Collaboration work takes geologist from volcanoes to Science Gallery

11 Oct 2013

Geologist Dr Jane Chadwick reaches the top of Slamet Volcano, Indonesia, on St Patricks Day

Whether you’re uncovering the secrets of volcanoes or driving new collaborations between scientists and artists, working with people outside your own field can be a catalyst for innovation, Dr Jane Chadwick tells Claire O’Connell.

Today, Chadwick is Education and Learning manager at Science Gallery in Dublin, but it’s not so long ago that she was hacking her way through the jungle in Nicaragua or sleeping on the side of an active volcano in Indonesia. 

The well-travelled geologist earned the nickname Indiana Jane from her Dad for her work in volcanology, which saw her collaborate with an array of different researchers to solve puzzles about why volcanoes erupt and how cultures viewed and used them.

Rocking up to geology

Yet while growing up in Canada, Chadwick had originally wanted to be a vet. “That was what I thought I wanted to do, but when we moved to Ireland in my teens and I encountered the points system here, I decided it might be a better plan to start with science and use that as a ‘back door’ into veterinary,” she explains.  

“So I started science in Trinity and I took geology on a whim because my grandfather in Ireland liked pointing out rocks to me as a kid when we were over here on holiday. And I loved it in college from day one – the veterinary idea flew out of my mind at that stage, I decided to become a geologist.”

Getting to grips with active volcanoes

Volcanoes particularly grabbed her attention and, thanks to a Marie Curie Fellowship, Chadwick got to study both in Trinity College Dublin and in Denmark for her PhD, which looked at the parts of volcanoes that lie deep. “Like an iceberg, most of a volcano is underground, where you can have a large chamber. But we found that at Merapi volcano in Indonesia, there are a load of smaller chambers of magma linked together, and this increases the surface area for interaction with the surrounding rock.” 

Chadwick’s focus was on using the chemistry of magma to figure out how the magma interacts with this surrounding rock in the Earth’s crust, and whether that could be a trigger for an eruption, and she collaborated with German researchers to find an answer. “My data came from the world of chemistry and theirs came from the world of physics – we got talking to each other and it was like a lightbulb moment,” she recalls. 

With their collaboration they were able to develop a new model for what could be setting off some of the eruptions at Merapi volcano. “In our proposed mechanism, the magma interacts with the limestone rock, which decarbonates, releasing carbon dioxide into the magma and the pressure builds,” she says. “It’s a bit like like shaking a bottle of fizzy cola.”

Of course getting hands on with volcanoes of the active variety was not without its thrills and potential spills: “I have some crazy stories about sleeping on the side of an active volcano and running into the wildlife – including a large monitor lizard,” says Chadwick. And her next project – as a researcher in Vrije University in Amsterdam – also took her to far-flung places as she worked with an archaeologist to better understand stone statues and artifacts that had been made from volcanic rock centuries ago.

“Nicaragua is almost totally made out of volcanic rock, and we worked on a basically untouched site where statues had been discovered,” she recalls. “And that meant a lot of travelling around on donkeys and cutting our way through jungle with machetes.”

Dr Jane Chadwick

Geologist Dr Jane Chadwick employs a gas mask at Papandayan Volcano in Indonesia

A different route

But bed rest brought on by illness in a hotel in Nicaragua gave Chadwick plenty of time for reflection, and she wondered if there was another route she could take to bring her love of science, outreach and collaboration forward. That’s when she Googled Science Gallery. “I have always been a really passionate teacher and I love just basically talking and getting excited about science,” she says. “And I thought if I was going to work in that field, Science Gallery is where I want to work.”

So in 2011 she moved to Dublin to start work there, just as the exhibition Elements was starting, which was all about chemistry – and was the icing on the cake. “Chemistry is such an amazing tool that can tell you so much,” she says. “And when I saw how Science Gallery presented that exhibition I was completely hooked.”

Collaboration in science, education and art

Chadwick spent two years building Science Gallery’s links and projects with European partners, particularly through StudioLab, an ongoing art-science collaboration that’s funded by the European Commission. The initiative sees the gallery team up with the likes of the Royal College of Art in London, Le Laboratoire in Paris and Ars Electronica in Austria, explains Chadwick, and Trinity students are getting the chance to participate. 

Now as Education and Learning manager – a post she took up in June this year – she is bringing students in as mediators in exhibitions, running the transition-year programme – which has doubled in capacity this year and is already full – and she is now developing a programme for teachers and schools around Ireland. 

Synthetic biology

But it’s all hands on deck at the moment as the gallery prepares to launch its next exhibition, GROW YOUR OWN, which focuses on synthetic biology, or ‘synbio’, which is the science of building engineered biological organisms. “It’s a really exciting, emergent area, and there needs to be a conversation about it and what it could mean for the future,” says Chadwick. “We are hoping that the exhibition will give people an access point and a new way to think about the possibilities of synthetic biology.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication