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Alumni Newsletter: July '08 to July '09

by Jan Tullis

Once a year the department replaces the usual Thursday afternoon colloquium (where an invited speaker discusses cutting-edge research) with a special panel presentation by three to four alums who acquaint us with the wide variety of jobs and careers open to those with training and degrees in geoscience (other than those in research universities, which our students see examples of every day). In the past several years we have had a series of informative and inspiring presentations, demonstrating that studying, understanding and communicating about complex Earth processes gives one many important skills that can be productively and enjoyably applied to other pursuits.

The format is as follows: from 4:00 to 5:30 PM we have brief presentations in MacMillan Hall 115 by the alums describing their personal career path and current job situation, with insights into what aspects of their Brown education have served them particularly well. There is time for questions from the audience as well as panel discussion, and then about 5:30 we adjourn to the hallway area directly outside MM115 where staff member Gloria Correra has prepared a fantastic buffet dinner for everyone. This provides a delightful and informal setting in which students can talk with the panelists individually or in small groups.

Geo Career Day guest panel, l-r: Jordan Raddick (ScB ‘00), Antje Danielson (an “honorary alum”), and Gordon Binkhorst (ScB ‘86)

In early February 2009 we hosted two undergrad alums and an honorary grad alum; a brief summary of the presentations follows.

Jordan Raddick got an ScB in 2000. He came to Brown intending to do Physics, but soon decided that Geophysics would be more interesting and satisfying. He did research with Professor Marc Parmentier that resulted in publication. In his senior year he wondered “what next”? He had always been interested in writing, for the Brown Daily Harald and the Catalyst (as well as his geo courses!), and he had an interest in communicating science to the public. He applied to science writing masters programs, and decided to enroll in the one-year program at Johns Hopkins. The first semester was “Science Stories” -- he interviewed people, wrote articles, and workshopped them with the group. His second semester involved a longer thesis (40 pages), basically a series of feature articles; he did his on nanotechnology.

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After receiving his masters, Jordan worked for a professional organization, AIP, on their website (Physics Central) which targets high school kids interested in physics. He profiled famous physicists, including Jim Valles of Brown and a Hopkins astronomer (who started as a rock star in Hungary who was also doing a major Digital Sky Survey and needed a science writer to create education modules for the “broader impacts” part of his grant). Jordan put sky images on the web, then created modules to get kids to “use them”. He gets his salary through Hopkins but it comes via NSF and NASA grants. A significant part of his time is spent writing proposals, the “broader impacts” parts of other scientists’ proposals, but he also works a lot for the planetarium at Chicago, and posts popular versions of new scientific results.

Jordan enjoys science writing because it enables him to keep learning lots of new stuff in different fields. The best way to learn something is to teach it, and writing is very like teaching. He especially enjoys doing educational writing, because he can express more enthusiasm than when doing science journalism for a newspaper or magazine. In creating on-line resources to teach different subjects, he works with teachers to create a draft version, and then one or two classes use it as a “field test” before it is released on the web. Recently he has developed middle school modules on soil ecology, using data from sensors buried in soil all around Baltimore.

Jordan is currently working toward a masters in Technology for Educators at Hopkins; he is taking one course at a time, mostly aimed at getting a certificate. He will put together a portfolio at end of his masters and then have one semester as an apprentice, hopefully with PBS.

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Gordon Binkhorst got his ScB here in 1986. He grew up in New York City but while in high school had the opportunity to participate in the Juneau Ice Fields Research Project through an NSF program; for 2 summers he got to do skiing and glaciology, and thus gained a love for the out of doors and natural processes.

He came to Brown thinking he’d possibly concentrate on premed but soon decided to switch to geo. His first summer he worked as a field assistant for Tim Byrne on Kodiak Island, AK, and the next summer he was an intern at Hanford, WA (high level waste site), mostly doing hydrogeology. At Brown, he enjoyed working in environmental remote sensing with Professor Jack Mustard. When he graduated in 1986, oil companies were not hiring, but environmental consulting was big, in part due to many new environmental laws. He worked at Kurz (now Conoco) in West Bridgewater, MA for three years, on air and water quality, property transfer, and liabilities. His training in science writing in the geo department was extremely valuable.

Gordon lacked formal training in hydrogeology, and decided he wanted to learn more about that critical field, so he started a PhD at UConn. He took courses he had avoided at Brown (organic chem, multivariable calculus and partial differential equations); he was now really motivated to know the material so he could actually apply it. He did hydrogeology research with Gary Robbins, involving field work as well as modelling.

After his PhD, Gordon went back to work as an environmental consultant. He now works at a small firm (six employees), where he is one of three partners who do it all (no secretaries, they subcontract out for drilling or lab measurements, and hire an attorney when needed). Property transfer is the principal source of jobs and contracts, but there is lots of variety to the work. Connecticut environmental regulations are currently being changed, and he is on the task force to consider what changes to make and how to phrase them.

Gordon’s explanation for why geoscientists make the best environmental consultants: Engineers don’t think in 3D or think outside the box, they don’t understand subsurface site constraints, and they cannot visualize changes over time -- but geologists can!

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Antje Danielson is an “honorary alum”; she is married to our newest faculty member Professor Steve Parman.

In high school in Germany, Antje decided on geoscience because it seemed to involve the intersection of all the math and sciences, plus it offered the chance to be outdoors and travel. She got a PhD in Geochemistry at a research institute similar to WHOI, working on trace elements in banded iron formations, which involved travel all over North America and South Africa.

Antje did one post-doc in South Africa then one at Harvard, still researching banded iron formations. She married Steve, and had their first child. She did research and teaching in local colleges but began to think about a career change that would allow her to use her science to improve the world. She got a job at Harvard as head of their Green Campus Initiative. For three years she worked with academics in science, politics and law. She tried to initiate discussions about climate change, but there was no action or interest in 2000! She started ZipCar, based on a similar program in Europe, but it was a sideline project.

Steve and Antje spent three years at the University of Durham (UK), where she was Deputy Director of Sustainability. She started a campus green group, for example installing energy efficient light bulbs, also started a research group on carbon sequestration, and she did research on behavior change (with broad implications for education).

Antje is now Director of the Environmental Institute at Tufts and she loves being a research administrator. There are three parts to her job: (1) Energy & Climate Change, (2) Health, and (3) Education. Grant writing is an important part of her job, but she also gets to advise and mentor undergrads and grad students. She has researched wind energy, housing market (solar house for solar decathlon), efficient AC systems, and geological carbon sequestration, among other topics.

Antje agrees with Gordon that geologists are very good at thinking broadly and outside the box. In terms of science communication she sees the landscape changing - even research scientists have started blogs aimed at the general public. In terms of education she agrees that it is important to get kids outside to experience the natural world.

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