Christopher Emersic Official Website
Home A personal account of my experiences during my career Read about my research (Coming soon!) Want to learn some background science?  Here it is in simple terms (Coming soon!) See all the presentations I've given on visits or at conferences (Coming soon!) Read about my involvement with the media and how to contact me (Coming soon!) Read my blog thoughts about random lightning things that I come across A friendly chat forum for the atmospheric electricity community and general public where we can talk all things thunderstorm and beyond (Coming soon!) Some links to other webpages of interest
UMIST / The University of Manchester Three of the most thoroughly enjoyable years of my life
My PhD was a very enjoyable experience, particularly retrospectively through rose tinted glasses (like everything!).  It was also damned hard work—as it should have been to be worth something.  I was finally doing research on thunderstorms—electrification in this instance; a fundamental area underpinning all other lightning science–trying to explain why clouds charge significantly at all.  In a way it was a dream come true, in no small part to long-term planning (see right panel) and an inherent drive in the subject. I remember when I first arrived as an official PhD student and Clive took me down to F10 and said something to the effect of “This is your lab now”, and I felt right at home and completely happy—a very good state of mind to be in to be productive.  Holly Bax- Norman—Clive’s PhD student at the time—was just finishing up her experiments and so the short overlap allowed me to get in a bit of hands-on training.  Just like driving a car though, you can be shown the basics, but you only really learn how to drive when the instructor’s no longer there and you’re on your own—a secret I’m sure Clive knew and why he left me alone to get up to speed with a few experiments.  The first year was very much about finding my feet and doing these initial experiments.  I did a lot of reading on the subject and started to pick up a few of the complexities of the field—and yes, they were mind-bendingly complex. I continued into the second year, feeling much more confident now in my experimental ability.  Clive would often come down and suggest a “quick-look-see”—a brief experimental diversion to look at something that had cropped up in the literature recently.  Often these diversions would become a bigger set of experiments and before long I had my famously long to-do list that we’d often joke about.  It was about half way through my second year when the infamous PhD blues kicked in and I started to wonder what it was that I’d actually achieved so far.  Lots of different experiments looking at different things, but nothing conclusive—and certainly not through lack of trying.  Fortunately, but possibly somewhat inevitably, things naturally all came together during the third year and my PhD was really shaping up.  The third year was interesting because I really felt confident in my abilities and what I was doing, but the monotony of day after day of the same kind of complex, repetitive experiments was starting to get to me.  It really was a test of character to be able to come in in the morning and perform experimental run after experimental run until the evening, and repeat day after day after day.  This is the classic experimental PhD experience, and by the end of it, either your love for the field pulls you through and you look fondly through the rose-tinted glasses, or you finish up hating it and never look back.  I was the former, thankfully. There were many other notable experiences in my PhD.  I was fortunate to get to use some very unique and interesting equipment—namely a cloud chamber situated in a large walk-in cold room (now dismantled unfortunately).  Affectionately named George (apparently after George Caranti for reasons I forget), our cold room in F10 could reach -40°C (on a good day)—at least when it wasn’t broken.  Clive would rarely get a phonecall from me that wasn’t to report the cold room having broken and me needing to run him up a maintenance bill, but it became an amusing standard initial phone conversation along the lines of <ring-ring> <answers> Chris: “Hi Clive, it’s Chris…” Clive: “oh no, what’s wrong…”.  I certainly got friendly with staff at Cheshire Refrigeration who were out every other week, or so it seemed.  The cold room was certainly an interesting experience, particularly at the lowest temperatures.  Anything warmer than -20°C was “tropical” to me; once you hit -30°C, you started to feel it; at -40°C, you really felt the bite—especially when the fans were on.  I was rarely in there for any length of time, but I quickly learned it was a fatal mistake to drop anything on the floor in there; having to bend down to pick it up and make my frozen pants touch my legs took a lot of psychological preparation! The cold room failures, though, were not the biggest bane of my PhD life.  I had more trouble with the charge amplifier than anything.  It was hair-tearingly frustrating when, suddenly, for no apparent reason, in the middle of an otherwise perfect experiment, the plotter would suddenly start drifting off and seemingly short out.  There was never any apparent reason; it was completely random, and I tried so many things to get it to stop doing it.  I put it down to voodoo or planet alignment or something in the end.  Another source of frustration came when trying to get my rimed rod out of the pipe.  Essentially I had a small metal rod poked into the side of a pipe through which cloud was sucked through past it.  The rod would accumulate ice on one side almost like a stick in a candyfloss machine.  There were times when I’d done an absolutely perfect experiment, and right at the end, I would lift the rod out and accidentally scrape off the rime ice I needed to measure, ruining everything! One of the most poignant mental images of the cold room I have is during defrost.  I would open the doors to let it warm up, and the fans would still be whirring.  Once the relatively moist lab air hit the dry cold room air, it would make an instant, swirling fog.  It was like turning a research lab into the stage of Stars in Your Eyes.  Defrost also reminds me of another time when I accidentally flooded the lab underneath us.  The melt water from the condenser fans would drip through a pipe into a bucket.  One time, I must have built up a huge amount of ice, and after I’d left, a bit more than 1 bucket of water dripped out.  It overflowed and dripped into the lab below—which we heard about…  We got a much bigger bucket after that. While tough, I enjoyed my PhD.  The sheer complexity of some of the experiments I had to design ultimately helped develop me into the relatively more meticulous experimentalist I am today.  To date, I've never performed experiments as difficult and headache-inducing as those.  I really appreciated why people feel thunderstorm electrification experiments are notoriously difficult.  Because our field is so niche, we were often the first point of call for TV crews making documentaries on lightning.  They would come to use for the fundamental science and to see ice, and then go over to Ian Cotton’s lab to see some big sparks he makes with his impulse generator.  These early days helped train me for many future engagements with the media (see media section).  One of the most memorable documentaries actually didn’t involve anything to do with lightning.  We were asked to perform an experiment where we dressed two plastic dummies in war clothing—one Russian, one German—and attach a temperature probe to measure which would freeze the first.  It was somewhat surreal dressing plastic manikins up in the lab.  My first time being filmed for TV was very nerve-wrecking, and being at sub-zero temperatures didn’t help. We had many guests visiting us during my PhD.  Most notably was John Hallett (of the Hallett-Mossop process) who wanted to try out a new cloud probe he’d been working on.  We had a fun two weeks playing around trying to get images of ice crystals.  (John was interested in looking at the potential charging effects of secondary rime ice splinters back in the late 70s, before I was even born, just after the discovery of the Hallett-Mossop process, and he visited UMIST and worked with Clive in the old G30 lab.) One of the nicest memories I will take away with me from my PhD is my relationship with Clive.  It was well known amongst students internally that Clive’s students were “always happy”.  I was no exception.  I think the key to his success as a supervisor was his very hands-off approach—which I intend to model in my future career.  That and the fact that he’s a very friendly and warm person who somehow makes you feel really comfortable.  Never did he ever have to hunt me down as a student, because I frequently (sometimes too frequently) would go running up to his office to show him the latest interesting result like an excited puppy.  The most satisfying moments were those when I would be in his office having a conversation with him on the science, and we’d be speaking in such high-level scientific prose that to most people might as well have been a foreign language, but the feeling of connection with another mind on the subject I love was such a deeply satisfying experience.  He really has been a surrogate father since I met him. At the end of the PhD came the thesis.  Everyone I spoke to dreaded writing this.  I think I'm somewhat anomalous in that I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I presume it was because I loved the field so much, was really up to speed on things by then, and was riding the comfort that comes with familiarity.  I very carefully planned out bite-sized milestones (certain sections by certain dates) and managed to write my effective two-volume thesis in 6 weeks.  Having done a very thorough first year report saved a lot of time, as most of the literature review could be lifted from that into the thesis.  It’s also interesting to note how your writing style improves over the years; much of the content I used from my first year report was re-written to improve it.  I was also anomalous in that I completely enjoyed my viva.  I enjoyed talking about my work and subject area so much that I couldn’t believe 3 hours had passed and actually wanted to carry on!  I graduated in December 2006; it felt quite an achievement to have fully finished my PhD within three years, but ultimately, that was my aim.  Often students take an additional year to write up, but that usually leads to apathy (as you need to find financial income for yourself after your funding runs out), and this can lead to problems.  I really tried hard to have everything completely wrapped up in 3 years, and thanks to my careful planning and hard work, I pulled it off. But, while I may have known exactly what I wanted to do with my life up to PhD level, there was a bit of a black hole after my PhD.  Clive suggested I write to several prominent people around the world in our field to see what they might have going.  So I did.  This is where I first interacted with Don MacGorman.  He was one of the few that responded and was enthusiastic about working with me!  He suggested I could apply for an NRC research associateship (a type of fellowship) in the US to work with him.  To cut a long story short, I wrote my application during the final year of my PhD and was very lucky to be selected for the award.  I was due to start at the end of January 2007, so graduating in December 2006 (due to the viva being delayed) meant I had very little time to publish any of my thesis—hence why it took so long to get published.  The more I look back on this award, the more I realise just how fortunate I was to receive it; the NRC fellowship has only been offered to about 28 scholars from the UK in the 50+ years that it’s been around.  Anyway, I literally had a week or two after Christmas to pack my bags and leave for a new life in the US.  In fact, I think I took just one bag with me with a few spare clothes and left everything behind
PhD Experience PhD Experience
Pre-PhD After 9 GCSEs from Shevington High School, I went on to Winstanley College and earned 5 A-levels including maths and physics.  Even back at high school, way before I started my degree, I knew I wanted to seriously study thunderstorms and lightning.  I’ve been somewhat obsessed with thunder and lightning since birth, so I suppose this was inevitable.  With this life-goal in mind, I knew I wanted to do a degree at a place where I could stay and do a PhD.  After looking at several prospective universities with atmospheric groups, I came across Clive Saunders at UMIST who was the only other person I’d ever met at that stage in my life with an interest in thunder and lightning.  Immediately I had the next 7 years potentially planned out.  I studied physics for 4 years, earning an MPhys, and was fortunate to land a PhD which felt like a natural continuation of my time there as I’d hoped.  Coincidentally, my A-level physics teacher (Barry Marshall) had been one of the earlier PhD students of Clive; I ended up being one of his latter.  I feel privileged to be third generation of atmospheric electrician!  Sadly, Barry died in 2011.  Clive and I attended his funeral and he will be missed.
PhD Summary The majority of what I achieved in my PhD was published (finally) in 2010.  Essentially, all experimental research was geared toward further examining the Relative Diffusional Growth Rate hypothesis (see science section).  I became very interested in the thermal preconditioning of crystals prior to mixing with droplet clouds, as this affected their growth rates prior to collision with graupel.  It's from this that I learned how to better manipulate the charge reversal lines and get a better feel for why graupel sometimes charges positively and sometimes negatively.
The University of Manchester John Owens Building taken at my graduation in 2006.  It was raining of course! The charge amplifier I used in my electrification experiments.  Caused me no end of trouble at times. The plotter that fed out the small electric currents transferred when ice crystals collided with the riming target Part of the huge Main building (now called the Sackville building) that I worked in. The UMIST cold room in F10, Main building, affectionately named "George".  Dismantled now unfortunately. Our compressor was located outside (because it was noisy and hot).  The quickest way to get to it was to climb up the roof.  Don't ask me what the pigeons got up to under that green vent cover... In typical experimental PhD fashion, the equipment looked like a tape-ridden dogs dinner, but worked amazingly well.  This was where the charge amplifier sat in the cloud. This was my droplet cloud section. Left: Clive Saunders; Middle: Rumyana Mitzeva; Right: Christopher Emersic.  Taken in 2006 I graduated in 2006.  This is a photo of Clive and me after the ceremony when I'd been given my certificate and was officially 'doctored'. A personal account of my experiences during my career