Magma Cum Laude - Jill Schleicher '11 Takes Volcanology to the Next Level

Jill Schleicher ’11 researches what’s actually going on inside a volcano and how that information might inform predictions of when one will erupt.

As Mount Kilauea continues to spew lava across Hawaii's big island, observers around the world are being reminded of the terrible destructive power volcanoes possess. For Shoreview, Minn., native Jill Schleicher '11, the past six years of her life have been dedicated to understanding that power.

To do that, she has had to look much further back than Hawaii's current eruptions to another phenomenon: earthquakes. More than 150 years ago, devastating earthquakes rocked Hawaii's Big Island. On April 2, 1868, the largest earthquake in Hawaiian history – a 7.9 magnitude – completely destroyed Ku’a in the southeast part of the island. In the following days, several landslides and a tsunami were triggered, adding dozens of deaths to the devastation.

Standing watch over all this was Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano in the world, which has erupted 33 times since 1843, including an eruption about four days after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake.

As a volcanologist, Schleicher has been dedicated to unearthing lessons to be learned from that eruption. In the process, she has compiled a rarified knowledge of science so complex it borders on magic: Schleicher lives in a world of magma crystals, subterranean mixing events and computer simulations.

It’s worth acknowledging that volcanoes are pervasive – all of the 1,900 active volcanoes on Earth are likely to explode again, and one in 20 people live within an active volcano’s danger range. They also truly, incredibly powerful: According to National Geographic, in 1883 the volcano Krakatau in Southeast Asia erupted and released 200 megatons of energy, the equivalent of 15,000 nuclear bombs. Plus, volcanoes are just really, really hot: After magma reaches the surface and becomes lava it can still reach nearly 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Much like the volcanoes she studies, Schleicher’s research work has bubbled to the surface. If the publication of her groundbreaking research in late 2015 was the eruption event of her academic career, the magmatic buildup goes back to her time as a Tommie, when she developed a dynamic, crossover skillset between geology and physics.

Growing up in Shoreview, Minnesota, Schleicher was one of those kids who “was just curious about everything.” Along with advanced math courses, seemingly every new science class in high school brought with it a future career transition into that field.

That meant when she visited St. Thomas the science buildings were a must-see, and her ears perked up when her family’s tour guide pointed out the many labs where undergraduates did research with faculty.

“I thought, ‘What? That’s a thing?’ That got me really excited about coming to St. Thomas,” she said.

It took even less time than she imagined: During an introductory physics class her first semester with Professor Marty Johnston, he suggested she check out Geology Professor Tom Hickson’s J-Term camping trip in Nevada.

“I went over to talk to Tom about camping, and he was so excited: ‘A physics and geology double major would be huge!’” Schleicher said. “Within two days on the trip I was ready to do the double major.”

Hickson recalled immediately being struck not just by Schleicher’s brightness, but her curiosity, which led to her willingness to double down on seemingly disparate majors.

“The kinds of questions that geologists ask about the environment and about the Earth really depend on understanding physics, understanding chemistry, understanding a whole range of things. And so, if someone can work in multiple fields, they can write their ticket in geology. She’s done that,” Hickson said.

“That combination was great for her,” Johnston said. “That’s one of the strengths of our institution: We’re small enough that I know my colleagues across the hall, and we’re not so focused on, ‘Oh, you’re a physics major; I’m not going to share you with anyone else.’ She took the skills of a physicist over to geology, which was big.”

Mixing and … matching

Schleicher continued developing skills in both disciplines through classes and nearly constant research, including dedicating the summer after her freshman year to research with Hickson, and summer after sophomore year to research with Johnston. As the first person in her family to earn a college degree, Schleicher took advantage of every opportunity St. Thomas’ faculty helped provide.

“St. Thomas faculty have a love of research, but it’s more about their love of teaching and interacting with students,” Schleicher said. “I definitely understood that as an undergrad, but didn’t fully appreciate it until coming to [University of Washington for my Ph.D.], where we have 40,000 people. I see undergrads who are lucky if they get a quarter [of a year’s worth] of research. [Hickson] invited me to do research my first summer. That was so huge for me. … It was a lot of eye-opening experiences and them seeing I was interested, and going all in to get me places. It helped so much having them as mentors.”

For Hickson and Johnston, helping students take their next steps after St. Thomas is what it’s all about.

“We work really hard to create an environment where students at any level [have] a foundation to go wherever they want to go. I felt like Schleicher just thrived in that,” Hickson said. “We wanted to give her the most, the biggest breadth of experience and possibilities that she could have to go on and do whatever she wanted to do.”

Schleicher’s expertise and resume continued to build into her junior year, when she received the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, a lofty academic feat for any undergraduate student. At the same time she was taking a geology course that featured studying basalt flows along the shores of Lake Superior.

“These are basalts from volcanoes millions of years ago. That’s just so cool! That really got me interested in volcanology,” Schleicher said.

Soon afterward she joined Hickson and classmates at the Geological Society of America conference and attended a session called, “The Physics of Volcano Eruptions.”

Schleicher’s path forward was suddenly crystal clear, and over the following summer during a research program at Oregon State University, she began to understand even more how dynamic her mixing of geology and physics truly was. After graduating, she set off for the University of Washington, where over her six-year Ph.D. program she dug into some seriously hot stuff.

Getting into the flow

Jill Schleicher '11 poses for a photo while doing field work in Hawaii. (Photo provided by Jill Schleicher '11)

Jill Schleicher '11 poses for a photo while doing field work in Hawaii. (Photo provided by Jill Schleicher '11)

The scientific community is relatively good at predicting eruptions. "Relatively" being a key word, because there is so little knowledge of what’s actually going on inside the volcano; external signs make up the backbone of predictive modeling.

For the vast majority of past study, the inside of volcanoes was seen as an extremely viscous liquid (think crazy-thick molasses). Physically speaking, though, the majority of the time it’s in a solid state, with hundreds of thousands of tiny crystals frozen within it and liquid magma moving around it. As mixing occurs and the crystals move, their compositions change and – thanks to an incredible high-spatial study – they can be studied after eruptions for information about what occurred inside the volcano (similar to studying tree rings).

The problem, Schleicher said, is that “We don’t really know the mechanical properties of these mixing systems.”

That leaves a pretty sizable knowledge gap in what goes on inside a volcano, and how that knowledge could help determine if and when one will erupt. If only someone could bring a high-level physics mindset to those systems…

The results of Schleicher’s years of work on this are complex, but the gist is this: By creating numerical simulations (based off code for fluidizing particles from the National Energy Technology Lab), Schleicher can model every individual crystal in a very simple system. She can then put that system into a container (volcano) and inject it with fluid (magma) to create a simulated mixing event. Then she can crank that system up to, say, 300,000 crystals and let a supercomputer chew on it for five months or more.

“That is one of the reasons people have modeled them as viscous liquids: They’re extremely intensive computationally,” Schleicher said. “Because I had the physics, engineering and math background with geology, I could say, ‘We can do this,’ and really figure out how these systems work.” And, in the process, offer an understanding of the inside of a volcano that predictive modeling to this point has never accomplished.

As Hickson pointed out, Schleicher’s work essentially combines high-level geology, physics, chemistry, programming and computational analysis.

“And this is all applied stuff, to the real-world situations of volcanic eruptions,” he added. “Wow.”

While doing research work, Schleicher said she didn’t have much appreciation for the contributions she was making to the field of volcanology. Once her research was published her adviser revealed the great feedback they were receiving, but it wasn’t until she presented at a conference that it sunk in.

“People were like, ‘What are you doing? This is amazing! This is what we’ve been waiting for. We just hadn’t had the right people to do it,’” Schleicher said. “That was a really cool feeling for me, realizing the work I’ve been doing for so long was important. There wasn’t outside validation of the work at the time [of my research]; I was just doing my thing.”

That attitude is fitting for Schleicher, who, while at St. Thomas and Washington, maintained the importance of balance while pursuing exceptional academic study. Former St. Thomas physics classmate and close friend Ann Lanari spoke of Schleicher’s sense of humor, love of singing (Schleicher was in choir at St. Thomas and is now in the Seattle Women’s Choir) and interest in others.

“She’s kept one foot in the real world, which is really incredible to do while accomplishing a Ph.D., where [one] can have a tendency to become one-dimensional, and then a one-dimensional adult as well. That’s not Jill,” Lanari said.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Schleicher plans next to try something new outside academia, perhaps “something that’s helping people or helping think about how we impact the environment,” she said.

“She’s just an inherently curious person. She doesn’t allow herself to be stuck in the boundaries that society says, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do.’ That’s pretty cool,” Johnston said.

Whatever comes next, it’s clear the same curiosity that helped Schleicher thrive at St. Thomas will continue guiding her.

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