Kenneth W. Sims
Photograph by Kenneth W. Sims
Photograph by John Catto
Birthplace: Colorado Springs, Colorado
Current City: Laramie, Wyoming
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
As a little boy, I wanted to be a "naturalist," as some of my father's friends referred to themselves. Only later in life did I realize that I would specialize in geology and even more so in isotope geochemistry.
There was of course a joyous and inspired period in my teenage years when all I wanted to be was a climbing guide, but after doing that for several years in my teens and early twenties I realized that I wanted much more from life and so I went to college. It was in college that earth sciences came to life for me.
How did you get started in your field of work?
As I said before, I spent several years as a professional mountaineer and climbing guide in many wild places ranging from Antarctica to Alaska. But at some point in my life, I decided I wanted to pursue more intellectual challenges, so I returned to college and was immediately inspired by the geology professors at Colorado College. The concept of being able to understand how the Earth formed and evolved was transformative and ever since then I have been on a fast moving train from which I have never looked back.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to earth sciences?
While many think of me as a volcanologist, I am actually an isotope geochemist and, as such, I have pondered and written professional papers on a wide range of problems, including chemical oceanography; the Earth's paleo-climate; oceanic and continental crustal growth; continental crustal weathering; ground water transport; and, of course, the genesis and evolution of volcanic systems. The measurement of radiogenic and radioactive isotopes in natural systems allows me to quantify fundamental processes that would otherwise be limited to qualitative observation. This may make me sound like a nerd but to be able to quantify the Earth's processes is truly inspiring.
Of course, there are two other parts of my work that inspire me. One is to see unperturbed landscape. I am always left speechless when I look at scenes such as the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and the Polar Plateau, the deserts of the American Southwest, or the world's largest lava lake inside of the Nyiragongo crater. Another aspect of how my work inspires me is the knowledge that the research my volcanologist colleagues and I are pursuing has the potential to save many people's lives. For instance, in the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo there are over one million people living beneath the active Nyiragongo volcano, and here a volcanic eruption would create another humanitarian crisis in this war-ravaged area.
What's a normal day like for you?
I am a father of two beautiful young children, so my day always begins with a bit of chaos, a proud smile, and a strong cup of coffee. We live outside of town and so I typically drive my daughter to school. After dropping her off, I hunt for parking and head into my office. Some days I teach and other days I work in the laboratory or at my desk writing papers and grant proposals. Toward the end of the day I seek solace on my mountain bike or on a pair of skis, and if I am really lucky I get out to climb a few pitches at our local rock climbing area. My day then finishes with a bit more familial rumpus, a family dinner, then after getting the kids to bed I either spend quality time with my wife or work until the wee hours.
I also do a lot of fieldwork, and those days involve a lot of walking with a very heavy pack and are often filled with discovery and awe. Like most everyone, I am a bit of an epicure and so in the field sometimes the food is just what one would expect—sustenance; other times, for example when working on Mount Etna or Stromboli in the Aeolian Islands of Italy, the day ends with an amazing meal and a wonderful bottle of wine. It doesn't get much better than that for fieldwork.
Do you have a hero?
Indeed, I have several heroes: My father, who inspired in me an appreciation for both the intellectual and physical challenges of our natural world. My mother, who taught me about unconditional love. Earl Wiggins, one of my primary climbing partners as a teenager, who taught me about fearlessly treading into unknown territory, and that true confidence comes from competence and not simple hubris and blind ambition. Don DePaolo, my Ph.D. advisor at University of California, Berkeley who taught me to think critically and believe in myself as a scientist. And finally, my wife, Maura, and my wonderful children, who teach me about the joys of life and being a better person every day,
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
Some of my favorite experiences include descending into the volcano Nyiragongo and climbing the spatter cone to see the world's largest lava lake from just a few feet away; diving to the bottom of the ocean in the manned submersible Alvin to see the mid-ocean ridge on the East Pacific Rise; standing on the summit of Mount Erebus in Antarctica and looking across the polar plateau and beyond; or seemingly more mundane, but even better, watching the joy in my colleagues as we discover how the world works.
Fieldwork is always challenging. But probably my most harrowing/exciting adventure was the first time I dove in the submersible Alvin to the bottom of the ocean to study the East Pacific Rise. When we got to the bottom we had a series of technical problems that ultimately ended up as an electrical fire in the sphere, which caused us to abort the dive and return to the surface without any power. The Alvin crew fixed the problem and a few days later we went back down with all subsequent dives proceeding like clockwork.
What are your other passions?
My other passions are my wife, my children, climbing, skiing, and mountain biking.
What do you do in your free time?
I used to do a lot of volunteer work such as serving on the boards of Big Brothers and Big Sisters and an environmental organization called the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, but now that I have a family my free time is focused on their needs and interests and pursuing my favorite outdoor recreational activities—climbing, skiing, and mountain biking.
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Inside National Geographic Magazine
Scientists descend to a fiery lava lake to protect a Congolese city in its path.
In Their Words
I am always left speechless when I look at scenes such as the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and the Polar Plateau, the deserts of the American Southwest, or the world's largest lava lake inside of the Nyiragongo crater.
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