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Traveling to the Brink of Volcanoes


Danielle Moyer leans on a railing,with a backpack hanging off one shoulder and holding exploring gear.

Danielle Moyer ’15 has peered deeply into erupting volcanoes. Skillfully flying a hobby drone modified to collect data about particles they spew, Moyer gathered information that she used to complete her doctorate in biodiversity, Earth and environmental science specializing in volcanology. She earned the degree in 2022 from Drexel University.

Along the way, she studied volcanoes – both active and extinct – in Iceland, India, Italy, Indonesia, Chile and in Yellowstone National Park. Now, she’s applying the troubleshooting skills she learned in the field to a job as an emergency management program specialist, doing disaster mitigation for Connecticut’s Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

Moyer’s journey to the volcanic rim began when she majored in geology at KU. As a high school student at nearby Brandywine Heights High School, she never intended to study earth sciences. Her priority was seeing the world and she wanted a science career that would allow her to do that.

“I was going to be a chemical engineer, work in a lab and travel wherever I wanted on my vacations,” she says.

She began to imagine a different science career when Dr. Kurt Friehauf, KU professor of geology, organized a lecture series focusing on women in science. Moyer attended while still in high school and was wowed by stories of geologists conducting research in fascinating locations.

“I went to these lectures and heard (about) people working on glaciers. You had people who focused on the geology of other planets, and I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, you can do anything…’” Moyer says, adding that the geology department welcomed her “with open arms.”

One of the lecturers, Dr. Adrienne Oakley, was a marine geologist who joined the KU faculty. Moyer’s first undergraduate field experience was accompanying Oakley on a ship as they mapped the ocean floor in the Pacific between Hawaii and Guam. She also worked with Oakley at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station in Virginia.

“I had an absolute ball working in the marshes around Chincoteague collecting data for Dr. Oakley’s research,” Moyer says. Field work is a hallmark of KU’s geology program and Moyer was hooked. “I could not remember a semester when we were not taking a trip out into the field.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in geology with a professional writing minor, she sought a graduate program that would allow her to conduct field work around the world. A specialty in volcanology proved the right match and she was soon gathering field data in Iceland. As part of her research, she developed a way to use drones to collect data that would become part of her doctoral dissertation, “Drones, Scopes, and Aerosols: A Study of Gas and Particle Emissions from Yellowstone, Sinabung, and Villarrica Volcanoes.” The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the John Candy movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

Moyer says women still face challenges in STEM fields, but she was fortunate to have supportive colleagues.

“They would stick up for me if they saw me being talked over and so on. So, still a lot of barriers, but I was surrounded by folks ready to stand up for me with the idea that everyone deserves a voice at the table.”

After earning her doctorate, Moyer began exploring positions in disaster relief and emergency management, fields that would benefit from her ability to navigate and respond in tough environments. She was offered the Connecticut job in late 2022. Moyer analyzes data and identifies ways to interrupt the cycle of disasters, such as coastal flooding. She also studies the effectiveness of strategies used to mitigate disasters.

Her success, she says, began at Kutztown. “I was very fortunate to have a supportive community around me. By the time I was scaling volcanoes, I was thinking, ‘They told me this was possible.’”

Danielle Moyer is a 2015 graduate of Kutztown's Geology program.

This article originally appeared in the 2023 Tower Magazine.

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