By Matt Hudson, GSA Member Communications Manager
Last year, volcanologist and data modeling wiz Jillian Schleicher was profiled in St. Thomas magazine, where she mentioned the important roles GSA Annual Meetings had on the early and middle stages of her career. We followed up with her recently to learn more about this.
GSA: Hi, Jillian. Let’s start back when you were an undergraduate studying both physics and geology. The article described a unique moment at a GSA meeting where you more or less determined the next stage of your career. Tell me about that.
JS: I went to GSA in 2010 in Portland, and my research advisor, Tom Hickson, was presenting some of the research I was doing as an undergrad during his presentation. GSA has a program for undergrads to get free registration if they commit to volunteering during two sessions. We were able to pick which sessions we volunteered for, and looking at the list, “The Physics of Volcanic Eruptions” immediately jumped out at me.
I was in my junior year of college, trying to figure out what the next stage of my career would be. I loved petrology when I had taken it the year before, and watching videos of flowing lava were completely mesmerizing. I immediately signed up for this session, and was so glad I did. I went and watched talks on monitoring volcanoes using techniques I had heard of in my physics classes as well as other new methods of understanding how volcanoes worked.
The one that really stuck out to me was a talk that used the orientations of fallen trees in the area around Mt. St. Helens to make a minimum velocity vector field to understand the fluid dynamics of the blast in 1980. I was amazed at how seamlessly my two passions, geology and physics, could be combined into a fascinating field of research. As soon as the session finished, I found my academic and research advisor, Lisa Lamb, and told her I knew what I wanted to study for grad school.
“As soon as the session finished, I found my academic and research advisor, Lisa Lamb, and told her I knew what I wanted to study for grad school.”
GSA: The article also described the somewhat isolating nature of research and how it wasn’t until years later when you presented your own work that you finally understood its importance and novelty. Can you tell us what you learned from presenting?
JS: As a graduate student at the University of Washington, there weren’t many other people who were doing the kind of work that my advisor, George Bergantz, and I were doing. We didn’t have many other volcano or magma researchers in the department, and those who were there, focused more on the chemistry rather than the physics side of things. I ended up taking several classes in the Applied Math and Mechanical Engineering departments, where I was the only geologist in the course, and had to figure out how to integrate what I was learning with the research I was doing.
I ended up going to AGU in 2013 to give my first poster presentation on this work, and had my tablet ready to show people videos of the numerical simulations I had been working on for the previous year and a half. The feedback I got was incredible. People were really excited to see the simulations and immediately recognized how useful they could be in understanding how magma mixes in magmatic systems. This gave me new inspiration to keep up the work I was doing, as well as to reach out to the researchers I met at the conference to discuss my findings and get their feedback more than once a year at a conference.
GSA: Obviously you gained a lot from the science at conferences, but were there other events that you’d recommend, such as a memorable workshop, awards ceremony, or mentoring session?
JS: Nearing the end of my Ph.D., I was looking for ways to transition from academia into a data science track for my career. I found two sessions at AGU that were about how to network, use LinkedIn, and identify transferable skills and how to translate them from academic to industry language. These career sessions were really helpful and gave me incredible tips on how to approach the next stage of my career.
GSA: Often I have found that the informal time at meetings is also quite valuable. A hallway conversation might give me a new angle on how to solve a problem, or a face-to-face meeting with a collaborator will inspire new work and warm a relationship that had grown cold because of distance. Have you found that to be the case, too?
JS: Yes, going to conferences is always incredible for meeting up with collaborators and discussing research. When I was doing my postdoc at UW, GSA was in Seattle for the Annual Meeting. My advisor and I met up with two of our collaborators who are in Hawaii to discuss the results of the geochemical analysis I had been doing on the samples from Mauna Loa. We found an empty presentation room over the lunch break and I pulled out my computer and showed them plots while we ate lunch. We accomplished so much more in that brief, in-person meeting than we ever could have over email. I also met with George Bergantz at AGU when I was applying to grad schools, which allowed us to get to know each other beyond our shared academic research interest. Plus, it’s just fun to catch up with friends in the evening after the conference is over.
GSA: Your career has shifted somewhat, and now you’re more involved in numerical modeling, computational analysis, and machine learning. With the world becoming more digital and data driven, what kind of role do you expect face-to-face meetings to have in science and research in the future?
JS: I’ve learned so much going to meetings beyond the scientific research. Communication is everything when it comes to working, both in academia and industry, and meetings are perfect places to practice that skill. My current role does involve a lot of modeling and “heads-down” coding, but at least an hour of my day is in client and colleague meetings where I need to be able to clearly and efficiently explain what I’m working on, why I’m working on it, what troubles I’m having, and what I will do in the future. Learning how to convey this information is so important, and going to GSA and other scientific meetings encourages you to do this.
I personally have a difficult time cold-contacting someone I’ve never interacted with before, and by going to meetings and meeting with people face-to-face, it makes me much more comfortable and willing to email them after the meeting if I want to ask a question or discuss a research idea. I know meetings are trying to increase their accessibility by making talks and posters available online, but I really think the real benefit of scientific meetings comes from the in-person interactions.
“Communication is everything when it comes to working, both in academia and industry, and meetings are perfect places to practice that skill.”
GSA: Any other favorite moments or advice to share to future attendees?
JS: I’d say one big initial fear for me about these meetings was going up to people I’d never met before and asking them to explain their research to me. I was afraid I wouldn’t understand it, or would ask stupid questions. But I quickly learned that people love talking about their research. If I just smiled and went up to someone at a poster, I could ask them to tell me about their work and people were generally happy to explain it at whatever level I needed.
Want to earn free registration by volunteering like Jillian? GSA offers free meeting registration to students that complete at least ten hours of volunteer service.
GSA offers a lot of networking opportunities, for students and early career professionals as well as seasoned pros. Find out more at https://community.geosociety.org/gsa2019/connect/student-ecp.
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