Happy New Year from Science, Sightseeing and Sustenance! First blog post of 2016 will be a sightseeing one – something I’ve not written about for a while.
Travel has been interwoven in to my life and work for the last five years. I’ve travelled a lot for conferences etc but with bursary funding, the demands of a PhD, the vastness of southern Africa, and the need to visit faraway family, travel for pure pleasure has not been much of a feature. Moving back to Europe was meant to be an opportunity to change this, however buying a house does tend to suck dry your finances a little! Still, those who follow my Instagram will know we managed a lovely weekend in Brussels to catch up with some South African friends in the early part of 2015 and have recently returned from a fantastic week with another two South African friends, in Iceland.
I’ll freely admit, Iceland had not been on my radar as a holiday destination at all. I think growing up in a relatively cold, wet place, and now missing the sun of Cape Town, I’d never thought much of holidays to cold places. But when two of our very best wine drinking friends suggested meeting up over New Years, we could have been going anywhere and I’d have said yes.
In fact that’s precisely what happened, only after saying yes did I start looking at the array of awesome things Iceland has to offer the keen traveller. Even in winter, which many friends balked at the idea of. We booked an airb&b (highly recommended), rented a 4×4 and embarked on an epic journey through snow covered mountains, past volcanoes and glaciers, in to glacial water filled tectonic rifts, under firework and aurora filled skies, by dog-sled and superjeep, fuelled by Icelandic vodka, and the best seafood soup in the world.
I won’t give a blow by blow account of our trip, but here’s some of the coolest things we did and would recommend.
Rent a car, but only if you are confident/sensible/borrow our friend Johan
Having a car was fantastic, we got to explore everything at our own pace and it saved us a tonne of cash on what could have been a very expensive trip. Saying this, driving in Iceland winter is not for the faint hearted. Our friend Johan arranged the car for us – 4×4, studded tires, with all the necessary insurance – including volcanic eruption cover – I am not joking. He also did all the driving, and thoroughly enjoyed it, likening the snow/ice conditions to the sand/gravel road driving he has done around southern Africa. We saw many smaller cars getting stuck, and tourists driving ridiculously, which I’m sure must annoy the locals. I’m not sure I would have been confident enough to do the driving by myself, and for anyone like me there’s an array of fantastic companies who will take care of transfers/drive tours for you.
Snorkel/dive on the mid-Atlantic ridge
I hate cold water, but even this wasn’t enough to put me off taking the opportunity to snorkel over the mid-Atlantic ridge. Iceland is the only place this massive oceanographic feature can be seen on land, and it is truly spectacular. If it’s any consolation, the water is 2-4 degrees even in summer, and tastes fantastic!
We snorkelled, though Ben and I are both divers, our friends who we travelled with aren’t, and neither of us have any dry suit experience. I’m not a diver to take risks, so the cold, plus not diving for a while, plus no dry suit experience was one risk factor too many for me. I’d definitely consider the diving if we go back again though.
Wear lots of warm socks, and brace yourself for the hand pain taking off the dry suit! Pay the extra to get some awesome photos. We went with Dive.is.
Thingvellir – the national park where this takes place – is the historic setting of the first democratic parliament. Definitely worth visiting, we drove through it several times during the week, although on many days the visibility was awful. One for more exploration in summer.
The south coast – Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon
We took a decision on the first evening we arrived to try and drive the southern ring road to take in some of the amazing sights on offer. It’s a long drive, even longer in snowy conditions, so we split it over two days. First day we drove to Vik. It was New Year’s Day so the roads were pretty quiet, except for the relentless graders who keep the roads as clear as possible. Not many places were open, but luckily most of the things we wanted to see were always open sights of beauty, just next to the road. We stopped at Seljalandsfoss and Skoggafoss waterfalls, both incredible and worth a good walk around. We also stopped at Dyrholaey – an incredible area with a beautiful view point of the black beaches and fantastic rock formations.
We spent the night at Nordur hostel in Vik where we had a private dorm for the four of us. It as very reasonably priced, with a well equipped kitchen, wifi and lots of friendly advice for travellers.
We left Vik at around 6am to drive to Jokulsarlon. This was probably the toughest morning of driving for Johan and we basically didn’t see anything from the car until we got to our destination. Of course the sun only really comes up around 1030 this time of year, so not surprising! We had been intending to go on an ice cave tour from Jokulsarlon, but as the cave was totally full of water (it had been unseasonably warm), we were offered a discounted glacier walk, or a full refund. With the dodgy weather we opted for a refund and decided to spend the morning exploring Jokulsarlon and slowly drive back to Reykjavik. This turned out to be a fantastic decision as sunrise on the beach next to the calving glacier was one of the highlights of our holiday. The light was amazing as the clouds slowly cleared and gave way to the sun – Iceland really is the most photogenic place, and the low winter sun leaves you in photo-perfect golden hour sunlight almost perpetually.
We had some fab seafood soup and coffee and then began our trip back. The clear sunny day revealed all the things that we had missed under the blanket of darkness. Including some amazing glaciers which we stopped to spend some time at.
The Northern Lights
I’m sure this incredible, natural phenomena is the reason a large percent of people visit Iceland, particularly in winter when the dark nights make it much easier to see. Unfortunately the winter also brings cloud, and every satellite remote sensing scientist knows how much these things interrupt the view from space, or in this case, of space.
With this in mind I hadn’t gotten my hopes up for seeing the lights, and figured if we came across them, great, if not, no worries. Megan however had her heart set on tracking them down. We first saw the lights in a complete fluke of luck. We were still up at 2am on news years day morning. New Year’s Eve had been cloudy and snowy and the sky was full of the aftermath of Reykjavik’s firework enthusiasm. Not ideal conditions for spotting the lights by any means. Johan happened to step out on to the balcony, just as a gap in the clouds opened and weak tendrils of green waved ephemerally across the sky. We were chilling out on the sofa when he said “uhh, guys, they’re here!”. We all knew what he meant, as we’d been eyes up every night since we arrived. It was over as soon as it begun and so we booked a superjeep tour to try and find the lights on the next clear night. Despite a beautifully clear night (the stars were incredible), there were no lights to be seen, and we felt deflated. The company who we booked with, offers a free second trip if you don’t find the lights, and despite the cloudy conditions we decided to try again the following night. The leader of our convoy spotted the lights in the distance, using the long exposure on his camera to pick up the faint green glow, obscured by the city lights of Reykjavik. We raced up on to a snow covered mountain top – some epic 4×4 driving in these hugely powerful trucks, and there they were. For about an hour we watched several patches of green and purple morph from glowing strips to dancing waves and eventually disappear behind clouds. Some more off road frivolity and some vodka spiked hot chocolate, ended a magical evening. Book your trip with superjeep here.
When we first spoke about going to Iceland, this was the only activity that popped in to my head. I love dogs, and the idea of going sledding had always been something I was keen to try. Ben found a company in Iceland who run tours, both winter in summer, on snow and on dry land using wheeled carts, and we booked a half day experience.
This was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. The day began with meeting the young puppies of the kennel and then working our way through all the other dogs individually. Learning about their breeds, lineage, personality and their places in the sledding teams. We then learnt how to harness them up, and prepare them to be attached to the sled in their designated spot. Out on the sled we learnt all about the terms used to make them go, stop, turn left and right and how these are an international standard used in competitions of various sorts. It was a fantastically informative, brilliantly fun and thoroughly adorable day and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Link here for more information:
Probably one of the things Iceland is most famous for, and you’re barely off the plane before you see adverts to the famous Blue Lagoon. Unfortunately Blue Lagoon was fully booked during our trip, so we made our way out to a hot spring at Laugavatn, just on the other side of Thingvellir, towards Gulfoss (big beautiful waterfall) and Geysir (the place they are all named after). It was cheap, quiet and really relaxing, and they have a geothermal bakery onsite where they bake rye bread.
A very cool city. Sufficiently small to wander around happily and never be too far from anything, but sufficiently bustling and exciting to compete with other famous city’s. I particularly loved the excellent art and design shops, the quirky museums (yep, a whole one dedicated to penis’) and the array of interesting food to eat in restaurants and take away. We particularly loved the Ostubudin deli restaurant, where we had delicious reindeer amongst other delicacies. The hotdogs all around the country are spectacular – never pass up a chance to get one!
It’s also worth wandering around Reykjavik just for the street art – there’s lots of it and it’s really awesome! And if you’re there for New Years – prepare for hours of firework chaos!
I could write loads more about Iceland, and I feel we aren’t yet done with this beautiful country, stay tuned for a summer return trip!
Inspired by a recent Buzzfeed post describing the “18 Things Everyone Must Eat In Cornwall”, myself, Ben, my mum, her partner Jon, and princess Darcey Doodle the worlds most spoiled Dachshund, headed off to Cornwall for a tour of culinary delights.
First stop on our #CornishFoodTour was Strong Adolfo’s – a cafe on the Atlantic Highway just outside Wadebridge, popular with Jon and his motorbike friends. Strong Adolfo’s would be very at home amongst the trendy cafes in Cape Town. The styling is great and they serve an array of food, along with cakes, coffee and various soft drinks. I had a delicious flapjack, filled with lots of nuts, and a lovely elderflower presse. Jon – who is very particular about his coffee – loves the coffee at Strong Adolfo’s, and they do a breakfast menu, so it’s a great place to start your day.
Next door to Strong Adolfo’s is a lovely shop called The Arc. Named after the Atlantic Arc – an area encompassing the lowest economic regions around the Atlantic coast, defined by the EU. To provide support, the Arc stocks speciality local food from these regions, especially from Cornwall. This shop is a veritable treasure troves of foods I’d never seen, let alone realised they were produced right on our doorstep in Cornwall. Of particular interest to me was the number of local seaweed based products. Besides the different types of seaweed itself from the Cornish Seaweed Company, there was also a seaweed and cider salami from Cornish Charcuterie. I bought a pack of the salami, a pot of pork rillettes with sloe gin, also from Cornish Charcuterie, and a pack of brittle – a treat for mum. She was very pleased to find a variety of dukkah – a favourite treat we first tried in South Africa.
From The Arc we headed for Padstow. Conveniently there was a little food market going on in this beautiful, but very busy, seaside town. We bought a bottle of Elemental Cornish Gin to add to our spirits collection, after trying some fantastic local beers, cordial, and brownies. Padstow, as with many Cornish seaside towns, is synonymous with seafood. It’s also synonymous with one of the world’s most famous seafood chefs – Rick Stein. We decided we couldn’t really go to Padstow without having some seafood from one of his restaurants and opted to grab some takeaway food from his fish and chips shop in the harbour. I had locally caught crispy fried squid and chips, which was absolutely delicious and, although expectedly expensive, was served as a massive portion. There’s also a lovely little deli and fresh fish shop here, which is well worth a visit.
After a good walk around Padstow, we moved on to our final stop of the day – Camel Valley Vineyards. This award-winning vineyard makes a delicious bubbly which we frequently have on sunny days (and not so sunny days!) at Le Vignoble. We were excited to see the farm and try some of their other wines including several other bubblies and some white, and rosé wines. The farm is in a beautiful location, and the tasting room is very nice. The atmosphere was a little flat – possibly because it was later in the day – not something I’m used to at wine tastings. We also had to leave Darcey in the car, as dogs aren’t allowed (the only place we visited, including the clothes shops in Padstow, where she wasn’t), so this did limit the time we could spend there somewhat. Still, we thoroughly enjoyed a couple of tastings and a glass of the Annies Anniversary bubbly, which we bought a bottle of. I’d definitely recommend a visit and the Bacchus is a particularly nice white for the upcoming summer days.
It was an excellent day out, but I feel we only scratched the surface of the culinary adventures that Cornwall has to offer! We’ll be back soon!
Growing up, a BBQ was a rare summer evening activity, keeping fingers crossed for sunny weather, and usually involving a disposable foil contraption and some combination of plain sausages and burgers. Living in South Africa however outdoor cooking on a fire was a totally different experience. There’s no escaping “braai” culture in SA. Coming from the Afrikaans word “braaivleis” for grilled meat, the term braai is now used across cultures in SA and has become a firm part of my vocabulary. And this is not just because of the many fond memories I have braai-ing in SA. To call a braai a BBQ has been (to me) to equate the skill of cooking and diversity of food I’ve seen created in SA, with those overcooked sausages of my childhood. Thankfully, the UK has apparently gone mad for the BBQ in recent times – evidenced by National BBQ week and an array of facebook groups and twitter accounts of BBQ enthusiasts.
We loved braai-ing in SA so much that our weber, grids, jaffle irons, potjie pot and favourite spatula took pride of place amongst the small shipment of belongings we brought back to the UK with us. Once the shipment arrived we were itching to get cooking again and the recent run of good weather, and National BBQ week were all the reasons we needed.
Our last few braais have been a great chance to mix the best of local food from the UK with some of the things we learnt from the braaimasters of SA. I’ve also been very pleased to find so many of my favourite SA braai foods available here. From the Good Food market, held every first sunday of the month at the Royal William Yard, I managed to buy boerewors (a delicious type of sausage common at SA braais), and chakalaka – a vegetable relish. From our local Tesco, I also bought 3 types of Mrs Balls chutney (original, peach and hot) and Karoo ostrich fillets. In terms of local meat, British beef has been fantastic – with rib eye proving a particular favourite. There’s also lots of high quality pork sausages here (we love the free-range Gloucester old spot sausages from M&S), and a great selection of venison available at both markets and many supermarkets. Fish wise – we’ve been experimenting with mackerel and seabream – see a followup #sea2shop2supper post on these. Not forgetting the sides, there’s also great seasonal vegetables in the UK – jersey royal potatoes and asparagus make for some delicious salads. Drinkswise – we’re absolutely spoiled here for great beers and ciders – Dartmoor Brewery’s Jail Ale, St Austell’s Tribute and Korev lager, Brewdogs IPA’s and Healey’s Rattler cider are just a few favourites. We’ve also been able to source a surprising amount of South African wine, including Villiera MCC from M&S, Springfield’s Chardonnay from Le Vignoble, Rustenberg’s Rousanne from Majestic and the Klein Zalze chenin and red blends from Waitrose.
For me, braai-ing in SA was always about long afternoons spent with lots of friends. Since moving back to the UK, it’s been great to share these experiences with our families.
Family and friends have been really excited to try some of the braai recipes we brought home with us, so here’s a few of those and some other things we’ve been grilling up lately.
Fig and blue cheese burgers
Makes 4 big burgers, or 6 smaller ones
500g beef mince – I use the highest fat, roughly ground mince I can find.
1 red onion, chopped finely
150g blue cheese
Fig jam or chutney – I use the one from Ticklemore, available in Waitrose.
Some nice crunchy bread rolls – I bought cheddar and smoked paprika buns from M&S.
Caramelise the onions in lots of butter until really soft and delicious.
Mix these onions with the mince and loosely form in to patties.
Grill on the braai as you like – we like slightly rare.
Place in buns and top with a big spoonful of the fig chutney and lots of crumbled blue cheese.
Cheddar and pepperdew braaibroodjies
These are a type of toasted cheese sandwich made on the braai. As with toasted cheese sandwiches, you can fill these with almost any combination of fillings. I often use cheddar cheese (the UK has so many good options for this, Cornish Tickler is one of my favourites) and pepperdews. These are easiest done with a grid so they can all be flipped together.
Thick white bread, sliced.
Butter, softened so it’s easily spreadable.
Cheddar cheese, grated.
Pepperdews, sliced finely.
Butter the slices of bread on one side – this will be the outer side.
Fill sandwiches with grated cheese and pepperdew.
Place in grill and cook over cool fire.
Bobotie is one of my favourite South African dishes. Sweet curry spiced mince with baked egg custard and chutney sounds pretty odd, but South Africa’s national dish really is wonderful. I’ve made it so many times, I don’t even have a particular recipe, I tend to spice up the mince and taste it and add more spice and chutney until it tastes how I like it. Jaffles, are also a bit like toasted sandwiches, but thanks to the jaffle iron, can be filled much more than braai broodjies. For this recipe, I make a spiced mince based on the bobotie recipe, and replace the egg custard with an egg, cracked in the middle.
This recipe makes 6 or so and you will need a jaffle iron.
White bread, sliced.
1 onion, finely chopped.
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped.
2 tablespoons of curry powder.
2 teaspoons of turmeric powder.
3 allspice berries and two cloves – crushed in a pestle and mortar.
3 tablespoons of spiced fruit chutney – I often use the peach or hot Mrs Balls chutney.
6 eggs (1 per jaffle)
Soften the onions and garlic in a little butter.
Brown the mince, add the spices and cook until soft.
Finally stir the chutney through.
Butter the bread, again, the buttered side will be the outside. Place one slice, butter side down, in to the jaffle iron. Make a little nest of the spiced mince on the bread, and crack an egg in to the centre. Top with another piece of bread, again with the butter side outward and close the jaffle iron.
Cook in relatively cool coals, checking regularly to make sure they don’t burn, you want them to just be crisp, so the egg is still slightly runny.
Serve with chutney.
More braai recipes to come through the summer!
One of the nicest things about finally coming back to the UK is being reunited with many of my belongings that I couldn’t take to Cape Town. Something I’m very happy to see again is my pasta machine. I have made pasta without it in the last few years, but it wasn’t as easy. Now that I’m back I have no excuse and there really is nothing that beats homemade ravioli with any one of the myriad tasty fillings that can be invented.
Continuing my #sea2shop2supper series I decided to make some simple rainbow trout ravioli.
Rainbow trout are rated as a 2 for sustainability on the MCS guidelines. They are typically farmed in freshwater so I guess not technically “sea”food but they are a great sustainable option for a special fish dinner.
I bought 4 rainbow trout fillets from my local M&S for £6 and used two for this dish.
Rainbow trout ravioli with almond butter sauce
To serve 2
300g 00 pasta flour
3 large eggs
2 trout fillets
2 tablespoons of blached sliced almonds
2 tablespoons of butter
2 handfuls of English spinach.
Chives to garnish
Ground black pepper
First make the pasta dough. I used Jamie Oliver’s basic egg pasta recipe here, and it worked really well. I halved it and it made more than enough dough to make enough ravioli for two, plus some extras.
While the pasta dough is resting, make a little parcel out of tin foil to cook the trout fillets in. Zest the lemon and cook the trout fillets with the lemon zest for about 10 minutes at 200 degrees. Once cooked, flake the trout in to a bowl and season well with pepper and a small squeeze of lemon juice. Pour any juices from the parcel in to a frying pan.
To make the ravioli, roll out the pasta in to sheets as thin as possible. Put teaspoons of the trout mix along the sheet, with a 3-5 cm gap in between. Brush around the edges of the mix with a little water. Lay another sheet on top and form the ravioli, making sure there’s no air left around the mix. Slice with a knife or ravioli cutter and make sure the edges are well sealed. Cook in boiling, salted water for 4 minutes.
On medium heat, add butter to the frying pan, once melted and starting to bubble, add the almonds. Once the butter is slightly browned, add a squeeze of lemon juice and remove from the heat.
Serve the ravioli on a bed of English spinach (the heat of the pasta will wilt it) with the sauce drizzled over the top and plenty of chopped chives.
When I lived in Plymouth BCT (Before Cape Town) my wine drinking only extended as far as a reasonable Rioja from Tesco, or the occasional bottle of cava or french champagne. Living in Cape Town was a massive awakening for me, in terms of the diversity and craft of wine making.
While I was busy learning about how wine is grown and made, Plymouth saw the arrival of the most awesome wine tasting lounge – Le Vignoble. Set in the historic and beautiful Royal William Yard, Le Vig (as it has come to be known amongst my friends and family), is owned by Yannick Loué. Yannick exemplifies many aspects of my favourite winemaker and vineyard experiences in South Africa. His focus on small producers, quality and value in wine, and a personal, approachable wine tasting experience, is precisely what I loved so much about my many weekends wine tasting in the Western Cape.
I’ve been to a couple of wine tasting evenings at Le Vig before and they’ve always been really fun, entertaining and enlightening – particularly because I’ve really only tasted wine extensively, from South Africa. However, I still have a lot of unfinished business with South African wine, I’m not sure you could visit every farm there even in a whole lifetime. With my second-home sickness playing up, I was very pleased to hear that Le Vig would be hosting South Africa’s Springfield Estate for a tasting evening.
I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to hear not only a South African accent again, but all the humour, passion and heartfelt welcome I’ve come to expect from those in the South African wine industry. Jeanette Bruwer who presented our tasting, is one half of the brother-sister team who own the Springfield Estate, situated in the Western Capes beautiful Robertson wine valley. Her passion for their product was evident from the start, you cannot help but be enthused by someone who’s main reason for making good wine, is so they can enjoy drinking it!
We started our tasting by comparison two sauvignon blancs – the “Life from Stone” and “Special Cuveé”. Now, I drank a lot of sauvignon blanc in South Africa. We lived a few minutes from the Constantia wine valley – famous for it’s sauvignon blancs and had visited and tried wines from many coastal and inland wine areas throughout the Western Cape. I’ve even tried New Zealands famous Marlborough sauvignon blancs. But these two sauvignon blancs from Springfield had a character all their own.
The Life from Stone is, as indicated by the name, from vines which are grown in a high vineyard with very rocky soils. Whilst the Special Cuvée comes from a lower vineyard with sandstone based soils. The latter was my preference, more subtle with gooseberry and green pepper flavours, whilst the Life from Stone was more heavy with fruit, and some smokey flavours.
Following the Sauvignon Blancs we compared two Chardonnays from the estate. The first made with wild yeast, had a very distinctive note reminiscent of pink strawberry refreshers. That sounds gross, even to me, but it was really delicious and not at all cloying in terms of sweetness. The Methode Ancienne followed, which whilst carrying the more typically woody notes of many South African chards was much more subtle. Despite my love for this characteristic style of Chardonnay, I actually bought a bottle of the wild yeast chardonnay to take home.
Moving on to reds, we first tried the whole berry Cabernet Sauvignon. Tannins were soft and it was rich with berry flavours and I imagine will age very nicely (we tried the 2013). Following this was a blend called “work of time”. Appropriately named, given the 7-8 years it takes to get this wine to release. Cabernet Franc driven, this was a stunning and powerful blend, with very gamey flavours, making me crave a decent venison potjie. The last of the Springfield Estate reds was a Methode Ancienne Cabernet Sauvignon (2008). This was really refined and a great example of the variety.
We finished off the tasting with the “Thunderchild” (2013). This is a wine made by Springfield, using grapes from a small patch of vines planted on donated land. The profits from the wine go to the Robertson Herberg children’s home. The wine itself is very big and brash but quite delicious and it was great to see the support for an important cause. For more information about the wine and Herberg children’s home, see their Facebook pages.
I also learnt in the last few days of Springfields support for another cause close to my heart. Although we didn’t get to try it at our tasting the “Miss Lucy” wine brings attention to the overexploitation of seafood including SASSI red listed species such as the red stumpnose, after which the wine is named.
All in all it was a fantastic evening, made special due to the wonderful welcome from Jeanette, Yannick and their support. We are already booked in for another tasting this week which will feature another South African wine maker from Holden Manz in Franschoek. Check back for a review of that soon.
I only started programming during my MSc. It’s actually one of my biggest regrets, that I didn’t start learning at least the basic concepts of programming, data manipulation and modelling a bit earlier. This is mostly because you just cannot do the sort of science I want to do without being at least a relatively competent programmer. The data I work with is huge. It physically doesn’t fit in excel. There are some pieces of software for manipulating satellite data, and creating simple ocean models of various types, but to advance the use of these techniques, learning some sort of code language is unavoidable. Learning to code also makes your methods repeatable. This is particularly useful, allowing for calculations to be repeated over similar data sets from different regions or to repeatedly make and alter figures, even with smaller amounts of data.
Benefits and necessity aside though, learning to code has not been easy for me. For students, I understand why they may avoid learning to code. Like maths, there seems to be something about programming that just turns some people away. Programming is another marmite (FYI, I definitely am not a maths person, though I do love marmite). People who love maths and coding – this post is probably not for you, but if you’re a newish oceanography student/programmer working with Earth system data, hopefully some of my experiences might be useful to you. Learning to code is a significant outlay of time, and an integral part of maximising the efficiency of many scientists work flows. So, whether you are a student, or an established scientist, deciding to learn a language, which one to start with, or whether to learn a new one, is not a decision that can be made lightly.
A large number of oceanographers, mostly those who have come through specific degrees in oceanography, use MATLAB to help them work with data. MATLAB was my first experience with programming. Many don’t consider MATLAB to be a programming language as such, and, contrary to many other languages, it is commonly used with a development environment or Graphical User Interface (GUI). This provides a soft landing for someone new to programming, allowing you to click on things, physically see some of the data, manually manipulate plots etc, and crucially, to write and run scripts through a single interface. MATLAB was a great tool for me during my masters research, and I learnt many more uses for it over the course of my PhD. However, there are a number of limitations to using MATLAB that started becoming apparent to me during this time.
The first thing I realised, was how dependent I was on the user interface. This happened while attending a course on linux systems and Python programming early in my PhD. The course required using a command line interface. For anyone not familiar with computers beyond GUIs, this basically means typing instructions to the computer, to navigate through the file system and execute any programmes you want to use. I was stuck at the first hurdle here. Although you can navigate through file systems in MATLAB in largely the same way as you do through a command line, I never had, I’d always clicked and navigated around my computers structure the same way I would before my programming days. I was also completely baffled by the concept of writing a script in a text editor and then calling it through the command line. Again, you can run MATLAB like this, but I had always done it through the GUI. By this point in the course I was so confused, that I totally failed to engage with the lectures and practicals on Python programming.
I eventually unlearned my fear of the command line (working with Unix/Linux systems definitely helped there), but I still stayed with MATLAB, because who wants to give up precious research time to learn a new programming language when there’s so much PhD to do? Towards the end of my PhD though, another problem became apparent. MATLAB is not open source, i.e. you have to pay for it. This made teaching with it at Universities that couldn’t afford a licence, or recommending it to students I was trying to help, difficult or even impossible. It also meant that I couldn’t use it on high performance computing facilities which also didn’t have licences. Python on the other hand, is open source and free to use. So, I made the pretty tough decision, 6 months before the end of my PhD, to learn Python, to complete the last part of my data processing. Still, I continued to use MATLAB, because a lot of my code for figures etc was already written, until the end of my PhD.
A fresh start at my new job at PML, combined with the fact that some project work had already begun, allowed me to completely transition to Python as my main language. I thought this would slow me down quite badly in my first few months, not being as fluent with Python as I was with MATLAB. I remembered the slow pace of learning to do even basic things in MATLAB. However this has not been the case, I’m really pleased to have picked up Python so quickly, despite not considering myself a natural programmer. It could be that I’ve also had to contend with learning some Fortran in this time…which does make Python seem much easier by comparison!
So I would say, if you are worried about the time it would take to transition to a new language, it might not be as big a hurdle as you think. Choosing timing carefully obviously helps – a new position is a good opportunity for this. But if you can run and ideally work with some scripts in another language before you totally transition, I think it softens the blow.
There are, of course, other options to consider beyond MATLAB and Python. Many of my colleagues use R, which has the benefit of being open source like Python, and has some quite powerful statistics packages. It tends to be quite popular amongst biologists and statisticians. However, I found R less intuitive compared to Python, and Python more suited to the matrix manipulation etc that I was used to with MATLAB. Similarly there’s IDL, which seems to be quite commonly used by those who work in remote sensing, but again it’s not entirely free to use. I have to say that I found IDL easier to work with in terms of syntax, than R, but that’s probably just based on my background.
In an ideal world, I’d want to teach new oceanographers in Python. I’ve not yet found any downsides from the perspective of my work. It seems to be a continually asked for skill in the current job market and has many applications beyond Earth sciences. However, I’m aware that we tend to inherit our programming skills from those who teach us, which is why I began working in MATLAB. Leaving MATLAB was then hard, because few people around me were working in Python. That is changing now, and the online community support for Python is excellent. There are very few problems I haven’t been able to solve with google.
I generally don’t post lots about programming on my blog, since really, there are far better people out there doing this than me. There are great basic tutorials for Python online – including Pythons own beginner guides, and the learn Python tutorials. I found the basic tutorials can be a bit overwhelming though, and get you a bit caught up in some of the details of Python which, while useful and often incredibly powerful, you may not need to use extensively. I found getting some examples of things you would typically do in MATLAB/would like to do with your data, to be the most helpful. Think file reading, selection of parts of matrices of data, basic maths and stats, plotting etc. With regards to oceanography specifically, sites you may want to check out include OceanPython, these links from RSMAS Miami, and many others – just google ‘Python Oceanography’.
I think the best and worst thing about programming, especially with open source languages and as data becomes bigger and more complex, is that your skills must continually evolve. This used to be frustrating to me, as I felt like I was never really improving, until I realised I was actually just pursuing harder and harder tasks. Now I’m enjoying the challenge more. With that said, I’d love to hear from anyone who has any recommendations for great resources on how to make the best of Python – particularly for plotting and satellite data processing.