Research Student, Volcanology, Ailsa Naismith @AilsaNaismith: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Nevado de Colima

On the summit of Nevado de Colima, while interning in Mexico. Photo copyright: Ailsa Naismith

NAME: Ailsa Naismith

CURRENT TITLE: First-year postgraduate research student at the University of Bristol

AREA OF EXPERTISE: I use a variety of geophysical techniques to understand the eruptive activity of the active Fuego volcano in southern Guatemala. I’m also interested in how local people perceive the volcano and its hazards.


EDUCATION: I read Earth Sciences at University College London (UCL), achieving an MSci in 2015. My third year was spent abroad at the University of British Columbia, where I first gained an interest in volcanology. After graduating from UCL, I spent nine months working at research institutions in Ecuador and Mexico, before returning to the United Kingdom (UK) to begin a PhD in September 2016. My research group leader is Dr. Matt Watson; we are primarily studying how remote sensing can illuminate the changing activity of Fuego, but our research network extends into collaborations with readers of mathematics and engineering.

TWITTER: @AilsaNaismith

What’s your job like?

A healthy mixture of variety and monotony, and of confusion and certainty. My impression is that this PhD is teaching me to be an all-rounder. I have to organise and manage my own time, arrange meetings and discussions, and generate new ideas. Since starting last autumn, I have learned many skills that include coding, academic writing, time management, office politics, Guatemalan Spanish … the list goes on! I have almost full control over how I spend my days, which is pleasurable and sometimes intimidating – although I love the work, so it isn’t always hard to stay focussed. Most of my work is independent and individual, although I have regular group meetings. The best part is unfortunately also the least frequent: I live for fieldwork.

What’s a typical day like?

The majority of days I spend in the office, with most of my time split between writing, reading articles, or writing code. If it’s a productive day, I can usually spend five hours on these tasks. Outside of that, I usually have one group meeting a day: either a research group discussion to catch up and share ideas, or a Volcanology meeting, like reading group. My work during term time also includes demonstrating in undergraduate classes, where I discuss concepts and provide help for students. I usually demonstrate for several hours each week. Occasionally I am able to participate in outreach activities, which I love – baking soda volcanoes are wonderful!


Locals from Panimache village talk and relax below the volcano. Photo copyright: Ailsa Naismith

The highlight of my year will be fieldwork, which could last up to a month. Instead of sitting and ruminating, it’s go, go, go all day – hours are long, work is manual. I will operate equipment, study outcrops, sort logistics like food and gas, and discuss Fuego’s activity with colleagues. I had the great luck to demonstrate the MSc Volcanology field course in Guatemala this February, where I acted as demonstrator and translator for two weeks, before gathering data for my own research. My supervisor and I spent several memorable days on the roof of a golf resort under the volcano, trying to fix an infrared camera.

What’s fun?

Of course, it’s the fieldwork, and the opportunity to travel to a country so dissimilar to the UK. Although a day in the field may be 12+ hours, those hours are spent in focus, and I am rarely still. Instead, I may be fixing a car, operating a camera, hiking a volcano, or asking directions in Spanish. There isn’t time to be bored, and because Guatemala is still relatively new to volcanologists, a lot of problems I encounter are simple, but not necessarily straightforward to solve. That encourages inventive thinking and practical solutions. For instance, how do you prevent a camera from being struck by lightning? These challenges can seem a lot more fun to solve than the nebulous questions your thesis attempts to answer.

I love the opportunity to work in an environment so dissimilar to my own, with people who are passionate and informed, despite somewhat limited resources. The national institute I work with, INSIVUMEH (, is home to intelligent and generous scientists who are interested in understanding Guatemala’s volcanoes, and protecting those who are vulnerable to its hazards.


Volcan de Fuego, Guatemala, is the subject of my PhD project. Photo copyright Ailsa Naismith

What’s challenging?

It can be very difficult to see a way through, sometimes. Often a PhD begins with high ideals and an ambitious plan for how to answer a scientific question – but now that I have started, things sometimes seem a little less clear-cut. It is challenging to work with the hope of delayed gratification: that your experiments will work soon, that your paper will be published some time, and that your plans will come to fruition. Luckily this problem is extremely widespread, so there are others who empathise, and the feeling never lasts – hope springs eternal when you have an interesting project!

What’s your advice to students?

Just go ahead and say it if you don’t know. I constantly am asking questions and feeling uninformed, but if you ask then that feeling is only temporary. Attempt to be curious about lots of things. Collaboration is key: regularly ask for help, input and advice, even perhaps too often. Having mentors and inspiring teachers around you is a great help. If you are sure what you want to do, then do that. If not, then do what you find the most interesting: it’s your life, so you should decide.

MSSS Scientist, Mars Imagery, Andrew Britton @KalofXeno: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME:  Andrew Britton

CURRENT TITLE:  Assistant Staff Scientist at Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS), San Diego, California

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Planetary geology of Mars; remote sensing

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE:  9 years (image processing).

EDUCATION:  M.Sc. Space Science, University College London (2012); B.S. Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University (2010)

What’s your job like?

I am trained to take pictures of Mars using the Context Camera (CTX) onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). I also assist other MSSS science personnel in conducting ongoing scientific research with data from Mars spacecraft. This ongoing research includes seasonal campaigns and monitoring for new gully and impact crater formation/activity. Preparing data for archive in the Planetary Data System is another one of my roles.


Suite of instruments on flight deck of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (1/4 scale model). Image taken at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Open House by Andrew Britton October 2014.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day can include viewing logged images that have recently come back to Earth. Each image is viewed to check for quality, weather conditions, and surface changes. Part of our extended mission is to continue to monitor for new candidate impact sites and new gully activity. Other daily activities include targeting the Context Camera (CTX) on the spacecraft, updating Mars maps that serve as targeting aids, and writing Mars weather reports.


Space Camera! Full-Scale Model of MARDI (Mars Descent Imager). Image taken at San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering Expo Day by Andrew Britton March 2015.

What’s fun?

There are so many aspects of my job that are rewarding, including exploring Mars by targeting areas of the red planet that have not been imaged at 6 meter/pixel resolution, making beautiful maps, and sharing information with the public at public outreach events! On rare occasions, it is extremely fun to go out in the field to a Mars analog site like the Mohave desert or Barchan Dunes of Imperial Valley, California!

Barchan Dunes

Fresh grainflow mass wasting. Mars analog field trip to Barchan Dunes of Imperial Valley, California. Image taken by Andrew Britton November 2015.

What’s challenging?

Staying ahead on balancing primary duties with side projects that also need to be completed for the good of the company and the mission is challenging. Training someone while being trained yourself is also challenging. There is always data that can be collected, software to be upgraded, and workflows to be streamlined.

What’s your advice to students?

“Do what you love and the money will follow.” This is some of the best advice I received from my field geology professor as an undergraduate. Find what you love. Find something that you are willing to do more than just a hobby and become a professional at it. Learn how to fail by accepting that failure is a great way to learn. Know that no one was born a professional. Everyone was once a beginner. Learn how to code. I believe that one day knowing how to code will be almost equivalent to knowing how to read!

Geoarchaeology, Student Mediator Dr. Ruth Siddall @R_Siddall: A Day in the GeoLife Series


Dr. Ruth Siddall, Student Mediator at University College London and Geoarchaeologist

NAME: Dr. Ruth Siddall

CURRENT TITLE:  University College London (UCL) Student Mediator (and geologist!). It’s complicated …

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  The geology of the built environment and geomateriality.


EDUCATION:  BSc (Hons) Geology, University of Birmingham 1986-1989; PhD Geotectonics & Thermochronology University College London 1989-1994


What’s your job like?

My real day job involves trying to fix things when they go wrong for students at UCL. This is hard and sometimes challenging work, so it is good to go out and look at rocks and stones to clear my head and help me remember the reason why I got into academia in the first place! Therefore, I do some consultancy and lots of outreach work with various groups, ranging from pensioners with a commitment to life-long learning as well as architects, museum curators, civil engineers and town planners.

I got into the geology of building materials through working for the American School of Classical Studies in Athens after my PhD, and so in my research, I became a ‘geoarchaeologist’ with an interest in how people have used stone and its derivatives, pottery, cements, plasters and pigments in their daily lives. As a consequence, I have been privileged to work at some amazing archaeological sites and places of cultural heritage, including Corinth in Greece, Pompeii in Italy and at London’s Westminister Abbey.

Recently, after 20 years of lecturing, I took a career change to work with student experience at UCL. I am still able to continue with some research and consultancy but also spend weekends as an ‘urban geologist’, learning and teaching about building stones used in London and other cities.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical urban geology day for me may start with going to Westminster to meet with my colleagues on the London Geodiversity Partnership. Here we discuss issues that affect London’s geological framework and lobby to have these kept on London’s government agenda. These include taking measures to conserve and preserve important areas of geological outcrop in the city’s environment and publishing detailed reports on these locations. My remit is mainly with London’s building stones, and I try to keep on top of new building developments to find out which stones are being used and keeping records of this.

Following this, I may spend lunchtime researching new and old building stones in the city. This is just like traditional geological fieldwork, except that I cannot use a hammer or take samples. But I walk around making field notes on what I observe, ensuring I can accurately locate myself on the map, take photographs and do as much as I can to identify the stones used. I then use this information, along with research on architectural history and building records, to construct the data for my geological walking tours and guides. I also use these data to construct an archive record of the stones used in London over the centuries.


Shap Granite on a London Shopfront. Photo copyright: Ruth Siddall

In the afternoon, I might go and visit a museum or historic property to identify stones used in sculptures, fireplaces and the like. This is always an interesting experience as it invariably involves drawing unwanted attention to myself by being up a ladder, in the middle of a busy museum, brushing away cobwebs to try to identify the marble used on a piece of Rococo sculpture, or finding myself lying on a church floor during the middle of a service …  The information acquired is of course essential as part of the accurate description of a works of art or architectural fittings for museum catalogues, but can also inform art historians about materials available to artists and craftspeople in different regions. Of course such knowledge can also help in the identification of fakes. To do this, it is necessary to memorise the characteristics of a great number of stones, but I also use well-documented reference collections for identification, such as our decorative stone collection at UCL’s Museums, Collections & Cultural Heritage Department.

In the evening, I may go and meet a group to take them on a tour of the building stones used on London’s streets. These normally last about 2 hours, and we look at the architecture and history of the buildings as well as the compositions and origins of the stones used.

What’s fun?

Being an Urban Geologist is great fun. It is like having the same field area which keeps changing at a pace much faster that geological time. The average lifetime of a non-historic city building is 40 years, so things change all the time, and there is always a new ‘outcrop’ to see. It is also a great privilege to work close up with archaeological finds and museum objects or fixtures and fittings in historic buildings. Pretty much every kind of mineral, rock or fossil can be seen on city streets, so they are great learning resources for expanding geological knowledge cheaply, safely and at low cost. I have seen evidence of meteorite impacts, the effects of Proterozoic collision tectonics of Brazilian orogens and found dinosaur bones in London’s building stones.

Portland Stone on the British Museum. Photo copyright: Ruth Sidall

Portland Stone on the British Museum. Photo copyright: Ruth Siddall

What’s challenging?

Despite the fact that the great majority of geologists live or work day-to-day in cities, sadly the geology of cities is often dismissed as unimportant or simply a side show. It can be difficult to highlight the importance of urban geology in traditional Earth Sciences departments. I am lucky that we have a long tradition of urban geological studies at UCL, but it is still considered far from core research or teaching. I find that there is much more interest in pursuing this type of research in schools of architecture and art or archaeology, and indeed my current grants are with UCL Slade School of Fine Art. However, because urban geology is not formally taught anywhere, you have to do a lot of self teaching to learn your craft! This involves reading and researching about global quarries and geologies, spending a lot of time looking at collections, and hours trying to extract information out of architects and building contractors.

“I can probably recognize and identify around a thousand different building stones, but there are always new ones to learn.”


What’s your advice to students?

If you’re interested in learning more about the geology of the built environment, start with a geology degree and try to meet up with someone like me (there’s quite a few of us about!) in your city who does geological walks and try to learn from them. Go and visit building and decorative stone collections in Natural History Museums and start reading up on the quarrying industry. You’re going to have to be prepared to put in some work, but it is rewarding. Don’t be frightened of talking to architects, artists and archaeologists to see where you can collaborate. Someone interested in, say, decorative marbles in the Roman World, would be better off pursuing research in such studies in an archaeology or classics department rather than in an Earth Sciences one.

A lot of what I do is small-scale consultancy and outreach activities, but if you want to make a career in this field, don’t disregard jobs out there in the building stone industry. Many firms are desperate to recruit geologists, yet their businesses are often poorly marketed in the graduate job sector. Contact stone industry organisations like the Marble Institute of America or the Stone Federation of Great Britain for training and career opportunities. It is also a good idea to visit building stone trade fairs and hand out your curriculum vitae (CV) to quarry firms and stone contractors.

Me reflected, whilst trying to photograph highly polished gabbro. Photo copyright: Ruth Siddall

Me reflected, whilst trying to photograph highly polished gabbro. Photo copyright: Ruth Siddall

Volcanologist, Charlie Barrington @cb797: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME: Charlie Barrington

CURRENT TITLE: Volcanologist, Department of Volcanology, Instituto Geofisico, Escuela Politécnica Nacional in Quito, Ecuador

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Volcanic degassing, Differential Optical Absorption Spectroscopy (DOAS)

YEARS EXPERIENCE:  ~1 (including placements at the Centre for Exchange and Research in Volcanology, Colima and Montserat Volcano Observatory)

EDUCATION: After graduating from the University of York with a BSc in Environmental Science, I enrolled on the Geophysical Hazards MSc programme at University College London, which I completed in September 2014.

What’s your job like?

I couldn´t ask for a better job! What I enjoy most about my work here in Ecuador is that it´s not just the study of one volcano. Between the Volcanology and Seismology Departments at the Institute, there’s so much going on all the time – it’s a great environment to be part of! Whilst I have my own role and responsibilities working in the area of volcanology which interests me most, I have the opportunity to get involved in lots of other aspects through fieldwork, department lectures, and during the weeklong-shifts at Tungurahua Volcano Observatory (OVT). The beauty of my job is its diversity.


Viewing my first ever volcanic explosion – Volcan Reventador, Ecuador. Photo copyright: Charlie Barrington

What’s a typical day like?

My primary role is to process incoming sulfur dioxide (SO2) data that arrives at the Institute from a number of volcanoes across Ecuador. I begin by retrieving wind data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) meteorology database before using the Network for Observation of Volcanic and Atmospheric Change (NOVAC) program to obtain a daily flux value for SO2 emissions. I use this data to compile monthly reports about the degassing behavior of Volcán Sangay, largely considered the world’s most active volcano.

I also get to do a lot of fieldwork, which ranges from taking day tips with instrumentation to fixing monitoring stations to collecting samples from immense avalanche deposits in the South of Ecuador. Concerning gas studies, this month I spent three days on a boat mapping carbon dioxide (CO2) flux from the lake-filled Cuicocha caldera.

Currently, I am at OVT. Here, I have the chance to be involved in all aspects of volcanic monitoring, and it’s especially interesting now that Tungurahua seems to be waking up again! When the volcano is quiet, it’s really peaceful, except when I’m kept awake by the croaking frogs!

What’s fun?

Of course being out in the field is hugely exciting; for me it’s a new country, a new continent and some of the world´s more active and spectacular volcanoes. Watching incandescence at Volcán Reventador, hiking on Cotopaxi (with a rather uncooperative donkey) and seeing Sangay´s infamous peak in the distance whilst driving through Ecuador´s spectacular countryside are just some of the amazing experiences I´ve had so far.

Despite the great fun which comes with fieldwork here, I also still really enjoy being in the office and putting all the things I´ve previously learnt into practice.


Volcan Reventador erupting whilst installing new solar panels at
Copete station, Ecuador. Photo copyright: Charlie Barrington

What’s challenging?

For me right now – the language! Making sure I understand colleges, trying to follow discussions in meetings and making sure my work isn’t compromised because of my Spanish skills are challenging. Improving my Spanish is now a huge focus to ensure I can get the most out of my time here.

What’s your advice to students?

Don’t be intimidated. I have always second guessed or lacked confidence when working with those who have far greater experience than me – especially when it’s a field primarily made up of geologists. I was definitely nervy first joining a team of scientists who have lived and worked on the doorstep of these volcanoes for many years! Trust your education and experience and don’t be scared to provide input.