Erik Klemetti

Sector: Academia

Field: Science

Occupation: Professor

Tell me your earliest memory of being interested in science?

My family has a lot of science in it, so it is hard to pinpoint the earliest memory. My father worked for the Air Force Geophysics Lab as an engineer and my grandmother in Massachusetts had a vast rock & mineral collection. As a kid, I was very into astronomy and purchased every discard back issue of Odyssey magazine from the local library as I could. I remember distinctly staying up to watch the Neptune flyby by Voyager 2 in 1989.

Explain the steps you took to have a career path in academia or research? 

I did not take a straight path to geosciences. I liked science a lot in high school and was good at it but got a little burnt out by the time I got to Williams College. I had hoped to be an Astronomy major, but quickly discovered that I didn’t like the physics involved. So, I avoided science for much of my freshman and sophomore years. However, I did take a geology class and finally decided to major in geology as a junior, packing the whole major into 2 years. I did senior research in geology, working on ancient volcanic rocks in coastal Maine, but even after doing that, I wasn’t sure I wanted to “do sciences.” I dabbled in a career in radio and my first job was writing about history, but after 6 months, I decided I wanted to study volcanoes and teach. That’s what got me to pursue a Ph.D. in geology at Oregon State University, where I worked on a volcano in northern Chile.

What were some challenges or obstacles you had to overcome to pursue your career choices?

Thanks to my circuitous route to geosciences, I had many moments where I could have followed a very different path. Much of it came down to me being influenced by people who had perceptions of what a “scientist” or “geologist” was like … and I wasn’t it. When I first expressed interest in majoring in geosciences in college, some of my friends suggested I wasn’t “crunchy” (read: outdoorsy) enough for it. I believed that for about a year before returning to the fold.

The other big obstacle was just facing up to the realities of landing a faculty position anywhere. The odds are long that many people will get a tenure-track position at the sort of institution they imagined (research, teaching, liberal arts) and then get tenure. Luckily, I have mentors who supported all directions I explored, and I ended up in the sort of setting I have set out to get when I started graduate school.

What skills and knowledge, technical or non-technical, do you use in your work?

This list could go on for pages! Writing! Oral communication! Machine repair! Map reading! Isotope geochemistry! Personal interactions! Budgets! Programming! The geography of knowledge needed to be a professor is vast and many times we’re not trained for much of it as graduate students, so there’s a lot of learning by doing. Graduate school and post-doc taught me my geosciences and research skills, but not how to administer a budget or chair a department or creating a welcoming classroom environment of inclusivity. Those are skills that are needed that I ended up learning in the field, so to speak.

Describe the most exciting part of your research or teaching?

This is tough because I enjoy so much of it. In research, I love the exhilaration of discovery, whether it be mapping and samples volcanoes and just seeing the products of countless eruptions of millions of years or getting new data on my samples from the ion probe. New information we didn’t know before! It’s great.

For teaching, I love figuring out ways to help my students figure out stuff. It isn’t really about telling them information but getting them to think for themselves and understand on their own terms. That’s why teaching in a lab science is so gratifying, because so much of it can be “here’s some cool stuff, figure it out.”

Describe the most discouraging part of your research or teaching and how do you overcome this limitation?

I recently discovered that there are only 24 hours in a day. The balance work life, home life and things like, I don’t know, sleeping, you need to figure out where to compromise. I think that is one thing that many academics have a lot of troubling overcoming: the need for perfection. I’ve learned that many things can be done “good enough” and by moving through those items, you can budget your time more effectively. I love my job, but it is not my entire life … and I’m very happy that is the case (and my department/institution support this).

I also still struggle with the temptation to do everything. I teach, I research, I mentor, I write for the public. In each of those, I love doing new stuff like develop a new class or start a new project. However, I still haven’t gotten great and finishing one project before jumping in on something else.

What is something you wish you had known earlier in your career? What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

A few things: take more math and computer programming. That’s one. Also, the need to temper expectations of time – only so much can get done and that’s OK.

My advice might be to seek out many and diverse mentors. They are the ones who can really give you the clues that might take years to find on your own. I’ve been lucky enough to have many great mentors from undergrad to today and they’ve helped me follow a path that has been successful. These mentors should be from all sorts of places and ideally, from inside and outside the Earth Sciences. The more, the better!