11.20.2018 Christy Till: My name is Christy Till, and I'm a geologist and assistant professor in ASU's 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.

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.


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