James Hickey is a final year PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences. His research is focused on unravelling the mechanisms that cause volcanoes to become restless prior to eruptions. Ultimately, the aim is to improve our understanding of precursory signals to enhance forecasting and mitigation efforts.
Workshops, conferences, field work – national and international travel is an essential part of many PhD programs. I’ve been lucky enough to see numerous new parts of the globe during my studies, and, less luckily, numerous different airport layovers (I’m currently writing this post from a corridor between terminals at Washington airport…!).
I’m on my way back to Bristol from a workshop in Ecuador on volcanic unrest, which culminated with an eruption simulation exercise. As my PhD is focused on unravelling the science behind volcanic unrest, these trips (this is the second of three with this specific aim) form a main focus for the real-world application of my research.
This workshop was split into 3 different parts. The first was a series of lectures on how volcanologists, social scientists, emergency managers, civil protection officials, and the general public interact during volcanic crises. Each specialist contributed their individual expertise, in my case as a volcanologist interpreting the signals that the volcano gives off, but the main message was that communication at all times between all parties must be especially clear. As with almost all lectures though, this part of the workshop obviously wasn’t the most exciting – especially with the inevitable jet-lagged tiredness kicking in for the first few days.
The second part of the workshop took us out into the field to explore two of Ecuador’s most famous volcanoes: Cotopaxi and Tungurahua. This was my favourite part! These are two quite epic volcanoes with the classical conical shape you imagine when you think of a volcano. By examining them in situ we learnt about the hazards they pose today to many nearby towns and cities. This really helps to put my research into perspective, as I know that by contributing to a better understanding of how volcanoes work I am helping to protect the people whose livelihood’s depend on the benefits the volcano brings them (for example, the more fertile soil).
The final part of the workshop took us to the Ecuadorian national centre for crisis management in Quito (cue vigilant security checks!). Here we conducted the volcanic unrest and eruption simulation. This is similar in some ways to a fire drill but a whole lot more complicated. Simulated monitoring ‘data’ from the volcano is fed to a team of volcanologists who have to quickly interpret what the data means and feed that information in a clear, coherent and understandable way to emergency managers, politicians and civil authorities. Upon the advice of the volcanologists, the decision makers can then choose how best to respond and mitigate a potential impending crisis. As this was just an exercise, different stages in the unrest crisis were dealt with all in one very busy day, with ‘data’ from the volcano arriving every couple of hours but representing several weeks or months in simulated time.
The final ‘update’ from the volcano: BIG eruption! I think we all could have predicted that – everyone likes a grand finale.
Despite the Hollywood firework finish, these exercises are crucial to prepare those individuals who will actually be in positions of responsibility when a true volcanic crisis develops. By playing out the different stages in as close to real-life as possible, strengths and weaknesses were highlighted that will allow for improvements to be made in the future. Improvements that may just save extra lives or livelihoods, and foster improved relationships between the public and the scientists trying to help them.
As one of those scientists, I was just happy enough to be able to take part.
Rebecca Ingle is a second year PhD student in the Bristol Laser Group in the School of Chemistry. Her research involves studying photodissociation dynamics in both the gas and solution phase using a combination of laser experiments and computational chemistry methods.
You often hear about how difficult PhDs can be, trying to juggle running your own experiments, analysing the data, thinking of fresh ideas and finding a way to squeeze a life in between it all. However, there is definitely one glamorous highlight to PhD life and that’s the numerous opportunities for travel, both in the UK and abroad.
Unfortunately, I’m not an environmental chemist and don’t have the excuse of needing to do fieldwork in remote, exotic locations. However, lasers are popular worldwide, and thanks to some help from the Bristol-Kyoto strategic fund, I was lucky enough to spend this summer working at Kyoto University.
To say I had no reservations about flying alone half way around the world to work on an unfamiliar experiment would be a lie. There were a few moments when I wondered if I had fully appreciated what I had signed up for and horrifying tales of Japan’s bounteous insect life in the summer months didn’t exactly help.
However, once I’d arrived in Kyoto, it didn’t take long at all for me to feel at home. Complaining about the weather is definitely a universal language and my Japanese hosts could regularly be heard proclaiming ‘atsui desune…’ (it’s hot, isn’t it?) in response to the insufferable 30 degree heat. Unlike the weather, I quickly acclimatised to a diet of udon, matcha bread and macadamia nut ice cream and the experiment turned out to have a lot more in common with my experiments at Bristol than I was expecting.
It ended up being an incredible few months and I learnt a huge amount about new experimental techniques. But how do you actually organise a research collaboration like this and what are some the advantages to getting away from your home lab?
Advantages of working away
One of the best parts about working away, be it for a research collaboration or conference, is it’s a bit like being away on a science holiday. You generally get fed and don’t have to worry about domestic drudgery, so you can spend all day focusing on your work. It’s hard not to be productive in this kind of environment, at least when the jetlag has passed.
Another huge advantage is having the chance for some fresh insight on your own work. Not only will you be exposed to new ideas and set-ups, but you’ll be asked questions about what you do from a completely different perspective. It’s often easy to be complacent and not think about why you use certain methods and techniques in your lab, simply because it’s the way it has always been done but it’s good to be forced to think about absolutely every aspect of your research.
If you’re going away for a conference, you’ll be inundated with novel work from a wide range of universities. It’s definitely an easier way of getting a feel for the latest developments in your field in a livelier, more interactive manner than trawling through the literature and may even be a good chance to start building some collaborative links with other research groups.
Depending on where you go, you might get to pick up some new language skills or even get to eat food that looks like this:
How to make it happen
Travelling for conference or collaborations can be prohibitively expensive, even if you’re staying within the UK. However, particularly if you want to go abroad, there are numerous funding opportunities available though, be warned, you often need to look a long way in advance for them. If you are funded through one of the research councils, there is often a budget for your skills development and travel so that may be another avenue worth exploring.
If you think you’d like to escape your lab but have no idea where to go or who to work with, your supervisor can be a good starting point. Just emailing other academics, even if you’ve never met, with an explanation of why you’re interested in their work and what you can contribute can be a surprisingly successful method too.
I had a wonderful time in Japan and am hoping to go back again next year. Meanwhile, I’ve got a few conferences and events to keep me excited about both my own work and my field as a whole.
“Between a Rock and a Hard Place” began as an Earth Science PhD blog in February 2013, as a place to ramble on about PhD life and general science topics. Almost two years later, some of the contributors have finished, others have submitted, and the rest are nearing the end.
Together, they have compiled a list of their best moments and top tips, to showcase just how varied experiences can be, even within one department.
Working in the lab was both the most exciting, and most frustrating, aspect of my PhD. Rather than jetting off to exotic field locations, I spent most of my days heading downstairs to the basement to carry out experiments on a piston cylinder apparatus to provide insights into deep mantle melting. Despite shedding blood, sweat and tears down there, the satisfaction of deliberately ending a successful experiment is hard to beat! Lab work was made all the more fun when shared with fellow experimentalists – discussing similar experiences, particularly failures (unfortunately rather common!) proved to be incredibly useful in planning future experiments and trying different approaches to improve methods.
My top tip is to talk to lots of people in the lab, and attend lots of seminars/discussion groups, about different techniques that you could possibly try out on your samples. Most lab-based PhDs tend to be a case of trial-and-error for the appropriate method so the more options that you are aware of, the better!
Having completed my undergraduate at Bristol, I never intended to remain in the same city for my PhD. Then up came an opportunity that was too good to turn down.
By the time I finished my PhD, I’d been in the same department for 7.5 years (!), but I definitely don’t regret being flexible and being prepared to stay. Bristol has a thriving academic scene and throughout my research I was able to interact with a constant flux of interesting and cosmopolitan people. Outside of my studies I got involved with student sports, which helped to prolong my undergraduate experience (even if my nickname was inevitably something along the lines of ‘grandma’), and Bristol itself is an evolving and exciting city – in my time here I’ve seen so much change that there hasn’t been a chance to get bored.
I know that some people in academia say that you shouldn’t do your undergraduate and PhD at the same place, but I truly feel like the most important aspect is have a stimulating project and inspirational supervisors. For me, this just happened to be at Bristol.
One of the best things about doing a PhD is the flexibility of (generally) being able to work whenever and wherever you want; however, most people find that slogging away in the early hours of the morning isn’t always the most productive approach. Try and treat the PhD like you would a job. Having a routine means that you’ll keep going even when lacking motivation, and limiting work to regular office hours during the week means that it won’t become an all-consuming, isolating experience.
Whilst my research didn’t involve fieldwork in exotic places (or anywhere, for that matter), I was lucky enough to be able to attend conferences and see volcanoes up close in both Mexico (Cities on Volcanoes 7) and Japan (IAVCEI Scientific Assembly); they are most definitely the highlight of my PhD! Presenting and discussing my work, receiving feedback, and seeing others’ findings with the backdrop of an active volcano is a pretty unbeatable experience. The social side is great too – I’ve made lots of friends from all over the world at international conferences!
Take ownership early. Obviously your supervisors are academically senior to you, but it’s your project and end decisions are ultimately yours. Take guidance, not orders!
I have lots of little highlights: celebrating friend’s vivas; submitting my first paper; getting that code to finally work; and discovering something unusual and interesting in the data. The PhD process is long, very long and I’ve found that lots of little achievements have kept me motivated. In general, I think the aspects I thought would be the easiest during my PhD turned out to be the hardest, whilst the bits I thought would be hard were also hard! A PhD definitely requires commitment.
My best highlight was a great month on fieldwork in East Africa. Nothing beats seeing the volcano you’re studying up close and personal. Sure it was challenging and exhausting (working day-to-night for a month), but completing the fieldwork came with a great sense of achievement. As a bonus, climbing up volcanoes each day forced me to get into better shape!
Read blogs like this to get insight of what a PhD involves!
One of the best parts about being a geologist is the travel. As an undergraduate you get the opportunity to visit some amazing places on fieldwork and for me this has spilled over to my PhD studies. A significant part of my project has been based on North Andros in the Bahamas, and although I have been protesting for a long time that fieldwork isn’t a holiday, it is still a breath-taking location to work. One of my favourite things has been sharing the experience with field assistants and watching their reactions as we reach the island for the first time; the people may be different but the reaction is the same – awe. Field assistants are also great at keeping you relatively sane when you have been sampling (in the rain) all day and filtering most of the night.
Say yes (to most things). I view the PhD as a training ground for a career, either in or out of academia, and that saying yes can help give you experiences and skills, which can be invaluable further down the line. But be careful not to overstretch yourself too much because you still need time to finish the PhD!
By a long stretch, the best part of my PhD has been the travel I have been able to do as part of my research. I’ve been lucky enough to do fieldwork and attend conferences in all corners of the globe. My fieldwork has taken me to South America (Bolivia and Ecuador), Asia (Japan), Europe (Italy) and the Caribbean (Montserrat and Dominica), while I have been to conferences in the USA, Japan and (less glamorously) different parts of the UK. On top of this I did a study visit at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Admittedly, my carbon footprint is probably huge, but the experiences, skills and network I’ve built up are priceless.
Take all your opportunities, and then make your own. While you’re doing a PhD there are numerous chances to attend extra conferences and workshops on various things. These are a great way to develop new skills. Plus, by talking to different people you can create your own opportunities for extra fieldwork and study exchanges.