Profile: Jess Hillman (Postdoctoral Researcher, GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research)

jh_photoName: Jess Hillman

Job Role: Postdoctoral Researcher

Organisation: GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research 

Education Background:

1. What inspired you to take up a career in the Geosciences?

I spent most of my childhood in East Africa, and had the opportunity to visit and explore some truly amazing areas with incredibly diverse landscapes and environments. This allowed me to develop an interest in geography, which stemmed from wanting to understand how all these different landscapes had been formed and what processes had shaped them. I didn’t have the opportunity to take geology or geoscience at high school, so I went to university with the intention of studying geography. I took geoscience as a second subject and by the end of my first semester I had switched to a BSc in geoscience.

2. Can you give more detail about your path to your current job role?

I graduated from the University of St Andrews with a BSc (Hons) in Geoscience. Whilst I was an undergrad I had the chance to do a couple of internships, one of which was for Petroleum Development Oman, this gave me a chance to work with large seismic datasets for the first time, and I decided I wanted to pursue a career that focused on geophysics. As a result, I went on to do a PhD in marine geophysics at the University of Otago in New Zealand. My doctoral research focused on using geophysical data to investigate seafloor geomorphology, specifically looking at features related to potential release of methane at the seafloor. During my PhD I was able to participate in several research cruises around New Zealand, and also to travel to numerous international conferences and establish collaborations with several different research institutes around the world.

After finishing my PhD I worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the USA for a year at the Ohio State University, where I worked on data from the Gulf of Mexico. After working in New Zealand, where geophysical data can be rather sparse, it was a huge contrast to work in the gulf, where pretty much every inch has been surveyed at least twice!

3. What does your current job role involve?

I am currently working at GEOMAR, which is a large marine research facility in Kiel, Germany. My work focuses on a project that is investigating gas hydrates in the northern Black Sea. I use seismic data to investigate submarine sediments in the Danube Delta, looking at the role that gas hydrates play in fluid flux through the sediments and potential hazards in the form of submarine slope failures. This requires a lot of data analysis, mapping geological units and structures across a large area.


4. What do you enjoy most about your job?

I really enjoy working in diverse environments and trying to understand how the different processes that are active in different areas have shaped the geological landscape we see today. Gas hydrates are a comparatively new research area in geology so we’re still trying to know exactly how they behave and how they form. A lot of my research has also involved areas where submarine canyons are found, these are features that we still don’t understand that well and they are very dynamic, so we are constantly learning new things. I still find it amazing how little we know about the seafloor and what lies underneath it!

I also love that I have been able to travel a lot with my work; I’ve done fieldwork in Spain, Oman, Italy, Switzerland, Greenland, New Zealand and Japan, and had the chance to travel to conferences in numerous other places. Going out to sea on research cruises to collect new data is really exciting, and it makes up for all the hours you spend sitting at a computer analysing the data afterwards!

5. Why do you think it’s important to encourage more girls into Geoscience?

Encouraging everyone, especially girls, to take an interest in the world around them is more important now than ever. The world is facing new challenges, and learning how geological processes acted in the past is a vital part of understanding what might happen in the future.

6. If you could give a piece of advice to girls currently thinking about a career in the Geosciences, what would it be?

Don’t be intimidated, talk to people who work in an area / job that you think looks interesting, make connections and don’t be afraid to change your career path or your area of research if the right opportunity comes up. It is always good to try new things and there are so many exciting aspects of geoscience that you could work in! Imposter syndrome is more common than you think, and you should never be afraid to ask someone for help or advice.

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