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Rocktober: Careers for the Sons (and Daughters) of Martha

October 10, 2021

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.

Rudyard Kipling, 1907, describing the Sons of Mary in The Sons of Martha”

Here we are again, second week of October, which means Earth Science Week. Our Community Engagement team asked for a few sentences about careers in the geosciences.

I did two projects as part of a Gifted and Talented program in high school. First was a time working with a geology graduate student polishing slabs for invertebrate paleontology. Second was working in a water quality laboratory. I learned how to do phosphate analyses using an Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometer, and also how to clean and acid wash glassware without filling my glove with 6M HCl. Those were my first exposures to geology and to the wonderful world of chemical analysis.

I was 13 when I started playing five string banjo, and 15 when I started acoustic guitar. I was playing regularly around town in bluegrass and old-time circles by the time I was a college student. This seems like an irrelevant tangent right now, but bear with me, please.

I discovered mineralogy, and then the fact that such a thing as geochemistry existed. I went to UNC as a Geology major, and knew that I had found my tribe. Field trips and camping with the other majors confirmed that I had found my place. I also found a wife during the six week Field Camp in geological mapping.

The Geosciences are the most interdisciplinary of all the physical sciences. If you have multiple scientific interests, there is likely a place for you in the Earth Sciences. If you have the 3D visualizations skills of an artist, the geosciences will feel very familiar. If you love the lab and the outdoors, geology is for you.

Careers in the Geosciences have one thing in common: We are the Children of Martha, the ones who make things work. Geologists are the ones who find the natural resources a technological society requires. Geologists find the water required to keep the people alive. Environmental geologists clean up afterwards. Geologists map the faults and the landslides, and camp out by the active volcanoes for observation. In the words of historian Will Durant, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”

It’s the geologists who provide the evidence that climate change is real and a constant part of earth history. Stable isotope geochemists track climate changes in ocean chemistry and water sources via fossil microorganisms drilled up from the ocean floor, looking at oxygen and carbon isotopes found in their shells. Organic evolution would not be as firmly embedded as a foundation of biology without the science of stratigraphy to underpin it. Geochemists provide the evidence for age of the Earth and Solar System. All of these research topics are still going strong, in geochemistry, meteoritics, cosmology and paleontology.

Careers in geology look like a safe bet for the coming years, because all of the problems facing mankind are fundamentally geological in nature. What happens when climate changes? It’s happened before. The answer is already there, written in paleontology, sedimentary geology and stable isotopes of oxygen and carbon. What are the signals that a volcanic supereruption is coming? Ask a volcanologist or an igneous petrologist, along with a seismologist. Where do we find the lithium and rare earth elements needed for “green” technologies? That’s the Economic Geology of ore deposits. Where and how do we store the carbon that petroleum products released? Ongoing research is locating places to do that, and identifying geochemical reactions that will sequester the carbon dioxide.

The Climax Molybdenum Mine near Leadville, Colorado, is a giant hydrothermal ore deposit. Hot fluids escaping a crystallizing magma carried the molybdenum. It’s a required element for making steel. These ore bodies captured my interest. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

It’s not always easy. I started my career in the late 1970’s. The Oil Boom was running very hot at the time, and companies were hiring anyone who knew what a rock was for petroleum exploration. I finished my Geology degree at UNC in 1983, with an interest in exploration for mineral deposits. I was especially interested in molybdenum deposits, and other giant ore deposits formed by hot fluids circulating around granitic intrusions. I followed that interest to the University of Maryland, College Park, where I did a set of experiments on how molybdenum behaved in crystallizing igneous melts, and finished in 1986.

Along the way, I developed an interest in Irish traditional music, fiddle tunes and ceili music. The band Touchstone was playing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro frequently. Their keyboard player was a former member of the Bothy Band, a famous group that I had never heard of. I was hooked on the music, and wanted to learn it very badly.

Two graphs that determined the course of my career as a geologist. Top is the price of molybdenum. It started to rise in about 1974, after the OPEC Oil Embargo. The same is true in the price of imported petroleum. The Oil Embargo caused the price of oil to rise. The Oil Bust came in 1984, and hit bottom in 1986. The “nominal price”of oil is keyed to the Consumer Price Index.

Economics changed my career plans. The Oil Boom was followed by the Oil Bust in 1984-1986. The need for oilfield steel tanked, and so did the molybdenum market. There effectively wasn’t a job market for geologists at the time.

So I took my interest in geologic fluids and went on for a Ph.D. The same fluids that carry ore metals under one set of circumstances also drive volcanic eruptions under other conditions. Studies of catastrophic volcanic eruptions were a hot topic, so I went to Rice University in Houston, Texas to pursue that research. I ended up using an experimental petrology lab at NASA Johnson Space Center, where interesting things were always going on. I also started playing Irish music in the session at the former Red Lion on Wednesday nights, and graduated from guitar to tenor banjo.

One Ph.D and two post-docs later, I called it quits. I stopped applying for academic positions that were few and far between, and asked my wife where she wanted to live. She programs in the language SAS, and wanted to move back to North Carolina to be near her parents. SAS Institute moved us back to North Carolina. I was Dr. Mom for my infant daughter Carolyn, got her started on solid food, and taught her to say “banana”.  

I was playing Irish music at someone’s house, when the fiddle player saw the bumper stickers on my guitar case. She asked all sorts of questions- Was I a geologist, did I have a Ph.D., did I have a Professional Geologist’s license in North Carolina? Yes, yes, and yes. Why?

She said, “The Museum of Natural Sciences is looking for a Curator of Geology.”

For more information on careers in the Earth Sciences, please visit the American Geological Institute, or the Geological Society of America.

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