PhD Candidate, Volcanology, Geoff Lerner @Tyranakisaurus: A Day in the GeoLife Series


PhD Candidate, Volcanology and Paleomagnetism, Geoff Lerner. Photo copyright Geoff Lerner

NAME: Geoff Lerner

CURRENT TITLE: PhD Candidate (University of Auckland, New Zealand)

EXPERTISE: Volcanology and Paleomagnetism

EXPERIENCE: 4 years doing research

EDUCATION: MSc Geology (Università degli studi Milano-Bicocca, Italy), MS Geology (Michigan Tech University, United States), BS Geological Sciences (Tufts University, United States)


TWITTER: @Tyranakisaurus

What’s your job like?

I research patterns of growth and eruption at stratovolcanoes, specifically Mount Taranaki in New Zealand. We know that volcanoes don’t erupt and grow evenly—in addition to periods of activity and inactivity, they have a tendency to erupt in one direction or another at a time, not every direction at once. I’m looking into the reasons for this and how we might be able to figure out what phase an active stratovolcano is in.

Mt. Taranaki

Geoff Lerner taking notes at the summit of Mount Taranaki. Photo copyright Geoff Lerner

I use a number of techniques to look at Taranaki’s recent eruptive history—field geology, geochemistry, sedimentology, and especially paleomagnetism. A major focus of my research is looking at the information preserved in magnetic minerals in volcanic mass flow deposits and using it to learn about each deposit’s age and emplacement temperature (i.e. was it a lahar or a pyroclastic flow?).

What’s a typical day like?

Depends on where I am! On an office day, I’ll spend a lot of my time answering emails, reading academic papers, marking assignments, and planning my next fieldwork and labwork trips.

On lab days (since most of my lab work is done in Wellington, away from home), I want to wring as much work out of each trip as possible, so I’ll spend the whole day either prepping samples (cutting, drilling, labeling) or else measuring them with the magnetometer, heating theme, cooling them, and measuring again (over and over and over…). It’s not hard, but it’s very time consuming, so I’ll often be in the lab running samples till well after midnight!

In the field, I’m always looking to take more samples to measure. This involves finding a good outcrop with several layers of volcanic deposits, and then either drilling small cores or else collecting hand samples to drill later in the laboratory. Some days I work on the volcano itself (even up to the summit), other days we explore the area nearby or even several kilometers away. Either way, it involves backpacks full of rocks, water tanks, and drilling equipment.


Drilling paleomagnetic cores in near Marquette, Michigan. Photo copyright Geoff Lerner

What’s fun?

Almost everything! I never get tired of going back to my field area to collect samples or scope out new sites, and I never pass up an opportunity to help a colleague with fieldwork, because it means I get to explore a new place. And crazy as it sounds, there’s even something peaceful about finally walking home from the laboratory in the middle of the night.

Lake Superior

Wading into Lake Superior to fill the water jug for sampling. Photo copyright Geoff Lerner

But my favorite part is actually making fun videos out of my (and other’s) research for outreach. I’m always trying to think of interesting ways to film things in the field and ways to explain research that will catch people’s attention (see videos above).

What’s challenging?

Explaining what I do to a general audience. I think it’s vital to get the general public interested in the stuff that I (and other geoscientists) do, and that means being able to talk about research in an exciting and accessible way. I always challenge myself to think about how I would talk about my latest field trip or a method I’m using in a way that any curious person could understand it.


Exploring the summit crater of Mount Taranaki, New Zealand. Photo copyright Geoff Lerner

What’s your advice to students?

Be flexible! Jump at the chance to do something interesting, even if it’s difficult or a bit uncomfortable. The more you are willing to do something you know little about, go to a new place, or learn a language you’ve never spoken before, the more future opportunities you’ll get.


UPDATED! Postdoc Fellow, Paleomagnetism & Tectonics, Dr. Daniel Pastor-Galán @orocline: A Day in the GeoLife Series


Postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Daniel Pastor-Galán

NAME:  Dr. Daniel Pastor-Galán

CURRENT TITLE:  Postdoctoral Fellow at Paleomagnetic Laboratory “Fort Hoofddijk”, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. (UPDATE 12/10/2016: Dr. Pastor-Galán is now a JSPS Fellow, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan!)

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Tectonics. I try to combine the maximum number of tools including structural geology, isotope geology, thermochronology, paleomagnetism, modeling, geochemistry, petrology, sedimentology, etc.

YEARS EXPERIENCE:  7.5 since I finished my degree. This is the first time I’ve counted them, and I’m scared…

EDUCATION:  Attended Salamanca University in Spain for B.Sc through Ph.D


What’s your job like?

It is really fun!

First, I work at a fortification, the “Fort Hoofddijk” (, that was built in the 19th century, and most of the instrumentation is situated quite deep inside a (fake) hill. I call the room “the dungeon,” so I guess it needs no more comments. Inside, there is a laboratory of paleomagnetism, which is the study of the Earth’s magnetism recorded in the magnetic minerals (such as magnetite) present in rocks. This record provides information on the past behavior of Earth’s magnetic field, geochronology, and the past location of tectonic plates. However, I am the weird guy in the lab. I certainly use paleomagnetism for my research, but I am not a paleomagnetist. I am just a user of the tool (as I am with geochemistry, geochronology, structural geology, etc.).

My main research projects are related to the formation of the last of the supercontinents (Pangea) and about curved mountain belts (so-called oroclines). I combine field-collected data with laboratory data to provide tectonic reconstructions of orogens and continents. I also try to understand the relationship of the geological processes observed in the surface with the deeper Earth. For that reason, I use modeling. I started with analog (clay, silicon, etc.), and now I am also trying numerical (computer-driven models).

(Note from Dr. Pastor-Galán 12/10/2016: “Now I work in Japan. You know, lights everywhere, noodles, technology, rice, manga. Japan is a world to discover, so close and so far at the same time. It cannot be better!”)

What’s a typical day like?

My position is focused in research more than teaching, but actually I am supervising two M.Sc. students this year. So everyday, I have a short meeting with both to share results and give them feedback, and I monitor their progress. Additionally, I write reports and research papers, and I prepare proposals to get funding for my future research. Additionally, as I am not a permanent staff member of the university, I spend part of the time writing job applications.

Several times in the year, I go to the field to get new data. I either go alone or with colleagues or students. I am, at present, doing fieldwork in Ireland, Spain, France and Iran, but I would love to move soon to other places. This is definitely the most exciting time of my job.


What’s fun?

The leading activity in the fun-o-meter is fieldwork (I say this with no hesitation!). Following some colleague’s definition, I am a rock addict.  So being in the middle of nowhere with the rocks is just excellent, whether alone or with colleagues or students, but especially with friends! Discussing work in the field is exciting.

The second level of fun are meetings and conferences. These have a three for the price of one benefit. You learn a lot of what your partners are doing, you gather with old friends from all around the world, and you visit new and exciting cities!

In this second level is also teaching. Students can be demanding and stressful, but more than anything, they are fun. And you really learn a lot by teaching.

A third level of fun is the moment in which a paper is accepted. At that moment, you feel the happiness of getting a job done and knowing that the efforts in the field and laboratory are, in the end, available for society. Feeling useful is nice.

What’s challenging?

There are three kinds of challenges. Some I love and some I hate.

The first challenge is bureaucracy, and I hate it. Fortunately, I have not yet been in a tough position in administration. The challenges include really getting to know every single thing you need to do to get funding, justifying expenses, and even submitting the final grades of the students.

The second challenge is fieldwork in remote areas, but I love this one. Though it is a great challenge, you feel like you are an explorer, as if you are there for the first time to study a chunk of the Earth. Teaching is also a great challenge in this sense.

The third challenge is taking a holiday without looking at email every day or expending time into a new proposal… this is in the love-hate level! 🙂

What’s your advice to students?

Study what you love. If you do it, then it is not studying. It is just another hobby. And it is a key to success, both as a professional, and most importantly, as a person. Everything is easier if you enjoy what you do. Really.




Associate Professor, Paleoclimatology, @DanPeppe: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME:  Dan Peppe

CURRENT TITLE:  Assistant Professor of Geology (Update: Promoted to Associate Professor in Spring 2015!)

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Paleobotany, paleoclimatology, sedimentology and stratigraphy, paleomagnetism

YEARS EXPERIENCE:  11 (5 as graduate student, 1 as post-doc, 5 as Assistant Professor)

EDUCATION:  BS in Geology, St. Lawrence University; MPhil in Geology, Yale University; PhD in Geology, Yale University


What’s your job like?

Dan Peppe, Ethiopia field work

Dan Peppe, Ethiopia field work

My job is quite varied and depends on the time of the year.  As an Assistant Professor my job is split between research and teaching.

During the academic year, I spend most of my time teaching, advising students, conducting research in the lab, and working to write up the results of my research projects.  My lab research is focused on preparing, identifying, describing, and analyzing fossil leaves and on analyzing paleomagnetism samples.

Between semesters in the winter and during the summer months, I spend most of my time doing research. Most of my research is field based, so I normally spend at least a few weeks in the field each year collecting samples to bring back to the lab.  Fieldwork has taken me all over the world including field sites in United States, eastern Africa, the United Arab Emirates, New Zealand, and southeast Asia.

What’s a typical day like?

Right now during the academic semester, I teach on Tuesday and Thursday, and during those days, I spend time preparing for class, grading assignments, and teaching class. Between classes and class prep on Tuesday and Thursday, and during days when I am not teaching (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), I spend some time each day in the lab running paleomag samples, looking at fossil leaves, troubleshooting problems with instruments and lab equipment, and meeting with each of my graduate students at least once a week to talk about their research projects.  In addition to working in the lab, I try to spend at least some time each day writing and editing manuscripts and grant proposals. In addition to that writing, I inevitably spend time each day doing other tasks that periodically pop up such as writing reference letters, doing grant and manuscript reviews, completing grant progress reports, etc.

What’s fun?

The thing I like most about my job is that I am constantly working to answer questions that interest me.  All of my research projects are focused on some aspect of trying to understand how terrestrial ecosystems respond to climate and environmental change, so I’m always working towards addressing that question in different places in the world and different times in Earth history.  As a big bonus, most of this work takes me into the field and I love spending time outside exploring, collecting fossils, and looking at rocks.

I also love that my job affords me the opportunity to travel around the world for research projects, conferences, and collaborations with other scientists.  I’ve been able to go to some amazing places and meet so many interesting people.

What’s challenging?

For me, I’ve found the biggest challenges are figuring out how to best budget my time and being about to say “no”.  As a professor, there’s no real set schedule and you really only have a few times a week when you have to be somewhere doing something (class time, faculty and committee meetings, seminars, etc.).  That means that most of your time is up to you, which is both a blessing and a curse, because you can spend time doing things you find enjoyable, but you can also end up spending your whole day doing a whole bunch of small tasks that keep you from doing the things you want and/or have to do!  Finding that balance between preparing for classes, conducting research, advising students, and doing all of the administrative tasks set before you is a hard one and is something that I’m still working on even after 5 years as a faculty member.

The other big challenge is learning how to say “no”, which is just another part of time management.  It seems that there is always something to say “yes” to, from a new research project that you might not have time for, another student meeting, another committee to be part of, or another paper or grant to review.  Learning how to say “no” to those kinds of things is a hard thing to do, but is really important or before you know it, you’re over-committed.

What’s your advice to students?

My advice to students is to always be curious and explore things that you find interesting.  If you like what you do, your job will be interesting, fulfilling, and always exciting.  Another great thing about exploring things that you think you’re interested in is that you actually learn the things you like to do and things you don’t like to do. In my experience, learning about the things you don’t like is often more informative than learning about the things you like to do, because it can help direct your research and guide your choices about future jobs.

PhD Candidate, Geomagnetism & Palaeomagnetism: A Day in the GeoLife Series @LauRob85

NAME:  Laura


AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Geomagnetism/palaeomagnetism

YEARS EXPERIENCE:  I’m about to submit my thesis, so I’ve been doing my PhD for nearly 4 years. Prior to that I was an environmental consultant for 3 years.

EDUCATION: MSci Geology from the University of Liverpool.


What’s your job like? 

My job is very varied. It’s allowed me to travel all over the world and work with and meet some awesome people.

Mostly, I am based at my lab in Liverpool (UK). If I’m there, I spend the majority of my time doing experiments using one of the numerous instruments we have there. I’ve also spent a chunk of my PhD visiting a lab in Holland, at Utrecht University and using a nifty piece of kit (it’s called the robot) there that does experiments a lot quicker than I could at Liverpool.

When I’m not doing lab work, I’ve had the great opportunity to be traveling. I’ve gone on sampling trips to collect the samples I needed for my research to South Africa. I’ve also gone on summer schools to the USA and conferences in Europe.

At the moment, because I am writing up my thesis, I spend the majority of my time at my desk at the office or at home.

What’s a typical day like? 

There is no typical day.

Mostly, if I’m in the lab, I’ll check my emails first thing in the morning, if anything needs dealing with urgently, then I will. If not, I’ll spend the day preparing my samples for experiments and then carrying them out. Some days I’ll attend a seminar or lecture, which is a nice distraction. Others I’ll partake in some school outreach or public engagement activity.

What’s fun?

The travel! Having great places to visit and the opportunity to meet people from a wide variety of backgrounds who can open your mind to new ways of thinking and new perspectives. The fact that often, the people you meet on your travels become good friends.

What’s challenging? 

Keeping focused and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, even when the data isn’t so good, or you’ve messed up an experiment that took you days to complete through some silly little mistake.

What’s your advice to students? Earth science is one of the most fascinating sciences (and so underrated). The job prospects are really good and very few professions will allow you to travel and experience the landscapes that earth sciences will. Tell me what other science allows you to combine the knowledge of physics, biology and chemistry the way you can in earth science?

Enjoy what you do, you don’t have to be super brainy to succeeded, just have passion!