Hiroki Nagao

Undergraduate, St Anne's 2018

What made you want to study Earth Sciences?

  1. As a Japanese, I’ve been afraid of natural hazards: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and typhoons. My visit to the ruins of coastal communities in Northeastern Japan following the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami as well as the Earthquake Research Institute in Tokyo made me want to understand the ways geologists and geophysicists can mitigate geological hazards, particularly earthquakes.
  2. I think this partly feeds into Reason #1, but my personal experience with Hurricane Sandy and involvement in the COP21 climate change debate in New York City made me want to understand Earth’s climate. I believe that in order to tackle the issue of climate change, we must be aware about how the climate varied in the past (yes, there are cool ways to unravel past climates from ice cores to ocean sediments), how it will likely change in the near future, and how this change will affect rainfall/droughts and extreme weather. My passion for climate change has only been accentuated by my visit to the Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute in Tokyo, where I learned about the importance of studying the oceans in understanding climate.
  3. My internship with a marine biology institution in Japan, where I researched the effects of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami on the marine ecosystems of the Tohoku Region, made me realize that field research is glamorous. My love for fieldwork has only been enhanced by my participation in outdoor sports (e.g. ropes course, rock climbing, paddling) at my school and a scientific expedition to Cuba and Ecuador’s jungles, where we discovered new species of plants.
  4. I have always loved natural history museums since I was a child, gleaning through every rock, mineral, and fossil collection in each room/gallery. Yes, and I’ve been to all the museums featured in the Night at the Museum series as well as a few others in America, England, Japan, and Switzerland!

Why Oxford?

I chose to study in the UK instead of America because I could specialize in Earth sciences upon matriculation rather than fulfilling graduation requirements in arts and humanities.  Why Oxford, rather than other British universities?  First and most importantly, I found the tutorial system enticing because I can engage in my favorite subject with world-class professors (and the tutors are often down-to-earth and willing to help you academically).  The college system was also appealing.  I was able to make friends in St Anne’s who either share or respect my academic interests.  I could say that my social life truly came into full bloom at Oxford.  Last but not least, life at Oxford is filled with many treats: ball parties in college, trashing and diving into the River Cherwell after exams, and a ski trip in the French Alps.

How did you find the application process?

Despite applying to Oxford as an American student, I found the process was much more straightforward than for most universities in the US and focused more on demonstrating enthusiasm on the subject rather than describing your personal qualities.  I thought that the admissions interview was the most challenging (and perhaps the most competitive) step of the application process.  You will typically have two interviews, each of which is about 20 minutes long and one of which will most likely involve your college tutors.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about applying to study here?

  • Especially for international students, make sure to check the academic qualifications (i.e. required exam grades) on the university website. For instance, I had to achieve the required scores for the SAT or the ACT and at least three AP exams or SAT subject tests math or science.
  • With respect to the personal statement, do not worry about embellishing too much on your past experiences in Earth Sciences, whether that may be a study abroad in a remote country or an internship at a prestigious research institution. Instead, focus on the reasons why you are interested in the subject and how you have cultivated this passion in school or beyond (e.g. reading a book on climate change or earthquakes).
  • The admissions interview is probably the most competitive stage of the application process:
    • Don’t come into the interview confident that you can recite the answers to the sample interview questions that you may see in student forums. The interviewers are interested in your thought process in tackling the questions rather than knowing the answer to them.
    • Do some wide reading on the subject. Look at National Geographic, New Scientist, or any other science-related articles.  You can even watch documentaries such as Earth: The Power of the Planet (hosted by British geologist Iain Stewart) and How the Earth Was Made (aired in the History Channel).  While you read or watch, think about how the subjects you’re studying in school (e.g. physics, chemistry, biology) can be applied to Earth sciences.
    • Make sure you review the personal statement a few days before your interview. Interviews often begin with the interviewers asking questions relating to your statement. For example, I was asked about earthquakes and plate tectonics because I mentioned about these topics on the first part of my statement.

What kind of opportunities have you had as an Earth Scientist?

Fieldwork has certainly been the greatest part of my degree.  Sketching, drawing, and mapping are certainly rewarding, but field trips are packed with fun: beach-going, mountain climbing, and playing in children’s swings.  We even threw a birthday party for two of my fellow subject mates in Dorset!  I wouldn’t also miss the wonderful social life at the Oxford University Geological Society (OUGS) from geology-related film nights to the annual Christmas Dinner.

Apart from the social experience, the department and Oxford’s Careers Service provide many opportunities in outreach and work experience.  I’ve participated in the annual Stargazing Event, where we organized interactive activities on Martian geology.  With respect to internships, I have (1) catalogued collections of (mostly) Precambrian sedimentary rocks to be transferred from the department to Oxford’s natural history museum and (2) worked with the geography department at Oxford to find clues about past climates from horticultural (garden) journals.

Do you know what you’d like to do next?

After enjoying a module on the carbon cycle in my second year, I aim to specialize in oceanography and/or paleoclimatology during the second half of the course.  Next summer, I hope to undertake a research internship in the East Coast on ocean/climate sciences in preparation for my future studies (hopefully a PhD).