Kate Dobson

Excited to see which of us you voted for! Thanks for a fantastic two weeks!

Favourite Thing: work out what the next question is….. answering the last one is the (relatively) easy bit.



Berryfield First School (1984-1988), Bledlow Ridge CC (1988-1992), Aylesbury High School (1992-1998), Durham University (1998-2001)


BSc (Hons) Natural Sciences – Earth Science & Physics (Durham University), PhD Geology (University of Glasgow)

Work History:

Hawaii Volcano Observatory, University of Glasgow (Earth Science), Birkbeck College London (Geology), University of Manchester (Materials Science)

Current Job:

Working out what makes volcanoes tick, using experiments and x-ray imaging


As of November 1, Ludwig-Maximilian-Universitat, Munich

Me and my work

Volcanoes are complicated… and it’s impossible to visit a magma chamber that is km beneath the surface and full of molten rock at 1200C: so I put miniature versions under very high powered 4D x-ray microscopes and watch what happens.

I have something to admit…  I finished school and wasn’t sure what i wanted to do next… I went to University to study lots of subjects (Natural Sciences allows you to do more than one subject for part, or all of your degree) and when I finished I still wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do…. that’s not something many people will say.  I really enjoyed my science degree and wanted to move into research, but I was a glutton for punishment and studied two subjects at honours level (Earth Science and Physics), and I wasn’t sure which area of research I wanted to specialise in.

So…  I went to Hawaii to work on the Kiluaea volcano, and I got hooked. myimage1 There is something unbelievably amazing about watching the planet grow in front of your eyes; and to walk across a bit of the rock that you saw solidify from a red hot flowing river several hours before. I think everyone will admit that volcanoes are spectacular, powerful, sometimes dangerous but always exciting and unpredictable places to be. myimage2

I came back to UK to find a PhD and ended up looking at the evolution of the youngest volcanoes in the UK (a mere 65 million years old!!) and what happened to them.myimage3

I then worked as a researcher investigating how, and when the African continent separated from South America, and how it is breaking up at the moment, before making a fairly scary decision to change what I was doing completely. I have always wanted to look in more detail about how volcanoes work.  What makes them tick? Why and how do eruptions start? What controls how explosive they are? Why do eruption “styles” change?  Look at the photo – this is of an ancient magma chamber…. How do the layers form?  How are the formation of magmatic systems and volcanoes linked?

So, I took a job at the University of Manchester, in the Materials Science department. I the last three years I have worked on all sorts of projects from improving the way we mine copper out of rocks, to how we make steel girders, to how the structure of chocolate changes the way it tastes, to the way arthritis effects knees – and this is just a selection.  The thing all these project have in common is that we were looking at the processes in 3D.  X-ray tomography is a little like having a CAT scan at the hospital, you get a 3D image of the sample without having to cut it up.  The reason I took the job was that magma is a liquid, and like any other liquid, it behaves according to a set of physical rules – we just don’t know what they are yet because we have never been able to watch what happens inside the magma as it’s doing its thing  (melting, flowing, erupting, solidifying). The 3D imaging  methods I helped to develop at Manchester mean we can now look inside the magma and start to understand magmatic processes, deformation, flow and eruption properly for the first time myimage8.

By the time of the live chats I will have moved to Germany to start a new job at LMU University in Munich, where I will be looking at magma in 3D .

My work means I use some of the biggest, most complicated physics facilities (the x-ray and neutron synchrotrons, like Diamond Light Source and ISIS in the UK) myimage7 to look at geology in an entirely new way. I make miniature volcanoes and magma chambers, heat them to very high temperatures (>800C) and then watch the magma deforming by capturing lots of 3D images very quickly. What I essentially end up with is a 3D movie of the magma.  From this I can track the individual bubbles, crystals and liquid melt that make up the magma, and work out what is controlling its behaviour. Here are two “slices” through my latest “mini magma chamber” from different times in an experiment myimage5 myimage6. Can you see the differences? This sample was at 850 degrees C and was being squashed very slowly.

Looking back I can see that my being unsure which subject to specialise in has, in fact led me down a path where I apply both every day!


My Typical Day

it could be anything…. in the lab, up a volcano, giving a lecture, sleeping (if I’ve been working a night shift): but it will involve lots of tea!

My job is always changing, and there is no such thing as a typical day. However, unfortunately since leaving Hawaii, I don’t often get to spend my days climbing volcanoes. In fact, like most researchers these days, I spend a lot of my time in front of a computer, analysing and interpreting my data.

I guess the most interesting days are the ones when I am running experiments on the synchrotron. These facilities are shared across all research areas and all countries, so we get very limited time to do the experiments and I have to be very prepared. Because we get so little time, when we have an experiment we work in two shifts 24-7. I therefore need at least 5 other people so three of us can awake at all times. The best, but hardest bit is the problem solving. A lot of the experiments can only be done on the beam line, so although we usually have an idea about what to expect it doesn’t always happen that way, so I need to have a plan B, plan C, plan D….. I have to expect the unexpected.


What I'd do with the money

Take some of my magma experiments (ones that can be done at lower temperatures!) into schools and get more people interested in geology…. it rocks!

I would like to give some students the opportunity to visit the synchrotron and see an experiment in practice. It’s hard to describe quite how impressive these facilities are, and it’s hard not to be inspired by science when you see what they can do – from DNA to dynamite, metals to magmas, biology to astrophysics, there are people using the synchrotron to do research into so many different things.

However I can’t take everyone into the beam line, so I would also use some of money to put together volcano based experiments that myself and others could bring to your school, so you can have a go at repeating some of my (and other peoples) volcano experiments.


My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

enthusiastic, outgoing, cheerful

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I listen to anything and everything…. so not enough space to answer that here

What's your favourite food?

I love fresh, simple Italian food – especially when it’s served with a nice view of a volcano in the background!)!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

looking down the vent of a volcano and watching the lava lake “doing its thing” 10m beneath me. Truly breathtaking – they had to drag me away!

What did you want to be after you left school?

I had no idea, but I knew I was good at the physical sciences (physcis and chemistry) and wanted to something that was interesting and not the same day-in day-out

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Not really

What was your favourite subject at school?

Easy question – Science

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Worked on an active volcano….. to me it’s hard to get better than that!

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

My lecturers at University made me realise I could make a career doing what they do – research and teaching – so I guess they probably deserve the credit.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Something practical, probably outdoors – maybe a ranger in one of the National Parks?

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

To get a job doing exactly what I want (researching volcanoes!), to be able to visit all the wild and wonderful places on this planet, to have a self-cleaning house and a self-filling fridge

Tell us a joke.

I can never remember punch lines…. but they say that igneous is bliss

Other stuff

Work photos:

Here are some more detailed captions for the pictures shown above:

myimage1 This is a picture of a “break out”. This is when the cooling surface of a lava flow cracks and the still molten rock inside starts to flow out of the crack. This photo was taken in Hawaii on the coastal plane, about 300 inland from where the lava was flowing into the ocean.  Have you seen in the news that the lavas in Hawaii have been flowing in an unusual direction towards the town of Pahoa?  It looks like people are going to lose their homes to the advancing lava.

myimage2 This is probably my favourite “action” photo.  This was taken at the Pu’u O’o vent in Hawaii, which has been producing lavas continuously since 1983. It is also the source of the lavas currently threatening Pahoa.  This photo was takin in the cone, looking down the central pit to the lava lake.  The surface of the lava lake was about 10m below us, and it was very hot, but very impressive – especially when the little explosions started to happen. I just got lucky with the timing on this shot.

myimage3 This is the view from Askival on the Island of Rum, looking back to Hallival, with the Isle of Skye in the background. Yes this is Scotland, and yes the sun is shining! This was taken on a trip run by the Volcanic and Magmatic Studies Group celebrating over 50 years of research on the island, and much of what we understand about magma chambers was developed there. I did a lot of the work on my PhD on Rum, which is a beautiful island to visit and any igneous geologists’ dream. The layered rocks you can see were once a magma chamber and the surface of the earth would be about 1km above my head as I took that photo.  The layering is caused by different concentrations of the three minerals that make up the gabbro rocks (olivine, pyroxene and plagioclase). Lots of different processes control the relative amounts of the minerals and that is one of the things I am researching at the moment. This area was active for about 5 million years about 60 million years ago, and formed was North Atlantic was formed.

myimage4 This is a photo of the Tarawera volcano in New Zealand.  The volcanoes in New Zealand are associated with subduction, and are more explosive than the ones that occurred in Scotland (or that occur in Iceland today). They are more explosive because the magma contains more water, and this means thicker magma, and lots of gas bubbles.  The way that the bubbles can (or can’t) escape from the magma is what controls how explosive the eruption will be.

myimage5 myimage6 These images are taken from a 3D X-ray experiment performed at the Swiss Light Source synchrotron in November 2013. Magma is made up of molten rock (grey in these images), crystals (white) and gas bubbles (black). My experiments look to understand how magma flows, and if how the crystals and bubbles move past each other is important to how the magma behaves. This particular experiment was performed at 800 degrees C, and has a cylinder of magma being squashed (shortened).  The images are of the same region at the beginning and near the end of the experiment.

myimage7 The Diamond Light Source and other synchrotron x-ray imaging facilities are where I do my main experiments.  Only these can produce enough x-rays for me to collect my image fast enough to produce “movies”. When I am working at a synchrotron we have a few days to do a lot of work and so we work 24 hours a day.

myimage8 This is the experimental equipment used to do the magma experiment I showed in the earlier images.  It looks very, very complicated, but essentially it allows me to heat up my sample, and squeeze (compress) my sample while it is spinning.  To get a 3D image you need to take x-ray “photos” (each one is just like those you get when you break your arm) from all different directions, so we spin the sample and keep the camera still.