Growing up in New Mexico, I was always interested in the stories about how the mountains and rivers surrounding me came to be. I remember being told the mountains outside Albuquerque were uplifted during a single huge earthquake and I questioned it immediately, wanting to know more. I also loved hiking in the mountains because I could get away from everything and be on my own.
Even though I was always good at science, I had a really tough time applying myself. My family was very poor; my mom struggled to keep enough food on the table for my brother and me. She chased jobs throughout northern New Mexico and we moved so much that I had changed schools seven times by the time I graduated high school.
To help my mom, I started washing dishes at a local Albuquerque restaurant when I was 12 years old. By the time I was 19, I was managing a fancy restaurant in town. I had guys twice my age working under me and I saw my future in their toil. I knew this wasn’t the life I wanted, but I didn’t know how to break free.
If I hadn’t met my wife, Kelly, I wouldn’t be a geologist today. She is four years older than me and had already graduated from the University of New Mexico (UNM) when we started dating. She pushed me to enroll and helped me apply to school. I got in despite my bad grades in high school and I had to take a lot of remedial classes in the first couple of years.
I enrolled with the intention of becoming a physicist since I was good at science. But the physics class was in the basement and it was terrible! We were indoors, working with equations and doing meaningless experiments. It felt so sterile, closed in, not what I wanted to do with my life.
In my third year, I was still trying to choose a major when I took a geology class by accident. I was immediately enthralled. Geology allowed me to combine my love of the outdoors and science. I saw these guys getting paid to go camping and I knew that was the job I wanted.
While I was studying at UNM, I had several significant mentors who paved my way to a successful academic career. Gary Smith, who taught my intro to geology class, arranged my first job that wasn’t in a restaurant or a car shop. I worked updating a database at the New Mexico Geology Museum and, while the job was tedious, it was my pathway out of the restaurant industry.
Through Gary I met Jeff Grambling, who hired me as a geology field assistant and taught me all about mapping complex geology. He was an amazing friend, mentor, and teacher. While I was working with him, he died from a brain tumor. He was only 40 years old, younger than I am now. I still feel the loss of him greatly.
When Jeff passed, Karl Karlstrom took over for him and he was also an important mentor. He gave me a strong foundation in structural geology that I still draw on today. In fact, I still use my notes from his classes as a basis for some of my lectures at Cornell today. Karl really pushed me to go to graduate school. For example, once he had me lead a field trip for a group of students visiting from Princeton University. I showed them the local geology and they were so impressed with my knowledge that they thought I was a postdoc. The Princeton professor who brought the students to New Mexico ended up becoming my PhD advisor. Later, Karl told me he knew it would work out that way.
When it came time to apply for graduate school, I was scared to leave my comfort zone of New Mexico. I had spent my whole life there and I loved the blue skies, green chili, the people, and the geology. Also, I was the first person in my family to graduate high school, let alone go to a university and graduate school. I was terrified to move to New Jersey, but Karl really pushed me to go to the best university I could. If it weren’t for his advice, I would have stayed in New Mexico and I probably wouldn’t be a professor at Cornell.
Going to a place like Princeton was definitely intimidating, but I knew it was a great opportunity and I did my best to fit in. My PhD advisor, Lincoln Hollister, granted me amazing opportunities and treated me like a colleague instead of a student, which made all the difference for me. We co-authored some really high-impact papers together and he invited me into big multi-institutional projects. He also introduced me to the geology of British Columbia, which I’ve now studied for the last 15 years.
I am now an associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, working in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences studying tectonics, structural geology, and igneous and metamorphic petrology. Simply put, I try to figure out how the earth loses heat. The earth is a heat machine, hot on the inside and cold on the outside. Ultimately, that’s why we’re able to live on it. Without plate tectonics, which help circulate the heat to the surface, the earth would cease to bear life.
To answer these big questions, I’m in the field a lot, which is one of the best parts of my job. I recently calculated that I’ve probably slept outside for two-and-a-half to three years of my professional life, which amounts to two or more months in the field every year.
While I love being in the field, it’s been really difficult being away from my family so much. I was gone when my son learned how to talk and I’m still sad I missed out on that. Also, a lot of the places I go are really remote. There are no cell phones, no Internet, no nothing. During my PhD studies, I’d get dropped off by a helicopter in the wilderness of British Columbia and be gone for weeks, never talking to my family. I’m very lucky that my wife, Kelly, puts up with it. When she met me, I never imagined I’d even go to college and she never imagined that she would marry a guy who’d be going to crazy places full of grizzly bears just to look at rocks.
So much of my life is defined by what I do as a geologist, yet I’ve actually spent more years working in restaurants because I started so young. It’s important to know that wherever you are during your teenage years does not have to define where you end up being. I had a rough and wild childhood living in bad neighborhoods and I didn’t do well in school. But all that didn’t mean I couldn’t go on to something better. Being a geologist wasn’t even on my radar; it really happened by accident. I always tell my students to do the best they can and don’t be afraid to do really scary things, like, for example, going to Princeton—something truly terrifying, but that in the end turned out really well!