Elizabeth Evans is coming up to the end of her second year of her PhD at Swansea University. Her PhD project is about studying volcanic ash layers that have been deposited in ocean and lake muds and looking at the shape of the layers. She does this by using a high powered X-ray CT machine which works the same as medical CAT scanners to generate 3D images of the inside of objects (and people!) using X-rays. Her Soapbox Science talk will be focusing on the wonders and impact of volcanic ash. It can have negative and positive effects and Elizabeth wants to highlight both while hopefully capturing people’s imagination about something that’s looks like ash from a fireplace but is, in fact, complex, helpful, sometimes harmful and even quite beautiful.
SS: Elizabeth, how did you get to your current position?
EE: A combination of luck (spotting the PhD on the listings at Swansea and getting accepted!), aptitude (my Master’s project related directly to the analysis techniques I use now) and hard graft (lots of work during my undergraduate degree at Durham University and lots of other applications to other places and jobs). That’s the method, the reason why is that I absolutely loved the sound of the proposed PhD project and the rest, as they say, is history.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
EE: Learning got me into science and I don’t just mean at school. When I was little my most heavily thumbed book was my children’s encyclopaedia. I really enjoy finding out how things work and learning about the universe. I always had a particular interest in geology, especially minerals and volcanoes and when I took geology at A level I was definitely hooked. But I took a year out as a youth worker before applying to University. That was because I needed the time to work out whether University was really going to be for me and also whether it was geology I wanted to pursue or my other great love, which is reading and writing. My school was the type where they made it seem like the only option was University or bust. It wasn’t a rebellious act to delay applying for a year but instead I wanted to get my exams done without additional stress and “be in the world” for a bit before studying again.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
EE: Although the volcano side of things is the bit closest to my geologist heart my work with X-rays definitely generates the most fascinating science. Every time I put a sample, be it one of my specimens or something odd from the garden, in the CT machine I don’t know what’s really going to be inside. Every new sample scanned is seeing something we’ve never seen before and never would unless we destroyed the sample and cut it open. It’s really great to work with such photogenic data too; it really grabs people’s attention and gets them asking questions.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
EE: I heard about the event last year and volunteered to help do video filming of the scientists. I was there all day and really enjoyed not only watching the speakers but seeing the interactions with the public. I think public engagement is a really important part of being a scientist so when the call went out this year, I thought, “well, I can but try!”
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?
EE: Probably the funding structure. I see my supervisors and more senior colleagues caught in an endless cycle of grant applications and worrying about when their current batch of money will run out. I think it’s really off-putting to young researchers as short or fixed term contracts offers no stability. There is never the guarantee that you’ll be able to stay in the area after your contract ends. Moving around all the time isn’t really compatible with creating a stable home life and feels like a lot of constant stress as well as time away from the research itself.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
EE: Although I’m not out of those woods yet myself I’d say the best thing I can recommend, and I don’t know if it works yet!, is find someone who is doing what you want to do in academia, teaching, running a lab, post-doc et cetera, and listen to them. For those who are thinking of applying for a PhD, if you love the sound of the project, go for it!