Today’s entry is at the request of My Cool Job fan Angela B, who told me she has always been interested in volcanoes and wanted to find out more about what it’s like to be a Geologist — a profession I previously knew little about. But no longer.
A few clicks on the web later, I arrived at Cool Jobster Jessica Ball’s very entertaining blog Magma Cum Laude. As the title implies, it’s a blog written by someone who loves “hot rocks” and has a great sense of humor.
According to my research, the word “geology” was first used to describe “the study of solid matter that constitutes the earth” in 1779, but the actual “matter” that geologists study is far older than that — millions of years older, in fact.
So how did the Painted Desert get “painted”? How did Mt. Everest get so high? Where does the magma that spews out of an erupting volcano come from? These are just a few of the types of questions that you can search for answers to when your “cool job” is Geologist!
The ‘interview’ below is one of the best-written and most engaging entries so far, and I’m thoroughly pleased to introduce Geologist Jessica Ball and her “cool job” to you!
When people ask you “what do you do?” how do you describe your job?
Geologists are like detectives, only most of the events we investigate happened thousands, millions, or even billions of years ago. We like to pick apart puzzles and answer questions, and we’re always developing new tools with which to do so. Occasionally we get to experience geology “happening”, like when a volcano erupts, an earthquake or a landslide occurs, a tsunami or a hurricane strikes, or glaciers melt and ice caps break up because of global warming. But we’re constantly asking questions about the world around us, and trying to find the best ways to explain what we see.
What are the things about your job that you love?
I love that geologists have the opportunity to spend so much time outside, or “in the field”. We visit some pretty amazing and beautiful places, and it’s even more fun to go somewhere when you’re able to figure out a little bit of how it came to be the way it is. I love going somewhere I’ve never been, looking at the geology around me and being able to read in rocks and sand and landscapes what could have happened there millions of years ago. It’s like the Earth is a book, and geology teaches you the language it’s written in.
What are the things about your job that you hate?
Sometimes fieldwork can be uncomfortable, painful, and exhausting. Many places geologists study aren’t easily accessible by cars, and sometimes we do a lot of hiking through pretty rugged terrain. Rocks are often best exposed in hot, arid places, and working in the desert can be dangerous if you’re not prepared for it. You can easily become dehydrated or injured, and most of the time you’re not close to a city or town where you can get help. Likewise, if you do field work in cold places or during the winter, you have to be careful not to get hypothermia or frostbite. A lot of geologists enjoy challenging themselves with harsh conditions, though, and I appreciate the chance to test my abilities as long as I can be reasonably sure that I’m not in danger of being seriously hurt.
Sometimes you don’t get to do fieldwork, though, and working in the laboratory can get boring. Chemical and age analyses are a lot of work, and often involve number-crunching, where you spend a long time making sense of numerical data.
What education, training, vocation or just plain luck would someone have to have in order to get a job like yours?
First of all, take as many science and math classes as you can. Geology, although many people don’t realize it, incorporates aspects of all the so-called “hard” sciences – chemistry, physics, biology. We use all of them in geology! Computer skills are also very useful; new technologies are always being developed that are useful to geologists, and being able to adapt them as needed lets you get your work done faster and more efficiently. Most important of all, however, are writing skills. Geologists write constantly. We write grant proposals to get money for research, we write papers for journals and conferences, we communicate with each other when we need information about what we’re studying, and and almost every geologist will contribute to a textbook, field guide, lesson plan or book reviews in the course of their career. If a geologist doesn’t publish their work, people will never be able to benefit from it, and the geologist may have problems keeping themselves employed. A field notebook is the geologist’s most important tool, and if they don’t already have good writing skills, their work will suffer.
Many geologists are very passionate about their jobs, but it took a lot of work for them to get there.
What is the funniest story you can think of that involves your professional training or your job?
I have lots of stories from various field trips, but my favorite is from a field camp.
The last undergrad field trip I took was to Big Bend, Texas. I was a TA, which meant that I was one of the people responsible for driving the vans (the 12-passenger kind). It was the end of the day, we’d finished dinner and we were heading to a hot spring along the Rio Grande for a nice soak. The hot spring was at the end of a very long, narrow, rocky dirt road. At one point, the road was so narrow that there was barely a foot of room on either side of the van, with a dropoff on one side and a cliff on the other. Naturally, I was driving at only a few mph, not wanting to run off the road into the gully.
Suddenly there was a huge jolt and a grinding noise. I braked quickly, terrified I’d blown a tire, and panicking over how we were going to change it with no room on the road. The other TA got out to check the wheels, and told me that I’d just run over a large rock and that it was stuck behind one of the (mercifully still inflated) tires, but nothing else was wrong. It was a very large rock – close to a hundred pounds – but he managed to move it out of the way, and we continued on to the hot spring, albeit a great deal slower than before.
Two days later, we were having some trouble closing the passenger door on the van. We’d just finished driving out to the hot spring again, and some of the students were looking at the van to find out why. One called me over and pointed to the underside of the passenger step. “I think that’s the problem,” he said, laughing.
Turns out we hadn’t gotten away with as little damage as we’d thought – the rock had not only gotten stuck behind the wheel, it had bent up the entire passenger step and punched a hole in part of the undercarriage. And we hadn’t noticed it for two days. For geologists, being that unobservant is pretty bad. I was, naturally, mortified, especially since it was a rental van, but the rental company didn’t try to hunt me down, and the school’s insurance paid for repairs. I still hold the record in the department for the most damage done to a field trip vehicle, though. The moral? Even for a geologist, rocks are not always your friends.