Featured Researcher: Kirsten Stephens

Posted on January 13, 2021

Better understanding how volcanoes work — and linking that to improving safety for people who may live near volcanoes — motivate the work of our featured researcher, Kirsten Stephens, a doctoral candidate in geosciences. She’s using the Roar supercomputer to study radar satellite datasets to determine whether changes in the ground underneath a volcanic region may be connected with observable volcanic activity.

How did you get into this research field? 

It all started back in my childhood when my parents bought me the “Magic School Bus Explores Inside the Earth” computer game. I grew a love for natural disasters, and in particular, volcanoes. Living in South Africa, we have a distinct lack of active volcanoes, and the closest was a 5-hour flight away – Piton de la Fournaise in Reunion, a little island located east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. My family made a trip out there during my undergraduate degree, and I was able to hike the summit of the volcano and to visit the volcano observatory on the island. My mind was blown by all the ways that they were monitoring the volcano and the trip fuelled my desire even more to study volcanoes. It was in my Honours year at Wits when I first learned about using radar satellite data to study volcanoes. I knew that I wanted to use physics-based techniques to better understand volcanoes, and this approach called InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar) was fascinating. After searching abroad for programs specifically related to volcanology, I stumbled across the Masters course at the University of Bristol. With a thesis focused on using InSAR to study Masaya volcano in Nicaragua, I was sold. And now here I am at Penn State, continuing my studies at the very same volcano!  

What do you hope to accomplish with your research?  

While my passion is for volcanoes and understanding what makes them tick, my secret motivation has always been along the lines of forecasting and mitigation of volcanic hazards. In conjunction with other monitoring and observation disciplines, my hope is that my research will help provide locals living in high-risk volcanic regions with the knowledge and understanding that they need in order to develop evacuation and safety plans that will keep their communities safe, regardless of the types of volcanic activity they experience. 

How does supercomputing enable your research? 

Having access to the ICDS supercomputer has been critical to my research progress at Penn State. My research uses a large volume of SAR datasets that are several TB in size, even before any processing or modelling has taken place. Processing of the SAR data, followed by inversion of these large datasets for time-series analysis, as well as for geodetic modelling of the results, is computationally expensive.  

What is your academic background? 

In 2012, I completed a BSc in Geology followed by a BSc Honours in Geophysics at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa. This was followed by completion of Masters in Volcanology at the University of Bristol in the UK in 2015. Currently, I am in my 5th-year of my PhD in Geosciences at Penn State. 

What’s the elevator pitch for your research?

My research focuses on using radar satellite datasets to link changes in the subsurface in a volcanic region with observable volcanic activity. By understanding how the ground moves during different periods of activity, we are able to create a “behavioural map” of volcanic activity and thus provide information for forecasting and mitigation efforts. Ideally, the goal is to approach each volcano from a multi-disciplinary perspective – using a variety of geophysical and geochemical techniques to create this behavioural map. In regions which are poorly monitored but have high-risk volcanic activity, using radar satellite datasets provides increased temporal and spatial coverage of the region and helps inform scientists and locals of activity that may perhaps be going unnoticed. 

What is the biggest surprise for you personally that has come out of your research journey? 

Honestly, a boat-load of humility and learning how to refocus my time and efforts on leading a balanced life. Grad school is not for the faint-hearted! There have been a lot of ups and downs emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally. And in the difficult times I have realized the importance of having a good support base to help keep me afloat (especially when you are far from home!) – my husband, family, friends and church group. 

What’s your favorite sound? 

A good thunderstorm! The sound of heavy rain and thunder always reminds me of summertime in South Africa. 

If you had unlimited money, what project would you take on? 

Kitting out every volcano in the world with seismometers, GPS stations, infrasound, gravimeters, gas monitors… whatever equipment I can get my hands on to provide improved temporal and spatial data coverage of volcanoes to help improve monitoring and mitigation efforts, especially in high-risk volcanic regions.  

What’s your advice for would-be scientists? 

If you have a dream to do something out of the ordinary with your life, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t be. Each person has a special gifting and purpose, and you will never be satisfied trying to do something that you were not designed for. Take time to really consider your strengths, weaknesses, passions, and then go for it! 

 Favorite hobbies/pastimes that have nothing to do with your professional work? 

I absolutely love photography and travelling to new places. And hiking up volcanoes, for fun of course.

What is something that people are surprised to discover about you? 

Most people are surprised to learn that I was born and raised in South Africa – the usual go-to’s are England, Australia or the States.  


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