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Martha Savage

Published on: Oct 12, 2015

Dr. Martha Savage is a 2015 AGU Fellow and a Professor at the Victoria University of Wellington. Not only does she conduct research in the fields of seismic anisotropy (the study of seismic waves in a medium within the Earth) and earthquake hazards, but she also pursues a range of non-scientific activities such as circus aerials.

Martha Savage

What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist?

It took me a while to want to be a scientist. I loved reading and so I thought I wanted to write novels. I didn’t like drawing and since most of the science classes I had in elementary school included a lot of drawing, I thought I didn’t like science. My father was a physicist and us kids would often try to escape his “long boring lectures” in which he tried to do such things as explain diffraction when we asked “why is the sky blue?”. But I did enjoy the chemistry set he gave me one year and I was very excited when I discovered that the powder from the marble rocks we had picked up on a trip to Colorado reacted to vinegar the same way that baking soda did. I think my main switch to science came in high school when I found that I didn’t really have to do much drawing, and in fact that I excelled at science and mathematics so I decided to pursue it.

When did you decide to study Geophysics?

I was a physics major in college but really liked the outdoors and by my 3rd year I was feeling sorry that I hadn’t gone into another field that would have taken me out of the lab. At that time I met somebody who suggested I try geology. My college, Swarthmore, didn’t have a geology program, so in my last year I took two geology courses at nearby Bryn Mawr College, which hooked me to make the switch in graduate school. Since I had missed a lot of background needed for straight Geology, I decided to go into Geophysics.

What’s the strangest place/situation you’ve been?

Living for a year at the South Pole with 16 men and no other women, just after I graduated from Swarthmore. It was the smallest small town I’ve ever been in.

When I was at Swarthmore, the Bartol Research Foundation was based on our campus. They ran a program in Antarctica, and had an advertisement for a position at the South Pole, which they posted on the bulletin board in the Physics Department every year. My friends and I all discussed it and thought we’d like to try it, but I guess I was the only one who ended up applying from our school. My position title was “cosmic ray observer” and my main job was to take care of different experiments related to upper atmospheric physics; basically, I was a technician. I made sure that the instruments operated and sent the data back to the US for analysis. The cosmic ray part was in effect a set of three giant Geiger counters that measured cosmic rays, i.e., charged particles coming from outer space. Because of the Earth’s magnetic field, these particles bend toward the equator in most places except for those close to the poles. So to see the 3-D picture of where they are coming from, they need observations at the poles. One observatory was at the South Pole, which was where they needed a new person each year. I also changed the films in the cameras that were taking pictures of the Auroras, and set up and ran an instrument to measure the Earth’s electric field.

What’s the most exciting part of your research?

When I get an “aha” moment where things come into place and I understand something new (especially if I think I’m the first to understand it).

When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?

My family—earlier my parents and siblings, now my husband and children. Also exercise—mainly taking my mind off the problem so that it can sort itself out later or when I’m in a better frame of mind.

What aspect of your research/science would you happily do away with?

Marking student assignments, but I guess that’s actually teaching. As to research/science I guess I’d have to say the “science politics” and occasional funding problems. Science politics involves making sure your ideas get attributed to you properly, that the right people know about them, and that they appear in the right journals; here in New Zealand it also involves trying to influence the direction of government programs for science funding.

Where do you see your research taking you?

It’s already taken me to interesting places physically. I’d like to be able to use it to help humanity more directly. For example, I’m working on techniques that may help to eventually predict volcanic eruptions but I’d also like to predict damaging earthquakes, although like many others, I’m skeptical of the possibility.

How have your friends/relatives who are not scientists reacted to your career/research?

Most of my friends and relatives are scientists themselves or at least have friends who are scientists. They have been very supportive. Occasionally people I don’t know well will seem too overawed when they first hear I’m a scientist. Earlier I used to occasionally find people surprised that a woman could be (or would want to be) a scientist, but not lately.

What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

Go for it. Research is really exciting and stimulating and it can be helpful for humankind. There are also many paths you could take afterwards—even though I’ve been very happy with my academic path, some of my students and friends have gone in other directions and their training in critical thinking and working and learning independently has been helpful even if they aren’t directly doing research.

How do you find a work-life balance, especially to do something as creative and physical as circus aerials?

It’s like the old joke about filling up a glass—you have to put the big rocks in first so there’s room for the smaller rocks, sand and water. Keeping yourself healthy physically and emotionally is the biggest rock of all—it comes ahead of work because you can’t work well if you are not healthy. Family has always been part of emotional health for me; having young children and a career did make me less physically active for a while—when the kids were young I had to use a lot of physical energy taking care of them, but did gradually slide for a while as they grew older. When the kids were in high school, I started getting back problems from sitting curved over too much on my computer. My physical therapist told me I needed to work on my arm and back strength. I knew I couldn’t just do the prescribed exercises over and over again, so I looked for something that would be more fun.

Circus aerials is just a hobby really—it’s a fun way to make me want to keep exercising. But I also really enjoy the completely different challenge of putting together acts to music, which involves expressing emotions as well as physicality.  And I also enjoy meeting people from different age groups and approaches to life. There are a surprising number of scientist-types in circus, but there are also a lot of non-scientists as well, and there are a lot of artistic types, which I find especially interesting because it’s not something I have had a lot of exposure to before.