Studying frozen volcanoes in Iceland leads to science degree

Lifetime adventure with her children enriches UBC Okanagan experience.

Erica Massey, graduating from UBC with a bachelor of science degree in earth and environmental sciences from the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences, has already plotted out her master’s degree research.

Erica Massey

But not until she became a single parent of three young children in 2006, did Massey decide university was the route she wanted to take.

She found taking environmental science and sustainable development courses online were not enough.  “I just decided that I needed to come back to school,” Massey said. “I have always loved to learn. It wasn’t like a big life-changing moment, just a continuation of a need to know more.”

While going back to school was no easy feat, Massey’s children were a big part of her education plan.

“The kids were really brave. And they trusted me,” she recalled. “They’ve been so supportive, totally understanding of me going back to school. And now, they’ve seen me work really hard to accomplish my goal of graduating, the first in both generations on each side of my family.”

Massey’s path to graduation was different than her peers. Not only a bit older, but she also spent two full semesters studying in Iceland—taking her kids along for the journey of a lifetime.

Curious about climate change and the North, Massey applied to and was accepted by UBC’s Go Global program to study in Iceland. Taking her children out of school, to a country where they didn’t speak the language, was a big risk. But Massey wanted her children to experience a different culture.

Her youngest, just eight, attended a local elementary school in Reykjavik and the elder two, both in high school, attended school part time and did online B.C. curriculum work.

Massey had a full-time course load, studying Earth’s tectonic movements, volcanology, glaciology, glacial geology, geothermal energy, geophysics and astrophysics. The family also took time to explore Iceland’s northern landscapes of volcanoes, glaciers and enjoy the historic Viking culture.

“Iceland is a geologist’s dream,” she added.

Her master’s research will examine the textures, mineralogy and elemental composition of palagonite—the first stable product of altered volcanic glass, formed when eruptions occur under glaciers. Palagonite is primarily found in Iceland and British Columbia and her research will be specific to the Wells Gray volcanic field and a subglacial ridge in Iceland.

“What’s exciting about this and interesting to note is that on Mars, planetary science has found evidence of palagonitization—thought to give further evidence of water on Mars,” she said. “In science, you never know what you are going to discover.”

And because she likes to do things differently, Massey has even come to her master’s taking her own route. She came up with the idea for her research and will be supervised by UBC Okanagan’s professor John Greenough and a professor from Pennsylvania who specializes in subglacial volcanism.

Greenough, who teaches earth and environmental sciences at UBC, said Massey is an exemplary student and he is looking forward to supervising her master’s research.

“I taught Erica as an undergraduate student and was impressed with her exceptional organizational skills, remarkable work ethic, devotion to family and love of learning,” he added. “She is a role model; a true intellectual and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be a part of her continuing educational journey.”


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