mud, before sliding my arm down the side to the bottom and pulling it up. It’s incredibly messy, and I usually get very wet! In winter it can be really cold getting into a muddy pond on a salt marsh, but it’s an incredibly beautiful place to work, so it makes up for it.
Nothing in the environment can be considered in isolation. Everything impacts on everything else, the biology, the chemistry, the hydrology, the climate; everything interacts. Realising this was an important moment, and it made me see that to understand my mud I needed to go and learn more, and not be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’, and find someone who does. My advice to others is to talk to as many people as possible, make lots of contacts, and always smile, even if things don’t look promising.
My research takes me to a number of different places. In Cambridge, I do a lot of reading and writing in the Department of Earth Sciences, but I often travel to the salt marshes at Norfolk to take samples, which I bring back to analyse in the labs. I also do quite a lot of work in the geochemical labs at the University of Leeds, where they have specialist equipment to look at the iron mineralogy of the sediments. I'm also working with the British Geological Society to look at carbon in the sediments, and have in the past worked at the University of York doing microbiology.
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