College of Science PhD candidate Caden Howlett shares his love for geosciences and astronomy one social media post at a time

Feb. 16, 2023
Caden Howlett

"The most rewarding part of having the social media platform is when high school and early undergrad students tell me that their interest in geoscience is increasing," said Caden Howlett, PhD candidate in UArizona Department of Geosciences. "It is a magical feeling.  I was recently telling my mom that I think the biggest impact I’m having on the community is through my videos."

With more than 100K followers on Instagram and tens of thousands of views on Youtube, Geosciences PhD candidate Caden Howlett is sharing his love for the sciences to audiences everywhere.

Now in his third year at the University of Arizona, Caden has built an expansive social media following while recording and documenting his field work. Whether it's a "Day in the Life in the High Andes" or "Reacting to the stunning images of the James Webb Space Telescope," his passion for scientific exploration is contagious.

Get to know Caden more in this Q&A with the College of Science.

Why did you choose to study Geosciences?

Howlett: I had a somewhat unusual upbringing, splitting my year between Montana and Utah in the summer and winter, respectively.  My parents owned a whitewater raft company on the Lower Flathead River of northwest Montana and worked at Alta Ski Area, and they made the seasonal lifestyle work for our family.  Really, water was the backdrop of my entire childhood, just in different forms—fluid in the north and frozen in the south (clean, big rivers and Utah pow pow).  Common to both locations were mountains.  The almost perfectly north-south oriented Mission Range bound the eastern edge of my hometown in Montana, and enormous ridges of the interior Wasatch Range rose above our employee housing at Alta.  I just wanted to play and ski as a kid and was not that interested in science or school, but being constantly exposed to the topography and climate of the northern Rockies absolutely set the stage for an interest in geosciences.

Going into my undergraduate at Montana State, all I knew was that I wanted to be outside as much as possible.  With absolutely no idea of its beauty and complexity, I chose geology as a major.  I’ve never looked back on that decision, but a handful of inspiring scientists exposed me to what was possible as a geology researcher and are the reason I’ve continued studying the Earth at UA (Dr. Dave Lageson, and UA Geosciences alum Dr. Drew Laskowski and Dr. Devon Orme).  I am forever grateful for those people.

Now that you’re in your third year, what is the most interesting aspect of Geosciences in your opinion?

Howlett: Oh, so hard! Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am biased towards the subdiscipline that I’m studying for my PhD.  Put simply, I research the origins of major mountain belts.  Our group is interested in the tectonic processes that create topography and the erosional surface processes that destroy it.  When tectonic plates collide, how is stress transferred through the Earth’s crust?  What structures are responsible for uplifting and exhuming rock and when were these structures active?  We commonly attempt to answer these kinds of questions in a specific region and then consider our results in the broader context of an entire mountain belt (such as the Andes).  We have remarkable laboratories within UA Geosciences and adjacent departments that enable us to probe these questions deeply once we return from field campaigns. A specific question we are investigating within our research group is how the continental crust thickened in the Andes over the last 100 million years and why the crustal thickness is variable “along strike” (moving from the north to the south).  Our project, titled TransANdean Great Orogeny (or TANGO), is an international, interdisciplinary study that seeks to shed light on this long standing issue (read more about this project here).

One other problem in geosciences that I find extremely interesting and important is the mechanism responsible for reversals in Earth’s magnetic field over time.  It is well understood that the magnetic north and south poles have switched places numerous times but there doesn’t appear to be any cyclicity to it.  It’s a big, beautiful mystery.

Why did you decide to start creating social media content around your studies?

Howlett: My science outreach efforts began in astronomy, well outside of my current study area.  The platform originated as “Astro-Daily” in March of 2016 and I used it to share my favorite images from various spacecraft (primarily Hubble and the Curiosity Rover).  I would spend about an hour each morning crafting a caption containing updates on Martian science and deep space astrophysics and cosmology.  I was wildly consistent when I first started; I think I posted daily for something like 250 straight days.  Over time, I started experimenting with injections of my personal life and offering more philosophical perspectives that I learned were conducive to meaningful interactions in comment sections.  Things evolved, and the platform is now just my name (@cadenhowlett) and the focus has shifted from IG to YouTube after I realized that there were virtually no geoscience graduate students/geologists that were sharing a behind the scenes look at how our science works.  YouTube holds massive potential for increasing the reach of our science, and most importantly to me, giving prospective students a realistic view into what it means to be a physical scientist.  It would be great if similar channels were started by graduate students in every department within the College of Science. Go for it!

What has the response been to your content?

Howlett: Overall, the response has been good! It takes a long time and lots of effort and attention to detail to set yourself apart in the vast sea of social media.  But the IG has >100k followers now and it fills my heart to see people enjoying and discussing science when so much other vacuous content could be capturing their attention.  I’m most inspired by the response thus far on YouTube (it is relatively new; I started making videos in January 2021).  Literally dozens of early undergraduate students have reached out to me and expressed that the videos have cemented their decision to study geoscience. And I don’t want that to sound like I’m bragging—I really just want to emphasize how much potential there is for graduate students in physical sciences to share their work and inspire younger students.

I deal with the occasional flat-earther, people arguing that mountains are structures created by ancient civilizations, etc., which adds to the excitement!

Have any prominent scientists reached out to you?

Howlett: I have gotten some responses from NASA and the European Space Agency, which is always fun.  One person that I have had sustained conversation with for many years is actor and activist Gustaf Skarsgård (of Vikings, Westworld, etc.).  He is a deep thinker and we like to exchange book and film recommendations.  Two other names that come to mind are Dr. Nick Bostrom at Oxford and Dr. Donald Hoffman at UC Irvine.  They have both written exceptional books that inspired a lot of discussions on my platform (Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Bostrom and The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes by Hoffman).  It was exciting to talk to them.

What is your goal of your Instagram and YouTube channel?

Howlett: Broadly, the mission is to expose as many people as possible to physical sciences.  Images from the James Webb Space Telescope, new data hot off the mass-spec in Gould-Simpson, the normal basecamp operations of a field geologist—the scope is wide but the goal is always the same.  The YouTube channel is a bit more targeted towards studying geoscientists and geology enthusiasts.  I share what I consider to be important advances in the science, as well as tips on how to succeed as a student of the Earth system.  “Day in the Life” videos are popular and intend to reveal the lifestyle that prospective graduate students can expect if they pursue a higher degree.  I want the videos to be chill and transparent—I think that a lot of the scripted geoscience content online is just flat and boring to younger students.  There is a place for it, but I want to keep it more fluid and relatable.

What is the most rewarding part about having a large following and creating this content?

Howlett: The most rewarding part is when high school/early undergrad students tell me that their interest in geoscience is increasing. Perhaps I sound like a broken record at this point, but it is a magical feeling.  I was recently telling my mom that I think the biggest impact I’m having on the community is through my videos.  This is an interesting feeling because such a large majority of my time and energy is dedicated to my actual PhD research.  It has shown me that in science communication there can be a very large reward for a relatively small commitment of time.

Check out some of Caden's favorite videos below:

Geological Field Work in the High Andes | DAY IN THE LIFE

Geologists Climb a 6700m Peak in the Andes | Cerro Mercedario

PhD DAY IN THE LIFE | Lab work at UArizona

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