cottrellElizabeth Cottrell – Geologist – Director Global Volcanism Program

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC



How did you get there? What first sparked your interest in this field?

Science has always been my favorite subject and my parents were always encouraging. I was a chemistry major in college but took a class on planetary geology and fell in love. I switched my research activities to the Geology Department in volcanology where I was lucky to have a very supportive mentor. To me it is very rewarding to study chemistry relevant to things we see all around us every day.

Please describe your current position. What do you do?

My daily activities have changed a lot over the course of my career from spending almost all my time in the lab to spending more and more time at my desk! This isn’t a complaint because a lot of my desk time now involves working with colleagues in earlier stages of their careers: undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs. I also have the fun, and responsibility, to be creative and think of new ways of understanding the Earth — and then selling those ideas to my colleagues in the form of proposals for funding, giving talks at professional meetings, and writing scientific articles. Running an international program – the Global Volcanism Program – here at the Smithsonian keeps me busy too. Several organizations, from the international aviation community to the USAID Volcano Disaster Assistance Program, depend on our data.

What do you like best about your job?

The “a ha” moment of figuring something out and working with wonderful people.

What is most challenging in your position?

Finding the time to do everything I need to do without abandoning my family.

What are the most important skills for your job?

Creativity. Persistence. Time Management.

What do you think is the future of this career path?

Humans are fundamentally creative and inquisitive and I think we will always want to know how we got to where we are. A bright future.

How do you balance personal and professional life? Is it a challenge in your job?

Yes. I have two kids, ages 1 and 4. I have to say “no” to things at work that I would like to do sometimes. And I have to say goodbye to my kids when I would rather not sometimes. I think I manage by getting very little sleep to be honest.

What is the main research question for your lab group? Where do you see your research going in the next 1 – 10 years?

How does the availability of oxygen in the deep Earth vary in space and time and how does this manifest at the surface.

Do you have any advice for students?

Make sure you like what you are doing. Keep excellent notes and records. Find a way that works for you to avoid procrastination. Find excellent people to work with who are fun.