The big picture and little details of Bogology

I would be willing to wager a fairly tidy sum of cash that anyone currently working in any academic field is well aware of the word ‘impact’. To obtain the merest shred of funding, we must show how our research will have impact – how its wider significance, be that economic, social, political or practical will be made a reality. In an age when the majority of our research is funded by the public purse, I believe it is only right that the wider benefits to society of our work, even if somewhat indirect, are flagged up. This means that when writing funding applications, presenting our research at conferences or during outreach events, or even just boring family and friends with tales of what we do for day jobs, we tend to concentrate on the big picture. On the flip side, what often gets overlooked is day-to-day reality.

As with most endeavours, the ‘big picture’ is the tip of the iceberg – a single take home message that can hide months or even years of work. To illustrate the point, I’ve recently been collating all the new testate amoeba data I generated working on a project in North America. The big picture of this project is to better understand the varying influences on climate in the North Atlantic region over the past 10,000 years or so. In order to do so, I spent hours, days, weeks, months even doing lab work and sitting patiently at my microscope. It all essentially boiled down to four testate amoeba diagrams. A colleague from another university can say the same thing for plant macrofossils. Another colleague can say the same thing for stable isotopes. Bogology can be an extremely data and time heavy pursuit.

For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to collate the amount of work I’d done on the project. I produced testate amoeba records from five sites, counted 1063 samples and (roughly!) 133,000 individual amoeba shells. In each sample I counted between 100 and 150 shells. Depending on their concentration, this could take anything between 20 minutes (an unbridled joy!) or a whole day at work (banging head on lab bench). Patience is a virtue in this game. The same applies for most strands of past climate research, be that systematically counting and measuring the widths and chemical composition of tree rings or analysing samples from ice cores, lake sediments or cave stalagmites (known as speleothems).

I don’t know whether these numbers make me quietly satisfied or a bit mortified! While the big picture and the impact of our work is undoubtedly what gets us excited and keeps us striving for new research ideas and projects, it’s also true that to Bogologise is to do the same thing over and over and over (and over) again. The good thing though is that these two aspects of our jobs marry very well together; time on the microscope uses only the visual part of the brain, meaning results can be gathered while the brain is left to freely wander, pondering that big picture (or, let’s be honest here, occasionally listening to Test Match Special – for those non-UK readers, this is cricket on the radio and something of a national institution!). And more big picture ideas in turn eventually lead back to more time on the microscope – the beautiful virtuous circle of Bogology!

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