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ken ridgway

Ken Ridgway, PhD

The greatest inspiration for my career as a geologist was the relationship my family and I had with the land while I was growing up.  I was raised in rural New Jersey, but my life was not what you would expect.  I’m a Lenape (Delaware) Indian, and I lived with my parents in a community of Lenapes.  We were farmers, hunters, and trappers, so we had to watch the weather cycles, the tides, and the comings and goings of insects because of the effects that these forces of nature could have on the crops and animals that we fed on. Living closely with the land tuned me into what seemed like amazing mysteries of nature and made me very curious.  I wanted to know the scientific explanations behind what I observed as a child.  So years later, when I went to West Virginia University, I started taking science classes.  In school, I found out that I could build a career on investigating questions about the Earth so I decided that a job in the sciences was what I wanted.
It was a big deal for me to go to college because no one in my family had gone before.  Many of my guidance counselors or teachers thought I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t receive much encouragement.  I faced a lot of discrimination in high school—sometimes people didn’t even believe that I was Native American.  They didn’t believe that Native Americans ever lived in New Jersey, even though that’s where the Lenape have always lived.  This denial of my cultural background was very difficult for me because being Native American is such an important aspect of my life.
Fortunately I had role models like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who taught me that I had the right to excel and that I could excel, even if people didn’t accept me for who I was.  Part of what I had to overcome was the feeling that I needed to blend in and not make waves.  If you’ve faced a lot of discrimination, what you often learn is that life is easier if you blend in as much as possible.  But excelling in school means that you stand out, which can be pretty uncomfortable for people who don’t want to draw much attention to themselves.  However, when I got to college, I felt like there was much less racism than in high school.  That’s what I love about universities.  They’re about ideas and about how hard you can work and how clearly you can think. As a professor at Purdue University, I try to make sure the quiet students have the same opportunities as the students who are more comfortable with standing out.
I always knew I was lucky to be able to go to college, and I also knew that I wanted to have a career that would let me help my community.  I felt like I had to make the most of my opportunities because there were many Lenape kids who never got to go to college.  I decided very early on that I wanted to be a professor, so I got my Master’s at Indiana University, and finally my Ph.D. at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York.  In between, I worked for Chevron Oil because I wanted to know about what kinds of jobs geology students could get after college, so I could be a better teacher.
Now that I’m a professor, I have the chance to take my students to places they’ve never been before.  My own connections with nature are so important that I want to expose my students to similar opportunities.  Some of them may go on to help make decisions about natural resources and other environmental issues, so it’s very important to me that they have an appreciation for the land.  Sometimes, we fly into very isolated parts of Alaska for two or three months.  That’s an amazing experience, especially for students who have grown up in cities, because it’s really a completely untouched ecosystem.  We’re not at the top of the food chain, we’re drinking water that hasn’t been treated with chemicals, and we’re living with wildlife like caribou and grizzly bears.  Experiences like this make me appreciate the Earth and its resources as a gift, and it makes me want to help my students learn to appreciate this gift and take care of it as best we can.
One way we can take care of the gifts we find in the Earth is by knowing their history.  In my current research, I work with sedimentary rocks, which are rocks that form at the surface of the earth.  By looking at these types of rocks, I can read the history of the Earth and find out things like when periods of global warming and global cooling occurred, and what effects those temperature changes had on life on Earth.  This allows us to better predict the effects of the current global warming trend on plant and animal communities.
I also enjoy helping people, especially Native American communities, make decisions about drilling for oil and natural gas; locating wells for drinking water; and safe locations for landfills.  Native American reservations often have many valuable natural resources, but sometimes the ways they are extracted can destroy the land or places that are sacred to that community.  I think that it’s very important that there are Native American geologists so that Native American communities who are struggling with environmental issues can use their own people to make informed decision that will allow them to grow with technology but also keep their culture.
Throughout my life, I’ve had to balance my love of the Earth and my Native American heritage, which is closely tied to the land, with the necessity of using natural resources for modern life.  I believe that it is possible to achieve this balance and to do so in a way that will benefit everyone.  But to create this balance, we need people who care about more than money.  We need people who love the land and who care for all people, to help make these decisions in intelligent and culturally sensitive ways.