Fiona Iddon is a PhD student in the Department of Earth Sciences, where she studies volcanoes. Here, she tells us about making science accessible, being the first in her family to go to university, and working at the place where the horn of Africa is splitting away from the rest of the continent. 

My sisters and I were the first in our family to go to university so I was very excited to get the chance to study Geological Sciences at Leeds. I’ve always had an interest in the natural world, I loved physical Geography at school and everything just clicked when I studied Geology for A level. It’s such a broad subject, there is always something new to learn and explore, and the fieldwork in amazing, even if the weather is slightly damp!

Volcanology is definitely the coolest bit of geology. Volcanoes are such powerful natural phenomena and there is so much we still don’t know about them. The more we understand about them the better we can be prepared for future eruptions, and we can also help people harness their energy through geothermal exploration.

My fieldwork on the Main Ethiopian Rift was incredibly exciting. I went there several times to collect rock samples and make field observations. It’s such an amazing country. The landscape is awe-inspiring, the food is interesting, and the people so warm and friendly.

There is a strong volcanology community here, despite the clear lack of volcanoes in Cambridgeshire! This has allowed me to learn from lots of different people, experts in their own fields. The knowledge pool here is so diverse, from analogue experiments to gas geochemistry and volcano seismology. The name also carries weight in the international community, increasing interest in my work at conferences and fostering collaborations. Day to day I’m usually at my desk, crunching numbers and stressing over spreadsheets. As a volcanic geochemist, it is really important to collect high-quality chemical data and find interesting patterns. My thesis aims to improve understanding of where magma chambers are and how they behave in continental rifts.

My area of research is a great field to be part of. The Main Ethiopian Rift is part of the larger East African Rift, which is causing the horn of Africa to split away from the rest of the continent. This type of volcanism has not received much research attention, and a lack of literature can be challenging but new discoveries are so exciting. There are well over 50 volcanoes in Ethiopia, some of which have erupted in dramatic fashion and formed vast calderas in the past, and with the second-fastest growing economy in the world, the number of people and infrastructure near to them will increase. I have integrated my work with geophysics to improve volcanic monitoring efforts in the region and aid in geothermal exploration, an increasingly important energy source for Ethiopia.

The best day I’ve had so far was when I learned how to install geophysical equipment in Ethiopia. I’m a complete novice when it comes to geophysics so it was great to learn from an expert. The equipment is used for measuring the electrical conductivity of the Earth. The measurements we carried out can indicate the presence of magma in the Earth and have produced intriguing results that, along with my geochemical knowledge, I’m helping to interpret. It took a whole team of scientists and local people all morning to dig the holes and bury the equipment; there was a real sense of teamwork, even with the language barriers!

I’ve developed a real passion for making science accessible. This was prompted by my experiences as the assistant editor of a history of science book produced by Cambridge University Press. It showed me that there are viable and exciting careers outside of academia, and I am due to start a career in publishing this fall.

A friendly collaborative attitude goes a long way.  So many female scientists I have encountered feel the need to be tough and uber-competitive to survive in what they perceive as a ‘man's world’.  Be kind and stay true to yourself.


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