Tracking How I Became a Scientist

Note: cross posted at Smurfoflauge Cafe w/ modification.

My first memory is of my Dad hunched over our new Sanyo personal computer, one of the first PCs ever produced for individual consumers. He told me I needed to know about science and math, because technology is going to be the way of the future. If I wasn't on top of technology, science and math, I'd be left behind. I've always felt the imperative to pursue math and science. I assume it is the result of internalizing my father's words. My parents bought kits that allowed me to assemble skeletons, muscles over the bones, so that I would understand how the body works. They wanted me to know everything I could. My mother took me to the Natural History museum where I would pour over the gems and minerals and stand awed beneath the giant dinosaur skeletons. They both let me dig in the back yard as an archaeologist and apparently planted the arrowhead I still carry around with me.

I feel like I have always wanted to be a geologist. The specific branch of geology has changed with time, but I have never seriously wavered in my career choice. At six, I told my first grade teacher I wanted to be a paleontologist. She didn't know what that was, so she had me explain it to the class. I told her I wanted to study dinosaurs and that in order to do that, I needed a doctorate.

Main entryway at LA County Natural History Museum, December 2010.

Then in third grade, I watched a PBS video on the Hawaiian volcanoes. There is something truly magical about watching ribbons of bright orange molten rock collide with the sea to form pillow lavas as the lava hits the cold waters of the Pacific. I decided I'd be a volcanologist.

Formation of a pillow lava. Photo courtesy of

In high school, I became obsessed with ground and surface water pollution. I was fascinated by red tides, so I decided to be a hydrogeologist.

Red Tides. Courtesy of:

Then in college, I found out about ophiolites and how we can use them to study ancient seafloor spreading processes. I decided I would be a marine geologist/volcanologist/structural geologist.

Troodos Ophiolite in Cyprus. You can see the X-cutting dike relationships (near vertical on L side of picture and near horizontal at center of the picture). The dikes feed magma from the mantle to the seafloor, creating new crust. From:

In graduate school while I was working on ophiolites, I learned how microorganisms can alter the oceanic crust at black and white smokers. I thought, someday I should pursue that.

Alvin's mechanical arm reaches toward a black smoker on the EPR. Bacteria live off the hydrothermal fluids coming from the chimney and in the chimney rock itself. They transform metals in order to gain energy as no light penetrates this deep below the ocean surface. From:

Then I got married and tried to find a job in my field that was close to the Navy base where my husband works, so I ended up as a HAZMAT manager, and Environmental Manager. I didn't feel challenged at that job and when we moved, I looked for a new position. I found NOTHING within a 2 hr, one way commute, so I tried to be a housewife and turned into a lunatic. Hubby pushed me to write up my thesis into a publication and get back into the game. This may have been for his own sanity.

I decided to do just that, and that I would work on microbial alteration of the seafloor. Funding fell through, so I ended up constructing a dissertation out of microbial weathering in terrestrial hot springs. It wasn't exactly what I wanted initially (being a seafloor girl), but it has been a supremely rewarding experience that has exposed me to all sorts of new ideas.

Field Sampling in 2009 to look at microbial weathering in hot spring systems. Note: Do not try this at home.

By now I am sure you see a trend. I've always wanted to be some sort of geologist and when I can't do that, I am miserable. I honestly believe that my parent's influence in those earliest interactions played an important driving role in my decision to become a scientist. This is part of why I feel so strongly that parents are the key to growing young scientists.


  1. Thank you for sharing your story! I stumbled upon your blog from a retweet by @geosociety, and I am so glad I did. As I was reading through your post I felt like I was reading about my own journey. I decided at around 10 years old during a family vacation to the Badlands National Park that I wanted to be a geologist, and my parents, especially my mother, wholeheartedly supported and encouraged my decision. I have recently gotten engaged to a man who is active-duty in the Army and still has a few more years left. I've almost driven myself crazy with how I'm going to maintain my beloved geology career and be a military wife. I've searched for jobs around where my fiance will be stationed but with no luck, so I've decided now is the most opportune time get a second degree in Chemistry (unfortunately, the small university in the area does not offer a graduate Geology degree). Thank you again for your reassuring post. It's a great feeling to know I'm not the only Geologist/(Soon-to-be)Military Wife out there!

  2. Allison: Congratulations on your engagement! This is an exciting time for you. I will have to remember to thank @geosociety for the retweet.
    I am not going to lie and tell you that having a career and being a military spouse is an easy balance, but it is doable. You should really check for geology jobs on or near the base. There are more associated with Army installations than Navy ones. Also, Agviq Environmental (often partners w/ CH2M Hill) has most of the environmental geology contracts with the military. I did some contract work for them and they are AMAZING! I wish I could have gotten a permanent position with them. You should check out the SMART scholarship program too, as the DoD will pay for your graduate work, plus a generous stipend and guarantee employment upon completion of your work. It will also guarantee a DoD internship, which can help you get a foot in the door with working in a science position on base.
    I don't know if any of those things appeal to you, but I just wanted you to know that you have options.
    Congratulations again.


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