About a month ago, I attended the 2019 National Diversity in STEM Conference, an annual meeting organized by the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and held in Honolulu this year.
SACNAS STEM conferences are unique in that they focus on fostering diversity and inclusion. They are attended primarily by students and professionals. As a student, it is an invaluable experience to see examples of and interact with successful professionals who look like you. As a professional, it is an opportunity to mentor future scientists.
The conference got me thinking about where I came from, and how I ended up as a geophysicist at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO). I did not have a mentor or example to guide me.
I grew up on the windward side of Oahu, in a modest family that barely made ends meet. I rode my bike or walked to Waimanalo Intermediate, and later caught the bus to Kailua High School. I was an average kid.
Sometimes, I made good grades; other times, I made poor decisions. My teachers often sent home progress reports that said or hinted at something to the effect of “has potential” or “needs to apply himself.” Come to think of it, I probably made more poor decisions than good grades!
I finished high school, ranking somewhere in the middle of my class. I had no plans — and no clue.
Through a bizarre turn of events, I enrolled at Leeward Community College (LCC) on the other side of the island from where I lived. There, I took an introductory geology class, which, unbeknownst to me at the time, was the first in a series of fortunate events.
While taking 18-21 credits per semester at LCC, I worked full-time to pay for housing. I also had a second full-time job to pay for food and expenses. This was the normal hustle for my peers and me. I was just an average adult on Oahu.
After a few years of working toward a two-year degree, I decided that it was not sustainable. I left Hawaii to find a college on the mainland. I now had a plan — but still no clue.
While enrolling in Northern Arizona University, I was caught off-guard when the admissions official asked me to declare a major. As I strained to remember the classes I took in high school and LCC, the word “geology” came out of my mouth. I said it on a whim. It was a topic that I had only known for one fleeting semester.
Geology — the study of the earth. That one word impetuously muttered so many years ago set the course for the rest of my life.
During my undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral studies, I received grants and awards. I conducted and presented my research around the world. I advised policy-makers on state-wide legislation. I also drifted a long way from the little town of Waimanalo.
Living in Hawaii and being a scientist had never connected in my head. I had no role model, so the two seemed disconnected. That changed when I met a stranger at the airport after attending an American Geophysical Union conference.
“You’re from Honolulu, right?” he asked, which seemed oddly specific. Maybe he noticed my Locals slippers.
He was an HVO research geophysicist and reminded me that the Island of Hawaii has active volcanoes, which generate substantial seismicity. More importantly, he made me realize that there was indeed a place for local scientists in Hawaii.
About a year after that chance meeting, I started my career as a USGS-HVO geophysicist, monitoring Hawaiian volcanoes and earthquakes.
There is a disturbing lack of diversity in science, so representation matters. SACNAS works to ensure that underrepresented students in STEM get the support they need to succeed.
Not all scientists look like Einstein or wear lab coats. Some of us lucky ones get to wear slippahs.
Because of my past experiences, I engage with students whenever possible, which is why I attended the SACNAS STEM conference. My hope is that students never have to choose between pursuing their dream careers and staying close to their roots.
Please visit HVO’s website (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hvo) for past Volcano Watch articles, Kilauea and Mauna Loa updates, volcano photos, maps, recent earthquake info, and more. Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.
Volcano Watch (https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/observatories/hvo/hvo_volcano_watch.html) is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates. Today’s article is by HVO geophysicist Jefferson Chang.