John Dale (JD) Dianala

DPhil Candidate, St Cross College 2017, CHED-Newton PhD scholar

What made you want to study Earth Sciences?

I used to pore over glossy colorful science books and geography magazines as a young kid growing up in my hometown in the Philippines (most of those were gifts from relatives who were able to buy them in Manila and abroad).  I distinctly remember being fascinated by an environmental science textbook, and, when I recently revisited a pile of them back home, I found out that there is actually a space and Earth sciences book! My family wasn’t particularly outdoorsy, so admiring the nice pictures and reading up on the inner workings of the Earth really fed my curiosity about the natural world.  When I dared to move to Manila so I could study Geology for an undergraduate degree, no one around me nor myself really knew what I was getting into (some said it was an impractical choice). Now, I’m here!

Why Oxford?

When I learned that full scholarships for students outside the UK/EU were available, I looked around and saw that the Earthquake Geology and Geodesy group here has a wide breadth of interests and technical know-how, particularly in combining observations and models of earthquakes from remote sensing and field investigation. I wanted to learn from their work as while my previous training leaned heavily on being a field geologist, I already was exploring modeling work.  And I also had a feeling that, since the group already had a record of collaborating with researchers around the world, my experience and background as a Filipino geologist would be welcome.  It definitely also helped that one of my professors back home obtained his PhD in the UK (Cambridge), so it seemed like it was worth a shot to apply even if the UK hasn’t been the usual postgraduate destination amongst people I knew.   Finally, the open, international character of Oxford was an attractive incentive to the fact that I had to move to a totally new place.  All these things have really expanded my view of earthquake research so much, from working hand-in-hand with specialists across many countries, including my study areas in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Out in the field in Kyrgyzstan

How did you find the application process?

As an international student, it was quite daunting, especially that my only reference was just reading through the University web pages, trawling online student forums, and eventually realizing the reputation of Oxford. To be honest, I don’t really remember having an awareness of what Oxford was before looking for a PhD!  Despite my qualms, I just plunged into it and everything actually went quite smoothly, from when I made contact first with Richard Walker (my current supervisor) to the interviews, which was done over Skype.

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

Specific to the graduate application process, I believe that the panel members respond positively if you can demonstrate that you have some kind of vision of your field of interest, based on what the latest science does (or doesn’t!) tell us.  More generally, I think that doing a DPhil requires a lot of self-motivation, so having a good idea of what you are interested in and willing to focus on for four years of your life really helps.  That said, the study of Earth sciences provides a wide variety of options not just in terms of sub-fields but also technical skills development that can easily translate to any modern work environment.

How did you get into your field?

Earthquake research is a growing field that benefits greatly from continued technological advancement and innovative thinking. We can process satellite imagery to more easily ‘see’ how earthquakes happen in difficult-to reach, remote areas. Understanding prehistoric earthquakes have also become more sophisticated with improvements in dating techniques and digital elevation modelling, thanks to drones and lasers.

More personally, I feel a sense of immediate social importance in studying earthquakes and having more Earth scientists, like for my home country.  Many natural hazards, like earthquakes, are a regular occurrence in the Philippines. While there are excellent and dedicated local researchers, there’s just so much work to be done first in making sure that people’s basic needs are met when there is a disaster, and that any preventable disasters don’t happen at all.  Sometimes, getting into the nitty-gritty of the science takes a back seat, even if probing the fundamental science questions plays a substantial role in ensuring innovation and self-sustainability!  I am fortunate to not have lived through a particularly devastating earthquake myself, but my field work often brings me to communities that have a long way to go in recovery years after the initial event, or are anxious in anticipation of the inevitable.  These things continue to strongly motivate me in my work.  Whenever I made new observations and analysis of real-time earthquakes from my desk in the Department, I try to share and discuss whatever information I have to colleagues who have to do the hard post-disaster response ground work.

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

I intend to go back to the Philippines to continue my research and academic career at the University of the Philippines.  Over the course of my DPhil, I have been trying to tease out the characteristics of earthquake ruptures and their relationship to their respective region’s tectonics, as well as to the broader scientific paradigms.  It has become clear that understanding the underlying physics behind events that might not be immediately ‘eye-catching’ actually allow us to better grasp why, where, and how often earthquakes happen, especially as we become better at collaborating and exchanging knowledge across political borders.