When I started university in Fall 2020, it was a very isolating and unfortunate time. However, one glimmer of light and fortune was the chance to take ERS111: Earth, Climate, and Life with Professor Paul Ashwell. Professor Ashwell is an assistant professor in the department of Chemical and Physical Sciences at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). He brings with him a mix of expertise on geology and volcanology. He translates his knowledge to his teaching, making for a unique and engaging learning experience.
Originally from the United Kingdom, Professor Ashwell completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Portsmouth. As he pursued his studies, he knew he wanted to study the sciences, but didn’t know which one. However, he recalls having a fascination with the earth from a young age, which he was reminded of when he took a field trip to Spain. Working in the field, Professor Ashwell explains, he realized that “With earth science, when you’re in the field, everything that you learned in your lectures just clicks together. That’s the feeling that I had.”
Around that time, Professor Ashwell knew that he wanted to work in geology, but he didn’t know that he would go down the teaching route. “I was always interested in going into the industry, working for a mining company, going out to explore new areas for mineral resources, and [this] was around 2006 or 2007, the time there was a booming mineral market,” he continues, “Except that when I came to finish my degree in 2009, there was the global financial crisis, and one of the big hits was the mining industry [which] caused all these companies to cut their exploration budgets within months. It went from adverts of lots of well-paying jobs to nothing, just an absolute desert.”
With his industry plan being unfeasible, Professor Ashwell decided to pursue his postgraduate studies. “I had just about done well enough with my degree in the UK that I could apply for PhD programs,” he confesses. Since he wanted to travel the world with a mining company, he decided to complete his PhD abroad at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Though, he admits that due to his limited experience with graduate work, he felt underprepared for his PhD and needed to find extra funding.
In order to supplement his scholarship, he decided to take on teaching assistant positions. In these roles, Professor Ashwell realized that teaching was a good fit, “I realized that what I loved about science wasn’t the really intricate details that you have to do with a PhD, but it was just sharing my passion for that subject with other students.” Shortly after one of his instructors went away on a six-month maternity leave, he was offered their role.
Professor Ashwell adds that the university’s location was ideal for studying earth science: “There were all these earthquakes happening all the time; you could learn about an earthquake and then that night, there would be a little earthquake that you would feel.” However, the job was only temporary. Professor Ashwell explains that as a result of the earthquakes, the number of students in the program went down. He shares that budget cuts meant that he had to be let go: “My role no longer needed investing,” he expresses. Luckily, at this time, a position at UTM was posted. He applied for it and found that it was a perfect fit as it also focused on geology. Reflecting on his whole career so far, Professor Ashwell states, “It has been very focused on academia since I started university. […] I don’t have much industry experience as I originally planned, but […] I consider [this career path] to be more rewarding.”
Volcanoes are more than what you may realize. Professor Ashwell explains, “When people hear ‘volcano,’ the image that comes to mind is this perfect symmetrical mountain.” He defines volcanoes in their purest form as: “The surface expression that happens when magma, which is liquid rock, is able to come up to the surface.”
“Volcanoes have been active on earth since the start of its history,” Professor Ashwell continues, “I would argue that volcanoes are an integral part of several cycles, the most prominent being the carbon cycle. […] Volcanoes are a key factor of why we have an atmosphere on earth.” Volcanoes release water vapour and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when they erupt, and this was beneficial for the earth in its early days. This made the earth much warmer than it is today as carbon dioxide traps heat well. Even today when the atmosphere is full of greenhouse gas emissions, the volcanoes releasing carbon dioxide benefit the atmosphere. “The oxygen that we breathe in the atmosphere is because of the bacteria synthesizing with carbon dioxide that once came from volcanoes,” he explains. He also cites the example of the ice age and how volcanoes were integral in warming the earth’s climate.
Of course, there are risks to living near volcanoes and this is evident with the recent eruptions from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa in November 2022. “That doesn’t surprise me,” he continues, “It’s one of the most active volcanoes on earth, and so the eruption comes and goes. It’s always in cycles of activity.”
One questionable idea about volcanoes that Professor Ashwell identifies is the way fictional media portrays falling into lava. He argues, “I wouldn’t call this a misconception more so than just me being a volcanologist pointing out something that’s very nerdy. Movies such as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of King (2003) when [Gollum gets the ring from Frodo] and then falls into Mount Doom, he falls and sinks into the magma and all we see is the ring in his hand. Except that he is a biological creature and has a density many times less than magma.” He adds that “In a lot of shows, falling into magma is often portrayed as sinking whereas what is far more likely to happen is you would fall on top of it and stay there while bursting into flames.”
Professor Ashwell always connects the topic of volcanoes to his classes. In ERS111, he discusses volcanoes in relation to the earth’s climate. However, one of his current courses, ERS404: Volcanology and Geothermal Systems, allows him to elaborate on volcanoes further since the course focuses on how volcanoes are formed and their hazards. Professor Ashwell shares that he wishes to introduce many practical components to the class through hands-on experiments simulating magma and lava. For example, he notes that “This coming week we’re going to do experiments with viscosity and we’re going to get my students to run viscosity experiments on everyday liquids, change it up and try to connect that to how the viscosity of a magma or lava would change.”
To conclude, Professor Ashwell notes that some people are either unaware of the risks volcanoes pose due to a lack of resources or are overly scared based on little reason. “A few years ago, there was a major eruption on White Island, in New Zealand. Not only did [the event] connect New Zealand with volcanoes but [it] almost painted the volcano in a bad light, in a way that is extremely dangerous. Obviously, at the time, that type of eruption was not unusual, but pretty rare,” he explains. Professor Ashwell emphasizes that volcanoes are not entirely dangerous, but we must be mindful of their risks. To do so, we must stay informed through reliable outlets on volcanic activity. As a passionate educator, Professor Ashwell is eager to listen to people’s thoughts on the dangers of volcanoes as well as debunk their associated misconceptions about how hazardous they are. He hopes to take some time exploring the nearest volcano in British Columbia to conduct further research.
Staff Writer (Volume 49) — Yusuf is in his third-year completing a major in English and double minor in Cinema Studies and History Of Religions. Following an anticipated return to campus he sought to get involved and his ambition led him to join The Medium. In addition to developing his writing skills further he has found his experience contributing insightful as he’s learned about other fields on campus he wouldn’t know about otherwise. When he’s not studying or writing he enjoys listening to music and browsing the internet. You can connect with Yusuf on LinkedIn.