Alumni

Alumni profile - Joshua Leigh

I think the thing that surprised me most, was myself. From learning to deal with and overcome my anxieties, to writing a detailed and comprehensive thesis, I was challenged throughout the MSc process and was able to rise to each challenge and ultimately succeed with my work, which lead me into pursuing research at PhD level. 

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What influenced your decision to study an MSc in Environmental Science by Research at Queen Mary?

Initially I was unsure as to what I wanted to do after my BSc, but after talking to a lot of staff and postgraduates at Queen Mary, I decided that continuing my studies and research might be the right thing for me to do at the time. I had some discussions with my BSc dissertation supervisor, Dr Sven Lukas, and we were able to design a research project that would build on the work I started in my BSc dissertation.

What aspects of your MSc did you find most enjoyable and was there anything that surprised you in your studies?

The most enjoyable aspect of my masters was my fieldwork. I did two field seasons in 2015 and 2016, working in the Zillertal region of the Austrian Alps and both trips were brilliant. I stayed in Berliner Hütte, which is one of Austria’s oldest mount huts (built in 1879), and from here, had easy access to three different glacial valleys. I was lucky with the weather and I was able to collect a wealth of data. I even managed a bit of time off to explore and bag some of the nearby summits (the highest being the Schönbichler Horn at 3,133 m).

I think the thing that surprised me most, was myself. From learning to deal with and overcome my anxieties, to writing a detailed and comprehensive thesis, I was challenged throughout the MSc process and was able to rise to each challenge and ultimately succeed with my work, which lead me into pursuing research at PhD level.

Before undertaking your master’s, you did your undergraduate degree in Geography at Queen Mary. How did you find the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate studies?

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy the transition was, given I started my MSc research in the summer after completing my BSc, it just felt like another year. When September came and my course started, I was able to start on my data analysis and thesis almost straight away.

What was special about your time at Queen Mary? Did you get to go on any memorable fieldtrips?

Yes, two field trips particularly stood out: the first-year physical geography trip to the Cairngorms National Park, and the third-year physical geography fieldtrip to New Zealand.

The Cairngorms fieldtrip was the first time I had properly done fieldwork in a mountain environment and it was brilliant. Every day was engaging, and even though we were working late into the evening, we still found time to socialise afterwards. This trip really helped me to build strong relationships with my peers that lasted throughout my undergraduate degree.

The biggest impact the individual can have is reducing their carbon footprint through eating less (or no) meat and dairy, and by supporting political leaders at local, regional, and national levels, who have a strong green agenda.

The New Zealand fieldtrip was just amazing and had it not been for this module I can’t imagine I would have traveled that far myself. We were shown some really impressive field sites, from massive rock slope failures along the Dart River, to standing in sub-tropical rainforest looking towards the glaciers of the Southern Alps.

Were there any academics that had a strong influence on shaping your time and studies at Queen Mary?

Definitely – my undergraduate dissertation and master’s thesis supervisor, Dr Sven Lukas, supported and encouraged my development massively, guiding me to my current path and a love of research. My tutor, Sven, Dr Kathryn Adamson, and lecturer, Dr Simon Carr, also inspired me and helped shape my ideas.

You’re currently in the final months of your PhD at Durham University. What has been the focus of your doctoral research and what do you plan to do next?

My PhD research is focused on improving our understanding of glacier response to Holocene climate change. I started off looking at glacier change using satellite remote sensing with imagery from 1989-2018 and alongside this, I wrote some methods for mapping very small (e.g. <0.05 km2) glaciers on imagery of varying spatial resolutions. This paper was then published in the Journal of Glaciology and subsequently shortlisted for the International Glaciological Society, Graham Cogley award. Then I undertook some fieldwork to establish the timing and extent of Little Ice Age maximum, which was combined with the remote sensing analysis in a paper looking at glacier change in northern Norway over the past ~200 years, and this was published in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic and Alpine Research. Now I am currently looking at expanding my glacial chronologies further back in time to investigate how the same glaciers responded to climatic perturbations since the termination of the Younger Dryas, a cool period between roughly 12,900 and 11,700 years ago, characterized by temperatures that returned parts of the Northern Hemisphere and other regions to ice age conditions.

Ideally, after my PhD I would like to continue research within the field of glaciology and glacial geochronology - but it is a tough job market so I’m keeping my options open and will take what opportunities come my way.

Your research is largely focused on glacial activity in Norway. How has the pandemic and the restrictions on travel impacted your research?

I’ve been quite fortunate that I had the majority of my fieldwork already completed from my 2018 and 2019 field seasons and therefore already had most of my data, although it was not possible to do a final field season to ground truth much of my mapping, which was a real disappointment. I do also have soil and rock samples that are still in the labs and there have been delays in getting these ready for and undergoing analysis, so that is holding me back. Then there are general delays in the working day that come from remote working. It’s sometimes hard to stay motivated but I have a brilliant support network and my supervisors are all really supportive and we regularly meet virtually to discuss my work and research ideas.

Prominent figures such as Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have put the spotlight on environmental issues in recent years. As an environmental scientist, how do you hope to impact the environment with your research and how do you think more people can help affect positive environmental change?

Constraining Holocene glacial history is of critical importance in order to assess the magnitude of contemporary glacier change in a longer-term context. My research on mountain glacier extent in Arctic Norway aims to constrain the timing of the initial early Holocene deglaciation and subsequent re-advance/s, as recorded by mapped moraine sequences, and then link these fluctuations to records of past climate change. This in turn helps to produce robust constraints on glacier change at 100-1000-year timescales, which is required to calibrate both glacier and climate models that are used to predict the future response of glaciers. This is particularly important in the Arctic, where warming is markedly amplified and where particularly rapid changes are occurring.

As for helping to have a positive environmental change, while I am no expert in this regard, I would probably say, the biggest impact the individual can have is reducing their carbon footprint through eating less (or no) meat and dairy, and by supporting political leaders at local, regional, and national levels, who have a strong green agenda. Something I say to my friends and family is, “it’s the individual that makes the mass and it’s a mass that makes the change”.

Outside of your work, you volunteer with the National Trust on various woodland conservation, restoration, and management projects. What do you enjoy most about this and which National Trust sites are your favourite?

Volunteering is a chance to give back to some important organisations that help preserve the British Countryside, but it is also an opportunity to do some hands-on work, learn new skills (e.g., fence building, path laying, tree felling) and meet lots of new people, many of whom are retired and would otherwise have been outside of my social circle.

Good question, I would say the small woodland owned and managed by the National Trust and near to where I grew up in Surrey will always have a fond place in my mind, as I spent many an hour playing in these woods as a child, then riding my bike there as a teenager. Now living in West Yorkshire, Brimham Rocks is one of my favorite places to visit, it’s got some brilliant geology and even better rock climbing.

What would your advice be to students interested in studying an MSc in Environmental Science by Research at Queen Mary?

I would say make sure you have a good idea of a project that you are truly invested in. If you enjoy your research and are happy to spend your working week invested in one project, then it doesn’t really feel like working. That being said, definitely don’t underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes, I worked nearly non-stop for the whole year with two field seasons, and still only finished it all a few days before the deadline!

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Nathalie Grey. If you would like to get in touch with Joshua or engage him in your work, please contact Nathalie at n.grey@qmul.ac.uk.