Ery Hughes uses experiments, modelling, and natural samples to understand happens in volcanoes beneath the surface, especially what’s happening to the gases that drive eruptions.
Ery did her undergrad at Cambridge University’s Earth Science department, looking at how weird, runny magmas explode; and PhD at Bristol University’s Earth Science department with GNS Science in New Zealand, creating ways to probe the chemistry of magmas before they erupt.
Currently, Ery is a postdoc at Caltech in California, investigating how sulphur behaves in magmas and in the atmosphere here on Earth and on Jupiter’s moon, Io.
Below is the full transcript of the episode. Enjoy, and please do provide feedback or get in touch with Ery Hughes via Email: eqs[at]caltech.edu and Twitter: @eryhughes
Jazmin, Nuzhat, Ery
Hello, and welcome to the What On Earth Podcast. I’m your host, Jazmin.
And I am your host Nuzhat. In this podcast we celebrate Earth, environmental and planetary scientists from diverse backgrounds, and get to know what they’re up to.
And we also speak to scientists from different disciplines about how we can decolonise science to make it more inclusive for everyone.
In this episode, we will be talking to a volcanologist about their research and a volcano and looking at the geomythology around it. So, in this episode, we have Ery Hughes. Hi Ery! [Ery] Hey! [Nuzhat] Ery, do you want to introduce yourself to the audience?
Yeah, I’m Ery. I am a postdoc at Caltech, which is a university in California. And I study volcanoes and predominately sulphur and volcanoes at the moment.
That sounds interesting. So, what made you want to study earth science?
Well, originally, I didn’t know about earth sciences. So, when I was looking at university degrees, I actually wanted to do chemistry or physics, and kind of ended up applying for natural sciences degrees, which allow me to do both. And then in my first year, I took earth sciences as my like, extra option. And I just fell in love with it, it was a really great degree. I personally really enjoyed the fieldwork aspect of it. And also, it was a smaller kind of option size compared to like chemistry or physics. So the department felt a lot smaller, and I guess got more friendly in that respect. So, I kind of ended up in earth sciences that way.
So, to audience, me, and Ery were in the same cohort at Cambridge University. I think we took the same modules in the end. And for me, Earth Sciences, was my last option, because I knew I wanted to study physics and chemistry, I love that. And I didn’t do geology A level, but I did geography, and I loved volcanoes and earthquakes. And I was like, this will be my fun option. You know, I get to still like study about it. And I ended up becoming my Major, unexpectedly. But as far as I know, I think not a lot of people chose Earth Sciences, their Major subject at the beginning, right?
Yeah, I think what there were about 25 of us in our year, and to my knowledge, only one of them had picked Earth Sciences from the outset, everybody else had predominantly wanted to do physical sciences and chemistry and physics. I’m not sure anyone came in from biology. But yeah, we caught a lot of people into the earth science fold, that way.
It’s such a pity because we, because it’s not well studied, in the British curriculum, unless you take geology A level, you don’t really know much about it. So it’s kind of funny seeing how much in our year group, not a lot of people thought about doing geology, but ended up loving it.
Yeah, I agree. And I think it’s also because geography, which is the closest most people study at school, is split between human and physical geography. So knowing what geology might be like a university is quite hard.
Yeah. I mean, I, when I did A levels, the tectonics unit was an option. So yeah, so my teacher chose it, because I specifically said, I’m not doing geography A level unless you choose the tectonics option.
I because I also did geography a level and that was predominantly because I’d been promised a trip to Iceland. Oh, like, every year from like, GCSEs. And then A level they were like, we’re gonna take you to Iceland, and I still never been, but that was definitely a big draw.
I was always taught so I took geography GCSE, because they’re like, oh, you’ll study about earthquakes and volcanoes, and we never did. And then for AS I took it, and I’m like, oh, we’ll study it. And we never studied it. And so, you know, somehow, I was still optimistic. And I did the A2 and it was worth it, I loved it. But yeah, I think we need to introduce geography, no geology, I mean, into the traditional science curriculum so that people are more aware of it.
I also think, I actually found geography, one of my most challenging and favorite A levels, because I actually write essays. Yeah. And all my other sciences. I didn’t have to do any essays for it. And that definitely kept me writing, which was really useful at University in a way [Nuzhat] Oh, yeah. [Ery] that I didn’t expect.
Definitely, definitely. I didn’t write as much. I remember, like, a master thesis was kind of like a jump because we wrote reports, but it’s nowhere near the level of reflection, that we require at thesis. So yeah, I never thought about yeah, the only essay subject I had was geography A level.
Yeah. So, for me I only took geography and then BTEC science. So, it’s more biochemistry in industry. And yeah, for my geography experiences, we did have natural hazards at GCSE and A level. But I think it’s because like, most students were as enthusiastic to learn about it, and the teachers were as well. So that’s why, because I did my, the 6th Form was attached to the secondary school, so had the same teachers, basically. But at a more advanced level. And yeah, yeah, I forgot that the essays being at A level geography. I forgot about those, that was fun.
I kind of enjoyed it, it was the one that was the only subject where I could think out of the box and reflect. But it’s funny because geography is so big and varied. I guess the modules that you end up taking is very, very catered to maybe what the teacher, what the students wanted to do. In my geography A2, there was only three of us. And I had the upper hand of what subject I wanted to take, because I was the A star student, which might be unfair on the others. But luckily, we were all kind of had the same opinion of what we wanted to do.
That is lucky.
So, what has been your journey into becoming a geologist?
Well, so yep, geography A level, followed by Earth Sciences is kind of a minor subject in my first year. And then I decided that chemistry and physics wasn’t quite for me, I did chemistry in second year, which has turned out to be really useful. But I ended up kind of majoring in sciences in my second year. And then my third and fourth year of my degree, I focused solely on Earth Sciences, and did a volcanology Master’s project, which was really fun. And then decided to continue with the volcano theme when I was applying for PhDs. So, I applied for a bunch of different PhDs all with volcanoes as like this specific subject I wanted to do, and ended up at Bristol, for my PhD.
Oh right. Yeah, so that’s kind of similar to me, like I did geography at undergrad. And it was a mixture of physical geography, human geography and disaster management. But then for my Masters was like, alright volcanoes that’s the thing I want to do. So, did that. And then obviously the PhDs, [I] tried to find the volcanology related subjects. Yeah. So, you said you did a Masters. But also, I want to touch upon your PhD. So, what was your PhD about?
I ended up changing a lot during the PhD, which I think is quite common for people. So, the original project was going to look at how a volcano in New Zealand, Tarawera, erupted. And how, what caused the eruption style. And this was going to be linked with GNS Science, who are the volcano monitoring agency in New Zealand. It became apparent quite quickly that there were lots of issues that we were going to have to overcome to be able to kind of answer the original question. So, my PhD ended up being more of a techniques focused PhD. So I got to make my own rocks, I did experimental petrology, I did a lot of analytical technique development, to basically try and analyse what the magma was before it came out of the volcano, was the kind of end goal of the PhD in the end. And ideally, I wanted to apply that to Tarawera, unfortunately I didn’t quite get around to it during the PhD.
So, we wanted to mostly focus on Tarawera. Knowing that it changed in your PhD, but it was the main focus initially. So why was Tarawera the subject of your initial PhD project?
So, Tarawera is a volcano in the North Island of New Zealand. And it’s had an eruption in 1886 AD, which is quite unique. It was a really highly explosive eruption, that occurred over a 17 kilometer long fissure and lasted for about five hours. And basically, the type of magma it was, basaltic, doesn’t normally erupt in that kind of style. So, the aim of the PhD was to try and understand why it erupted in that way. And because I was linked to the volcano monitoring agency, I guess the end like big picture in goal would be how would we predict that kind of eruption if it were to happen again?
So, for our audience, what is a basaltic magma, and why wouldn’t you expect it to explode in this manner?
So basaltic it describes the composition of the magma, so the chemistry, so magma is a typically made of silica dioxide like sand, and basaltic magma is contained about 58% of silica dioxide, and then a bunch of other minerals. This means that their viscosities, like how runny they are. They’re pretty runny. If any of you’ve seen images of the of eruptions at Hawai’i, from like 2018, these like rivers of lava, they’re able to like flow very, very quickly. So, the kind of converse to basaltic, is like rhyolitic or felsic, which has a lot more silica in it. And these are the type of magmas that normally erupt explosively. So, the eruption of Tarawera was Plinian in like size, which is similar in style to like Mt. St. Helens, or Pinatubo, [Nuzhat] Okay [Ery] which were these more felsic magma types.
So, what would make a volcano really explosive? Why is rhyolitic more explosive than basaltic?
So, we’re still trying to work that out, like, exactly, but the kind of broad idea is that as these magmas are rising to the surface, you form bubbles in the magma. So, there are gases dissolved in the magma that form these bubbles as you rise up. And as the pressure decreases, and it keeps rising, these bubbles grow. And it’s that kind of buoyancy force that’s going to drive the eruption. Now, if magma like a basaltic magma, because the magma is really runny, the bubbles are able to escape, and you don’t get this buildup of pressure. On the other hand, if you have these felsic magmas, the answer, they’re really sticky. The bubble stay, like coupled to the magma, and it can drive these really explosive eruptions.
Okay, so with the Tarawera volcano, what would you have done? Were you measuring? What were you measuring out of- What kind of samples were you measuring?
Yeah, so I went and collected samples from like, on the mountain, but also off the mountain. And what I did is picked out crystals. There aren’t very many, and they’re very small, they’re like less than a millimeter big. And what I was trying to do is analyze something called a melt inclusion, which is a tiny pocket of melt, trapped in a crystal. And basically, that allows us to sample the magma before it erupted. Yeah. And then I was measuring the chemistry of that magma to try and understand what its composition, was how many how much gas there was in that magma, and try and put a story together, like how that changed before the eruption, and whether that might give us a clue as to why it was so explosive.
Okay, so that sounds straightforward. But you said that you ended up having difficulties and your PhD changed in the end. So, what were the difficulties that you had?
So, the first one was Tarawera, doesn’t have any crystals. Yeah, it’s like less than 1% by volume, crystal. So, I would spend like a day picking and maybe find like 100 crystals, which was, that’s not very many. And the kind of second thing to that is these melt inclusions, it turns out quite were quite rare in the Tarawera eruption. So even when I found crystals, they didn’t have these melt inclusions. That was the kind of that, problem could be solved by just picking for longer. But the other side of it was also we were really concentrating on this, how much gas was in the magma prior to eruption? [Nuzhat] Yeah. [Ery] And turns out that’s quite hard to answer. And we wanted to develop some new techniques to try and get at that question.
So, what kind of techniques did you develop?
The first we were trying to look at how to measure carbon. So, CO2 is a really important magmatic gas phase. So, we were developing new techniques, one was using something called a secondary ion mass spectrometer. And so, we were looking at the isotope ratio of carbon in these melt inclusions. Because changes in that ratio can help us backtrack, the initial carbon content, which hadn’t been done before. And we still haven’t quite managed it, but it’s looking like it might work eventually.
So why is carbon, carbon dioxide important?
So, carbon dioxide is probably the second most abundant gas in volcanoes. And it doesn’t like to dissolve in magma at all, really. So, you end up, it forms bubbles, very deep in the system. So, it’s one of the first phases to go into, to create bubbles. So, it’s what we think might be driving volcanic eruptions in that case.
Okay, that is really cool. So, you didn’t end up applying this technique to Tarawera. Did you apply it to any other volcano, volcanic systems?
We tried to apply it to Etna instead, because Etna is really well studied, and also had a lot more crystals.
Okay! Crystals help.
Yeah. And it also had, interestingly, so this basaltic Plinian eruption is quite rare. There are probably like four that we’ve kind of seen in the geological record, and one of the others is at Etna. So, it was a useful comparison.
So, you mentioned that there were four Plinian basaltic eruptions. And we know that there was one in Tarawera, the one that you were studying, there was one in Etna. And there were two others. So where did the other two occur?
So, the other two or perhaps like three, occurred from Masaya in Nicaragua. And they were about there was one about 2000-2100 years ago, one about 6000 years ago, and the other one was probably 60,000 years ago from a slightly different vent.
So, area when you’re studying Tarawera, I remember like reading about it, as it was seen as like, the deadliest New Zealand eruption since its colonial occupation. So, we know that there were indigenous settlements around there. So, when you study the eruptions, do you look at any of the indigenous colonial records when you’re doing your investigation?
So, for Tarawera, because for the Tarawera eruption specifically, because it’s so like recent only 1886. The, there are really quite detailed records by European settlers at the time, from just days after the eruption, because there were communities very, very close to where the eruption occurred. I didn’t look much into the like, original records, but quite a lot of the papers I did look at had kind of summaries of those papers. And typically, it is the like, European settlers kind of view of it that seems to be portrayed. They didn’t seem to be as many like Māori kind of like observations, even though the majority of those who unfortunately died in the eruption were Māori.
Have you seen any changes in the way that Māori’s history and culture is being incorporated in the studies of volcanoes around New Zealand?
Um, I don’t know about change, because I’ve only really been exposed to the kind of work that I was doing. But when I had to do my fieldwork out there, we were definitely involved with talking with the Māori-Iwi, who have guardianship of Tarawera to make sure that well, A) to gain access to the mountain because it is their land. But also, to make sure that the areas we were going on Tarawera were acceptable to them, because it’s has quite a lot of cultural significance to them, particularly Tarawera. So, there were areas that we weren’t allowed to go on, which is totally fine. So, we had a lot of involvement with the Māori for that. I don’t know whether that’s, I imagine that has changed for the better in more recent times, but I’m not sure. Specifically.
That’s really interesting. Hopefully, there’ll be a more incorporation of indigenous knowledge when it comes to studying volcano eruptions in the future. Okay, and what about the, the Masaya eruption? So, a lot of that happened, pre-colonial occupation, is there any records of those?
So originally, I would have just said, no, and I kind of assumed that because they were quite old that there wouldn’t be any record of it. Partly because the way it’s funny, it’s the way that dates are described. So, when you see them written down, it’s like 2.1 k.a., so 2100 years ago, but that’s actually the same day as like the eruption of 122 B.C. But it is to me, in my mind, put them in quite different times. And interestingly, I’ve kind of gone back and have a look. And the 2.1 k.a. eruption of Masaya actually has human footprints in it. [Nuzhat] Oh, wow! [Ery] So there were definitely people there at the time of the eruption. And it’s actually a very well preserved set of footprints that’s quite like well studied. But yeah, originally, I just assumed that there would be no kind of human record of those eruptions.
Where were the human footprints recorded?
It somewhere, I think it’s a- like 20-30 k away from the eruptions in a place called like, I think it’s pronounced like Acahualinca. And from the studies, it looks like there’s 15 to like 16 people walking through the area, and they’re recorded in the first layer of the eruption. So perhaps trying to leave the area when the eruption started.
Oh, wow, that’s really cool. Uh, do you know if they’ve been like Jaz, you know, if they’ve been other records of human activities, recorded and around volcanic eruptions?
Yeah, so yeah, so the footprint stuff that actually is something that my colleague in Denmark found for the Laacher See eruption, [that] happened near the end of the last Ice Age, like, he found evidence of not only humans, but of animal footprints. So, like, as the eruption was happening. In the first, I think it’s in first and second phase you can see as well, there’s actually evidence of footprints of people in the area moving away from the eruption. So yeah, so actually, archaeological evidence, even just footprints, it tells you quite a lot. You’re like, actually, there were people in this area as this big eruption was happening. So yeah, I think we need to give archaeologists more credit when it comes to these really old volcanic eruptions.
Sometimes, when I studied volcano eruptions during my undergraduate, we look at dates in a certain way, but I don’t have very good understanding of human evolution. So, I’m, I find it very hard to kind of mark eruptions with moments in human history. So, it’s really interesting that sometimes we look at dates, but I have no perception of what, what moment in human history we were at when we look at these eruptions.
Yeah, I would agree. So, like, for Tarawera, we always say like, you can say, like, 10th of June 1886, you know, like, it’s exact date. And that really, for me, like sets it in, like kind of now, and there are people around. But the Etna eruption is typically referred to as 122 B.C. So again, it’s like linked with like people and stuff, whereas for the Masaya eruptions, they’ve always been like 2.1 k.a., or 6 k.a. So, they felt really separate, even though like 2.1 k.a., or 122 B.C. are basically the same date.
Yeah, I remember, like, when I was doing my study on diamonds, because they happen, they occurred, you know, very early in the Earth’s history, what I found very useful was to make kind of like a clock, like if all of Earth’s history was at a clock at what time, and for example, diamonds started forming, and compare that to the clock of animal evolution. So, it kind of is quite useful to mark that. So sometimes we would be great if we had like a volcano eruption versus human history. Because Jazmin, you were saying that sometimes they try to connect, say, eruptions to the rise and falls of empires?
Yes, so that’s actually [what] more historians do. Yeah. And there has been like, some links to like the fall of the Ottoman Empire rise to the French Revolution, compared to some volcanic eruptions. Yeah, and again, it’s using like different proxy data, and link that can showcase these things. And that’s why I did for my thesis as well. My central aim was to show the eruptive history in the background of societal change. So how society was progressing as these different volcanic eruptions happened, because then that’s why you can like, links the two and be like, this is how the volcano impacted them at this time. And this is how it was different at this time, because obviously, society was progressing as the eruptions happened, and I suppose for me [its] the other way around that I more understand, the human history, instead of the volcanic history. Because I was did geography. So, was around me, so sometimes, like, geological dates can throw me off sometimes? Because sometimes, like what humans consider old is young for geology, and yes, sometimes it can get confusing. I suppose just how we’re taught to perceive time, I guess, if that’s the right way of saying it. Because obviously, the way geology- geologists talk about time, [is] different to how [a] historian or geographer talks about time and linking the two together can be complicated sometimes. So, it’s understandable, that Ery like, oh, wait a minute, this is the same time because, you know, taught to perceive time differently. You know, like how this year has been never ending in March. But yeah, how we perceive these things is, is interesting. And it depends on what we taught, I guess.
Yeah, I think it’d be quite humbling when we study about these great eruptions, Plinian eruptions, for example, the Masaya eruptions that you mentioned Ery, and then have it in context of what was happening in the indigenous communities around that. I think it’ll be quite humbling to know, and also to give us like, a greater appreciation of human history as well. [Ery] Yeah, absolutely, So you studied Tarawera, or you tried to study it from a PhD perspective, but I know you also did an internship there?
Yeah. So I was quite lucky that during the PhD, our kind of PhD program allowed us to undertake up to a three month internship, anywhere we’d like to and gave us funding for one month and then if you want to study for longer, you had to kind of find funding for it. So, I organized an internship with GNS out in New Zealand to look at a different part of the Tarawera system. So rather than trying to look at the magma before it erupted, I went and measured the CO2 gas that was coming out of the volcano today.
Okay, so what is different about the CO2 that you’re measuring now compared to what you measured and the crystals, crystal melt inclusions.
So, the CO2 that’s coming out today is kind of telling us about what magma might be below the volcano now. So, the idea was I was going to measure the CO2 coming out at various points over the volcano and see, A) if there was any coming out, is there any magma below there? B) where it was coming out, which might tell us about the kind of pathways that are connecting deeper chambers to the surface. But also, GNS wanted a baseline survey so that if they went back in 5 years time, 10 years time, when activity might have like heightened, they would be able to say that, how it changed over time and whether it might be a signal of unrest.
Okay. So, when you measure it, Did you find anything interesting?
Most of the mountain is not releasing any CO2, which was quite surprising. So, there’d been another study-so Tarawera, as I said, it [did] erupt in 1886, erupted over a 17 kilometer long fissure. So, the north eastern part of this figure is on a mountain, that’s where the volcano is. Whereas the south-western portion is actually in a lake nowadays. So previously, someone had mentioned the lake and there was a lot of CO2 coming out. [Nuzhat] Oh. [Ery] So we thought there might also be a lot on the mountain. And there was very, very little.
That was one interesting [thing]. But we did find one area that was emitting CO2 today. And we were able to look at the isotope ratio of this gas and confirmed that it was magmatic in origin, so there is, still magmatic gases being released today.
Okay, that’s really interesting. So, what was it like interning for GNS?
Oh, I really enjoyed it, it was a really great experience. So, they let me go to all their volcano monitoring meetings. So, they meet once a week to discuss all the data. And that was really, really like interesting to see how research works in like government setting. They also let me help out with some of the other fieldwork opportunities. So, I got to go to like other volcanoes in New Zealand, which was, which was cool. Another really useful thing, for me at least was it was a great break from the PhD. I did it about two years into my PhD. And it kind of let me reset before going back, which I found super helpful.
That’s really cool. And I know you’ve got to go on a helicopter too?
I did, I was lucky enough to help with a leveling survey they were conducting at White Island-Whakaari, which you have to get to you by volcano, sorry, by helicopter. [Jazmin] go to a volcano by volcano. [Ery] Yeah, to the volcano via volcano. And that was a pretty special experience to be going to that volcano.
That is really cool. I know some other who interned with GNS and they loved as well, the whole experience, but also the team. So, it seems like a great place to intern if anyone had the opportunity to look into it. So yeah, you got to know Tarawera from lots of different perspectives, looking at it, looking at its geochemistry of the rocks, but also looking at its gas emissions. So, you, you know, Tarawera really well, but I also know that there’s a lot of geomythology surrounding it. And I’m going to hand it over to Jazmin for this section.
So, I obviously I’m quite interested in geomythology. So geomythology for those who don’t know, is the myths, legends, folklore, story tales, and whatnot, surrounding geological events, so volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. And you mainly find these among indigenous populations. Also, there are modern than versions of geomythology as well. Which is, we say coincidentally, but interestingly, associated with religion. So I did look up one myth associated with Tarawera and related to the 1886 eruption, but I just like to disclaim I’m not very good at pronouncing things, so I’m doing my best here and I’m perfectly okay if people contact me and being like you said it wrong. So, so here we go. So… Legend says that Ngātoro-i-rangi, the navigator priest who came to Aotearoa with the Arawa canoe, drew fire to warm himself on the frozen slopes of Tongariro. He also trapped the feared sorcerer Tama-o-Hoi in the depths of Tarawera. Over many generations to Te Arawa buried their dead in the slopes of the sacred mountain. For the 1886 eruption, Tama-o-Hoi slept for many centuries. Under the influence of the white man, the morals of the local people declined until there was a call for Tama-o-Hoi to return and punish the sinners. Tama-o-Hoi exploded from the mountain and killed many people in Te Ariki. The grief following eruption was large for the Tūhourangi and Ngāti Rangitihi people, as they lost family members, livelihoods and the bones of their ancestors. Many survivors of the eruption resettled at Whakarewarewa and Ngapuna and their descendants live there today. Um, yeah, but that’s an interesting one that the sorcerer demon actually punished the sinners from obviously colonialism is beyond the indigenous populations control. I find it rather interesting that it’s the traditional kind of- relating tradition of storytelling and returning environmental history because Māori are very good for their oral, the oral storytelling to recount environmental history and has events related to actually the social kind of context of the fact that it was because of colonialism, or settlers on the islands, but the fact that they were punished not the colonisers, I think that’s kind of sad. But that’s just me. But, yeah, so that’s an interesting legend related to it. Again, I apologise for even dodging out of attempting to pronounce the things, but I also don’t want to embarrass myself, and didn’t want to insult any Māoris that would listen. But I tried, so there we go.
So Ery, when you were working on Tarawera, your interest, you’re introduced to the local geomythology?
Yeah, actually, so in order to work on Tarawera, I had to get permission from the local Iwi who protect the mountain in order to go up on top because, because it is sacred to them, as Jaz just they bury their dead on some of the domes there. So you can’t just go and walk with up there on your own. So, I was taken up and welcomed onto the mountain by Ken at the time, who was kind of in charge of that. And he told me some of the like, kind of myths they had surrounding the mountain, which was quite, it wasn’t really, like my specialist experience, and definitely something I hadn’t expected. And personally, hadn’t kind of really understood the importance of kind of volcanoes to like local people before.
Yeah, that is really good that you seeked permission. So, it was there’s a lot of respect in that and that was really good. And this is something that the GNS organised?
Yes, my advisor, Geoff Kilgour, who is in the volcan[ology] project, he’d been working with the local Iwi for a few years beforehand to get permission to go up there. Because they’ve had problems in the past with certain researchers, in general, in New Zealand like there has been issues with it. So there, Jeff was really keen to make sure that we had permission and that we worked with them. So, I gave some talks to like Ken and stuff afterwards. And I still keep in contact with him a bit to let him know of any results we get from the study.
It’s good, and other volcanologist can take a leaf out of their books.
Yeah, yeah. But that’s the thing like New Zealand and Hawai’i is a really good example, they do work with the local populations, because obviously for Hawai’i is associated with the fire Goddess, Pele. So, they respect that very much. And obviously the whole thing around the olivine beaches on Hawai’i, like you’re not allowed to take that- you’re not allowed to take samples off the island, because its sacred to the local Hawai’ians. So, in all fairness, most volcanologists, if there is indigenous populations in the area, and they do their very best to collaborate with the local and indigenous populations. And I for one, my research was in St. Vincent. I worked with indigenous communities the Garifuna on the island and I did many interviews with them. And I’m hoping in the future, I can continue working with them. Particularly I’m interested in their pilgrimage that they do every year. Because this relates to the exile of the population, which if you step back in researching back is actually related to the volcano and the fertile soil, and how they ended up being exiled eventually, so we need to try and link those together. So, in volcanology, we do our utmost best to respect and work with indigenous populations.
For instance, I was asked like, when I asked to take samples, one of the questions was, why do you need them? And also like, could this analysis not done in New Zealand, like, why do you need to take them out of the country? And part of the reason for that was some of the equipment I needed isn’t available in New Zealand, because New Zealand is a small place. So, the closest would have been Australia. So that was one of the reasons we wanted to take samples away.
That’s rare enough. I think, especially in geology, what I’ve witnessed is there isn’t that much respect for taking rocks from the region, it is not second thoughts or like fossils as well. So, it’s definitely something we don’t really talk about ethics that much, or at least I don’t remember studying at undergrad, or having a discussion about ethics what was respectful, what is not respectful. And definitely in petrology. We need to at least learn from the volcanologists about engaging our work with the local community there. Definitely in the diamond research group, I also think we can extend this to other petrology research groups.
Yeah. I think it’s probably a discussion for another episode to be honest.
We say this every podcast episode, we’ve made it like, huh, this is an idea for the next episode.
Need to write a long list down.
You say you’re doing a postdoc currently. So, could you tell us more about that?
Yeah. So currently, I’m working in Caltech, which is in Pasadena in California, where the Big Bang Theory is placed. Zoom in on that, and I work in the Earth Sciences department there, looking at the behavior of sulphur in magmatic systems. So yeah, during my PhD, I look more at carbon. Sulphur is probably the third most abundant kind of gas species in volcanic systems. So, trying to understand how its behavior varies in volcanic systems. And one of the cool projects I’ve started work on recently is applying that knowledge to Io, which is one of Jupiter’s moons, which is pretty cool.
That is really, really cool. So how did you make this jump from studying carbon dioxide to sulphur? How did you get interested in this postdoc?
So, I was quite lucky that this was, it’s not like a specific postdoc project. I applied for like a broad fellowship at Caltech. And then I’m just working with Ed Stolper who’s one of the professors there and we kind of came up with the idea together, he’s been interested in sulphur for a while. So, he was like, gave me a bunch of ideas that I could choose from and ended up looking at yeah, how sulphur behaving in the magmatic system.
Definitely, like sulphur is the big topic. And I also see nitrogen becoming the next topic as well. But nitrogen is a little bit harder to study. And sulphur is very complex to study because of several oxidation states.
Yeah, the chemistry of sulphur definitely makes it really interesting. And the other I guess the other reason I find it interesting is because it’s used a lot for volcano monitoring. Because it’s quite easy to measure from space. So that was another reason I was interested.
Okay, but you started it, you’re still kind of like at the beginning of this project?
Oh, I’m about a year in. [Nuzhat] Okay. [Ery] Yeah, I guess I spent quite a lot of time like, learning about sulphur as it’s quite complex, and I hadn’t looked at it before. And coming up with the kind of experiments I wanted to do, and the kind of measurement techniques I had to learn. The COVID pandemic has kind of put a brake on a lot of the work I was doing, as I’m sure for a lot of people. So, I’ve started looking at the modeling side. And then during that year, this Io project came up with another professor in the department. So kind of transitioning into that, which is-
That is really cool. I have seen that especially in petrology. There’s a lot of extension, like what we know about the earth onto other planetary systems, which is really cool. So, during your PhD and your undergrad, you’ve done also several internships. So, I kinda wanted to pick your brain on that. Because I think one thing is a lot of people go into PhDs maybe thinking that they want to stay in academia, but they also kind of learn that maybe that there are other interests that they want to pursue. And sometimes a PhD doesn’t prepare us for work outside of academia. So, what kind of interns did you do?
So, the first one I did was actually an internship at BP in the third year of my undergrad. And that’s what I use as a test for whether I wanted to go into research actually. So, I was pretty lucky that I got the internship end of third year and in Cambridge, we did our kind of research projects at the beginning of fourth year. So by the time it came to apply for PhDs, I’d experienced both industry and research and for me that like, definitely made me realise I wanted to do research and I didn’t get to be in a large corporate environment such as BP but I’m definitely glad I had that experience because obviously they pay better than academia and there is more job security. So, it can be quite tempting. My second internship was with GNS science, which is the volcano monitoring agency in New Zealand. And that was a really great experience to kind of see how research is used in a more applicable field and how the kind of volcano research that we do is actually applied to like actually help people. And that was really, really helpful, I think for that, because in the UK, we obviously don’t have any volcanoes to monitor, so it was useful to kind of experience that. And then the final internship I did was actually between my PhD and my postdoc for six weeks at a company called KLM, which is a startup in Bristol. And what they were doing is using lasers to measure the concentration of gases along a path with the aim of trying to quantify methane leaks from pipelines. [Nuzhat] Okay. [Ery] And that was quite interesting because it was in a startup. So, I hadn’t experienced startup life before. That was definitely eye opening, as definitely as fast like really fast paced, which was quite exciting. And also, what I applied for this kind of internship, I didn’t really think it would be that useful to me, I was mainly using it as funding for a bit of the time between my PhD and my postdoc, and just to see what it was like, but actually, a lot of the technology they were developing was actually really applicable to volcanology, which is not something I kind of expected. And hopefully, I’d like to work with them in the future, trying to get that technology applied to volcanoes.
Okay, that’s really cool. And it’s great that you explored lots of different options, I kind of hope that when people are going to PhD, they also consider that as well. And knowing that there’s this option to do an internship in between.
Yeah I would say that that’s one of my favorite things I’ve done during like, my academic path, was the internships because they open my eyes to like new options. And also as a break between academic kind of parts of my career, like, I find, at the end of my PhD, I was so done with academia, like I was done with my research, I really struggled to like be motivated and excited, but having a break. It was during that internship, I kind of remembered why I really enjoyed it and kind of got back my enthusiasm for it.
Yeah, I think all of us struggled with PhD burnout. For me, I was like, I’m done. I would love to do a postdoc, but I need some break. And what’s really annoying is like, sometimes when I read papers for either some scicomm homework, I’m like, ah, this is why I love my PhD, or this is why I love doing a PhD.
Hmm, yeah, I mean, for me, so I [haven’t] been in industry, but I did like for my undergrad I did do a placement. I did a placement year. So, it was a four year degree. So, one year in placement, and I was a teaching assistant in Wales, for a year so it’s not. It’s one of those, so the Field Studies Council? So like, there’s sites like Blencathra, oh God I cannot remember where the other ones are, but you know, the places where if you’re going on a field trip, you go stay at these places? [Nuzhat] Okay. [Jazmin] So where I was, which is Dale Fort, and it’s in Pembrokeshire. So Pembrokeshire, awesome geology, but at that point I didn’t know about geology. So, I was more there for being the geography kind of assistant. And actually, I was the only geographer for there because everybody else who was doing on site teaching, were actually biologists or marine biologists. So, I learned a lot about biology and marine biology and Dog Whelks, I learned a lot about Dog Whelks. But no that, that definitely helped me because like, I think I was the only one that like, wanted to do practical experience. Like other people went on Erasmus and stuff. [Ery] Alright. [Jazmin] So obviously, like, those people they got to go to exciting places that one person and up in California, few people end up in Iceland, someone ended up in Sweden, and I was like, I’m going to Wales. But no for me, I find that really valuable because I wanted to know if I wanted to do teaching. So, I did find out I did not have the patience for primary school, secondary school students. But I knew I had the patience for university students that came along. So, I was like okay, so maybe, if I wanted to, I could teach university, and of course fast forward a few years I actually ended up being a teacher in physical geography, yeah, for a couple years. So yeah, so, if you can get the placement or industry experience while you’re doing- it can be really helpful for you to figure out what you want to do.
I would tell my younger self that like try and do an internship.
Yeah, and I think it should be promoted more in programs like undergraduate, masters or PhD programs, I think it should be promoted more because yeah there is work outside of academia. And obviously, some people still feel as a failure if you don’t stay in academia once you do PhD, and obviously that’s not the case. In fact, obviously, if you go into industry, you probably get a more secure job, we can discuss that another time as well.
Yeah, I think that to remember that, you know, keep your options open. [Ery] Yeah. [Nuzhat] I think sometimes we’re so determined that we want to do one thing that we don’t realise we could also love another thing. It’s okay to test waters.
I think PhD programs are beginning to have internship options. I was just surprised with how few people took those options. In my cohort, I don’t think that many people took these PhD option, or sorry, these internship options, even though they were paid. Obviously, a lot of the problem is if they’re not paid, then that’s-
Yeah, no, I think I either know, people who did lots of internships like you, and then people who didn’t do any. And I think it also depends on the type of discipline as well, because I think the DTP was pretty good. Even though it was like different disciplines, I was pretty good at promoting people to do things that are quite community based, whereas my research group, especially in mantle petrology, people don’t really think outside of mantle petrology and that, yeah, and I wasn’t really introduced to the idea of internships until like, you know, until you mentioned it, or other people that did several have mentioned that. And I wish I was aware of that the beginning, basically. So, I knew what my options were.
We are near the end of this episode. So, we have a fun little question for you. So, we would like to ask you, what is your top three geological holiday sites?
Oh, that’s tough. Are these countries, can be entire countries? Is that allowed?
Wow, apparently not, no!
No because I know Ery! I chose this question because whenever I went traveling, I- Ery would be someone I always went to, because both of us were really interested in traveling to geological sites. And it always happened that I used to go to a country like the year after Ery went there, so I always went to her. As I know, she’s gonna pick whole countries because she is trying to try to take the easy route out. [Jazmin] Okay! [Ery] Um, okay. Tarawera, I would be probably number one. Because I think it’s a really unique site to go to. It’s not like any other volcano I’ve seen, you can like descend into the volcano, which is like incredible. And you can see like the whole fissure, and also from the top of Tarawera, you can see like, loads of other volcanoes, like on a good day, you can see all the way to like, probably, Taranaki and things. And you can see Whakaari out in the bay, like I say Tarawera would be number one. You can’t go up there on your own. So, you can’t just walk up there, but there are tours that allow you to get there. So that’ll be number one. And okay, Chile is going to be my second one. And I’m going to pick oh, let’s say Villarrica in Chile. That is where I hiked when I was traveling there. And that was like, it’s just incredible. It’s so beautiful. And again, you can see lots of volcanoes from there and Chile is such an amazing country. I would say yeah, okay, Chile. This is really hard! It’s supposed to be hard! I would I say, okay, places I’ve been. So. I should have thought about this more. I’m going to say somewhere in the US. I think, so the West Coast the US is like stunning. Grand Canyon. Actually, no, it’s gonna be Grand Canyon. I went there recently on a road trip around there, because now I’m living in California. I did a road trip and going to Grand Canyon, it was just absolutely spectacular. I hadn’t really appreciated quite how good it was going to be. Can you see photos of it? And it is beautiful and photos. But like actually in real life? It was so incredible.
Geological sites are always better in real life.
Okay, all right. So Ery, we’re wrapping up, but I’m sure people are gonna want to contact you about your research about Tarawera. So, if people wanted to find you, where can they find you?
So, Twitter, I’m on Twitter. My handle is eryhughes, so e-r-y-h-u-g-h-e-s. You can email me on my Caltech email address which is eqs at caltech dot edu (firstname.lastname@example.org). I have a website? Actually yes, I do have a website. If you Google Ery Hughes that should come up, Ery is quite a unique name, so I imagine it shouldn’t to be too hard to find. And yeah, I’m happy to answer questions on kind of the internship side of things or volcanology in general or like transitioning into like doing postdocs in the US, if people have got questions on that.
Thank you for being with us Ery.
Thank you for having me.
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