white young man with helmet on Stromboli volcano with gas steam in background and rocky landscape

Profile: Dr. Oliver Lamb

NRC Research Associate, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA

Field of expertise: Geophysical monitoring of natural phenomena, with a particular interest in volcanoes.

Years of experience (since start of PhD): Nearly 6.

Describe your hearing: Moderately hard of hearing in both ears, since birth. I have worn hearing aids since the age of 4.

Education/BackgroundI grew up in a small village in Wales about 10 mins drive out of the university town of Aberystwyth. My first school was completely in welsh. This might sound daunting for a young HoH kid from an English speaking family, but looking back I don’t think I was really fazed by this. I think it was helped by having supportive and understanding teachers and a teacher’s assistant, always happy to repeat things for me (thank you Mrs. Fuller!). My lucky streak with helpful teachers continued into my English secondary school (ages 11-18), where I never really had any major issues with my hearing. Obviously, there were plenty of noisy classes, but a vast majority of teachers were able to keep them relatively quiet when necessary.

I cannot remember meeting any other deaf or HoH kid my age, but I also don’t remember ever feeling like I was the ‘weird kid’. I guess growing up with a father and grandfather who also wore hearing aids probably made me feel somewhat ‘normal’.

white man in bright sunshine (hat and sunglasses) on a rocky volcano barren of vegetation

How did you get to where you are?

I’ve always had an interest (some might call a passion) in volcanoes. I was lucky to visit Mt. St. Helens when my family visited the US when I was aged 8. I think it wasn’t until I spoke to a careers advisor a few years later that I realized that I could work on volcanoes as a career. From then on, I always had a determination to study geology. After school, I went to the University of Oxford where I got a Masters in Earth Sciences (equivalent of a bachelor plus master degrees). From there I was fortunate to land in the University of Liverpool to pursue a PhD. There, I worked on a project looking at seismic and infrasonic data from various lava dome eruptions around the world, and also carried out a little experimental work with acoustic emissions in the lab. After graduating in 2017, I was eager to take up whatever postdoctoral job offer might come way, and that is how I ended up in North Carolina, USA, in early 2018.

 What is your typical day like?

It’s really hard to say I have a typical day really. Each day brings a new task or challenge, whether it is coding a new way to analyze or plot my data, or preparing equipment for fieldwork, or writing and editing an article or grant application. Most of my days are spent writing either code or scientific articles. The coding can be tedious and frustrating, but it is such a nice feeling when it works and you get a great result and plot at the end. The article writing has also been very difficult (I always struggle with the discussion section), but I think I’m slowly getting the hang of it. When I am not writing, I am probably grappling with some equipment or instrument, or attending various seminars, or preparing for an upcoming conference.

The days spent on fieldwork are probably the most special though. I have been fortunate enough to travel around the world to places such as Mexico, Guatemala, Italy, and Chile. The preparation for fieldwork can be very intense, because lots of different arrangements have to be made in a short amount of time and in the right order. When I’m in the field, I am typically running around digging holes to put seismometers into the ground and/or leaving infrasound microphones to listen to very low frequency noises around the volcano. It can be exhausting, back-breaking work (each station might include 30-40 kilos of equipment and batteries), but it is well worth it when you get a chance to work in some truly spectacular landscapes. Also, it is a huge privilege for me to meet the many wonderful and generous people around the world, most of whom who share a passion for what I do.

 What is the biggest professional challenge (as educator or researcher)? How do you mitigate this challenge?

Managing the workload and the high level of anxiety that comes with it. I do my best to keep on top of projects, but I often find myself neglecting tasks that I told myself that I would do weeks or months before. It was, and still is, a huge learning curve for me when I started my postdoctoral career because of the greater responsibilities I suddenly faced. This includes managing projects, producing articles, writing grant proposals, rewriting grant proposals, managing equipment for fieldwork, preparing for fieldwork, checking there’s enough money in the budget for fieldwork, managing administrative bureaucracy, rewriting grant proposals again, and data management, all with one eye on the somewhat unclear future because I have no clear idea of where or when the next postdoctoral or lecturing position might come available. The anxiety has been very difficult to manage at times, but I am grateful that I have had and still have a network of colleagues, friends and family that I can talk to.

What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?

This is not really a specific accommodation, but one of my biggest and most frequent frustrations is having to deal with terrible acoustics during talks, whether they are department seminars or during conferences. More speakers need to learn how to project their voice to the whole room, with or without a microphone. I should not have to sit in the first few rows to hear you. Similarly, it’s an instant turn off for me whenever a speaker at a conference declines to use the provided microphone just so they can move around the room or stage. There’s no point in trying to seem like a dynamic TED speaker when I (and I suspect a lot of other people in the same room) can’t even hear what you’re saying.

Having said that, it would be great to have personal microphone/transmitter kit that I can bring to talks that will help me hear the speaker. Something that doesn’t disturb the speaker and/or other talk attendees and transmits the speakers voice directly to my ears via Bluetooth or telecoil. I have seen a few systems like this out there but none of them seemed to have quite the right specifications for me to consider using them. I’m all ears to anyone who might have suggestions for something like this.

 What advice would you give your former self?

Be more confident in our own abilities, but don’t be afraid to ask for help on even the most menial things.

 Any funny stories you want to share?

This might not be a funny story for some people, but what ho. I am a pretty heavy sleeper, and have slept through lots of noisy situations. However, when I camped next to active volcanoes I have been woken up by large noisy rockfalls (in Mexico) or a particularly large explosion (in Guatemala). It’s good to know my ears are at least tuned to noises that I definitely need to pay attention to!

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