Alumni feature – Thomas Barningham, Halley Automation Project Manager (BAS)
Thomas has recently returned from Halley Research Station in Antarctica, where he has been working for four months. As we are celebrating British Science Week it’s perfect timing to share his fascinating Q and A below. The Halley project enables cutting-edge Science to take place in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth throughout the polar winter. You can find out how the British Antarctic Survey’s Scientists, Engineers and Operational teams have been working to automate the Halley Research Station to enable crucial year-round data collection from scientific experiments and environmental monitoring systems here.
What A-levels did you study and what was your favourite subject?
Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Geography. Physics and Physical Geography were my favourite – it was learning about glaciers and the ice age in Geography that set me on my current path.
After your A-levels, where did you go to university and what did you study?
The University of Edinburgh. Initially I started studying Zoology, but I quickly realised that I didn’t enjoy that subject. So, after the first semester, I switched to a different course called Environmental Geoscience.
What inspired you to take this course?
It brought me back to all of the things I found interesting about science and geography at school – volcanoes, ice ages and climate, oceanography, meteorology, geology etc. I realised that there were whole fields of study about our planet that used the things I learnt in my A Levels. There were some fantastic fieldtrips across Scotland to learn about geology and also to the Caribbean to learn about coral reef ecosystems and the effects that both the natural and manmade environment on them.
After your degree, I think you went on to do a Ph.D, what did you do your research in?
After my degree I didn’t go straight into a Ph.D. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I applied to be park ranger in one of the Scottish national parks but didn’t get the job. Instead, my old supervisor (a volcanologist) offered me a job working for him. I became a research assistant for 10 months and undertook fieldwork in both Iceland and Mexico studying volcanoes. It was great! I then decided to go back to University to study for a Masters in Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia. I really enjoyed a particular course called the Carbon Cycle and Climate Change. The field of study is something called “biogeochemistry” which is really an amalgamation of the things I had studied to date. I then began my Ph.D research in the same area and focused on atmospheric measurements of Carbon Dioxide and Oxygen above, or close to, the Southern Ocean in order to understand the biogeochemistry of the atmosphere and ocean in that region.
How did you get the opportunity to work for BAS and what was your first role there?
My route into BAS was through my Ph.D. My project required me to set up some atmospheric monitoring equipment in the Clean Air Sector Laboratory at Halley Research Station, Antarctica. BAS manage the station and I spent a season on site working with them. Once I finished my Ph.D I applied to become an Atmospheric Scientist with them at Halley and got the job!
How has your career progressed since then?
I spent a season working at Halley as the Atmospheric Scientist and when I came back a new job was advertised for the station. This was the Halley Automation Project and Science Coordinator role. I started that job in 2018 and have been doing it ever since. I manage projects to automate power sources and science on the station when we’re not there during the winter and also manage scientists and engineers when we are there during the summer. In 2020, I briefly took on the role of Station Leader for the station too.
What major projects have you been involved with?
The final year of the Halley Relocation Project (where we moved the station), Halley Automation Project (where we automated the station) and Halley Net Zero Project
What is the project you are working on now?
I’m still currently working on the Halley Automation Project and have begun a new Halley Net Zero project which aims to increase the amount of power we generate from renewables and also bring down our overall energy use.
Tell us how it feels to be living and working in the Antarctic?
That’s a really tough question! I’ve just returned from my sixth stint and I feel really lucky to be able to spend 3-4 months of my life down there every year. I love the quietness and the beauty of the icy environment, coupled with the comradery and buzz you get from the daily work.
How many people do you work with when you are there?
What do you find hardest about being so far away from home and your ‘normal’ way of life (pre-covid!)?
The hardest part is probably the lack of privacy and the fact you are generally always working. Even in the downtime, you are still “working” because you are in Antarctica.
What home comforts do you miss?
Pizza – the chefs are incredibly good, but there’s nothing better than takeaway pizza.
Back to school, were there any teachers who really inspired you in your studies or supported you above and beyond?
Miss Raine – my Chemistry teacher. I found chemistry really hard right throughout school but somehow managed to get an A in A-level for it and I owe that to her.