Kenny Befus

Season 3 - Episode 341

October 16, 2020

Kenny Befus
Kenny Befus

What can volcanoes, gemstones and minerals reveal about the geological forces that physically shape our world? Dr. Kenny Befus, assistant professor of geosciences, is a volcanologist who studies clues found in magma flows, gemstones and more that shed light on past and future events. In this Baylor Connections, he shares how these forces interplay, and unpacks an award-winning research project aimed at advancing the study of imperfections in gemstones to uncover geological data.

Transcript

Derek Smith:

Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and our guest today is Kenny Befus, Assistant Professor of Geosciences at Baylor. Dr. Befus is an expert in volcanoes and magmas, mineralogy, geological forces, gemstones and more. This spring he earned a prestigious National Science Foundation Career Award to attempt to measure geological forces through stresses in crystals and minerals. He's one of the professors featured in that this year is R1 research campaign at Baylor university and in a number of platforms, and he's with us today here on the program. Dr. Befus, thanks so much for joining us. It's great to have you here on Baylor Connections.

Kenny Befus:

Hey, I'm happy to be here. Thanks Derek.

Derek Smith:

Well, it's great to have you here. And I know you've been busy lately on a number of levels, and I know when we talked earlier, you were at Yellowstone National Park conducting some of your research, your field work. How did that go, and what were you doing up there at Yellowstone?

Kenny Befus:

Well, I was uncertain if I'd be able to go because of all the COVID climate, but it ended up being a great trip. We were just there for a week with my graduate student and post-doc and we were looking to sample different volcanic eruptions that have been produced by Yellowstone supervolcano in the past.

Derek Smith:

Okay. Well, I know volcanoes is your area of research and I think most of us get a picture in our head when we hear the word volcanoes. So how should we, as we think about what your research looks like, how should we think about it beyond the image that most of us have?

Kenny Befus:

Now, let me throw this one back at you for just a second. How do you picture a volcano? What does the general lay person draw on their mind as they come up with that?

Derek Smith:

I would say for me personally, I picture a cone coming out of the... Cone like mountain coming out of the earth that is occasionally belching out smoke, maybe some magma every now and again, and every now and then a major eruption.

Kenny Befus:

And then what about underground? Do you picture anything underground too?

Derek Smith:

Well, really only since I started talking to you.

Kenny Befus:

Okay. So I guess what I would say is take a straw, connect that cone that mountain with a straw down to a balloon and the balloon's full of magma. And that's very simplistic of course, but that's really what... actually, the community right now is kind of revolting the volcanological community's revolting against that drawing. But that drawing is in every publication in the last 40 years. And we're trying to get better at it, but that's kind of the schematic that we visualize too.

Derek Smith:

So really when we think about what you do, if I myself might picture what's above the earth, you're thinking of what's not only below the earth, but the forces and the activities that shape that?

Kenny Befus:

Yeah, that's right. The stuff that goes on above the ground is what causes hazard and damage and fatalities, but that's just the by-product. It's the stuff that's coming out of the exhaust pipe of a car. All the action's happening in the engine of the car. And so I'm trying to understand what's going on down in that magma chamber by looking at those erupted products. Yes.

Derek Smith:

I'm talking with Dr. Kenny Befus, Assistant Professor of Geosciences at Baylor, and Dr. Befus let's go back a little bit or rewind. We mentioned volcanoes, but we're also going to be talking about gemstones a little bit as it relates to your research as well. When did topics like volcanoes and gemstones first capture your interest and then later become your vocation?

Kenny Befus:

So in part, this is a long story. I'm going to try to tell it to you real briefly. Basically, my parents always encouraged me to read and read and read and study science. And I didn't grow up in the United States. I grew up in the Andes of Venezuela in South America because my parents were missionaries, but every month or just really quite often, we would go up into the mountains and I would do butterfly hunting. Now that does not relate to gemstones or volcanoes at all, but I was really into science and going out and interacting with nature. And the family motto, it's like on the Befus is family reunion shirts it says, "What am I doing on earth for heaven’s sake?" Which is play right with, what am I doing on earth for heaven’s sake? And that speaks to the Christian mission within this family that I've grown up in. And then here's what happens. Disaster strikes Venezuela when I'm about a senior in high school. Tens of thousands of people are killed in this natural disaster, and that turned my brain on to geology and the opportunity to impact our planet maybe towards for heaven’s sake by using this science. So I go into college, I find volcanoes as this opportunity to study, a professor tells me I'm good at it. And then another one does, and before I know it I'm pigeonholed as this volcanologist. And how does gemstones actually fit in? Well, basically by the time I got my career establish where I could start telling myself what I wanted to do. I never lost this like fascination with the beauty in nature that butterflies were for me earlier in my life. And gemstones can now be in the geologic context. So I started faceting and buying gemstones and selling gemstones that I faceted. And then along the way, I also realized, Hey, I can do this for science. Their recorders of really interesting geologic processes too. And so I've built it all together into this gems and volcano research program.

Derek Smith:

Now you mentioned that you're a faceter, and I know you are a master of faceter at that. So what does that mean and what has it take in you to get there?

Kenny Befus:

So the United States has the... What is it called? Well, I guess all of you know it, right? The USFG the United States Faceters Guild. Sorry, that's a lame joke, but it's a small group of faceters across the country. And in each year, this group puts on a competition where you have to cut a stone and everyone cuts the same stone that participates. And if you score a 90% you score a novice. And if you score 95, you get pre-master. And if you score 98, you're a master. And then if you score like a 99, you become a Grandmaster. And I have not yet scored a 99, but I have scored the 98. So I've earned the master qualification.

Derek Smith:

We'll talk about a part of your NSF career grant is going to help create a class on gemstones that students outside of the geosciences can take as we visit with Dr. Kenny Befus here on Baylor Connections. And so you mentioned that in gemstones that they have a record, and obviously there's things going on under the ground that we want to understand more so. As we dive into that, and this is a broad question, probably a lot of ways you could go, but could you give us a little bit of a volcanic and geological forces 101 to help us understand as we talk about your research and the career grant, to help us better understand what it is we'll be talking about?

Kenny Befus:

Sure. So every rock that your kid picks up off the ground, or that you see in the part of a building or a car or a counter top is comprised of crystals. That's what gives it the texture and the color, and every single one of those crystals, you can imagine as being this passive recorder that's just sitting deep in the earth or floating in a magma chamber, and the temperature surrounding it, the pressure that's being imposed on it, the chemicals in the material surrounding it, all of that's being incorporated into the crystal as this just recorder. And so much of geoscience actually uses that information and has used that information for a hundred years to try to infer what's going on under ground. Why are earthquakes happening the way they are? Why are volcanic eruptions happening the way they are? So I guess I came up with a spin on this. I've used chemistry for years. And in fact, this is one of the cool things about geology is that we get to use every other science. I use chemistry and physics every single day to try to solve an earth problem, but I recognize that physics has not been being used as much by the general community. So I came up with this idea, well, what if the atoms that are stacked together inside this mineral, this crystal, actually are being pulled apart and pushed together in ways that are preserved inside these crystals. And that's how I've been trying to pull forces, or I guess, measure the forces of geologic processes in these crystals.

Derek Smith:

You mentioned that the research you described it and when we spoke earlier as a little bit high risk, high reward. Why do you describe it that way?

Kenny Befus:

Well, that's kind of a nice little sound bite, and I think the NSF liked it too, because it's an acknowledgement. It's a little bit of humility that's placed in like, Hey, I could fail at this. So I've tried to include that language in my proposals when I can. It also sells it as being really exciting, but the truth is it acknowledges the fact that this could totally fail. What if the stresses aren't preserved inside the bonds and the lattices of these crystals and all my preliminary data is actually going to be unvalidated with future work? That's a big risk. And that means five years I'll have spent doing something that... I guess that is the scientific method though. You work towards invalidation. So I guess I wouldn't consider myself... It'd be that thing. Like, am I a failure five years from now if all of this has ended up being zero? And that'll be something I'll have to deal with then, but for now there's a lot of hope and a lot of small successes building towards maybe we're onto something new.

Derek Smith:

This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Kenny Befus, Assistant Professor of Geosciences at Baylor, and Dr. Befus, could you help us understand a little bit as you look at the crystals, are there things that could be seen visually with the naked eye. Things that are seen visually, obviously when you are able to zoom in that give you and the NSF more of that hope that it could work like you can find with say rocks or other items?

Kenny Befus:

Sure. So some of the features that I'm looking at, you can see, and they take the form of imperfections, or they take the form of color. So if you were to go buy a diamond ring as an engagement stone, like the Byers wants you to because a diamond is forever, you're going to want to buy one that has the four Cs of cut and clarity and color and... Oh gosh, carat weight. That's the other one. And so color and clarity make a diamond, maybe a one carat white stones worth $5,000. But if there's like a speck of black inside of it, that'd be more imperfect to the jewelry trade. But to me, it's fascinating because it's preserving this little repository of information that might tell us something about the formation of the diamond, or even better yet what's going on around the diamond as the diamond's crystallizing. So that's one thing I look for. And most people actually listening or whatever could look at their diamond in their ring. If they looked at it closely enough, even with their naked eye, they would see these little specks and flakes that I think make the diamonds extra fascinating. Color's another thing. Every gemstone has value because of its color. And whether we're talking about sapphires or diamonds, rubies, that color is a part of the geologic history. And so one of my projects that I'm working on right now because of the career is how pink diamonds are formed. A pink diamonds worth 400, $600,000 a carat. It's exceptionally rare compared to the clear and white ones. And that pink color has to do with how the bonds between the carbon atoms is adjusted by pressure. And so we're trying to measure that pressure because no one has any idea. The gem institutes, the fanciest jewelers, they know they love pink, but they don't know scientifically why it's created. So it's kind of an exciting economic study at the same time, a geologic study to understand the Earth's mantle.

Derek Smith:

As you find those imperfections and, and get a better understanding, or in some cases have an understanding of the forces that caused them, what are some of the things, obviously tying it back into some of those geological forces, what are some of the things that most of us know, whether we see them on the news or studying them in class, what are some of the forces that though that history can tell us about, and then extrapolating it further, how can we use that information of the past today?

Kenny Befus:

Yeah. So I guess like the buzzwords here would be as simple as earthquake and fault zone. If you know a little more about geology, maybe plate tectonics would be something that you'd have heard about. And really the earth surface is always changing. That's why we have mountain ranges and valleys, and those processes that cause death and destruction that give us beautiful landscapes that we go skiing on or whatever, that's all being controlled underground, and it's happening incredibly slowly. But like when it comes to volcanic eruptions, again, all underground. But if we want to try to understand, if we go back to Yellowstone, Yellowstone has erupted with huge eruptions in the past that makes the news when people get scared that it's going to happen again. And they're right to be scared a little bit, but we can make predictions based on studying the ancient eruptions about what it should look like today if we're in threat or if we're in danger. So I've studied Yellowstone and said, the magma should be about five miles underground before an eruption that should make us nervous. So then now seismologists people who've studied earthquake waves moving through the ground, they can focus their instruments towards Yellowstone and look and see, is there any evidence for magma five miles underground? And as it turns out there, there isn't really any right now evidence for that at all. And so we as a scientific community whose responsibilities include communicating with the public and monitoring these systems for hazard mitigation can confidently say, "We see no evidence today for threat at Yellowstone because of our correlations with past eruptions."

Derek Smith:

So that's good. I see sometimes you'll be clicking on a link and you'll see these headlines kind of designed to scare you a little bit. So we've learned now that when you see the one about Yellowstone erupting, we don't have to worry about that, at least right at this moment. So that's good.

Kenny Befus:

I agree. It comes up multiple times a year with that one, actually, and that's mostly click bait.

Derek Smith:

Yeah. Visiting with Dr. Kenny Befus is here on Baylor Connections, and help us... take us out in the field with you if you would for a minute, what are some of the different settings and not just the settings, like say Yellowstone. I know you've also been to... You've spent time in South America in your research. What are some of the settings location wise, but also kind of quality and character wise that we might find you conducted your field research in?

Kenny Befus:

Yeah. So most of my research happens in a lab because when I go to the field, I get stressed out because of the environments I get placed in are these like crazy magnificent, somewhat... you got to be careful with your life environments. You got to Yellowstone, and so a couple of weeks ago we saw a grizzly bear. And so of course we took all these precautions and it's this majestic moment We're hiking down a 2000 foot deep ravine in order to study the rocks at the bottom of it. So there's this grandeur associated with work at Yellowstone, or at Mount St. Helens I got to go and do work all over the slopes of Mount St. Helens and start to have walk in towards the crater. Those are spectacular things to do. But it requires a lot of outdoor skills, kind of like the survivor man kind of thing. You got to be able to get the fire going at night and stay warm and dry and not get the hypothermia. That's part of the work when I'm up in the mountains. But then I've been in South America, my PhD student, he's Guyanese. And he came to me with a project that said, Kenny people have been studying Guyanese diamonds, or not studying, selling Guyanese diamonds for a hundred years but no one has any idea where they actually come from. It's pure just word of mouth. There's no scientific research. So he said, I would love to come and study this. So Roy and I have gone down to Guyana and gone an hour in a little Bush plane and then another hour in a boat and then another hour hiking and we are deep. They call it the Bush, but we would call it the Amazon jungle. We were so deep. In fact we were underneath, they're called tepuis, they're these table mountains that feature in the Disney movie "Up". Maybe you could picture those in your mind and that's exotic terrain to be out in, and not even caring about the terrain so much because we're so focused on getting those rocks and studying the geology of what's going on.

Derek Smith:

That's great. Talking with Dr. Kenny Befus and bring it up back from the field to the classroom a little bit. I know part of your NSF career grant, it funds your research, but there's also an educational component and you've really painted the picture of your love for gemstones, for minerals, for rocks. Tell me a little bit about... tell us a little bit about the class that you're working to create through this grant to introduce gemstones to students outside of the traditional geosciences majors.

Kenny Befus:

One of the biggest parts of an NSF career is the educational component. So you'll never get funded for an NSF career unless you come up with a pretty strong educational component. And mine includes graduate education and interacting with our local Mayborn Museum, but then also development of a class called gems and gem minerals. And I got to teach it for the first time in the spring of 2020 and it was so fun to do. It ended up being all business majors took the class to satisfy their requirements. And I used gemstones I guess to trick... yeah, to trick the students into learning science and and it totally worked. And they bought it where they took the bait and we were using gemstones to study geology, of course. And we were using them to study optics and the physics of light and chemistry. And they every once in a while would see right through me and start to get bore,. And then all I realized I had to do is show a pretty picture and say, "Hey guys, how much do you think this one's worth?" And boom, they were right back in. So I think gems are a really good way to teach science and I look forward to developing the class further.

Derek Smith:

What does it mean to you to be able to work with some of that research component. There's research, there's teaching and how do they inform each other in that class or others?

Kenny Befus:

Well, in that class specifically, there's not that much research that I could bring in because I mean, they were freshmen business majors and I couldn't really use them to do anything nor I don't think that they want to, but as you go to higher levels, like the graduate level classes that I'm going to teach based off this proposal, I get to use gemstones to teach the graduate students about how to make measurements. We call the field spectroscopy, and my students do a lot of spectroscopy on their stones and on their different crystals. And what a spectrometer is, it basically we just shoot light at a crystal and we see how that light interacts with the crystal and how it bounces back or passes through the crystal. That's all spectroscopy is. So that might be one of the interfaces between the education and the research.

Derek Smith:

With Dr. Kenny Befus, and Dr. Befus, as we head into the final moments on the program here, obviously through this career grant you are going to be focusing on this project for as you mentioned five years from the start of the grant. So as you look at the next, whether it's next year or the next five years, what are you most excited about as it relates to this project? And are there intermediate steps along the way that have you particularly... That you're particularly enthused about?

Kenny Befus:

I'm enthusiastic about getting out of COVID pandemic time so I can collect data. One of the things I got to do next is I got to go to Argentina to collect samples through the Argentinian Andes with colleagues down there to understand anyways deformation creating the mountains, but I can't do that right now. So there's this anticipation that's building as we're not allowed to do stuff. That's maybe not a great answer Derek, but [crosstalk] I'm chomping at the bit.

Derek Smith:

No, I think that's something we can all relate to. And hopefully as we head into next year there'll be some opportunities for that, and to learn more, for you to conduct more research and for us to hopefully hear from you again as the project grows and develops along the way. Well Dr. Befus, thanks so much for taking the time to share with us. We really appreciate it. And best of luck as you work ahead on this high risk high reward project.

Kenny Befus:

Hey, my pleasure, Derek. Thanks for having me.

Derek Smith:

Thank you very much. Dr. Kenny Befus, Assistant Professor of Geosciences, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. Reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.