Monday, April 24, 2017

Finding strength through a love of volcanoes

- Janine

Isn’t it funny how a photo can take you back in time, to the person you were many years ago along with all of those insecurities, fears, and aspirations? I just turned 31 (I will never be ashamed to tell my age) and my Mum lovingly posted photos on Facebook that threw me into a time warp. Photos from the day I was born, through my childhood, through high school, and into my field work as a young volcanologist. I felt my face (or entire body) flush red with embarrassment at the photos out there for all to see. After a long talk to Mum (and begging her to take a couple of them down) I promised her I would find a way to make it into a positive – yes I am that person who is determined to make a positive out of pretty much anything. Everyone has a story, everyone’s stories have chapters. Some chapters are much easier or harder than others, all good stories have challenges to overcome. Each one of them leads to the people you see today.

If I could go back to my 13 year old self, I would give her a big hug and promise her that everything was going to be okay, better than okay – I was about to embark on an adventure! I wouldn’t tell her how tough things were going to get but I would promise her that she has the strength to get through everything, and each challenge would make her stronger and more determined to help other people. Determined to show every kid that wanted to be a volcanologist, or anything else, that the people they look up to started out like them. A kid.

When I realized I was going to be a volcanologist I embarked on my biggest adventure. I also grew up near what would soon be Hobbiton.
 I was lucky to grow up in a household with a great Mum and Dad, an incredible extended family, and a brother who, like me, figured out what he wanted to do at a young age (he is a graphic designer/artist and I am so proud of him). I was that super sensitive kid who loved documentaries but had to turn away when the baby antelope got eaten. I understood that this was an important part of life but I still did not want to witness it and feel that gut-wrenching compassion for the animal getting attacked. Many might say that this sensitivity is a weakness, but is one of my strengths. It is why I can write about my personal struggles in the hope of even one kid out there, of any age, can think 'I can do that too'.

Embarking on my first year of school in Te Awamutu, New Zealand. Little did I know I would still be in school 26 years later. My Mum told me that I could do anything I wanted to in life. So I did.

Like many girls out there I grew up very self-conscious, how could you not with society telling you at every turn what you are supposed to look and be like! Luckily my love for being around people and my extroverted personality helped me to ignore it some days, and fake confidence on others (fake it till you make it, right?). If I could go back to that kid looking in the mirror after flicking through a magazine feeling my gut sink as my eyes pointed out all of my ‘flaws’, I would hug her. I'd tell her that this body was going to be strong enough to climb volcanoes, walk in marches in Washington D.C. (a place I never thought I would go!), sit on planes for hours on end to travel the world, and stand for hours talking with other volcanologists in poster sessions.

On the days that I didn’t feel smart enough, I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that I would go on to get my Ph.D., and it wouldn’t be my ‘intelligence’ that would ultimately get me there, it would be my passions for volcanoes and helping people. I would tell her that intelligence is something you can apply to anything in life. I know people who are an absolute genius when it comes to music, cooking, nursing, writing, sports, parenting… you name it. Being told you are not smart enough, even from your own mind, doesn’t mean anything.

Embarking on field work with my co-blogger, Alison, on a 2007 lahar on Ruapehu volcano in New Zealand. Friendships are so important in life and careers. Photo by Michael Tayler.
If I could go back to the 13 year old girl who realized that she was going to be a volcanologist, I would tell her that she was going to make this happen and it is going to be even more amazing and exciting than she thinks! I would tell her that she would actually end up working on the May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption deposits. I would tell her to keep ignoring all of those ‘in the real world’ pep talks and well-meaning advice that she should chase a career for money or stability. I would tell her that all the reading about volcanoes and the eruptions that made history (Mount St. Helens, Pinatubo) was priming her for a career not only working on volcanoes, but loving reaching out to kids and other groups about them too. It is all going to work out great so don’t doubt yourself. To all the kids out there – keep reading and exploring!

I would stare at this volcano thinking "this is way too cool to be a real job". Ngauruhoe volcano, New Zealand. I would end up studying this volcano for my Master's degree.
If I could go back to the young girl who was in a lot of physical pain, I would hold her and tell her that she is going to get such an amazing gift out of it. At 20 I would be diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome a condition where every tendon and joint in my body can feel perfectly fine, achy, or I can be crippled by pain for no apparent reason. If I don’t take care of myself right those tendons would tear in blinding (literally) pain. By that stage all I cared about was that I would be able to climb volcanoes and do field work. After soaking up every bit of information on how to take care of myself, and a few mistakes that landed me on crutches along the way, I am perfectly able to climb volcanoes, sleep in a tent for a few weeks, and focus through pain to sit for hours writing my dissertation. I haven't read anything about this condition since, and mostly forget I even have it (sometimes I do have a realization that all this pain is not normal). I was determined to not be defined by it. To all the girls and boys out there who have a physical challenge: I thrive with chronic pain through a lot of my life and it has not stopped me. You can find a way through it, I believe in you. Your invisible or not-so-invisible illness is not who you are.

This is me on Ruapehu volcano in New Zealand, 2011. You can't tell that this is the day after tearing 3 tendons in my ankle and I was about to be on crutches for a month. Pain tolerance is a wonderful thing.
If I could go back to the girl who was afraid to move out of home to move to University, I would tell her that I would find the courage to move to a new country, twice! I would meet people along the way who would inspire and help me, giving me strength to put my hands over my eyes and take the leap. I would tell her that eventually I would go through so much that I would come to know that I can get through anything with the help of people I meet along the way and focusing on my passion in life.

If I could go back to the young woman who moved to Australia to be closer to her dying grandfather, I don’t think I would warn her about how hard that was going to be. I definitely wouldn’t tell her that I was about to get so sick that I would be bedridden, and that doing something other than volcanology would feel so awful. Instead, I would tell her that no matter what, everything was going to be okay. The lessons I would learn from those three years would give me a strength and confidence I couldn’t yet imagine. The self development and leadership training I would receive would help me in every aspect of my life. I would tell the young woman stuck in bed sick with a mystery heart illness, terrified that she wouldn’t be able to do volcanology again, that after a couple of years it would get better and this would only make me more determined to somehow give other people hope.

To younger-me who got bitten by a monkey in Indonesia who was freaking out after (wrongly) being told by a very concerned friend that I had rabies - you're okay! The rabies treatment is really going to suck, but you're okay and this is going to be another one of those life stories you laugh about. When you think you just made your last mistake on Earth your priorities are crystal clear. On that bed in Indonesia all I could think of was being a volcanologist - I hadn't even seen my first eruption yet! 

To the young woman about to embark on a move to the United States to do her Ph.D. I would stand her up straight and say ‘this is it’. The next 5 years are going to change your life and define who you are as an adult. The next 5 years would involve finding a voice through social media, finally seeing my first volcanic eruption, meeting people whose work I had been reading about for many years, losing myself several times, and finding a stronger version of myself each time. It would involve two polar opposite trips to Kamchatka. The first harrowing trip where time would slow down when the ground below me opened up and tried to swallow me (I wish I meant this metaphorically). Then the second that would be the most incredible trip of my life! Mount St. Helens would get thrown into my work and I never would stop thinking “I can’t believe I get to do this!”.

Field work on the Mount St. Helens pumice plain at age 30. This is what a dream coming true looks like. Photo by Simon Barker.

Well I can’t go back and give my younger self pep-talks. So, to the kids and young adults out there, in the words of my Mother ‘you have no idea what is waiting just around the corner for you’. The version of you right now will evolve as you forge many strengths along your journey that will get you through the challenges that jump out at you. Through all of this you can follow your dreams, even though the path may not look anything like you think it will. Through the toughest times you have a chance to learn grit, determination, and that taking care of yourself (body and mind) is so important. You will find gifts along the way like friends, colleagues, inspiration, encouragement, and hindsight. Take the chance to appreciate mistakes as hard earned lessons, and criticism as an opportunity to re-evaluate.

I am not writing this from a place of ‘everything has worked out’. I write 2.5 months before I defend my Ph.D. with a lot of work left to do, and with no idea where I am heading next. But through the challenges in life I have learned to be at peace with uncertainty, knowing that I have my own back and plenty of great people around me. I am nearly closing this chapter and opening a new one and after looking back over all of my past chapters I am excited. Every challenge, every lesson, every degree, every volcano, every friend, have all led me to this point. Bring it on!

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This blog post was a long time coming, and was finally written after being inspired by the incredible Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny, or 'Little Miss Flint', a 9 year old girl with the courage to stand up for what she believes in. Watching her on stage at the Science March in DC this past weekend had me wishing that every kid out there was encouraged to follow their dreams and use their voice.