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Interview with a Volcanologist: Prof. Stephen Sparks
Interview with a Volcanologist: Rosie Smith

Interview with a Volcanologist

Download the MP3 here

Interviewer: Sarah Bucknall (SB) National Space Centre

Interviewee: Rosie Smith (RS) University College London

SB:    Hi, my name is Sarah Bucknall from the National Space Centre. I’m here with Rosie Smith, a volcanologist completing a PhD at University College London. So Rosie, please tell us a little bit about what you do.

RS:    At the moment I’m just completing my PhD which is looking at fracturing rates before volcanic eruptions. So part of that research is to get records of all the small earthquakes which happen before the eruption and looking at how these rates increase and where these earthquakes are happening. Also, I’ve collected some rocks from volcanoes and do some experiments on them in the lab to then compare the results I get from the volcanoes with the known conditions that I’m testing in the lab.    

SB:    How did you first become interested in volcanoes?

RS:    It was probably only not long before I actually started my PhD. I always enjoyed science in school, particularly physics and maths. And knew I wanted to study something along those lines for my degree and wanted something more tangible so I went for geophysics. It was during that degree that I realised that it was the natural hazard side of geophysics which I enjoyed the most - especially looking at the physics behind the processes. So it was really only toward the end of my degree that I decided that I was particularly interested in looking at some of the physics of volcanoes and to do a PhD in that subject.

SB:    What qualifications led to your PhD in volcanology?

RS:    Well it was getting a good BSC, I got a BSC in geophysics with geology and that’s essentially what led into it. I got that from the University of Liverpool and to get into there I needed 3 Bs at A-Level to get onto that degree course, for which I had them in maths, physics and chemistry.

SB:    Did they have to be in science and maths? The 3 Bs?

RS:    Because it was geophysics I was studying rather than geology it had to include maths and physics whereas you could end up doing volcanology through a geology route. Studying that they’re probably not so strict on what exactly you’re A-Levels are in. It’s just because it was a physics based course you had to have maths and physics.  

SB:    So did you enjoy maths and physics and science at GCSE? Is that what led you to those A-Levels?

RS:    Yes, I think I always preferred subjects where it was a question of work it out and find the answer. I wasn’t so good at the arts.

SB:    Is there still work available in the volcano field if you stop after a degree. Do you have to have a masters and PhD?

RS:    If you want to do research you would probably have a PhD but it depends on what role you’d like to have. A lot of observatories have things like outreach officers so if you’re not doing the actual research you could be involved in the education programmes that certain observatories run. But if you want to do the research side of it you would normally need a PhD.

SB:    What are your plans once you’ve finished your PhD? 

RS:    I hope to continue doing more research on volcanoes so I’ll possibly continue doing more similar lab work to what I’m doing now. And possibly also look more at how I can relate my research to hazard assessment in particular volcanoes.

SB:    Are there many jobs in that kind of field? 

RS:    Volcanoes is quite an interesting area of science so it’s often quite competitive for fairly low paid jobs really in this field.

SB:    Are there many female volcanologists?

RS:    I think at the early stage of your career like where I am at the end of the PhD and just beginning your research after that, it’s probably about 1 in 3 of the scientists. Whereas later on there seems to be less women, maybe down to only 1 in 10 of the professors, and it’s hard to know whether it’s because of many years ago there were less women going into the field or because women take breaks in their careers. It’s difficult to know. But I’ve certainly found that as a woman you have just as many opportunities, it’s just maybe later on it’s harder to progress. It’s hard to say yet.

SB:    Is there any particular job that you could use your skills for? You will gain a PhD in volcanology, say you couldn’t get a job in research with volcanoes, can you adapt the qualifications you’ve earned to a similar job?

RS:    Yes, there are a lot of jobs even in the city where they want people to have learnt the kind of quantitative skills and the project management that we’ve learnt here so you could go into something like that where it’s more data analysis. So instead of analysing precursors to eruptions, I could analyse a precursor to a crash in stock markets. Or else there are other fields where I could move more into teaching or into other government roles where as rather than looking at volcanic hazards I could look at different environmental hazards and apply similar techniques and methods to those that I’ve learnt here.

SB:    During your role as a volcanologist, what would you rate as the best experience you’ve ever had?   

RS:    I wouldn’t say there’s a really specific amazing experiences. Most of my time is plodding on through my research trying to find the answers. I do like the fact I get to travel with my studies, a lot of scientists get to travel anyway with going to conferences to present your work so that everyone knows your findings. Studying volcanoes a lot of these are in very nice places near the volcanoes. And I’ve also had to travel a bit to collect my rock samples. But I also quite like being involved in science, I like the feeling that I’m finding out something new as part of my research.

SB:    Do you find that really rewarding? 

RS:    Yes, I do.

SB:    What’s the most interesting place you’ve travelled to as a volcanologist?

RS:    I think my favourite was Chile. I went to a conference in Chile, it was in a volcanic region and it was a very rural area. I got to climb a couple of volcanoes and there were beautiful landscapes there so I quite liked that.

SB:    How does it feel to see a volcano? Is it scary?

RS:    I’ve not really seen one that’s erupting so there’s not really been anything scary for me. I think the closest to that has been one volcano which had a small amount of activity in the crater where you could look down in to the crater and see some lava but it wasn’t an explosive type of volcano so it wasn’t dangerous and it was actually too cloudy when I got to the top to see anything anyway. 

SB:    What was your worst experience? Have you ever been in danger?

RS:    Certainly not directly from a volcano because I wouldn’t choose to put myself in danger directly from the volcano. There are normally instruments all over the volcano and the data is all sent in real-time directly back to the observatories so people can asses the state of the volcano without having to put themselves in danger like this. So probably, during my work, the greater danger has been in the lab because I use quite high pressures and temperatures to deform my rocks so if I get something wrong or forget to seal something properly I could possibly do myself some damage in there.

SB:    What kind of person would make a good volcanologist?

RS:    I would say to be a good volcanologist it’s probably the same skills as being a good scientist of any sort in that you would have to be very methodical and logical in your approach to how you try to solve problems and answer the questions that are out there. And then if you look more toward the geological sciences it's quite important to enjoy doing the fieldwork side of it as well. And then once you get to the stage where you’re making a decision about more specifically what exactly you study, which might be volcanoes, it’s important to be very interested in that subject.

SB:    So do you get to do a lot of fieldwork?

RS:    For my project, not really. I‘ve only had to in order to collect my samples. A lot of volcanologists would do fieldwork because it’s especially important to look at the deposits from previous eruptions so that you can work out what the next eruption is likely to be like.

SB:    When you do your research and you make findings, who do you have to communicate these findings to?

RS:    At the moment with the research I’ve done so far it’s only been to other members of the scientific community so I would try to publish papers, which is a way of getting everyone else to know what progress you’ve made. And also by going to these scientific conferences, where essentially you would present the same as what you would put into a paper but it’s a way of dong it face to face and you get to discuss with people some of your findings as well.

SB:    If you were to be working on an active volcano and monitoring the action within that volcano, would you have to communicate the results to some kind of evacuation team if there were a risk of that volcano erupting?

RS:    Yes, within volcano observatories they would normally then communicate their results to some kind of local authorities. It varies from one country to the next exactly how this works, who is responsible for which role. But normally it would be the scientists’ role to pass this onto local authorities and then they would make the decision regarding evacuations. Although sometimes at the time, especially during an ongoing emergency, the scientists may end up communicating directly with the public – possibly giving out information over radio bulletins.

SB:    Ok. Thank you very much.    




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