26 January 2018

Dr. Vasileios Chatzaras : “It’s a win-win situation.”

The Utrecht-Sydney super exchange

In January 2018, Dr. Vasileios Chatzaras, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the department of Earth Sciences, will start as a lecturer at the University of Sydney. His appointment serves as a great example of the Super Exchange partnership the University of Sydney and Utrecht University signed in 2017.   

Dr. Vasileios Chatzaras during fieldwork

 “It’s a win-win situation. In my new position at the University of Sydney, I can continue my research collaboration with my colleagues at Utrecht University. People that I know very well and with whom I have a really good collaboration, as well as personal relationship. So we’ll continue our collaboration from another perspective.”

When Vasileios Chatzaras said this in June 2017, he still worked at Utrecht University as a postdoctoral researcher with Martyn Drury. But as of January 2018, after a six –month stop-over in the USA,  he’ll be starting as a lecturer at the University of Sydney. The Super exchange partnership agreement  between both universities is a great help in the step he has taken. But why is that precisely? Chatzaras:

“Utrecht and Sydney are both leading research universities, with significant contributions - past and present - in the area of Earth Sciences. Also the working environment in both universities is great.”

Tectonic plate research in Utrecht

He continues: “I’m collaborating with people from the Structural Geology Group at Utrecht University, the professor and head of the Group, Martyn Drury, and with the assistant professor Oliver Plümper. We’re trying to understand the strength of the boundaries between tectonic plates. For example, we study the San Andreas Fault in western USA, and the Baja California area in western Mexico, to understand the strength of the boundary between the Pacific and North American plates.”

Geological microstructure

Understanding how tectonic plate boundaries can affect our lives

“Particularly, we want to understand the processes taking place at the deeper parts of the plate boundaries, between fifteen and fifty kilometres depth. We try to get better insights on how the strength of the rocks may affect processes like seismicity. Will two tectonic plates slide easily one past the other, or not? If they don’t slide easily, large earthquakes may happen. Considering that about forty percent of the earth’s population lives along plate boundaries, we need to understand how these boundaries may affect our lives.”

A view from up close: the Utrecht Electron Microscopic facility

“To study the deeper parts of the tectonic plates, we analyse rocks that have been transferred to the Earth’s surface. The rocks may be transferred fast, during volcanic eruptions, or slow, as parts of oceanic tectonic plates, which have been uplifted and exposed at the Earth’s surface. With fieldwork I’m doing about two months a year, I collect these rock samples and analyse them back at the lab.”

Bombarding rocks with electrons

“We’re studying microscale to nanoscale processes, meaning processes that take place from the millimetre down to the atomic scale. The microscopes we are using work with electrons rather than light. You bombard your sample with a beam of electrons and you get much larger magnifications and higher resolution compared to the light microscopes. At the end, you can constrain the mechanisms that accommodate deformation within the studied rocks, and therefore, at the deeper parts of the plate boundaries from which the rocks have been extracted. The Electron Microscopic facility, EM Square, at Utrecht University, where we carry out this type of analyses, is a world-class facility.”

A view from Down Under

Chatzaras: “Sydney is a great place for me: it’s an interactive environment that will get the kind of research I conduct a step further. They carry out  state of the art modelling work at the School of Geoscience. Their aim is to understand large-scale tectonic processes through time, by synthesizing big geological datasets. On the other hand,I’m studying how crystals that make up a rock deform and I try to scale up these results to advance our understanding of how plate tectonics work. With my research, I will add pieces to fill in Sydney’s puzzle.”

Building a collaborative open access data system

“We need to consider crystal deformation when we model Earth. Processes taking place at microscale are very important, because they control tectonic plate scale processes. In collaboration with partners from the US (Basil Tikoff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Julie Newman at Texas A&M University), we are currently developing an open access digital data system for microstructural data collection and archiving. It will be very interesting to see how big microstructural datasets can be incorporated to earth-scale numerical models in order to inform on tectonic processes.”

The advantages of the Sydney agreement

 The Sydney agreement will help consolidate existing collaborations, and develop new ones. It will enhance the exchange of expertise and knowledge between the two universities. But Chatzaras also sees several specific advantages.

Sharing a lab

“It’s not easy to meet with your collaborators as often as you would like, when they are stationed overseas.  Skype and email are great, but sometimes you need to physically be in the same room in order to make progress on specific aspects of your shared research. When you come together in the same room with your collaborators, you interact more productively, which may help to finalize research ideas or generate new ones.”

Flywheel for external funding

“Interacting with your collaborators in the lab is as important as doing so outdoors, during fieldwork. In the research field of Structural Geology, we need to do fieldwork - often in remote areas – to collect field data and rock samples, which can then be used as preliminary data when applying for external funding. It is critical to have the opportunity to interact with your overseas collaborators in the field, where many scientific ideas are shaped. The Sydney agreement can be very helpful on this aspect and I anticipate that the agreement will help to attract more external funding in the area of Geosciences.”

Student exchange

“The agreement also aims in enhancing mobility of students. It’s really a great opportunity for them to study in the multi-cultural and inclusive environment of Utrecht and Sydney Universities. As a postdoctoral researcher in Utrecht, I really enjoyed working with students on research projects. Some interesting results and publications came out of these collaborations, which I hope will continue through the signed agreement. I hope that the agreement will serve as a two-way avenue between Utrecht and Sydney students.”