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ASU researcher navigates North Korea-China border to study active volcano

Working with local scientists builds trust between US-UK team, North Koreans.
Paektu volcano last erupted millennium ago, covering Korean peninsula with ash.
Another eruption could affect global trade routes, crop yields, climate change.
January 3, 2017

US-UK team spends two years working through red tape, in the end gaining entry and working with North Korean scientists

Paektu volcano, on the border between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and China, had its most recent eruption circa 946. Dubbed “the Millennium Eruption,” this event covered the entire Korean peninsula in ash. The big question is when this active volcano will erupt again.

ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration postdoc Kayla Iacovino (pictured above), along with scientists from North Korea and the United Kingdom, joined forces — and navigated miles of political red tape — to study this volcano and determine what potential impacts it could have when it erupts again. Their findings were recently published in Science Advances.

“Doing research in this area has its challenges,” Iacovino said.

To start, it’s against the law for North Korean people to speak with foreigners. In addition, international sanctions prevent most people from visiting North Korea, let alone bringing scientific equipment.

The team persevered, however, for two years, navigating embassies, forms and permissions from foreign governments. The work paid off in 2013 when the UK/U.S. team was able to not only set foot in North Korea, but to work directly with local North Korean scientists.

“We were able to build trust between the two sides,” Iacovino said. “We share data equally, and both sides get a lot more done working together in understanding the volcano’s history.”

North Korean won
Paektu volcano is well known to North Koreans and is important to their culture, appearing on paintings and Korean money like this 50-won note.

The North Korean scientific community is well aware of the dangers of such a large active volcano and has been studying the area for decades — and for good reason. A large eruption from a volcano like Paektu, while rare in human history, can cause massive damage to lives and property. The ash it spreads can affect global trade routes, crop yields, climate change and the spread of infectious diseases.

Iacovino, who is both a volcanologist and petrologist, was able to specifically contribute to the team through her expertise in studying the origins of volcanic rocks. As a petrologist, Iacovino takes rocks that she finds in the field and recreates “mini-magma chambers” in the lab, essentially recreating the conditions of heat and pressure that originally formed the volcanic rocks. This helps provide clues to the history of the volcano, helping to predict future behavior.

Iacovino and the international team also found evidence of partial melt beneath the volcano, also published in Science Advances in April 2016. They used seismometers to image the subsurface beneath Paektu and were able to locate a region of magma storage, which is likely the same magma chamber that was the source region for the erupted material during the Millennium Eruption.

ASU postdoc Kayla Iacovino in the EPIC lab
Kayla Iacovino, who is also an ASU alum (geology, 2010), is a postdoctoral researcher in the EPIC lab, run by SESE assistant professor Christy Till. Iacovino is featured here with the EPIC lab’s end-loaded piston cylinder.

The next step for the team is to rally for new funding for ongoing science collaboration on the volcano. Another big goal is to have science teams from China and North Korea communicate with each other and, ultimately, get all the various analyses of the volcano working in tandem.

By collectively monitoring and surveying ongoing changes at this active volcano, the team hopes to have a better understanding of when it may erupt again.


Top photo: Researchers (from left) Kim Ju-Song, Clive Oppenheimer, Kayla Iacovino and a North Korean geochemist on the shore of Lake Chon, in the caldera of Paektu.

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration


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'Hidden Figures' recalculates story of women of color in STEM

'Hidden Figures' tells story of women who helped NASA win space race.
ASU center works to include more women and minorities in STEM fields.
January 5, 2017

ASU's Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology advocacy manager Sharon Torres talks about implicit bias, providing role models and changing the narratives

Across STEM fields, women of color share a similar story — just ask Sharon Torres.

“I was born and raised in the Philippines, but all my role models were white,” said the advocacy manager at ASU’s Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology.

Her work in breaking down barriers — gender and ethnic — figures to get a boost Friday with the release of “Hidden Figures,” a new Hollywood film that tells the story of three black women who helped NASA win the space race in the 1960s.

Torres spoke with ASU Now about the mission and progress of her year-old center and how stories such as “Hidden Figures” can inspire women and minorities by changing narratives and challenging stereotypes.

Sharon Torres

Question: Why did it take so long to tell the story of the mathematicians in “Hidden Figures”?

Answer: I think for same reason that people of color are considered underrepresented in many settings: There is a dominant narrative that does not include women of color.

However, I do think that our country is becoming increasingly diverse, and voices of color are slowly but surely being heard in popular avenues like Hollywood, which has a strong influence on our culture.

Q: Why is it important to tell stories that acknowledge the role of women and women of color in both American history and in STEMSTEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.?

A: For one, American history is incredibly rich, and it’s only right that it should reflect the depth and diversity of the people.

Second, inspirational stories like this have the ability to empower our future STEM leaders.

Culturally responsive teaching is not an uncommon thing, and it’s been proven that young students of color respond very well when they can see themselves in their role models.

So I believe that they need to know about these stories so that they can build the self-confidence they need to see themselves in those positions.

Q: There have been times when marginalized groups have experienced setbacks, even after making great progress. Can you think of any examples of that happening with women and women of color who are trying to break into the STEM fields?

A: Absolutely. One challenge that I can think of that women, and especially women of color, face in STEM is implicit bias.

Implicit bias really plays a huge role in women of color entering, persisting and succeeding in STEM — whether in an academic setting or in STEM industries.

We have seen reports of maltreatment of women in STEM, and just generally feeling unsupported in their chosen industry or discipline.

So there’s still a lot of that unconscious bias — or actually, sometimes conscious bias — that a woman’s role is not in a laboratory or a spaceship.

Q: Where does that bias come from?

A: I think that bias comes from a history that has not been multidimensional.

It’s almost a cyclical argument, because when there are successful strides made by women of color that are not acknowledged, they disappear from the narrative of success in STEM.

And if those success stories aren’t represented in history, how can women of color establish themselves as a formidable force and as an example for others to model?

Q: Are there any other examples of such stories being told well?

A: There’s a couple movies actually that speak to the work that we do at CGEST: There’s one called “CodeGirl,” and another, just simply “Code.”

Those stories align so well with the capacity-building efforts of our center.

They’re stories of girls from undersourced communities building technical skills, as well as skills like self-efficacy, self-confidence and social consciousness.

Q: Who were some of your role models growing up?

A: This actually demonstrates the whole idea of what we’re talking about: I was born and raised in the Philippines and all my role models were white, because the dominant narrative there was also very skewed toward Western preferences. … [My role models] changed over the years. I started going into diversity work about five years into my professional career, and at that time I was working in an urban institution where I started feeling the micro-aggressions that exist in society.

Q: Who are some of your role models today?

A: One would be Tina Tchen; she’s the outgoing chief of staff to the first lady. She is of Asian descent, and so am I, and she’s also the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls.

I look up to her because she and the first lady of this administration have helped people notice these issues, these disparities that exist when it comes to race and gender.

They’ve really brought them into the limelight and have done so much in the last eight years to mobilize not only people who are in government but also in education, private sectors and even on an individual level.

I feel like this issue of gender and race disparity in STEM is an issue that any individual person, organization, entity or institution can help advance. It’s not just “us” [women and women of color] doing the work; there’s plenty that we can all do.


Top photo: Mathematician Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) surrounded by NASA scientists in "Hidden Figures." Photo by Hopper Stone/SMPSP/20th Century Fox