Brent Garry
Volcanologist
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Volcano Love

By Ali Sundermier

Growing up in Virginia, Brent Garry once got lost in his family’s backyard garden.

“It really wasn’t a big garden,” Garry said with the impish grin his research mates know well. “So it’s very sad that I’d become a geologist and have to trust maps and walk dozens of kilometers in a single day.”

It may be that Garry has always felt more at home with volcanoes than vegetation. Even as a child, he found them fascinating. He loved that volcanoes are new earth being created. He was mesmerized by the shapes and forms they create.

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“It was volcanoes or dinosaurs,” Garry said. “Every kid loves those two things. I just fell in love more with volcanoes. I wanted to understand how they formed. And knowing that these volcanoes were all over the Solar System made it even more exciting. I could study them wherever I looked.”

Garry didn’t always plan to go into geology. He started out as a business major at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., But three of the first classes he enrolled in—accounting, scuba diving and astronomy—altered his trajectory. Accounting made him realize he didn’t want to be a business major and the combination of the geology he saw while scuba diving and talking about the Apollo missions in astronomy class made him realize that he wanted to become a geologist.

“It combines all the elements I like of being outdoors, trying to ask and answer questions and the artistic value of making maps and all the things we do out here,” Garry said during his recent trek in Hawaii.

Geology is destiny, Garry remembers one of his undergraduate professors saying. He eventually realized that geology is involved in all aspects of our daily lives whether we know it or not, and somewhere in each rock—from basaltic rocks to sedimentary—are clues about where it came from.

“We are living on a rock if you think about it, and each little layer and each little mineral and rock type has its own story,” Garry said. “I think it’s kind of fun to try to tell the story of the rock.”

Garry earned his masters in geology from the University of Kentucky and his Ph.D. from the University at Buffalo. He completed his postdoctoral fellowships at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona and went on to accept a position at NASA Goddard in 2010. He has conducted research on lava flows all over the world—Hawaii, New Mexico, Idaho, Iceland, even a small island off the coast of Belize—to compare them to those on the Moon and Mars and better understand their eruption processes and geological histories.

Garry laughed as he remembered running across an active lava flow on one of his excursions.

“It was less than an hour old, and it was still shimmering, still hot,” he said. “If we stopped, our boots would have probably started melting.”

Garry was invited to join RIS4E when he arrived at Goddard. In Theme 2 and its mission in the lava fields of Kilauea, he’s the lead of the LIDAR team, operating a device that uses laser pulses to capture the topography of the landscape. Garry and his team partner, Patrick Whelley, can use that data to analyze and compare the lava flows with those on other planetary bodies.

Garry said that he hopes that sometime in his lifetime the efforts he and his colleagues are putting in now will enable humans who travel to the Moon, Mars or near-earth asteroids to gather all types of new data that the Apollo astronauts couldn’t.

“I think for me the important part of sending humans to other planets is the challenge,” Garry said. “It’s not just the science and the engineering involved, but also the inspiration that goes along with it. It puts us one step closer to turning science fiction into science fact every day.”

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