Inside the Mind of a Volcanologist Who Never Lets Anything Stop Her

Not everyone can say that they’ve crashed an $8 million remote-operated submersible into the bottom of the ocean. For geologist, volcanologist, and professional explorer Jess Pelaez, that story is just the beginning.

It’s an understatement to say that Jess lives a life of adventure. She’s worked underground in the mines of Australia. She’s been on geological expeditions to Idaho, Wyoming, Peru, and Mexico. Last year, she rode in the international horse race, the Mongol Derby.

Palaez explores a volcano's lava vent.
Palaez takes the measure of a volcano’s lava vent.

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When it comes to the Colorado native’s dreams, nothing seems to stop her – not a broken arm or squaring off against the drug cartels in Mexico, two obstacles she found herself confronting on a recent expedition.

“I turned to my husband and said, ‘We have to catch the Narcos!’ – now that’s something you’d never imagine yourself saying,” she recalled. “But here I was doing volcano research in Mexico, with a broken arm, driving after a luxury car full of some very serious looking guys in our red jeep.  Why? Because I was convinced that they had my rock hammer, and without it, my time doing research here would be a waste.”

Some might call this crazy – but not Jess. This experience exemplifies her character as someone who can tactfully walk a dangerous line, without falling flat. Her humanity is her compass.

She pulled up next to the luxury car.

Pelaez: “Hi. Did you find a hammer?”

Scary guy: “Why?”

Pelaez: “Please, I need it for my work. I can’t do my work on volcanoes unless I have it. I work at the university. I am a geologist.”

Scary guy: “There are volcanoes here?”

Pelaez: “Yes.”

“They handed the hammer right back to me,” she said. “We seriously chased down guys in a drug cartel. They gave me back my rock hammer because I was polite.

And that’s not all.

“On the same trip, my husband and I were at a hotel in Mazatlan. One night, we both jump up from a deep sleep. We’re both heavy sleepers, so it was totally weird. It’s 4 a.m. We turn to each other and ask: ‘Is that a gunshot?”’

It was a gunshot. Jess and her husband quickly realized that were feet away from a shootout outside their window.

“The entire Mexican military showed up to calm the situation. Meanwhile, I’m hiding, afraid for my life,” she said. “Not to mention, I came on this trip with a broken arm – probably not the smartest idea. And this was more than a research trip – it was my honeymoon.”

How does a red-headed history major from a private liberal arts college end up becoming a professional adventurer? It’s in her DNA.

“I had a good role model with my mom being one of the first women to rise to leadership in the FBI,” she said. “I was raised by amazing people who taught me that if you work extremely hard, you make opportunities for yourself.”

Quite literally, Pelaez has put in the blood, sweat, and tears to make her dreams come true – in elementary school, she joined an all-boys’ flag football team. After college, she maneuvered out of a cubicle-focused career trajectory.

“I believe in making your own luck, finding amazing opportunities, and saying yes,” she said.

Pelaez relaxes with a friend on the peaks of Machu Picchu.
Pelaez relaxes with a friend on the peaks of Machu Picchu.

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Today, with her husband Luis Carlos Pelaez, Jess is pursuing her most ambitious venture yet – an up-and-coming nonprofit called Blueprint Earth, an organization dedicated to cataloging small portions of the Earth’s environment to generate big-picture knowledge.

“It comes from the interest we both have in the environment, science, and technology,” she said. “We can do so much with the world around us, but we’re missing a fundamental understanding of how everything is connected.”

Pelaez hopes this knowledge in terra-engineering will benefit and generate other projects in a host of fields.

“You never know what is going to be the most crucial part of the environment,” she explained. “Blueprint Earth will give us – as humans – a better understanding of our heritage as a species. It will empower us to take that knowledge and replicate the key parts of the world around us. We can use this knowledge in constructive ways to move forward – space, the bottom of the ocean, anything.”

“I believe in making your own luck, finding amazing opportunities, and saying yes.”

Initially, it was Jess’s personal frustration with academia that pushed her to start Blueprint Earth. After entering a Ph.D. program, she quickly became disenchanted with the academic world and its emphasis on making students specialize.

“You lose sight of the forest for the trees,” she said. “School tells us to wait till we’re older – until we have more experience and degrees. This perspective is a barrier to entry for people with alternative paths, who may not be a fit for our educational system. These people have great ideas too. Science shouldn’t be exclusive. We want to make science inclusive of everyone – as something we all create.”

So what does it take to get a big idea started? Relentless execution and a strong network of peers.

“We are surrounded by talented, energetic people in their 20s and 30s,” Pelaez said. “We want to have a whole educational outreach program. This is for everybody – not for the elite or educated.”

Blueprint Earth recently achieved legal status as a corporation, and right now, they are applying for nonprofit status. Their next goal is to launch a Kickstarter campaign, planned for this fall.

“Right now, I’m steering things and lighting the small fires to keep things going,” explained Pelaez. “I’m contacting scientists and arranging meetings with experts in Southern California. We’re contacting our first target site in the Mojave – working with engineers and systems specialist team.”

And when things slow down enough for her to attend to leisure pursuits? She’s putting her love of history and adventure to work in a pair of screenplays she is developing. The scripts, both of which take place in the 19th century, have received encouraging reviews in competitions, she said.

“The first is about James Brown, the abolitionist in the pre Civil War era). I put my history degree to work and told a great story,” Pelaez said. “The second is about a female gunslinger and her partner who join forces with a U.S. Marshall to bring down a drug lord.”

What won’t Jess do?