NAME: David Pyle
CURRENT TITLE: Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford, UK.
AREA OF EXPERTISE: My research is mainly in the area of volcanology, igneous petrology and geochemistry – unravelling the stories of past volcanic eruptions, and trying to work out what makes volcanoes ‘tick’. My current research projects are focussed in Latin America (southern Chile; Ecuador and Colombia); the eastern Caribbean (St Vincent and Montserrat) and Ethiopia.
YEARS EXPERIENCE: about 25 years in research
EDUCATION: B.A. in Geological Sciences, and PhD in Volcanology at the University of Cambridge; postdoctoral research at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), and then lecturerships in Cambridge, followed by Oxford.
What’s your job like?
My job varies from day to day, and the perennial challenge is to keep the research going while balancing all of the daily tasks that can end up consuming most of your time. During term time I can spend a lot of time teaching, both in classes and in smaller tutorial groups; out of term time is when I hope to get more research done. I work with a large team of collaborators (students, postdocs, and more established researchers both in Oxford and elsewhere) and there is a continuous flow of activity related to our ongoing or planned research projects to keep up with – whether it is meeting, planning, writing.. and so on.
What’s a typical day like?
Depending on the time of the year, this can vary tremendously. We have just come to the end of the year, so I have spent about three weeks from the past month marking extended essays, dissertations and exam scripts. In between, I was giving final tutorials to students who were preparing for their practical exams, and helping to set up projects for a couple of final-year students. A group of us also spent a very exciting week in London, running a public engagement project called London Volcano (https://londonvolcano.com), during which we recreated the 1902 eruption of the Soufriere of St Vincent. This collaboration has spun out of a major ongoing research project, STREVA (http://www.streva.ac.uk), which aims to reduce the negative impacts of volcanic activity on people and communities who live around volcanoes.
The beauty of the academic life is that there are always opportunities to do new things, and to solve problems. In research, it can be the thrill of discovery – of knowing that you have just seen something that no one has noticed before; or the satisfaction of solving a problem. In teaching, or engagement, it can be the pleasure of knowing that a class has gone well; or of trying something new, and finding that it works. But more than that, there is simply pleasure to be had in working with people, and seeing them grow, learn, and take off into new areas.
Managing time and expectations, and balancing the impossible: there’s never enough time to do everything as well as you might wish, and sometimes you just have to get things finished, even though you are not ready to.
What’s your advice to students?
Follow your interests, and take responsibility for your own destiny. Your time at University is short, and there is far too much to do – but make the most of it, and your rewards will come. Learn to stand back and ask, or think about, the obvious questions; don’t believe everything that you hear, and don’t be afraid to ask ‘why?’. Use reading lists as a springboard; don’t (always) take no for an answer, and if you think that something is broken, find a way to fix it. But above all, enjoy it – it’s your life, and you have to find the best way to live it.