Planet Earth

A Long Way Still to Go to Create Representative Volcanology

Rocky Planet iconRocky PlanetBy Erik KlemettiMar 29, 2023 7:00 AM
Alexa Van Eaton
USGS Geologist Alexa Van Eaton sampling lava flow on Kīlauea in 2018. Credit: Alexa Van Eaton/USGS.


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

This is Part 2 of a look at the evolution of women in volcanology, especially at the US Geological Survey. You can read Part 1 here.

A Hawaiian eruption was an unexpected destination for Alexa Van Eaton. This was her second stint in the USGS. She had previously worked at CVO as a postdoctoral researcher and felt she didn’t really fit in there as an early-career female scientist. The mostly over-40 male staff of CVO was nothing new to her. Her professors in Florida and her Ph.D. advisor in New Zealand were men as well.

Van Eaton decided that before she committed to volcano research, she wanted to work with a woman. She took her NSF postdoctoral funding to Amanda Clarke, a world-renowned volcanologist at Arizona State. Van Eaton didn’t internalize at first the strong gender biases in her undergraduate and graduate academic experiences, thinking “it was the water we were swimming in.” Yet, some of those early experiences made her wonder if she wanted to spend a career working in such an environment.

Van Eaton’s experience resonated with Michelle Coombs, the current SIC at the Alaska Volcano Observatory. During her college years in geology, she thought the predominance of men in the Earth Sciences “was just how life was, that professors were male.” Not until working as a field assistant for USGS geologist Judy Fierstein did she realize how right her perceptions were. “Judy said ‘it is great to be in the field with a woman because I’ve hardly ever been in the field with a woman.”

Michelle Coombs examining the results of a lahar in 2006 on the slopes of Augustine in Alaska. Credit: USGS.

Coombs decided to work at Alaska Volcano Observatory in 2004 after her Ph.D. at University of Alaska and a stint as part of the USGS Volcanic Hazards Team in Menlo Park. She found AVO to be a very equitable place with mentors like Tina Neal and Terry Keith.

Only 12 years later, she was named the second woman to lead AVO, taking over as SIC in 2016. When that happened, she joined Neal and Maggie Mangan as a trio of woman leading USGS volcano observatories (60%) – a remarkable shift considering that only 12% of all scientists-in-charge were female across the history of the USGS.

Shifting Winds

Things changed in the two years between Van Eaton’s first and second stints at CVO. In what felt like an explosion of gender diversity, five women had been hired and Van Eaton noticed that the culture had completely changed. “Jokes that were acceptable before just weren’t happening as much anymore,” she recalls, “it suddenly felt like we were a team.”

Maybe it was the beginning of a generational shift in the USGS, where owing to hiring freezes in the 1990s, was very “top heavy” with older scientists. Maybe it was the Me Too movement that brought sexual harassment and representation into the spotlight. “Maybe we need to consider hiring team-players and not just high-powered researchers regardless of their behavior,” said Van Eaton.

The Earth Sciences – volcanology included – is amidst a crisis of identity. Most of the public would likely describe a geologist like they might describe an old prospector: outdoorsy, bearded, white, and male. The discipline deserves much of that label.

According to an analysis by Rachel Bernard and Emily Cooperdock (2018) in Nature Geosciences, since 1973 the percentage of men receiving a Ph.D. in geosciences sits at 73%. That number drops to 55% when examining Ph.D.s since 2016. Both numbers are well above the 49% of men in the general U.S. population.

Racial diversity is even worse, with only 4% of Earth Science Ph.D.s going to Hispanic students and 1% going to Black students according to Bernard and Cooperdock when these groups represent 30% of the total U.S. population.

These dismal stats point to the much broader issue that the status quo in the Earth Sciences can be especially unattractive or even hostile to thosw who identify with more than one under-represented groups (such as race, sexuality, physical ability and more). This intersectionality, the overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination and disadvantage, plague people in such categories and compound the obstacles faced across the discipline and throughout their careers.

Intersections and Preconceptions

“I’m not what people think of as a typical geologist,” starts Gari Mayberry, a USGS and employee stationed at the US Agency for International Development Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (USAID/BHA) where she serves as the Natural Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction Team Lead and Geoscience Advisor (a role that Neal also held from 1998 to 2000).

Gari Mayberry on Pike's Peak in Colorado. Credit: USGS

She leads international natural hazard-related assistance and helps to manage the USAID-USGS Volcano Disaster Assistance Program and Earthquake Disaster Assistance Team. She isn’t a fan of beer, doesn’t find herself feeling all that “crunchy” sometimes. Most importantly, she is one of the few Black female volcanologists in the country.

Mayberry arrived at the Wesleyan campus as an undergrad thinking she would be a sociology or photography major, but after finding it difficult to get into the popular classes, she wasn’t so sure about either path. Then she took a volcanology class her junior year, “it's like, oh, finally, thank goodness, this is what I want to do.” She found herself surrounded by supportive but mostly white, predominantly male professors.

This continued as a graduate student at Michigan Tech, in the racially homogenous and remote Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Even though she persevered in volcanology, she faced systemic obstacles during her education that sometimes shut her out of experiences for reasons that appeared to be based on her race and gender.

It wasn’t until she arrived at the Smithsonian Institute to work as the USGS liaison to the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program that she met Marianne Guffanti, her first female mentor in volcanology. Mayberry was hired by Guffanti when most of the women at the Global Volcanism Program were in support roles rather than lead scientists. Guffanti was the first female coordinator of the USGS Volcano Hazard Program and a pioneer in her own right. Mayberry was hired by Guffanti when most of the women at the Global Volcanism Program were in support roles rather than as scientists.

Even with strong backing from Guffanti, Mayberry recalls facing issues during her career such people assuming she wasn’t in a leadership role and being denied an an open office instead of the crammed into the corner basement library with temporary staff only to be told they couldn’t because “some other people would be upset”.

Years later, she was given the office and apology, but the damage was done. “Sometimes you see your worth in people’s eyes, and it can be quite discouraging.” She cites the importance of not only having a mentor, but a sponsor like Guffanti who advocates for employees throughout their careers as vital for retaining staff from racially underrepresented groups.

The Change Yet to Come

Much like volcanology in general, the USGS still lags well behind the general civilian workforce in terms of women with over 50% men (compared to 38% men in the total workforce). The same can be said for its racial diversity, where less than 4% of all the USGS workforce is Black, and most are at positions in lower pay levels.

Tina Neal examining volcanic deposits at Aniakchak in Alaska. Credit: Tina Neal / USGS.

According to Van Eaton, Mayberry, Coombs and Gardner, movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter began to shift the conversation and allowed for the start of more critical examinations with the volcanology community. Van Eaton thinks it has made a huge difference in the way that “we're able to stand up for each other,” she said, “and the way that racist or gender specific derogatory jokes are no longer tolerated, not because the folks who say them stop saying them, but because people are no longer willing to stand by and listen to it. It's no longer funny.”

“Science isn’t a one-man show,” commented Anita Grunder, emeritus professor of petrology and volcanology at Oregon State University. She thinks the discipline needs to be a more accepting and supportive environment. “Women need to be in charge and not just token.”

Neal agrees whole-heartedly, adding “It is diverse ideas and voices that add to science, not monolithic culture - different ideas and approaches. There is some evidence that having a very diverse team, a variety of perspectives and opinions and backgrounds coming to a scientific problem, in fact, results in in better science.“

“We lose as a profession without multiple voices.” That is Gardner’s takeaway from the past monolithic culture in volcanology, especially in leadership positions across the field. The field of volcanology is now different. Neal is now the director of the USGS Volcano Science Center, overseeing all volcano observatories, Coombs remains SIC at AVO and women are being hired across volcanology in both the USGS and academia.

“Progress has been made, but it still defaults back to the norm which is still overwhelming male,” says Coombs. She is now the only female SIC, “it doesn’t take much for all the leadership to become all male.” Combined with the continued racial disparities in the Earth Sciences, there are still many difficult conversations and substantive changes to be made to truly diversify the discipline.

When Van Eaton and the five women acknowledged each other in that empty fire station parking lot, they knew they were there to help keep people safe by monitoring the eruption. Yet, they also felt stunned. They knew this was a historic moment. As Van Eaton recalls “We all looked around at each other and realized it's not 1980 anymore.” It wasn’t just a world of “volcano cowboys” or dashing leading men like Pierce Brosnan saving people. Considering this, Gardner chuckled, “maybe Linda Hamilton should have been the volcanologist in Dante’s Peak to begin with…”

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.