Megan O’Donnell documents a unique opportunity


Every year The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) along with the Institute of British Geographers (IBG) offer special financial support to first year undergraduate geography students partaking in fieldwork excursions abroad. I was lucky enough to be accepted for one of these Fieldwork Apprenticeship bursaries and travelled to the Spanish Pyrenees to work with leading experts in their respective fields on a glacial geomorphology project.

In November 2010 when one of my Geography lecturers enquired if anyone was interested in accompanying him to study the glacial geomorphology of a valley in the Spanish Pyrenees I immediately knew I was, but then again so were most of my peers. I knew from putting my name forward at the outset, getting a place on this project was not going to be easy. I tried to stand out from the crowd as much as possible in my application, and convey my extreme enthusiasm for the project and the opportunities it would give me. The application process was demanding but not overly intimidating; the interview stage was definitely my biggest challenge. On finding out I had been successful in being granted one of the bursaries from the RGS I was delighted. It felt like a substantial achievement and improved my confidence, with regard to my studies, greatly. The process of applying and being accepted to the apprenticeship programme gave me a significant amount of determination to succeed, and pride in my own abilities that I had lost sight of whilst immersed in my first year of university.

Once out in the Pyrenees I was privileged enough to gain a place on a post conference fieldtrip run by The Spanish Quaternary Research Association which toured the Spanish Pyrenees for three days. Scientists from the conference presented their most recent research in the field (in Spanish, Catalan and French) and we toured the relevant study areas in a coach. Being on this post-conference fieldtrip was difficult in many ways. I struggled to communicate with others on the trip due to the language barriers present as well as keep up with the challenging level at which the research was being discussed. These challenges were not without reward as the trip gave me an opportunity not only to take in all the sights of the Pyrenees but also to gain some general background knowledge to the research our group would be conducting in the La Pera Valley.

The main project I was involved in out in the Pyrenees was a climatic reconstruction of the La Pera Valley area over the last 20,000 years based on the glacial record (moraines). I worked with a team of leading experts in their respective fields to collect and record the relevant data in the field and document the experience through photography and a personal diary. I also had the chance to shadow the work of two geography dissertation students which gave me a first-hand insight into how to conduct effective dissertation fieldwork. I worked with Raimon Pallas; a glacial geomorphology expert from the University of Barcelona, Vincent Rinterknecht; a radiometric dating specialist from the University of St Andrews, Vincent Jomelli; a lichenometry expert from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Raimon Copons; an expert in GIS mapping.

On returning to Scotland from my ten day stint as a physical geography fieldwork apprentice it was safe to say the only word I could use to describe the experience to others was “overwhelming”. I expected to be amazed, exhausted and even a little bemused by being thrust into a professional geographical environment with so little experience and knowledge, but I could never have predicted the complete sensory overload this trip would give me. The RGS Fieldwork Apprenticeship gave me the opportunity to be part of a multinational team of experts at the forefront of the study of climate change before the end of my first undergraduate year at St. Andrews. It has been one of the most exciting and astounding experiences I have ever been privileged enough to experience, and could not recommend the opportunity enough to further potential applicants.


To find out more visit the RGS website.


Megan O’Donnell
Photography – Megan O’Donnell