Deserts, Jerome Mayaud @JeromeMayaud: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME: Jerome Mayaud

CURRENT TITLE:  PhD student at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Dryland Geomorphology, Glaciology, Computational Modelling

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 3rd year of PhD

EDUCATION: 
PhD Dryland Geomorphology, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford;
MPhil Polar Studies, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge;
BA Geography, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

What’s your job like?

My ‘job,’ as a PhD student, is great: every day I get to ask, then try to answer, questions that I find interesting! The overall goal of my research at the moment is to study the interactions between vegetation and wind erosion in desert regions. For this, I combine fieldwork with computer modelling, as well as some laboratory work.

A fundamental part of my work involves collecting field data in some stunning parts of the world. In 2014, I spent four months in three large deserts in Namibia (the Skeleton Coast and the Kalahari and Namib Deserts) analyzing local wind patterns, measuring vegetation transects and producing three-dimensional models of dunes using a drone. However, fieldwork is not just about obsessively gathering information; it’s a superb opportunity for driving and hiking through some other-worldly landscapes, observing whacky plants and animals, and engaging with local land users. Later this year, I’ll be travelling with a colleague to Mongolia to investigate the impact of large-scale mining on land degradation in the Gobi Desert.

deserts

A drone’s-eye-view. Photo copyright: Jerome Mayaud

Once I’ve collected all the necessary data, I use computer (numerical) modelling to simulate the landscapes I’ve observed. It’s a bit like trying to create a computer game of how the desert evolves, as realistically as possible. Once I’m happy that my model faithfully replicates the right environmental processes, I ask it to simulate different scenarios, such as climatic changes, overgrazing and wildfires. This allows me to predict how the desert might change over the coming decades. Ultimately, the plan is to create a tool that’s useful for land managers and policymakers to test how certain practices might improve or exacerbate land degradation in socio-economically vulnerable dryland regions.

computer modeling

Modelling a dune system encroaching onto a road. Photo copyright: Jerome Mayaud

One important aspect of the PhD experience is presenting your research to others. I’ve given talks at a variety of seminars at my university and was very pleased to be invited to present a recent academic paper at Northumbria University in northern England. Academic conferences are great places to meet fellow researchers in a whole host of different fields, and I will be travelling to Paris and Vienna this year to present the results of my PhD work so far. I’m nervous but excited! I’m very interested in how research can be communicated to the wider public, so I try to organise talks and demonstrations in schools and local environmental charities when I can.

I’m also lucky to have been given the opportunity to teach students a variety of topics, from geomorphology to statistics, within my department and at several Oxford colleges. It’s intellectually demanding, but very rewarding. And fun!

What’s a typical day like?

As most people in academia say, there is no such thing as a typical day. The majority of the time, I’m based in Oxford and working on analysing my field data or improving and running my numerical model. That means a lot of sitting down, which definitely isn’t a favourite activity of mine, but it’s great to be surrounded by fellow students and academic staff. Finding answers to problems or simply having a friendly chat is a lot simpler when you’re in the same building as other people!

I also regularly give tutorials and classes to undergraduate and Master degree students and must prepare for these in advance with lots of reading, sometimes around topics I’m unfamiliar with. In the afternoons, I occasionally attend some of the many seminars organised by the Geography Department, as well as other departments – it’s important to keep up with a variety of topics, approaches and attitudes to research. In the evenings, I always do sport to unwind and let my brain disconnect after a long day!

Life is very different when I’m on fieldwork. If I’m planning to conduct an experiment, I often get up early in the morning to drive into the dune field, in order to avoid the harsh midday temperatures. Once at the field site, I’ll set up instrument arrays and make sure everything is working fine. Flying a drone through epic landscapes is very enjoyable, except when it occasionally crashes and requires a bit of tender love and care (TLC)! Fieldwork involves a surprising amount of logistics, from organising research permits for conducting research in National Parks, to driving long distances over rough terrain, through to pitching up a tent and preparing a fire to cook on in the evening. Even with the best organisation and forward planning in the world, unexpected situations still arise. Dealing with those is annoying, exciting, frustrating, thrilling…

desert sampling

Measuring wind speed changes around shrubs in the Kalahari Desert. Photo copyright: Jerome Mayaud

What’s fun?

Feeling like you are at the cutting edge of a discipline, and having the freedom (and time – three years or more!) to develop your own questions and come up with answers. Travel and exploration takes up a significant chunk of my time, and that’s undoubtedly a big part of the appeal of this PhD.

What’s challenging?

Keeping on-task when deadlines are so seemingly distant, and people management – particularly managing your expectations in relation to your supervisors’! But these challenges are what makes a PhD such a special endeavour: you’re constantly cutting your teeth on some of the most stimulating environments imaginable, surrounded by a host of world experts!

What’s your advice to students?

Just keep in your mind why you love what you’re doing. It could be that a strategically placed photograph on your desk does the trick, or setting up occasional meetings with somebody who inspires you in your discipline. It’ll make the tough times a lot more bearable! And even if you get to a stage where you realise a long-term career in academia is not for you, don’t fret; the skills you develop during a PhD will stand you in great stead in many other walks of life.

Namib

At the southern edge of the Namib Sand Sea. Photo copyright: Jerome Mayaud

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