Wednesday, 12 March 2014

How do you become a volcanologist?

Researcher profile: Dr Rebecca Williams (@volcanologist)


How do you get to be a volcanologist? That’s a question I get asked a LOT. And a question that I’m happy to talk to anybody about, because I think it’s the best job in the world. It’s a question that I never had anybody to ask it to, when I was thinking about what career I might want to have. Through my GCSEs I got more and more interested in physical geography and my rock collection at home was growing (on the journey back from a Girl Guides camping trip, the coach driver asked me “what have you got in here, rocks or something?!” as he loaded my bags. He was stunned when I replied “yes, actually”). For a GCSE project we did an information pamphlet for the people of Naples about the volcano Vesuvius. Could you do this as a job?!
Pantelleria caldera lake - studying volcanoes means travel to some beautiful places.
But when I met with the ‘careers guidance’ teacher at school, they didn’t know what you could do to study volcanoes and geology. “Perhaps you could be a geophysicist?!” Well that was a word I’d heard of, being an avid Time Team watcher, so I thought that it sounded like a good idea. I chose my A levels based on that careers advice and started collecting university prospectuses based on who offered geophysics, but found myself narrowing down my UCAS choices by who emphasised volcanology on their courses.

Working at HVO as a gas geochemist.

The promise that ‘some of our undergraduates have volunteered at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory (HVO)’ made me head off to Royal Holloway to do a BSc in Geology. By that point I’d had a Nuffield Science Bursary and been awarded a Gold Crest Award for a summer’s work experience at TGS-NOPEC, where I discovered that geophysics probably wasn’t for me. But I knew that studying Geology would be ace, and I wasn’t wrong. My degree instilled a love of fieldwork, a sense of travel and adventure and a never ending curiosity about rocks: where did they come from? how they were formed? I entered my 3rd year not really knowing what career I’d end up having, but knew I wanted it to be geology related. I applied constantly to the HVO until they finally offered me a placement. So, a week after graduation I flew to Hawaii where I worked as a gas geochemist for 6 months. This was not only an amazing experience (walking on lava flows, contributing to important science, hiking across volcanic terrain, snorkelling at the weekends) but also the moment when I realised that I could be a volcanologist as a career.
My path to volcanology wasn't always linear. For a while I worked as a PADI Divemaster.
On return from HVO I spent a year and a half working at the Hydroactive Dive Centre as a PADI Divemaster. I spent this time saving up and applying for Grad School so I could get a Master’s degree in Volcanology. I was awarded a teaching assistantship to study at the University of Buffalo in the USA. Here, my interest in hazardous volcanic flows developed, starting with my Master’s research on lahars.  Developing and driving my own research was something I’d really enjoyed so I then searched high and low for a great PhD project so I could continue doing volcanic research. I returned to the UK to do my PhD at the University of Leicester on pyroclastic density currents.



Logging volcanic deposits in the field
After my PhD I sailed as an igneous petrologist on an IODP expedition, and held a series of short-term teaching contracts at Leicester. This post-doc time of anyone’s life can be tough – when you’re never sure if that holy grail of an academic job can be found. I stuck it out, worked hard, juggled a part-time job as a teaching fellow and a part-time research job and gained some invaluable experience. Then, a year ago I made the move to Hull as a lecturer in geology, undertaking research in volcanology and now hold a permanent position. I made it. I’m a volcanologist. Now, I'm training up a new generation of budding geographers, geologists and hopefully, a volcanologist or two.

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