Here’s one sign of change in university-level geoscience education: This year, for the first time, both recipients of AAPG’s Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award are female geology professors.
Their careers have followed different paths and include contrasting professional interests, but the stories of their respective educational histories share several common links.
That story starts with James Taylor. And chocolate chip cookies.
Marjorie A. Chan is distinguished professor in geology and geophysics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where she established and directed the Sedimentary and Terrestrial Analog Research group, with a range of sedimentary geology projects applicable to subsurface oil and gas exploration or to terrestrial comparisons with Mars.
Kate Giles is professor of Earth, environmental and resource sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso. She established and directs UTEP’s Institute of Tectonic Studies and Salt Sediment Interaction Research Consortium.
Today, they are widely recognized for their academic accomplishments and years of outstanding and inspiring instruction as well their contributions to petroleum geology applicable to oil and gas development – Chan in sedimentology and stratigraphy, Giles in salt tectonics.
Field Assistant Needed
Their paths first crossed in the 1980s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Chan pursued her doctorate in geology after earning her undergraduate degree at the University of California-Davis, and Giles was an undergrad working on a geology degree.
As a graduate researcher, “I needed a field assistant and I don’t remember how it happened, but Kate said she’d be willing to do it,” Chan recalled.
Giles remembered Chan’s process as a “very professional” vetting, including a formal interview.
The pair set out on a road trip to study outcrops along the Oregon coast. Chan took along a handful of music cassettes, which she said they listened to over and over again. And again.
“Margie had 12 cassette tapes and I think 10 of them were James Taylor. I only knew one James Taylor song when I went out there. I know them all, now,” Giles said.
“The thing is, now I love James Taylor,” she added.
For her part, Chan recalled that Giles’ mother would send supplies of chocolate chip cookies, so that particular field trip experience had a definite chocolate-chip vibe.
Family Field Trips
Chan grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and developed an early interest in nature and Earth science.
“I loved being outdoors, so geology was a good fit for me. I grew up in a family where my father taught marine biology, so we viewed science as the way to explore new worlds, make discoveries and give back to society,” she said.
“While other families were going to Disneyland, all our family vacations were field trips throughout the western U.S. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to do marine biology because I got seasick, so I stuck with the solid earth under my feet,” she added.
‘What the Heck Are Salt Domes?’
Giles came from Sheboygan, Wis., and her early outdoor experience was more limited. On the Oregon field trip with Chan, “we were camping out. I had never camped out before,” she said. Her interest in fossils and limestone during her student days evolved into an examination of carbonate reefs, then ongoing deeper research into salt tectonics.
“I was really interested in biology and fossils, so I gravitated to carbonate rock. I got most interested in rocks that were affected by tectonics,” Giles recalled.
She began to study Cretaceous and Paleocene reefs that developed on salt domes in Mexico, “so I had to learn, ‘What the heck are salt domes?,’” she said.
Those studies resulted in a close relationship with oil and gas companies because the industry could provide the data necessary for her research, Giles noted. While her research resulted in many contributions related to oil and gas exploration, her focus remained academic and inspired by the scope of salt tectonics worldwide.
“Most other tectonics systems don’t go by those rates and those scales, and they aren’t as influential as salt tectonics,” Giles noted.
Mars and Venus
Chan said she had never taken a planetary geology class, “nor dreamed that I would ever be thinking about geology on Mars.”
“I had been looking at red rock country for a number of years when the Mars rover Opportunity landed in 2004 and sent back images that were very similar to features I had been looking at on the Colorado Plateau,” she recalled
“Really it was just serendipity, as a lot of science is. The similarities between Earth and Mars are remarkable, including concretionary forms, similar to Mars blueberries; soft sediment deformation; clastic pipes; weathering cracks; wind erosion features and more,” she said.
A common experience in their education was a lack of female instructors during their university studies. Giles said she didn’t encounter a female geoscience academic in her college years until her doctoral work in geology at the University of Arizona.
“It didn’t occur to me that I was a woman without a lot of female geoscientists around me. I just didn’t think about it,” Giles recalled.
In her formative education years, “my role model was Margie. During my PhD I had one female committee member, but I wouldn’t say I followed her direction completely,” she said.
Chan said her university instructors were “all men” but and added that several of her most important mentors were male, including the noted geologist and geoscience academic Robert H. Dott, Jr.
“Though I never had any women geology professors, I had outstanding mentors along the way who really supported me in my pursuits. Academia is demanding, but it also offers some flexibility and lots of opportunities for choosing your own path. I liked the idea of being your own boss,” Chan said.
It’s a Small World
Both Giles and Chan hold numerous professional honors, and they have both been highly active in association and general public efforts to promote and advance geoscience.
Chan is a Geological Society of America fellow and former GSA distinguished international lecturer, presenting 53 lectures in six countries. Her honors range from a GSA Distinguished Service Award to excellence of presentation awards from the Society for Sedimentary Geology to a YWCA Outstanding Leadership Award
Her research has been featured in National Geographic and Discovery Channel documentary films and many other broadcast presentations.
Giles has served as chair of the GSA’s Sedimentary Geology Division, an AAPG Distinguished Lecturer and chair of the Association’s Distinguished Lecturer Committee, and is a past president and honorary member of the New Mexico Geological Society.
Notably, Giles has been a reviewer or associate editor for numerous geoscience journals, including the AAPG Bulletin, making a significant contribution to professional review.
Chan stated, “What a delight for me to be receiving the educator award along with Kate Giles,” but wouldn’t see it as too much of a coincidence.
“Often the (geoscience) community feels like it is indeed a small world. I have met and interacted with amazing people, from all over the world. Even across the continents, we speak the same language – geo talk – and we share common bonds in our quest for knowledge about Earth and the balance of the environment,” she said.
Today, Giles is preparing for the post-COVID world in higher education and the new demands of the energy transition, while Chan herself is transitioning into retirement from university instruction.
“With the new uncertainties with the path forward during the energy transition, I am working closely with all the faculty in UTEP’s newly named Department of Earth, Environmental and Resource Sciences to reimagine our undergraduate program – and our role as faculty in order to better prepare our students for successful careers,” Giles said.
“This is an enlightening, re-energizing and inspiring process for me as I’ve been exposed to so many new and really creative ideas on how to achieve this, and I have a much better understanding of the importance of my role as a geoscience educator,” she added.
Chan said, “Being in academia has always had lots of challenges and is never boring. It’s satisfying to be able to meet new challenges and be involved in the problem solving. Being around young students always made me feel younger.”
“I’ve had the privilege of meeting so many students and I have learned so much from them and with them,” she said, adding, “It is truly rewarding to see what many of the students have done with their lives, pursuing their dreams and accomplishing more than I could imagine.”