PhD profile #5 – James Hickey

BoliviaJames Hickey – 2nd year PhD student

Constraining volcanic unrest with integrated geodetic modelling


1) The Twitter challenge: Your PhD in 140 characters

Modelling the causative processes that incite volcanic unrest at the surface using finite element analysis – aiding hazard forecasting.

2) How are you pushing the frontiers of science?

I am developing advanced numerical models of volcanoes to best replicate their mechanical dynamic internal processes. By improving our understanding of how they work and what makes them tick we can make better use of the monitoring observations we gather around the globe. Putting the two together to provide more informed links between subsurface processes, unrest signals and eruption precursors will aid in risk mitigation and hazard forecasting.

3) What part of your work do you enjoy the most?

Bright skies and blue seas
One of the few times I posed for a photo. But this location demanded it – bright skies and blue seas at Scott’s Head on the volcanic island of Dominica.

Personally, yet unsurprisingly, my favourite PhD perk is the travel. I’ve been lucky enough to do fieldwork in the Caribbean and South America (hopefully with more to come!), as well as conferences in Europe. Then you can add on your own free travel time when the work is done and truly explore these magnificent places.

[Fortunately my PhD is part of a larger multi-disciplinary project (VUELCO) with 10 partner institutions across the globe. So travelling is ‘essential’ to really hit the collaboration targets!]

4) What’s the most challenging aspect?

Definitely staying motivated. Sometimes it can seem like all your hard work isn’t going anywhere. It’s only when I get a (mini) ‘eureka!’ moment that I feel like I’ve made adequate progress and get the urge to really kick on…

5) Favourite piece of equipment

I’m going to cheat here and give two answers.

In the field it would have to be a good GPS (global positioning system) kit. Similar to the one in your phone or sat-nav but with much better accuracy – less than a centimetre! These are particularly useful to determine how volcanoes are moving and ‘breathing’.

Combining fieldwork with outreach. A local school girl came to ask what I was up to whilst collecting GPS data in Dominica. She was fascinated by the thought of volcanoes and molten rocks!

In the office I would choose the finite element modelling software I use – COMSOL Multiphysics. Designed primarily for engineers it affords me a great deal of flexibility when developing models of volcanoes and their internal magmatic plumbing systems.

6) Best travel perk of the job

Oooh, another hard choice! I’m going to have to choose my three weeks of fieldwork in the Caribbean. I carried out some volcano monitoring work on Dominica and Montserrat (see KT’s blog post for a picture of me hard at work…), and then enjoyed a few days down time snorkelling in Antigua. Perfect!

A panorama of the beach near our base camp while on fieldwork in Dominica.

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About James Hickey

I'm a geophysical volcanologist trying to better understand volcanic unrest.

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