Alumnus profile # 3 – Dr Emma Williams

Emma Williams, summit of LongonotDr Emma Williams (née Humphreys)

Analytical chemist, Natural History Museum

PhD title “Carbonatite-silicate volcanism and mantle metasomatism: Case studies from Calatrava, Spain

1) The Twitter Challenge: Describe your PhD in 140 characters

Examining the petrology and geochemical composition of volcanic rocks (carbonatites) and their associated minerals from Calatrava, Spain.

Xenocrystic clinopyroxene within a volcanic carbonatite magma that I worked on during my thesis. This sample has both a carbonate and silicate melt inclusion.

2) Where are you now? What are you doing?

I work at the Natural History Museum in London, in the Imaging and Analysis Centre. I am an analytical chemist, which sounds like a huge leap from the work I completed during my PhD, but not all of it is. The chemistry labs here analyse all sorts of specimens as long as you can dissolve them. A few examples of recent things we have analysed are: earthworms, bryazoa, leaf litter, soils, synthetic solutions, volcanic rocks, meteorites and crocodile skin (see below). The main role of my job is to develop new methods for the instruments to allow different and unique samples to be analysed. There are plenty of geological applications, hence the link with my PhD. Some of my time is used to continue with my own research where I am continuing to try and understand the petrogenesis of carbonatites (carbonate-rich igneous rocks).

Sampling crocodile skin from one of the museum’s collections to test for harmful elements within the skin.

3) Why did you decide to stay in/leave academia?

I feel like I side-stepped this issue. I am really lucky as I have a permanent position at the museum, but it is within an academic environment. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in academia, purely as a result of the ephemeral lifestyle. Although I love travelling, I wasn’t fully committed to working in several different countries/cities for the next 10 years, so decided to look for other options. This job means that I am not able to devote 100% of my time to my own research, but I still get to do science and learn an awful lot more about a range of natural sciences. I also get involved in activities that are not always as accessible in a university environment such as science uncovered.

4) What is the most useful thing you learnt in your PhD?

To be confident in yourself and your own abilities. The PhD is a particularly hard slog especially because often you work and work for little or no visible results.  It can also be incredibly intimidating because you are surrounded by peers who seem to know so much more than you (they do, but often only in their own fields). You are also in an environment where you are at “the bottom of the food chain” which means that you are always going to be the least experienced in terms of the amount of time you have spent as an academic. However, if you can accept these things and trust that you are working hard and learning new things yourself you will, in time, realise that you have a valuable skill set and knowledge (this took me almost my whole PhD to realise).

5) Is there any advice you wish you had taken?

Not to get a job before I had finished writing up. Sadly, I had to start work as I could not afford to have no income. Writing up is a really difficult time for many people. Some people rocket through it as if they were doing something mundane like going for a walk, and finish within a month. Others find it much more difficult (like me) and it takes them several months. To then work full time and have to finish the writing in your free time is doubly difficult. Anyway I got there (the museum were particularly supportive during this time) – however, I would advise anyone else who is thinking of starting a new job whilst writing up not to, but the financial pressures often mean that there is no choice

6) Your best travel perk

Hmmm, well I think it was just travelling a lot more. I got to see a lot more of Europe, but sadly never went anywhere truly exciting (like an active volcano). I think my favourite trip was to Italy; we had a volcanological tour of carbonatites (and related volcanic rocks) but our guide insisted that it was fundamentally important that we had a cultural tour along with a volcanological tour. I have never eaten (and drunk) so well on a fieldtrip!

Cevara volcano in Calatrava, Spain – an excellent example of a maar crater.


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About Charly Stamper

I’m an ex-experimental petrologist.
I used to make pretend volcanoes; now I work in renewable energy

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