Meet Jeff Wynn, Chief Scientist for Volcano Hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey. Learn how his career started with washing dishes and fighting fires but lead to inventing new analysis equipment and surviving bandit attacks in the Venezuelan Jungle.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist?
I was a nerdy 14-yr-old kid on a field trip to CalTech from my high school in Bakersfield, CA. We met with one of the scientists who managed the Viking Lander program on Mars. He was so smart, but patiently answered my uninformed questions. He was doing REALLY cool stuff. I was hooked.
When you were a child, what did you think you’d be doing as an adult? Did you know then that you’d want to monitor volcanoes and be awarded patents for your inventions?
No. Beyond the standard early childhood desire to be a fireman, I gave no real thought to a future career until college, and even then it kept evolving through my MS and PhD degrees. I actually worked my way through undergrad school at Berkeley by washing dishes during the school year and fighting forest fires in the southern Sierra Nevadas during the summers – and concluded that firefighting was rough, dirty, and more than nominally dangerous.
I got into the patent application business while doing an induced polarization (“IP”) survey on the NE coast of Florida. The geologist working with me had asked for geophysical help in mapping ilmenite, an iron-oxide form of titanium, and a strategic and critical mineral at the time. He was staring out over the Atlantic as I worked and suddenly said “Too bad you can’t do this out there.” I asked why he had said that? He replied that 7,000 years earlier the coastline had been 50 km farther east, and there HAD to be a lot of titanium sand in the near-to-middle offshore. I began to think about that, asked questions of electrical engineers and ocean scientists, spent time at Woods Hole, and developed a marine version of IP. I actually had to be pressed by the USGS to go through the patent application process, which I didn’t really think I had the time for. I was running four very different projects at the time.
When the Deep water Horizon/Macondo well blew out, I started thinking: how can I be of any use to my country here? I thought about a topological equivalency of a classical capacitor with an oil-based dielectric between the plates, vs. oil droplets distributed in a conductive seawater medium. Bingo. Some unique follow-up laboratory testing proved that the IP response of oil in seawater was phenomenally high. This time I initiated the patent application myself. It still took two years to convert my technical language into late 18th Century English. Ultimately, all 22 claims were accepted by the US Patent and Trademark Office.
What’s the most exciting part of your research?
Thinking through a hypothesis, then thinking through how to test it, then actually assembling gear and running a survey inside Mount St Helens or off the fantail of a ship. Those are very cool things to do.
Ultimately, discovering something that no one else has ever seen before, or even thought of before, is a huge thrill. I figured out a way to use an aircraft-mounted EM system to map groundwater in 3-D beneath a basin that straddles the Arizona-Sonora frontier. It had a REAL impact on preserving one of four major migratory bird flyways in North America.
Sometimes this takes courage to do my work. I’m 4-for-10 for puking my guts up on a ship in rough seas, for instance. I’ve also gone face-to-snout with a 700-kg brown bear in Alaska, and had close encounters of the wrong kind with killer bees and several bushmaster snakes in the Venezuelan jungle. My Venezuelan-American team barely survived an encounter with heavily-armed bandits – they didn’t have enough bullets to kill us all is why we survived. I lived in the deep Amazonas forest of southern Venezuela for 3 years, and published the first geologic map with more than two colors, and the first mineral resource assessment of the southern half of that country. Looking back through my journals as I finished an eBook about this (published by Barnes & Noble), I realized that I had nearly died almost every week I was down there.
When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?
Not sure. Perhaps a degree of stubbornness is involved. Philosophically, I have always looked at a brick wall as something to find a chink in, or a way around or over – that persistence always pays off.
What’s the strangest place/situation you’ve been?
Being inside Mutnovskiy volcano (Kamchatka) when it started erupting might qualify. Trying to contain nausea by pure will-power while conducting a survey in the middle of the night in 14-foot seas in the Atlantic might also qualify. I’ll never eat shoe-peg corn from a can again. You don’t want to know why. 😉
What aspect of your research/science would you happily do away with?
The bureaucratic paperwork. When I started my science career, I spent about 5% of my time at this and felt it was necessary. Now it is close to 50% of my time, and most of it is NOT necessary. Also, I have served several times in rotational science management positions, and (rarely) having to discipline a selfish and marginally sociopathic PhD scientist every once in awhile is no fun.
How have your friends/relatives who are not scientists reacted to your career/research?
They all seem to admire me for it, like I’m something wonderful. I’m always surprised by this reaction, because I think hey, I’m just having fun at something I like to do. I have always felt that doing something for your community is far more worthy and useful, like medicines sans frontiers. As a poor substitute, I teach women’s self-defense and advanced Jujitsu on the side, essentially for free, as a way to pay it forward. The science is done for me.
What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?
A career in geoscience or space science will be unmitigated and unbelievably FUN. It is immensely satisfying to study field evidence – the Wabar asteroid impact site, for instance – and draw conclusions about what happened there. My assembled evidence from Wabar proves that in the lifetime of my great-grandparents an event equal to or greater in energy release than the Hiroshima bomb took place where I was standing. The first time I registered this in a broad-brush sense (about 20 minutes after I reached and began examining the site), the initial conclusion made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. And it was already over 50 Celsius at 9am in the morning!