PhD Candidate, Volcanology, Geoff Lerner @Tyranakisaurus: A Day in the GeoLife Series


PhD Candidate, Volcanology and Paleomagnetism, Geoff Lerner. Photo copyright Geoff Lerner

NAME: Geoff Lerner

CURRENT TITLE: PhD Candidate (University of Auckland, New Zealand)

EXPERTISE: Volcanology and Paleomagnetism

EXPERIENCE: 4 years doing research

EDUCATION: MSc Geology (Università degli studi Milano-Bicocca, Italy), MS Geology (Michigan Tech University, United States), BS Geological Sciences (Tufts University, United States)


TWITTER: @Tyranakisaurus

What’s your job like?

I research patterns of growth and eruption at stratovolcanoes, specifically Mount Taranaki in New Zealand. We know that volcanoes don’t erupt and grow evenly—in addition to periods of activity and inactivity, they have a tendency to erupt in one direction or another at a time, not every direction at once. I’m looking into the reasons for this and how we might be able to figure out what phase an active stratovolcano is in.

Mt. Taranaki

Geoff Lerner taking notes at the summit of Mount Taranaki. Photo copyright Geoff Lerner

I use a number of techniques to look at Taranaki’s recent eruptive history—field geology, geochemistry, sedimentology, and especially paleomagnetism. A major focus of my research is looking at the information preserved in magnetic minerals in volcanic mass flow deposits and using it to learn about each deposit’s age and emplacement temperature (i.e. was it a lahar or a pyroclastic flow?).

What’s a typical day like?

Depends on where I am! On an office day, I’ll spend a lot of my time answering emails, reading academic papers, marking assignments, and planning my next fieldwork and labwork trips.

On lab days (since most of my lab work is done in Wellington, away from home), I want to wring as much work out of each trip as possible, so I’ll spend the whole day either prepping samples (cutting, drilling, labeling) or else measuring them with the magnetometer, heating theme, cooling them, and measuring again (over and over and over…). It’s not hard, but it’s very time consuming, so I’ll often be in the lab running samples till well after midnight!

In the field, I’m always looking to take more samples to measure. This involves finding a good outcrop with several layers of volcanic deposits, and then either drilling small cores or else collecting hand samples to drill later in the laboratory. Some days I work on the volcano itself (even up to the summit), other days we explore the area nearby or even several kilometers away. Either way, it involves backpacks full of rocks, water tanks, and drilling equipment.


Drilling paleomagnetic cores in near Marquette, Michigan. Photo copyright Geoff Lerner

What’s fun?

Almost everything! I never get tired of going back to my field area to collect samples or scope out new sites, and I never pass up an opportunity to help a colleague with fieldwork, because it means I get to explore a new place. And crazy as it sounds, there’s even something peaceful about finally walking home from the laboratory in the middle of the night.

Lake Superior

Wading into Lake Superior to fill the water jug for sampling. Photo copyright Geoff Lerner

But my favorite part is actually making fun videos out of my (and other’s) research for outreach. I’m always trying to think of interesting ways to film things in the field and ways to explain research that will catch people’s attention (see videos above).

What’s challenging?

Explaining what I do to a general audience. I think it’s vital to get the general public interested in the stuff that I (and other geoscientists) do, and that means being able to talk about research in an exciting and accessible way. I always challenge myself to think about how I would talk about my latest field trip or a method I’m using in a way that any curious person could understand it.


Exploring the summit crater of Mount Taranaki, New Zealand. Photo copyright Geoff Lerner

What’s your advice to students?

Be flexible! Jump at the chance to do something interesting, even if it’s difficult or a bit uncomfortable. The more you are willing to do something you know little about, go to a new place, or learn a language you’ve never spoken before, the more future opportunities you’ll get.