Graduate Profile

Glenn Thompson - BSc 1993

Research in volcano-seismology

I did my B.Sc. in Theoretical Physics and Maths from 1989-93. I had originally gone to do Astronomy and Astrophysics but found particle physics, relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology and solar physics to be of even more interest.

After St. Andrews I went to Durham for an M.Sc. in Geophysics. From there I had planned to go into the oil industry, but a crash then in the oil price helped persuade me to do a PhD in Geophysics. I got several offers from universities in the UK and USA in different fields, and chose to work in volcano-seismology at the University of Leeds.

Less than a year into my PhD, the Soufriere Hills Volcano on Montserrat (a British overseas territory) began erupting. The British Geological Survey were asked to respond, and they reached out to university professors and their graduate students. So after doing fieldwork in Italy, New Zealand and Indonesia, I received a call one day from the BGS asking how soon I could go to Montserrat. I told them "by the weekend?". I actually had little idea where it was, but it sounded like an opportunity to jump at. A few days later I was there

I arrived and was immediately whisked up in a helicopter, doors off, seatbelts secured with duct tape, tilting this way and that over an erupting volcano. Famous scientists (to me anyway) were buzzing around the place. We got bombed out with ash, saw pyroclastic flows entering the sea, were hit by volcanic hail. It was a wild time. I'd been modelling volcanic earthquakes till that point, but I got hooked by volcano monitoring.

For a postdoc research position I went to the Alaska Volcano Observatory, and two years later returned to Montserrat (for BGS) as the senior seismologist and deputy director of the observatory there. I had great colleagues and we transformed the quality of the monitoring. The volcano never stopped erupting. And at night I watched the dome glow under dark, starry Caribbean skies. There is an interesting St Andrews link with the work that the St Andrews mm-wave group has done on remote monitoring of volcano temperature and profile there.

In 2006 I returned to Alaska, working for the observatory and the seismic network. By now I was a specialist in the design and development of seismic monitoring systems. After seven years up there, just a few months ago I moved to Florida. Here I have started a new life as a research professor in volcano-seismology, targeting volcanoes in Central America and the Caribbean.

I chose St. Andrews because I wanted to travel the world working at different astronomical observatories. I ended up working at different volcano observatories instead. Observing volcanic eruptions at close quarters, seeing pyroclastic flows on a daily basis - such a privilege. It's amazing where physics can take you.


January 2014