What is the biggest misconception about your work?
The biggest misconception in Hawaii is that the volcanoes are gentle in their activity. There have been many instances in the past 20 years when tourists have been able to walk right up to the edge of actively flowing lava, so that conveys the impression that the volcano is always gentle and safe to be around. But our research has shown that this is not necessarily the case. [On Kilauea volcano], we've found evidence that rocks the size of grapefruits have been hurled for six or seven miles distance, and rocks the size of golf balls have gone all the way down to the south shore of the island, which is a distance of about ten miles from the summit.
How risky is the job?
You have to be careful. I've had friends that have been killed or injured by volcanic eruptions, but they made the mistake of going too close. If the volcano is acting strangely or erupting violently, you have to stay away because it can suddenly get more dangerous than it was before. It's very easy to be killed by falling debris or hot gases that come surging out of volcanoes.
What advice do you have for someone just entering this field?
The first thing anybody would have to understand is that the field of volcanology is a very small field. Although there are hundreds of volcanoes on the earth, there are not that many people studying them. I would say just get a good, solid geological background, take as much math and physics as you can and try to go to a good graduate school. If you're going to specialize in volcanoes, choose a graduate school where one or more of the professors is also a specialist in volcanoes. That's the way you can be helped to become viable in the marketplace.
What's the most interesting part of the job?
The fieldwork. It's like a mystery novel. We're uncovering clues. It's been very exciting.