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Anita Harris: Color Her World, With Love

Harrison Schmitt Award

In 1977, an editorial threw the spotlight on AAPG member Anita G. Harris - an obscure paleontologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) who had developed a groundbreaking technique for exploring for hydrocarbons.

The piece specifically praised Harris' Color Alteration Index (CAI), which burst onto the geological scene in the 1970s after Harris demonstrated that the color of tiny fossils embedded in a variety of sedimentary rocks could determine the rocks' thermal maturity and whether or not the rocks were present within the "oil window."

Published by the Newspaper Enterprise Association, the editorial noted the many requests Harris received from oil companies all over the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and that she could have been rich had she performed her research privately.

Harris didn't seem to care.

"I like it in government," she was quoted as saying. "I like it more than money."

One of a Kind

Feisty. Funny. Determined. Competitive. Brilliant. Generous.

The words used to describe Harris, who died last July at age 77 after suffering from dementia, remain free-flowing as former colleagues and relatives remember Harris in advance of her posthumously receiving the AAPG Harrison Schmitt Award at the upcoming AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Denver.

Meant for those who have made outstanding contributions to science, yet whose work falls outside the more defined categories of other AAPG awards, the Schmitt Award seems the perfect fit for Harris. For she, herself, made sure that if ever put into a box, she would bust out of it with one punch.

Growing up poor in Brooklyn, N.Y., with not much to look at except ships being built in the U.S. Navy Yard, Harris saw science as a way out of a dismal situation.

"She saw geology as a way to see the world," said David Fey, a geochemist with the USGS and former colleague who sometimes provided housing for Harris when she worked in Denver during the summers.

Bustling her way through a man's world, Harris enrolled in Brooklyn College at age 16 and graduated with degrees in geology and physics in 1957. She then made a beeline to Indiana University where she worked on her master's degree and studied geophysics in the late 1950s, after which she married USGS geologist emeritus Jack Epstein. (She married the late Leonard Harris, a structural geologist with the USGS, in 1977.)

After a brief stint teaching high school in Louisiana - a job she was forced to take because the USGS would not allow her to work alongside her spouse - she earned a doctorate degree in geology from Ohio State University in 1969. As controversial as her place might have been among her male peers, Harris outperformed most, topping her success with a graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

When urged by professors and employers to abandon her theories that linked the colors of conodonts - tooth-like fossils found in the late Cambrian through the Triassic period - with a rock's thermal history, Harris studied them at home. She baked them in her oven and watched their colors change with varying temperatures.

"We would tease her from time to time about her Betty Crocker oven," said Nancy Stamm, a USGS geologist and former long-time assistant of Harris.

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In 1977, an editorial threw the spotlight on AAPG member Anita G. Harris - an obscure paleontologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) who had developed a groundbreaking technique for exploring for hydrocarbons.

The piece specifically praised Harris' Color Alteration Index (CAI), which burst onto the geological scene in the 1970s after Harris demonstrated that the color of tiny fossils embedded in a variety of sedimentary rocks could determine the rocks' thermal maturity and whether or not the rocks were present within the "oil window."

Published by the Newspaper Enterprise Association, the editorial noted the many requests Harris received from oil companies all over the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and that she could have been rich had she performed her research privately.

Harris didn't seem to care.

"I like it in government," she was quoted as saying. "I like it more than money."

One of a Kind

Feisty. Funny. Determined. Competitive. Brilliant. Generous.

The words used to describe Harris, who died last July at age 77 after suffering from dementia, remain free-flowing as former colleagues and relatives remember Harris in advance of her posthumously receiving the AAPG Harrison Schmitt Award at the upcoming AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Denver.

Meant for those who have made outstanding contributions to science, yet whose work falls outside the more defined categories of other AAPG awards, the Schmitt Award seems the perfect fit for Harris. For she, herself, made sure that if ever put into a box, she would bust out of it with one punch.

Growing up poor in Brooklyn, N.Y., with not much to look at except ships being built in the U.S. Navy Yard, Harris saw science as a way out of a dismal situation.

"She saw geology as a way to see the world," said David Fey, a geochemist with the USGS and former colleague who sometimes provided housing for Harris when she worked in Denver during the summers.

Bustling her way through a man's world, Harris enrolled in Brooklyn College at age 16 and graduated with degrees in geology and physics in 1957. She then made a beeline to Indiana University where she worked on her master's degree and studied geophysics in the late 1950s, after which she married USGS geologist emeritus Jack Epstein. (She married the late Leonard Harris, a structural geologist with the USGS, in 1977.)

After a brief stint teaching high school in Louisiana - a job she was forced to take because the USGS would not allow her to work alongside her spouse - she earned a doctorate degree in geology from Ohio State University in 1969. As controversial as her place might have been among her male peers, Harris outperformed most, topping her success with a graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

When urged by professors and employers to abandon her theories that linked the colors of conodonts - tooth-like fossils found in the late Cambrian through the Triassic period - with a rock's thermal history, Harris studied them at home. She baked them in her oven and watched their colors change with varying temperatures.

"We would tease her from time to time about her Betty Crocker oven," said Nancy Stamm, a USGS geologist and former long-time assistant of Harris.

When Harris proved that the different colors of conodonts were directly linked to the peak temperatures of rocks, hundreds in the geological community and in the industry began knocking on her door.

She gladly accepted requests to analyze rock samples shipped to her from all over the world. She also traveled with her library and micro-slides to help geologists better understand their rocks. She especially welcomed students from other countries who wanted to learn how to the use the CAI - often letting them stay in her home and drive her car.

"She made them pay attention to what they were walking on," Stamm recalled. "She took the time to get young minds to think for themselves. Her favorite saying was 'You only know what you see.' That's so true, especially in geology."

Her work drew accolades by the dozens. Yet, the one she coveted most was the Pander Society Medal - given selectively to conodont paleontologists who advance science - and up until Harris' time, given only to men.

Curious About Conodonts

While conducting research for her doctoral dissertation on ostracods in the Appalachians, Harris stumbled upon conodonts of varying colors - ranging from pale yellow to black - as she chipped her way from Ohio to New York. Intrigued by the differences, she mentioned her findings to her adviser, who promptly told her that the change in coloration was an anomaly with which she shouldn't concern herself.

Too curious to let it go, Harris began experimenting with conodonts on her own, believing their colors varied according to how deeply they were buried and consequently how hot they became.

Insulted that the USGS wanted to hire her as a physical science technician after completing her doctorate courses rather than as a junior geologist, Harris snubbed her nose at the agency until she was offered an assistant geologic map editor position in 1967, said AAPG member John Repetski, a USGS geologist and former colleague of Harris.

She accepted the job in Washington, D.C., to get her foot in the door.

While working at the USGS, Harris continued to cook conodonts at her home until she found a calibrated oven that could bake them at higher temperatures. She watched the fossils no larger than one-twentieth of an inch turn from pale yellow - their original color if never heated - to amber, to light brown, to darker brown to black, to grey and then to a crystalline white - all directly proportionate to the temperatures to which they were exposed.

She learned it was the organic content in the conodonts that actually changed color.

Comments from her peers that she might not excel as a geologist became fuel for Harris, who stood a mere five feet, two inches tall.

"She would do everything she could to prove otherwise," said Laura Neustater, Harris' only child. "When she had a hard time proving herself, she used strong, vulgar language. She was very competitive and whatever she did, it had to be the best or she was not happy."

"She was just filled with character," Stamm added. "She is sorely missed."

After a few years of processing countless rock samples with consistent results, Harris caught the attention of the chief of the Oil & Gas Branch of the USGS who began paying her one day a week to continue her research, Repetski said.

Color Alteration Index (CAI)

Harris' findings were published as a USGS Professional Paper in 1977 - three years after she was promoted to research geologist in the Paleontology and Stratigraphy Branch. (She co-authored the paper with Epstein and Leonard Harris.)

From her oven experiments, she initially indexed conodonts on a scale from 1 to 5, with "1" indicating a temperature of no greater than 50-80 degrees Celsius and "5" indicating a temperature range from 300 to 480 degrees Celsius.

In 1987, Harris published the second half the CAI (as a second author) with a scale that reached an "8," indicating temperatures of 600 degrees Celsius and higher.

She literally rocked the geological community with a new means to determine the thermal maturation of rocks. Although the technique could be used in the minerals industry to help locate potential gold deposits, it was more largely embraced by the oil and gas industry, Stamm said.

Using an acidic solution, "We probably dissolved a ton of rocks each year from all over looking for conodonts," Stamm said.

Rocks from the Appalachians, Alaska, Indiana, Ohio, China, Tibet and the Basin and Range provinces - including Nevada, southeast California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Sonora, Mexico - made their way into Harris' hands and eventually to others who trained to process and analyze them.

"It made a lot of careers for a lot of people," Repetski said of the CAI.

Part of Harris' collection of 18,000 micro-slides, as applied to the CAI, eventually became the base for regional oil and gas potential maps.

With Harris as her supervisor, Stamm threw all desires to attend graduate school out the window.

"I couldn't have learned more had I gone on and gotten my master's and Ph.D.," she said. "I wasn't going to miss anything."

That included many nights when Harris and Stamm searched for rock samples in the dark.

"We had the car lights shining on the outcrops and it was like go, go, go. She was a pistol," Stamm said. "She worked harder and longer hours than anyone I knew. Being a civil servant was very important to her."

Harris' work eventually took her to the Red Dog Mine and the Brooks Range in Alaska, where metamorphic rocks of previously unknown age could be dated using conodonts, said AAPG member Julie Dumoulin, a research geologist with the USGS.

"I feel incredibly lucky to have met her at the point in my career that I did," she said. "Her work allowed us to look at carbonate rocks in ways they had never been looked at before in Alaska and showed that you can unravel complex histories using conodonts as a tool."

Harris and Dumoulin often were transported by helicopter into the bush to collect sacks of rock samples weighing 10 kilograms each. To avoid numerous trips walking the sacks down the mountainsides, Harris sent them rolling like heavy tumbleweeds with a swift kick.

"Some would hit a large rock and explode, but most survived the trip," Dumoulin recalled. Then, Harris would mail the bags back to her office, where they would be lined up outside the door waiting for processing.

When emptied, Harris charged her young daughter with washing and ironing the bags alongside the family's linens to save the government money, Neustater recalled.

Unlike many conodont paleontologists who focus on one specific time interval, Harris worked the entire span of conodont history.

So dedicated to her science, Harris' official retirement from the USGS in 1999 carried no significance nor prompted any tears, for everyone knew she could never really leave.

"We didn't even bother having a retirement party for her," Stamm said, "because she was back in her office the next day."

Harris continued working for the USGS as an emeritus geologist, shuffling back and forth between the USGS offices in Reston, Va., and Denver and her home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., near her daughter until 2008.

Rich In Spirit

While Harris told many she became a geologist to escape being poor, her dedication to the government and to science show that she sought greater things than money.

Throughout her career, Harris gave more than 80 lectures, authored or co-authored an estimated 150-200 journals and reports, and served as adviser or co-adviser for 14 theses and dissertations. She even managed two rare (for a USGS employee) teaching sabbaticals at Duke and Case Western Reserve universities, where she taught Appalachian geology to upper level undergraduate and graduate students.

She also was given the Meritorious Service Award and the Distinguished Service Award from the U.S. Department of the Interior - the two highest awards for civilian government work.

Harris appeared on the PBS children's science television show 3-2-1 CONTACT - during which she unleashed a few curse words when an experiment went awry. And she also was the subject of an obscure film for IBM with former professional football quarterback Joe Montana in which footballs and fossils were somehow linked, as humorously pointed out in her curriculum vitae.

She eventually caught the attention of American writer John McPhee, who raised her status in the geologic community even higher when he wrote about her life and her work in a 1983 book titled "In Suspect Terrain," later published in 1999 in "Annals of the Former World," a geological history of North America.

Forever memorialized, Harris remains highly regarded. Although her last years were darkened with dementia, stealing away those parts of her mind and personality that endeared her to so many, the no-nonsense yet hilarious Harris seems to have left a permanent mark on countless people and on geology itself.

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