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“I have a passion for wild places”

Dr Emma Liu is a volcanologist at University College London, Lead on the ‘Aerial Observations of Volcanic Gas Emissions’ (ABOVE) project, and the 2021 winner of the Geological Society’s Wollaston Fund

1 March 2022

Emma’s research involves much fieldwork

Tell us about your work
I have always been fascinated by the processes that underpin volcanic eruptions and motivated by the need to understand their environmental and societal impacts. My research focuses on volcanic emissions – from the generation of volcanic ash during eruptions and its transport in the atmosphere, to the geochemical controls on volatile outgassing and the consequences for eruptive style and air quality. I am a field volcanologist and a key part of my work is developing innovative solutions for geochemical monitoring.

What are you currently working on?
I am analysing samples from the eruption of La Palma in September 2021. Together with local colleagues, we sampled gas from the volcanic plume to explore the processes driving the explosive behaviour and aerosols to investigate the regional air quality hazard posed by the volcanic emissions.

What’s a typical day for you?
There is no such thing. I could be working in the field, lab, at my desk, or teaching students. Fieldwork days are physically demanding and frequently frustrating when things go wrong, yet incredibly rewarding.

Tell us more about the ABOVE project
ABOVE was an international, multidisciplinary project to develop long-range, drone-based strategies for measuring volcanic gas emissions from strongly degassing, but inaccessible, volcanoes – from directly within their plumes. The research lies at the intersection of volcanology and aerospace engineering, and was an opportunity to bring together colleagues from nine countries to pursue experimental ‘blue-sky’ research. The project was part of the Deep Carbon Observatory – a global community seeking to understand how carbon moves through the Earth system – and targeted Papua New Guinea because it is home to several active volcanoes, yet ground-based measurements are challenging. Detecting changes in gas chemistry and emission rate are vital for volcano monitoring, and help answer big-picture questions on the role of volcanoes in global geochemical cycles, such as the carbon cycle.

The use of drones in research is now bridging the gap between in-situ sampling and remote sensing from satellites, particularly in hazardous environments. Aerial measurements are becoming a crucial component of eruption response efforts.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to work in your field?
Build a diverse and supportive network of mentors at different stages of their own research careers, preferably from a range of different disciplines. I am fortunate to have had the support of many people who are generous with both their time and knowledge, and they have each shaped my journey to independent research in different ways. Mentoring can take many forms, and sometimes you may not even realise that you are being mentored, but having those people to keep you grounded and curious is really important.

What’s your favourite thing about your work?
It allows me to combine my passion for exploration and being in wild places with my curiosity to understand how things work. I’ve been immensely privileged to have the opportunity to travel to some of the most remote regions of our planet, while collecting new data that advance our understanding of magmatic systems and their impact on the world around us. 

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