PhD Candidate, Volcanology, James A. Farrell @breakmohrrocks: A Day in the GeoLife Series


PhD Candidate, James Farrell ©2018 James Farrell

NAME: James A. Farrell

CURRENT TITLE: PhD candidate

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Structural geology and physical volcanology

EDUCATION:  I am currently a PhD candidate at Syracuse University studying structural geology and physical volcanology. Previously, I earned an MS at the University of Connecticut and a BS at Stony Brook University.


TWITTER: @breakmohrrocks

What’s your job like?

As a third year PhD student, I attempt to find a balance between research, teaching, and professional development. My research focuses on structural and volcanological properties of rift systems, including their products, such as basaltic lava. My teaching usually consists of one laboratory course each semester, for example, Structural Geology, Geohazards, Earth and Life through time, etc. Lastly, I typically attend two or more professional development events each year, such as academic conferences, workshops, and teaching seminars.

What’s a typical day like?

Daily life as a graduate student varies. I typically spend 2-3 days per week committed to my teaching responsibilities, and 2-3 days committed to my research activities. Throughout the week, I also attend seminars, research group meetings, and other departmental activities. No matter what the daily schedule, however, my job requires lots of reading and lots of writing.

What’s fun?

One of the best parts of my job is that I get to play with lava. At Syracuse, we have an experimental lava facility ( capable of generating meter-scale lava flows from a massive furnace.

I use these facilities to study viscoelastic deformation of basaltic lava crusts. Much like the Earth’s crust, a lava crust deforms in response to stress, creating folds, fractures, domes, flexural zones, and many other amazing features. We have the ability to watch and measure these features as they form in real time, giving us the opportunity to test an array of hypotheses based on lava flows observed in nature.

What’s challenging?

Although incredibly fun, researching experimental lava flows has many challenges. Being the only facility of this type, there are no user manuals or guides on how to create, document, and analyze controlled lava flows at this scale. We have to get creative in our research.

For example, the need to study actively-changing surfaces of lava flows lead me to create my own custom 4D scanner out of digital cameras, using the principles of photogrammetry (aka Structure-from-Motion). In combination with thermal infrared video, I now can make 4D, multispectral models of a lava surface as it flows downslope.

What’s your advice to students?

Get involved with research. Even if you don’t think graduate school is for you, research skills are invaluable. You get to experience a hands-on project, make good professional connections with professors and graduate students, and you will come out learning more than in any traditional course.

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