Meet the Scientist: Georg Zellmer

November 18, 2019

Name: Dr. Georg F. Zellmer
Institution: Massey University
Place Of Residence: New Zealand

What kind of science do you do?
I am an Earth and planetary scientist working at the intersection of geochemistry, igneous petrology, and volcanology, with a focus on the rates and processes of magma generation and transfer, and the role of magmatic volatiles. I try to gain insights through interdisciplinary approaches that may include seismic tomography and other geophysical data.

How is the society beneficial to your studies? Your personal life? Why?
The society is beneficial to my studies through their weekly newsletter, which keeps me up to data with ongoing work at the forefront of geochemistry in many different fields, and through the bimonthly Elements magazine articles, which again lets me keep pace with topical research in geochemistry.

What is the most interesting thing about your field of research?
What I find most intriguing is how small-scale investigations, down to submicron level, now possible with modern analytical instrumentation, can reveal insights into processes that operate on length scales that are over 10 orders of magnitude larger. The other interesting aspect is the variety of activities my work offers, ranging from fieldwork in exotic locations through laboratory work using beautifully designed instruments to collaborative modeling and discussions with colleagues from around the globe.

Why do you think your field of work is pertinent to the world of geochemistry?
I think that the interdisciplinary aspects of my work provide a key to the interpretation of many of the geochemical data that is being published, as much as the geochemical data informs the details of some of the processes operating in the Earth and planetary sciences. This is in contrast to geophysical data, which provides present-day images of a resolution that is at present too low to identify any details. Geochemistry is thus a critical component of my work, but one that needs to be integrated with other approaches to reach its full potential.

What is one obstacle in your field of work that you wish you could overcome?
The greatest obstacle is a direct result of the small length scales of modern observations, which make it difficult to assess if the observations we make are representative. I think in future, automation and machine learning will be key to overcome this obstacle. However, many of the modern geochemical analyses are not straightforward, requiring attention to detail, and automation is going to be difficult in these cases.

What is one unusual memory you have from working in your field of study?
The most tantalizing moment was seeing a massive volcanic ash cloud rising above smaller clouds while in the field on the Caribbean volcanic island of Montserrat, in the middle of the "exclusion zone". We ran back to the vehicles and made our way out as fast as possible. We were lucky that the eruption did not trigger a pyroclastic flow in our direction. Generally, I prefer dormant volcanoes for my work, but I will certainly never forget that moment when I first experienced the unleashed power of volcanic eruptions.

If you could discover one thing in the entire world, what would that be?
How to effectively mitigate climate change and the multitude of its impacts in such a wide range of fields. While this is not my primary area of research, I believe it is the most pressing issue facing not only us, but all other life on this extraordinary, beautiful, and dynamic planet.

If you could meet anyone, dead or alive, who would that be and why?
That would have to be the great German explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt. He would have such enticing stories to tell of his extended travels. He would be able to share real insights about the natural world, and it would be great to learn from him how to best mentor the next generation of early-career scientists.