A few dates and names might be a little slower to come to mind, but at the age of 100, Helen Foster’s love for geology remains clear and strong.
“You can learn and enjoy geology by observing the Earth around you … mountains, streams, you learn to enjoy and appreciate them more,” she said.
Foster might be AAPG’s longest-tenured member, and one of its oldest, having recently celebrated her 100th birthday on Dec. 15.
She joined AAPG 72 years ago in 1947 as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, studying general science. Foster said some of her professors were involved in AAPG and introduced her to the Association, including opportunities to attend some meetings and conferences.
She took a teaching job at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
“While I was teaching there, a friend who was working for our government in Japan asked if I would take her place. She wanted to return to the states and get married and she needed a replacement,” Foster said.
Colleagues encouraged her to pursue the opportunity and Wellesley let her out of her teaching contract.
She was soon in Japan as part of the military geology branch of the United States Geological Survey working on the post-hostilities mapping program. The program involved working with Japanese scientists, mapping and gathering information about little-known islands south of Japan.
Foster said she spent much of her time there heading a program mapping the island of Ishigaki in the Ryuku chain.
The assignment lasted about 10 years. Then she returned to Washington, D.C., to complete the compiling of her reports.
Back in the United States, she seized another opportunity.
“I went to Alaska for field work and stayed there for most of my active career,” Foster said.
The focus of her work was to create maps useful for the Army’s winter maneuvers. Many days, that meant being ferried by helicopter to work in some remote area and returning the same way in the evenings.
“I never lived in Alaska. I lived in Menlo Park., Calif., and traveled there during the summer and spring months. We were usually in the field by mid-June,” she said.
Foster officially retired in 1986, but continued to work some after that, she said. She settled in Carson City, Nev., and continues to live there.
Life After Retirement
She said AAPG was a great influence and benefitted her during her career.
“I always got a great deal out of the meetings and met people who were helpful later. It was an opportunity to learn more about the many applications and aspects of geology,” she said.
From student to career scientist, she continued to benefit from the organization.
“From my time as a student on up, members were always interested and helpful … willing to take time to explain things,” she said.
“Things changed as I got older, but the relationships were still there,” Foster added.
After retiring, she continued to read the geological bulletins, attend meetings and go on field trips.
“I maintained contact with many geologists and kept up my interest in the science. I haven’t retired from my interest in geology or in my geologist friends,” said Foster.
In addition to being noted for the discovery of significant mineral deposits and mapping more than 28,000 square miles in Alaska, Foster collected many honors during her career, including the Outstanding Achievement Award from the University of Michigan in 1976, the Meritorious Service Award from the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1984 and Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Michigan in 2018.
As for reaching that milestone 100th birthday:
“If people didn’t keep reminding me of it, it’s something I’d just as soon forget,” she said with a chuckle.
She said she has no secrets for longevity to share, except, “Stay active as possible – both physically and mentally – and have the right ancestors.”