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From a Volcano's Edge to a Congressional Race: Using Science to Solve Government Issues

Jess Phoenix Credit: Jess Phoenix

I inched closer to the edge of the cliff, my boots dislodging small rocks that tumbled 15 stories down to the roiling, 2000-degree Fahrenheit lake of molten rock below. It was 2008, and my first time gazing into a literal inferno.

Kilauea volcano is the world's most active, and this eruption at its summit had begun just a few short weeks earlier. I was a volunteer geology researcher with the United States Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Volcanology is a young science, with most knowledge coming from the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980, and eruptions since. Volcano science has much improved since then, and tens of thousands of lives have been saved with better technology and understanding of volcanoes and their hazards.

The eruption at Kilauea's summit was special because it's one of the world's most accessible volcanoes. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) looks right at the part of the volcano's summit where the lava lake opened, and visitors at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park can witness a volcanic eruption from less than a mile away. For scientists, the ease of access meant that we could drive trucks almost to the volcano's rim, which limited our exposure to deadly sulfur dioxide-rich vog (volcanic smog), and made getting out in an emergency much more possible.

Still, the hard hat, respirator and high-visibility orange shirt I wore seemed flimsy if a volcanic bomb hurtled out of the lava lake. My supervisor for the day, geologist Tim Orr, provided a safety briefing before we got to work installing a scientific camera. After the safety procedures, Tim added, "you know there's a very real possibility we could die, right?"

I considered this for a moment, and responded, "Okay." Then, I picked up a wrench and got to work.

Science isn't glamorous. No one asks for your autograph after you return from an expedition to a hostile environment. No one pays mega-millions for the data you collected about the gas composition of a volcanic eruption, or the measurements you took on disappearing glaciers. Few people know the names Dave Johnston, Katia and Maurice Krafft, or Geoffrey Brown – all volcanologists killed trying to understand volcanoes. They were good scientists, and the importance of their work drove others, including myself, to put our lives at risk for something larger than ourselves. Having boots on the ground, doing the hot, physical and deadly work of field science is what keeps millions of people around the world safe.

Scientists love to learn. Field scientists in particular are driven by curiosity about our world. We want to know it intimately, to uncover the darkest secrets that our planet holds close. If not us, then who will discover how to predict volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunami, landslides and hurricanes? Who will unlock the key to surviving our planet's rapidly changing climate?

In 2013, I founded the environmental science research organization Blueprint Earth. When I started my career as a scientist, cutting through miles of red tape to start a federal 501(c)(3) with no start-up money was not on my radar. But working on six continents showed me that true creative problem-solving, and the secret to solving big-picture challenges like climate change, comes from diversity. We need diversity of experience and work across different fields to examine problems from every angle, and to ferret out those tough solutions.

I set out to recruit college students in biology, geology, hydrology, atmospheric science and engineering to work with senior scientists to create blueprints of our planet. If we want to be able to recreate an environment in case of disaster, or to rehabilitate a damaged ecosystem after we extract natural resources, we need to understand how our planet works as a system. Working in their own professional areas, scientists are often distant from other fields of expertise. Blueprint Earth teaches the value of collaboration with people in other fields, and across generations.

I pledged to provide this experience at no cost to the students, which has allowed us to work with 76 percent female students, 54 percent students of color, 60 percent percent students from low-income backgrounds. This is what the scientific, problem-solving workforce of the future looks like. This is what drives innovation.

When I decided to run for congress, it was not as someone who aspires to be a professional politician. I saw a need for scientific problem-solving in our government, and I recognized that my training in the scientific method, in gathering facts to use in decision-making and analysis, is missing from our policies now. We are in an era where facts and objectivity are under assault. Partisanship and profits are more valued than people.

The essence of my career has been to serve my fellow humans and the planet on which we live. I have gazed into that fiery mouth of volcanic hell, and I have mentored the next generation of scientists who will carry us through the coming climate crisis. As I stand on the cliff of a congressional race that will help shape the future of our nation, I have taken stock of what lies ahead of, and within me. My goal is to carry the principles of all my scientist brothers and sisters with me as I forge a new path into unknown hazards. Once again, it's time to get to work.

About the author: Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist, former college professor, and professional field scientist who is running for Congress in California (25th district). With a President in office who denies climate change and an influx of natural disasters, Jess is calling for scientists who understand technology and how it can be used to help our country and our planet to run for office. She is also the executive director, principal investigator and co-founder of environmental scientific research organization Blueprint Earth