Montpelier Spring 1999
"Geology is one of the most dynamic fields around," Cullen Sherwood proclaims. Easy to say for a professor who teaches about . . .rock slides and shifting tectonic plates. But his department has the graduates to prove it.
With ever-newer state-of-the-art technology, heightened interest in environmental preservation and El Niņo's sodden effect on the landscape, the geology field is hot.
And with employers waiting to scoop up graduates after each commencement ceremony, JMU geology alumni are hotter.
"We could have placed two times as many graduates as we placed last year," Sherwood says. The reason is JMU's reputation. With classroom teaching, faculty-student research and hands-on field experience the three staples of the program, "students really get a complete foundation in geology." The program incorporates math, chemistry and physics. "It's a springboard into any area."
From encounters with alligators to the use of X-ray technology, geology graduates have sprung into careers that are as diverse as they are exciting. JMU alumni are exploring for oil, preserving wetlands, starting their own companies, working with cutting-edge technology, and developing and promoting their own innovative technology.
In "one of the most unique applications I've ever seen," according to geology professor Lance Kearns, Janet Snyder Douglas ('78) uses minute samples of stone, jade, gems, mineral pigments, metals, bronzes and X-ray examination methods to date and authenticate fine art.
One of only 87 conservation scientists in the nation, Douglas works for the Smithsonian's Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. She examines the Asian art objects of the institute's Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries.
Douglas, who focuses primarily on the Freer collections, analyzes the objects' composition and examines objects the gallery is considering purchasing.
"We can tell ... basically the method of manufacture, the condition of the piece, the extent of previous restoration," she explains, as well as the restoration work a particular piece might need. She also helps determine whether a piece is authentic or a fake and advises on the best ways to conserve and restore artwork. "All of our methods are geared to nondestructive techniques and minimal sampling," says Douglas, who started her geology career in a more traditional field -- doing particulate mineralogy research for the U.S. Bureau of Mines after receiving a master's in geology from Bryn Mawr.
While hers is a meticulous science, it is not always an exact one. "The process is really amazing," Douglas says. "It takes a while to really unravel these things. Often you can't just look at something and come up with an answer in an afternoon. The variety and the challenge never go away. There's so much to learn, and it's not just geology. It's art history, materials, analytical chemistry, languages, the whole ball of wax."
The objects that pass through her hands run from the "most rare, beautiful and perfect object from 1000 B.C. to the out-and-out fake and everything in between. You have to come at every object from a fresh perspective -- no pre-conceived notions," Douglas says. "It's really a thrill to be entrusted to work with the collection."
While Douglas examines art from the other side of the world, senior Amoco geologist Alan Brown ('77) actually travels the world -- Japan, Hong Kong, Norway, Canada, Cairo, Argentina are just some of his stops -- and deals with the company's biggest sites -- the Gulf of Mexico, Trinidad, Egypt, the North Sea, and off shore of the West Coast of Africa.
As Amoco's primary rock property coordinator, Brown is part of a team of 20 geologists, geophysicists, economists, drilling engineers and others that determines whether a site contains oil or gas deposits and whether it's economically feasible to extract those deposits.
The 17-year Amoco veteran and his team use three-dimensional software technology to visualize potential oil and gas sites on the computer. The goal is to offer educated guesses, to predict what kinds and sizes of hydrocarbon reservoirs might be at a particular site, "ahead of the [drill] bit." He occasionally visits field sites, but more often works in his Houston office to interpret data, calibrate rock data to other geophysical tools, and test the integration and functionality of new computer software.
Brown's geology foundation at JMU included "key people who were really good professors" and a department that focused on undergraduates. "I still think Madison does a really good job of educating their undergraduates. I'd put it up against any undergraduate program in the country."
Brown knows what he's talking about. Like so many other JMU geology graduates, Brown has tested his undergraduate education in graduate and post-graduate work. He acquired petrophysics training through an in-house Amoco program, a master's in economic geology from the University of West Virginia, and is in the final stages of completing his doctorate in geology from Louisiana State University.
That continual education, always newer technology and his travels make his career and field exciting. "You get a lot of freedom to do your thing at your pace," Brown says. "You work with a lot of different people from around the world. And I get to apply science, which I like. It's a lot of fun."
Jennifer Ayres Coats ('94), who is just starting her career in the petroleum industry, echoes those sentiments. Coats is a geologist and regional stratigrapher for Chevron, stationed in New Orleans, for six months. Her main project is regional stratigraphic model of the entire Gulf of Mexico.
Searching for oil is much "like prospecting." The oil industry knows what general areas are producing oil. Her job is to figure out exactly where the trapped oil is. Like Brown's, hers is mainly an office job. "We do our field work on a computer" by imaging it on the computer and making interpretations of the data collected. "We sort of bring the field into us."
"Information comes from core samples of already drilled areas, from a variety of electrical and acoustical logs that measure how easily sound waves penetrate a particular area, and from seismic data gathered from mini-earthquakes set off on the ocean floor. The seismic waves from these signals are recorded by the computer and turned into "some incredible images. We can actually see what's down there."
Like any good investigative work, Coats' job turns up plenty of surprises. "It's something new all the time. Sometimes you expect things to be a certain way and they turn out to be completely different."
A newcomer to the petroleum industry, Coats recently left behind academia with one master's degree completed in geology from the University of Indiana and two doctorates on hold. "I'm happy to be out of academia. Right now I'm really enjoying my job and getting paid -- and eating something other than Ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese!"
But the road to that paying job was hardly straight. Following graduation from JMU, Coats went to Kenya for three months to complete a graduate field course in paleoanthropology from Harvard that blended her double major of geology and archeology. That course also introduced her to the variety of African wildlife in and along the banks of Kenya's Lake Turkana -- including hippos, cobras and a charging crocodile that sent her and a colleague racing back for camp.
Graduate school at Indiana, with field work in China and an internship with Chevron and another with Phillips Petroleum sandwiched in, left her well-prepared for her work in New Orleans. But, like Brown, Coats believes her strong foundation in geology came from JMU.
"I was really nervous when I went to IU. It was a Big 10 school, and the geology department was really high up there." Coats says, "But when I got there I really realized that the education I got at Madison was very, very good -- much better than many of my counterparts."
That education has landed her in a field that is "a lot more exciting than I would have ever imagined. This is where you're on the cutting edge of technology."
Innovative technology has taken Bill Kane ('79) from university professor to entrepreneur and carved him a spot in the growing geological fields of landslide evaluations, slope stability and site assessments.
His business KANE GeoTech Inc., in Stockton, Calif., began in March 1997, spawned by the rash of mudslides triggered by the rains of El Nino, and has since taken him on jobs throughout the country.
His business centers on a new application of technology, time domain reflect-ometry (TDR), originally used by the U.S. Bureau of Mines to monitor the potential for cave-ins in coal mines. By adapting TDR to landslide and slope stability situations, Kane can monitor sites quickly, accurately, relatively inexpensively and at a far greater depth than previously possible.
"We've done holes as deep as 900 feet," Kane says, which is 700 feet deeper than was previously possible. Data collection takes a few minutes versus the hours required with other methods. Sites are automatically monitored at regular intervals using phone connections between the site and computers, and if something at the site changes, phones automatically call the computers.
KANE Geotech is a family business with Kane, one other technician, and his wife Judy Kalbfleisch ('73) running the office. And while it has captured Kane's imagination and entrepreneurial spirit, it does occasionally rattle his nerves. "Being in business for yourself is kind of scary," Kane admits. "You worry more about the economy."
It's a far cry from his former life. After earning a master's and doctorate in civil engineering from Virginia Tech, Kane launched a teaching career that included stints at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Later, while at the University of the Pacific in California, students voted Kane the outstanding professor of the year, a fitting tribute to his JMU mentor. "Dr. Sherwood was one of the biggest influences of my career" and a model for his own teaching, Kane says. "Dr. Sherwood could take students on a geology field trip, look at formations and different soils, and then weave into the picture how it all affected the Civil War, the way people lived, the prosperity of the area" -- he showed how everything is related.
Kane now satisfies his love of teaching by serving as a part-time faculty member at UOP and, in the future, teaching continuing education classes at the University of California at Berkley.
He also regularly crosses paths with John Duffy, ('77), an engineering geologist at the California Department of Transportation, self-made authority on rock falls and champion of new flexible barriers to control them. Duffy came across this flexible barrier technology while researching rock falls in Europe.
Historically, California has put up huge stationary barriers to address the problem of rock falls on its mountainous highway system. While they work, they're rigid, expensive to build and maintain, and present environmental problems -- particularly for migrating animals.
The flexible barriers, a type of netting made of woven steel cables and constructed as a fence, can absorb the dynamic energy of rolling rocks and are equal in strength to the rigid barriers but far less expensive to build and maintain, Duffy says. They also create fewer obstacles for migrating animals and are visually more appealing because vegetation can grow in and around them.
Because of his 12 years of research and expertise with this flexible barrier system, Duffy is in high demand as a speaker at conferences throughout the Pacific Rim, most recently at the Hong Kong conference on Rock Fall and Debris Flow Mitigation. He is also a member of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C., and is chairman of the Engineering Geology Committee, a subsidiary of the National Science Foundation.
Like other geology grads, Duffy attributes much of his success in his field to JMU. "I felt without a doubt that my JMU education got me going, got me started. I certainly got my first job as a geologist with North American Exploration out of Charlottesville because of JMU's reputation and the professors. That company always came back to JMU."
Bob Johnson ('79) also has carved an area of expertise in his field -- dealing with the environmental health and preservation of the Florida Everglades National Park.
As the park's research director, Johnson manages about 60 scientists including hydrologists, botanists and marine biologists who study the wetlands and estuaries of the park. Their main focus is the impact of upstream water management and human activities and how they affect the biology and hydrology of the park. What they've found is not good.
Today, half of the wetlands that were part of the historical boundaries of the Everglades are gone -- a result of draining for flood control and urban development that started in the 1940s. What seemed like a good idea has ended up an ecological disaster -- drastically reduced flow of water through the Everglades, decreased water quality, drying marshland, loss of native fish populations and invasive exotic plant species crowding out native species.
What's at stake is not simply the environmental health of the Florida Everglades, Johnson contends. The entire Everglades issue is "very much tied to the future sustainability of the population of South Florida." At risk are the quality and quantity of South Florida's urban and agricultural water supply as well as the environmental health of the entire region.
"It's a case of a small problem a long time ago that probably could have been solved, but it was let go too long and now it's a big problem that costs billions to address," says Johnson, whose wife, Barbara Boeshore, graduated from JMU in 1979.
Johnson and his team are taking an active role in Florida's $7.8 billion Comprehensive Review Study for Central and Southern Florida, a restoration initiative to save the Everglades that includes constructing holding basins to catch rainfall for municipal and agricultural uses. As one of the biggest landowners in the area, the park service will put in close to $1 billion toward the restoration initiative.
"We do a lot of stuff outside the park boundaries," Johnson says. That work involves teaming with other Department of Interior agencies to define and determine ecological restoration targets and to conduct monitoring and research on those targets.
Johnson sees a direct link between his work and his background in geology and hydrology. He earned a master's in environmental science from the University of Virginia with an emphasis on geomorphology -- the study of the factors that sculpt the earth's surface. His master's work led to a job at the Coastal Research Center in Virginia's Tidewater. In 1983 he landed among the flora, swamps, exotic birds and alligators of the Florida Everglades.
Like Johnson, JMU's geology graduates are turning up in exciting places and playing exciting roles. Their jobs span the discipline and the globe and push the limits of technology and the limits of the discipline. Put simply, geology rocks.