Oxford Student Volunteers In Nepal

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Graduate student profile: Ed Nissen

Watching England in the 2006 football World Cup at 4 am in the morning on a tiny black-and-white TV linked to a satellite powered by a car battery, while being warmed by the heat of a fire made from dried yak dung and surrounded by members of a sleeping nomadic family in their tent pitched in remote Mongolian countryside – that, says Earth Sciences postgraduate student Ed Nissen, rates as one of the fondest memories from three field trips he’s made during his four-year PhD studies of tectonics and earthquakes at Oxford.

The earthquake-prone regions of south-east Europe, the Middle East and south Asia have been the focus of Ed’s studies, with particular attention paid to the Siberia-Mongolian border which suffered its biggest earthquake for almost 50 years in 2003. ‘Mongolia has a very low population density’, says Ed, ‘so the human impact on the landscape is much smaller than it would be, for example, in Japan or California. I went two years after the 2003 earthquake and you could still see large fissures 3–4 metres wide. Also, because there is so little human impact, the effects of old earthquake ruptures are still visible, giving us a fantastic record of tectonics over hundreds of years.’

It is work, says Ed, that holds lessons for other earthquake-prone areas: ‘We are trying to map the average intervals between earthquakes – is it hundreds of years or thousands? Knowing this helps, for example, planners and people who develop building regulations, and of course it’s important for the insurance industry.’

Ed came to Oxford via school in Hammersmith, where he studied Chemistry, Maths, Further Maths and Geography to A-level. After a gap year doing voluntary work in Nepal, he went to Cambridge to study Chemistry, and took modules in Material Sciences and Geology. The latter, he says, ‘gradually made me realise I was interested in seeing the world and studying as much as possible outdoors’. So he came to Oxford, which, says Ed, ‘has one of the strongest groups in this field in the country’, and works closely with Cambridge, University College London and the University of Leeds, through the Centre for the Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes and Tectonics (COMET).

Alongside his studies, Ed has found time to pursue a family interest in music. His younger sister studied music at Oxford, completing her final year as Ed did his second. Ed, who had a music scholarship at school, played with the Oxford Millennium Orchestra and has done ‘a bit of singing’ with University College choir. He played college football and is a member of the University triathlon squad. He also devotes time to ‘The Good Life’ (although he says he’s not seen the BBC TV programme that helped coin the phrase), growing vegetables in his garden, catching crayfish and keeping chickens.

He says: ‘Oxford is a great city and University and I’m in a very sociable department which I enjoy. There are lots of teaching opportunities, which I find rewarding.’ His next step will take him back to Cambridge for a two-year stint of postdoctoral work on earthquakes and tectonics – and maybe a chance to get to Mongolia in time for the next World Cup.



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