24 February 2013

So you want to be a volcanologist?

Posted by Jessica Ball

Being volcanologist-y. The gloves are in the side pocket of the backpack, I swear! Photo by Nick Williams.

In addition to my blogging and on-again-off-again relationship with Twitter, I like to take my geologizing to places outside the office. Just yesterday, I had the opportunity to talk with a girls’ STEM club at my old elementary school about being a volcanologist. I actually do this fairly often, and I’m always really impressed by the questions the students come up with. They’re always inquisitive and thoughtful, and often catch me off guard – which is good!

I thought I’d put up a few of the questions and my answers here, mainly the ones I get most commonly. Not that this means I don’t want to be interviewed about my research anymore, because I certainly do! I’m just going to make it more challenging to think up questions for me…

What do you study in school to become a volcanologist?

Everything! Geology isn’t just one science, it’s many – chemistry and physics and biology and others, all combined to help us learn about the Earth. To get to the point I’m at today, I took classes in Newtonian physics, computer science and programming, chemistry, linear algebra, and especially writing. Writing is probably the most important of all, because as a scientist you have to be able to communicate your research to other people. Knowing how to write well can make the difference between having a job or not.

What was your favorite class?

Pretty much anything that involves writing! I always really enjoyed my English classes, and the seminar classes I took in college that involved writing. But as I go on with my studies and get more comfortable with math and physics concepts, I’ve found that I also really enjoyed fluid dynamics (which directly relates to things like lava flows and eruptions and – what I study – water moving through volcanoes).

What kinds of tools do you use in the field?

Geologists in general use a few very common tools. My field notebook is the most important one – I need to carefully record my observations and interpretations when I’m in the field, or I won’t know what I was looking at, why, what I observed about it, and what it might mean. This means I also carry pens, pencils and markers to write and label things. My hand lens is great for looking at small features in rocks when I don’t have a microscope handy (it’s hard to carry one of those around). Rock hammers are good for breaking rocks up to see fresh surfaces, or for collecting samples. (They can help you climb things and fix other field equipment and set up your tent, too!) Sometimes I use a special Brunton compass or transit when I’m mapping, to help me figure out directions and angles of rock formations. I also wear a lot of safety equipment – sturdy boots, hard hats, work gloves, rip-resistant clothing with long sleeves, and sunglasses or safety goggles are pretty standard, and I will add a gas mask if I’m going to be in an area with lots of fumes. Also, sunscreen is always important, because I’m often out in the sun all day.

Volcanologists use a lot of other special equipment. We might use a thermocouple or a thermal camera to take temperature measurements, seismometers and tiltmeters to measure ground movement, UV cameras to observe gas emissions, etc.

How do you stay safe when working on active volcanoes?

By being prepared! Before setting foot on a volcano, it’s essential to talk to people who have worked there before you so you know what conditions will be like for hiking, transportation, sampling, and what the volcano’s current activity is like. We talk to volcano observatories to look for patterns in activity that will tell us what a volcano may or may not do. When we are on a volcano, we are very careful to avoid areas that could be dangerous – within the path of pyroclastic flows or mudflows or lava bombs, near gas vents or lava flows, or unstable ground are just a few. We let people know where we are going to be and when, we keep in radio or phone contact, and we watch our step all the time. If you are injured or get sick on a volcano, it can be very hard to get to safety quickly. We also make sure we have first aid kits, someone with first aid training, and enough food and water to last through an emergency. And having the right tools (see the previous question) is very important as well. Even something as simple as wearing gloves can make the difference between having a pleasant hike and having to go to the hospital to get stitches if you trip and fall on a lava flow.

Did you have a rock collection when you were my/our age?

Yes! I collected rocks wherever I went. When I was little this meant that I picked up a lot of gravel from people’s driveways, but I also bought rock samples from museums and picked up rocks when I went traveling. I still have a very extensive rock collection, although it lives in a couple of different places now (at my office and at home, depending on what I need the rocks for).

How did you get interested in volcanology?

When I was little, I used to go with my parents to the Natural History Museum (part of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC). I thought dinosaurs and crystals and gems were really neat, but I always loved hearing about volcanoes. When I got to college and had a chance to start learning about them in detail, I definitely knew I wanted to be a volcanologist. (And on one field trip, when I got to dip a hammer into an active lava flow in Hawaii and pull out some molten rock, I was hooked for life!)

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get involved in volcanology/geology?

Study hard! Make sure you take lots of math and science courses, even if you don’t think you’ll do well, because you need a good foundation in a lot of different topics to be a geologist. But don’t neglect anything that has to do with writing, because you’ll be doing a lot of it! If you can volunteer at a museum or a nature center, do it – I volunteered at the Smithsonian in high school and I’m still in touch with people who I worked with there. If you can go on field trips, do it – your local state/national park/museum/community college/university may run trips that are open to the public, and there’s no better way to learn about geology than seeing it in the field.

When you get to high school or college, you should obviously take geology courses, but for volcanology you may want to focus on some things more than others. Mineralogy, petrology, plate tectonics, surface processes and hydrology are all classes that were important for my research, but I also ended up taking things like linear algebra, fluid mechanics, and remote sensing/GIS as well. Don’t be afraid to branch out into other departments, particularly math, physics and engineering.

Definitely take a field course if you can, either through your school or another. There are a couple of volcanology-specific ones: the University of Hawaii at Hilo runs a field camp through the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes (CSAV), which I have taken and which is excellent; and the University of Alaska Fairbanks runs an International Volcanology Field School in Alaska and on the Kamchatka peninsula. There also seems to be a field camp run by the University of South Dakota that goes to Iceland, although I’m not as familiar with that one. In addition, there are volunteer opportunities at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory (run by the USGS).

Keep your eyes open and talk to people about finding opportunities to get volcanology experience – a lot of the things I’ve done have come about through word-of-mouth and connections I’ve made through my advisor and at conferences. (Oh, yes, go to conferences if you can! My first journal article came about as the result of a conversation at a poster I was presenting!) It really is all about who you know, and you’ll know so many more people if you put yourself out there. That’s true of geology, but it’s also true of any science (or, indeed, most jobs!)