Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Alumnus profile #6 – Dr Sam Engwell

DSC_0500Dr Sam Engwell

Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher, INGV

PhD title “Dynamics and Deposits of Large Explosive Eruptions”



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

Investigation of eruption processes during supereruptions by analysis of deposits in deep-sea sediments.

Deep sea core

Deposits from the Campanian Ignimbrite eruption can be found over 1000km away from the eruption source in deep sea cores. Photo credit: Sam Engwell

2) Where are you now? What are you doing?
I am a postdoctoral researcher at Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV) in Pisa, the Italian national institute for geophysics and volcanology, as part of the Marie Curie Initial Training Network NEMOH. I use a combination of computer modeling techniques and analysis of deposits from explosive eruptions (for example that of Vesuvius in AD. 79 that resulted in the burial of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii) to understand the behavior of pyroclastic flows. I am interested in how they travel, when and why they stop, and the plumes of fine ash that rise from the top of them.

3) Why did you decide to stay in academia?
I enjoy the freedom and intellectual stimulation that being in academia provides: working on different topics and applying different techniques. In addition, academia is very social, and I enjoy learning about other peoples work and making new connections. The opportunity to live in a foreign country is something I am truly grateful for and something I could not have refused.

Mt Vesuivus, Naples. One of the volcanoes I am currently working on and very happy to just be a train ride away from! Photo credit: Sam Engwell

Mt Vesuivus, Naples. One of the volcanoes I am currently working on and very happy to just be a train ride away from! Photo credit: Sam Engwell

4) What is the most useful thing you learnt in your PhD?
That no result is a bad result; during the first few years of my PhD, I often felt like all I was doing was showing when models and methods do not work, which can be disheartening. Actually it’s as important to know the limitations of your models and methods as getting good results.

5) Is there any advice you wish you had taken?
Things (abstracts, manuscripts) don’t need to be perfect for the first draft, by the time documents have been through multiple supervisors and collaborators everything will have changed. On many occasions I have wasted a fair bit of time making the ‘perfect’ figure to be told that actually it would be better if I changed A, B, C……Z.

6) Your best PhD travel perk
I am very lucky that throughout my PhD and postdoc I have been able to travel to many different places. This summer I spent two months in Iceland, and while I was there the activity at Bardabunga volcano began; it was really interesting to watch how such crises unfold in real time.


Gratuitous Bardarbunga eruption shot. Photo credit: Peter Hartree

Charly completed a PhD in experimental petrology. She used to make pretend volcanoes; now she works in renewable energy. Charly tweets at @C_Stamper.