Trekking to the top

Growing up riding four-wheelers and collecting rocks near her grandparents’ cabin in the valleys wedged between the Rocky Mountains, Shelby Isom’s childhood was an adventure. Always on the hunt for the perfect sphere- and heart-shaped rocks, she loved being in nature. But she never expected she would turn that passion for the outdoors into a career.

But that became her reality as a geology Ph.D. student at West Virginia University, where she has spent many hours scaling volcanoes and leading undergraduate students on field trips.

“Growing up in Idaho among the huge granite mountains, it is hard not to be entranced by them,” Isom said. “When I learned about the opportunities the geology discipline offered in my first class, I realized you get to be outside in the field and do research that impacts a lot of people. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do with my career.” 

Today, Isom studies volcanic processes during the emplacement of lava, or the settling of lava after a volcano erupts. Her research focuses on the Inyo Volcanic Domes, large, north-south trending, 600-year-old volcanic lava flows located in eastern California.

“The U.S. Geological Survey just published its latest hazardous volcano report. These volcanoes are still listed as hazardous and active as they have erupted within the last 600 years,” Isom said. “This area of California is tectonically active, so it faults regularly. These volcanoes are made through faulting processes. There was a large fault that ruptured 600 years ago, triggering the eruption and emplacement of the lava at the Inyo Domes.”

While lava is commonly known as a runny substance that can travel for several miles before hardening, the lava in these volcanoes forms a pancake shape when the volcano erupts, Isom explained.

“The magma that comes up out of these volcanoes is really viscous because of its high silica content,” she said. “It’s like honey or squeezing toothpaste out of the tube.”

Isom is studying exposed lava on the surfaces of these volcanoes to understand the rate at which the lava moved and the total volume erupted. This approach will help determine potential hazards associated with them.

“I’m crawling around on the lava flow measuring things and trying to understand the orientations of the different blocks on the surface,” she said. “It’s a lot of crawling on sharp, pointy rocks with the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. It’s really cool.”

Isom and adviser, Assistant Professor of Geology Graham Andrews, have received two National Science Foundation awards for their research: NSF INTERN and NSF EAGER. The funding will support new research fieldwork in fall 2019 and her internship at the U.S. Geological Survey and the California Volcano Observatory in Palo Alto, California, in spring 2020.

The NSF INTERN Award allows graduate students working with NSF-supported faculty to gain experience outside of academia, while the NSF EAGER Award funds exploratory research in its early stages.

“The NSF INTERN Award gives students like me who have been in academia their entire careers an internship that isn’t in higher education,” Isom said. “The NSF EAGER Award includes our research because we are using a radically different approach to understand silicic lava emplacement, which has not yet been scientifically vetted.”

In addition to her internship experience, she will have access to three specialized microscopes at the facilities to use for her dissertation research: a scanning electron microscope, an electron microprobe and a Fourier-transform infrared spectrometer.

A first-generation student from Caldwell, Idaho, Isom wasn’t sure if she’d go to college, let alone pursue a Ph.D. But she did with the support of mentors along the way like Andrews, who helped her network with researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey.

“It’s up to you to determine what you want to do with your research. If I ever have an aspiration, he is very receptive. But I have to propose it to him, explain why I want to do it, why it’s important and why he should back me up,” Isom said. “It’s really great because it’s fostered my confidence to identify what I want to do and why I want to do it.” 

After graduating from WVU, Isom aspires to move back to the West Coast to conduct field research and teach geology at a liberal arts college.

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