The Soufrière Hills volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat has been dormant for centuries. But one hot July day in 1995 it erupted with catastrophic consequences and buried the island's capital Plymouth in more than 12 metres of mud and ash and made the surrounding area unliveable in the years to come.
12 year old Casey Nixon was watching a documentary about Montserrat and became completely mesmerized by how this volcano changed the island. As soon as the film ended, Casey knew what he wanted to be when he grew up - a geologist.
Text and photo: Maria Amelie
Today in 2016 he is living his dream, pursuing his second postdoc as a structural geologist and Vista scholar at the University of Bergen.
Casey is originally from the UK and took his undergraduate degree in geology in Edinburgh. After three years he moved to the University of Southampton to do his PhD.
So you did a PhD right after three years as an undergraduate?
- Yes, that's unusual. Usually you have to study three years as an undergraduate, and then do one year for a master's degree. But I was doing well in my undergraduate course and was lucky enough to get a PhD offer, so I started when I was 21 years old.
- Yes, I get that reaction a lot in Norway. In the UK people can start university when they are 18 years old, and tend to rush through everything. It's normal to start on a PhD when you're 22-24 years old.
My undergraduate supervisor said once that I'm a man in a hurry. Most people would travel for a year between studies, but I wanted to skip that and go straight into more studies, says Casey and smiles happily.
At the end of his undergraduate studies, Casey had to submit a big dissertation on mapping. This led to extensive fieldwork and camping for five weeks along the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site where the famous rock formation of Durdle Door can be found.
- Mapping is one of the key skills you learn as a geologist. You have to be able go out and identify different rock types, different formations, and then map out the boundaries between them. Then you have to write a thesis and piece together the story of how the area was geologically formed.
I went with a mapping partner from my class. We camped, slept in a tent and cycled along the coastline of Dorset for five weeks. It was great, we had great weather, and the area is very beautiful.
Was it difficult to hang out with the same person?
- When you study geology you become part of a small and close group, because you often go on field trips together and socialize a lot in the evenings. Some of my classmates became my best friends.
Do you ever go on a hike in the mountains or the woods and all you think about is your research?
- Yes all the time, that's the perk of being a geologist," says Casey and laughs.
Did you know you wanted to do a PhD afterwards?
- Not in the beginning, but by the end of my undergraduate studies I realised that I really loved learning, so I wanted to continue with that. I also wanted to teach, and inspire the next generation to study geology just like my professors inspired me.
Casey decided to apply for a PhD, but was torn between two positions, one in structural geology and one in geochemistry. He really wanted to stay in Edinburgh, because he was very much in love with the city and had many friends there. But he got one offer and it was from the University of Southampton.
- In hindsight it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got a brilliant project in Southampton and discovered that it was an amazing place for research. You feel part of a big research community, there are lots of social events and everyone is driven to do their research and help each other.
Did you do any fieldwork there as well?
- Yes, I went to Devon and explored the spectacular coastline, where the cliffs and wave-cut platforms provide so much rock exposure, which is ideal for a geologist. I also went to New Zealand and did several weeks of fieldwork. It was great, because I find New Zealand one of the coolest places from a geological perspective.
So what is structural geology?
- I study the structure of the Earth's crust and how it deforms, whether by brittle deformation such as faults and fractures, or by ductile deformation such as folding. I'm particularly focused on faults and fractures. I collect data and make observations so that I can then characterize them and try to piece together how they might have developed.
Where is the crust?
- It's the outer layer of the Earth and it occupies less than one percent of the Earth's thickness, it's like the skin of an apple. It consists of oceanic crust which is about 5-10 km thick and continental crust which is about 30-50 km thick.
He explains that breaks in the upper crust are called faults and fractures and that they can develop for example because of an earthquake, or for other reasons. It is well understood how such individual faults develop and grow, but there is little attention on how they evolve as a fault network.
One of the main focuses of his PhD was about how fault networks behave and interact, in order to understand how the Earth's crust is deforming.
Why is it important to study and understand this?
- Faults can control the movement of fluids by acting as either a pathway or a barrier, so they are important for key resources such as groundwater, hydrocarbons, geothermal energy, minerals and ores, etc.
For example, in the hydrocarbon industry, if the faults act like barriers, then a fault network might be able to trap and compartmentalize hydrocarbon reservoirs, making them easier to extract and economically viable. On the other hand, the faults might provide a pathway, obviously you don't want your hydrocarbons migrating away and escaping from the reservoir.
It's important to understand these structures and predict their behaviour before you drill down. If you don't understand how these networks work, then you may drill down and find nothing there, or find a fractured reservoir that isn't connected enough so you get access to fewer resources.
The Vista project
In 2014 he applied for a Vista scholarship to research more on this topic and is now leading his own research at the University of Bergen. In his study, Casey wants to combine both macro and micro scale observations on networks of faults and fractures.
- On the large scale, you have fault networks in areas like the North Sea and North West Australia. These are normal faults associated with extension in a rift basin. This has a lot of consequences for the hydrocarbon industry as faults of that scale are what control trap geometries.
On the small scale, I'm looking at the faults and fractures that are important for hydrocarbon production and for fractured reservoirs.
What would be the most fantastic thing for your research? A dream come true?
- It would be amazing one day for us to understand and predict exactly how fault networks develop at all kinds of spatial and temporal scales, from individual earthquake events through to millions of years of development.
One of the problems we have today is too little data or limitations of data either in temporal resolution or spatial extent. For example, we only have detailed seismicity data and satellite imagery for about the last half a century and that's a very short time in terms of geology.
What do you think about researching this in Norway compared to the UK?
- I liked being in Southampton very much, but I think career-wise it was also a great thing for me to move to Norway. Here at the University of Bergen there are many excellent scientists at the professor, postdoc and PhD level that are working on related topics.
So there are so many people that want to work with me, who are enthusiastic about my research and love getting me involved in their projects. It's quite exciting, and motivating.
You wrote a proposal for a Vista grant by yourself. What's the best way to do it?
- Make sure you take time to develop your research ideas and have a good contact who you can involve in the application process. Send them your drafts, get feedback and generally do it more as a collaborative process instead of doing it all by yourself.
Don't leave all the work to the last minute, budget your timeframe and write a well-structured proposal.
Also make sure your research topic is applicable in industry, which is very important for the Vista grant. For me, no matter where I'm applying for grants, I really want my research to be applicable, interesting for others and to further science.
You mentioned that you had good supervisors. What is a good supervisor for you?
- I think a good supervisor really understands you and manages to design a good research project for you to undertake and makes sure you're on track. Some students are basically left alone, and they are often the ones that get more stressed and worried. A good supervisor has time for you.
What would you recommend to PhD students?
- My advice to students is to be proactive. Don't always rely on your supervisors, ask for feedback and don't be afraid to knock on their doors. Your supervisors know this is a learning curve for you, that's how you learn.
My philosophy is to be optimistic, be as relaxed as possible and have faith in your own abilities. I am not a worrier, but everyone is different. If you're a PhD student, just enjoy yourself! For these three years, your only goal is to do research on your own time. After that a lot of more responsibilities come your way whether you go on in academia or other employment. So socialize, do fun things and research. Don't let yourself be stressed out.