Victoria Honour is a PhD candidate in the Department of Earth Sciences, who studies magma and emulsions. Emulsions are generally studied for making things like mayonnaise, ice cream, moisturiser or in the petroleum industry for petrol or diesel. But Victoria looks at them to see how molten rock (magma) solidifies when it’s trapped beneath the Earth’s surface. Here, she tells us about her research, camping in Greenland and volcanic eruptions.
I have always loved the great outdoors and I was lucky enough to grow up on a working family farm. At my state school, I enjoyed science, but it all seemed a bit detached from the real world. Earth Sciences is great because it uses all the sciences to better understand our planet (and others!). I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford in the Earth Sciences Department. I then spent a year doing an MSc in Mining Geology at the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall, before coming to Cambridge for my PhD.
If you find something intriguing or want to ask questions about how something works, then you’re a scientist. Science is about exploring new frontiers, finding out something brand new. Science doesn’t care about your gender identity. So even if you don’t know anyone like you, who has followed the career you want or taken the subject you want to study at A-level, it doesn’t matter, follow what you love and help discover something new.
I am researching the physical behaviour of emulsions in porous media. While emulsions are widely studied in the petroleum industry, carbon sequestration and food science, my interest lies in how these liquids behave during the evolution of large bodies of molten rock trapped beneath the Earth’s surface. As magmas cool and solidify in the Earth’s crust, they can split into two immiscible liquids – one silica-rich and one iron-rich. The different physical properties of these liquids mean that they may separate from each other, comparable to vinegar mixed with oil. This has important implications for the chemical evolution of the magma and hence the development of related ore deposits and the style (explosivity) of volcanic eruptions.
I combine experiments, geochemistry and nanoscale imaging techniques to quantify the physical behaviour of emulsions in magma. By understanding how emulsions form and migrate, we can gain insight into ore deposit formation and location. The igneous petrology community in the Department of Earth Sciences is a world-leading group of scientists, and it is fantastic to have the opportunity to discuss ideas, hear about the latest petrology research and learn from such a group.
I have a number of very different projects, which makes every day rather different. Today I finished cutting up 84 rocks with a circular saw. I collected these on a six-week field trip to east Greenland last summer. I am processing these rocks to find out their chemistry and origin.
Last year I spent a couple of months at the University of Liege in Belgium, to conduct experiments that involved heating powdered rock to 1100 degrees Celsius and then ‘freezing’ it at different temperatures. In between trips away, I analyse different rock samples using lab equipment in the Department of Earth Sciences and then spend time processing the data using a variety of software. In Earth Sciences, we work with limited datasets, because you can’t sample the whole planet, so we have to make interpretations from our data. The first time my work showed something new was a really exciting moment – I finally felt like a ‘proper’ scientist!
During fieldwork in east Greenland I camped 400 km away from civilisation. I spent five weeks with five other scientists in a truly spectacular environment, with stunning iceberg-filled fjords, fantastic wildlife, dramatic mountains and glacial eroded rocks with no vegetation: perfect for geologists. It was a great experience, working in the field, making observations, discussing and refining hypotheses; a really nice collaborative approach to science!