Sunday, 18 January 2015

A road to studying volcanoes

Whether I'm at a party or talking to strangers on a plane - the question "What do you do for a living?" is almost always followed at one point or another by "How did you get into that?".
Sometimes I even ask myself this question. Ten years ago, when I finished high school (yes, I'm that old...), I certainly didn't have the faintest idea that life was going to take me right to this point. Yet, here I am. So whether you're curious about my path, or trying to determine whether it's the right one for you, let's explore how I ended up in the here and now.

1. Geophysics.
In Germany, geophysics isn't really much on people's radar. Having grown up there, it wasn't on mine either. When I was little, maybe 7 or so, I thought whales and dolphins were really cool, so I wanted to be a marine biologist (yep, 7-year old me was that specific). A couple years later, inspired by who-knows-what, I thought archeologist would be a better idea. This phase was soon followed by my Egyptologist period, when I loved everything from scarabs to hieroglyphics, and was extremely excited about finally getting history classes in school in grade 6. What I didn't realize at the time was that all these lines of employment (or lack thereof?) have something in common: I've always loved to study things, alive (dolphins) or dead (neanderthal men, pharaohs), and I've always loved mysteries. In a way, this is what science is all about: solving puzzles. 
The closer I got to the end of high school the more urgent became the question of what I thought I was going to do with my life. I had lots of favourite subjects in school - languages, maths, physics, and geography - which didn't make the choice any easier. I took tests in newspapers which were supposed to give me the answer. Needless to say, even though the results brought some interesting ideas they didn't solve the problem. In the end, my Mom - inadvertently - gave me the deciding clue. She asked me whether maybe I would enjoy studying meteorology. Her suggestion didn't throw me into complete ecstasy, but was worth taking into consideration, so I flipped open the "career bible", a book published by the German Employment Agency every year summarizing almost any study or career choice you can imagine. The page about meteorology read somewhat interesting, but it really hit me when I flipped to the next page and saw the headline "geophysics". You mean you can combine all the cool topics from geography with physics and that is actually a thing? Even better, they offered a program in Munich, really close to where I grew up. My first decision was made: I was going to give this at least a try.
I looked up a professor in the geophysics department in Munich, Heiner Igel, and sent him an email. For some magical reason he agreed to meet me if I was going to come to Munich to pay the department a visit. In retrospect I realize that this was probably a very special and amazing act of friendliness of him - which professor takes time to meet with a high school student who may or may not be interested in his subject? He invited me into his office, told me about his research and then took me to one of his classes. It was a 3rd year class or so, everything was in English, and little high school me only understood about 25% of what was going, but those 25% really captured my attention. After the class, he introduced me to two of his Master's students who added the final bit: You could go hiking in the mountains, or travel to remote destinations for work? I was in! I signed up for a geosciences Bachelors degree.

2. "Fernweh" - or The nomad story.
During my high school years I had already wanted to go overseas - it just never worked out. Ok, I had done 3 student exchange/language school visits to England and 1 to France, but it just wasn't enough. I needed more. A mapping field trip to the Italian island of Elba and a volcanology field trip to the Canaries just made my travel bug more impatient. I needed to go somewhere - far away! And indeed, for my Master's degree I ended up about as far away from Germany as you can get: New Zealand! I had worked hard for about a year and a half, contacting geosciences departments, applying for scholarships, university housing, etc, before I finally stepped onto that plane into the big unknown. The fact that I didn't know a single person in this country on the other side of the world that I had never been to that was going to be my home for the next 2 years certainly added to the adventure. I loved Wellington as soon as I got there, but a disappointment was waiting for me at the university: The funding for the project I was supposed to work on hadn't been approved (just another day in academia, as I now know). My supervisor, Martha Savage, encouraged me to chat with people in the department and read some papers before deciding what to do instead. My life was about to take another unexpected turn: I was about to find out that I had a passion for volcanoes. Sure, there was the volcanology field trip to the Canaries, but it wasn't until now that I realized that, yes, I can study volcanoes if I want to. ME! For real.
The next two years flew by, and I was so busy exploring this awesome little country and its surroundings (Samoa! Australia!) that I hadn't noticed that - somewhere along the way - I had lost my plan to go back to Germany after my degree was done. I had milked my New Zealand visa as much as I could, and left the country on the last day I was legally allowed to be there. I said goodbye with one crying and one laughing eye: I was about to leave my dear friends and my dear Wellington and my dear kiwi land behind, but only to embark on a new adventure. I had signed up for a PhD in Vancouver, Canada. When I had visited Vancouver that spring, I think the new vibe combined with the odd familiarity had influenced my decision: This was a new city, a new country, and yet there were the familiar elements of nature so similar to New Zealand (water. trees. mountains. whales. birds.) and the ever friendly people who softly tickled my about-to-be-missed kiwiness with their always present "eh". This is my 4th year in Canada.
Of course the traveling didn't stop there: Pretty much all of geosciences are so small that conferences happen all over the world, that at any given moment you're likely to work with people from as many different countries as you can count. I've had the luxury and pleasure to travel to Austria, Italy, Spain, Australia, Japan, Mexico, Ecuador, and to 9 different states in the US (Alaska, Hawai`i, Washington state, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington DC) all for work related reasons, and I've had the chance to live and work on research vessels twice. Do I need to say more?

3. Geoscience - an allrounder
In geoscience, a field that goes back centuries, you can be a lab rat, an outdoors man (or woman), a computer geek, an explorer, a big picture thinker, a writer, a talker, a listener - it doesn't matter. There is a place for everyone. Geoscience turned out to be the perfect combination for my needs: I get to travel, speak different languages, work with people from all over the world, and help to unravel mysteries that affect our every day lives. These mysteries are visible (eruptions!), we can feel some of them (earthquakes!), and yet they are strangely fleeting, almost intangible, and continue to astound!

At Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador last November. Can you tell my excitement? Photo credit: James Hickey

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