Name: Isabelle Taylor
Age: 24
Year of Study: 2
Research Groups: I am part of the Volcanology research group in Earth Sciences and the Earth Observation group in Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics. I am also part of NERC’s Centre for the Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET).

What exactly do you do: My project looks at how we can monitor and understand volcanic plumes of ash and gas using satellite imagery. Specifically, I am using the Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer (IASI), a sensor on board the European Space Agency’s MetOp satellites.

Why bother: Volcanic plumes of ash and gas are two of the many hazards associated with volcanic eruptions. Not only do they affect health, but they can also damage infrastructure, affect the environment and climate, and can cause engine failure in aircraft. They can also give us some insight into volcanic processes. Ground based monitoring is really valuable but is often expensive, dangerous and logistically challenging. Satellite imagery offers a cost effective solution to this and can monitor across the globe 24 hours a day, allowing us to identify and track volcanic plumes as they are carried away from the source.

How did I get here: At school I did a mix of subjects (History, Geography, Maths, Further Maths and English Literature) and went on to study Geography at Exeter University’s Cornwall Campus. Here I developed an interest in natural hazards and how these can be managed, so I went on to do the Volcanology MSc at Bristol University. My first round of PhD applications were unsuccessful so I had a year out during which I volunteered with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory’s gas geochemistry team. When I got back I definitely felt more equipped for PhD interviews and got an offer for the Oxford Environmental Research DTP.

Climbing Fuego Volcano in Guatemala. Credit: Milly Owens.

Most memorable fieldwork story: I’ve had some fantastic fieldwork experiences: sleeping in a hammock on the flank of a volcano while it erupts in the background (small explosions) and sitting at the edge of a lava lake are just a few.

One story which really stands out for me is working on an active lava flow in Hawaii. The heat is unimaginable! I was still a bit jet lagged and spent quite a lot of time preoccupied with the thought of falling through the solid outer shell into the molten lava below (along with the more probable hazards – burning and cutting my hands, or falling over). When I came off the lava flow for a break, I thought I was temporarily safe. Except, just as I got up to go back on the flow, a very large tree, the base of which had been eaten by the lava, creaked and then fell. I had to dive out of the way and it only just missed us. I spent the rest of the day feeling a little shaky.

Best and worst of the PhD so far: My project is entirely computer based and my computer and I kind of have a ‘love-hate’ relationship. I will spend hours writing code, then when I try to run it, it will give various error messages which are meaningless to me. Once these are fixed and it runs smoothly, the output will usually be wrong and then its either days of looking for the small mistake I made, or back to the drawing board. This process takes a long time and so it often it feels like I’m not making any progress at all.

However, it is fantastic when eventually I get an answer which both makes sense and looks like what its meant to. Currently, I’m working on a method to determine the height of volcanic ash clouds and I am testing this on modelled data. The other week, the output I got from the retrieval scheme matched the input altitude. There was a straight line – it was really exciting!