Eleni is a geologist and PhD researcher at the Open University studying how mountain ranges recycle rocks during continental collision. She’s currently investigating how a suite of rocks that were buried at more than 50 km depth beneath the Himalaya were transported rapidly (in the geological sense) back to the surface! You can normally find her peering down the microscope at the beautiful mineral textures found inside her metamorphic rocks from Bhutan, or behind the mic hosting the Fieldwork Diaries podcast.
You can see Eleni on a soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 30th June where she will talk about: ‘where on Earth?!’ – how seemingly ordinary rocks can tell extraordinary stories about past Earth environments and events. She’ll reveal the top tips and tricks for playing detective and sussing out the clues to our planet’s past!
Follow Eleni on Twitter: @EleniWood
SS: How did you get to your current position?
EW: I was drawn to Earth Sciences not only due to a wanderlust for the mountains, but it also combined my interests in understanding of the natural world with puzzles and problem solving. When I started my masters course I didn’t give too much thought to the opportunities it could open up to me. I was busy enjoying undergraduate life, in particular the amazing fieldwork opportunities that brought the broad course material to life and provided us with many a tale to recount at our midweek pub trips.
The summer before my final year opened my eyes to possible options to carry on working in such a diverse field; I undertook an internship in the geosciences industry and also spent 3 weeks in the NW Highlands of Scotland carrying out fieldwork for my masters research project. I was hooked by the research bug and the thrill of being the first person to set eyes on the secrets hidden inside an individual rock. Fast forward past finishing a degree, a few interviews, a couple of trips to the Himalaya and a lot of time spent in the lab and I’m now in my final year of my PhD at the Open University studying the inner-workings of the Himalayan crust. I’m thrilled to have not only visited my dream destination, but to also have worked there.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
EW: Growing up surrounded by the mountains in the Lake District (albeit smaller mountains than the Himalaya) definitely made its mark. I loved being in the outdoors. And, even though my childhood ambition was to be an author, I think I was always subconsciously heading towards science and in particular geosciences. My dinosaur collection was my pride and joy, my most memorable birthday was a surprise trip to the Natural History Museum in London and my favourite subject at school was geography (since there was no geology sadly!).
Later on, it was the pioneering stories of discovery, big and small, helping develop our understanding of how our planet works, that inspired me to follow this career. The fact that fieldwork, labwork, chemistry and physics allows us to unravel billions of years of geological history and can help us answer questions like ‘why do volcanoes explode?’ makes geoscience a really exciting field to be in. I love the idea of, no matter what the scale of the finding is, you’re always able to discover something new.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
EW: The fact that the teeny tiny minerals within rocks not only look beautiful down the microscope, but they can also reveal the secrets of millions of years of geological evolution. It still blows my mind a little bit that we can tell the age of a mountain range by analysing grains that are smaller than the thickness of a human hair.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
EW: I think Soapbox Science is genuinely genius. In my experience, you have to work quite hard or be in the right place at the right time to share your research with people outside of the echo chamber of the scientific community. While its lovely and worthwhile to talking to people with shared interests, I believe that if we want to truly widen interest and participation we have to cast the net wider. Setting up in Milton Keynes shopping centre, hopefully surprising some passers-by and answering questions from curious shoppers is a great way to do this.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
EW: We need to fix academia’s close relationship with stress and burn out. From personal and anecdotal experience, academia can be a minefield for mental health. I’ve such admiration for the people that have shared their stories and spoken out on these issues. As a community, we need to finding a way to break the pattern.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?
EW: Since I’m currently in this position myself, I think a reminder that many people have walked this path before you. There will be good days and some not so good days. Celebrate the small victories. Support your peers and don’t be afraid to seek their help. Most of all be proud of your work, you own it and your science is awesome!