Around the Quads
5 Minutes with … Terry Plank
Terry Plank ’93 GSAS is a professor of earth science at the College and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Her research focuses on the study of magma and volcanic eruptions, particularly in and around the Pacific Ocean. She earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. from Columbia. Plank has received the Houtermans Medal from the European Association of Geochemistry and the Donath Medal from the Geological Society of America, and is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union.
Where did you grow up?
Wilmington, Del. It turns out I know all sorts of people professionally from Delaware because everybody worked for the DuPont Corp., so everybody’s parents were chemists and became scientists. There are actually three of us on the earth science faculty from Delaware.
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a geologist. I’m one of the few people entering college who knew she wanted to be a geologist. I was a rock collector as a kid. We lived in a rock quarry. It was spectacular, big cliffs, pretty garnets and micas. I was a product of my environment. I studied rocks and was active through elementary school, middle school and high school.
How does one become involved in geology as a child?
I had to have a hobby in third grade, so my mom told me to go outside and collect rocks. She took me to the Delaware Mineralogical Society. I was the youngest member. I would go once a month and nerd out about minerals.
How did you end up working at Columbia?
I went to graduate school here and never expected to come back, but I was at Boston University and Columbia recruited me for a senior position.
What are you teaching this semester?
I’m teaching three lectures in “Frontiers of Science” on the birth of the earth and volcanoes.
This is your third year teaching in the Core. Can you talk about your experience so far?
I think it’s by far the best course I’ve ever been involved in. Every lecture is a winner. It’s just exciting lectures, and the discussion sections are incredibly well organized. But it is a very different way to take a science course. I think freshmen in particular aren’t used to a course about the process and not just being about answers and facts, but I think this is very real, this is how we do science and research.
What are you working on?
I study volcanoes, and I’m interested in how much gas they have in them before they erupt, how much water is dissolved in magma before it erupts. It’s like trying to find out how much CO2 is in seltzer before you take the cap off and it goes psht, because once it goes psht, the gas is all gone. How do you know how much used to be in there? That’s the challenge. You can’t stuff all that back in, so you have to develop proxies and tools. You look for little crystals inside the ash that have traces of magma, and you examine them with various probes. We think that volcanoes that have more gas are the ones that erupted more violently, but this hasn’t been really tested because we don’t have data. I focus mostly on volcanoes around the Pacific, the ones that are most explosive, in Alaska, the Aleutians, Marianas, Costa Rica, the Tonga Islands and in the western U.S.
What on your resume are you most proud of?
The papers that I’ve written that involve true discovery. That’s what propels us to do science, to discover beautiful systematics and data that nobody had recognized before.
Where do you live?
Near Lamont in Nyack, N.Y.
Do you have any children?
I have a 9-year-old son, Sam, who goes to school in Upper Nyack. He helped me run the Lamont open house recently. We made three volcano models. He gave a lecture on shield volcanoes and effusive eruptions. He’s already an expert.
Do you have any pets?
My son has a lizard, Leo, who eats crickets. He’s very small and indestructible.
What’s something your students would never guess about you?
I still get nervous giving talks and sometimes even lecturing. I actually have to write out a lot of what I have to say.
How do you recharge?
I go out in the field and travel, just to get away. I was in Greece for a meeting a couple weeks ago. It was amazing.
What’s your favorite food?
Eighty-five percent chocolate.
What’s the last book you read for pleasure?
I’m reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: A Novel.
If you could be anywhere in the world, where would you be?
I always wanted to go to the South Sandwich Islands. They’re these tiny remote islands between South American and Antarctica. There are penguins and icebergs and volcanoes that have really only been sampled once.
How is damage done in devastating eruptions?
It’s mostly the effects on the atmosphere that could last for a year or more, putting sulfur into the atmosphere, which can cause global cooling, and if it’s cold enough, plants might not come back. The local damage could also destroy all living things within hundreds of miles.
Will a volcano cause the end of the world?
Not the end of the world. Volcanoes are a natural part of the world, so it will be just fine. If Yellowstone had its enormous super eruption tomorrow, it would challenge civilization in North America. People would die. Agriculture would collapse. But it’s a once-in-several-hundred-thousand-year occurrence.
When was the last time this happened?
Six-hundred-thousand years ago at Yellowstone. It still could be a few hundred thousand years. The last eruption of that size was 26,000 years ago in New Zealand, before there were advanced civilizations, so we’ve never really experienced this.
Interview and photo: Ethan Rouen ’04J