In 1999 I was a 22-year-old actress who had recently finished college on the east coast with a BA in Theatre and Geology and moved to Los Angeles. I wasn’t particularly interested in doing film work (I’m a stage actress-Shakespeare is my jam) but I didn’t want to get a “real” job and had an opportunity to move in with a friend in Hollywood so I decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it.
The night of October 15 I went to bed early because I had an audition for an acting role in a small movie the next day. At 2:46 am I was abruptly awakened by my surfboard falling on my head — this rude awakening was quickly followed by the disorienting sensation of my bed moving and a cacophony of car alarms going off outside. I rushed to the door of my room (Don’t do this — you should “Drop, Cover and Hold On”) and heard my roommates, both older and more experienced with California living, yelling “Earthquake! We’re having an earthquake!” This was followed by a long, earsplitting scream that made my skin crawl; our Netherlands dwarf bunny, Petit Lapin, was so frightened by the shaking that he jumped into the toilet and was scrambling inside the bowl. That event was the M7.1 Hector Mine earthquake and it changed my life forever.
All of our interests and talents and life experience can be brought to bear in different ways — nothing that you do or learn is wasted.
Excited by the novel experience and emboldened by free-flowing adrenaline from the many aftershocks, I skipped my audition the next day and instead drove to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Earthquake Hazards Program office in Pasadena. I screwed up my courage and walked into the busy reception area and asked if I could volunteer. “No”, was the prompt answer. (For future reference, the best time to show up unannounced at the USGS is NOT immediately following a major earthquake that was felt in a metropolitan area. My bad.) I left the USGS office feeling dejected and went back to auditioning and working at my restaurant job. After all, I was an actress, not a real geologist — why would they want me? But I couldn’t shake the sense of excitement that I’d felt during the earthquake, and the vague but powerful sense of something more, that I was standing at the crossroads of a real opportunity. After all, scientists, especially scientists who work with hazards, need to be able to stand in front of people and talk about what was happening and why, and what might happen next. That was something that I knew I was good at — public speaking. Maybe that was what I could offer.
With a renewed sense of motivation and purpose, I returned to the USGS the following week and spoke with Lisa Wald, the Outreach and Education Coordinator. She decided to take a chance on me and I was assigned the task of helping to create and advertise a new lecture series on earthquake science — I was thrilled. After a few weeks, the Scientist-in-Charge, Dr. Lucy Jones, asked me if I’d like to officially join the USGS team. I eagerly agreed. Two years later when Lisa moved away I took over her position as the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program Outreach and Education Coordinator for Southern California.
For future reference, the best time to show up unannounced at the USGS is NOT immediately following a major earthquake that was felt in a metropolitan area. My bad.
During that time at the USGS, I saw how critical geologic and seismic hazard communication is to the public, policymakers and other stakeholders who live and work in earthquake-prone regions. And I was right — the combination of my acting and public speaking skills coupled with my geology background made me well suited for my role in this sphere, and the human impact of effectively communicating about these types of hazards was deeply fulfilling.
I had found my calling.
After 7 years at the USGS, I decided that I wanted to dig deeper into earthquake science, so I returned to university, earning an MSc and Ph.D. in Geology, focusing on earthquakes and geochronology with a secondary concentration in Geoscience Education. Now, I’m the Science Communication Specialist for the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology where I use my training and expertise to interface with the public, organizations and other scientists to talk about the importance of geophysics, earthquakes, seismic instruments, and science communication. And I love it.
People often laughingly comment on the circuitous path I took to my current career; I welcome both the humor and the discussion. “Quick, act like a rock. Now, teach a rock to act!” It is wild that I’m an actress and a scientist, and it illustrates the point that scientists are whole people with interests and skills and passions that fall outside of the realm of science. It also shows that you can change course mid-stride and that you aren’t locked into any one career path just because that’s what you’ve always done or because that’s what your degree is in. All of our interests and talents and life experience can be brought to bear in different ways — nothing that you do or learn is wasted.
But I couldn’t shake the sense of excitement that I’d felt during the earthquake, and the vague but powerful sense of something more, that I was standing at the crossroads of a real opportunity.
So why am I telling this story? I believe that scientists need to help humanize science by showing our whole selves, as wild and weird and silly as they may be, to help break the stereotype of what scientists are like, and who can be a scientist. Scientists need to show that we are real people who care deeply about our science, our communities, and the world. I hope my story helps to do that.
And for those of you that are concerned about the rabbit, Petit Lapin fully recovered from his toilet trauma and lived to a ripe old age.
Originally published at www.thexylom.com.