By Lucy Blennerhassett
The natural world has always captured my attention. From a young age I have been happiest when exploring the outdoors. I grew up by the seaside and only a short drive from the Wicklow mountains, so my parents would often take us hiking on the weekends or go on little adventures. Perhaps this sparked my interest in geoscience from the beginning but aside from this I have always had a curiosity to understand how our Earth works and a passion for protecting our environment.
During secondary school, the subjects that interested me the most were geography, chemistry and biology. In my leaving certificate years, when I had to think about my future and whether I wanted to go to University, I discovered a course in Trinity College Dublin called ‘Earth Science’ (i.e. Geoscience). Everything I read about it excited me! I knew then that this was the course for me and I wasn’t wrong. During my degree my mind was opened to how completely amazing our planet is and all the different systems and processes that work together to form the environment that we know today. I was lucky enough to spend some time doing field work in Greece and Sicily during those four years. I discovered that I love the adventure of field work, and how you can really find yourself off the beaten track. The final two years of my undergraduate solidified my interest in the subject and I knew I wanted to learn more. My passion became increasingly directed at climate studies and understanding past environments as well as volcanology. However, I had no idea what I wanted to pursue directly after graduating; whether it was a masters, an internship or something else. Due to that uncertainty and because I was pretty exhausted after working hard to get the grades I wanted, I decided I needed some time to think. I took a year out; worked in a local bakery, saved up some money and then went to New Zealand for 9 months to travel and work.
Top Left: Walking into a lava tube, Mt. Etna, Sicily, 2016. Top Right: Observing volcanic deposits (volcaniclastics), Santorini, Greece, Undergraduate field work, 2016. Bottom image: Volcanic degassing (release of gases) at Mount Etna, Sicily, 2019.
In New Zealand I spent most of my time outdoors, camping, hiking and all sorts – it was absolute bliss. As I neared the end of my trip I toyed with the idea of staying even longer, until I stumbled across a Ph.D. opportunity online through iCRAG and the GSI. It was back in Trinity College Dublin. I had preferred the idea of going somewhere outside of Ireland for postgraduate studies but the content of this Ph.D. programme just really grabbed my attention. The title was; ‘The effect of climatic warming on the frequency of volcanic eruptions in Iceland’. It sounded perfect, two interests mixed together; climate change and volcanic activity. I wanted a challenge, so that was it. I applied straight away and I was very lucky to be awarded the position. I am now in my 3rd year of this Ph.D. research and it has so far been the most difficult yet most interesting experience of my life. Not a day goes by that I do not learn something new, and although the pace of research can sometimes be slow, I am excited by the idea that I am developing my understanding of this planet.
Top Left: In a lava field, Mt. Etna, Sicily, 2019. Top right: Roy’s Peak Summit, Wanaka, New Zealand, 2018. Bottom: At the Emerald Crater Lakes, Mt. Tongariro, New Zealand, 2018.
The field of study I focus on within geoscience is known as environmental geochemistry. In simple terms it uses the chemistry of the Earth to understand environmental concepts. My research involves ‘looking’ back through the last 11,000 years or so using peat bogs in Ireland. I search the peat for tiny pieces of Icelandic volcanic ash called ‘cryptotephra’ and geochemical traces of volcanic activity such as sulphur, mercury and many other metals. We go out into the field for this and collect a peat core, which is like a hole drilled down into a bog to retrieve a long slice of peat. Coring is hard work but also very satisfying when you get the sample that you want! These traces of volcanic activity can help us understand the relationship between climate change and volcanic eruptions, when we match them up to other records of climate change (such as chemical signatures in Greenland ice!).
Left: Coring peat on a rainy day, Fallahogy Bog, Co. Derry, 2020. Right: Preserved wood in peat 3 metres below ground level (approx. 3000 yrs old), Fallahogy Bog, Co. Derry, 2019.
As a finishing remark, I am proud to be a woman in geoscience but I think it is important to recognise that it is still a highly male dominated field. It would be brilliant to see more female identifying people in positions of power in this field of study, to help inspire young researchers like myself which in turn might inspire one of you! I hope to see a future where geoscience becomes the career of choice for a wider range of genders. This is something I feel will enrich geoscience research as a whole, especially in the context of climate change and the interdisciplinary and intersectional challenges we face as a global community. So, as long as you’re interested and have a passion to learn, then my best advice is: go for it.