STEM SOLUTIONS TO GLOBAL CHALLENGES

Multidisciplinary scientific approaches mean our degrees have diverse ranges of practical applications; from assessing drinking water quality, studying processes that cause coastal erosion, investigating sea level change, assessing the impact of offshore renewables, mapping shrinking glaciers and ice sheets from space, to managing fisheries for long-term sustainability in order to feed a growing world.


At this time of unprecedented environmental change on Earth, society is having to adapt to processes and hazards that are poorly understood. Now, more than ever, society needs STEM graduates with an interdisciplinary understanding of the complexity and uncertainty of Earth systems, and with the skills to observe, measure, model and manage these systems. 

Our environmental science and marine science degrees span biology, chemistry, geology and physics of terrestrial, atmospheric, freshwater and marine systems. Our degrees are designed to ensure you develop a strong background in your chosen area as well as offering the opportunity to specialize in topics that interest you. Outlined below are some examples of STEM areas you will cover.

 

MARINE BIOLOGY

We increasingly turn to the oceans to feed a growing world. Food security and sustainable fisheries are key to society’s future. At Ulster you will measure biodiversity in nationally important study sites in areas of outstanding natural beauty, and participate in a Citizen Science project coordinated by the Marine Biological Association and Scottish Natural Heritage. This scheme looks at changes in species distribution and range, invasive species biology and climate change. You will learn about anatomy, phylogeny and taxomony of marine invertebrates through interactive lectures and practical exercises covering the diversity of animal life. 

You will get experience sampling and surveying from our research vessel, learning a range of standard techniques for investigating algae, plankton, sediments, marine mammals and seabirds. Laboratory based coursework deals with similar themes, using a range of open source marine data, leading to hands-on experience with accessing and manipulating abiotic and biotic datasets covering a range of spatial and temporal scales.

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POLLUTION MONITORING:
CHEMISTRY IN ACTION

The cost of damage caused by nutrient enrichment of freshwater in the UK has been put at over £150 million per year.  The modern environmental scientist is the main profession tasked with the job of monitoring and trying to improve our deteriorating water resources. In first year, our students use microscopes to analyse water samples to identify and measure phytoplankton using a standard industry method called the Trophic Diatom Index.

In second year, our students explore the concept of nutrient enrichment of waterways from agriculture and human waste in more detail. Students carry out fieldwork on Lough Neagh using state of the art monitoring equipment to measure key parameters such as dissolved oxygen, turbidity, chlorophyll and phosphorus. In addition, they learn how to carry out risk assessments in the field to ensure safe fieldwork and they also complete a HSE approved first aid at work course.

In the final year students explore organic and inorganic pollutants in greater detail. For example, in agriculture, recent wet summers have led to increased coverage of quality grassland with rushes.  Herbicides, such as 2-methyl-4-chlorophenoxyacetic acid (MCPA) are sprayed on agricultural land to control rushes, however, MCPA (a toxin) can then make its way into drinking water supplies.  Students complete toxicity tests in the laboratory on invertebrates, again using standard industry methods such as LC50 tests (lethal concentration of a test chemical to 50% of the population).  They also explore the full range of organic, inorganic, radioactive and air pollutants we are exposed to from the environment. Students look at the link between exposure to chemicals and human health conditions such as cancer, asthma and diabetes.

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MICROBIOLOGY

Environmental chemistry and microbiology are important elements throughout the undergraduate courses. In first year students gain practical experience in analytical chemistry and microbiology by assessing water quality. Regardless of whether students aspire to professions which incorporate laboratory work, the value of these course elements for their future employment also lies in insights into quality assessment of real life data and the improvement in numerical skills through analysis of their own experimental data and research datasets. 

In second year, students progress towards independent design of experiments in microbial ecology which is gaining prominence in agriculture, conservation and environmental management. In final year, students have opportunities to carry out an independent research project in an area of personal interest. Recent examples include research on the pollution of stream sediments and the emergence of superbugs from aquatic environments through interact-ions of bacteria with algae or filter feeding aquatic organisms, which can facilitate the transfer of antibiotic resistance. 

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3D MAPPING AND EXPLORATION:
USING PHYSICS TO MAP THE EARTH

The global GIS market will be worth €14.5 billion by 2023. With that expansion comes greater demand for graduates skilled in remote sensing and GIS. Over recent years electromagnetic (laser) and seismic (sonar) sensors have become widely available, from which 3D point clouds of structures and landscapes are generated. We have invested heavily in this sensor technology, including terrestrial and underwater laser and sonar systems. We have also invested in a range of platforms to deploy these sensors, including aerial drones and marine and freshwater research vessels. 

We use drones to generate digital elevation models from which surface heights and vegetation cover can be detected, and we use high-resolution sonars to generate point clouds and 3D models of complex seafloor structures, such as shipwrecks and engineering installations. Our students gain hands-on experience collecting, processing and interpreting these data. 


These digital skills are in huge demand in the public and private sectors, where they find applications in everything from urban planning, through remote detection of forest fires and shrinking glaciers, to exploring and engineering the seabed for renewables.   

Image by Jason Blackeye
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