“I see my role as a scientist is to produce knowledge”
A self-defined magmatologist, Catherine Annen is an expert in using numerical models to explore how magma is generated, behaves and evolves. Originally from Geneva, Switzerland, Catherine is currently a researcher at the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, where she simulates a variety of different exciting magmatic processes. She is perhaps most well known for her work on the genesis of intermediate and silicic magmas in deep crustal hot zones, which you can read about in this publication in the Journal of Petrology.
Catherine is also one of the founding members of the VIPS commission, and has recently taken the lead in a new role dedicated to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion here at VIPS. Catherine sat down with the VIPS blog team to talk about this important new role, as well as her research and love of numerical modelling – or as Catherine likes to call it, story telling...
What are your current research interests and methods?
I am currently working on several collaborative projects involving numerical modelling. I work with Roberto Weinberg from Monash University on investigating the role of water in melting the crust, and with Rais Latypov from the University of the Witwatersrand on determining the conditions for the formation of the magma chambers associated to Layered Mafic Intrusions like Skaergaard. I also recently developed models of water exsolution in magma chambers to explore the consequences of volatile accumulation in the roof and walls of solidifying chambers.
Why is this important?
My research hopefully helps to better understand how magma systems work in general. I am testing conceptual models that are around and verifying if they are physically correct. It’s mostly basic science because it’s really about understanding how these things work. I hope that my research will contribute to understanding the physical signals that are observed from a volcano, and maybe in the very long term help to forecast eruptions.
What are your favourite aspects of your research?
There are many things I like about my research. I think the best moment is when I get my code to work. When I write a code and it doesn’t work, and I don’t know why it doesn’t work, it can very annoying. But then I search for the mistake, and debug the code, and correct little things… and suddenly it does exactly what I want it to do. That’s the great moment, when it works.
What do you consider your biggest academic achievement?
I am maybe most known for the papers I published on the generation of silicic melt. But I think one of the things that made me the proudest is this time I gave a lecture on numerical simulations to an audience of PhD students and advanced researchers. After the lecture, a senior researcher came to see me and said “Oh, thank you! You have reconciled me with numerical simulations”. I was very happy.
How did you become interested in numerical modelling and simulations?
After my masters, I wanted to continue learning about volcanology. A good place to do that was Clermont-Ferrand, France, and I contacted the Laboratoire Magmas et Volcans to ask if they had a PhD project in volcanology for me. Jean-François Lénat and Ariel Provost, my future supervisors, offered me a project on numerically modelling the growth of shield volcanoes. It suited me well because I had some training in computer programming at school and university. As a secondary school student, I was on a science pathway because I loved science – I wanted to understand how the world works – but I also loved literature and philosophy. The topic that I enjoyed most in mathematics was formal logic as it is at the interface between mathematics and philosophy. Writing codes to model magmatic process involves logic, physics, and language. In some way, it is about telling stories. I am writing stories in a computer language about sills that are emplaced in the crust and transfer their heat to their surrounding and then the model is telling me a story about what happens to the melt and how the crust reacts. It is fun and rewarding.
How would you define your role as a scientist in society?
I see my role as a scientist is to produce knowledge. People in the industry produce stuff that make people happy or fill their need. But I think as scientists, we produce knowledge, and I’m a little bit of an idealist but I think knowledge is a very important thing for humanity.
Do you have any advice for an early career researcher?
I’m not sure it is good advice, but I would be tempted to say to focus on science, rather than to focus on oneself and on thoughts like ‘Am I good enough?’. I know we have a lot of pressure in academia and it’s a very competitive environment. At the end of the day, what’s really rewarding is the science itself.
Could you tell us about your new role as the head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at VIPS?
I am delighted to have had the opportunity to take on this important role, although I must stress that the work on Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion is collaborative and involves several members of the commission – in particular Corin Jorgenson, our ECR student representative.
We have a problem of lack of diversity in STEM, and in Earth Sciences in particular. Some of us still have to face prejudice, stereotypes, uncivilities, and discrimination. At VIPS we want to be a community where all members feel welcomed, respected, and have a sense of belonging. Equality and diversity issues are interwoven in the very fabric of our society and as such need to be addressed at all levels, from the individuals, to associations, to governments. We try and do our best to address it at the level of our commission.
What are the next steps for the VIPS commission in terms of EDI?
We are trying to ensure that our activities and the activities we sponsor are inclusive and non-discriminatory. We have written a code of conduct for meetings and events, and suggestions and guidelines for events organizers. As a white woman, I am aware of the issues encountered by white women in academia, but I still have a lot to learn about specific issues encountered by the other under-represented groups who face various types of prejudices and discriminations. To help the members of our community educate themselves on EDI, we are working on a webpage containing links to resources (articles, webinars, videos) and to other EDI organizations. Post-pandemic, we plan to organize fieldtrips where we will think of EDI in the specific context of fieldtrips.
What is your favourite volcano?
It’s difficult to choose, but I would say Piton la Fournaise. I worked on it for my PhD as one of my case studies. It’s not my first volcano – that was Vulcano in the Aeolian Islands, which I studied for my masters thesis. Piton de la Fournaise is my first erupting volcano. It erupted while we were doing field work, it was a really fantastic experience.
Piton de la Fournaise has recently been in the news again following a new eruption. Read all about it here, and watch this space for more on recent eruptions from the VIPS blog team.