STEMinist Profile: Jessica Ball, Ph.D. Student in Volcanology

Jessica Ball

Jessica Ball

Ph.D. student in Volcanology
University at Buffalo, SUNY

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I got interested in geology when I was quite small—I used to live close to Washington, DC and one of my favorite things to do was visit the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. I went through a dinosaur phase and a rock phase like a lot of little kids do, but the difference with me was that I never outgrew them! I kept interested in it all through grade school, but it was in college that I really got hooked. I took a three-week geology field trip after my freshman year, and even though I struggled the whole time, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else for a career.

I really enjoy geology because it’s such a unique science. Not only do geologists get to spend time in the lab and the field, we get to incorporate pretty much every other branch of science you could think of, and a good chunk of engineering. In the course of my graduate career, I’ve needed to use chemistry, physics, thermodynamics, computer science, statistics, and a whole slew of other skills. Plus the field aspect can be really fun—I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit amazing and beautiful places while collecting data? I also think volcanoes are fascinating, so getting to study them is pretty much a dream come true for me.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
In terms of research, I haven’t had time to do a lot, but I think my thesis work in volcanology has been pretty cool. I study lava domes, which are constructions of silicic magma that erupt from a volcano and pile up over the vent. They also tend to collapse, and sometimes this happens because water has gotten into the dome and altered the rock, or gotten trapped in spaces where it gets heated and pressurized and destabilizes things. This is really important in terms of hazard assessment—if you know where the weak rock on a lava dome is, you can make some predictions about how it might collapse in the future.

My work is at a group of lava domes called Santiaguito, at the Santa Maria volcano in Guatemala. I’ve combined field mapping, rock and aqueous geochemistry, and satellite remote sensing to try and paint a comprehensive picture of the state of alteration in those domes, and we’ve found out some interesting things! The project itself was also exciting because I got the chance to go to Guatemala in the first place; it’s a beautiful country, and the people there are very welcoming. (It’s also full of volcanoes, which makes me happy as a volcanologist).

Role models/heroes:
There have been many people I could put into these categories, but there are a few that stand out for me. My entire undergraduate geology department at the College of William and Mary—particularly the professors—were a really great influence on me. They were demanding, but they genuinely loved their students and they were wonderful teachers. They were always pushing us to do better, try harder things, take chances. My undergrad advisor especially—he encouraged me to go on a field trip as a freshman that was tough even for the senior students, for example, and he never accepted less than my best effort in his classes. He was the one who made me realize what I needed to do to become a good geologist (which I hope I have!)

My current advisor at Buffalo is another person I aspire to be like. She’s a respected volcanologist and she knows a lot of people in our field, but she’s also really great at balancing her work and family life, and that’s something I appreciate as a woman. I also love that she guides her students but doesn’t discourage them from taking their work in new directions, even if she’s not familiar with them herself.

I guess the final two people that I’d name as heroes are my parents. They never, ever, not once, told me that I couldn’t do something. They put up with years of rock collections and countless museum visits and even (I kid you not) got me a seismograph for one birthday. They let me make my own decisions about what I wanted to do, and made it possible for me to go to the college I wanted, and have just been fantastic in so many ways. I owe them a lot.

Why do you love working in STEM?
The chance to discover new things about the world! As a volcanologist (and a geologist), I see myself as a kind of combination of detective and storyteller. Geologists get to think up really clever ways to find clues (data) about how the Earth works, but then we also get to turn those data into a fascinating story. I love when I can look at a rock or a landscape and find something to deduce about it—it’s like being able to see into the past.

Another thing I really like about working in STEM is that there’s always something new to learn about how to do your job. You can’t just learn a set of skills and then stop—you’re always needing to improve them, or adopt new and better techniques. Sometimes I’m just blown away by how cool the new techniques are, and that I get to use them!

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t let anything—or anyone—discourage you from doing what you love! It’s the best thing in the world to enjoy your job. And make sure to surround yourself with people who believe in you and support what you’re doing, no matter how different it is from what they do. No one in my family is a geologist, and I’ll be the first to get a doctorate in science, but they’ve all encouraged me to pursue my dreams.

Favorite website or app:
The Global Volcanism Program website. Anything you want to know about an active volcano, they can tell you!

Twitter: @Tuff_Cookie
Website: my American Geophysical Union blog, Magma Cum Laude

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