Valerie Wasser knew at a young age that her future lay with volcanoes.
It started long ago when she watched a volcanology documentary with her father. She was a young child, fascinated as the volcanologists reached the rim of a volcano’s crater and looked inside.
Now she’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, doing research that takes her onto and above some of Alaska’s many volcanoes.
A family vacation in Hawaii cemented her interest.
“I got to see lava on the Big Island,” she said. “There was an ocean entry in 2008, and it was just so powerful and so beautiful at the same time.”
With the vacation ended, she and her family returned to Switzerland and their home in Grosshochstetten, a community of about 3,000 people in the nation’s central region. She brought home with her the idea that her future would contain volcanoes.
Her parents figured the volcano preoccupation was a passing thing, just one of several interests that grab a child’s attention through the years.
She proved them wrong, finishing junior high and high school in Switzerland and returning to Hawaii at age 18 to attend the University of Hawaii at Hilo, where she earned a bachelor’s in geology.
She would have to go elsewhere for experience beyond Hawaii’s volcanoes, and that brought her to UAF, where she earned a master’s in geoscience and is pursuing a Ph.D. in geosciences. Her master’s and doctorate coursework was through the UAF College of Natural Science and Mathematics.
Wasser had a paper published in 2021 about magma compressibility of the 2006 eruption of Mount St. Augustine, a lava dome volcano on Alaska’s lower Cook Inlet. The paper also earned her the Best Student Paper award at the annual UAF Geophysical Institute awards ceremony this year.
She has two Ph.D. research projects underway at the UAF Geophysical Institute.
The first is an analysis of melt inclusions from Pavlof Volcano, an active stratovolcano on the Alaska Peninsula and part of the Aleutian volcanic arc. She’s looking to measure the gas dissolved in magma droplets that have been encased in crystals.
The amount of trapped gases can be used to calculate magma depths and identify potential magma reservoirs. The presence or absence of magma reservoirs can influence the type of future eruptions and what kind of precursory signals might be detected.
The study of gases in magma is essential because gases cannot only trigger eruptions but also strongly affect the eruption type and, therefore, what hazards might result.
Her second project involves trying to understand pressure increases in the months before Augustine erupted. She is analyzing abrupt changes in mineral chemistry of calcium and magnesium in crystals of plagioclase and pyroxene, respectively.
Gaining further knowledge into pressure changes in magma reservoirs can aid volcanologists in assessing whether an eruption will occur.
Alaska is a spectacular natural laboratory for graduate students. Wasser’s helicopter flight to Mount Veniaminof on the Alaska Peninsula to acquire gas samples after an eruption is a great example.
“That means you're flying pretty close to the summit,” she said. “The volcano was active; not blowing up, but it was emitting gas.
"I was able to take my own ash sample from those eruptions,” she said. “As a grad student, it's pretty special to have a sample that has your name on it and to say ‘I collected that.”
UAF and its Geophysical Institute offer graduate students a special research environment. That’s especially true for volcanology students, because the Geophysical Institute is home to the Alaska Volcano Observatory, a joint program of the Geophysical Institute, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys.
“That collaboration between the Geophysical Institute and the Alaska Volcano Observatory opens so many opportunities for students that you might not have at other schools,” Wasser said, noting that her dream job is to work at a volcano observatory.
On campus, the Geophysical Institute Graduate Student Association provides support, both academic and recreational.
“We do support each other and have a network that we can reach out to,” she said.
As to life in Fairbanks, especially winter, she has a great observation.
“For me as a geoscientist, when it’s cold and dark, I remind myself of why it is that way. It’s like all the physics and geoscience classes I took as a kid explaining how the Earth rotates and how its axis is tilted.”
“You can see the science up here. It's such a special place.”