PostDoc Research Associate, Volcanology, Dr. Katie Preece @KatieJPreece: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Merapi volcano

Dr. Katie Preece mapping lava flows in Armenia. Photo copyright: Katie Preece

NAME: Dr. Katie Preece

CURRENT TITLE: Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC), University of Glasgow, United Kingdom

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Volcanology, igneous petrology, 40Ar/39Ar geochronology


EDUCATION: I did my first degree, a 4-year undergraduate Master’s in Geology with Biology (Keele University, 2008), before moving to France for a year to complete a more specialized Master’s course in Volcanology (Laboratoire Magmas et Volcans, Université Blaise Pascal, 2009). I then came back to the UK for my PhD in Volcanology and Igneous Petrology at the University of East Anglia (2014). I stayed there as a postdoc for a further 2.5 years before moving to SUERC for another postdoc position.


What’s your job like?

I am a researcher who uses rocks and minerals produced in volcanic eruptions to work out what happened inside the volcano before and during eruption, what processes triggered the eruption and what controlled the style of activity. More recently, I’ve also been using 40Ar/39Ar dating to find out how old volcanic rocks are (when they erupted) to build up a picture of the history of a volcano or volcanic region. If we know what a volcano has done in the past and why, then we can better prepare for what it may do in the future.

What’s a typical day like?

My job is very varied and each day can be different. In general, my job involves a lot of fieldwork to study the eruption deposits and to collect samples, as well as a lot of lab work to prepare and analyse the samples. I also spend a lot of time in the office, processing data, writing papers, and doing emails and paperwork. A few times each year, I go to conferences in the UK and around the world, in order to present my work and catch up with the new research of colleagues.

What’s fun?

The part of my job that I find the most fun is the travel. As well as travelling around the UK to use different lab facilities and to attend meetings with colleagues, I have travelled all over the world for fieldwork and conferences. Work has taken me to places I’ve always wanted to visit and to beautiful places I’d never previously thought of visiting. Places I’ve travelled to with work include: Indonesia, Ascension Island, Armenia, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Japan, Australia, USA, and Chile. On fieldwork, I often get to visit remote locations that very few tourists ever get to see.

Another aspect of the job that I particularly enjoy is piecing together all my data and trying to interpret what it all means. I love using lots of small clues from the chemistry and textures of rocks and minerals, to build up a bigger picture of what happened inside a volcano. I also enjoy the freedom that the job allows. I make my own schedule and am free to pursue and investigate scientific ideas that interest me, without somebody telling me what to do all day!

lava flows

Dr. Katie Preece making stratigraphic logs of the fresh pyroclastic flow deposits from the 2010 eruption of Merapi volcano (Indonesia). Photo copyright: Katie Preece

What’s challenging?

It often can be difficult to juggle all the different tasks and projects I’m working on. For example, I’m currently analysing one batch of rocks, preparing another batch, writing multiple papers, planning the next field season, trying to keep up with emails and paperwork, planning a conference session, as well as thinking about applications for my next job position when my current contract comes to an end next year.

I generally love my job, but some tasks can be quite repetitive. For example, in the lab, I may have to repeat the same processes over and over again which can become quite tedious. However, I stay motivated because the process is necessary to collect good data and it is all worthwhile when you generate good results.

What’s your advice to students?

If you’re still at school, work hard in all subjects. Even if you think you don’t need them, you do! Being a geologist is a very creative job in its own way and I’m constantly drawing on wider skills and knowledge outside of science. For example, I use skills that I learnt in creative writing in order to produce scientific papers, art, and design skills to produce figures and presentations, knowledge of foreign languages to translate scientific reports, and even things I learnt in drama class to help me when I need to give a presentation at a conference or to a class of students.

On a more personal note, don’t let yourself be held back by a lack of confidence or thinking you won’t fit in at university. I come from a working-class background and I was worried that I wouldn’t be ‘posh’ enough for university. This turned out not to be true! Science needs people from all backgrounds, who think in different ways and may solve problems differently. In my experience, I’ve worked with people from many different countries and walks of life, and it all adds to the fun of the job!

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