Sunday, September 2, 2007

How and why I became a geologist...

For my contribution (and after reading Laelaps' struggles) I decided to post on how and why I became a geologist… It’s a long and convoluted path with many lessons learned, so bear with me.

          Truth be told, as I kid, I really wanted to be a paleontologist. [I also wanted to be a fashion designer at one point, but thankfully that didn’t happen. My wardrobe consists of jeans and t-shirts, not exactly trend setting.] In my quest as a 7 year old to become a paleontologist I read all the kids dinosaur books and I could pronounce all those long scientific names. I remember reading Zoobook’s (remember those?) and doing all my science reports on “strange” animals like snails. In high school I took all the science classes offered and when it came to discussing my career plans with my parents, I still proclaimed, “I want to be a paleontologist!” Well, after some practical talks about the number of PAID paleontologists I started to consider other options. I decided that what I really liked was science and that’s what I wanted to be doing. I really liked my biology and chemistry classes, so I decided to go into biochemistry. It seems really juvenile now, to just smack the name of my two favorite classes together, but it worked…
          It worked until I figured out what biochemistry was in my third year of undergraduate college. Proteins, protein pathways, protein chemistry, and what proteins were in which microbes/organisms. To study for exams I was mostly memorizing proteins! Where were the “strange” organisms I was so interested in? Where was the fieldwork? What the heck was I doing here? So, in my third year I had figured out that I did not want to be a biochemist. Again, I wanted to be a paleontologist.
          I went to an expensive school, and it did not offer a paleontology program (it was mostly an engineering school). Before I started panicking about how much more money it was going to cost me to switch majors or schools, I spoke with an ESCI professor who I had taken a couple of classes with. He suggested that if I took a bunch of Earth Science classes that I would be set up to go to graduate school for paleontology (diverse backgrounds are a very good thing these days). And that is precisely what I did.
          For many reasons, my interest in paleontology slowly switched to sedimentology (a sub-discipline of geology). I became more interested in the rocks that held the fossils than what the fossil was eating for breakfast. Whenever we discussed a process that formed sedimentary rocks I would think, “Of course that’s how it would work.” Sedimentary geology just made sense to me and I wanted to know more about it. So I switched to our fledgling PhD program and decided to study deserts. The work I do now incorporates my interest in science (testing hypotheses), doing fieldwork, thinking about chemistry (but not being stuck in a lab doing chemistry), and I still get to think about paleontology a lot.
          But my story about becoming a geologist doesn’t end there. My mother was in town on vacation recently and she brought up a childhood event that I didn’t remember. As a child, we had a long dirt driveway with lots of different kinds of rocks. So on my way to school or waiting at the bus stop at the top of my driveway, I remember looking at them. Well my mom told me the story about how one day my teacher called her up and said “You have to make her stop.” My mother inquired about what needed to stop. The teacher replied “You have to stop letting Melody bring rocks into school. She fills her pockets and bag with them. There are just too many!”
          Now, I don’t remember any of this, but as a geologist I feel reassured that even in my childhood, I liked rocks. I remember having a few geology books on how to identify rocks, but looking up names among all those pictures was boring. And it IS boring identifying rocks that way! (This brings up a side note about how we teach undergrad geology, but I’ll save that for another post.) What isn’t boring is thinking about the processes that needed to occur to form that kind of rock. Volcanoes erupting, mountains building, rivers flooding. That is what is really interesting to me about geology, all the different processes that occur to make rocks. Some processes aren’t as exiting as glowing red lava flowing and creating jets of steam when it hits the ocean, but I enjoy them nonetheless. Sed Rocks Rule!
          Maybe my life would have been smoother if there were some cool kids geology books out there or if my high school had taught Earth Sciences. But, that is my past (it made me what I am today!) and I can only work to change the future. I have found out several states do teach Earth Sciences in high school, but my state is not one of them. Maybe one day I will get back there and work to change all that. The basics of Earth Sciences are important to teach to our kids! In the mean time I am trying to work on some kids activities for Earth Science Week Oct 14-20th. Anyone have any ideas? I’m hoping to convert a few students to “the dark side”…