Dr. Kayla Iacovino: In the footsteps of a volcano scientist

A self-described « maker of magma chambers » and « investigator of North Korean volcanoes», Dr. Kayla Iacovino is a volcano scientist who became known to the world as the first female scientist to trek through North Korea. To commemorate Mount Vesuvius’ eruption, which took place on August 24th on 79 AD, DiscovHER looks at the work of a woman who combines science and adventure.

The first woman scientist in North Korea

Well-known as a volcanologist and experimental petrologist – that is a geologist who looks at the origins of rocks – Kayla Iacovino is working as a post-doctoral NSF fellow at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California. 

In 2013, she became the first woman scientist to trek through North Korea, as a part of a rare research trip open to Westerners, with the aim to study the country’s Paektu volcano. She was not only a woman but also the only American in her team. She stated

I knew I didn’t want to say anything wrong since I was the only American in my group.

There she discovered the difficulties facing the country’s scientists without access to the internet and to current research:

It’s very obvious they are disconnected from the outside community. Some of their interpretations were not so traditional.

The stereotypes facing a female volcano scientist

Dr. Iacovino also discovered the prevailing stereotype against women scientists in North Korea. Communicating through a third party, since she wasn’t permitted to talk to the local geologists directly, she recounted:

I asked him if there are any women geologists. He said: “Yes, but they stay at the lab because women are too weak to do field work.” ». By the end of the trip they were treating me like an equal.

Studying a volcano in Antarctica

For her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, Dr. Iacovino studied Mount Erebus, an active volcano on Antartica’s Ross Island. Ascending Erebus was a physical feat for which she had to train.

We have to stop at 9000 feet to acclimatize, the camp is at 12,000 feet. You have to get used to breathing with so little oxygen. The conditions are really great there. We have two little huts the size of a garage, one houses the snowmobiles and one is the kitchen and then we sleep in tents. 

Also a science writer and Star Trekkie

Dr. Iacovino is also a writer. She’s science editor for TrekMovie.com, science feature writer for GEEK Magazine and science content writer for Shmoop. She’s also a big fan of popular science in movies, books and TV. “I think it is one of the best ways scientists have to reach the general public and get people excited about science,” she says. Dr. Iacovino hopes to publish her own book about the volcanoes of the Solar System. 

Do you know scientist women who work on volcano? Let us know @4womeninscience! 

Dr. Iacovino received a Bachelor of Science in Geology from Arizona State University in 2010 – the city where she was born and raised - and a ph.D. in petrology and volcanology from the University of Cambridge where she co-founded The Volcanofiles, an educational outreach group run by the university’s volcanologists. She has researched San Carlos, Arizona; Villarrica, Puyehue, and Lascar in Chile; Paektu, North Korea; Turrialba, Costa Rica; and the Erebus volcano, Antarctica. She has conducted experimental work at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, the OmniPressure Lab at Arizona State University, the University of Minnesota Experimental Petrology Group, the Institut des Sciences de la Terre d’Orleans and the experimental petrology lab at Italy’s Università di Camerino.

Visit her website and her Twitter account.

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