Kendra Lynn

Sector: Research

Field: Science

Occupation: volcanologist

My name is Kendra J. Lynn and I am a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware. My research focuses on the geologic processes operating at volcanoes – from the generation of magma in the mantle to their eruptions on Earth’s surface – and the associated hazards that they pose to millions of people around the globe. Understanding the timing and duration of events in volcanic systems is critical for constraining eruption scenarios. I investigate the tempo of geologic processes by integrating diverse analytical and numerical techniques that cross traditional boundaries between geophysics, petrology and geochemistry, and computational modeling. This multi-disciplinary approach allows me to use diffusion principles to understand how and when magmas and hydrothermal fluids transit Earth’s crust at volcanic centers.

 Tell me your earliest memory of being interested in science?

I have loved volcanoes since I was 5 years old and have always wanted to study them. When I was in elementary school we used to stand in line outside the library to wait for our turn to go in and check out books. On the wall, was a gigantic poster about volcanoes – you know the type, with the cartoon cut out through the center showing the magma chamber and the conduits and all the layers. Every time we went to the library, I would stare at that poster with awe and wonder about volcanoes and lava. From that time onward, I knew that I wanted to study volcanoes. As I grew up, I realized that I liked many different sciences (math, physics, chemistry, etc), so studying geology fit right into my interests.

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

In high school, I took college courses and Advanced Placement (AP) classes in whatever subjects I could. If you could get a score of 4 or above on the AP tests, you could get credit for introductory course requirements when you got to college. These AP credits, and the College Calculus class I took (credits through the U. of Minnesota), meant that I entered college as a sophomore. I had completed an entire year of classes and most of my general education requirements while I was still in high school.

I went to Winona State University for my Bachelor of Science in Geology, finishing it in only three years. During this time, I also completed two undergraduate thesis projects. The first was focused on optimizing soil chemistry at the local Earth-Be-Glad Organic Farm. The second characterized the metamorphic petrology and structural geology of a shear zone at the Maine-New Hampshire border, and included two weeks of field work followed by a year of lab analyses. These were my first research experiences, which solidified my desire to go on to graduate school and pursue a career in research.

With several graduate programs to choose from, I was faced with the choice of studying the geophysics or geochemistry of volcanic systems. I had always loved my chemistry courses, so I accepted an offer to the Geology and Geophysics graduate program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where I worked on the geochemistry and petrology of Kilauea Volcano. My Ph.D. focused on the magmatic processes operating at Hawaiian Volcanoes, with an emphasis on using diffusion kinetics to access the timescales of these processes. I learned how to use geochemistry and petrology of erupted minerals and lavas to better understand how magmas were transported and stored within Kilauea prior to explosive eruptions.

For my postdoc I ended up branching out and decided to work on the upper mantle and mid-ocean ridge volcanoes, which brought me to the University of Delaware to work with Jessica Warren. I am currently finishing my second year at UD and am interviewing for tenure-track faculty positions to continue my research on the processes operating in Earth’s volcanic systems.

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

Mentoring. I was a first-generation female college student from a rural farm community in Minnesota. There were very few people I could even talk to about my interest in studying geology or Earth Sciences more generally. My middle school science teacher Ruth Oliver really saved me, providing practical advice about where to go to school and what it meant to be a geologist. She told me that the best geology program would be the one that gave you the most field experiences outside the classroom. She was absolutely right. Finding the right mentor(s) is still a challenge, as I am a female scientist in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Financial. I had no financial support from family for my tuition, my parents made too much money for me to receive grants, and my federal loan allowance wasn’t that much. I went to a state school to keep my tuition low, covered half of my expenses on hard-won scholarships, and on average worked three jobs throughout my undergraduate studies. I worked the evening/night shift for campus security, sleeping only four hours a night before going to class the next day.  Some semesters, I took 21 credits while maintaining this work load. It was the only way to avoid going into unmanageable debt just for a bachelor’s degree.

Emotional. When I received an offer for full support to the graduate program in Hawaii, I couldn’t have been more relieved. I would finally be able to focus on my studies without burning the candle at both ends to pay my bills. But moving to Hawaii presented other challenges I wasn’t prepared for: isolation. Hawaii is a beautiful and amazing place, but I had never lived in a city before and the transition to living in Honolulu was stressful. I had never been to Hawaii, I didn’t know anyone that lived there, and I had to get on a plane by myself and just pick my whole life up and move there. It was the greatest leap I have ever taken, and it took six months before I started to feel settled in. Hawaii is isolated and it was not easy or affordable to go home. It made me feel trapped at first. My first semester in graduate school was the hardest emotional adjustment I have ever had to make, but in the end it turned out to be a good decision to stay.

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

The list is endless, but includes: 1) Scientific Writing – preparation of conference abstracts, manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed journals (which also includes graphic design for figures), session proposals for conferences; 2) Analytical laboratory skills – as a geochemist and petrologist, I frequently analyze minerals and rocks in a lab setting. I have needed to become a competent user of many instruments for different analytical techniques (electron microprobe, ion microprobe, scanning electron microscope, electron backscatter diffraction, laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, x-ray diffraction). The ability to troubleshoot when analyses go wrong is also very important; 3) Numerical Modeling – lately my research has expanded to include numerical modeling and high-performance computing. Geochemists and petrologists don’t typically use high-performance computing, but I am starting to use this technique routinely. I need to be able to write code (Matlab, R, Python) and run models on computer clusters; 4) Field Work – as a volcanologist there is a field component to my work, which generally requires the ability to hike and work in variable weather conditions for long days; 5) Science Communication and Teaching – even as a postdoc, I often find myself in teaching or outreach settings that require communication of scientific subjects to audiences that range from the general public to college classes.

Describe the most exciting part of your research or teaching?

As a volcanologist/geochemist, I get to travel the world and do field work in some of the most spectacular volcanic landscapes imaginable. On a volcanology trip in graduate school, we studied lahar deposits in the Whangaehu Valley of Ruapehu Volcano, New Zealand. I remember standing on the debris flows, looking up the valley over a rugged landscape and thinking “Wow, this is my office today.” Studying these volcanic landscapes is always fascinating, and I think being outside and getting up close to geologic processes is exciting for all Earth Scientists. I think my lab work and data analysis are exciting too, but field work allows you to bring together different aspects of your study area to really understand complex systems.

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

Sometimes you work incredibly hard for something you really want (a proposal, a job, a project, a conference), but it just doesn’t work out. There might not even be a good reason why – sometimes things just don’t come together despite the fact that you did everything you could to make it happen. This can be a huge disappointment, and very discouraging, but in the end, I think these types of experiences teach me a lot about being patient and being open to other options. Sometimes what you think you want most may not help you grow as a scientist or a researcher – and in the end, sometimes it’s the unexpected opportunity that can open your eyes to something new and captivate your scientific curiosity in ways you could never have imagined. I think it is important to keep an open mind so that you can appreciate serendipitous opportunities, and not be bogged down with disappointment over something that didn’t work out.

What is something you wish you had known earlier in your career?

I wish someone would have told me that a career as a female in STEM fields would not be easy. When I was growing up there were a lot of initiatives to promote girls’ interest in science, with the message that you could do anything you wanted to as long as you worked hard. It never occurred to me that there are gender and diversity biases that contribute to the “leaky pipeline” of underrepresented groups in STEM careers. I think this goes back to my comments about finding mentors, which I’ve found is increasingly difficult as I progress throughout my career. If someone had warned me earlier about these issues, it wouldn’t have dissuaded me from pursuing this career, but it would have better prepared me for non-ideal situations and tough conversations.

What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

If you have to make a choice between doing something you know you are good at or doing something completely new – always choose to do something new. The best scientists are well-rounded and open-minded, which can only come with broad experiences and stepping outside your comfort zone. The best way to achieve this is to be kind to yourself – love yourself and your abilities. That uncomfortable feeling of not knowing how to do something shouldn’t make you your own worst enemy. So be kind to yourself, be brave enough to do things that make you feel incapable, and then master these new skills no matter what anyone says. I love this quote from the polar explorer Ann Bancroft because I think it really sends that message – “It is ok to risk, to take adventures, to aspire to something so unimaginable that no one but you can see it.”