ARTICLE № 002 JANUARY 2017
ALEXANDRA MICHELLE HORNE
Driving to meet Alexandra in Tempe, Arizona during monsoon season—the horizon dark with clouds and rain—we pass through frequent downpours and ponder the duality of seeming catastrophe and renewal. Alexandra welcomes us into her home, and into her lab, where she thoughtfully shares her own dualities of perfection and imperfection, turmoil and inner peace. From rocks in pockets and a toy microscope to enlightened change, Alexandra shares her path to geology with exacting and warm charisma.
Before going to [study abroad in] New Zealand, I lived my life a little differently. I had a Plan A, and Plan A was the plan. Nothing deviated. I was never the person in college who would sign up for one class before the semester started, but would go to 10 or 12 different classes and test them all out and think about what they wanted to do. I never did that. I picked my classes, and I signed up for them, and I was taking them. I was in New Zealand for the Christchurch earthquake in 2011. It was really intense. It was 6.3 and super shallow. Because of the sediments and basalts, there was over 2.5g of vertical acceleration, which nothing there was engineered for. It was like being in a ball of Jell-O. And after that I…
…Whoa, wait! What was that like? Where were you?
I was standing in the living room, in my apartment, holding my lunch plates with food on them, and I was like, “I don't know what to do!” So, I just sat down holding these plates (everyone laughs). I really didn’t know what to do. It was a really intense experience. It was the day before classes at the university and literally, the day before, I think it was on a Monday or Tuesday, a couple of friends and I had been in the downtown area. We had walked around and saw the cathedral and the art museum and were like, “Oh! We should go in there. No… We’ll be here for five months, guys. We don’t need to do that today.” Street vendors were just hanging out. One woman was selling these beautiful felt hats. We were like, “No… We shouldn't spend all our money now. We’re going to be here for months!” The city center got hit the hardest. The next day, that entire part of the city was gone. Nothing. I can barely explain how powerful and impactful that was on shaping my life and how I think about things. You just never know what's going to be there tomorrow. So, if you have the opportunity to do it today, do it. Living with this I've-got-all-this-time-to-do-all-the-things-I-want-to-do… in some sense you do. But, not always. And, having a kind of dose of that in your mind, I think, is really healthy. But, it also teaches you that Plan A does not always hold true. You need a plan B. I finally believe my mom—what she has been telling me for years and years and years.
Did your mother influence you or guide you towards geology?
I don't think my mom ever really tried to sway my career path at all. She is a dentist and owns her own practice. I've been involved there helping out and working summers since I was little. But, I never felt pressure from her to take over the family business or anything. She's very supportive. Tentative and hesitant when I say things like ‘I'm going to move to the other side of the country’, or ‘I'm going to go to New Zealand for 6 months’, or ‘You know, mom… guess what? Now I'm going to Nepal!’ So, you know, she's very much a mom (laughs) who is nervous about everything. But, she's never tried to hold me back from doing anything, which is really nice.
She actually… (laughing). She maintains that this is not how things happened, but this is how it happened: My freshmen year of college I was trying to take distribution classes and I was like, “Mom, I was thinking of taking a geology class, what do you think?” And she’s like, “Oh. It’s gonna be so boring. You’re just gonna look at all these gross rocks all the time.” Then she's like, “Well, your aunt took a geology class once and she really liked it. And, you’re kind of like her, so you might like it.” I don't know. It's probably the closest she’s ever come to directly guiding my life choices. But, when I went to college my mom finally had me out of her hair—out of the nest—and she developed a lot as a person and became a lot more spiritual and a lot more focused on herself and I think that has influenced me a lot. Especially, while going to college and finding myself while my mom was rediscovering herself. We both grew a lot and fed off of each other.
Have you become more spiritual as well?
I have, yeah. I was raised Roman Catholic and we went to church every Sunday, but it was never something I did because I felt, or because I made the choice. It was a choice someone else made for me. When I went to college I tried to join churches and tried to see if that was the right shoe for me and it really wasn't. I started becoming more spiritual when I went to New Zealand. I had a couple of friends who were super into yoga and we got the cheapest yoga passes in the entire universe—still, to this day, I haven’t found yoga so cheap. And there were amazing teachers. I started practicing very frequently and it was an excellent experience. Yoga is very transformative, mentally. It was a great experience for me and it opened the door for more spiritual pursuits after that.
And, have these pursuits entered into your work or your approach to science?
I have definitely meditated in the lab and done yoga in the lab because sometimes you are just cleaning samples and there's nothing to do for 5 minutes except some side angle pose, because why not? (everyone laughs). So that's nice. I don't know how much it’s impacted my science and my work directly. I think more, it’s impacted how I manage myself in the environment and not getting overwhelmed. Grad school is a study in spinning 500 plates around you simultaneously and that can seem really overwhelming a lot of the time. But, trying to take steps back from it and just experience little aspects of it at a time and appreciate it… I think that is probably something I've gained from having that spiritual background. The ability to still your thoughts, and recognize them, and dismiss them, and let them go, and be calm with all of that pressure is something I have completely gotten out of yoga and meditating. I definitely feel like I've gotten better at appreciating all of the spinning plates and spinning them simultaneously. You should meditate more—it’s really good for your mind. It relaxes you.
Is there enough space in the lab to practice yoga and stretch? I feel like I have a hard enough time finding a place to set my laptop in most labs, much less finding a place to stretch.
There is a lot of space. The instruments that I am currently working on… we joke to ourselves that we have a tiny workspace with no space. There is some space, but it’s like, “Careful! Don’t trip on that tube! That’s connecting our helium!” But, between those tighter spaces, there is a lot of space. The lab itself is very open. It is not tiny corridors. Um, in that regard, there is enough space. Most of the time, I am not on the floor at all. These are just standing things. I'll stretch my quads. So, I’ll do this (stands and poses), which kind of sucks, because if you have gloves on, you have to take your gloves off and put new ones on. I will touch my toes (poses again), because I am sitting a lot and my back gets tight. But, I will like try and side angle (poses again). This is very easy because you have lab space and you can easily go over and just stretch a little bit and that’s really nice.
Aside from meditation and yoga, has becoming more spiritual affected or influenced your approach to science?
Umm…Hmm… Sometimes I think it makes me feel like a bad scientist, in the sense that I have no evidence or concrete... I don't have numbers and quantitative data sets to back up some of the things I feel and that kind of bothers me sometimes. But then, every once in a while, you will come across something that will make you feel really ‘science-y’ about your spirituality. I just read this really excellent book called The Tale for the Time Being. Ruth Ozecki is the author’s name. She’s a Buddhist priest that wrote this excellent story, and in it, takes several appendices to relate Zen Buddhism to quantum mechanics. It makes me feel really ‘science-y’ about a lot of my spiritual beliefs. It’s really interesting, you know, how a lot of Zen Buddhism talks about the Buddha being both dead and alive, and present and not, and being in these multiple states, just like quantum. Which is really a very obvious and apparent similarity that I have never thought about before. I loved it. It’s a great book. You should definitely read it. It’s a great story too. Its excellent because she talks about bigger points like quantum mechanics, but in the context of this excellent novel that, in its own right, even without all of the spirituality and the science, would be great. One of the character’s husband has friends that are in Friends of the Pleistocene, and they talk about geology a little bit. It's all excellent!
Do you have memories of science being part of your childhood? A glimmer of geology, perhaps?
I remember, one Christmas, probably early elementary school, I got a play microscope. I had a lot of composition notebooks that I would write stuff down in. I was old enough that I knew how to write, but still had diabolically terrible handwriting and most of it was scribbles because my mom wrote predominantly… My mom is a doctor so has a) terrible chicken scratch writing, but b) mostly writes in a cursively print. And so, I have notebooks upon notebooks from childhood that are just like scribbles on every line. So, I got the microscope and I would, you know… draw.
How do you really know you love something if you haven’t really experienced other things?
My mom studied a lot of the sciences before she became a doctor, so I don’t know if this is being prompted by her telling me that this is how you science. But, I would look at things under the microscope and draw these little circles, and color in what I saw, and write all these notes, and I'd make fake homework assignments for myself, and do fake homework assignments for my science class (everyone laughs). Which, of course, now my mom is like, “Yes, you should be in academia. You've been making homework assignments since you knew how to make them.” But, yeah, I did that a lot and then a little bit after, I went through a phase where I was checking the streak of everything—and not just minerals—like anything I found in the woods. “If I smear this on a piece of paper, what does it look like? I don't know.” This is a whole scientific exploit of smearing berries and twigs and leaves and anything you find outdoors. And, of course, when I took Intro [to] Geology and they’re like, “Smear this mineral across the page,” I'm like, “I've been doing this since pre-K! Yeah!” (Everyone laughs). “I know how to identify things this way! Brilliant! I found my people!” So, there is that (laughing).
Did you play outside a lot while growing up or had any outside experiences that could perhaps be seen as a glimpse of a budding geologist?
Not a lot at home. And, I’m not really sure whether it was me or parent-stipulated, but I remember predominantly playing outside at my grandparents’ house where there was a lot of property with thick forests and hills and pretty rock—they had to get rid of a lot of outcrop to put their house where they wanted it. I did have a rock collection when I was little. There was a stump in the front yard of our house that I collected rocks on. I also had one of those Barbie play jeeps that you drive around, and that had rocks in the trunk. And, I always had a lot of rocks in the pockets of my jackets and other things.
How old were you at this time?
Probably younger than 2nd grade—small enough that I fit into a Barbie jeep (everyone laughs). I was never one of those kids who… I knew nothing about geology before Intro to Geology. I feel like there are a lot of people who are like “I collect all of these rocks and now I am going to learn about them.” I never had that interest. I just collected them because I liked them. But, Intro to Geology felt a lot like I found my people. After the first field trip I went on, I remember getting back to Mount Holyoke being like, “I just have pockets full of rocks—I'm six years old again!” That’s what I did at that age—pockets full of rocks. For some reason, I never really knew about plate tectonics. I don't know what the hole was in my pre-college education where I had never learned about earth science. Ever. And, they finally told me about plate tectonics and I am sitting there like, ‘”Holy shit!” In second grade, I was tracing the puzzle of the world being like, “These fit together so well. That's so weird. Like, all of these things. You could smush ‘em together like this, right?” And then I hear about plate tectonics and I’m like, “My people! I knew this at age 7! Yes! Thank you! I knew I was on to something.” (Laughing).
Does it feel like a calling?
I don't know if it feels like a calling. I think I could be happy in a lot of disciplines with a problem to sort out. I was always one of those kids who always did mazes and crossword puzzles and ‘I-spy’ things, and different word puzzle books. I always had puzzle books. Coloring books were okay. According to my mom, I was a very OCD child and I would color, but if I got outside of a line, I'd rip it out and tear it up and chuck it, and my mom would be like...
Because it wasn't worthy?
Yeah, because it was now subpar. It was not pristine. It needed to be perfect. Of course my mom is still, to this day, saying, “I don't know what I ever did to you when you were really little that made you feel like you had to rip it out if it got outside of the line. You were adamant about this.” It may be part of the reason why the puzzle books came into play, “Here. Do this puzzle and stop ripping pages out (everyone laughs). Your two-year-old self doesn't have the control to keep it in the lines.”
Does the puzzle-aspect of geology keep you pursuing it academically?
I think that the puzzle, the challenge, it worries me. I am a little worried that the stress of academia, and being in the lab, and taking classes, and trying to pursue research, and really loving teaching… it’s a lot of things to do and I really love all of them. But it’s very stressful and I don't particularly want to lead a life where I'm like super stressed about things all the time. Obviously no one really wants to lead that life. But, I feel that stress level and I can't imagine having a family on top of this and having time to raise kids, or time to be a good spouse, and time to do all the other things I want to do. Like truffle hunting. I have all these great moonlighting ideas and all of these other careers I want on the side.
And truffle hunting is one of them?
Truffle hunting is one of them. I need to get the right dog. I don't know if Opal would… she would eat them. There is this breed of Italian dogs called Lagotto Romagnolo. They are specifically bred for truffle hunting in Italy. They are hypoallergenic. I am actually very allergic to dogs. Opal gets bathed regularly because I am a bit allergic to her. But they are hypoallergenic ‘water dogs’ that are bred to hunt for truffles. Organic turkey farming seems very appealing too. There are a lot of other things. And, if I am so stressed and need to be doing all this research all the time, how can I…? (Long pause). A part of me really worries that without all of those things to preoccupy my brain that I would have a lot of trouble. I think I need a lot of things constantly. I think my mom is like that and that's part of the reason. I don't know if it’s necessarily in my nature to be that way; but, my mom is always pursuing one-hundred-and-one different hobbies and doing a lot of different stuff. And, I think being with someone like that so closely, growing up and having her kind of always going in fifty-nine directions kind of made me feel like that's fun and good and something I need.
Speaking of pursuing one-hundred-and-one different things... you double majored in art history and geology as an undergrad at Mount Holyoke. Did you start out with the intention to double major in two seemingly disparate fields?
No. I was going to minor in Italian, but that's kind of boring and makes me like every other art history student in the department (laughing). “I must be different!” Because, at Mount Holyoke, you better believe you are finding what makes you different and unique. It's so excellent to go from a High School perspective where everyone must fit a ‘New England,’ ‘East Coast-like’ mold, to college where, if you fit a mold, you are doing everything incorrectly. You need to not fit the molds. I tried to be very sneaky about my art history degree.
So, I started as an art history major. I had taken an art history class in high school and hit the ground running and took so much art history my first two years and really loved it. But, I took this Intro [to] Geology class for distribution and was like, “Oh! This is cool! This could be a really good minor—a minor in geology! This is great! I will know so much about the rocks in the sculptures!” For a while I thought I was super diverse, and really great. Then, a year later, I go to my study abroad program [in New Zealand] and everyone in the field camp does arts and sciences. Like, across the board. (Everyone laughs).
And, you’re like, “Oh, they’re related!” (More laughter)
Right? When I look at a painting and dissect it, and when I look at an outcrop and dissect, it's actually the exact same skill set (more laughter). And then I really liked it a lot and decided at some point to double major, because I tried in high school, but I never really made an effort. I never really felt like I was super smart. And then I went to college and tried a little my freshmen year and reaped the benefits and realized if I actually applied myself, I could actually be one of the smart people and actually get really good grades! I was off and running. Plan A was like, “I will dominate the world with all of my academic prowess. Why minor when I could double major?” I got really obsessed with that. I think also, I came in being so gung-ho about art history that by my sophomore year I had only two more classes to take in the major, so if I hadn’t double majored I would have… I don't even know what for the last two years of college. It was a time-filler and a fun, cool thing to do.
But in the end, you pursued geology. You didn't choose to pursue art history.
I didn't. I actually worked in a couple of galleries. I liked hanging shows, and I liked putting together collections, and I loved talking with clients and getting them excited about the art. But, actually selling the art? I think it’s great, and I can tell you why it's great, and why I think it's great, but I’m not going to convince you to think it's great. I can try, but I am not a pitch person. So, it wasn't great the first summer. It wasn't great the second summer. And at that point, I was like, “Well, maybe my grand plan of running a gallery and doing international art sales is really not what I should be doing.”
And now here you are at ASU pursuing a Ph.D. in geology. Was it a natural transition to skip the master’s degree and move across the country to pursue a Ph.D. in geology?
Yeah. I didn't mean to. I looked at a bunch of places. I stipulated I was going. So, I grew up in Massachusetts and went to school in Massachusetts and when I graduated college, I needed to leave New England. I’ve been to other places but never lived in other places, for a long period of time. So, I wanted to leave New England. I love it, but how do you really know you love something if you haven’t really experienced other things? I stipulated anything west of the Rockies at the expense of research opportunities. I tried to apply for a master’s degree but my advisor here was like, “I don't really know how to do a small project so you should just come as a Ph.D. student.” But, I kind of knew that I wanted to do that ultimately. I think I was more intimidated in saying, “Yes I want a Ph.D.,” so I was trying to do the master’s step first. But given an excellent opportunity, why not just bite the bullet. I liked ASU a lot! I just didn't realize how hot it would be in Arizona. Last summer I was very angry that it was always so hot (everyone laughs). This summer, two things have changed: I think partly I've acclimated and partly I work in a lab that's 65 degrees all day (laughing).