Breakthrough: The Volcano Trekker

This video is a part of Breakthrough, a short film anthology from Science Friday and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) that follows women working at the forefront of their fields. Learn more and watch the films on

When volcanoes erupt, gases blast from the earth in fast-moving pyroclastic flows destroying everything in their path. Torrents of molten magma create new landscapes. Massive calderas launch explosive boulders miles away.

But how do these destructive forces work? Scientists don’t have a full picture yet. It is currently impossible to fully understand the geochemical forces that lead to these destructive scenarios. But what if we could unravel this mystery by examining millennia-old cooled rocks and soils from these same eruptions?

Kayla Iacovino—part science fiction sleuth, part mountaineer—is doing just that. By hiking mountainous terrain or meandering through a city built on a dormant volcanic crater, the volcanologist collects rock samples from across the world in order to better understand the forces that created them.

At her experimental petrology lab at Jacobs-NASA Johnson Space Center, she subjects these samples to extreme pressure and temperature in “mini magma chambers” to recreate the conditions under which they formed. Ultimately, understanding how the molten materials deep within the Earth became rocks provides Iacovino insights about the overall geological makeup and origins of Earth.

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Produced in collaboration with HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

Directed and Produced by Emily Driscoll

Cinematography by Luke Groskin and Michelle Lotker

Edited by Erika Sutter and Emily Driscoll

Animations by Lottie Kingslake

Music by Audio Network

Series Producer Luke Groskin

On-Location Production Assistance Gino González Ilama, Volcanes Sin Fronteras, Área Conservación Central, National System of Conservation Areas

Additional Photos and Video Provided by Shutterstock, Pond5, Kayla Iacovino, NASA Goddard Flight Center Jacobs Technology/NASA Johnson Space Center Footage from Star Trek: The Next Generation Courtesy of CBS Television Studios

Project Advisors for HHMI Tangled Bank Studios Richard Stone Aileen O’Hearn

Project Support for Science Friday Initiative Danielle Dana, Jennifer Fenwick, Ariel Zych Nadja Oertelt, Kyle Marian Viterbo, Diana Montano Daniel Peterschmidt, Xochitl Garcia, Nahima Ahmed

In Memory of John P. Driscoll

Special Thanks Gino González Ilama, Andrew Britton, Jenny Shalant

Meet the Producers and Host

About Luke Groskin

Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.

About Emily Driscoll

Emily Driscoll is a science documentary producer in New York, New York. Her production company is BonSci Films.

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