Susanna Ebmeier, Linacre 2008

Research Fellow in Volcano Remote Sensing

What made you study Earth Sciences at Oxford?

When I applied for PhD projects I actually didn’t have a very precise idea of what branch of geophysics I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to work with data on a problem with societal relevance, and that I had an interest in satellite remote sensing. I applied for several different projects, including one at Oxford about using satellite data to study Central American volcanoes.  I thought of it as a ‘wild-card’ application because I didn’t really have any expectation of getting a place. When I was offered the project I felt positive about accepting it because of the enthusiasm my supervisors had for the project, and because working on a topic about which I knew very little felt like an adventure.

I had a wonderful time working on my thesis in Oxford – it broadened my horizons scientifically and personally. The postgraduate community in Earth Sciences was a very friendly and inclusive. I think that having a supportive peer group makes a big difference to the experience of doing PhD research, which has the potential to be quite isolating. Apart from attending seminars, training courses and conferences, I also learnt a lot from the research that the people around me were doing.

What did you do after your PhD?

For the last three years I have been a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bristol, working on using satellite remote sensing to increase resilience to volcanic hazards in Latin America. I have worked on some detailed case studies of volcano deformation and specific volcanoes, and also global scale syntheses of deformation and aerosol data. I was awarded an independent research fellowship from the European Space Agency last year to work on methods for analysing volcanic signals in satellite radar data. This has given me the flexibility to develop and try out my own ideas.

Why did you pursue an academic job?

I am glad that I continued with research after doing my PhD because it has given me so many experiences that I would not otherwise have had. For example, I spent six weeks in Quito working at the Ecuadorian observatory during my postdoc. I have also had the chance to present my research at international conferences and get feedback from people from all over the world. Volcanology is a very broad subject and uses methods and ideas from many different fields. Although my research is still focussed on remote sensing, I am continually learning new ideas from other branches of the Earth Sciences that influence my thinking. I also enjoy the independence being a researcher gives me in terms of being able to set my own daily schedule and long-term objectives.

Postdoctoral positions are often short term, and staying in academic research requires devoting a lot of energy into building up your track record. Job and funding applications are very competitive, and success requires persistence and luck as well as good research ideas. It’s much easier to find research positions if you are internationally mobile, which is difficult if you have family who can’t relocate easily. Although I spent the last three years living separately from my own partner, we at least saw each other every week. I know many people who endured more extended periods of much longer distance relationships to pursue academic research. I think that it’s important to know where you as an individual want to ‘draw the line’ between personal and professional priorities.

What comes next?

In a few months I am moving up to the University of Leeds to start a research fellowship funded by the Leverhulme trust.  I am looking forward to developing larger scale research programmes and working with PhD students. I will also have some undergraduate teaching and administrative responsibilities for the first time. I have some ideas about the research I would like to do over next few years, but I enjoy not knowing exactly what I will be focussed on in the future– it keeps work interesting.