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ASU volcanology professor wins international award

Young woman in front of waterfall
July 12, 2011

Amanda Clarke, a volcanology professor at ASU, recently received the 2011 Wager Medal from the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior (IAVCEI), July 4 in Melbourne, Australia.

The award honors the memory professor Lawrence Rickard Wager of the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, who was born in 1904 and died in 1965. Wager is best known for the discovery of the Skaergaard layered intrusion and the first detailed structural, mineralogical and petrological study of such intrusions. The medal is given every two years to one scientist under the age of 43 who has made outstanding contributions to the study of volcanology, particularly in the eight-year period prior to the award.

Clarke’s career didn’t begin with volcanoes, but instead with airplanes. After earning degrees in both aerospace engineering and philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, she worked as an intern at The Boeing Company. During that internship she learned about the hazards of volcanic ash to turbofan engines, from the manufacturing and pilot-training points of view.

“Without that fascinating series of Boeing in-house lectures (prompted by the Redoubt-KLM incident), I may never have become a volcanologist,” recalls Clarke, a faculty member in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “My changing interests from engineering to natural science ultimately led to the transformative opportunity to study the social aspects of volcanic hazards in the Philippines, under the auspices of The Fulbright Program.”

During her year in the Philippines, Clarke had the opportunity to observe and appreciate first-hand the impact of volcanic processes on the densely-populated emerging nations of Southeast Asia. Following this, she started graduate school at Penn State University, studying under Barry Voight. In her Ph.D. investigations she was the first to tackle the complex physics of highly unsteady explosive volcanic eruptions. This groundbreaking work was published in Nature, and has strongly influenced the current understanding of vulcanian eruptions.

As a student under Voight, she had the opportunity to work on the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano on the island of Montserrat.

“The time I spent on Montserrat allowed me to observe active volcanic processes, study deposits and dome morphology, and appreciate the value of real-time monitoring, especially deformation studies, in understanding detailed volcanic processes and predicting when activity might suddenly become dangerous,” said Clarke.

The data produced by the collective efforts on Montserrat led her to an ongoing collaboration with a couple of pioneers in modeling explosive volcanic processes, a collaboration that ultimately resulted in several studies comparing complex models of physical volcanic processes to a well-constrained natural system. It was this integrated approach of comparing model results to field observations that led her to the Environmental Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Bristol, where she learned another approach to understanding volcanoes – studying the natural system via simplified, yet highly-constrained analogue experiments. 

These combined experiences allowed her to set up her own laboratories and research group at Arizona State University.

“Arizona State has allowed me the freedom and given me the resources to continue this work in my own way,” says Clarke. “I feel ridiculously lucky to work in such an exciting field. It’s really hard to believe we get to study complex natural systems which continually present us with interesting pure science questions as well as real-world, socially-relevant problems.”

According to Barry Voight of Penn State University, who prepared the citation for the award and was one of the nominating members, “The Wager Medal has had a noteworthy track record of identifying the foremost talents in volcanology at a comparatively early stage in their careers. Amanda Clarke, an extraordinary young scientist of enormous breadth and ability, and a person of high character besides, is extremely deserving of this award” adding, “We can expect great things from her in the future.”