NAME: Helen Robinson
CURRENT TITLE: Ph.D. candidate at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom (UK) UPDATE 1/29/18! Helen is now a Research Assistant with the Climate Justice Fund at the University of Strathclyde. She’s doing sustainable hydrogeology for geothermal development in Malawi. We wish her all the best with her new position!)
THESIS TITLE: Conceptual hydrogeological model for caldera-associated, high-enthalpy geothermal reservoirs in eastern Africa
AREAS OF INTEREST: Applied volcanology including the geochemistry of soils, fumaroles and springs, heat loss surveys, geophysics including ground penetrating radar (GPR), transient electromagnetics (TEM), carbon dioxide (CO2) efflux, hydrogeology, development of drilling programs and engineering design, geothermal and infrastructure development of developing nations, and volcanic risk, monitoring, mitigation and education
EDUCATION: MGeol Geology – Plymouth University, UK; Fellow of the Geological Society of London; UK Ambassador to WING (Women in Geothermal from April 2016)
What’s your job like?
I’m in the third year of my PhD, and ultimately, it’s all about sample collection and analysis. I spent the first six months reading, writing and looking for the gaps in published work to find an indication of where to focus my research. During this time, I also planned three and a half weeks of fieldwork at the Menengai Caldera Geothermal Project in Kenya’s East African Rift Valley. This was a reconnaissance and mapping trip. The surface map will be entered into Midland Valley’s Move™ software as well as data provided by the Geothermal Development Company from upward of 40 wells, which will allow me to generate a 3D image of the sub-surface. This will be further coupled with data relating to CO2 efflux and helium and carbon isotope ratios collected during the second field campaign to identify where the large-scale structures are to pin-point those currently used as fluid and gas conduits.
What’s a typical day like?
My days vary widely. During term time, my days involve data input and analysis and developing hypotheses based on the results of the data; planning for upcoming field campaigns; teaching and leading laboratories and fieldwork with the undergraduates; and attending conferences and gaining experience in consultancy work. In addition, I am gradually writing up drafts of my thesis.
My field campaigns take place during our summer months when the temperatures at the equator are lower (though still topping at 40 degrees Celsius!). My day starts early, usually at first light around 7 a.m. to avoid the incoming afternoon storms which can have an affect on the electrical signals and radio waves used by the GPR and TEM. Starting this early does mean you get to see some of the nocturnal big cats before they take shelter for the day, and it also means you must have your wits about you! I always have field assistants with me, as the geophysical survey equipment usually needs three people to operate it. The soil gas and efflux surveys can be done by one or two people, but as time is often limited, the days can be long, so everyone works together. The Menengai caldera covers an area of ~77 square kilometers (km²), and the entire area has to be surveyed for gas outputs. All the data is downloaded from equipment, entered and backed up daily.
I love what I do, so everything is fun — even the hot, dusty days and when things don’t go quite to plan! It just makes everything more challenging, and I get a great sense of achievement. It’s not just the work but the bigger picture. It is estimated that only ~30% of Kenyans have electricity. The country relies on hydro-power for their electricity generation, but as I saw during the 2015 field campaign, they are hit by some terrifying droughts. Quite ironic really. This means for those who do have power, electricity is very expensive, unreliable and rationed. It is thought that the Menengai caldera will provide clean electricity to 2.5 million people — a clean, cheap source of power that with the development of the geothermal program, will eventually result in electricity access country-wide. And I’m a part of that — I’m a part of changing lives for the better!
The main challenges are managing the workload during term time and during field campaigns. It’s the logistics of clearing unusual equipment through customs and the long days in such temperatures that can be very draining. But I still love the challenges these aspects throw my way.
What’s your advice to students?
More and more students are applying to attend university, which means there are more people looking for jobs at the end. In addition to your degree, I would recommend trying to gain plenty of additional experience in your chosen field, whether that be an internship or offering to help a lecturer out during the summer on some of their research. This will help you stand out among an ever-growing crowd!