PhD Research, Volcanology, Sam Poppe @SamPVolcano: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME:  Sam Poppe

CURRENT TITLE:  PhD aspirant (FWO-Flanders)


YEARS OF EXPERIENCE:  4 (2 years of Master’s research followed by 2 years of PhD research)

EDUCATION:  Ongoing PhD in Volcanology (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium), MSc in Geology (Ghent University, Belgium), BSc in Geology (Ghent University)



Sam Poppe, Volcanology Research on the Karthala volcano in the Comores Islands. Photo copyright: Sam Poppe

What’s your job like?

I’m living my dream job every single day. My research is a fun combination of field work, laboratory (lab) modelling and desk work. I have worked in the field mainly on African volcanoes such as the Virunga volcanoes [Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda] and Karthala volcano (Comores Islands). I have also studied ancient volcanic terrains such as the Oslo Rift in Norway. Since my BSc internship in 2009, I’ve been specialising mainly in analogue lab modelling. I have simulated gravitational deformation such as spreading and sagging and depletion-induced collapse of pit craters and calderas. Currently, for my PhD project, I am simulating the propagation of magmatic intrusions. I am especially motivated in pushing the technology forward and am developing techniques to visualise and quantitatively analyse the lab models in full 4D (3D + time), using X-ray Computed Tomography (CT) in advanced micro-CT laboratory set-ups and hospital CT scanners. All of this hands-on work alternates with periods of “desk work,” where data is analysed, summarised and written into scientific papers which are pulled through the process of getting the work published. Besides that, I have (limited) teaching duties in which I am responsible for the practical sessions of two university courses a year. We have developed a Serious Game called “Hazagora: will you survive the next disaster” at our department. We play with secondary school students (ages 16-17) and attempt to raise awareness for natural hazards and their impact on the society. Lastly, I present my research work at international conferences at least once per year or partake in some workshops applicable to my research.


What’s a typical day like?

I wouldn’t say a typical day exists, actually. If I am not in the field, running lab experiments, or attending a conference, you may find me behind my desk (with an awesome view over Brussels, but sadly no volcano…) analysing my data or drafting up figures or text for my upcoming scientific papers. Occasionally, I’m teaching or responding to questions from students. I live in Ghent which is approximately one hour away by train from Brussels, so my day would surely start around 7 a.m. with opening my laptop on the train and trying to write some paper or conference abstract and planning my week, while not being disturbed by any colleague, student or supervisor at the office. I do the same in the evening after I leave the office at 4-5 p.m. A typical day once too often includes still going through some e-mails in the evening, since I am also co-leading a current effort of setting up an Early-Career Scientist Network (EC-Net) within the International Association for Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI).

What’s fun?

The variation is the most fun. A real “typical day” does not exist, since there are periods of field work often several weeks at a time, lab work, desk work, etc. This ensures I can alternate sitting and reading/writing behind my desk with practical things in the lab or the field, even going shopping for lab gear. Currently, I am thrilled with the lab work, since it includes visiting the University Hospital UZBrussel often to run some XCT-scans on my experiments with one of the most advanced machines currently around. The resulting images are just fascinating and exciting, since they keep me believing I am (trying) to push the boundaries of our current knowledge. Also, the interaction with our African colleagues and students and satisfaction when our science gets picked up into useful contingeny plans (as happened in the city of Goma in East-DRC) or the media, are making the hard work and long days definitely worth it. In the end, I am just realising every single day that I have fun at what I do (which is studying the planet we live on) and am free to focus my work on what I personally find fascinating.


Sam Poppe researching the Karthala volcano, Comores Islands.

What’s challenging?

In my case, the challenge lies in the combination of things. Since I finished my Master’s thesis in 2012, I have had to advance a current project, while valorising the work done in a previous one. For instance, I was involved in volcanic hazard assessments in the Virunga Volcanic Province in the GeoRisCA-project from 2012 to 2014, but at the same time, I am still writing up a paper summarising some results and staying involved in the yearly reports of the project. In the mean time, I have to advance my experimental set-ups and research for my PhD project, which is just over half way done now — and I already know that I will have data left to valorise when I finish the PhD in two years time. This means a steep learning curve in time and data management, as well as managing the ongoing (publication) pressure any science project brings along. Working in lab modelling, there is also the logistic and technical challenge of setting up a properly functioning experiment, because of the novel application of X-ray CT imaging with very little precedents. This means a month-long process of trial and error, over and over again, until we reach a set up which performs well.

What’s your advice to students?

Try out and find the topic and work setting which works best for you. I’ve learned this automatically means you’ll fail once too often, but that’s part of the process when running a PhD project. It’s all about continuously being prepared to search for solutions and not being afraid to ask for assistance from people who you think could provide valuable input. Note: don’t hesitate contacting anyone, such as a senior or expert because someone is valued — it doesn’t matter! Since my own supervisor lacks expertise in certain parts of my PhD, I have simply reached out to several others who have the expertise, and they only enrich my work and life! I personally feel (scientific) isolation is a choice and can be overcome by simple courage (and patience — lots of patience). And finally, enjoy what you are doing. If you are chronically not doing so, don’t carry on, but choose to speak out (sometimes up to your supervisor) and adapt your strategy. Face the challenges, don’t avoid them — you’ll be a happier person in the end.


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