Published: Sep 23, 2016
Meet Gari Mayberry, a geologist who turned her passion for volcanology and global outreach into a career of international hazard assistance and outreach. She currently serves as the Geological Hazards Advisor for USAID/OFDA where she is managing several international disaster response programs as well as community awareness programs.
Explain what it means to be a Geological Hazards Advisor?
Being the Geological Hazards Advisor for USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) means that I am the go-to for any geological hazard-related issues, so concerns or disasters related to earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, or tsunamis outside of the U.S. I am consulted. USAID/OFDA leads the U.S. government humanitarian response to international disasters, both natural and man-made. I work as the liaison between USGS and USAID/OFDA and help to develop programs with USGS scientists that fit both USGS’s scientific goals and USAID/OFDA’s mandate to save lives, alleviate suffering, and reduce the social and economic impacts of disasters. Generally, I track geological activity around the world to provide guidance on whether or not the U.S. may need to respond. I develop and monitor projects related to reducing the impact of geological disasters before they strike. The bulk of what I do is volcano-related through the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP), where I manage the relationship between USGS and USAID/OFDA, keeping both groups apprised of latest developments. VDAP is the only international volcano response team that can react and help prevent eruptions from becoming disasters it’s supported by USAID/OFDA and implemented by USGS volcanologists. I also manage NGO led projects which address geological hazards, as well as the USGS Earthquake Disaster Assistance Team, a program which aids global counterparts in addressing earthquake risk.
What does an average day look like for you?
Usually, my day is spent developing projects and responding to inquiries from USGS, USAID, other federal agencies, and foreign scientists and governments. But at any time my work can be disrupted when a major geological event occurs, such as the recent M 6.2 earthquake in Italy and the M 7 earthquake in Myanmar. When this happens, I need to rapidly shift my focus to uncovering what occurred, what kind of impact it may have had, and what we may be able to do to assist.
What’s the most exciting part of your work?
I find it most exciting when a project that I have worked to gain support for is implemented and makes a difference in peoples’ lives. It is quite rewarding to be able to help scientists apply their work to real-life situations to effect change. Seeing the work in-person and experience its impact first hand, that never gets old.
When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?
I believe in the work I do and want to see it be successful, so if one avenue doesn’t work I try to find another. If that doesn’t work and I really just can’t find a solution, there are always other problems to focus on…always more work to do. So I try to focus on getting as much done as I can and if I truly can’t find a solution to a problem I’ve got to let it go and move on to the next issue.
Was there a pivotal early career decision you made that directed you to your current role
The most important decision I made in my early career was to just go for it. As a student it took me awhile to find something I was passionate about, until I took a volcanology class my junior year. Some tried to discourage me from going into volcanology because it can be challenging to find a job, but I was so excited to find a subject that really held my interest I was not going to be deterred. I figured I’d just go as far as I could and figure out Plan B if necessary. In the end, that decision paid off and I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work in fascinating jobs related to volcanology.
You work diplomatically with international parties and have even been identified as a “science diplomat”; what guidance would you give to those looking to intersect science and global relations?
That’s a tough one, since there isn’t a clear path for combining science and international affairs. I would advise [finding] as many opportunities to participate in both fields as possible. An education in science is a pretty straight path and there are various internships and volunteer opportunities that would provide an introduction to working in international affairs. Also, when researching in other countries, take the opportunity to go beyond the science and learn about where you are studying, how to do so respectfully, and possibly give back to the local communities.
What’s the strangest place/situation you’ve been?
I’ve been in a few strange, or unexpected, situations during my career. One of the most memorable was when I was participating in a VDAP response to activity at Ol Dionyo Lengai volcano in Tanzania. The volcano had been erupting for a while and it looked like activity would continue, so the Tanzanian government requested assistance from the U.S. to help determine if they should evacuate people who lived near it. Ol Doinyo Lengai is my favorite volcano, it’s the only known active volcano to have natrocarbonatite lava which is black when it erupts, turns white when it cools, and erupts at very low temperatures, basically a freak volcano. I hadn’t conducted research on Ol Dionyo Lengai in the past and I didn’t imagine I’d get to see it in person, so actually working on it was pretty surreal. But on top of that we were staying in the wilderness and would commonly come across herds of zebras, giraffes, and elephants, which was amazing. The trip occurred during the first inauguration of President Obama and there was a rumor that a nearby village had a television and were going to show it. I soon found myself crammed into a small hut surrounded by strangers: local villagers, people working for international NGOs, young, old, Tanzanian, American and others, all huddled around a TV screen with a staticky view of the inauguration - it was a wonderfully surreal moment.
What’s the most recent thing you’ve learned?
That patience is a virtue. Of course, I already knew that but I’ve recently been reminded. As part of my work with USGS, I’ve started a new initiative to introduce children to the geosciences and I’m quite excited. I’m ready to move full steam ahead, but I’m learning that change can be a slow process. I’ve got to respect that other people do not necessarily have the perspective I have and need time to process new information. After dealing with the fast-paced world of disasters for so long, I’m finding I need to adjust my pace to be appropriate for the various groups that I am working with. I’ve found during my career that patience and tenacity are key to getting things done.