E4 Doctoral Training Partnership

Emma Hipkins

Comparing the hydrogeological prospectivity of three UK locations for deep radioactive waste disposal

This PhD was hosted in the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, in partnership with Golder

The PhD has widened my future opportunities by introducing me to new areas of work, and providing me with advance training courses.

What was your research about?

Within the UK, the search for a deep geological disposal facility to store the nations higher radioactivity waste legacy continues.  Groundwater forms an integral component of the safety system, ensuring radioactive material remains underground for many hundreds of thousands of years.  This project investigated the question as to whether some settings offer greater long-term waste containment and isolation potential than others.  The question was approached from a hydrogeological perspective, and simulated groundwater behaviour using coupled process modelling.  Groundwater characteristics of the three UK settings were compared to a pre-established criterion.

What made you apply to the E3 DTP?

I applied for the E3 DTP due to the opportunities for wider academic and practical training, and to be part of a community of other early career researchers with whom ideas and experiences could be shared.

PhD Highlights

  • Winning best oral presentation within the first year PGR conference, best poster within the second year, and the three minute thesis competition on the E3 DTP Dryburgh residential trip within the third year.
  • I was also nominated for teaching awards by undergraduate students I had supported throughout the four years – this I was particularly proud of.

What did you find challenging in your PhD?

I expected the PhD to be an academic and emotional challenge of gigantic proportions, and in many respects I was right.  However, like all jobs, whilst some aspects required more consideration and work, others were straight-forward and could be accomplished with relative ease, or passed by smoothly.  I also hoped the PhD would improve my academic prowess, critical thinking skills, and widen my understanding of the subject at hand.  I believe all these things were achieved to some degree, although you can always do more!

One of the biggest challenges I faced was knowing the expectations required of me i.e. how much work did I need to do, and to what level of detail.  This persisted throughout the PhD, right up until and throughout my thesis corrections.  Other major challenges included finding appropriate and relevant literature within an industry where much of the scientific information is tied up within very long governmental and technical reports, and also gaining access to people with whom I could have a detailed discussion with, as the research community on this particular subject at the university was small.

Looking back, what would you have done differently?

In hind sight I would have tried to establish links with organisations that operate within this industry at an early stage, and bring professionals who had an understanding of the established literature and practical working of the industry onto the supervisory team. I believe this would have saved me much time, and would have given me greater insight to the challenges and concepts at hand.

Which aspects of your PhD did you enjoy the most?

Most simply the opportunity to read, think about, and explore a subject in which I have a natural interest.  I also thoroughly enjoyed tutoring on the undergraduate courses, imparting knowledge, and also learning through the students challenging questions!

Which skills did you gain during your PhD?

The key skills I gained during the PhD include technical numerical modelling skills; research and critical thinking skills; and scientific communication skills.

I thoroughly enjoyed tutoring on the undergraduate courses, imparting knowledge, and also learning through the students challenging questions!

What would not have been possible without the DTP?

The DTP enabled me to undertake advanced training courses including, to name a few: principles and practice of near-surface resistivity weekend in the Lake District; scientific communication weekend at Dryburgh; technical writing, paper editing and CV building at the University of Edinburgh; and the attending of conferences, including the Bryan Lovell ‘water risk and hazards’ conference at the London Geological Society, and the Radioactive Waste Management public meeting on deep geological disposal in Lancaster.  The DTP fund also enabled me to buy advanced post processing software, and time, storage space, and memory required for numerical model simulation.

How has your PhD helped you to decide on a career path?

I had already decided upon a career path prior to the PhD, and the PhD was used to enhance my academic and practical skills within the applied industry.  The PhD has also however widened my future opportunities by introducing me to new areas of work, and providing me with advance training courses.

And now?

I will be returning into environmental consultancy, applying myself to deep geological disposal and nuclear decommissioning projects.  Links to the environmental consultancy firm were established before the PhD, but maintained and strengthened through a CASE partnership agreement set up by the University of Edinburgh.