In the summer of 2015, at a campsite in eastern Oregon, Rachel L. Hampton ’17 woke each morning at 5:30 a.m. As the sun peeked above the horizon and the desert around her sprang to life, she would sprint through the dry western wilderness, training for her upcoming cross country season.
When she returned to the campsite, she would strip off her running shoes and strap on her gloves. She had work to do: For eight to 14 hours daily, she worked alongside a Stanford Ph.D. student—examining rocks, collecting samples, charting data—to study the oldest Yellowstone volcano.
“That was it. I just fell in love [with geology],” Hampton gushes. “I was like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’ I’ve never had more fun. I’ve never felt more fulfilled.”
In the Harvard Museum of Natural History, surrounded by scores of colorful rocks in shiny glass cases, Hampton traces her passion for volcanoes back to her childhood in the mountains of Telluride, Colo. “I just always marveled at the power of nature through volcanoes and their ability to just totally turn society upside down,” Hampton says. “I think that really always spoke to me.”
Hampton disputes the idea that geology is boring. “We’re historians,” she says. “We’re just historians of the earth and of deep space and time.”
Hampton’s path to Oregon began in the fall of her freshman year, when she got lost on the way to a class she had planned to shop in the Science Center. She found herself in “How to Build a Habitable Planet.” Geochemist Charles H. Langmuir ’72 was delivering a lecture about the Big Bang.
Hampton was hooked. By the end of shopping week, she had enrolled in the class. By the end of the academic year, she had declared a concentration in Earth and Planetary Sciences. By the end of the summer, she had travelled to Hawaii with her fellow concentrators on a department-funded trip.
“I’ve touched lava in Hawaii. With a hammer, not with my bare hands—that would be intense,” she says. “When you see those sorts of things, that’s when you really get a sense [of] how amazing this planet is... and how little we actually know about the place where we live.”
Within her concentration, Hampton has carved out a focus in volcanology, a field for which her department does not currently offer courses. She has pieced together a specialized curriculum by crafting an independent study class, taking a field camp course in Idaho, and penning a thesis about Boston’s ancient volcanoes.
“I’ve learned pretty much everything I know either on my own or from just talking to professors, not through a class, which has actually been a really cool way to learn in that it’s entirely just because I’m interested in this,” Hampton says. “I love volcanoes.”
When Hampton is not studying nature, she is racing through it. Recruited to Harvard as a skier, she balanced three athletic seasons—cross country in the fall, skiing in the winter, track in the spring—throughout her first three years of college. “The hardest part was being involved with both teams and not losing contact with either team when I wasn’t in season with them,” Hampton says. “I’d practice with one team most of the time wherever I was in season but try to do one or two practices with the other team.”
In her senior year, Hampton, the captain of Harvard’s skiing team, has bowed out of cross country and track to devote herself solely to her winter sport. She has competed twice at the NCAA Skiing Championships and hopes to return this year. “[Skiing is] just the ultimate test of my athletic ability every time I get out there,” she says. “It really pushes me to my limits... It’s humbled me.”
The first snow of the year fell on Hampton’s birthday last month—a gift from mother nature. “[Skiers] might be the only people on campus who are excited that it’s snowing right now,” she quips.
Her collegiate athletic career may be nearing its end, but her ambitions in volcanology are just getting started. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in the field. Her degree might lead her to become a professor, to work for the United States Geological Survey, or to enter a career in scientific journalism. “I really personally love the research process,” she says. “I think it’s really rewarding—the fact that you can take a problem that nobody understands and nobody knows about and you can figure it out. You can understand more about the earth than anyone’s ever understood before.”
And Hampton is not slowing down anytime soon. After just three weeks of training, she ran her first marathon in Providence, R.I., in May, clocking in at three hours and 11 minutes. That time qualified her for the Boston Marathon, which she will run alongside her father in 2017.
“I think I’ll probably be done with really high-level competition after this season, but I can’t just stop doing these sports,” she says. “They’ve been such a big part of my life. I think I will keep running—maybe run marathons or keep doing fun races. Something like that, that keeps me in touch with the sport but is just for me.”