Research Fellow, Geochemistry @Liam_Geochem: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Fuego de Colima

Liam in front of Nevado de Colima after a climb to the top of Fuego de Colima

NAME: Liam

CURRENT TITLE: Research Fellow

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Volcanology, geochemistry and petrology

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 7+

EDUCATION/WORK: Research Fellow in Geochemistry (2nd year) looking at trace elements in organic-rich rocks, following 1 year in gold exploration in Ethiopia, 4 years PhD (igneous petrology) in Italy, and 6 months working for Colima Exchange and Research In Volcanology in Mexico.

What’s your job like?

I am involved in a United Kingdom (UK) government-funded project delivering research and associated activities on “Tellurium and Selenium Cycling and Supply” (TeaSe!). These two elements are important for new low-carbon technologies and photovoltaic solar cells, meaning their demand is increasing. They can also pose a threat to local soils, groundwaters and agriculture if liberated from their host, which is typically pyrite, as they both substitute for sulphur in the chemical structure of pyrite. I work a lot with solid rocks, minerals and data. My job is a mixture of extensive time spent at my computer, in a lab or (preferentially) conducting fieldwork. I spend a lot of time sampling old mining sites and mineralised outcrops, both in the UK and internationally.

mapping

Liam mapping in Almeria, Spain.

What’s a typical day like?

I’m not sure there is such a thing as a typical day in academia and research! For instance, today I gave a lecture to Engineering students, wrote a grant application, did some revisions to a paper and plotted some new data graphs. Last week, I was conducting fieldwork across northern England and southern Scotland. Tomorrow, I’m analysing rocks by scanning electron microscopy. Every day is different!

 

Norway

Studying mineral deposits in Kongsberg, Norway.

What’s fun?

Fieldwork is fun. The field of geoscience has given me the opportunity to visit places that I may never have seen otherwise. Work has taken me to Italy, Ireland, Austria, Iceland, Spain, Norway, Ethiopia, Mexico and the United States. There is nothing like seeing an active volcano erupt before your very eyes, and I was fortunate enough to see this at Volcan de Colima, Mount Etna and the Stromboli volcano. I also enjoy working with the samples I collect in the lab, and generating new data to play with.

Arches National Park

Fieldwork in Arches National Park.

What’s challenging?

Collecting samples is fun, but preparing those samples for analysis, followed by the generation of tonnes of new data can be challenging. Sometimes data collection can be a little hit and miss. Nothing in nature is simple, so interpreting data can also be a challenge! Especially when you receive detailed feedback either from co-authors or reviewers that requires you to re-think your story. The job requires a great deal of patience, but it’s always worth it.

What’s your advice to students?

Throw yourself into the area of academia that you love. I couldn’t find a job in volcanology, so I volunteered to work at an observatory for an active volcano. There are plenty of opportunities out there to do this – Colima, Tenerife, Etna, Montserrat, Hawaii… this can open up many doors into postgraduate research or employment. Also, if you are a geoscientist, make the most of your time as an undergraduate. You’ll see some of the most amazing geological sites in the world during your studies!

geochemistry

Walking the crater rim at Vulcano, Italy.

Volcanic Geochemistry @MagyarGeologist: A Day in the GeoLife Series

AGU

Danielle at her first American Geophysical Union (AGU) poster session in 2016

NAME: Danielle

CURRENT TITLE: Master’s Student

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Volcanic geochemistry, petrology/mineralogy and immiscibility

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: I have been studying for about two years now and will be receiving my Master’s this December.

EDUCATION: University of South Florida School of Geosciences, United States. Currently, I have a Bachelor’s in history and earth sciences (concentration: geology). The field my Master’s is focused on is a field in Utah where I study the exposed dikes, sills and conduits.

An obsidian and tuff outcrop in California that we saw on our mapping trip.

What’s your job like?

I have the greatest job – one of a student. The job does have it’s stresses, especially when you are working with deadlines. However, it is one of the best jobs since I get to consistently learn new ways to look at data, how to interpret data, and how to acquire data.

A selfie from my mapping trip for a class at the Rainbow Basin, California

Part of my job involves being a student like most college students, so I go to classes. I have to say I have earned more than I ever thought I could or ever would over a two-year period. The rest of my job involves mineralogy, petrology and geochemistry. This means I look at samples that we acquired from dikes, sills and conduits in my field in Utah and identify what type of rock it is, what crystals (i.e. minerals) I can see with the naked eye, a hand lens or a microscope. I also make thin sections which is kind of relaxing. Basically, you cut a rock to fit on a glass slide, then proceed to sand it down to about 30 microns and study the minerals under a microscope. This is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, it’s like nature made kaleidoscopes and no one knows it. The rest of my job involves working with powdered samples (samples of rock that have been crushed to dust) which I melt in an oven and dissolve in acid so that I can run them through a machine called an ICP-OES or an ICP-MS in order to figure out the major and trace element data. This is important to figure out tectonic settings. I can use the data in a model that helps me figure out depth, storage conditions and when/ where minerals would have crystallized as they intruded into my field. I also have probed the thin sections I mentioned above in order to find out major element data for the individual crystals I see. It is useful to compare the model data too, since it will tell me how accurate it is.

LOI

Working on flux fusion prep – step one loss on ignition (LOI)

The last part of my job involves writing. This includes writing my Master’s thesis, paper writing and preparing for conferences. Writing for conferences involves abstract submittals, making oral presentations and creating posters. This is usually pretty fun because there is a lot of outside input (not just my own), since I get to hear how other people who are a part of my project think about what I’m finding.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day for me involves a couple of things: prepping samples of some sort, studying hand samples/thin sections, and working on data. Prepping samples can include mixing the sample with a salt, like lithium borate, for ICP-OES work or melting them in an oven in order to mix them with an acid and then running them in the ICP-OES. It can also include looking at my thin sections and writing notes about the minerals I want to probe, and “mapping’’ them so that I can find the crystals I want to probe with the Electron Probe Micro Analyzer (EPMA).

thin sections

My desk while I probe thin sections remotely with the Electron Probe Micro Analyzer (EPMA).

Working on data usually means I have the experimentation done for a section of my project and now all I have to do is make sure that the raw data becomes something useable. If I’m doing this, it takes the whole day sometimes. After that’s done, I make a bunch of different types of diagrams to see what the data is telling me.

What’s fun?

Field work for class is always the best. It allows you to get out and see what you are actually working on, not just sitting somewhere trying to imagine it. It also gives you a hands on approach to whatever you are studying at the time, such as not seeing what a perfect mineral looks like.

Rainbow Basin

This is the field rough draft of my mapping class at Rainbow Basin, California.

 

Death Valley

Image from a break while hiking and mapping at Salt Spring – Death Valley, California for my mapping course in 2016.

 

Death Valley

A nice rest for lunch during our mapping trip at Salt Spring, Death Valley, California.

Lab work (prepping samples, probing samples, etc.) is also fun. The amount you are able to learn every time you step into a lab is amazing sometimes. Sometimes it’s something small, like why do we add Lithium to our samples and not some other salt? It’s because it helps stabilize lithium in the sample so you get an accurate reading. It’s also fun because it’s a rewarding feeling that no one else is getting the data for you, and that you are getting it for yourself.

mineralogy

How a thin section from my samples look after I have done petrological and mineralogical observations and prepped them for microprobe.

The last part that I feel is notably fun about my job is being able to present at conferences. The amount of people who will show up to see your work because they are interested is always great. But the best part about it (particularly with posters) is the personal discussions you get to have with other people in your field who specialize on something that you did for your project.

AGU

My poster prep for American Geophysical Union (AGU) 2016.

What’s challenging?

There are a few things that make the job challenging. One is data processing. The sheer amount of time it takes sometimes to go from raw to useable data is enough to want to never look at it again, especially when the data doesn’t do what you want it to, or you messed up the process somewhere but you’re not sure where and need to do it all over again.

The other challenge is abstract writing. It’s tough to make every co-author happy sometimes, particularly with wording. But though it is hard, you get through it. The other part that’s challenging about conference abstracts is somehow having to summarize your entire project down to a mere 800 -1000 words sometimes. Try doing that with a long book series and you’ll completely understand how it feels. This is the same with applying for fellowships and grants – getting your whole project description down to less than a page as well as answer all the questions the fellowship or grant is looking for. It gets frustrating sometimes.

Death Valley Bloom

Selfie from Death Valley during the 2016 bloom.

What’s your advice to students?

Don’t let something that seems daunting keep you from pursuing it. A graduate degree does appear daunting at times, but you get a lot out of it you may not get otherwise. This includes going for a job or degree you really want. Just because it doesn’t look like it will be good, doesn’t mean it won’t be.

My secondary advice is to make sure you take a geoscience class. It’s a lot of fun, and it teaches you about an area of your life you may not even be aware of – like whether or not to buy a house in the future because of slump or earthquake activity.

Columbia River Gorge

Selfie from the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s
Interior (IAVCEI) 2017 midweek field trip at the Columbia River Gorge.

Research Student, Meteorites, Ricardo Neto @meteor_man1: A Day in the GeoLife Series

meteorites

Ricardo Neto, Master’s Degree Student, Meteoritic Geology

NAME: Ricardo Neto

CURRENT TITLE: Master’s student

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Research area is on meteoritics related to the chondrites petrology, metamorphism and mineral chemistry.

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: With four years of expertise in petrography and scanning electron microscopy of terrestrial rocks and meteorites, having some interest in early earth’s crust and tectonic evolution and its relation to the formation of the solar system.

EDUCATION: Bachelor in geology by the Federal University of Ceará, Brazil and current Master’s course at the Federal University of Ceará, Brazil with the scientific project in Brazillian chondritic meteorites. My current co-advisor is the Dr. Klaus Keil from the University of Hawaii.

WEBSITE: http://www.meteoriticainfo.webs.com

TWITTER: @meteor_man1

What’s your job like?

Basically consists of getting data from current scientific literature and making models based on the data from electron microprobe in mineral phases of ordinary chondrites to understand thermodynamic and cosmochemical relationships in meteorites.

What’s a typical day like?

It’s a day with a lot of research on papers and my own collected data to interpret all in a single geologic and chosmochemical context.

What’s fun?

It is fun — all the stuff related to rocks that came from outer space and their unique signature of the early geological history of our solar system and of our own planet.

What’s challenging?

The challenge for me is to fit the expected scientific model and produce novel results that could answer questions in common meteorites such as the chondrites; perhaps bringing new insights in the formation of chondrules or new ways to do thermodynamics in metamorphosed chondrites.

What’s your advice to students?

Always keep your open. Look for answers where all the others think that the work is already done or all the questions are already solved. Great discoveries sometimes reside in the most simple places in nature.

Nanoscale Planetary Researcher, Josh Einsle @JEinsle: A Day in the GeoLife Series

planetary

Josh Einsle, Post Doc Researcher in nanoscale planetary research

NAME: Joshua (Josh) F. Einsle

CURRENT TITLE: Post-Doctoral Research Associate

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Multi-scale Microscopy, nanoscale analytical characterisation, nanofabrication, sample preparation including Focused Ion Beam, SEM , S/TEM, x-ray micro and nano tomography

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 16 (10 years industry, 6 years in academics)

EDUCATION: BA -Physics Reed College 1996- 2000
Field Applications Engineer with FEI Company 2001-2011
PhD Physics Queens University Belfast 2007-2013

WEBSITE: http://www.esc.cam.ac.uk/directory/joshua-einsle

What’s your job like?

Fun. As a materials physicist by training, working on geological and planetary materials has given me access to a wide range of interesting materials questions that link nanoscale (even atomic at times) structures to planetary processes. In particular, I mainly work on paleomagnetic/rock magnetic samples to understand some of the oldest planetary magnetic records. I use advanced multi-scale and multi-dimensional microscopy techniques to reveal the shape, distribution, chemical composition and the orientation (crystallographic  as well as spatial) of the magnetic signal carriers measured in paleomagnetic studies. I specialise in focused ion beam tomography, but often work on correlative/complementary studies using x-ray and scanning transmission electron tomography. Often my tomographic results are fed into micromagnetic models to provide a fully-integrated materials science characterisation of the geological sample. This approach to rock magnetism provides a ground truth to the millimetre (or larger scale) magnetic measurements; linking the underlying nanostructures to the changes in the earth’s (and other planetary bodies) magnetic field. I work on a wide range of sample types from meteorites to paleoclimate sediments. Many of my approaches are opening the doors to single crystal-based approaches in paleomagnetics as well as other fields in geology.

nanopaleomagnetism

This is from my trip to the LCN for some He-ion microscope experiments. Photo copyright: Josh Einsle

What’s a typical day like?

On the days of the week that I teach, I spend about 2 to 3 hours a day supervising students in practicals or in small group tutorials. On those days, I try to work on manuscripts and presentations and do easier less intensive data analysis tasks.

On my non-teaching days, I focus on running microscope experiments (some of these run up to 36 hours, between site specific preparation and data collection) or analysing data. Tomographic data, especially when combined with analytical measurements like (EDS or electron diffraction) requires large amounts of patient image processing and careful spectroscopic interrogation.  I try to block book time for focused tasks like this so I can give it the right amount of attention.

microscope

For me, field work mostly consists of visiting microscope facilities to access techniques and instruments not in Cambridge. Photo copyright: Josh Einsle

What’s fun?

The samples! I have come to really appreciate rocks and minerals in a new way since joining the earth sciences department. Also, developing new microscope techniques is fun. The stories associated with my samples offer a great way to keep me motivated. I do not know of another job where one day I am looking at zircon grains from the Jack Hills, and then the next day, I am imaging a Martian meteorite. Two weeks later, I could be taking spectra on ocean sediments and then the following week performing x-ray tomography on volcanic tephra. I even get to look at synthetic materials from time to time which keeps my hand in fundamental materials physics research. For me, it is all linked by enjoying to solve exciting scientific questions and being able to provide the answers with electron microscopes.

magnetic

Finally, when we do experiments we have fun in the Nanopaleomagnetism group. This is me and Claire Nichols (@tinyspacemagnets on twitter) getting excited about a sub-70 nm lamella that we had just made for magnetic measurements at a synchrotron. Photo copyright: Josh Einsle

What’s challenging?

There are three big challenges: technical, scientific and the ‘other activities’ as needed.

Technically, the biggest challenge to any microscopy experiment is the sample preparation and understanding the limits of the technique that you are using. Geo-materials offer a wide range of sample preparation problems owing to metastable material states and samples being non-conductive.

Scientifically, there are large areas of earth and material science that lay far outside what is usually studied as a physicist. This means I am constantly finding new concepts and approaches that stretch my own understanding of nature. The desire to keep learning about new topics and trying to figure out ways to offer new insight is what got me into microscopy in the first place.

Finally, I would note that there is a large range of ‘other’ activities like conferences, paper writing, teaching and looking and applying for funding that eat into the basic ‘time budget’ for research.  I will point, out like many on this blog have, that it is a challenge to balance this. However, based on my time in the industry, you will have similar challenges to just doing technical research. The exact nature will be different, as in no paper writing maybe, but still there will be many meetings with customers and a need to train customers in how to use your product. All these challenges are worthwhile as going to a conference and presenting your work opens doors for solutions to problems you have, getting people interested in what you are doing or maybe just giving you an idea for a new experiment. This is the part of research which goes beyond the laboratory.

I enjoy all three categories of challenges, as it pushes me as a person and a scientist (well maybe not expense reports… but who likes doing expense reports?). Ultimately, I prefer the academic environment slightly more to industry, in that I have more freedom to set the agenda of what I work on and drive the pace of outputs a little more in favour of what works for me and my family.

What’s your advice to students?

Always look for value in all fields of science and other people’s research. You never know when someone says something, or does a technique that will answer a question, or will put you on a new learning path. Lately, I have been having some really interesting conversations and emails with some biologists that I meet at conferences. This is really weird as biology generally lays extremely outside my research comfort zone, but we are finding some really interesting overlaps with each other by just being willing to listen with an open mind about each other’s science.  As a final comment, I would like to also point out to all the PhDs and post-docs to remember if you want a permanent job in a university, it will most likely (as in over 98% chance) involve teaching.  To that extent, it means you either need to start practicing and developing that part of your skill set or start asking some questions about what you really want to do in science.

Research Student, Volcanology, Ailsa Naismith @AilsaNaismith: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Nevado de Colima

On the summit of Nevado de Colima, while interning in Mexico. Photo copyright: Ailsa Naismith

NAME: Ailsa Naismith

CURRENT TITLE: First-year postgraduate research student at the University of Bristol

AREA OF EXPERTISE: I use a variety of geophysical techniques to understand the eruptive activity of the active Fuego volcano in southern Guatemala. I’m also interested in how local people perceive the volcano and its hazards.

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 2

EDUCATION: I read Earth Sciences at University College London (UCL), achieving an MSci in 2015. My third year was spent abroad at the University of British Columbia, where I first gained an interest in volcanology. After graduating from UCL, I spent nine months working at research institutions in Ecuador and Mexico, before returning to the United Kingdom (UK) to begin a PhD in September 2016. My research group leader is Dr. Matt Watson; we are primarily studying how remote sensing can illuminate the changing activity of Fuego, but our research network extends into collaborations with readers of mathematics and engineering.

TWITTER: @AilsaNaismith

What’s your job like?

A healthy mixture of variety and monotony, and of confusion and certainty. My impression is that this PhD is teaching me to be an all-rounder. I have to organise and manage my own time, arrange meetings and discussions, and generate new ideas. Since starting last autumn, I have learned many skills that include coding, academic writing, time management, office politics, Guatemalan Spanish … the list goes on! I have almost full control over how I spend my days, which is pleasurable and sometimes intimidating – although I love the work, so it isn’t always hard to stay focussed. Most of my work is independent and individual, although I have regular group meetings. The best part is unfortunately also the least frequent: I live for fieldwork.

What’s a typical day like?

The majority of days I spend in the office, with most of my time split between writing, reading articles, or writing code. If it’s a productive day, I can usually spend five hours on these tasks. Outside of that, I usually have one group meeting a day: either a research group discussion to catch up and share ideas, or a Volcanology meeting, like reading group. My work during term time also includes demonstrating in undergraduate classes, where I discuss concepts and provide help for students. I usually demonstrate for several hours each week. Occasionally I am able to participate in outreach activities, which I love – baking soda volcanoes are wonderful!

volcanology

Locals from Panimache village talk and relax below the volcano. Photo copyright: Ailsa Naismith

The highlight of my year will be fieldwork, which could last up to a month. Instead of sitting and ruminating, it’s go, go, go all day – hours are long, work is manual. I will operate equipment, study outcrops, sort logistics like food and gas, and discuss Fuego’s activity with colleagues. I had the great luck to demonstrate the MSc Volcanology field course in Guatemala this February, where I acted as demonstrator and translator for two weeks, before gathering data for my own research. My supervisor and I spent several memorable days on the roof of a golf resort under the volcano, trying to fix an infrared camera.

What’s fun?

Of course, it’s the fieldwork, and the opportunity to travel to a country so dissimilar to the UK. Although a day in the field may be 12+ hours, those hours are spent in focus, and I am rarely still. Instead, I may be fixing a car, operating a camera, hiking a volcano, or asking directions in Spanish. There isn’t time to be bored, and because Guatemala is still relatively new to volcanologists, a lot of problems I encounter are simple, but not necessarily straightforward to solve. That encourages inventive thinking and practical solutions. For instance, how do you prevent a camera from being struck by lightning? These challenges can seem a lot more fun to solve than the nebulous questions your thesis attempts to answer.

I love the opportunity to work in an environment so dissimilar to my own, with people who are passionate and informed, despite somewhat limited resources. The national institute I work with, INSIVUMEH (http://www.insivumeh.gob.gt/), is home to intelligent and generous scientists who are interested in understanding Guatemala’s volcanoes, and protecting those who are vulnerable to its hazards.

volcanology

Volcan de Fuego, Guatemala, is the subject of my PhD project. Photo copyright Ailsa Naismith

What’s challenging?

It can be very difficult to see a way through, sometimes. Often a PhD begins with high ideals and an ambitious plan for how to answer a scientific question – but now that I have started, things sometimes seem a little less clear-cut. It is challenging to work with the hope of delayed gratification: that your experiments will work soon, that your paper will be published some time, and that your plans will come to fruition. Luckily this problem is extremely widespread, so there are others who empathise, and the feeling never lasts – hope springs eternal when you have an interesting project!

What’s your advice to students?

Just go ahead and say it if you don’t know. I constantly am asking questions and feeling uninformed, but if you ask then that feeling is only temporary. Attempt to be curious about lots of things. Collaboration is key: regularly ask for help, input and advice, even perhaps too often. Having mentors and inspiring teachers around you is a great help. If you are sure what you want to do, then do that. If not, then do what you find the most interesting: it’s your life, so you should decide.