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Of Honest Teachers And Precious Rock Hammers

Mi Martillo Estwing, shared by Caribú

This month’s Accretionary Wedge geology blog carnival. Almost forgot about it. Topic: What is the most important geological experience you“ve had? Consider this my official entry.

One would think it occurred on an outcrop. One would also think it happened on a field trip or at field camp, as it did to rock stars such as Brian Romans, Geotripper, Tuff Cookie and Callan Bentley. One would imagine it transpired while I stared longingly into a microscope at those mesmerizingly birefringent thin sections.

One would be wrong.

Admittedly, what led me to study the discipline was an outcrop which today I can locate only as being somewhere between Salt Lake City and Reno along I-80. I am aware that is around 500 miles of Basin & Range to choose from. It’s on the north side of the highway, if that helps. I know also that the terrain, especially along the highway, doesn’t lend itself to great revelation as does say The Grand Canyon, the Himalayas or even the Baraboo Hills of Wisconsin. Furthermore, I painfully admit that, many years later, discovering the photograph I took of said hill after the epiphany leads me to believe there was much sleep deprivation involved. It’s a sad, grey, talus-dripping pile of Unimportant and you don’t want me to scan that picture and post it here. Trust me on this one.

Also, my field camp sucked. Not the Wasatch-Uinta Summer Field Camp Experience® per se, but my crappy six weeks there. A persistent upper respiratory problem, an abraded and severely-dehydrated left cornea and two professors acting up due to personal problems does not a positive field experience make, however liberating and interesting the field setting. S’il vous plait to leave me at Chateau Apres with le chicken soup.

My most important geological experience happened in 1995 at the department of geology of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. What no outcrops, planely erratic through no fault of their own, subduct Illinois for popcorn, Flatland, your state’s so boring and flat you can put the car in cruise control and take a nap in back, etc. Yes.

Having told my Indian-immigrant parents what I thought of a future in medicine (not much), I embarked on the aforementioned road trip westward, stayed a while and then returned to Illinois after almost losing my eyeballs to the high cost of California living, and enrolled in accounting and science classes to see what would stick. I kicked Accounting’s rear so hard I could be Lord Comptroller of the known universe right now. Both professors, both semesters, gushed over my attention to detail, the excessive tidiness of my paper balance sheets (you down with OCD? yeah, you know me!), that I would wake up in the middle of the night with solutions to activity rates for cost pools and that I cracked jokes in class and livened up their otherwise dull classrooms.

But, every once in a while, the little lab-coated girl in me who wanted to be a scientist when she grew up would rear up and say, “Accounting is really tidy and happy-making, but its rules are so arbitrary, sometimes silly and not as inherently open to inquiry as natural laws. What more, this is easy, memorizable stuff. Where’s the challenge?” During that second semester of accounting, well on my way to a corner cubicle at Deloitte & Touche, I was simultaneously enrolled in Geology 101. It was Rocks for Jocks through and through, with full-to-capacity stadium seats oozing out hungover frat boys there for those easy five credits, but taught by a highly intelligent and eager professor named Wang-Ping Chen. I didn’t know what this man was on about with his bright-eyed, impassioned lectures on everything from surficial mass wasting to deep mantle dynamics, but I was determined to see this class through even if it meant arriving early to catch a seat up front (didn’t have to try too hard for those) and staying late to ask real questions about geology and the curriculum, beyond the usual “My roommate peed on my assignment. Can I turn it in late?”

Of great importance to me and the point of this post is that, through the course of the semester, Professor Chen noticed this curiosity and indecision on my part, and went out of his way to convince me to enroll in UIUC’s geoscience program of study. During office hours, he would honestly and tirelessly list all of the degree’s challenges and, like every good Asian parent, none of its rewards. That mineralogy required chemistry and optics, being able to identify thousands of minerals and late hours in the lab. That the geology curriculum required geophysics which in turn needed linear algebra and differential equations and three physics classes including electricity & magnetism. That structural geology was difficult for many but I should take it the following semester when it was offered. That much field and lab work was required on weekends. That distinction and honors in the program (and he expected no less) came only with undergraduate research and a thesis. That beyond here were graduate school, more graduate school and, maybe some day, a postdoctoral position and then the tenure track. Was this man insane? All of this extra work was supposed to entice me into the world of Earth?

But it clicked, didn’t it? For three years, I did all that Professor Chen suggested and more (like the insane goat rodeo that was Sed-Strat, only because we were between decent instructors that semester), and went on to graduate school in structural geology and geophysics. It occurred to me recently that the science-rich life I have now is my reward. I would never have made it in the confines of an accounting firm, and I believe the professor saw that and talked me out in time. Again, he could have very easily told me to go to the department office and fill out a form, but it took the candid scientist and teacher in him to tell me what I was up against, should I choose to accept, and to offer me context and realistic goals. While I talk about my love for the University of Wisconsin as a great scholarly and research institution on par with Stanford, MIT and other global academies, these schools have a lot to learn with respect to the extra care given to those critical undergraduates. For simply read all of the entries in this Accretionary Wedge exercise and then look at the point in the stratigraphic column of each of our careers that we label “Important.”

So I lied. Professor Chen did have a tangible and very cool reward for me at the end. After the Geology 101 grades were published and I had submitted my application materials to the geology department, he invited me back to his office. I was offered a brown paper bag (no, not a fifth of Wild Turkey; that comes in graduate school) which contained a hammer I’d never seen before. Its handle was blue with the word Estwing on it in bright yellow letters and in the place of its claw was a sharp pick. “This is a rock hammer, an essential tool for the geologist. You’re going to need it for your upcoming field trips. You will get a bigger version of it if you’re outstanding junior and a Brunton compass if you graduate from this department at the top of your undergraduate class.”

To this day, I count those two rock hammers and Brunton compass as some of my most prized possessions. They are very easily replaced if lost, but they wouldn’t be the ones I earned. They would not be symbols of their trade that were offered out of encouragement, pride and these geoscientists’ faith in my abilities at a time when I couldn’t see past that Saturday. One of these weeks, I’ll have to email Professor Chen and let him know that I keep the rock hammer he gave me under the passenger’s seat of my car at all times (you never know when a rock sample needs liberating and a hammer is just more me than, say, a baseball bat) and how important and lasting his efforts as an instructor were.

It appears Professor Chen is head of the department now. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.

6 comments… add one
  • Callan Bentley September 28, 2010, 4:56 PM

    A terrific story! Thanks for sharing it!

  • Lockwood September 28, 2010, 5:16 PM

    How wonderful! My eyes are just watering. Allergies, I think.

  • Janie September 28, 2010, 6:14 PM

    Thank you, I loved it.

  • Andrew Alden September 28, 2010, 6:33 PM

    A rock hammer is a personal thing. Even when you have several, each one has a personality. Your hammer story is the best one.

  • Brian Romans September 28, 2010, 10:58 PM

    I love the OCD quip … I’m gonna use that

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