Andrea Balbas still remembers her first big earthquake.
Growing up in Hollister, California, she’d experienced earthquakes for as long as she can remember, and she was always more fascinated by them than scared.
But when the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake struck while Balbas was in high school, her interest grew even more.
“I was always really mesmerized by the fact that no one could tell me when another earthquake was gonna hit, or why don’t we know when they’re gonna happen?” said Balbas.
Right out of high school, she signed up for a couple of geology classes at Sacramento City College.
“Then I had a wisdom tooth that needed to be pulled, and when it was pulled, my body didn’t rebound from it because I didn’t have enough to eat,” she said.
After getting sick, Balbas had to leave school. Although she didn’t have the resources at that time to continue her education, she knew that a career in geology was in her future.
“I always had it in my mind that one day, I’m gonna win the lottery and go to school for geology,” Balbas said.
In her 20s, Balbas made the leap across the country, and began waiting tables in New York. By the time she was 35, she had enough credit history to take out a loan for school.
At the age of 39, Balbas had earned her bachelor’s degree, and at 40, she started her graduate program.
“I, of course, was the oldest person in every one of my classes. I would always joke that ‘the old lady is here,’” Balbas said. “Coming back as an adult gave me an advantage for sure.”
Although her path didn’t look like everybody else’s, Balbas had gained confidence from paving her own way, she said.
“You’re like, ‘oh, yeah, I can plan a trip to the Galapagos to collect some rocks, I can go to Antarctica and sleep in an unheated tent for 30 days, I can get on a ship and sail on the Pacific Ocean and collect rocks from the seafloor,’” Balbas said. “Those are things I can do because I’ve probably done things that are more difficult in my personal life—moved somewhere by myself, waited tables for 12-hour shifts in New York City on Wall Street, paid all my own bills from when I graduated high school.”
For Balbas, one of the larger challenges came from being one of the only women in a largely male-dominated field, she said.
Although there were many women in her undergraduate program, the same could not be said of graduate school and beyond, Balbas said.
During her postdoctoral program, she was the only woman among 10 men. While on her trip to Antarctica with 16 people, only two of whom were women. In her graduate group team of five, Balbas was again the only woman.
“It can be difficult being the only female,” Balbas said. “You still just move forward until you know, you get past that little speed bump.”
As a woman, it can be harder finding a group of collaborators, or getting the same reception to a bold hypothesis as a man with the same hypothesis, she said.
“Usually bold hypotheses and bold research are what gets scientists ahead. But that’s not always the case if you have to, kind of go against the stream of implicit bias,” Balbas said.
Throughout her time in the field, Balbas has gravitated toward other female scientists to build partnerships, which has helped her navigate the difficulty of a male-dominated field. Now as a Cal State Long Beach professor, a role she began in 2020, she tries to guide her female students through the potential challenges of the geology field.
“As women, we’re taught to be quiet or … pay attention, or ask permission to ask a question, or not trust your own instincts or all of this stuff, when really, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t just jump in,” Balbas said.
Teaching, like geology, was always part of Balbas’ plan.
“I always felt like the system really wasn’t in support of people like me,” Balbas said.
When she was first trying to go to school, for instance, the system wasn’t built to assist students who didn’t have the resources, she said.
“I always knew that I wanted to do what I’m doing now—help students that have dreams, help students self-actualize, help students surprise themselves with their own success,” Balbas said. “That’s always my goal. I want to help students surprise themselves with their own success, and that’s what I set out to do every day.”
As a professor, Balbas encourages her students to not let go of their dreams just because somebody else thinks they’ve timed out, she said.
Back when she was waiting tables at 33, she never would have guessed she was just a couple years away from traveling to Antarctica, and a few more years away from sailing the oceans and collecting volcanic rocks with a robotic ROV, she said.
“There’s many times where I think I shocked myself with my own success,” Balbas said. “I guess that’s why that’s what I want for my students.”
Balbas recalled her time in Antarctica, drilling holes in the sea ice, and dropping an air gun down into the ocean. A shot would bounce energy off of the floor of the ocean to be measured, in order to tell what was below the layers of the sea floor, she explained. Before doing this, a flag would need to be placed every 100 meters.
“I remember I was as cold as heck, and I was there looking through the scope, and I think I was saying some prayer for myself to try to stay warm and focus because I was freezing . . . I remember thinking, ‘Okay, I’m freezing because I’m perfectly still, but this planet is zooming around the sun and spinning at the same time … it kind of gave me a whole new understanding of my place in the universe or in time,” she said.
Balbas was shocked by her predicament—she was freezing because she was planting flags in Antarctica.
“Who has a life like that, right?” Balbas said. “I had shocked myself that only three years after I started my undergrad—because I was an undergraduate at the time—I was already in Antarctica.”
“When you decide what you want to do, and you go after it, it’s not going to be easy, but there will be times when you shock yourself with your own success,” Balbas said. “I think that’s a wonderful feeling.”