Meet ICTP's Diploma Graduates

Sarah Oliva: For the Love of Lava
Meet ICTP's Diploma Graduates

Coming from a country that sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is prone to tropical cyclones, it is no surprise that Postgraduate Diploma student Sarah Oliva of the Philippines chose to study Earth system physics at ICTP.

The intense, one year course of study she has recently completed--with a specialization in geophysics--has not only opened doors to a promising future, but has also helped to clarify her research direction. And it has led to the fulfillment of a good-natured prophesy that her father, a geologist, made years ago.

Sarah's interest in science grew out of an early attraction to mathematics. In elementary and high school she regularly participated in math contests, and for the first year of her bachelor's studies she majored in applied math with a focus on finance. But she didn't like the direction her studies were taking, and wanted to make a change. Science was certainly a study option; after all, she had grown up with her father's geology work.  

In the end, she chose physics, but not without some trepidation. "At first, I was scared to do it because I did not know much about physics, but it sounded interesting, and it felt interesting to me," Sarah explains. She attributes part of her decision to her high school physics teacher: "He presented physics in a way that was really interesting, by relating the topics to every-day, simple things, and I thought about that when I decided to change to physics."

After graduating with a double degree in physics and material science, Sarah learned from a friend about ICTP's Postgraduate Diploma Programme in geophysics. "It opened up to me this door to geophysics," she says. "Before, I didn't know that there existed such a field--I knew that there was either geology or physics--then I learned that there is this niche I could get into, where my physics background would be useful, and still follow my interest in geology."

Her Diploma Programme courses included a variety of subjects she had never studied before. Under the guidance of the Programme's experienced professors, Sarah learned about the atmosphere, climate, earthquakes and volcanoes. She developed a new appreciation for the volcanoes of her homeland, and now plans to study volcanic regions for her PhD.

Her time at ICTP has also given Sarah a new perspective on what it means to be a scientist, shattering the stereotypes she had picked up from media and cartoons. "Here, we meet people—post docs, researchers, scientists—from all over the world, and you get to know them, and not just talk to them about science but about life in general. You learn about how they got into this field, and it makes it more real. It shows that as a scientist, this is how it is, along with having a family, along with all these little things you never really think about. Being opened to that idea is inspiring."

As for her father's prophesy, Sarah relates: "We always had this joke that if I was to become a geologist, I would be a theoretical one, in the office, while he is the experimental one who works in the field and travels a lot. Based on my personality, he was telling me --way before all this happened--that I would be the kind that writes books. And it is so funny that now, it is actually quite accurate!"

Sarah is eager to continue her volcano research. In the autumn, she will begin her doctoral studies at the University of Rochester, New York, one of the top 50 graduate institutes in the United States. Eventually, she intends to return to the Philippines to help establish geophysics at her university.

Her sojourn in Trieste has provided a relaxed atmosphere to study, says Sarah. "To me it was such a good idea to put ICTP in Trieste because it is Italy with all the culture but not as busy as the big Italian cities." Living in Italy has also increased her appreciation for her own culture. "It is ironic that it took being away from home to do that. When you miss home, you realize that there are many things you take for granted."

--Mary Ann Williams

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Photos from 2015 Postgraduate Diploma Programme Graduation Ceremony

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