Earth & Planetary Science Chair Michael Manga: “There’s no place I’d rather be than Berkeley.”

December 15, 2023

Michael Manga is an earth and planetary sciences professor who currently leads the department. He studies earthquakes, groundwater, and especially volcanoes — why they exist, how they erupt, and what are the effects of eruptions. Like many of his peers, Manga stores dozens of interesting rock samples in his McCone Hall office.

His department covers a lot of ground: geology, geophysics, planetary science, atmospheric science, environmental earth science, and ocean/marine science. After a busy morning guiding undergraduate students along Strawberry Creek’s geologic features, Manga sat down for an interview to reflect on his last year as department chair.

It’s interesting to see a department chair teach an introductory course. What interested you in teaching students who are brand new to the field?

I did not reduce my teaching at all when I became department chair. It was part of the agreement; in fact, I probably teach more than almost anyone else because it’s part of my identity. Our job as faculty members is to research, teach, and provide service. I can’t abandon any of those; they all go together: the teaching informs my research and vice-versa. For the introductory course, I love that we get to cover every topic about the Earth and other planets, but at a level that’s interesting.

Michael Manga sits at a chair in his office with a telescope and books in the background.

Michael Manga in his McCone Hall office.

What drew you to study volcanoes?

I got interested in volcanology later in my career. I started with large-scale dynamics and planetary interiors — Venus, Earth, Mars — but, like many faculty here, my research interests evolved. After seeing a real volcano erupt, I couldn’t imagine studying anything else. It’s one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever witnessed. A video cannot possibly capture the experience. You feel the radiated heat. There’s a sound that comes with it; there’s a smell. Every sense is engaged.

I’ve studied volcanoes in Antarctica, South America, North America, Hawai‘i, Europe, Japan, and Indonesia — just about everywhere. I’ve been to Africa but not to study volcanoes.

But, I have other interests, too. I study how groundwater affects earthquakes and vice-versa. I study the interaction between Earth’s evolution, geological change, and human evolution. In a way, we don’t define ourselves as faculty by our specialty but by creating new knowledge.

Why did you accept the role of department chair?

As the department chair, you get to set the priorities to some extent, and two things were really important to me: ensuring that we provide quality, sustainable field education and diversifying our student body, graduate students, and faculty. These are long-term efforts, and it’s important to get started and maintain that effort.

Unfortunately, geosciences are some of the least diverse fields across academia. There are historical reasons for this: many geoscientists were rich nativists exploiting other nations’ energy and mineral resources. The colonization of Africa, India, North America, and South America were driven in part by getting resources. Also, to be an earth scientist and worry about the environment as your top priority means you’re privileged to start. So, we actively recruit at meetings and conferences. We have initiatives to create a better sense of community. Most importantly, we make sure that when people do come to this department, we can provide whatever resources they need.

What makes the department stellar?

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Video: Michael Manga reflects on his last year as department chair
After seeing a real volcano erupt, I couldn’t imagine studying anything else. It’s one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever witnessed.
Michael Manga

There’s no place I’d rather be than Berkeley. I love this department, the history, the people, and our future. We’ve been hiring fantastic people, and they’re so creative.

We have a mission statement and use the word “curiosity.” Curiosity about the world underpins everything we do. In some ways, our primary learning goal for our students is to create lifelong learners. We don’t define ourselves by disciplines; we focus on the interface between disciplines because that’s where the grandest advances are.

What is especially promising about the department’s current students and research projects?

Our students do a wide range of activities outside the classroom. They do field work locally and around the world, which might include going on a ship for a couple of months to collect samples. I had a student who went to Antarctica over the winter at the South Pole telescope. We have students who work at the National Emission Facility, where they fire lasers to create shockwaves that reproduce conditions at the center of extrasolar planets. One of the coolest things one of our students does is drive a rover on Mars. He decides where to go, what images to take, and what rocks to look at.

In a way, this is a golden moment for earth science. We have so much data from models, satellites, and the surface and inside of Earth that we can now truly integrate these different components. Our students are well-poised to create revolutions in our understanding of the Earth — its past, present, and future — and we can do that same science on other planets.

What sets the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences apart from your peers at other universities?

In a way, what sets us apart is we have not been a department that focuses on things of economic benefit like oil and gas but on curiosity-driven science. It’s fundamental science that underpins how plate tectonics work, why the dinosaurs went extinct, and how geology and microbiology interact to create the systems around us. We’re one of the smallest departments of Earth and Planetary Science in the nation, but Berkeley graduates more students who end up getting their Ph.D. in the earth sciences than any other university. 

We have a tremendous intellectual legacy. Andrew Lawson, one of the first professors at Berkeley, undertook the first systematic study of a big earthquake and wrote a fantastic report on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. There’s a mineral called Lawsonite that’s named after him. One of the cornerstones of how plate tectonics works, subduction, was discovered in the late 1960s by former professor George Plafker. More recently, my colleague, Walter Alvarez, discovered that an impact was responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.

Michael Manga holds a dark, smooth rock in his two hands

Michael Manga holds a smooth, dark rock from an Antarctic exhibition.

There’s nothing in the world like seeing the success of the people you worked with.
Michael Manga

What priorities are important to the department and you as chair over the next year?

We need to hire new faculty over the next year. We’ve had a number of retirements, and that affects the sustainability of our teaching program, our ability to serve local and international communities, and our research mission. We need to keep recruiting new graduate students because, ultimately, they’re the individuals who go out and make the world a better place.

When I first became chair, my highest priority was providing undergraduate field education and making it sustainable. It takes a lot of time to take students into the field. It costs a lot of money; we need to rent vehicles and hire drivers. There are real costs to going into the field, and not everyone can afford those costs.

I don’t think we can do what we currently do without the support of our alumni. The resources we get from our alumni and the Friends of Earth and Planetary Sciences are almost always directed to students: research internships, financial aid, field experiences, summer field camps, graduate student fellowships, and enhancements to our teaching collections. We just upgraded our classrooms to modernize them from 1960s technology and furniture, and students appreciate it. You can see morale in the classrooms improve after they’ve been upgraded.

A wooden bear carving on a desk

The wooden bear carving that is handed down to each earth & planetary science chair.

How has the department changed over the past several years?

What our students do after graduation has evolved over time. Historically, most of our Ph.D. students became academics. That may still be the dominant career trajectory, but a lot of our students go work in data science with the skills they’ve learned. Many of our undergraduates go on to careers working with government agencies on environmental, restoration, and remediation projects.

We have historically not been a department that worries about fossil fuels or mineral resources, but our modern economy relies on critical minerals. All the exotic metals that make up our technology, such as the lithium in your battery, come from somewhere. We do not properly understand how these resources were made or how to extract them in a sustainable and environmentally respectable way. So, in terms of our hiring priorities, we’re interested in thinking about critical minerals and resources.

A closeup of a microscope in Michael Manga's office.

A closeup of a microscope in Michael Manga's office.

As an earth scientist, what is your favorite rock?

Obsidian. The first transformative paper I ever wrote was about obsidian. We can look inside obsidian and see a record of all those processes that make volcanoes erupt. Pumice is a volcanic rock full of bubbles, and it has the same composition. Why is there a difference? We argued that obsidian was actually something like pumice, full of bubbles, broken into little pieces, and stuck back together.

What experiences do you find especially rewarding as a professor?

My favorite experiences are going to conferences and running into former students and postdocs and seeing how well they’re doing. I just came back from presenting the Early Geological Career Award to one of my former Ph.D. students, Carolina Munoz. She came here from Chile, and now she’s the best in the world.

There’s nothing in the world like seeing the success of the people you worked with. It’s not the same as your kids. You’re responsible for your kids no matter what happens, whether they’re successful or not, but in a way, it’s a bit like family. The students who come through here are our family, an extended family.

There’s no place I’d rather be than Berkeley. I love this department, the history, the people, and our future.
Michael Manga