Women of the Northwest

Lily Randall-Exploring Earth's Wonders: A Geology Journey

January 10, 2024 Jan Johnson Episode 84
Lily Randall-Exploring Earth's Wonders: A Geology Journey
Women of the Northwest
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Women of the Northwest
Lily Randall-Exploring Earth's Wonders: A Geology Journey
Jan 10, 2024 Episode 84
Jan Johnson

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Join host Jan Johnson in an inspiring conversation with Lily, a junior at the California Institute of Technology, as they dive into Lily's journey in geochemistry. From discovering her passion in a geogirl science camp to mapping mountains and exploring Iceland's geothermal wonders, Lily shares her extraordinary experiences as an ordinary woman shaping the future of geology. Get ready for a motivational and captivating episode of "Women of the Northwest," where ordinary women lead extraordinary lives.

Subscribe to the Women of the Northwest podcast for inspiring stories and adventures.
Find me on my website: jan-johnson.com

Show Notes Transcript

Send us a Text Message.

Join host Jan Johnson in an inspiring conversation with Lily, a junior at the California Institute of Technology, as they dive into Lily's journey in geochemistry. From discovering her passion in a geogirl science camp to mapping mountains and exploring Iceland's geothermal wonders, Lily shares her extraordinary experiences as an ordinary woman shaping the future of geology. Get ready for a motivational and captivating episode of "Women of the Northwest," where ordinary women lead extraordinary lives.

Subscribe to the Women of the Northwest podcast for inspiring stories and adventures.
Find me on my website: jan-johnson.com

[00:02] Jan: Are you looking for an inspiring listen, something to motivate you? You've come to the right place. I'm Jan Johnson, your host. Welcome to women of the Northwest, where we have conversations with ordinary women leading extraordinary lives. Women telling their stories and sharing their passions. Motivating, inspiring, compelling.

[00:29] Jan: Welcome to women of the Northwest. Lily, nice to have you here.

[00:34] Lily: Thank you for having me.

[00:35] Jan: Lily is a junior at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena studying geochemistry. Boy, okay, that's a mouthful for me. I know you through our peo group as one of our scholarship recipients. So tell us about you. How did you get to where you are today? What kind of things have you always been interested in? Or some paths that you've taken and maybe changed or whatever?

[01:05] Lily: Yeah, of course. So I grew up in Astoria, Oregon, and was very generously sponsored by our local peo chapter. I picked Caltech, kind of because it was one of my first schools to accept me and I didn't know that much about it. Actually, I got into geology after I got here. I initially thought I was going in for bioengineering of some sort. I didn't really know what I wanted to do at a STEM school, but biology seemed really fun from high school, so I figured, why not? I took a class with my friend. She just invited me to come sit and lecture with us about the second week of school. And it was intro to geology and geochemistry. Instantly loved the class. The professor was amazing. Still talk to him even now, and take some of his higher advanced classes. And I just found it really interesting. So I switched into it. And by the end of that semester, I decided that this is what I wanted to do for my major.

[02:16] Jan: So when you were in grade school, middle, high school, was science kind of a bent for you all the time?

[02:23] Lily: Science is always something. I was like, yes, this is my groove. But I didn't exactly know which vein. Funnily enough, I actually was in the geogirl science camp hosted by the Mount St. Helens Institution one summer after my 7th grade year of middle school, I want to say, and I was recommended by one of my science teachers to go to it. And I had the time of my life. It was two weeks, all girls. It was a bunch of different fields of geology. One of my favorite memories is actually the seismology unit because we pretended we were secret agents and we stuck these seismometers along a hiking trail and we literally sat in a van watching the readings spike up and down. And we try to guess what was going on, like, whether it was a large group of people, someone riding by on a bike, someone walking their dog. And we'd take turns running out of the car to go look at the trail and confirm our findings.

[03:29] Jan: That would be kind of fun. I would guess that because of something like that, that type of experiences, that you would just see the world in a different way than your average person.

[03:42] Lily: It was definitely really cool. I think that was when my choices shifted from I want to be a doctor to I think I want to be a scientist. And it was interesting because that memory didn't really come back up for me until I was applying for college. And I didn't really realize how much it stuck with me until then. And I even had the email address of one of the girls that I talked to like once or twice a year because I didn't have a phone for a few more years after that camp. But it was definitely really empowering. I grew up in an all boy household, and I'm the first one in my family to go to college of my siblings. So I didn't really know what the world had to offer for me, especially as a girl. That experience does mean a lot to me, and I like to think about it often. And when I talk to some of my professors about how I got into it, we talk about that. Some of them tease me and they ask me why I haven't gotten into seismology, but the math is a little bit beyond what I want to do.

[04:50] Jan: Yeah, and you need to see what your limitations are and what you feel comfortable with.

[04:54] Lily: Yeah, absolutely. And I prefer being outside. I had my first major field experience this summer. We spent six weeks camping with no cell service up in the mountains, researching a group of rocks in the mountain formation that had been lumped together. No one's really defined the units before or taken the time to map it out and really assemble a geologic history of what happened there and how that mountain range came to be what it is.

[05:25] Jan: Yeah.

[05:26] Lily: And that was an amazing experience. I got so close to the other students that were there. I learned so much from my professors because it was just truly hands on and I was excited because I never really pictured myself as an outdoors person, so I was kind of afraid. We got caught in several storms just from the extreme temperature drop for when the rain came in. But it was really cool. I learned a lot. And technically, to date, my friend and I mapped and have a digital map of the most accurate geologic map to date of roughly ten square kilometer section of that mountain. Just because no one's really got in there and walked the entire thing. So it was day in, day out, constant hiking.

[06:17] Jan: Your claim to fame.

[06:19] Lily: Yeah. But I'm really excited. I stay in touch with the professor. It was actually hosted through UC Santa Barbara. And so I'm excited to see what he kind of does with our data since that's been a very prevalent research topic for.

[06:40] Jan: Be neat. That'd be neat to be a part of something big, like mean small areas start this, but it could have other impacts. Right?

[06:50] Lily: Yeah. And it's interesting seeing some of my professors who take this question that they've had, and they've been working on it for 30 years, and they just keep expanding off of it and branching off of it. And they'll go to different countries or different places in the world just to have something to compare it to. Really impressive. And I like the idea of being able to move around that much.

[07:12] Jan: The perseverance of something.

[07:15] Lily: Yeah.

[07:16] Jan: That's pretty cool. Yeah. So what are some of the classes that you're taking this term?

[07:24] Lily: I'm taking a class called sedimentology and stratigraphy. It focuses on weathering and erosion of rocks and essentially like the cycle of how sediments form. And then stratigraphy is sort of. I describe it to some of my friends like a sandwich. It's just kind of the way things settle and then eventually stack up on top of each other. Most of the earth is covered by sediments and they all tell a story of how they got there. Because rocks can't move on their own. There has to be some form of transport. And some of the easiest way for sediments is water. So that's a class that I'm really looking forward to. We've also got a lab analysis class for one. It's like a one inch wafer piece of rock. And we're using all sorts of microscopes to look at it and a couple of electron probes just to try and figure out what's in it and identify it. I've never done anything like that before. So I'm really excited to see how it goes. I had my first live session yesterday, and we used a scanning electron microscope. It was so cool. We're working at the teeniest, tiniest of scales, but on the computer it's blown up so it looks massive. And it took us like 4 hours to kind of compile all the images that we needed to get a feel for getting comfortable working with our. We call it a wafer. And then we pull the thing out. And I remember that it's tiny.

[09:02] Jan: That would be neat. Well, just being exposed to kinds of machines that you don't normally experience.

[09:10] Lily: Yeah, it is a little bit intimidating too, because we. Which I find really nice about the history of how we have this microscope here on our campus and the luxury that it is. And then of course we have all of the warnings of don't damage anything because it's very expensive. But I think it's been a really nice balance of field and lab work that I'm not totally sure I would have gotten at another school. So I'm really grateful for that. I think it's a lot of fun to spend the time outside looking at the big picture things and then kind of holed up in the basement looking at things at a teeny tiny little level and seeing how both are really important to examine.

[09:56] Jan: When you go to a natural History museum, you probably hit the rocks and stones area.

[10:04] Lily: I definitely do. My friend, I've been taking most of my classes with him. He's actually a senior though, graduating because although our department is very advanced and well funded for the research that goes on, we're actually pretty small in terms of undergrad students. There's like a three to one grad student and faculty ratio to every undergrad. There's not very many of us. So I end up taking classes with people in various years. So I've taken most of my classes with him and without fail. If we go places or we walk around, we'll see a store selling rocks and we have to go in there and look at everything. We have gone to a few national parks and we'll go into any of the exhibits that talk about the geology of the area. We're.

[10:53] Jan: Yeah, yeah. Somebody said that down by Medford there's a really interesting rock museum that I haven't been to before too.

[11:03] Lily: I haven't made my way down there. Usually when I drive back from Astoria down to campus, we kind of blaze through it because my dad wants to get ahead of traffic in California. But I definitely want to go to some of the exhibits more in Oregon, I think I've gotten a little bit of Washington geology with Mount St. Helens. And I've gotten a lot of the southwestern us because most of my professors are focused on that. So when we do fieldwork, we're out and about in Death Valley, great basin. We've been to home would be really explore. I have not found any petrified wood myself, but some of my friends have while we were out on hikes. And I was so jealous of.

[11:47] Jan: Yeah, yeah. I grew up in Arizona, so lots of it. Any place in the desert. Find it or out in the Grand Canyon. Interesting. Talk about striata and different layers of. Perfect place to see. Yeah. Have you found some interesting rocks when you've been exploring and just.

[12:12] Lily: I definitely have, but I think the ones I take home with me look a little less interesting when you don't know very much about them. Currently, one of my favorites is this piece of shifty shale from my time in summer field, and it has these teeny tiny garnets sprinkled in it. But the shape of the rock is really cool because they kind of form in these sheets and layers, but through different stresses at different times of this rock before a bunch of other stuff happened to it. It looks like the top of a roof where it just kind of wiggles up and down just from these two different planes of strain and stress that have happened over its lifetime in the mountain. So I really like it. I got one of the curves, so it's just kind of very nicely rounded on top and. Yeah, sprinkled with all these little tiny garnets. And it's very shiny when you hold it up out into the sunlight. I love the way it sparkles, but I try to take a rock from every cool place that we go, assuming that I can, because some national parks don't want you to take anything back. So I'll just take one from right outside the limits of it because I like to remember the trips.

[13:34] Jan: Yeah, I remember when I was a kid just finding mica all over and just how fun that was. It's shiny.

[13:43] Lily: They're so hard to take home. They just fall apart so quickly. I did find a really cool piece of gypsum, which is also pretty fragile, but it's a little sturdier than a mic. Arguably a little bit sturdier than a mica, but it was rough getting it back.

[14:03] Jan: Yeah, maybe a special little box with lots of cotton.

[14:08] Lily: Yeah. I have special part in my backpack where I kind of pack rocks around and make sure home safely. But some of my friends have found various little fossils, whether they're actual organisms or, like, coral fossils. And I feel like I miss them every time because we always split up out in the field. So I'm like, man, I have yet to find my own wild fossil, but it's really cool. Find a lot of really random interesting things, but I think that's what keeps it really exciting for me.

[14:43] Jan: So your friend that's graduating, what will he do after he graduates?

[14:48] Lily: He's off to grad school. Not super sure where yet, but I think he's going to be pursuing PhD. He is a little bit more into the seismology vein than I am, which is kind of a funny little balance. But I think for him it's about where the world takes him. So that's where he's off and about to. And I don't know, I'm excited because senior year you have a lot more wiggle room for electives. So I'm probably going to take as many field classes as possible because they don't care if I miss out on other class. I could come back and make it up and then go off on another field trip elsewhere.

[15:26] Jan: It's an adventure route, right?

[15:33] Lily: Yeah.

[15:34] Jan: I want a degree where I can just adventure.

[15:38] Lily: That was pretty much why I settled into it. There are various, I guess, like, categories of a geology degree. My friend is doing just straight geology. I'm doing geochem. We know some people doing geobiology. And I spent some time looking into what are my options with this degree after? And geo. And geochem kind of, to me, appeared to have the most travel options. I was like, I'll take one of those.

[16:06] Jan: I just struck me, I was trying to think. I was thinking that it was my interview with Amelia that was close to yours, but it wasn't. It was another friend of my daughter's in Portland, and she ended up with a degree doing geo something or other. But working with architects before they're building and making sure that the grounds are sustainable for whatever the project.

[16:31] Lily: Yeah, I've seen job postings for things like that, and I'm like, that is really interesting. But I think my school has cultivated very strong, kind of like research based environment. So I think that's what I'm going to end up doing for a little while first. But I like looking very far down the line, too, for potential careers. And it's so funny seeing just the different companies and industry that I wouldn't really think they would need a geologist. And then they do for architecture. That one was always interesting to me. It might be cool to look at in the future.

[17:07] Jan: Well, and as you are going out on these different adventures, of course you're meeting all kinds of other people, too. And who knows where that's going to splinter off into some other idea that would.

[17:22] Lily: Iceland. Also this summer, I got very fortunate to be a part of this sort of lottery that my school was holding for a bunch of kids to go to Iceland and just explore for two weeks. And we visited a geothermal plant there because Iceland uses a lot of geothermal energy and it was really cool being in the plant. And we got to speak to one of the scientists there, and she actually was at Caltech for a period of time. I'm not entirely sure if she was there for just exchange or if she did a significant portion of her grad studies there, but it was really cool thinking about just how connected our worlds were and that you could really end up going anywhere you wanted to when you just know people. And then at some point, we were walking down the street, and somebody recognized my professor, and they had recently graduated, too. They were just on vacation in the area, in Iceland, I guess. And it was the funniest little interaction because we're all walking around looking for dinner, and someone just calls out to him, and we're like, wait a minute.

[18:31] Jan: That's neat. And so are you going to be or have you been already doing some writing for articles or anything?

[18:39] Lily: Not currently. I haven't officially joined in on a research project. Mostly been kind of focusing on getting my degree credits sorted and staying on track with that. But this summer, I'm hoping to work with one of my professors in her lab. We have a fellowship for summer undergraduate research through my school. And you get to work in the lab, you get a mentor, and either you kind of help them along with a project or some cases, you can actually start your own. I'm excited to talk to her about that. Since we just got back, I haven't had the time to reach out and kind of settling into a new term. But last time we spoke, she did offer me the chance to start my own project. So I kind of want to spend some time thinking about the geology of mostly the southwestern us because it'll be a little easier for me to get out into the field and then come back in limited amount of time. But to come up with a research question, potentially, or see what her grad students are doing, I have helped one of them on their project a little bit last year. She's studying opioids from bottom of the ocean that somehow, through some volcanic activity, ended up on the land, on continents, and they're like 2 billion years old. So she's looking at the seawater chemistry interaction with them and the chemical composition of them to kind of get an idea of what was the ocean like and what was earth like at that time, since none of us were there to see it. So things like that are really interesting. It's really cool seeing her work through this project. She's on the analysis part of her paper, so she doesn't really need me anymore. But I'm excited, and hopefully I get to actually get into it a little bit more later this year.

[20:35] Jan: Well, it sounds like they're really good models for you to know how to do the type of things that you want to do or just even the process of learning.

[20:46] Lily: Yeah, absolutely. It's nice to have other people to kind of look up to and lean on. I think that's a really big pro of having so many professors actively doing research as well as teaching. And I'm excited. I'm looking forward to it, and I hope I can find something.

[21:03] Jan: And I think when you're in the field that you're enjoying, too, it's different than being in high school because everybody's kind of not sure what their interests are. They may just be like sports or whatever, but they're not hyper focused on the same thing you are so that you can have those more stimulating conversations.

[21:21] Lily: Yeah. When I was in high school, I definitely didn't know how much research opportunities there were in the world, and I also wasn't particularly that interested. Again, my geology spark didn't really kick in until later, and getting to work in a biolab wasn't really an option, considering the smaller town.

[21:42] Jan: Right.

[21:43] Lily: It wasn't that easy to just pop up to somewhere in Portland or a bigger city, sit your eye for a weekend, shadow somebody in the lab or something. So it's been really exciting, and I think it also pushes me to talk to people that I wouldn't normally talk to. Once you get to a certain level in our school, you're taking classes with grad students simultaneously, at least in my department for the most part. So it's been a little bit intimidating, but very fun getting to know some of them and just talk to them about their experience. Some of them take like, gap years, get to know what they did in that time and what research they worked on, or if they just kind of hung out at home.

[22:28] Jan: Yeah, I was thinking about your ideas for research. That sounds like something you could just throw into an AI chat GP or something, say, and just give you a whole list of possibilities.

[22:43] Lily: Yeah, I don't know. Chat GPT is a really big conversation in my school. I work in the writing center as peer tutor, and it's one of our hot topic conversations he's talked about for the last two years is what is generative AI? How much do people know about it? How much do people use it? I don't know very much about it.

[23:08] Jan: I stick the transcript of the podcast into chat and say, write me a description and it goes. And then 2 seconds later my title.

[23:17] Lily: And my, like, I've used it for a topic overview because it kind of works like Google in that sense. But if I want it to be more specific, I could just tell it to do that and it won't just pop up with the same results. I don't know. That's one of the things I really want to just ask some of the grad students is like, how did you end up in this research project? Did you just decide that, hey, I'm really into this topic. Here's a cool thing. Let me study it. Or the project is already in motion and you jumped on it. The grad student that I helped last term, the project kind of already existed and so she's continuing it. So I want to talk to someone and find someone. Maybe that's like, started their own project. Especially when my professor suggested that maybe I try doing that. I think it would be cool.

[24:08] Jan: Yeah, that's a great way to go about things, see what their experiences are and just interview them.

[24:15] Lily: Yeah.

[24:17] Jan: Yes. Can I take you to coffee? I've got some few questions here, right? Yeah. If you were talking to a high schooler, what would you recommend for them if they were interested in something like this?

[24:32] Lily: Ask questions and talk to people. It's not easy, but you learn a lot. And everybody has been in some similar vein as you when it comes to just figuring it out. And there's no set timeline that you have to achieve anything in high school, everything's pretty laid out for you. You've got specific classes that you're taking. You only get the choice of one or two electives, but you step out into college, there's a lot more choice. So there's no rush to have anything perfectly mapped out. My path is constantly changing. Sometimes it's just based on my mood, sometimes it's based on what I've asked other people. But I think the best way to figure out what to do is ask other people that have done or doing similar things and then choose what you want to do from there. I think it's more rewarding too, when you kind of pick your own path and don't necessarily follow in someone else's steps. Because I found that sometimes it sets you up for a little bit more disappointment than you're anticipating when you look at so and so did this. How come I can't do it? Your story is never going to be the same as theirs.

[25:49] Jan: Yeah. And that is okay. I think that's wise and even still jump into it, because like, you said most people don't end up with the same go all the way through and say, this is what I'm going to major in and, boy, that's where I'm going. It's more rare for that to happen than it is to be switching around.

[26:11] Lily: I mean, half and half of my friends have switched their major. Others who haven't really changed their major have all ended up changing. Like, oh, this is the career that I decided on after college. Oh. But I took this internship over the summer and now I actually might do something more related to this. So everything is always changing.

[26:30] Jan: Yeah. And even still, you might get into out of it and get a job and think, yeah, it's kind of like. But I'm going to keep looking.

[26:41] Lily: Yeah.

[26:42] Jan: Pursuing something else because there's something that's not quite the fit that you wanted it to be.

[26:47] Lily: And if you enjoy it, you'll find a way. You'll find a way to find something else that's more suitable for what you want or what you need.

[26:56] Jan: Yeah. Sounds like you are having fun in life.

[27:00] Lily: Oh, yeah.

[27:03] Jan: Well, anything else you'd like to share?

[27:06] Lily: I think that'll about do it for me. Thank you for having me.

[27:09] Jan: Yeah. So much. This has just been so interesting. And I like interviewing people that I don't know about what they're doing so that I'm learning along the way because I've learned so many things from different people who are on way different paths than I've been on.

[27:27] Lily: Yeah, it's been fun. It's interesting. And I think also beyond the scope of school. It's like the fastest way to learn. It's just talking to other people who have done and lived different things.

[27:40] Jan: Yeah, isn't it? It's great. All right, well, thank you so much, Lily.

[27:46] Jan: I hope you enjoyed today's episode. Thanks again for listening. I'm enjoying these conversations with interesting women. I hope you are. Where else are you enjoying meaningful conversations? How about hitting the follow button? Do you have questions or comments on the episodes? Hit me up on my website, chanjohnson.com. I will answer every email. I hope you're having a great start to a new year. See you again next week.