PhD Student, Iceland Volcanoes, Thorbjorg Agustsdottir @fencingtobba: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Thorbjorg Agustsdottir, volcanic studies

NAME:  Thorbjorg Agustsdottir

CURRENT TITLE:  PhD Student

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Volcanoes, earthquakes, Iceland, rifting events

EDUCATION:  I am a 4th year PhD student, and I am a part of the University of Cambridge Volcano-Seismology group. We study earthquakes in and around volcanoes in the Northern and Eastern Volcanic Zones in Iceland where the plate spreading is accommodated by rifting events. Our dense network is focused around the Askja volcano and surrounding Vatnajökull ice cap and its many volcanoes. The group is lead by Professor Bob White.

My education and experience:
BSc in Geophysics, University of Iceland.
MSc in Geophysics, University of Iceland.
Part-time research and teaching assistant at the University of Iceland.
Currently PhD student in Volcano Seismology at University of Cambridge.
High level international athlete from high school to PhD.
Captain of Cambridge University Fencing Club Women Blues Team 2016-2017.

TWITTER: @fencingtobba

WEBSITE: http://www.esc.cam.ac.uk/directory/thorbjorg-agustsdottir

VIDEO: 

What’s your job like?

The job is great and interactive but also involves quite a lot of pressure to perform and deliver. My group collects its own data – which is great! To record earthquake activity, we use our local passive seismic network in central Iceland. This network is run by us in the Cambridge University Volcano-Seismology group in collaboration with the University of Iceland, and is supported by grants and equipment loans from the Natural Environment Research Council. Tiny earthquakes are often detected under volcanoes prior to eruption, caused by the movement melt beneath the surface. That is what I am working on! My research is focused on the seismicity associated with the 2014-15 Holuhraun eruption and the subsidence of the feeder volcano Bárðarbunga caldera.

What’s a typical day like?

A day in the office involves mostly working on the computer all day. We also have group meetings discussing various aspects of our work as well as paper discussions. Geophysics is quite computational as we are working with a lot of data. It involves using Linux Shell scripting, Python, Generic Mapping Tools (GMT), and many other programs. Everyone in the group helps each other with coding problems, and the environment is supportive. We also go regularly to meetings and conferences in the United Kingdom, Europe and United States.

A day in the field is completely different from the office job. We do our field work in Iceland where we need to drive around in big 4x4s servicing the seismic network, deploying new stations and repairing the old ones. We have also deployed instruments with a helicopter, snow scooters and skis but that is less common. Field days are long days involving a lot of manual labour and driving and in the evening quality checking our data. We were fortunate to have an eruption in our field area in 2014 – that was amazing!

===> Field Video of this Volcanic Eruption:  20140831_164555.mp4

What’s fun?

I really enjoy the field work in the beautiful Icelandic highlands. I also like the problem solving and the science part where we try to understand the data. The discussion with the group is something that I also really like, discussing ideas and discussing the problems.

What’s challenging?

For me the coding part is challenging as I am dyslexic but I still manage. Academia in general is challenging but challenges are also interesting and pushes you further. I have learnt so much the past 3.5 years in Cambridge.

What’s your advice to students?

Always follow your interest and intuition. Science is fun and very varied. It is hard work which pays off in my opinion, and it can take you to incredible places.

Deserts, Jerome Mayaud @JeromeMayaud: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME: Jerome Mayaud

CURRENT TITLE:  PhD student at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Dryland Geomorphology, Glaciology, Computational Modelling

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 3rd year of PhD

EDUCATION: 
PhD Dryland Geomorphology, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford;
MPhil Polar Studies, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge;
BA Geography, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

What’s your job like?

My ‘job,’ as a PhD student, is great: every day I get to ask, then try to answer, questions that I find interesting! The overall goal of my research at the moment is to study the interactions between vegetation and wind erosion in desert regions. For this, I combine fieldwork with computer modelling, as well as some laboratory work.

A fundamental part of my work involves collecting field data in some stunning parts of the world. In 2014, I spent four months in three large deserts in Namibia (the Skeleton Coast and the Kalahari and Namib Deserts) analyzing local wind patterns, measuring vegetation transects and producing three-dimensional models of dunes using a drone. However, fieldwork is not just about obsessively gathering information; it’s a superb opportunity for driving and hiking through some other-worldly landscapes, observing whacky plants and animals, and engaging with local land users. Later this year, I’ll be travelling with a colleague to Mongolia to investigate the impact of large-scale mining on land degradation in the Gobi Desert.

deserts

A drone’s-eye-view. Photo copyright: Jerome Mayaud

Once I’ve collected all the necessary data, I use computer (numerical) modelling to simulate the landscapes I’ve observed. It’s a bit like trying to create a computer game of how the desert evolves, as realistically as possible. Once I’m happy that my model faithfully replicates the right environmental processes, I ask it to simulate different scenarios, such as climatic changes, overgrazing and wildfires. This allows me to predict how the desert might change over the coming decades. Ultimately, the plan is to create a tool that’s useful for land managers and policymakers to test how certain practices might improve or exacerbate land degradation in socio-economically vulnerable dryland regions.

computer modeling

Modelling a dune system encroaching onto a road. Photo copyright: Jerome Mayaud

One important aspect of the PhD experience is presenting your research to others. I’ve given talks at a variety of seminars at my university and was very pleased to be invited to present a recent academic paper at Northumbria University in northern England. Academic conferences are great places to meet fellow researchers in a whole host of different fields, and I will be travelling to Paris and Vienna this year to present the results of my PhD work so far. I’m nervous but excited! I’m very interested in how research can be communicated to the wider public, so I try to organise talks and demonstrations in schools and local environmental charities when I can.

I’m also lucky to have been given the opportunity to teach students a variety of topics, from geomorphology to statistics, within my department and at several Oxford colleges. It’s intellectually demanding, but very rewarding. And fun!

What’s a typical day like?

As most people in academia say, there is no such thing as a typical day. The majority of the time, I’m based in Oxford and working on analysing my field data or improving and running my numerical model. That means a lot of sitting down, which definitely isn’t a favourite activity of mine, but it’s great to be surrounded by fellow students and academic staff. Finding answers to problems or simply having a friendly chat is a lot simpler when you’re in the same building as other people!

I also regularly give tutorials and classes to undergraduate and Master degree students and must prepare for these in advance with lots of reading, sometimes around topics I’m unfamiliar with. In the afternoons, I occasionally attend some of the many seminars organised by the Geography Department, as well as other departments – it’s important to keep up with a variety of topics, approaches and attitudes to research. In the evenings, I always do sport to unwind and let my brain disconnect after a long day!

Life is very different when I’m on fieldwork. If I’m planning to conduct an experiment, I often get up early in the morning to drive into the dune field, in order to avoid the harsh midday temperatures. Once at the field site, I’ll set up instrument arrays and make sure everything is working fine. Flying a drone through epic landscapes is very enjoyable, except when it occasionally crashes and requires a bit of tender love and care (TLC)! Fieldwork involves a surprising amount of logistics, from organising research permits for conducting research in National Parks, to driving long distances over rough terrain, through to pitching up a tent and preparing a fire to cook on in the evening. Even with the best organisation and forward planning in the world, unexpected situations still arise. Dealing with those is annoying, exciting, frustrating, thrilling…

desert sampling

Measuring wind speed changes around shrubs in the Kalahari Desert. Photo copyright: Jerome Mayaud

What’s fun?

Feeling like you are at the cutting edge of a discipline, and having the freedom (and time – three years or more!) to develop your own questions and come up with answers. Travel and exploration takes up a significant chunk of my time, and that’s undoubtedly a big part of the appeal of this PhD.

What’s challenging?

Keeping on-task when deadlines are so seemingly distant, and people management – particularly managing your expectations in relation to your supervisors’! But these challenges are what makes a PhD such a special endeavour: you’re constantly cutting your teeth on some of the most stimulating environments imaginable, surrounded by a host of world experts!

What’s your advice to students?

Just keep in your mind why you love what you’re doing. It could be that a strategically placed photograph on your desk does the trick, or setting up occasional meetings with somebody who inspires you in your discipline. It’ll make the tough times a lot more bearable! And even if you get to a stage where you realise a long-term career in academia is not for you, don’t fret; the skills you develop during a PhD will stand you in great stead in many other walks of life.

Namib

At the southern edge of the Namib Sand Sea. Photo copyright: Jerome Mayaud

Professor, Volcanology, Dr. David Pyle @davidmpyle: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Leading an undergraduate field class in Spain. Copyright David Pyle

Leading an undergraduate field class in Spain. Copyright David Pyle

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.

WEBSITE: http://www.earth.ox.ac.uk/people/profiles/academic/davidp

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.

Reconstructing a volcanic eruption for London Volcano. Copyright David Pyle

Reconstructing a volcanic eruption for London Volcano. Copyright David Pyle

What’s fun?

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.

What’s challenging?

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.

Heading into the field in Chile. Copyright Harriet Rawson

Heading into the field in Chile. Copyright Harriet Rawson

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.