Sunday, July 5, 2009

Accretionary Wedge #18: How did I Become A Geologist?

It's time for the July Accretionary Wedge, #18, which is being hosted by Volcanista over at her Magmalicious Blog. As she says, it's all about inspiration: who, what, where, when, and even how. [Photo taken from the shoulder of Wheeler Peak, looking north at the Snake Range detachment fault.]
So July’s topic is about your inspiration to enter geoscience. Was it a fantastic mentor? Watching your geologist parents growing up? A great teacher, or an exciting intro field trip? How did it happen?
The short version: I started out fairly early with an interest in rocks, minerals, mountains, and roadcuts because of travel with my geologist dad. I also fell in love with dinosaurs and volcanoes by the time I was five.

A slightly longer version: I didn't plan on being a geologist while growing up, although I collected rocks and minerals and diligently labeled and categorized them. I took Earth Science in high school, but by the time I got to college, I thought geology was out because of how lousy I was sure I'd be in Chemistry and maybe Physics. Math was fine, but I was afraid of Chemistry, and although I did fine in high school physics, I didn't think that accomplishment would have any bearing on how I'd do in college physics.

So, not knowing exactly what to take, I signed up to be a History major. I had always wanted to be the sort of person who knew the dates of important events and other historical details, and I thought that wanting to be that sort of person would be a good start. After some deliberation and a little consternation, I began my first quarter with European History. For a science, I took Geology 201, Intro Geology, a class for majors and non-majors.

The geology class - one of those huge affairs in a large, auditorium-like room with raised rows of seats - was taught by the then head of the department, Dr. G. C. Grender. It turned out that he was one of those highly inspirational teachers, who had been put in the position of teaching Intro Geology because of the number of converts he routinely would win.

History was boring. Geology was exciting. Because of my at-home geological background, coupled with my Earth Science course in high school, I had a head start on identifying rocks and minerals, and a head start on memorizing the Geological Time Scale, which of course looked a little different back then. I could also read road maps and topo maps, and I knew what a drumlin was. Before the quarter was over, I changed my major to Geology. I got a B in Euro History, an A in Intro Geology. (I later got an F in one quarter of Chemistry, and did fine in Physics. And even though I was able to skip two quarters of first year math based on high school grades and SAT scores, I managed to get a D in one quarter of 2nd year math. Things like grades eventually don't matter.)

One long version starts like this, "How did a nice girl like you become a geologist, anyhow?" I was often asked this question, especially in my early days as a geologist, often by strangers — people, usually men, who I had just run into out in the field: prospectors and would-be prospectors, landowners, ranchers, and other geologists. Really, you'd think people could be a little more inventive than to reuse this worn phrase so many times — from Yuma to Gabbs, from Hog Ranch to Okanogan, and from Juneau to Fairbanks.
I've been from Tucson to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonopah

I'm Willin', written by Lowell George
Seatrain, 1970

(An applicable song: my exploration travels have taken me, on legitimate business, to all of the places mentioned.)
The question, phrased so redundantly, seemed to imply some wrongness: wrongness in my choice of careers, wrongness in my where-ever-it-was location in the field, and wrongness in the fact that I'd somehow managed to meet the questioner out in the field at all—a "field" where I presumably didn't belong. I wondered at that question every time it was asked. I usually stuck to my routine answer, "My dad is a geologist," an answer that made sense to everyone and explained everything, at least to those who asked the question. It didn't really explain things to me, nor did it tell the curious or suspicious questioners much about me. ...

July Accretionary Wedge: Inspiration

To be continued...


Lockwood said...

Excellent! Could I ask a follow-up? How did you end up doing exploration geo with your chemistry phobia? I'm assuming you got over it, and actually came to like it at least a bit.

Silver Fox said...

Chemistry as it relates to geology is different than the chemistry I didn't do well in, plus it was a particularly bad quarter in college for various reasons. My fear of it before taking it was generated by reports of friends of a particularly mean, overbearing, or hard high school chemistry teacher. Anyone who got a C in her high school chem class was virtually guaranteed A's in college chem. Anyone who passed with a D got C's and B's in college chem. (I didn't take the class.)

I did well in Mineralogy and related Petrology, Op Min, and Crystallography. These have lots of the basic geochemistry needed for most aspects of geology. That kind of chemistry (geochemistry and crystallography-mineralogy) was covered in about one college quarter of chemistry or less.

Lockwood said...

The economic geo course (basically metallic minerals and deposits) was very chemistry intensive as it was taught here at OSU in the 80s. The year-long petrography-petrology series was really where geochem started to make sense, though geochem itself ( a one term class) focused way too much on isotopic geochem for my taste. I realized after I left the comment that your area might be more in the nature of seismic or other geophysics exploration, but your interests seem to be more minerals-oriented than geophys-oriented.

Silver Fox said...

Yeah, I'm an exploration geo with a very solid undergrad background in Crystallography, Op Min, Min, Petrography, and some Geochemistry - which wasn't taught as a course where I went to school. I learned some exploration-related stuff (Metallogeny, Ore Microscopy, other) as a grad, but mostly in the field working. Geophysics is not my long suit - that's mostly covered with consultants and consulting outfits when needed, or by in-house geophysicists.

Meadow said...

Interesting how you were given the impression there was something slightly wrong with what you are doing. I get that too. Often in subtle ways where I'm left wondering did this person suggest what I think they did.

Silver Fox said...

I think it was harder when I was young, back then, and I looked younger than I was, which didn't help. It really was an unusual thing for cat operators and ranchers and drillers (not to mention older geologists) to run into a young woman working out in the middle of nowhere in Nevada. It isn't so unusual anymore.

I think it's also worse when one is somewhat low in self-confidence, the way I was then.

And it's always sad to hear that although some things have gotten better, things haven't improved as fast as we all wish they would.

And yes, sometimes no doubt the person didn't really mean to imply as much as I heard - I was more sensitive when just starting out.