The most extreme jobs in science

From crocodile behaviourist to faecal transplant technician, in the latest BBC Focus we look at some of the most extraordinary jobs in science – here’s a taster from a volcanologist.

23rd August 2016
The most extreme jobs in science © Getty Images

Volcanologists get up close to erupting volcanoes to find out more about how lava flows © Getty Images

NAME: Dr Hugh Tuffen (@HTuffen)

JOB TITLE: Volcanologist

BASED: Lancaster University, UK

I first became interested in volcanoes when I was about seven. I slept with a volcano picture book under my pillow.

There have been concerning moments. One night in Chile, heavy ash and pumice rained down on our camp and we had to decide whether to stay or go. Or there was the time we were digging increasingly desperately into the mountainside to find uncontaminated snow to melt for drinking water. I also spent months camping in Iceland for my PhD, enduring days of wind and rain. It’s not much fun putting on wet clothes for the fourth day in a row, but the exquisite beauty and isolation of the environment makes up for it.

I study what makes volcanoes explosive and how the gas trapped in magma drives violent eruptions, forcing out lava and throwing ash kilometres into the air. We’re also trying to figure out what controls the way that lava flows, in the hope of helping people who live in its path. This means travelling abroad to erupting volcanoes, often at short notice, to witness these explosions.

Sometimes it’s possible to walk up to lava as it flows and take samples with a shovel. Back in the lab, we’ll heat a sample to over 1,200°C so it’ll behave like it’s in the volcano. This means we can see what’s happening on a microscopic scale.

Knowing that my work can help lots of people is motivating. But it’s annoying that there are far too many interesting volcanoes to study, and that’s before you even include the ones on other planets and moons in our Solar System.


Pick up the September 2016 issue of BBC Focus to discover five more extreme science jobs and the brave souls who do them every day.

Also in the magazine: Are you a genetic superhero? UHD TV buyer’s guide. How do we know Nessie doesn’t exist?

Are you a genetic superhero? # BBC Focus


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