NAME: Claire Harnett
CURRENT TITLE: PhD Student at the University of Leeds
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Volcanology and geomechanics
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 3 years of laboratory experience at the University of Portsmouth
What’s your job like?
I’m currently a first year PhD student, so I’m starting to get into the swing of my research. I am exploring the geotechnical properties of volcanic domes and trying to figure out the failure mechanisms of these domes. Hopefully by putting those two things together, I’ll be able to build a numerical model that looks at forecasting dome collapse and therefore ultimately reducing their hazard.
I guess a PhD is about asking questions and then getting a few steps closer to figuring out the answer…or maybe just learning how to ask a better question. I know I won’t be able to solve the problem as a whole by the end of my PhD, but contributing even a small piece of knowledge that we don’t currently have would make my job worthwhile.
Alongside my project, I try to get involved in some outreach in local primary schools. We’ve done a few sessions teaching plate tectonics and looking at volcanic rocks, and I find it always confirms and rejuvenates my passion for the subject to see school children so excited about what I get to study every day. Recently, we taught a session looking at earthquake-proof buildings using marshmallows and spaghetti, and it was a great success!
What’s a typical day like?
Just like most people who work in the geosciences, my typical day varies quite a lot. If I’m away on fieldwork, my days tend to involve hiking to the site (or if I’m lucky, taking a helicopter!) and collecting rock samples or mapping the geology and discontinuity patterns. Lately, I’ve been busy in the lab coring and preparing samples that are ready for testing their strength properties. I tend to spend a lot of a normal work week reading around my subject and getting on with my research at my desk. As my PhD progresses, I think a typical day will start to focus more on numerical modelling and debugging my code.
Unsurprisingly, I love field trips! I spent three weeks in Montserrat in the Caribbean, and I am heading to Japan very soon. I love that both trips take me to regions that I would otherwise probably not have explored. The thing I have always found most enjoyable is laboratory work. There is something about the hum of machines in a laboratory that makes me feel like I’m in my natural environment.
Exciting trips and cool machines aside, one of my favourite things about my day-to-day job is always being immersed in academia. Whether it’s discussing how to improve the concept of your model with your research group or simply deliberating which biscuit best withholds its strength when dunked into tea, there is always something scientific to talk about and people whose curiosities spark my own.
I often find it challenging to be at the start of my career and feeling confident in presenting my research to people with much more experience than me. The further I get into my PhD, the more I am learning to let that fear present an opportunity to be really honest about the things I don’t know and just ask and learn as much as possible.
What’s your advice to students?
Make sure you have a way to unwind after a day of number crunching or laboratory work! Almost every geologist I know does some form of regular exercise or is a keen baker or chef. Whatever it is that you choose, I think switching off for an hour a day makes you so much more productive and efficient when working.
And never be afraid to ask everything and anything. Whether it be questions about science or opportunities, always ask. I think at school and even university, sometimes you don’t want to feel like the person who always asks questions. I really believe that curiosity in science is never a bad quality. It just means you want to expand your knowledge, and I think that is the first and most important step in being a great scientist.