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Part 2: A change at the top as space comes into play

January 14, 2021

ASU’s Department of Geology went through some growing pains in the 1970s-1990s, but came out stronger

Editor's note: This is the second of three parts of the story of ASU's geologists. Read the first here.

Ed Stump is a professor emeritus in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU. He is a geologist, polar explorer, mountaineer and photographer specializing in the geology of the Transantarctic Mountains in Antarctica, the least known mountain range in the world.

Over the past 40 years, he has been principal investigator on research projects funded by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, covering more than 1,200 miles of the Transantarctic Mountains. He spent 13 Antarctic field seasons conducting geological research and twice served as chief scientist for large, remote, helicopter-supported camps. Stump was at ASU from 1976 to 2014, serving as department chair from 1991 to 1995. He co-authored “Geology of Arizona.”

Ed Stump in the field in Antarctica

Ed Stump is a professor emeritus in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. He is a geologist, polar explorer, mountaineer and photographer specializing in the geology of the Transantarctic Mountains in Antarctica, the least known mountain range in the world. Photo courtesy of Ed Stump

“Science was the only thing I found interesting in high school,” Stump said. “And it was a chance to work out of doors, and it was a chance, I hoped, to travel. One of the early brochures from the American Geosciences Institute was a picture of somebody with a big pole on a flat boat in the swamps of Venezuela looking for oil. I thought, yeah, that's me.”

Stump was hired to organize a course called Geology of Arizona. It was a one-year job. Department chair Troy Péwé hired him sight unseen.

Péwé was very spit and polish, always wearing a tie and navy blazer. “He had an intimidation thing where he would arch one of his eyebrows at you,” Stump said.

When Stump arrived in Tempe in 1976, he had hair down to his waist. He walked into Péwé’s office and introduced himself. Péwé’s eyebrow went up and stayed up, spasming.

“And I turned around and left the room,” Stump said.

Geology of Arizona was the biggest course in the department. The university was pushing science for nonscience majors. It was held in a huge lecture hall, taught by different professors every few weeks. Péwé taught the module on the Grand Canyon, which ended with a weekend field trip. Busloads of students went up, saw the park, camped out, hiked down to Indian Garden or Plateau Point, then came home by midnight on Sunday. The trip was the centerpiece of the course.

Péwé was impressed when he saw how Stump handled the trip’s logistics and herding students.

“We became close after that, and by the second semester, he actually started to call me Ed instead of Dr. Stump,” he said.

Stump saw opportunity at ASU — “They were just on the cusp of becoming a research department.” He had won a grant to study in Antarctica, which impressed the university.

“After me, there was never a junior faculty member that made it if he didn't have a grant, but I became the standard, so to speak, for anybody new that was coming in in terms of establishing a funded research program,” he said.

Geologists generally don’t get funded for field work as their primary research effort any more. Stump admits he was an anachronism when he started.

“And as I always said, geologists just need to see their rocks. We don't work well in the dark.”

A new direction

Initially, the geochemists weren’t so welcome in the geology department.

Péwé “was a classic geomorphologist who really didn't value the molecular approach to anything,” physical chemist Alexandra Navrotsky said. “And he was a classical conservative in his social beliefs as well. So that led to obvious tensions with people that were doing geochemistry and with lots of younger faculty.”

Those clashes would come back to haunt Péwé.

“He was really, really disliked by a faction of the department that he called the chemists, which were really the geochemists, but he wouldn't even call them geochemists,” Stump said.

After Stump was hired in 1976, the dean put up new guidelines for the tenure of a chairman. After two years they had to get 50% of the department in a vote of confidence. After four years, maybe two-thirds. Péwé had been chair 11 years. He needed to get 75% of the department.

“And he knew he wasn't going to get that,” Stump said. “So, he resigned. He never was kicked out.”

David Krinsley, an expert on desert varnish and mineral decay, was hired as department chair in 1977.

“When I first came, I think it's fair to say that geology was a very classical department and it was through the hires largely Krinsley did actually that it spread out,” Navrotsky said.

Work in the field transforms students into geologists

“Dave was a real rough operator, and he wanted us to get on the national fast track,” Professor Emeritus Paul Knauth said. “He didn’t want the best geology department in Maricopa County. He wanted the best geology department in the country.”

Krinsley hired Knauth, a geologist and geochemist, in 1979. Knauth’s landmark discovery in his career was proving life existed on land during the Precambrian period.

At the time, the rift with the chemistry department had not been healed. Krinsley wanted to warm up the relationship because the geochemists like Navrotsky and Holloway were making a national name for themselves.

Krinsley also brought in astronomer Mike Malin and Robert Dietz, a founder of plate tectonics and one of the first people to realize Meteor Crater had in fact been formed by a meteor.

“From those hires I felt we could be No. 1 in the nation in geology, and I felt our field camp could be No. 1 in the nation in geology,” Knauth said. “I think it was, for a short period.”

Knauth got the field program going and led the field camp for 16 years. He also led 32 geology raft trips and 70 student field trips to the Grand Canyon.

Back in camp, his students would work on describing and interpreting the stories in each layer of rock. What was it? What did it look like the day that unit was made and deposited? What caused it?

“(Those nights), sitting around the campfire in Mather Campground, which is my second home, was the most satisfying thing to me in teaching,” Knauth said. “Those people were on a high. They had confidence. They felt like they were geologists. Not only that, they felt they owned the Grand Canyon because they had not just stood at the rim and looked, they’d gone down there and interacted with it in the deepest way possible. … You let the canyon do that to them. I just got out of the way.”

Looking to the stars

Moore hired Ron Greeley for the geology department and the Center for Meteorite Studies in 1977.

“I met him at the NASA Ames Research Center and thought of him when I had an open position,” Moore said.

Moore liked the fact that Greeley wasn’t just a meteorite guy — he studied all aspects of space. Greeley’s way of looking at other planets was to take a hard look at this one. He would rent an airplane or a helicopter to take aerial pictures. It helped to define and understand what geologic features produced by different processes look like on Earth. And he helped train the early astronauts — who tended to be jet jockeys, not scientists — how to describe geologic features as more than big rocks and little rocks.

Greeley raised eyebrows in other ways as well.

“(Greeley) came in with a big bank account,” Stump said. “I don't know whether he had a million dollars yet in grants, but, you know, it was way more than anybody else in the department. And we looked at that and said, ‘NASA seems to be the place rather than NSF, if we want to go big time.’”

Krinsley made a play, bypassing the dean and going straight to the provost with a proposal that ASU geology was going to go over the top if he could get four positions.

“We did four hires in one spring,” Stump said. “Nobody had dinner at home that semester. We were just out to supper, always with candidates. … So there'd be a geophysicist and a geochemist and maybe an environmental geologist this year. And we'd look at all of them and see who the best person was in the group. So we did a whole series of hires that were what we thought were the best person each time.”

In 1983, the dean decided he wanted a new department chair, and he asked Knauth to take over the job.

“I was a guy who talked to the chemists and the geologists,” Knauth said. “I liked them both.”

During Knauth’s tenure as department chair, there was a universitywide competition for a new building.

“We got it, so we were finally relieved of our space problems,” he said.

The birth of planetary science at ASU

Jim Tyburczy came to ASU in 1985. He studied the physical and chemical behavior of materials under high pressure.

“It was a good environment for doing things,” Tyburczy said. “People wanted you to try things.”

Jim Tyburczy

Specialization in a branch of a field at a university often stems from one person coming in and having success in that field, and then the department extending that success in tangential directions.

Navrotsky and Holloway attracted Tyburczy. (That type of work is now being carried out by Christy Till and Dan Shim.)

“ASU is known as a place where this kind of high-pressure geoscience materials science research goes on,” Tyburczy said. “When someone says ‘high-pressure research,’ there are half a dozen places around the country whose names come to mind. ASU’s is one of them.”

Through the meteorites collection, the research program had been founded in space, and space, under Greeley and Moore, was beginning to raise its profile at the university.

David Williams is a research professor and director of the Ronald Greeley Center for Planetary Studies at ASU, the NASA regional planetary information facility.

He arrived in Tempe in the summer of 1989 for grad school. A lifelong Star Trek fan, he wanted to become a planetary scientist. Williams had earned undergraduate degrees in astronomy and astrophysics with minors in mathematics and geology at Indiana University. He contacted Greeley and was accepted.

“Since I wasn't a full geology major — I only had a minor in the field — it was recommended that I start off and take geology field camp,” Williams said. “So the first thing I did when I arrived here was to take the geology department’s field camp up at Camp Tontozona. Professor Paul Knauth was the instructor. I learned a lot from him. I lacked some of the coursework one would normally have when one takes a field geology class. But I still managed to get a B. And then the following fall semester, fall of '89, I took advanced field geology with Paul in a different part of Arizona. And then later in my time at ASU in grad school, I took advanced field camp again with Professor Steve Reynolds and going to different places in the state. So I feel really grateful as a planetary geologist to have had all of that field experience when I was in grad school.”

David Williams

Flash forward to now. Williams has probably had more experience than the crew of the Enterprise. He has worked on a Venus mission, a lunar mission, an outer-planets mission, a Mars mission, an asteroid mission and a dwarf planet mission.

“I think I'm the only (School of Earth and Space Exploration) faculty member who's worked on that greater diversity of planetary bodies,” he said.

Does all that field experience help in his work?

“Absolutely,” Williams said. “If you're going to understand geology on other planets, just limited by looking at spacecraft photos, it really helps to have had the experience of understanding terrestrial geology, where you can actually go out into the field. You can walk out the contacts, you can examine the rocks at hand, you can see their relationships up close and personal. So, yeah, having an outdoor field camp class is a very important experience, I think, for any geologists, whether it be a terrestrial geologist or one who's going to go study planetary geology.”

Furthering scientific study

Back in Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell’s day, there was a lot of interest in brain size. Scientists studied the brains of great men, hoping to discover the secrets of their brilliance. Powell’s brain was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. by an anthropologist.

Péwé died in 1999.

“Péwé, being enamored of Powell and interested in intelligence and brain size, had his brain also put into the Smithsonian, next to or near Powell’s,” said Tyburczy. The hope was that his brain would be useful for furthering scientific study.

His brain was sent to the Smithsonian, where it was put next to Powell's. His family asks about it from time to time, according to a 2006 Washington Post story on famous body parts at the museum.

Tragedy in a Colombian caldera

Stump became department chair from 1991 to 1995, after Greeley held the post from 1988–1991. In January 1993, a U.S. State Department rep in Bogota called. A volcano had erupted with a group of scientists inside the caldera, including an ASU geologist.

“That first person from the State Department said, ‘Listen, you ought to try to get an air ambulance down here, as quick as you can,’” Stump said.

On Jan. 14, ASU volcanologist Stanley Williams led a party of 16 people — 13 scientists and engineers, including himself, and three tourists — to the crater at the summit of the 9,000-foot volcano Galeras. It was the highlight of a U.N.-sponsored conference. Galeras was the most active volcano in Colombia and had erupted almost 30 times in 500 years, most recently the year before. But they looked over the seismological and gas emissions evidence and decided it was quiet.

Stanley Williams

At about 1:40 p.m., Williams asked the group to begin wrapping up for departure. Rocks began to tumble off the wall of the crater, first singly, then in a cascade. Williams shouted: "Hurry up! Get out!"

It was too late.

The volcano shook with a roar like thunder and the earth opened up. Gas that had been building up for months was released. Tons of rocks and ash poured into the air. White hot rocks, some as big as TV sets, rained down.

Nine members of the party were killed.

A rock the size of an orange smashed into Williams’ head, sending skull fragments deep into his brain. His nose, jaw and both his legs were broken. And he was on fire. He was saved in a rescue led by two brave female colleagues and by a young Colombian neurosurgeon, who removed a piece of his brain the size of a peach pit.

Stump chartered an air ambulance out of Florida. The plane flew to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and picked up Williams’ wife.

“I saw him and Linda as they were gurneying him into the Barrow Institute downtown for brain surgery,” Stump said. “There was an awful lot going on, lots of press. It was a very dramatic moment.”

Stanley Williams never really came back from Galeras.

"I'm different," he said in an interview with the Guardian later on. "That guy died. I have to accept that." Post-eruption he was partially deaf, walked with some difficulty on extensively reconstructed legs, suffered from depression and unreasonable anger, and mixed up words. At one point he was taking 20 pills a day.

In 1995, he went back to Galeras.

“I was in and out in two hours,” he said in the Guardian interview. “I came down with pneumonia. Basically it was my not being strong enough to handle that effort. I shouldn't have done it. It wasn't an unbelievable, ‘facing God’ kind of thing. I'm just not that sensitive, I guess. I wanted to go back there; I wanted to go back and stand on that spot, and think about Igor smiling, Geoff waving at me, me just explaining to the tourists what was going on. And a minute later everyone died. I don't have any sense of guilt for the deaths, but I miss them. It's a very sad thing."

Williams retired two years ago and is now a professor emeritus.

Part 3: The School of Earth and Space Exploration is born

Top image by WikiImages from Pixabay.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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Part 3: The School of Earth and Space Exploration is born

January 14, 2021

ASU geologists take their place in the ranks of an interdisciplinary unit

Editor's note: This is the third of three parts of the story of ASU's geologists. Read the first  and second installments.

Michael Crow became the 16th president of ASU in 2002. After he arrived, he met with the geology faculty. Ed Stump was at the meeting.

“He basically said, ‘Hey, you guys, you're the best department in the university, at least from the standpoint of dollars,’ which we were. I mean, at one point we had more money than chemistry or biology, and we had a third or half or less than half of the faculty per capita. We were way out ahead of the rest of the university,” Stump said. “And he said, ‘So give me a plan. What do you want to do?’ You know, it was carte blanche.”

After weeks of fumbling around and coming up with Venn diagrams with “no vision at all,” as Stump recalled, Crow, planetary geologist Philip Christensen (who had massive NASA funding) and some faculty who are no longer at ASU came up with the idea to merge with the astronomers from physics and make the geology department a superdepartment whose main emphasis was interdisciplinary geoscience and astrophysics research: the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

It started operations in 2006.

“Crow wanted something bigger and splashier and more interdisciplinary,” Professor Emeritus Jim Tyburczy said. “Not everybody was totally gung ho, but by far the biggest majority said, ‘Well, this is our path to the future. Let’s take it.’”

Ramon Arrowsmith came to ASU in 1995, bridging the Troy Péwé era with the creation of the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“I got a few other offers, but this was really the best, the most interesting, I felt like the most challenging,” he said. “I'm also from Albuquerque. So I liked being in the Southwest.”

Arrowsmith studies earthquake geology, paleoseismology and the geomorphology of fault zones, publishing about their history of activity and hazards. He’s a field geologist. Prepandemic, he had racked up about 120,000 frequent-flyer miles. East Africa, the Himalayas, western China and southeast Asia are all places he has worked. He has floated the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon six times (including once with Péwé and again on the trip where Péwé called in on a ham radio).

Ramon Arrowsmith

Ramon Arrowsmith 

“One of the exciting things that geology does is it gives you this ability to sort of see in four dimensions, you know, what's going on and what has happened and maybe think about what will happen,” Arrowsmith said.

Arrowsmith is now associate director of operations of the school. He has been called one of its key developers.

“I think what really propelled everything was the high stature, big missions, big money associated with planetary science,” he said. “But to do it well you have to have some good geologists around who are studying the Earth because Earth analogs training of those planetary scientists, so there’s that partnership.”

It all runs together

Kip Hodges came to ASU in 2006 to be the founding director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, a position he held until 2013.

Ask him where his research lies and he’ll give you a 15-minute, four-paragraph answer. Continental tectonics. Structural geology. Geochemistry. Geochronology and thermochronology. Planetary science.

“So it's not an easy answer to your question,” he said. “I'm sorry. I can't just say, ‘This is the field that I pursued.’”

For geologists today, that’s a common answer. It all tends to run together.

“That's one of the goals of the school and one of the reasons I was recruited to be the founding director,” Hodges said.

Kip Hodges

Hodges came from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of his tasks there was to try to get engineers and scientists to work together better than they historically had.

“I had done a lot of work on that, and had a lot of success on that,” he said.

The idea was this new school was going to have geological sciences, planetary sciences, astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology and forays into systems engineering. Hodges liked the idea.

“President Crow was kind enough to make it a presidential initiative at ASU,” he said. “And so he put lots and lots of resources into it to make it the great school that it is right now. So that's what convinced me to come and do it.

“It was not a particularly hard sell when I heard the description of what the school was going to be. … I won't lie to say that there were no bumps in the road, but on the other hand for the most part, the faculty were very engaged and very enthusiastic and bought into the vision for the school. And so any success I had was directly associated with how willing the faculty at ASU were to buy into that.”

The school’s astronomers and astrophysicists have benefited from rubbing elbows with the geoscientists. The perfect example is the hottest field in astronomy and astrophysics now: exoplanets. As of December 2020, 4,307 have been confirmed, according to NASA. There are 5,683 candidates.

In the early years of exoplanets, it was really just about looking at brightness variations as something passed in front of a star to identify the existence of an exoplanet. Now scientists are getting to the point where they have to think about exoplanets as planets. Geoscientists know an awful lot about the evolution of one planet in particular.

“It's a beautiful connectivity between astronomy, astrophysics and geological sciences, if we can take advantage of it,” Hodges said. “We're trying hard to take advantage of that. So I think it's a great evolution. The thing we have to understand is that those kinds of broad integrative ways of looking at problems are spectacularly important. … The problem is that to do transdisciplinary science very well, you’ve got to make sure that you have rock-solid disciplinary science. And that's the difficulty in building a university program like the program we have: If we become too planetary, or if we become too astrophysical, or if we become too geological, we actually tilt the balance. … How do we stay deep, but also broad?”

Working in the spaces between

Kelin Whipple is a geomorphologist interested in the interactions among climate, topography and tectonics. He worked with Hodges at MIT. When Hodges was hired as the founding director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, he urged Whipple to join him.

“It was just the excitement to come be a part of something new,” Whipple said. “Just to try to break new boundaries and do things that hadn't really been done before.”

Faculty at the school work on developing interconnections in the spaces between different classical fields.

“We don't really like to think of a strength in this or that,” Whipple said. “We like to think of we've got the strength to tackle this problem or that problem, wherever it might lie, in terms of disciplinary boundaries.”

ASU geologist Kelin Whipple

Kelin Whipple is a geomorphologist interested in the interactions among climate, topography and tectonics — and in the interactions between the space and geology segments of the school. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU 

Rather than thinking of the strength of one group over another, Whipple looks at the school like an M.C. Escher staircase.

“I'm probably never going to directly collaborate with, say, Evan Scannapieco, who works on the evolution of galaxies and so on, but you can follow a chain of people I work with and who they work with and you can follow that channel all the way around and you're going to get to someone with a collaboration with Evan Scannapieco. … It's pretty cool that there is a link that you can follow between any faculty member and another and have interactions.”

Fifty years ago that wasn’t the case.

“That’s the idea,” Whipple said. “To change things.”

Like the lion and the lamb, the geomorphologist is unlikely to lie down with the astrophysicist. Unimportant, Whipple said.

“We do still speak a pretty common language, right? We work with the same kind of differential equations. The same physics applies, just in different environments and different people need to get into physics to a different level to do their work. But there's still a common language and a common approach to what you do to do science.”

The new generation: The warrior poet

Arjun Heimsath is a classic warrior poet. Raised on a Texas Hill Country ranch and in the Himalayan foothills, he climbs cliffs and mountains, races triathlons, writes poetry and speaks Hindi, Kiswahili and Nepali. When he was a child, his parents — father a Texan professor, mother an Indian professor — drove him and his brother from Germany to India in a VW bus, spent two years traveling around, then drove back.

“I think that childhood combined with them, this passion to connect what humans are doing to the landscape, with how the landscape is operating, really brought home the importance of quantifying how our Earth surface works,” he said. “That just still resonates with me and still plays a role, I think.”

A geomorphologist by accident, he has worked in Australia, Tibet, South Africa, the Himalayas, Kenya, Alaska and Chile. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Yale and joined the Peace Corps in Kenya working in water development.

Geologist Arjun Heimseth in Atacama Desert,Chile

Professor Arjun Heimsath does infiltration experiments in the Atacama Desert a couple years ago, with surface temperature above 130 degrees. Photo courtesy of Arjun Heimsath

“That connection between what humans did to the Earth surface and water quality and water supply switched me from being an engineer to being an environmental scientist/geologist,” he said.

Heimsath didn’t study geology as an undergrad. He didn’t go on field trips or culminate his studies in field camp.

“I didn't actually recognize that this whole notion of field work was so integral to geosciences until I was a PhD student, and then very early on in my PhD training, I was working on a problem,” he said. “My adviser … had me work on a computer model of what we were doing for this problem. And I hated it. I just hated it. I basically decided then that I was going to focus on field work rather than the modeling part. I mean, obviously you have to model in order to interpret your fields yourselves, and you have to model to actually tell a good story. But I think one of the aspects of my work that sets it aside, in some ways — my emphasis has always been about collecting samples and then making the measurements that are all field-based. And sure, I love being in cool places.”

Heimsath and three of his colleagues are working on a summary talk about the future of geomorphology for the upcoming American Geophysical Union conference. (One of the world’s biggest scientific conferences, it’s Lollapalooza for geoscientists. The School of Earth and Space Exploration has a booth there every year.)

The take-home message that Heimsath really wants to convey is to get off the computer and get out in the field and get back out on the landscape, because what is happening is so many earth scientists don't ever leave the computer screen anymore.

“It's all done right here, instead of actually being out there digging holes or banging on rocks or collecting stream samples or measuring how much water is going down a river,” he said.

Geomorphology is not like working on NASA missions. The public has no idea about any of it, and your chances of appearing on CNN are slim to none. Heimsath jokes that surface-process scientists just dig holes on small budgets and drive down dirt roads.

“We don't get a lot of attention, but that's fine,” he said. “We love what we do. But in the surface-processes communities, ASU is known to be a very strong player.”

The new generation: The accidental volcanologist

Many people, including several you’ve heard from in this story, stumble into geology by accident, get hooked and pursue it as their life’s passion. Amanda Clarke is one of them.

She started as an intern aerospace engineer at Boeing, working on the 777. Boeing’s plant is close to Mount St. Helens, which caught her attention. The company offered Friday afternoon lectures, and one such was about what happens to aircraft when they fly through volcanic plumes. A chief pilot trainer discussed a KLM flight where all four engines failed and the plane nearly crashed, along with similar incidents.

“And so that got me really interested,” Clarke said.

Geologist Amanda Clarke in Indonesia

Associate Professor Amanda Clarke is at the LUSI mud volcano site in East Java, Indonesia. It looks like a construction site because they are trying to contain the mud using human-made levees. Photo courtesy of Amanda Clarke

She wrote a Fulbright fellowship application to study sociocultural interactions with volcanic environments in the Philippines. Eventually she wound up studying for her PhD with a Penn State volcanologist. She has studied volcanoes in Italy, the Caribbean and Indonesia, as well as dead volcanoes in Arizona.

“What I do in volcanoes and volcanology is a good mix of field science, but it kind of uses my background in fluid mechanics,” she said.

Volcanologists are rare at U.S. universities (in a European institution there are often six or seven together). Clarke came to ASU because she liked the environment, and the fact that the university has a legacy of volcanology. The science, like every other branch of geology, has evolved into an interdisciplinary tree.

Geologist Amanda Clarke in Italy

Associate Professor Amanda Clarke (left) is on La Fossa cone in Italy, collecting volcanic ash samples with graduate student Jisoo Kim. The eruptions are from about 1500–1890. Photo courtesy of Amanda Clarke

“If you're a volcano scientist, you have to at least understand the language of lots of different things,” Clarke said. “So if you're looking at an active eruption, then you have to kind of understand the language of a seismologist, a geodesist, a petrologist and a gas geochemist, and what the deposits look like and the physical processes. … That's one of the things I like about volcanology: If you work on active eruptions, you get to rub elbows with different kinds of engineers and geophysicist and chemists. I find it really fun.”

The new generation

Melanie Barboni is one of the most recent School of Earth and Space Exploration hires in geosciences. She studies volcanoes, the formation of the moon, the early evolution of the solar system and rocky planets.

“I am the kind of person who gets bored if I just stay in the same field, because one field is not representative of the whole picture you need,” the Swiss native said. “It's a complex system. … And that is the reason I wake up every morning still feeling excited about my job because it is not always the same thing. And at the end of the day, I feel like I have a better understanding of the big-picture processes if I don't only look at one tiny detail of each one of them, you know what I mean?”

Plus, she finds lunar samples and meteorites irresistible. Barboni has always found rocks irresistible.

“When I was a baby, I was already grabbing rocks around my blanket and putting them in my nose and in my mouth, which was trusting (of) my parents. And then when I was able to work, I just collected product and my room was full of rocks. … I spent my whole childhood and teenage years collecting rocks and reading books about gemstonesm,” Barboni said. “And then I got interested in the processes behind them. And I asked my parents, ‘What does it take to be a geologist?’ And I was maybe 7 at the time.”

She came to ASU in 2018. It was the last of three interviews. The first two felt like interviews. The school did not. 

Geologist Melanie Barboni on Maui

Assistant Professor Melanie Barboni is on the Haleakala volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui on June 20, 2016. Photo courtesy of Melanie Barboni

“I had fun with my colleagues,” she said. “It was like an exchange of science. It was fun. They were awesome. And I felt like I'm a people person and I really need a family. Because I left mine in Switzerland. I felt that the department could be. And also, it turns out that the department was the best one by far.”

Barboni trained as a geochemist. “I can offer a lot of tools to people,” she said. On her resume is a list of exotic analytical tools she works with: laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, isotope dilution thermal ionization mass spectrometry and others.

“I don't think people at (the School of Earth and Space Exploration) see themselves as a little clan,” she said. "This is what makes this department very different. We are one block. … I have common interests with Christy Till. And I have a lot of common interests with Ed Garnero because we would like maybe to investigate how geochemistry and geophysics can be used together. We also have other interests outside (the school). Actually, he does woodworking — I do too. He's a musician — I'm also a musician. So he's a great friend.

"I have a connection with everyone there,” she said. “Every time I talk to a colleague, there is always that possibility that there could be a collaboration.”

And collaboration will continue to be the key to unlocking the mysteries of mountains and volcanoes, deserts and canyons, the seen and the unseen.  

"Oh, this smile that I have on my face is a geological smile — a smile of who knows, looks at something, sees and understands. This very ravine is an open book to me, a page of Earth’s history on which I read a thousand fantastic things.” 

— Monteiro Lobato, "O Poço do Visconde," 1937

Top photo by Pixabay

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News