NAME: Dr. Jessica Ball
CURRENT TITLE: Research Geologist, U.S. Geological Survey
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Volcanology, science communication
EDUCATION: BSc (4 years), PhD (5 years), Policy Fellow (1 year), Postdoc (3 years)
What’s your job like?
My job is a confluence of research and science communication. I study volcanic hazards like landslides and lahars using several kinds of numerical modeling. My PhD and postdoc focused on volcano hydrothermal systems and how they affect stability, and I’m branching out into lahar hazards. But I also help the USGS California Volcano Observatory (CalVO) communicate with stakeholders and the public about volcanic hazards – where and how they occur, what infrastructure and property and parts of the economy might be affected in an eruption, and how that can be mitigated. A big recent project has been writing a report summarizing volcanic hazards in California for the State Office of Emergency Services. I also help manage the CalVO website and the USGS Volcano social media accounts.
What’s a typical day like?
While I do spend a fair amount of time at my desk – running models, answering questions on social media, writing about hazards for stakeholders – I also spend some of my time in the field and meeting with people who are concerned with volcanic hazards. This includes land managers like the National Park Service and Forest Service and emergency managers and responders at the state and local levels. So, I might start my day by checking the activity on the USGS Volcanoes Facebook and Twitter accounts. Then I answer emails from colleagues and collaborators and get to work running the latest iteration of whatever model I’m working on. I might analyze some output from a model, or write up that analysis in a publication I’m working on. I might also be developing briefing materials or working on a communication strategy for my research center’s next collaboration with our stakeholders. Throughout the day, I talk with my colleagues in the office and around the world about whatever we’re working on, which is really important to me – I don’t work well in isolation!
Getting to figure out how to adapt and translate our science for non-scientists. I love writing and word games and the intricacies of communication fascinate me, so I enjoy the challenge of making our science relevant and understandable to people who aren’t constantly steeped in it. Being a civil servant means that the research I do should be benefiting the taxpayers who fund it, and I feel that science communication is an important step in the research process. Otherwise, what good am I doing?
The same thing! But it’s more convincing people that they have valuable insights for the folks on the other side of the table. It’s so easy for everyone – scientists, policymakers, land and emergency managers, etc. – to get so focused on their work and their problems that they dismiss the relevance of outside expertise. I see my job as bridging that gap. The fact that I do research gives me credibility on the scientific side, and the way I’m willing to step over into the policy and communication world helps me make connections there. It’s just a matter of getting people to meet in the middle!
What’s your advice to students?
Flexibility will serve you well in science. It might just mean flexibility in research – pursuing multiple methods or projects or collaborating with people who don’t do exactly what you do – but it could also mean being flexible in your goals and career path. It’s not realistic to go through grad school expecting to get that tenure-track job and be set for life. There are a lot of PhDs out there and not a lot of academic jobs, and anyone who doesn’t admit that doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Be prepared to look outside academia, and don’t dismiss things like policy or advocacy or communication. There’s nothing shameful about changing tracks or stepping outside academia – it’s just being practical! And you can do important, impactful, rewarding work in many different places that aren’t academic departments.