For over 200 years the American Academy of Arts & Sciences has been electing leading “thinkers and doers,” from George Washington to Albert Einstein. Recently the Academy announced its 2012 class and among those honored is volcanologist Katharine Cashman ’76, the Philip H. Knight Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Oregon.
Cashman’s research over the years has led to great insight into what triggers volcanic eruptions and has helped to predict those events. With a two-year Fulbright scholarship in New Zealand, where she earned a master’s in geology from Victoria University, and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins, she has spent her career researching volcanic hot spots on all seven continents. But her love for geology began at Middlebury. “I wouldn’t be a geologist if I hadn’t gone to Middlebury. First and foremost in terms of inspiration was Professor Peter Coney. From the very start, he treated all of his students as peers and professionals and truly challenged us to think for ourselves. Although sometimes frustrating, it was also exhilarating to be handed a problem and then have to figure it out.”
Another professor helped further Cashman’s interest in the study of volcanoes. David Folger, who had left Middlebury to work in Wood’s Hole, Mass., hired her as a research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey in 1979. He then encouraged her in a transfer to the Cascades Volcano Observatory after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Although she had studied active volcanoes in Antarctica, this was a turning point for her. She arrived at Mount St. Helens just months after the eruption. “The opportunity to work with the USGS team at Mount St. Helens convinced me that this was the direction that I wanted to pursue—I love studying geologic processes that happen on human time scales and that affect human populations because it means that I can indulge my love of solving scientific puzzles with the feeling that maybe something I do will ultimately help to reduce volcanic risk.”
Her impressive body of work has done that and more. And her accomplishments caught the attention of the Academy of Arts & Sciences. While normally Cashman would have gotten the notification of her election while at the University of Oregon, she is spending a three-year leave at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom as an AXA research chair and professor of volcanology. (AXA is a French insurance company that has recently started sponsoring research into environmental hazards.) So she received word she’d been chosen as a Fellow by the University of Oregon communications director. She says she felt “stunned” by the news—but obviously honored.
“It’s very humbling to be joining an honor society that includes so many people in my field, who I’ve looked up to all my career. The fact that my ‘class’ includes people like Hillary Clinton, Judy Woodruff, Andre Previn, Clint Eastwood, and Paul McCartney just seems surreal!”
As for opportunities that may open up for her, it’s too early to tell. But the Academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. For now, Cashman says, the announcement has led to some enjoyable personal benefits. “It reached several of my high school friends, from whom I’ve received a flood of e-mail. It’s been fun to reconnect with them after so many years.”
Kathy Cashman, along with sisters Susan ’72 and Patricia ’72, received an honorary doctor of science from Middlebury in 2008.