Tell me a little bit about yourself?


Philip Heron

Where you went to school/studied?

I am English, born in England, and I went to high school in the North East of England near Newcastle. At 18, I went to the University of Leeds to do a degree in Geophysics (2002 – 2006). I did a special degree in that I spent one year (my third year) in another country – I went to the University of Alberta in 2004/2005. It was quite cold.

I finished my degree back in Leeds in 2006. The title of the degree is quite fancy: Master of Geophysics (Internationl). After that, I worked for a couple of years doing various jobs: I was a geophysical researcher for an software company, I worked in market research, I was a barman, I taught English to French business people, and I worked in the music and film industry. I moved to Toronto in 2009 to do a PhD in Geophysics, and have been here ever since! I now work as a post-doc (which is a researcher, a level below a prof) at U of T, and will be moving back to the UK in January to do another post-doc.

img_2561What did you study?

I have been studying Geophysics since 2002. I have a Masters of Geophysics, and a PhD in Geophysics I received in 2014 from the University of Toronto.



What career did you pursue?

I am currently pursuing a career as an academic. I wish to become a professor at a University and teach geology and geophysics while conducting my own research in geodynamic modelling.

What is the focus of your work?

I use computer models to try and understand the way our planet works. My main focus is on plate tectonics – how our continents are in the positions that they are, and how Earth is the only planet we know of that has plate tectonics.

I have previously worked on methods for predicting volcanic eruptions, and to interpret what the rock beneath our feet looks like!

A brief description of what I am working on now can be found here: 

Or summarized below:

The emergence of plate tectonics allowed for advanced life to propagate and distinguishes our planet from any other. The conventional theory of plate tectonics explains tectonic activity at the edges of continents (e.g., the Andes and the San Andreas Fault) but not mountain building and seismicity within continent interiors (intraplate tectonics).  Using computational models, we show that hidden scars in the deep mantle lithosphere from ancient plate boundaries may control intraplate activity. Our results imply that plate boundaries are timeless, and in accord introduce a map of hidden tectonics to determine and alter ideas on the convectional theory (shown below).  

Perennial plate tectonic map
Timeless plate boundaries: current plate boundaries are given in white, yellow lines may represent older plate boundaries with hidden scars that could control tectonic deformation. 

Do you enjoy the work you do?

The past two years have been absolutely fantastic. Working as a post-doctoral research has been great – conducting my own research and learning lots of new science on a new project. It can be tough sometimes as there is so much to learn, and you feel that you aren’t good enough, but the rewards of figuring something out or possibly finding something new make it worth it.


What have you learned being in this line of work?

I have learned to always be the biggest critic of your own work. 

I have learned so much interesting science on how our world works. I have learned how to be diplomatic, and how to work in a team. I have learned that my opinions are not always the best, and that you should keep an open mind.

What/when did you realise that this was what you wanted to do/study?

I wasn’t too sure of what to do at university, and a teacher suggested I look into geophysics. I actually hadn’t heard of it before, but I was good at Maths and Physics, and thought dinosaurs and volcanos were cool, so the teacher suggested it. Geophysics at university is a combination of geology, physics, maths, and computer programming. It seemed a good mix of many interesting topics. The opportunities for travel were fantastic – a lot of the jobs related to being a geophysicist required working all over the world. At 16 I was very interested in that, and applied!

What sparked your interest?

My interest in maths, physics and dinosaurs and volcanos!

What did you like? Dislike?

I had never taken geology before, so I really struggled. I wasn’t a natural student and had to work really hard to understand geology topics. This meant some long hours of studying, which I did not like.

Did anything or anyone inspire you?

My teacher at school! Mr Parkinson!

What are some of your accomplishments?

I won a teaching award at the University of Toronto which I am very proud of. I take presenting and teaching very seriously, and take great pride in being understood.

When I was an undergraduate, I worked for 2 months with a professor on a project over the summer. The project became my first academic research paper – I worked really hard on the project and learned so much. It was immensely satisfying to get a great result.  

This year, my colleagues and I published a paper on research that gained worldwide attention by news organizations. The work may be important in understanding earthquakes and mountains in the middle of continents.

Also this year, I wrote an article for an online magazine. I really like writing and sharing my love of science, and I was really happy with the way it turned out. I take great pride in presenting ideas to people – so writing something that was read and (I think) enjoyed by thousands of people was great.

More information about this can be found here!

I also really enjoy going to schools and talking to people about science. It is a shame that I cannot come to your school.

What were some of the barriers you faced?

I am not from a wealthy family so the expense of university was difficult at time. I am proud of my roots, and feel people from my social background are not well represented in the higher levels of academia. I feel science should be for all, and I try to create an atmosphere within the classroom that promotes open communication, and try to teach in an interactive way to ensure inclusivity. I am a firm proponent that every student has the right to a good education, no matter what their circumstances in life are.

During my PhD, money was quite tight. The early career of an academic does not earn enough money to live off in a city like Toronto. It was very difficult and you have to make a lot of sacrifices.

How did you overcome these struggles?

I had to save quite a bit and really focus on what was important.

Was there ever a time where you felt like giving up?

Yes. During my PhD I had little money, and I wasn’t progressing on a project. My computer programming skills just weren’t good enough and I had spent months and months stuck. Through a good support network of fellow students and my supervisor, I worked through the problem and managed to produce some excellent work.

In academia, you always feel like a fraud. There is a thing call “Imposter Syndrome” where you feel like you don’t belong because you aren’t smart enough. I work really hard, and try to make sure my science is interesting to me and others. There is always someone who is better at maths, or physics, or computer programming, or geology than I am. But, I try and do my best.

At the moment, I have an excellent job, and I will be working in the UK for 2 years starting next year. But after that, I am hoping for a permanent professor position. So, even after all these years, I am still not settled. This can be difficult for some, and a lot of people leave because of this. There are not enough jobs for all the people with PhDs, so it is a battle. However, my grandparents were coal miners and didn’t really have a choice in what profession they went in. I do, to a certain extent, and I will try to create a fascinating career in science that has a lot of risk in honour of my family that had no such option.

I really enjoy what I do, and I have travelled the world and explored the mysteries of Earth!


What are some of your hobbies?

Working on a computer for most of the day means you want to get outside a lot! I love a lot of sport, and play soccer and run regularly. I am part of a soccer team and a running club in Toronto. I have competed in team running events – in 2013 myself and some friend ran from Coburg to Niagara Falls, taking turns to run 300km. We finished in 26 hours and finished 7th!

What are some things you do for fun?

I have a little dog, a little boy and a wife, so my life is very busy! We love taking our little dog out and about. I really enjoy sport and being outdoors, so that is what I usually do with my friends!

have you made any strong relationships with others in the same line of work as you?

There is a really good sense of community in geophysics. My colleagues have always been supportive – other students are fantastic friends to share experiences with. I’ve been to many conferences around the world, and as our community isn’t that big you see a lot of similar faces. When we all meet up, it is like a big family – it is great to be far from home and get to spend time with friends (and work, too!).

What do you enjoy the most about what you do?

I enjoy writing about science. I like shaping a paper to be able to explain our results clearly. The problem with this is, that you have to have result to be able to write! So, it is a small part of the job.

I really enjoy teaching and presenting, too. I feed off people and their enthusiasm for science.

Did you ever regret choosing to study geology? Did you ever want to try something else?

I have worked in a number of different jobs, and enjoy this one the most. It can be very stressful, but a lot of jobs are stressful in different ways. Here, I am basically my own boss (which has its ups and downs).  

I don’t regret choosing to study geology. I think if I don’t make it to be a professor in a few years I will change careers. Although, I would not regret the things I have done. I have built some excellent skills and have been successful at what I have done.  img_6227

I nearly applied to be a medical doctor, but felt that I would not have the ability to travel with my job. So I choose to do geophysics instead.

If I left my career tomorrow, I think it would be interesting to see what I would do. Maybe I would be a pizza taster? Haha. I like pizza.


Does your work require you to travel?

YES! In my career I have presented at conferences in:

China, USA (Boston, San Francisco, DC, Denver), Canada (Halifax, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa), UK (Leeds, London, Durham, Cardiff), France (on an island in the Atlantic), Austria (Vienna).

I have been on field trips to Hungary, Wales and Ireland.  

In 2015, I was out of Toronto for 3 months of the year. It was a great time and I saw so much of the world. China was a highlight.  

I have also travelled quite a lot in my spare time, and lived in France for a couple of years after finishing my degree.