Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

HE&me

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

HE&me

Article excerpt

Stephen Sparks, professorial research fellow at the University of Bristol, is a geologist whose work has improved our ability to predict deadly volcanic eruptions. In June, he will receive the 2015 Vetlesen Prize, an award considered to be the Nobel prize of the earth sciences

Where and when were you born?

15 May 1949, in Harpenden, Hertfordshire

How has this shaped you?

My parents moved to Chester in 1954, so my upbringing was on the Wirral. Major influences on my early life were an accident-prone childhood, the loss of my mother at 12 after a long illness, being brought up with my brother by a devoted father and exploring the mountains and caves of North Wales as a teenager.

What were your immediate reactions to winning the award?

Huge surprise and shock: I had no idea that I was being considered.

What is the significance of winning such an award?

The Vetlesen Prize highlights the earth sciences sensu lato, which are not recognised by the Nobel prize. The list of past winners is a who's who of 20th century earth scientists so it's a great honour to be included. This is the key science of the coming decades to address many of the great challenges of a sustainable Earth.

Are academics concerned with gongs, or do they just focus on interesting and impactful research?

Sports stars like gold medals, actors like Oscars, novelists like winning the Booker Prize and musicians like winning prestigious competitions. Scientists are no different. Most take intrinsic pleasure from their work and continued creative endeavours: accolades are nice but not the main reason people strive to excel. I have an impression that sports stars and artists would not be asked such a question, reflecting a puzzlingly different view of science within British culture.

The study of volcanoes would suggest there is certain amount of risk attached to your work. Have you ever had any nervy moments during fieldwork?

Not on a volcano, but I was close to being flattened by a huge ore truck in a mine. I was also in a tricky situation once in a freak snowstorm in a remote area of the Andes, but all ended well.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

Play football for Liverpool.

What advice would you give to your younger self? …

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