Research Assistant, Volcanic Hazards, Elaine Smid @lavabombs: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Elaine Smid - Presenting at scientific conferences.

Elaine Smid – Presenting at scientific conferences.

NAME:  Elaine Smid

CURRENT TITLE:  Research Scientist

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Volcanic Hazards


EDUCATION: B.A. Environmental Science, University of Virginia (2000); M.S. Geology & Geophysics, University of Hawai’i at Manoa (2004); PhD in progress, University of Auckland


What’s your job like?

I would describe my job as challenging, but always fun and very rewarding. I am a research and project management assistant for a long-term, multi-disciplinary international research project aiming to quantify the volcanic risk to people and the services they rely on to live in Auckland, New Zealand. The project is called DEtermining VOlcanic Risk in Auckland (or ‘DEVORA’ for short) (see:

The problem is that Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and lies directly atop a dormant volcanic field that could produce an eruption at any time, threatening the lives and livelihoods of 1.5 million people. The DEVORA project is all about understanding the past and likely future behaviour of the field to anticipate scenarios that could happen during a future eruption. We can then prepare for these scenarios by collaborating with government agencies and organisations that keep people’s lives running smoothly (for example, power and water companies, road services, hospitals, police, etc.) to improve policy and emergency preparedness plans. We must be doing well, as we’ve gained some international recognition as a good model of an integrated research strategy!

Making museum displays. Elaine Smid.

Making museum displays. Elaine Smid

My job can be split into three workstreams: 1) research, 2) end-user and stakeholder engagement and outreach, and 3) project management. For the first, I help others with their research and get to do a few of my own projects (more now that I have started a part-time PhD!). I help design the research questions, go out to volcanoes to describe and collect samples, use lasers and X-rays and other fancy equipment to analyze the volcanic samples and get data in the field and lab, and then figure out what all the data means. Then I share my conclusions with other scientists by presenting at conferences and writing scientific articles. For the outreach component, I explain what our findings mean to non-scientists and interact with the public: I maintain our website, do TV and radio and other interviews, give public talks and lead field trips, and help curate museum displays. We as a whole team work with Civil Defense and lifeline organisations to explain what our findings mean for Auckland, and get feedback about what they need from us for future studies.

Finally, for project management, I coordinate and organise our 60+ person research team, updating them on what everyone else is doing, and getting everyone together once in a while to touch base. What that really means is that I make sure everything runs smoothly–I help track the progress of our researchers and make sure our funding partners are happy.

Whew. It’s a lot, but I love my job, and how varied and challenging the tasks are!

What’s a typical day like?

My day is never, ever the same, so this is a very tough question. I recently gave someone a rundown of a week on the job, so I’ll share that instead as this more adequately captures my job responsibilities and how exciting it can be (or not). So, over one week, I:

  • Looking for earthquakes. Photo source: Elaine Smid

    Looking for earthquakes. Photo source: Elaine Smid

    Spoke to members of our research team all over New Zealand and wrote a quarterly report explaining what we have accomplished in the past 3 months—this goes out to our funders and researchers so everyone knows what is happening.

  • Took a field trip to a volcanic island to download seismic (earthquake) data. We are monitoring the field for earthquakes as these will be the first sign of an eruption.
  • Learned how to pick out earthquakes from the seismic traces in the data we downloaded.
  • Worked on a media communications plan for DEVORA to guide our scientists when interacting with news organisations.
  • Updated our project website with the latest events.
  • Made some materials for our volcano outreach team to use to explain volcanic processes to the public.
  •  Made slides for and practiced a talk I’m giving at a scientific meeting.
  • Assigned work to our intern and monitored her progress.
  • Laboratory work - Elaine Smid.

    Laboratory work – Elaine Smid.

    Got a crash course on how to remotely use an electron microprobe (a machine that analyzes the chemistry of rocks using X-rays)–I will use this technique to analyze minerals found in lava.

  • Read and summarized a lot of journal articles to stay on top of the latest research in my field and to help with future journal articles I’ll write.

What’s fun?

Almost everything! I am very grateful for this–even the somewhat tedious stuff like organising meetings and writing reports are quite rewarding, because I believe in the project and can see how it will help save people’s lives.

The highlight of my career thus far was hanging out an open-door New Zealand military helicopter (with just a scrap of a seatbelt to hold me in) to take aerial and infrared photos of an active volcano for a research project, telling the pilot where to fly to get the best shot—it was the most thrilling experience I’ve ever had, both professionally and personally.


Helicoptering into active volcano. Photo source: Elaine Schmid

In general, though, what I really love is getting outside in the field, seeing the volcanic deposits, and imagining the eruption processes that created them! Getting to see those eruptions in real-time to help with the imagining process is amazing, as well. Learning new skills (in the field or lab) is fun for me, as is collecting data and trying to figure out what it is trying to tell us about the volcano. Teaching people about volcanoes via public outreach is another rewarding activity of mine.

Elaine Smid - On a hawaiian lava flow

Elaine Smid – On a hawaiian lava flow

What’s challenging?

My biggest challenge is that there is not enough time to do everything that I want to do! For example, I have a million blog post ideas in my head, but not enough time to write them all (you can find my blog at I’d love to learn everything there is to know in volcanology, but unfortunately I must focus on a few topics.

Probably the most frustrating thing I have to do is to organise meetings that fit into the schedules of the numerous busy people that I work with.

What’s your advice to students?

Explore your interests and figure out what you are passionate about. Sometimes this takes a while, but it is completely worth it when you find it!

Along the way, just learn as much as you can about a variety of subjects. Developing a wide range of skills is really important. Don’t just study your main subject–keep an open mind about where you may end up! Volunteer to help out with a research project. Take the hard classes—believe me, learning them on your own later is ten times more difficult, and later you will be chosen for jobs over other people who did not take those hard classes! Developing your writing and communication skills will serve you well no matter what career you choose.


Elaine Smid with an erupting Sakurajima volcano

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