Global Village, Global Approach:
One Peace Corps Master's International Student's Story
If you were to see Tyler Barton for the first time, you might not know that French is his first language (of three) and that he has over thirty years of life experience, including world travel and professional work as a geologist. What you would know from the humor lines around his eyes, however, is that this guy has a colorful past--so colorful that you would surely wonder how he had come to live in the small town of Houghton, Michigan near the pristine shores of Lake Superior and forests of the Upper Peninsula. Tyler is one of many globally-minded individuals drawn to Michigan Technological University's ten Peace Corps Master's International (PCMI) programs-the largest PCMI campus in the nation. PCMI combines a master's degree with Peace Corps service. Tyler graduated in 2015 from Michigan Tech's PCMI Mitigation of Geological Natural Hazards program and wrote a master's thesis entitled "The Routine Disaster: A Case Study in El Salvador."
Tyler's career did not follow a typical path after he received his bachelor's in geology from McGill University in Canada. According to Tyler, 2005 (the year of his graduation) was the "Golden Age of Geology,"when there was an overabundance of geological projects and ample funding. Fresh out of college at 20 years of age, he was hired as an environmental consultant in British Columbia and was given a helicopter and a team to do impact assessments of a remote gold mine. Shortly after, Tyler worked as part of a mineral exploration team, searching for ore deposits in the Arctic tundra. For his next job, he worked for NASA and the Mars Society, simulating the Martian habitat out in Utah. Then he did volcanic research on Yellowstone and Montserrat. During this time, he also spent five winters working on oil rigs in Northern Canada, directing field operations and making sure protocols were followed. In between these potential career paths, Tyler would hop onto his motorcycle and travel across the U.S. or board a plane heading for another country. These moments traveling around the globe gave him time to reflect on each position and to figure out what he really wanted to do in geology. It was in this state-of-mind that Tyler decided the PCMI program at Michigan Tech would be the right fit for him and his career goals.
After two semesters of coursework at Michigan Tech, Tyler arrived in El Salvador in 2011 as part of a Peace Corps pilot program, a Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DPM) initiative aimed at village-level participative disaster impact prevention and risk reduction. El Salvador was one of the countries targeted by the Peace Corps for DPM work because 95% of the population is at risk of being impacted by natural disasters. Tyler was assigned to the village of El Borbollón, a town sandwiched in between a lava flow and a lagoon. Initially, he thought his research would involve the San Miguel Volcano, but, upon arriving and listening to the local residents, he found they were more concerned about the flooding from the Laguna El Jocotal.
As luck would have it, he was in El Borbollón when the October 2011 Tropical Depression Twelve-E hit. He saw the before, during, and after of this disaster and watched as 1,000 people from his community had to be evacuated. This event was the impetus for Tyler bringing social sciences into his geological research, in his drive to define what the true risks were as well as to understand the process of disaster relief. Before his PCMI experience, he had witnessed "too much of a disconnect between scientists and the general public," and he determined there and then that he would serve as a bridge between the two.
Tyler ended up working not only at his Peace Corps site, but all over El Salvador, performing a multitude of services. He created emergency plans and evacuation routes in schools and conducted regular earthquake drills. He collaborated with officials from Proteccion Civil (a Salvadoran government organization tasked with mitigating natural disaster hazards) to provide warnings on the dangers of flooding. He helped local government scientists with their regular monitoring of regional volcanoes, as well as organized and taught multiple workshops aimed at training local disaster mitigation professionals. He created a "how-to" manual, in Spanish, for disaster risk reduction, in order to leave behind a comprehensive step-by-step method for inexperienced locals to prepare and train others in disaster mitigation and preparation strategies covering a variety of hazards.
All of these PCMI experiences will contribute to Tyler's future. His belief that scientists can make an immediate impact in the lives of others has led him to commit to a career path framed around disaster aid. Through applying countless skills he learned from his education before and during his time at Michigan Tech, in addition to his ability to listen to the concerns of others, he will ensure that scientific information is integrated with social data and made accessible to the public—to the very individuals who need it to live.
Other students in the Mitigation of Geological Natural Hazards Peace Corps Master's International program and Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences Department continue to work on intersections of geological and social sciences. For example, a recent article published in the Journal of Applied Volcanology by Bowman and Henquinet expands on natural disasters and hazard mitigation issues in El Salvador, integrating anthropology and geology. Overall, Peace Corps Master's International students such as Tyler excel in connecting scientific and technical knowledge to real world contexts, using a broad interdisciplinary tool kit.