Carina Fearnley (@Carina Fearnley) is a Lecturer in Environmental Hazards at Aberystwyth University. Carina’s research in interdisciplinary bringing together hazard science, disaster management, and science and technology studies to better understand natural hazard early warning systems. She is also interested in the way scientists act in the context of risk, uncertainty and complexity. Carina will be standing on one of our soapboxes in Bristol on 7th June, 2-5pm, to talk about “What natural disasters will we face in the future? Learning from dinosaurs, ancient civilisations, and rocks!”
SS: Carina, how did you get to your current position?
CF: After many months of applying for postdoctoral research grants, the deadline for handing in my PhD thesis came all too soon. As I was starring rather blankly at my computer, wondering what to do next, an email arrived. I had been shortlisted for a Lectureship in Environmental Hazards at Aberystwyth University; and so began my career as a university lecturer. I was incredibly lucky, not just for the job, but the timing as many good academics are lost as they are unable to secure a contract and often move to related private or third sector roles. My job has provided a wealth of experience of teaching in small groups to hundreds of students, teaching in the field, integrating new innovative teaching methods and technologies, and experiencing in a range of administrative roles. Of course any academic post is largely based on the research you conduct, so I covered the popular subjects of Geohazards and Volcanoes. I have also been actively involved in the Athena SWAN awards at Aberystwyth University.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
CF: In 2004 I was once again sat in front a computer (see a trend here) when I first heard about the Andaman-Sumatra Earthquake and Tsunami in 2004. It was Boxing Day and I was working at an investment bank. As a geologist, with a Masters in Mining I could not help but be surprised as to why so many people had died from this tragedy. My Geology degree had taught me that we can detect earthquakes, and that tsunami detection was getting better and better. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre was doing a good job at least, so I just could not understand why so many people died. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that it all came down to communication. There was no early warning system, there was no way to communicate across the many countries involved in this international disaster. This event changed the lives of many, in a devastating way, and for me, I wanted to know why this event happened, and how it could be prevented in the future. So I left my job in finance to seek answers.
Given my Geological studies I was keen to explore the role of early warning systems but on volcanoes rather than tsunamis. Why volcanoes? Well they are some of the most beautiful and awe inspiring structures of our earth, from which we, and the world around us, emerged. But what interested me the most was that volcanoes produce many different types of hazards such as lava flows, ash, lahars (mudflows) and pyroclastic flows, and these impact different locations at different times, so I though it would be great to study the most complicated hazard of them all. After securing an interdisciplinary scholarship from Natural Environment, and Economic and Social Research Councils I began my research resulting in the publication of my thesis titled ‘Standardising the USGS volcano alert level system: acting in the context of risk, uncertainty and complexity’ – the first extensive research project looking at Volcano Alert Level Systems, a key component of volcano early warning systems.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
CF: My research is endlessly fascinating because it knows no boundaries. Volcanoes affect our climate, they affect our ability to grow food and wines (my second great loves), they affect people who live near and far from volcanoes. To understand how society responds to, and lives with volcanoes requires understanding many facets of human life, history and existence, so it is always fascinating as there is always more to learn. We can learn from archeologists as to how ancient civilizations coped with volcanic events that either destroyed or built an empire – a famous one being Santorini and the Minoan Empire. We can learn from paleontologists about how the volcanoes created a rather unpleasant world for dinosaurs to live in, accelerating their death and a mass extinction following the Chicxulub meteorite and thus ending the age of the dinosaurs. We look to technology to monitor volcanoes using measures of deformation, seismicity, gas and are making increasing use of satellite and radar imagery, many of which come from developments in space exploration. On that note, we are learning more about volcanoes in our Solar System and the dark and violent history they had, such as Olympus Mons on Mars, the largest volcano in the solar system (it is no longer active sadly).
I also need to understand how scientific knowledge is constructed, how we deal with the volatile and unpredictable nature of volcanoes. Science and technology scholars provide a wealth of studies of how we can understand science, how we can manage risk and communicate this. Psychological studies show us how people perceive volcanic risks, and why some people will not evacuate when asked. Artists work show us how people perceive volcanoes and how they interact with them, and religious and anthropological studies tell us what people believe across the world – many volcanic gods and goddess continue to play a key role in the daily life of those that live with volcanic hazards. If you thought that list was not enough, what about understanding aircraft engines to prevent further grounding of aircraft during future volcanic events that drop ash on the UK and many others countries? I love the fact there is always more to learn, more to appreciate, and more to challenge my perceptions of what volcanoes are, and how we can manage them to live in a harmonious relationship. Politics and economics often play a role in preventing people from evacuating and leaving the comfort of their securer home and workplace, so this is another important subject to engage with. It’s certainly enough to keep me busy!
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
CF: I am a huge fan of communicating knowledge, no matter what type. I think it is so important that we communicate with one another, share our knowledge, experiences, and interests, no matter what. It is important that we share our passion and interests with others. Soapbox provides an opportunity to excite and engage with anyone no matter what age, or where you are from! It is never too late to learn.
But what really appeals to me about doing Soapbox Science is the fact that it is target women in science – this is so important. There is a distinct shortage of women in science, and although 45% of the UK’s 194,245 academic staff are women, only 22% of professors are female according to a report titled Staff in Higher Education 2013-14 (by the Higher Education Statistics Agency). This is due to a number of reasons. From not engaging with girls at a young age and making science exciting and something that every child should do, right through to choosing to study science at school and university, right through the challenges of getting women employed at university, and then keeping them!
Being a scientist and an academic is incredibly challenging role, juggling teaching (lecture prep and marking), administrative roles, research (writing papers, presenting findings, editing and writing books etc.), right through to generating income for research. It is tough, albeit hugely rewarding, and many women fall out of academia at this point as it is hard to get jobs, and often with partners already working, it often means a long distance relationship. Even less women make it up through the university ranks to Professor. One of the key things we can do to change this awful trend is to create more role models, to create more opportunities for all of society to see female scientists, and see the wonderful work they are doing. This event provides that opportunity, to inspire young girls, and to say, you know what, it is cool to be a female scientist, and it is a great career – a girls childhood does not have to be all about ‘pink and princesses’ (see the Pink Stinks campaign www.pinkstinks.co.uk). We need to inspire, help motive young ladies, and provide role models to show it can be done. We are all in our way fighting this battle, and Soapbox helps us get this message out.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
CF: Honestly, I think we need better working environments in universities, with better work-life balance. Academics work long hours, and there are far too many demands on our time, and far too many pressures to perform with excellent teaching and research, getting lots of grants, and generally being outstanding. We can’t all be outstanding, but by doing little bits here and there, in a lifetime you can make an outstanding contribution – it worked for Charles Darwin. So I believe there needs to be a more realistic and nurturing culture for all, one that supports small scale and relatively cheap research, and recognises teaching excellence and academic citizenship. We need an environment where academics can spend more quality time thinking, doing more ‘blue sky’ research, as well as enjoying life outside of work. This will help both women and men, and possibly prevent the large drop out of women in the 30s as they struggle to balance work with having a family / life out of work. We need to praise what people are achieving more and generate a supportive environment. This also benefits the students too!
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
CF: The single most useful thing for me are strong women role models. My PhD supervisor Prof Gail Davies (Exeter University) was an extraordinary supervisor, always there to guide me and provide valuable input. My recent mentor Prof Deborah Dixon (Glasgow University) has guided me through difficult decisions and given me time to chat things through, from the banal through to career defining decisions. We all need a mentor, someone out there to help guide us through the changing and pressurised environment in which we work, someone who has been there, done it, and can give that good ole pearl of wisdom, and a large dose of reality!