Elizabeth Niespolo is a time traveler. A Ph.D. candidate in Earth & Planetary Science at U.C. Berkeley, Elizabeth spends her time understanding the Earth of the past, to get a better sense of what Earth really is today, and what it will be in the future. We had a conversation with her to learn more about time-travel via geosciences, and how her work is contributing to a greater body knowledge in and for the world. Check out the conversation below, which has been edited for clarity.

Terri Burns: Tell me about your background, what you're studying in school, and some of your interests.

Elizabeth Niespolo: I’ve always been a very curious person, so it was difficult to pick a career path for some time. Being the first in my family to go to college, the options at university felt endless and a bit overwhelming. I decided to double major in a science and a humanities subject in college. I learned from various experiences that geology would allow me to study aspects of earth and human history while developing science tools and exploring the world.

I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in Earth & Planetary Science at U.C. Berkeley. I want to refine our understanding of what environmental conditions were like when humans were evolving, when we developed new tools, and when we expanded our geographic ranges within and out of Africa. A big question I think about is: has a changing environment in the past put selective pressure on humans to survive, thrive, or expand their range of habitation, geographically and/or ecologically? We can’t answer this without knowing what human-occupied environments were like in the past.

TB: How did you get your start in geochronology, and what about it has made you want to pursue it for so long?

EN: Rocks are like time capsules, chapters in Earth’s history book. But, you have to be able to read the rock record to understand what it is telling you about the past. Geochronology is the component of “reading” the rock record that allows us to tell time. When I was offered a chance to study geochronology in my Ph.D., I jumped on it. Like radiocarbon dating, the methods I use are based on the physical mechanisms of radioactive decay, where certain isotopes of an element decay at a known rate to produce daughter elements. If we want to know what environments were like when humans were evolving, developing stone tools, agriculture, or other innovations, we have to know when fossils and archeology were deposited in the context of the rock record composing these environments.

I explore questions about when we see significant shifts in human evolution, when our earliest ancestors began making complex tools, and how shifts in climate may have affected these moments in our history. As people continue to populate the Earth and use its resources in different ways, I think it will be important to know how our relationship to environmental resources has shaped our fate in the past. It will be evermore important to understand what the Earth looked like in previous periods of natural global warming, how we as humans adjusted to warming in the past, and apply that to illuminate how current human-induced climate change may affect the environments and ecosystems around us.

TB: What's your average day like as a researcher?

Credit: Image courtesy Elizabeth Niespolo

EN: I have two “days” I can describe: one in the lab/on campus, and one in the field.

In the lab/on campus, I may have a lab meeting to discuss research and objectives for experiments going on at the moment. I usually spend some time preparing and handling samples, which could include using a variety of tools such as separating minerals in a rock with sieves and magnetic separators, examining samples with microscopes of all kinds, loading minerals into metal disks for experiments, or performing chemistry procedures with strong acids to convert rocks into dissolved samples in fluids for experiments. I also teach a laboratory class with my advisor on interpreting the rock record, so some days I am lecturing and teaching students to describe/interpret rock samples and to use microscopes.

In the field, we set up what becomes a base camp for the entire crew, which may include professors, graduate students, undergraduates, hired field crew, local assistants, and guards, often ranging from 15 to 50 people. I LOVE fieldwork! For my Ph.D., one of my projects includes fieldwork in the East African Rift Valley, where among the earliest human origins derive. Here, we sleep in tents for a number of weeks to survey and collect fossils and archaeology. On a typical day, I will get up between 5 and 6 am, eat (lots of carbs!), prepare my pack with water (I carry about 5 liters on me), a rock hammer, trowel, map, field notebook, GPS, and other amenities, and then we all head out in a caravan with the professors and the field crew. On any given day, we hike 5-10 miles, and usually work until the sun is nearly set.  We then we drive back to camp, unload samples, do some sample preparation (such as washing, re-labeling, sieving) and clean up for dinner. We all eat together at a large table, family style (mostly vegan since we have no refrigeration). I read and write a bit before bed, and I try to get to sleep by 11pm for the next day.

TB: What's one of the most fascinating things you've learned in your research?

EN: There are so many fascinating things, I feel like I learn a new one everyday! For example, isotopes can help us understand so much about past climate. I think of them as atomic fingerprints of past environments on Earth. For example, isotopes can tell us about an animal’s diet, how wet or dry a place was, whether a local environment was forested or grassy, what migration patterns were of animals, or how hot or cold it was in the past. Isotopes allow us to envision what Earth was like before people were writing things down, or before there were any people at all.  Also, I am constantly amazed by the magnificence of the Earth system and its resilience. Evidence of human evolution roughly spans a paltry 0.1% of Earth’s history, but the earliest life on Earth is still being understood from more than 3 billion years ago.  

TB: Why is geology important?

EN: A famous so-called “father” of geology, Charles Lyell, said, “the past is key to the present,” and geologists study rocks and earth processes in the past, observe them in the present, and model these observations to project what the future of Earth may look like. If we don’t know why and how Earth processes (like earthquakes, volcanic hazards, and extreme weather events) occur, we will not be able to adequately prepare for them. Geology is the direct means to understanding our resources, and we use natural resources for literally everything (your house, your drinking water, energy). If we don’t know the geologic processes controlling these observable resources, we will be hard pressed to continue utilizing them safely and responsibly, and developing more sustainable resource use in the future.

Niespolo, in field garb, holding a fossil. Credit: Courtesy Elizabeth Niespolo

TB: What's your favorite part about what you do? Your least favorite?

EN: My favorite part of what I do is the constant learning. I am never bored, and I am always being challenged. Research is dynamic and often leads to new discoveries, which makes me feel like I am contributing to the greater body of knowledge in the world. I get to interact with some of the brightest, most hardworking people I know and I love being on the bleeding edge of new science.

My least favorite part probably is partly the infrastructure of higher education. Public education and research are undervalued aspects of modern society in many ways and so a lot of time must be spent convincing funding sources why our work is important. Scientists have to work on very tight budgets to develop novel techniques, often making discoveries that have commercial and industrial benefits, so it is frustrating at times to see how much time and effort has to go into convincing funding agencies of the relevance of our work. It takes a lot of time away from the actual science.

TB: What is something you'd generally like see happen within your field of study?

EN: There aren’t many female mentors in my professional life, which I would attribute mainly to the underrepresentation of female scientists at higher levels of academia. I am involved in a few groups that aim to increase diversity in the sciences for women and for underrepresented groups, such as the Society of Women in Physical Sciences, Bay Area Scientists in Schools and the Berkeley Science Network. As a woman in science and the first person in my family to graduate from college, I try to do my part to show a good example to budding scientists and provide support to young people interested in a science career. I hope that as time goes on, the geoscience community looks more like the real world that we aim to inform about the Earth that we all share.