Tyler Barton Class of 2002
After telling people what I do for a living, there is usually a pause in the conversation followed by: “and exactly what does a geologist actually do?” Good question, and surprisingly difficult to answer. The truth is that when I graduated with an Earth and Planetary Sciences degree from Mc- Gill University (Quebec) in 2005, I found myself wondering the same thing. Now what?
Every college graduate faces the same question: travel,
work, or graduate school? I knew that I wanted to pursue
graduate studies, but I honestly couldn’t choose a topic. The
field of geology encompasses such a huge subject matter,
how could I confidently choose a specialization without fully
understanding what each meant beforehand?
The best decisions are always informed decisions. And the
only way to truly know anything is through first-hand experience.
So I set out to find my answers, convinced to work in as
many fields of geology as I could find. I began as an exploration geologist, searching for gold and precious metals across
Canada’s arctic tundra. I moved on to environmental consulting, making sure mines in Alaska/British Columbia were not
over-polluting the gorgeous Boreal forest and snow-capped
peaks which surround them. From dressing up like an astronaut in the desert and simulating a manned mission to Mars
for NASA, to spending frigid winters working on oil rigs
in northern Canada, I twisted and pulled and stretched my
“geology” degree to its limit, the idea being to continue until I
found a theme that interested me enough to go back to school
for another degree.
While keenly interested in every job I had and every new
set of skills I learned, volcanology was what I regularly came
back to. Maybe it’s the thrill of being so near to something
unimaginably larger and more powerful than yourself, maybe
it’s the sensation of staring into a glowing volcanic crater
and feeling the heat it emits, maybe it’s the emotional shock
of seeing first-hand the catastrophic disaster an eruption can
have on society, or maybe it’s the sulfuric hot springs you so
often find nearby. Either way, my work and studies found me
seeking out and exploring these often Moon-like terrains from
the warm waters of the Caribbean to the harsh but surprisingly
beautiful landscape of Iceland.
Meanwhile, another thought had been eating at me for
a few years. These large mining companies and oil and gas
corporations, while a necessary evil (and indeed, some of my
former employers), were not where I planned on making a
career. It was acceptable in the interim: the fantastic pay and
highly flexible working months allowed me to travel as far and
as long as I wanted.
I don’t remember exactly when or how, but an idea was
slowly growing in the back of my mind, picking up momentum like a runaway snowball. I needed a way to rip myself
away from the allure of the “ 3 months of work followed by 9
months of travel” cycle I’d fallen into. The oil rig work paid
so well I was slowly losing sight of what I’d originally set out
to accomplish. The Peace Corps was calling… and my karma
certainly needed the jolt.
The Peace Corps is a 27-month commitment, and a decision not to be taken lightly. I considered what it meant to
spend two years living as a volunteer, and how my plans for
grad school fit into my desire to join the Peace Corps. The
answer came to me, as so many things do, by pure dumb luck.
Flipping through a magazine from the Peace Corps’ application kit, I learned of a program where you can combine
grad school with the Peace Corps. Instead of having to choose
between them, I could do both at the same time!
I’ll spare you all the gritty details, but the main point is
that you can use the Peace Corps as a way to fund an extended
field work campaign. During your free time (and you find lots
of it within the laid-back lifestyle which characterizes most
under-developed countries) you collect data for a thesis. Add
to this a few semesters of overloaded coursework in the U.S.
before you leave, and voilà!
I’m currently a Peace Corps volunteer serving in El
Salvador, using my geology background to work in the area
of natural disasters – more specifically, ways to mitigate their
impact on society.
El Salvador is a small Central American country, about the
size of Massachusetts, which is regularly affected by natural
hazards that include volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, landslides, debris flows, fires, and tsunamis.
The United Nations recently published a report naming
El Salvador as the country most “at risk” to natural disasters
in the world: 90% of its population and 85% of its economy
(and, therefore, its ability to recover after a disaster) lie within
a hazard zone.
I’m part of a pilot program within the Peace Corps, aimed
specifically at tackling this issue. A lot of what I do is public education. In essence, I translate sometimes complicated
geological issues, showing local residents how they can be
applicable on a more practical basis.
One example is creating evacuation routes. Far from simple, the goal is to do this in a culturally sensitive way. What