David Pyle

Thanks to everyone for voting, and to everyone else in the zone for an amazing two weeks.

Favourite Thing: Solving problems. Discovering something new. Climbing volcanoes, and working out what makes them tick.. and talking about it afterwards.



Primary schools (1971-1976): Pixham Lane (Dorking), Craighouse (Santiago, Chile), St Martin’s (Dorking). Secondary school: The Ashcombe School, Dorking (1976-1983)


I studied geology in Cambridge for my first degree (1983-1986), and then stayed in Cambridge to begin research on volcanoes for my PhD (1986-1990)

Work History:

After graduating, I spent a year in California (at CalTech, 1990-1); then came back to a teaching post at Cambridge University (1991-2006). In 1998, I got a chance to spend a few months as senior scientist at Montserrat Volcano Observatory (West Indies), which was my first chance to put my work to real practical use. In 2006, I moved to Oxford.


I now work at the University of Oxford, in the department of Earth Sciences.

Current Job:

I lecture on volcanoes and igneous rocks in the department of Earth Sciences, and am also a teaching fellow at St Anne’s College, where I help to look after the geology students.

Me and my work

I have one of the best jobs in the world. I study active volcanoes, to try and work out what they have done in the past, and how they will behave in the future.

At the moment, most of the volcanoes I work on are in southern Chile, but I also have projects in Guatemala and Ethiopia. I have just been in the field, working on a Chilean volcano called Sollipulli . This has erupted within the past 700 years, but is not at all well studied – and currently has a 4-kilometre-wide crater filled with ice.

My Typical Day

Most of my time, I work either in front of my computer in an office, or teach in a classroom, or work in the lab. For two to three weeks a year, I work in the field – usually somewhere on a volcano.

Term time is frantic, and my office falls into a typical state of disorganisation. I am often working on three or four projects at once, and have frequent meetings with  students: both those who are starting out in their research on volcanoes; and those who are just starting to study geology (or earth sciences) at university. My current research students include David Ferguson (who is working in Ethiopia) and Naomi Matthews (who is working on a Supervolcano in New Zealand). In his spare time, David runs a Twitter feed on volcanoes. Other time during the day is taken up talking  to/emailing people I am collaborating with on research (whether in Oxford, the UK or abroad); and doing things like reading and marking essays, drafts of scientific papers, the latest publications, and so on. There never seems to be enough time in the day, but that’s probably the way that I like things to be.


My office in a typical term time state. Notice the geological timescale (pinned to the board), and the ‘I’m a scientist’ login sheet..

My department is in a new building complex in the centre of Oxford; we only just moved in late last year and are still finding our way around.  I am also a ‘teaching fellow’ at St Anne’s College, which is a five minute walk from the department. St Anne’s is one of the thirty or so colleges of Oxford University. About 6 (out of a total of 35) students a year who come to Oxford to study Earth Sciences (or Geology), come to St Anne’s. I share the responsibility of guiding these students through their studies over the course, and teach them in small groups (of usually 2 or 3 students) in some specialist topics.








One of the labs that I work in – this is a piece of equipment that we use to measure the mercury content of soil, plants and water affected by volcanic activity. Mercury (chemical symbol ‘Hg’ from the very obscure Latin name, ‘hydrargyrum’) is quite a rare metal, which has the unique property of being molten (liquid) at room temperature. I remember school chemistry and physics lessons when we used to have mercury beads rolling across the desk.. now that the toxicity of mercury is better known, this doesn’t happen any more!













Another lab that I work in  – this instrument is a scanning electron microscope, which we use to get very detailed pictures, and measurements of the chemical compositions, of tiny samples of rock.








No volcanology lab is complete without the aluminium-coated fireproof suit, of course. This coat has seen action on Mt Etna, Sicily; and comes out every year for school visits and science week!



What I'd do with the money

Podcasts from volcanoes: to bring fieldwork into the classroom..

I’m open to suggestions, but it would be nice to have a way of recording an audio/video diary during fieldwork, which could then be uploaded as podcasts; or someway of streaming field observations and measurements back to the classroom. My students, collaborators and I make quite a lot of field visits each year, so there would be many opportunities to do something interesting with this.. 

Some of examples of recent fieldwork, below: collecting gases at Masaya volcano, Nicaragua; being dropped off into the active Afar rift, Ethiopia, by helicopter; sampling freshly fallen ash with my colleagues Costanza and Seb at Chaiten, Chile; and peering across a glacier-filled crater at Sollipulli, Chile.

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My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Excitable. Dedicated. Curious.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Laura Marling. Radiohead. The Smiths. Album to listen to again and again: Gotan Project, La Revancha del Tango

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Scuba-diving in the Red Sea comes close, but it’s hard to beat sliding 1000 metres down the side of a volcano (Villarrica) in Chile.

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

To live long enough to see my children grow old. To run a 10 km race in under 45 minutes. To visit all of the volcanoes along the length of the Pan-American Highway.

What did you want to be after you left school?

A volcanologist. I recently met one of my teachers from when I was ten years old. The first thing she asked was whether I was still interested in volcanoes!

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Not really. I was never as good at sport as I wanted to be, and remember awful rugby/football lessons, where I spent most of the time having nose-bleeds. The one time I did get into trouble was when I put up an anti-war poster (just before the Falklands war in the early 1980’s) on an official noticeboard. Oh yes, and there was the time that the whole class got homework because I had lost a class notebook. Oops.

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

Inspiring scientists of the future.

Tell us a joke.

What did Kilauea say to Mauna Loa? ‘I’m hot.. you’re not’