Text Size

The Moment a Geologist Was Born
Who Are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student wondering how El Niño will affect tomorrow's weather. The scientist studying connections between ozone and climate change. And the farmer using satellite pictures to keep track of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all curious about the Earth system. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Amanda Hintz had read about it in books. She'd even seen pictures. But it was different seeing it in person. "It" was a giant chasm, or gap in the Earth's surface, along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Nearly 10,000 miles long, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is the longest mountain range in the world. It sits mostly underwater and spans the north-south length of the Atlantic Ocean. Iceland is one of the few places where the mountain rises above sea level.

Amanda Hintz crouches near a glowing lava flow

During an "Interpretation of Active Volcanoes" class, Amanda Hintz visited an active lava flow on Kilauea, Hawaii. Image Credit: NASA

View Larger Image

So when Hintz arrived at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge during a trip to Iceland in the year 2000, she made sure to take it all in. And that's when she realized she wanted to be a geologist.

Ten years later, Hintz is now pursuing a doctorate in geology as part of a NASA-sponsored program. A doctorate is a degree that requires several years of study beyond a four-year degree from a college or university. The NASA-sponsored program is called MSPHD's, which stands for "Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success in Earth System Science."

She still vividly remembers what she saw in Iceland.

"Iceland changed my life forever," Hintz said. "I was so struck by what I was seeing. This was what I had been reading about in books and seeing simplifications of in diagrams. This was real geology."

That encounter with "real geology" might not have happened if not for Hintz' grandparents. They gave her money for the trip, which was led by a group of science professors at her community college.

"They said they would pay for it because they could see what an important opportunity this was," Hintz said. "I was completely shocked. But looking back now, I can see that they really knew how this was going to open doors for me."

Before the trip to Iceland, Hintz had been taking classes to become an artist. But she was drawn to geology by a desire to better understand the world around her.

"I wanted to possess the powers of observation that would allow me to decipher my surroundings," Hintz said. I wanted to "be a part of the science community, finding problems and figuring out solutions."

Geology has forced Hintz to face a subject she had previously tried to avoid: math. It's a subject that strikes fear into many would-be scientists.

"I can definitely identify with math phobia," Hintz said. "But everything changed once I decided I was going to be a geologist. I knew that if I wanted a degree in geology, I was going to have to ... deal with a lot of math. Once we started learning about ... how some of these concepts could literally be used in my line of work, things just started to click."

Hintz is now about halfway through her doctoral work. She has focused her studies on volcanoes and volcanic fields. Volcanic fields are areas of land that are prone to volcanic activity and contain tens to hundreds of volcanoes.

Satellite image of the ash plume from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano

In this satellite image taken on May 10, 2010, the ash plume from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano stretches in a southeasterly direction over the northern Atlantic Ocean. Image Credit: NASA

View Larger Image

She says volcanoes are an important area of research as more and more people live and work in the path of volcanoes.

Hintz watched with close interest when Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano began erupting in April. Clouds of ash from the volcano grounded air traffic across Europe, inconveniencing travelers for days and costing airlines more than a billion dollars.

When would the volcano stop erupting or become less explosive? It was a hard question to answer. And it was a question that relates to the volcanic deposits she has been studying.

Volcanic deposits are the ash and rocks left over from a volcanic eruption. They can provide clues to when and for how long a volcano erupted thousands or millions of years ago. That information could help scientists predict how long the eruption of a present-day volcano might last.

There could be a change in the lava and ash from an erupting volcano "that signals the end of the eruption is near," Hintz said. "There is a demand for the type of work I'm doing."

Related Resources:
Meet the Next Earth Explorers

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies