Emily First

Postdoctoral Research Associate, Brown University

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Give serious consideration to what you truly want from life.

What do you do?

I study the lava that erupts from volcanoes and compare it to the "lava" I create in high-temperature, high-pressure experiments in the lab. Looking at similarities and differences between the natural and laboratory-created lava, I can piece together information about the volcano. Depending on the type of experiment I choose and which variables are constant, the focus changes. For example, I determine how rapidly the lava cooled, at what depth under the volcano it originated, or how hot it was when it erupted. These research questions are answered based on the types of minerals that form in the experiments, their specific chemical composition, and their shape or texture. I use optical and electron microscopes to analyze these minerals in detail and see if they match the minerals in the natural lava I'm studying. My experiments help us understand where magma chambers beneath volcanoes are located and how lava behaves on Earth and even other planets (and our Moon)! To be able to model certain aspects of volcanic hazard, scientists need to know these input conditions, so it's nice to contribute a small puzzle piece to this issue of societal value.

Why did you choose this field?

At five years old, I wrote that I wanted to be a volcanologist. I was obsessed with volcanoes. But by the time I was a senior in high school, I hadn't taken a geology class in four years and had let the subject largely slip from my mind. Then came college, and a fortuitous intro geology class that reminded me of my passion. I quickly signed up for the eight week summer program to take a full semester of geology, ecology, and anthropology courses while camping and visiting sites across the country. After that trip I was sure I would major in Geology. A few years later, while a TA on that same trip, I finally summited Mount St. Helens, a volcano I couldn't read enough about as a child. Standing at the summit, looking down into the incredible crater, I made up my mind to go to graduate school. I planned to study volcanoes like Mount St. Helens, in the field, but I got an offer from my future PhD advisor that I couldn't refuse. Not only had she introduced me to the excitement of an experimental laboratory, but she was one of the few women I had met in the field, and I knew she would be an excellent role model. Plus, the lab was in Hawaii, home of my other volcano-love, Kilauea. So, I traded my boots for gloves, goggles and flame-resistant lab coats! Well, not entirely - I was able to get in the field frequently with the courses I took. Despite the difficulties of doing laboratory experiments, I came to love working with my hands and having control over the way I could approach problems. Combined with my love of outreach and teaching, I knew that aiming for a professor position was my ultimate goal. So now I am a postdoc at Brown, studying lavas from the Moon!

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

It might be cliché, but pursuing and completing my PhD. Even at the beginning of college, I really, really did not think I had the fortitude, gumption, or smarts to be able to become a "Dr." I was wrong! (PSA - turns out "smarts" are mostly perseverance, humility, and figuring out how your own brain works).

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love the lack of boundaries. If there is a research problem you dream up, you can study it. Sure, in academia it takes a lot of time, effort, and funding, but there is nothing inherently limiting about the questions we can ask and answer. I also love working with people of all different ages and backgrounds, from 18-year-olds to retirees. I think this is something a bit unique about working at a university, and I enjoy that environment.

Best advice for next generation?

Give serious consideration to what you truly want from life and your career before shoe-horning yourself into a narrow path. You know you, and if you are are passionate enough and willing to put in the effort, you can absolutely find success on the path of your choosing. Things that began as side interests might turn out to be your true passion. It's ok to change course, stay the course, veer into uncharted territory, or all of the above, in pursuit of YOUR life.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"One ship sails east, another west, with the selfsame winds that blow. Tis the set of the sails and not the gales that determines the way they go." --this was on the wall at a vacation condo I visited when I was 13; I've seen various versions around, and unfortunately do not know the original attribution

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