Christy Till: My name is Christy Till, and I’m a geol­o­gist and assis­tant pro­fes­sor in ASUs School of Earth and Space Exploration I lead a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary lab that stud­ies mag­ma, molten rock that forms beneath the Earth’s sur­face and how it forms on Earth and oth­er plan­ets, as well as the lead-up to vol­canic eruptions. 

But before I stud­ied mag­ma and lava flows, my career focused on a dif­fer­ent kind of flow: bal­let. For five years before I went to col­lege, I was a pro­fes­sion­al dancer in two world-renowned com­pa­nies. My life as a bal­let dancer was very ful­fill­ing, but also very exhaust­ing. During the week­days there were class­es and rehearsals. During the nights and week­ends were per­for­mances. And alto­geth­er my salary was below that of min­i­mum wage. 

But you do it because you love it. Because you’re an artist. Because you can’t imag­ine doing any­thing else. But slow­ly over time that changed for me. A change in artis­tic direc­tion, watch­ing fel­low dancers get injured and then fired, work­ing through injuries of my own, and want­i­ng to have a sta­ble career that last­ed past the age of 30 all slow­ly led me to make the choice to leave the dance world and go to col­lege. In bal­let, a big leap is called a grand jeté, and cer­tain­ly leav­ing the dance world and going to col­lege to pur­sue a degree in sci­ence felt like a grand jeté.

It was hard to leave behind some­thing that I loved so much, that I’d been doing since the age of 4, but ulti­mate­ly was not serv­ing me any­more and move into this big, scary unknown. In col­lege I worked very hard but I lacked con­fi­dence. But bal­let had taught me to give my dreams every­thing that I had no mat­ter what any doubt­ing men­tor said, or how many rejec­tion slips I received—and trust me, there were a lot. But I learned that it was impor­tant to me to give it my all. And that that meant that I could live with the out­come no mat­ter what it was because I knew I gave it my best shot. 

It was dur­ing this time as an under­grad­u­ate that I found myself stand­ing on a moun­tain­side at geol­o­gy field camp look­ing at a rock for­ma­tion. And the pro­fes­sor had described this as being deposit­ed dur­ing a cold mud flow. But as I looked at it, I real­ized that I dis­agreed with him. I actu­al­ly thought that it had been deposit­ed hot, dur­ing a vol­canic corruption. 

This was a eure­ka moment for me. Because not only had I made my first sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery, but I gained my first lit­tle bit of con­fi­dence as a sci­en­tist. It was in that moment that I first felt like a geol­o­gist. And trav­el for­ward here in time, and here I am as a pro­fes­sor now, and I get to do all sorts of amaz­ing things like make mag­ma in the lab. 

When you think of mag­ma cham­bers you prob­a­bly think of red hot boil­ing goo. But actu­al­ly we as sci­en­tists have learned that that’s not a very good mod­el. Magma cham­bers are actu­al­ly just a lit­tle bit of that hot red liq­uid, but they’re most­ly crys­tals that form as the mag­ma cham­ber cools. And those crys­tals grow rings, or zones, much like a tree grows rings. And tree rings tell us about the envi­ron­ment that a tree was grow­ing in, and those crys­tal rings tell us about the envi­ron­ment in the mag­ma cham­ber at the time the crys­tal was grow­ing. These crys­tals are then erupt­ed and deposit­ed on the sur­face as ash or lava flows, and we can go sam­ple them and bring them back to ASU where we can ana­lyze those crys­tals with spe­cial­ized equipment. 

We ana­lyze very tiny parts of those crys­tals that are only one one-hundredth the thick­ness of a human hair. And that allows us to recon­struct the events in the mag­ma cham­ber lead­ing up to erup­tion. And so we can hope to through these kinds of stud­ies one day build a vol­cano ear­ly warn­ing sys­tem, much like we have for earthquakes. 

When you think of geol­o­gy and time, you prob­a­bly think of mil­lions and bil­lions of years. But one of the most star­tling things that we have learned is that these time scales and mag­mat­ic process­es occur on the scale of a human life­time, in only hun­dreds or tens of years. Some of our research at Yellowstone National Park actu­al­ly sug­gests that these mag­mat­ic process­es hap­pen in months or less. Months or less? Oh no! Does that mean there’s gonna be a vol­canic erup­tion at Yellowstone in months? Isn’t that one of those super vol­canos that kills people? 

Well, as a sci­en­tist I’m here to allay your con­cerns. There is no immi­nent signs of erup­tion at Yellowstone. And, Yellowstone actu­al­ly has many more small erup­tions than it has large ones. So it’s much more like­ly if it were to erupt again in the future it would have one of the small elec­tions, a small lava flow of cubic kilo­me­ter or less. And we also have many amaz­ing sci­en­tists and instru­ments that mon­i­tor the vol­cano every day and would let us know if there were signs of an immi­nent eruption. 

Although it might seem unlike­ly, I cred­it bal­let as excel­lent prepa­ra­tion for being a geol­o­gist and now a pro­fes­sor. Ballet is about try­ing again, and again, and again until you pre­vail. And today for every sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery, there is just as many frus­trat­ing days in the lab. For every fund­ed grant there is just as many if not more reject­ed pro­pos­als. But I am hap­py to be here every day giv­ing it my best shot. And one of the great many joys of my job is that I get to help stu­dents of all ages and back­grounds have moments of sci­en­tif­ic and self-discovery, just like mine that day on the mountainside.