Work Experience at the BGS Stable Isotope Facility...by James Setchfield
Hi, I’m James and for the past week I have been gaining experience working in the stable isotope facility at The British Geological Survey in Keyworth. I have a burning passion for Geography and the processes that help to shape and change the physical world around us. I am currently in sixth form doing my A-levels but have every intention of pursuing this subject to a degree and career level. The work experience scheme I was placed on helped me to gain an understanding of the career pathways Geography leads to. My week at BGS has allowed me to use and understand scientific equipment that I have only ever seen in diagrammatic form.
To start off the week we conducted an experiment with Chris Kendrick where we took samples of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) with unknown oxygen and carbon isotopic values and reacted them under a vacuum, with Phosphoric Acid (H3PO4). The carbon dioxide (CO2) we produced was transferred into a collection vessel, using liquid nitrogen to freeze the CO2, and any unwanted gases were removed using a vacuum pump.
This process took us 2 days so on Wednesday we had a sample that was ready to be put through the mass spectrometer. We learnt how to set up the mass spectrometer manually, which was very useful in enabling me to understand how the machine runs and produces data from the samples. Our samples needed to be left running overnight, so by Friday we had our data which showed us that the loch we were investigating changed from fresh water to marine water, which coincided with the glacial retreat at the end of the last glacial period. This showed us that as the glaciers retreat and the sea level rises, marine water floods the loch and changes the water composition and we were able to trace this using the different isotopic values for carbon and oxygen in our samples.
During our time at BGS we also conducted an International standard Mass Spectrometer Calibration which calibrates the mass spectrometer with all the others in different stable isotope labs around the world, this is to make sure the results are to the same degree of accuracy and to make sure the data can be cross checked by different labs.
We also had a chance to speak to Dr Angela Lamb who carried out an investigation on the skeleton of Richard III. She was able to see what he had been eating throughout his life by looking at the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in his teeth (age 3-14) femur (17-32) and rib bones (30-32, when he was king). This was all very fascinating and made me want to find out more about how exactly they discovered what he ate and where he lived all through his life by looking at his skeleton.
On the whole I have had a very informative week working at BGS, it has really given me an opportunity to see what working in a laboratory is like and the type of investigations that go on, who knows maybe I’ll end up working for The British Geological Survey in a couple of years, all I can say is that I look forward to it.