Name:  Rebecca Elizabeth Smith
Age: 24
Year of study: 2
Department: Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art 

What are you researching: I am investigating the relationship between deglaciation, and the frequency and magnitude of volcanic eruptions in southern South America. To do this, I am assessing both visible and invisible (cryptic) ash (tephra) horizons in lake cores in Chile and Argentina. I use the glass-shard geochemistry of the tephra to better understand the composition of the deposits, and to identify the eruptive source. Ultimately, this work means that I can develop a picture of how frequently volcanoes in this region have been erupting, the magnitude of these eruptions, whether there have been any significant changes in the geochemical composition in the region during the past 51,000 years, and what may be controlling these changes (e.g., deglaciation).

This is important because it develops our understanding of the frequency and magnitude of eruptions, and provides insight into what may control this, which is significant for a number of reasons, including risk mitigation. Moreover, the process of tephrochronology can be used to date lake records which is important when trying to better understand the timing of past events, for example climate changes.

Academic background: After my A-levels in psychology, English language and geography, I went to Royal Holloway, UoL to study geography. I stayed at Royal Holloway, for a Quaternary Science MSc (I did my MSc thesis in conjunction with the University of Adelaide). After this, I took a working gap year, before starting my D.Phil at Oxford University.

What is your motivation: How much more motivation do you need than the opportunity to travel, play with mud and ash, command a space ship (i.e., the electron microprobe), learn new skills, and hopefully produce some quality research that will be useful for enabling a better understanding of previous (and future) volcanic eruption magnitude/frequency?

Funniest fieldwork story:  It’s not really funny, more tragic, and it sadly frames my life. I was staying at Lake Purrumbete, Australia, with my co-supervisor and colleagues during my MSc project. I went to the toilet just before dinner and as I left the bathroom I couldn’t open the door. I was stuck for literally 20 minutes! Apparently the door handle lifts upwards, who knew? Everyone had started eating without me… If I recall, it was spaghetti Bolognese.

Here I am, on a boat, coring West Basin, Victoria, during the fieldwork component of my MSc project in Australia (Image credit: Chris Gouramanis).

The best moment of the PhD so far: Getting data back from the probe is always a little bit exciting – it’s really interesting to see whether it’s what you expected.

The worst moment of the PhD so far: When you’ve had a good day, and you feel like you’ve taken a good, solid step forward, and then the next day you realise that you’ve done something fundamentally wrong during your good day, and you know you’ve taken a spaceship backwards to another planet. It happens, and it is distressing and it is so hard to pick yourself up, or know where to go from there when you’re the primary person trying to keep yourself motivated within your research.