Carmen Solana Garcia
Reader in Volcanology and Risk Communication, University of Portsmouth
There is still plenty of fun to be had in STEM, plenty to study, to do, to discover and build, and you can be part of it.
WHAT DO YOU DO?
I investigate and teach about natural hazards and what can be done to avoid or reduce their impacts. I have the best job in the world because of it combines everything I love in life: Nature, people, traveling, learning and improving people's lives. My research involve traveling to places around the world to hear how natural hazards affect people (volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, flooding, landslides).
I also observe the land in those places and through my understanding of geology and natural processes, finding out what has happened in the past there and in similar places and collaborating with other experts such as modellers I identify the most likely and the worst natural events that can happen, why, what will be the impacts during the event and for the years to come and more importantly, what can be done to avoid or reduce the impacts. This always involve listening to the affected populations and the people in charge, their knowledge of nature and their understanding and beliefs, and try to find together solutions to improve their lives and their future prosperity.
I also teach what I have learned to my students in the university, so my knowledge does not get lost. I feel very proud of how many of them have done great things directly and indirectly, have moved beyond what I told them and achieve more. I feel my role there is to push them up as far as I can so they reach higher than me. I have alumni working for example in the UN and in NASA and knowing that I had a part in their success makes me very happy.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?
I was born on a small Spanish volcanic island in the Atlantic, off the coast of Africa called Tenerife. As a kid, there were always stories about how the island was going to explode and kill us all or about volcanic underwater tunnels that linked all the islands. They also said that the archipelago Tenerife belongs to were the tips the sunk "Atlantis" continent. This always triggered my imagination: how could we know if the volcano was about to explode? What could we do about it?
As I was wondering this, a volcanic disaster hit Colombia. Nevado del Ruiz eruption triggered mudflows that killed more than 23000 people in a few hours. I remember that a girl called Omayra Sanchez, almost my age, was trapped in the mud for days. I waited in front of the TV for the news that she had been released but they never arrived. I cried non stop and still bring tears to my eyes. They said Omayra was standing on her grandmother's body, that had tried to save her. I just could not comprehend how something so awful could happen in modern times. Surely something could have been done to prevent so many deaths, such a tragedy.
A bit later I met a volcanologist. He was a friend's father and had traveled around the world. He told us that the beautiful sunsets that we were witnessing in the early 1990s were caused by a large eruption in the Philippines, mount Pinatubo. But the Philippines were on the other side of the world!! How was that possible!! His advice though was "don't study geology, it is not a degree for ladies" and "there are no jobs in volcanology". But that did not deter me. I was not following "a job", I was seeking understanding, knowledge and ideas.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"
Information technology, telecommunications, machine learning and virtual reality fascinates me. The possibility of communicating and connecting with people across the globe, of visualising the impossible, sharing experiences and creating truly transnational knowledge is an amazing achievement facilitated by technology.
In my field, volcanology and disaster risk reduction, we are using these technologies to create networks, communities of support, to push knowledge boundaries and improve understanding for the common good. Some of these networks are specifically formed by women for women, to create a network of support for all of us, to help and push forward as much as we can.
It saddens and frightens me though, when such progress is used for obscure purposes such as control and manipulation.
WHY DO YOU LOVE WORKING IN STEM?
Being wondered by STEM: surprised by the ways nature works (and the breath taking beauty of some of the results), understanding the interdependencies of everything, why, when, how... the clever ways to solve problems, some mundane and others very erudite, feeling part of a community that tries their best to make a better world for everybody.
The marvels of nature are explained by STEM and the dangers of nature are also forecasted and mitigated by STEM. The challenges are never ending and I think we are wired to admire our world but also to want to understand it: the stars, the sunrise and sunsets, the waves, the auroras, volcanic eruptions, seasons, weather, vegetation, animals. Our survival did and still depends on it. The knowledge and developments created by STEM have changed our fate and it will continue doing so, and it is just awesome to have a role in it.
BEST ADVICE FOR NEXT GENERATION?
There is still plenty of fun to be had in STEM, plenty to study, to do, to discover and build, and you can be part of it, contribute to creating world of the future, the ideas, designs and knowledge to make it a better one. You don't have to be a "brainiac", most of us are not. In STEM there is room for the creative, curious, enthusiastic, practical, crazy, determined, funny... you have to follow your dreams and fight for them. Never let anyone -and least of all yourself- tell you that you can not do it, that you are not capable. At times it might not be easy, but it will never be boring or a struggle if you resolve to have fun. As a woman, it has never been easier than now to be what you want to be.
INSPO / FUN FACT
"If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars."