In her laboratory, scientist Elizabeth “Liz” Cottrell uses sophisticated equipment to simulate the extreme conditions found deep below volcanoes – creating pressures equivalent to the center of the Earth and temperatures hotter than the sun. Her experiments at the micron scale are shedding light on the processes that have shaped our planet.
Liz is a geologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History where she directs its Global Volcanism Program as well as serving as a curator and research geologist in the Department of Mineral Sciences. Her research involves studying the geochemical composition and evolution of the deep Earth mantle and core, including how this impacts volcanic formation and eruptions. Liz fell in love with the study of volcanoes while at Brown University, where as an undergraduate student, she explored the cataclysmic eruption of the Santorini volcano, Greece. After receiving her Bachelor’s of Science degree in Geochemistry at Brown, she went on to receive her Ph.D. from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University where she studied the global magma ocean that scientists now believe enveloped the early Earth.
Liz’s current research focuses on the evolution of the Earth, exploring a wide range of areas from the formation of the Earth’s metal core 4.6 billion years ago to the ongoing modification of Earth’s interior due to what she calls “biological contaminants.” Liz relies on samples brought to the surface by volcanoes and experiments she performs in her laboratory because, “despite what you may have seen in the movies, you can’t visit the center of the Earth!” she says. “We use volcanoes as a window,” she says, to learn what is happening deep below volcanoes. In this regard, creating intense degrees of pressure on rock and crystallized samples that she studies from volcanoes and the Earth’s mantle is key. “Pressure changes everything,” she says.
As director of the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program, Liz documents the eruptive histories for all known active volcanoes on the planet. Can you guess how many documented active volcanoes there are at this time and how many are actually erupting right now?
Read more about Liz and her volcano research projects here.
Hear Liz discuss the causes of Japan’s March 11 earthquake and learn more about the region’s “ring of fire.”
Watch Liz’s video on the joys of being a geologist.