A Volcanologist's Vista


Protection from volcanic gases at the Villarrica volcano, Chile.

Standing in a payphone in the village of San Pedro, Chile, about 100 km from the base of Volcano Lascar, volcano researcher Tamsin Mather and colleagues are trying desperately to get through to the manufacturer of their remote sensing device in the U.S. Equipment failure is the bane of any scientist's life, but when it happens in remote terrain, a hitch like this can toll the death knell for further data collection on a precious field trip.

That's how science in an extreme environment can sometimes be. Tamsin Mather may only have finished her Ph.D. last year, but this Cambridge University researcher has already learned to deal with the challenges that working in an extreme environment can pose. So far her research has taken her not only to Chile but also Nicaragua and Italy, where she has investigated volcanic atmospheric chemistry. Although volcanoes are, as she notes, "inherently dangerous," the greatest challenges Mather faces aren't the kind you read about in adventure stories. Dealing with recalcitrant software or a faulty device far away from your research centre is the most common tribulation that volcanologists encounter, far more common than a dramatic injury or grizzly death, provided sensible precautions are taken. Out on a mountain, Mather says, "you have to work with the situation" and solve the practical difficulties as best you can.

Mather first caught sight of a volcano when she was on holiday, visiting a friend on Reunion Island, while she was a third-year chemistry undergraduate at Cambridge. Although she admits that she didn't come back convinced she wanted to be a volcano researcher, she thinks this experience probably "sowed the seed." After graduating with an MSc in chemistry, she decided to take a year-long MPhil course in the history and philosophy of science. Although she really enjoyed the course, she says she "missed [experimental] science; I wanted to go back to it."

Tamsin Mather at the Villarrica volcano, Chile.

When she set out in search of a Ph.D. project, Mather decided to leave her undergraduate field of molecular chemistry--despite the interest it held for her--to work in a field with "tangible environmental applications." She applied for several Ph.D. positions in the U.K., in areas that included oceanography and volcanology. The project that interested her most was at the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge University on volcanic atmospheric chemistry, which she started in 2001.

During her doctoral work, Mather investigated the chemical composition of volcanic "plumes," a mixture of aerosols and gases volcanoes emit that resembles smoke. Volcanoes which are persistently active and emit a strong plume, while at the same time have low enough volcanic activity, are the perfect candidates to study. Plumes contain many chemicals, and some of them--such as sulphuric acid droplets and hydrogen chloride vapour--are quite noxious, requiring researchers to wear gas masks when working in this dense, fog-like environment.

Of the three locations her doctoral research took her to, Chile offered up the most challenging environment: Volcano Lascar's summit sits at an impressive 5500m above sea level. Mather and her three colleagues spent 6 weeks in Chile, 3 of which they lived in a schoolhouse in a small village at the foot of the mountain. Fortunately, the team could take many of their measurements at levels significantly lower (about 1000m) than the summit using remote sensing instruments. One part of the researchers' investigation, however, did require a trip up to Lascar's summit carrying pumps, sampling equipment, and batteries.

Mather describes this summit climb as "a mental challenge--the altitude just makes you want to lie down and go to sleep." She admits that none of the members of the team "really appreciated how hard it would be, but it was a great feeling when we got there." Mather insists that you don't need to be a "fitness freak" to handle a field trip like this, though clearly "enjoying being outdoors" is important.

Cambridge group prepares to climb Volcano Lascar , Chile.

According to Mather, the major challenge in her fieldwork is not the altitude or not even the raging inferno itself but "planning for every eventuality." Sampling on-site means that researchers must anticipate whatever could possibly go wrong--equipment-wise--and have a backup.

For example, forgetting to pack a power backup for electronic equipment could mean losing data. Mather also describes a horrible moment after doing a two-hour hike just to "realise that I left that [critical] bit of tubing back at the hotel." However, in this case she and the team "managed to make do and solve the problem with what [resources] we had."

On field trips, safety is paramount. Mather stresses they are sensible about risk taking, as "no measurement is worth your life." For example, on a field trip to the Sicilian Mount Etna, when it was clear that there was some seismic activity and magma movement in the volcano, the team made a group decision not to go up.

Mather sampling plume at the Masaya volcano, Nicaragua.

As it happens, Mather's most dangerous moment was near the summit of Nicaragua's Masaya volcano, but it had nothing to do with the volcano itself. After a day of collecting some very promising data, Mather and colleagues and were so excited that they set off the following day at dawn to the national park--the official access point to Masaya--only to be robbed at gun-point in the car park. "The staff of the national park were very upset this could happen," Mather says. Yet the researchers had taken a risk entering the park when it was closed. They learned their lesson.

Still, the perception that volcanologists must take life-threatening risks continues to prevail, and Mather is critical of what she sees as media "sensationalism." She recounts that prior to the Chilean field trip one of her colleagues received an e-mail from a scientific magazine reporter saying, "I hope you are going to be doing dangerous stuff." Mather is emphatic, "it's about science, not about being a hero." She also remembers seeing an inflated television documentary (from years back) where the people on the expedition were boasting about how many pairs of their boots had "melted." Mather believes that this kind of coverage gives both an inaccurate and negative impression of what it is like to work on volcanoes.

There is nothing negative about Mather's research findings to date. She has already published six first author papers with the results of her doctoral work. Even though the science has to be good to be published like in any other field, Mather believes that the practical difficulties of actually collecting the data are acknowledged to some extent. She recalls one reviewer's comments along the lines of "you haven't got the whole breadth of data [desirable], but I understand that given the constraints associated with its collection you can't get it all."

Gazing at the Villarrica volcano, Chile.

Researchers taking measurements in an urban environment using standard electric power might be expected to get hundreds or even thousands of data measurements; at high altitude on a volcano, says Mather, tens or less may be considered reasonable.

Mather feels that the field of volcano research has a lot to offer, and she is very enthusiastic about continuing. She has just been awarded a prestigious Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, which offers independent funding for 4 years and mentorship from a senior scientist. She will undertake her postdoc using this funding in the same department in Cambridge where she currently works, when she's not out climbing volcanoes.

Mather plans to continue investigating the plumes' chemical composition and delving deeper into how the earth system deals with the "natural pollutants" that volcanoes' plumes emit. Results of her work could eventually be "fed into climate models," she explains.

In the 16th century, the Spanish Conquistadores described the crater of Nicaragua's Masaya as "La Boca del Infierno" ("The Mouth of Hell"). In the 21st century, already on an impressive academic career path, Mather takes a very different view. "Volcanoes are natural wonders," she says, "it is a great privilege to work on them."

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