Please tell us about yourself

I grew up in outback Australia and had a rock quarry on my property. I went to the quarry at every opportunity to explore for “treasure”, including crystals of quartz and other minerals, for my rock collection. From that point on I knew I wanted to become a geologist. I always enjoyed science and I was very lucky to have encouraging science teachers at high school and college. I went to the University of Tasmania for my Bachelor of Science degree and focused on Earth Science, but I was lucky enough to do the third year of my degree at the University of Hawaii in the USA. That year I got to see fresh molten lava multiple times! In fact we were able to approach the lava, scoop it up with a hammer and even cook our lunch on it! At that point I knew that studying volcanic eruptions was going to be the focus of my career. I returned to UTAS to do an Honours project and then went back to the University of Hawaii for a PhD project focused on a historic eruption of an Icelandic volcano called Askja. I spent 2-3 months in the field every year collecting measurements, data and rocks, taking them back to the laboratory for further analysis. When I left Hawaii after my PhD to start a post-doc in California, Kilauea volcano on Hawaii begun to explosively erupt! So I returned to Hawaii for more field work (I unfortunately did not see an explosion!) and those eruptions became the focus of research during my postdoctoral period. Currently I study eruptions that happen on the seafloor. In particular I am interested in how the water depth influences the explosivity of volcanic eruptions. I collect my samples by participating in research cruises with remotely operated vehicles tethered to the ship, and human operated submarines. I have been down in a submarine to 1000 metres water depth! Scary but cool. I analyse these samples with microscopes at the University of Tasmania, and the Australian Synchrotron in Victoria. 100% of terrestrial Earth and Mars has been mapped, however only 10% of Earth’s ocean floor has been mapped, so there is lots to discover!

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”You’re going out to a space no one has ever seen before,” Carey says over Skype, her ink-black hair tucked back, speaking slowly and deliberately as if considering every word with the precision of, well, a scientist. “It feels like we’re pioneers.”

Please tell us about your work

Not only does she study volcanoes for a living — making her part of a laughably tiny fraternity to begin with — she’s a submarine volcanologist, one of a handful in the world who study those underwater behemoths thousands of leagues beneath the sea. Add to that, she’s a woman, only 35 years old and located in the remote outpost of Tasmania, and you’ve got a very fringy member of the scientific community. Yet Carey’s theories on volcanic bubbles and underwater eruptions are already considered basalt-breaking.

While still a graduate student, Carey created a historic model for the buildup and eruption of the Icelandic volcano Askja. Scientists already knew that lava “bubbles” form and contribute to the gaseous mix that gives volcanoes the power to go kablooey. But Carey’s later research showed that those same bubbles are reabsorbed as pressure decreases, says geophysicist Michael Poland of the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Washington: “She was able to quantify it in a way that previously wasn’t possible.” In all, Carey’s contributions have helped form a timeline for eruptions that is useful to emergency personnel and first responders. You know, the kind of information Vesuvians would have liked to have had. Bruce Houghton, Carey’s Ph.D. supervisor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, calls her “one of the top emerging volcanologists in the world.”

Carey’s more recent endeavors rival Lewis and Clark’s expeditions. A floating raft of pumice the size of Israel was spotted in the Pacific Ocean in 2012, and as the crumbling volcanic rock washed up in Australia and New Zealand, people wondered where it came from. Cue Carey, who tracked the explosion down to a little-known underwater volcano called Havre. In March, she helmed a three-week research mission to Havre and discovered that the eruption was the largest recorded underwater explosion in history. She led about 50 postdocs, grad students and crew members on the sea voyage, as well as two undersea robots: Sentry, a drone whose sonar took deep-sea photos, and Jason, which collected rock samples, sediments and marine life.

And with as little as we know about the seafloor, underwater volcanoes are shrouded in as much speculative science and mystery as Mount Wannahockaloogie in Finding Nemo. Old scientific models suggested volcanoes couldn’t erupt 1,000 meters or more below sea level — a sketchy analysis that Carey’s research has already disproved, since Havre’s hiccup likely occurred in vents as deep as 1,600 meters. Theorywise, scientists say that her work could inform evolutionary theory by explaining how pumice rafts may have carried species like barnacles and bristle worms from continent to continent. Practically speaking, Havre could shed light on the murky process of how volcanoes create precious metal deposits under the sea, from lead and zinc to copper and gold. Eventually, that understanding might inform potential commercial mining efforts.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

Raised by a handyman and shopkeeper, she grew up “all over really”: New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania.

Always keen to be a scientist, she embarked on a University of Tasmania (UTAS) bachelor’s degree in science. Intrigued by earth’s history – the continents joining and splitting throughout geological time – she specialised in planetary sciences and, for her third year, visited the University of Hawaii on exchange.

In the volcanology laboratory there she did casual “lab-rat-type work”, visited Hawaii’s most active volcano, Kilauea, and got to see and play with fresh molten lava, which spurred her enthusiasm.

After completing her undergraduate and honours degrees at UTAS, she pursued a University of Hawaii doctorate, gaining her PhD in 2008. Next came postdoctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley, before she returned to UTAS in 2012.

What are the challenges in your line of work?

Submarine volcanology, however, isn’t exactly a field swimming in research funding, which could dampen Carey’s prospects. It can be a “challenging environment” to study, says Poland, the geophysicist, noting that there’s not much historical data about undersea eruptors compared with their land-bound cousins. And producing more data can be especially expensive. Underwater exploration takes a fleet of ships, submarine equipment and pressure-proof drones, cameras and sensors. Researchers often have just one chance to get it right. “We can never go back,” Carey admits.

Carey doesn’t seem worried, though. The Australian Research Council has funded her research for the foreseeable future, and she’ll add teaching to her job description in three years. She’s plenty busy; when asked about her hobbies, she pauses, says, “Ummm …,” and begins to laugh. Point taken. She’s doing important work. And if that means she has to miss a few Netflix nights to push humanity over the next great frontier, so be it.

What do you love about your job?

On an annual wage of $120,000, she remains fascinated at how the earth, atmosphere and biosphere are intimately linked, as shown by mass extinction events and the snowball theory that Earth once froze.

“Earth science is detective work – and there are lots of curiosities to discover.” Mind you, the sleuth also likes working with outside scientists on global questions, including how invasive species move across the ocean on pumice rafts, allowing the spread of new fauna and flora on different continents.

Thoughtful, eager and curious by her own reckoning, she handles stress through inherently being outdoors doing field work – a nice perk, she says. Carey also does bush-walking, noting that the bush is everywhere at your backdoor in Hobart.

On the secret of success, she says that your intellectual capacity is just one required trait, and you must be dedicated.

“And at times you just need to work really hard – there’s no getting out of it. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. You just need to get to work.”

What are the skills needed to be a scientist?

“I guess, in terms of your personality, you need to be a relatively curious person, in that you want to understand how things work,” says the Hobartian whose impromptu motto is just to take time to listen.

She adds that attention to detail – a grasp of the physical processes that thrust magma from the earth’s depths to the surface – is crucial, because eruptions have a thread of continuity.

“They generally don’t stop and then start. They go through transitions, and it’s those transitions which are really pivotal points,” she says.

Those transitions can be characterised through addressing footage yielded by drones and satellites, for instance. Analysis must be done in fine detail, according to Carey.

Besides a meticulous eye for detail, reasoning skills also count, because ultimately you have a lot of data, she says. In addition, she says, you need to be able to quantify the data, and reason – use it to form an argument that backs your interpretation, which may be alarming.

Many third-world citizens and first-world citizens inhabit the flanks or even summits of dangerous volcanoes, because the ground is fertile and nutritious.

Worse, volcanoes differ from other hazards.

“They’re not like hurricanes where you see it coming and you can predict how intense it’s going to be, how long it’s going be. With volcanoes, we can predict the ‘when’ fairly well, but we can’t predict the ‘what’ and the ‘how big’ very well at all.” As a result scientists must convey uncertainty in the data they give to emergency responders and others and describe the impending hazard effectively, she says.

“And I think that’s the most challenging part of volcanology – that we just we just don’t have the capacity at the moment to give emergency managers and agencies the ‘what’ and ‘how big’ information they need.” Much trust is placed in volcanologists, Carey adds, but the expectation is hard to meet.