From politics to geology: chasing challenges, living to tell the tale

Rita C. Economos ’01 chiseling rock in the field.

Rita C. Economos ’01 chiseling rock in the field. 

Rita C. Economos ’01

Assistant professor, Southern Methodist University

Academic focus: politics major, sociology minor

Study abroad: Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Ulster, Ireland

Advanced degree: Ph.D. in geology, University of Southern California

I’m from a small town in rural Florida. The first time I got on an airplane was to visit Mount Holyoke College. Now I travel all over the world for work and fun. Needless to say, attending Mount Holyoke totally changed my life.

My world exploded into wide view, and the options and opportunities were endless! I was a politics major, following in my mom’s footsteps — she was a grassroots political organizer for environmental causes. I took Introduction to Geology from Michelle Markley and loved the class, but I was deep in the headspace of my subdiscipline, contemporary democratic theory.

I did a study abroad program in peace and conflict studies in Northern Ireland, and it turns out that studying abroad can lead to a totally unexpected discovery. While traveling to Greece, after studying in Northern Ireland, I visited the island of Santorini, which is actually the rim of the caldera of a huge volcano.

My travel buddy and I took a small ferry to the island at the center of the caldera, which was steaming with sulfurous gasses. All of the geology I had learned came flooding back, and I was hooked for life. We sailed back to the island on the caldera rim and I sent an email to my mom: “I’m going to be a volcanologist.” Her response was: “Live long and prosper.”

Completely changing the direction of my academic career in the second semester of my junior year was not easy or straightforward, but I persisted with the support of the Mount Holyoke geology faculty, whose courses were amazing and whose letters were my ticket into graduate school. They saw my potential and somehow convinced the University of Southern California earth sciences department to take on this crazy politics person.

Those first years of grad school were intense — what was I thinking going to grad school in science without an undergraduate geology degree! But the intensity made those years some of the most productive and intellectually stimulating. I assistant taught a class that I’d never taken, Structural Geology, racing to stay one week ahead of the undergraduates.

I wandered into the Gobi Desert with just a satellite image and a rumor looking for my Ph.D. field area and lived to tell the tale. Then I took a job as a postdoc, which later turned into laboratory manager, running one of the world’s most complex geochemical analytical instruments — when I didn’t even know a volt from an amp! I just picked up a screwdriver, unplugged a cable, broke it and watched how the engineer fixed it. My work has been a whole series of: “I’ve never done that, but I’m sure I can figure it out.”

I’ve had an amazing career so far studying the plumbing systems that bring magma to volcanoes (a magma obstetrician, if you like). I try to understand what causes quiet volcanoes to get unquiet in a hurry, and also how they build up gasses that impact the atmosphere. I’ve worked in beautiful deserts of the world, the Mojave and Gobi, and now in the Italian Alps (my good fieldwork karma). I’m currently working on samples from Peru and Indonesia and was recently funded by the National Science Foundation. I love my work for its variety and its application of creativity and problem-solving in the service of discovery and learning.

It’s no coincidence that women’s colleges produce so many high-achieving women. The two most important things I learned at Mount Holyoke were grit and courage — I don’t think I could have learned them so well, and with such joy, anywhere else.

The story of my career is: Don’t be afraid to take an opportunity for which you are completely unqualified! And don’t let the many obstacles deter you from your life goals … or maybe let them help you discover new ones.