Name: Frey Fyfe
Age: 23
Year of Study: 2
Research Group: I’m part of the Volcanology groups at Oxford University and the Natural History Museum in London.

What are you researching: My research deals with trying to understand how volcanoes at subduction zones produce major explosive eruptions. Most of the time these volcanoes sit there quietly, gently releasing gas and lava, but sometimes the gas gets trapped and ends up expanding so much and so rapidly that the surrounding magma fragments, producing eruptions like the one at Pinatubo in 1991. It’s this switch from one behaviour to the other that I’m working to understand.

To do this, I’m focussing on Popocatépetl (Popo), the second most active volcano in Mexico, which looms over about 30 million people and a fair chunk of the country’s centralised infrastructure. It’s had several major explosive eruptions in the past, so it’s well worth understanding how these occur and how to tell if they might happen again in the near future. I spend most of my time looking through rocks and scans of rocks to find little crystals of a mineral called apatite, which takes in magmatic gases as it grows. Hopefully when I get round to analysing them, these apatites will give us a better insight into what happens to the gases in Popo’s magmas to trigger different types of eruptions.

The first ash cloud I got to see ‘up close’. Obviously this happened ten minutes after we left the ideal viewing spot at Paso de Cortes. Source: author’s photo

Academic background: I knew before picking my A-levels that I wanted to do Geology, so I chose Geography, Chemistry, and Physics A-levels and Maths AS. This was a pretty solid background for going on to do my MSci in Earth Sciences at Imperial College London. I started off on the Geology and Geophysics degree doing a pretty standard geology route, but switched to Earth Sciences to do an environmental 3rd year project instead of going mapping. I particularly enjoyed modules on petrology and geochemistry, and while I had come into the degree with a primary interest in volcanology, I found I also really enjoyed learning about ore deposits and planetary science. In fourth year I was a bit conflicted about what to do my MSci project on, as there were several great projects to choose from, but a chance discussion with one of my lecturers ended up with me doing an un-advertised volcanology project on Popo and here we are.

Your motivation: I’m still that kid who thinks it’s awesome when bits of the earth explode.

Funniest fieldwork story: The entirety of the #Popo2016 field trip to Mexico was something of an experience. It probably requires a blogpost of its own, but for now it’ll suffice to say that it involved reacquainting myself with my peanut allergy, accidentally sampling a scorpion, a kid with a shotgun, 74 broken trees, and trying to do outreach in a school when I don’t speak a word of Spanish. Particular highlights included seeing a small ash cloud from the volcano, the Excellent Road Safety* and discovering a love of fried crickets. Unfortunately I think the crickets might have been what gave me the pretty nasty stomach cramps I contracted just in time for a ten hour flight back to the UK. I had those cramps for weeks.

The best of the PhD so far: The opportunity to travel. This year alone I’ve managed to go Dublin, Mexico, Italy (twice) and Greece for conferences, fieldwork, and training courses which have all been amazing**. If you’re into the volcanology and mineralisation side of things, there are excellent courses run by NERC, the British Geological Survey and numerous European universities (e.g. Perugia, Munich and Naples).

The worst of the PhD so far: Time just seems to escape me without my having done anything productive with it. There just seems to be a point at the end of every few months where I look back at all the things I was hoping to get done and realise that I’ve made basically no progress. That’s good fun, that.

*It was not excellent. The worst of it was a pretty hairy moment when our colleague decided to overtake 3 motorbikes round a corner on a mountain pass, only to find there was a lorry coming the other way, then starting cutting in front of one of the motorbikes without warning.

**As an aside, this has been great for me, but not for the environment. All this flying I’ve been doing has contributed around 6 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which is equivalent to the Arctic losing a further 17 square metres of summer sea ice according to these folks here: Calculate your own carbon emissions using this – but for me I’m off to go plant some trees.