5 July 2009

A geology geek to the core (Accretionary Wedge #18)

Posted by Jessica Ball

Sitting here in Zion National Park, one of the last spots I visited on my first geology field course, I feel like I’m coming full circle to some of the reasons that I’m still doing geology. (I also feel like I could receive wifi through my teeth. Twenty plus wifi points? Really?) Anyway, it’s a perfect chance for me to answer Volcanista’s question:

So July’s topic is about your inspiration to enter geosciences. Was it a fantastic mentor? Watching your geologist parents growing up? A great teacher, or an exciting intro field trip? How did it happen?

I first became interested in geology as a little kid – that rock and dinosaur phase that so many of us go through. Fortunately, living in the DC area meant that I could go see the Smithsonian Natural History Museum pretty much any time I wanted to, and I did. I remember my dad lifting me up over the rail so I could pet the fake tyrannosaur skull, and driving the video camera that looked in on the fossil prep lab, and peering at the fluorescent minerals in the gem and mineral exhibit. My parents let me dig giant holes in the backyard, and the one time I found a fossil (a shell mold), I remember asking if the Smithsonian might want it for their collection.

I pretty much knew I wanted to do geology all through primary and secondary school, and especially volcanology. Some Saturdays I would watch tapes of the old Planet Earth series (the one narrated by an Attenborough, not this Sigourney Weaver stuff they redid recently), and I would always skip to the plate tectonics and volcanoes episode. (Yes, I was pretty much an uber-geek from the start.) When I got to high school, the “geosystems” class was mostly meant for non-AP-track students, so I took AP Chemistry and, somehow, found out about a volunteer position at the Smithsonian instead, helping edit the Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network . Two summers of that and I was hooked on volcanoes for good; I literally couldn’t imagine having any career other than geology, and volcanoes were especially fascinating.

When I went looking at colleges, the geology program was a big factor, and I pretty much knew that I was going to go to William & Mary the moment I set foot on campus. When I started classes, I was so excited to be taking intro geology that I sat front and center the whole semester (although the instructor, who was a visiting prof, didn’t even recognize me when I met him at GSA a year or so later). I was lucky enough that my freshman advisor turned into my permanent advisor, and that he took a chance on letting me into his Regional Field Geology course with nothing more than Intro and Historical Geology under my belt.

And that’s how I ended up in Zion, and a lot of other places on and around the Colorado Plateau, after my freshman year. I didn’t know much about minerals, or field mapping, or structures, or petrology, or pretty much anything at the start of that trip – but boy, did I learn. After three and a half weeks in the field I was pretty much hooked for life, even though I spent a good chunk of it being sweaty and tired and sleeping on rocks and generally being upset with my own lack of experience.

I was also hooked on the field work, which turned out to be a good thing – my senior research project, and some mapping I’ve been helping with the last couple of years, grew out of one stop on that first long field course. My advisor played a huge part (and I’ve written about it before), and the fact that he pushed me to work hard and take risks is one of the reasons I’m still in the field. It’s invaluable to have someone who believes in you, after all. (He’s also one of the reasons I became a better writer, and boy, has that paid off!)

I think the moment that I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a volcanologist was when I scooped a blob of molten rock out of a Kilauea lava flow and watched it cool. My field notes for that hike say “BEST DAY EVER!” even though I know I was tired and hot and had a twisted ankle at the end of the hike. Handling the lava – seeing it up close for the first time – was just addictive, and every time I see a volcano I get the same sort of rush, to varying degrees.

So, I guess my answer is a mixture of things. I feel like to some extent the geology just got hardwired in there, although I have no idea how. But experiences and mentors were a huge part of it as well – and now that I’m in grad school for volcanology, and have even more great mentors to work with, I hope I’ll want to stick with it for a long time to come.