Stacy Phillips

Stacy Phillips

Stacy Phillips is a geologist and PhD researcher at The Open University, where she is investigating how the crust melts and the effect this has on the growth of the Himalayan mountains. You can hear tales of her fieldwork in Bhutan in Episode 7 of Fieldwork Diaries. Find her on Twitter at @shtacy_phillips and check out her photos on Instagram at @shtacyp.

As a child I was always curious about the natural world, always asking questions and wondering how landscapes formed. Pursuing my scientific interests seemed like a natural path for me, although my first career choice was always to be the first female professional football player for Liverpool FC (a sadly unrecognised dream). During high school I developed a love of geography, and so carried on and studied it at college. I was lucky enough to go to a college that also offered geology and this seemed the perfect accompaniment to my love of physical geography. Early on in the course we went on a fieldtrip to Ingleton, Yorkshire and there I saw Thornton Force, which is a classic site for seeing a formation called an unconformity. Unconformities represent gaps in time and the one at Ingleton represents a gap of 170 million years. I learnt all about how you could find this out in the field and I thought “Wow, that’s cool, all that information from just a waterfall”. My love of geology as an observational science was born.

Me in front of the landscape that inspired me to become a geologist.

In pursuit of my geological dream I moved north of the border and completed my undergraduate in Earth Sciences at the University of St Andrews. Scotland has been a haven for geologists for hundreds of years because of its excellent fieldwork locations, and the university prides itself on its fieldwork teaching. With so many amazing outcrops on my doorstep, I quickly discovered that getting up close and personal with rocks in the field was the best part of being a geologist. And then there were the international fieldtrips including a mountainous trip to the Italian and Swiss Alps that opened my eyes to the stunning places I could visit through geology.

Val, D’Aoste, Italy during our 4th year fieldtrip to the Alps.

Eager to see the rocks of the world I then moved to Canada, completing my MSc. at Memorial University of Newfoundland. My research there was on a suite of granites in the Mojave Desert, California, and not content with one State-side visit, I carried out the bulk of my analyses at Washington State University. It was during these two years that I discovered I loved research, especially how I could combine lab work and fieldwork to solve geological problems. After graduating I was without a PhD project to continue onto, and worked as a Wetstock Analyst back in my Lancastrian hometown, using stock-level data to monitor petrol tanks across the world for leaks.

Sunset during my Master’s fieldwork in the Mojave Desert, California.
Magnificent schlieren-bound magmatic troughs in Yosemite National Park, California, when I attended the GSA Field Forum 2012.

Being cooped up in the office wasn’t for me so I kept looking for PhD projects, and eventually my current one at the Open University popped into my inbox. The chance to work in the Himalaya was one that I couldn’t pass up, and I was lucky enough to be accepted. The current research that I am carrying out is again focussed on granites, which are the solidified remains of molten rocks. When you build a mountain, you bury rocks at great depths, where you have high temperatures and pressures, and this can cause the rocks to melt. This molten rock can have a dramatic effect on the strength of a mountain belt and can allow it to move and “flow” back towards the surface. So understanding granites is really important for understanding how mountain belts evolve over time.

A kyanite-bearing (blue mineral) leucogranite that I sampled in Eastern Bhutan. It is thought that early melts like this one played an important role in the switch from burial to exhumation of the crust in the Himalaya.

I’m looking at granites in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which I was lucky enough to visit on fieldwork in Spring 2017. By examining these rocks in the field, collecting samples and then looking at them under a microscope, I can start to unravel how these rocks began to melt, and what reactions were occurring between minerals at the time. By carrying out chemical analyses of the rocks, involving techniques such as firing lasers at certain minerals, I can gain precise information about when the granites formed, some 30 to 40 million years ago. These analyses can also provide us with detailed information about the temperatures and pressures the rocks experienced. So by investigating the rocks at a very small scale I can then identify processes happening at a larger scale, and ultimately understand the dynamic evolution of the Himalayan mountain belt.

These snow-capped peaks in north-western Bhutan now lie 6000m above the earth’s surface, but they used to be 10’s of km below the earth’s surface.

When Stacy isn’t off on fieldwork or working on tiny minerals in the lab, you can normally find her shouting at the nearest sporting event, usually football or rugby league. Alternatively you might find her out and about taking photographs of her Lego minifigures (check out “The Highest Lego Store in the World” over on the Gallery page!).

Lego Stacy examining some Bhutanese kyanite crystals with her hand lens!
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