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!
When I was a kid, I loved going to the movies with my uncle. During the 1950s, science fiction films became really popular. They had titles like Teenagers from Outer Space or When Worlds Collide. Even though these movies may have been far-fetched, they led to my first interest in science.
My uncle was not only my movie buddy. He also opened up the world to me. He taught me algebra, literature and philosophy, and he also showed me how to tap dance! He and my mother grew up in show business as part of a traveling vaudeville act. They were Oglala Sioux, and although my grandfather was not proud of his culture, the family earned their living performing in costume as an Indian act. He did not teach his children about the Sioux heritage. At that time, there was a tremendous amount of prejudice toward Native Americans, and my grandfather did not want his children to identify with a group that was so discriminated against.
My father, who emigrated with his family from Italy, was also a vaudeville musician and eventually became the musical conductor for the Holiday on Ice show. My mother ice-skated in the show. My brother and I often traveled with them when the show was on tour. But during the school year, we were enrolled in military or boarding schools. We lived in a lower-middle-class Italian neighborhood in Chicago. We spoke Italian, and my brother and I went to a Catholic school after my parents separated. My mother had a lot of grief because the community did not accept her. Even though she wasn’t raised Sioux, she looked Native American. We had further difficulties, since divorce was also not accepted in our primarily Catholic neighborhood. But I felt like I was a pretty normal kid.
My mother remarried when I was 13, and my stepfather moved us to Victorville, California, in 1958. I was taken from a city of five million people to a city of 5,000 people located in the Mojave Desert. That was a lonely time for me and I experienced a lot of culture shock. I spent most of my time reading and doing homework, since I was planning to go to college. When I was 17 or 18, I became inspired by the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, an original renaissance man. Like Cellini, I wanted to become an expert in different subjects. Going to college was not expected back then, because you didn’t need a degree to get a job. But I wanted to learn about literature and science, and get my Ph.D.
I decided to pursue a career in physics because I liked the subject in high school. I started at the University of California, Riverside, in 1959. I got married at age 23, and we had our first child, Cora, after I completed my degree in 1966. During this time, I worked for the university while my wife worked for the phone company. I paid my way through school without any financial assistance. After I finished my master’s at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1968, we were tired of being poor, so I took a job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researching atmospheric diffusion. I studied how air quality in our country is affected by the dispersion of pollution from sources like smokestacks or cars.
Later in life, when my first daughter was old enough to go to college, I went back too! With a scholarship from NOAA, I commuted weekly to the Georgia Institute of Technology, and completed my Ph.D. in 1989. Besides being a personal goal, completing my education made it possible for me to become a professor.
I took the opportunity to take my research in a new direction, and learned about atmospheric gravity waves. I had always wondered why trees sometimes rustle at night, even when there shouldn’t be any wind. One theory is that these turbulent events are generated by atmospheric gravity waves. These waves are similar to the waves on the sea, except air is pushed up and down, instead of water. Atmospheric gravity waves can be created by thunderstorms, fast-moving cold fronts, or air moving over mountains. The turbulence generated by these waves can increase the spread of pollutants, and so it’s important to study how the waves are created. When I decided to research this field, there wasn’t much information out there. It has been said that the best way to learn a subject is to write a book about it, so that’s what I did.
Maybe it was my fascination with the Italian Renaissance, or maybe it’s from growing up with multi-talented vaudeville performers, but I have always loved learning about new and different subjects. Now I am learning about my own history, since my Native American background wasn’t really recognized because “it didn’t belong” when I grew up. My grandfather took the name of DeSoto because he wanted to appear more Spanish than Native American. It was really sad, because the forces of society succeeded in destroying his interest in his own culture. But the reverse is true for me.
Since I was denied that part of my background, my interest in my heritage has been rekindled. I want to learn more about it, and help young Native Americans interested in science. One of my colleagues, a member of SACNAS, invited me to give a talk at a SACNAS conference. Science is such a common language. It is about thinking, learning, and using something that everyone has, no matter what your race, class or gender is: your mind.
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.
“Education is your most powerful weapon,” said Chief Plenty Coups, one of the last Crow Indian war chiefs. “With it, you’re the white man’s equal. Without it, you become his victim.” Chief Plenty Coups led our tribe before the United States settled the West, and continued to lead it into the transition of living on a reservation.
I am a full blood member of the Crow tribe of south-central Montana. Growing up, I was immersed in tribal culture and conduct, and spoke the Crow language before learning English. American culture was somewhat foreign to me. We have extended families in our tribal communities, where aunts are respected as mothers, and cousins are like brothers and sisters. Grandmothers would tell us the history of our people and how we survived the wars and smallpox epidemics. We embrace our identity as survivors and the host people of this great country.
Chief Plenty Coups’ words were important in my family. On my mother’s side there are generations of teaching experience. My grandmother was the first Crow Indian to get a four-year degree in teaching and my mom was a principal, administrator, and teacher for over thirty years. My father taught high school and was also a tribal leader, so I was exposed to community issues at tribal, state and national levels. As he encouraged his children to go to college, my father also ingrained in us the understanding that there would come a time when the tribe would call upon us and our specific skills, and we were obligated to come back to help. I wanted to help by becoming either a scientist or physician. Knowing it would take extra effort, I worked hard in all my science and math classes. Also, my junior year in high school, I was part of a summer internship program for native youth at Montana State University (MSU). It was very competitive, and provided exposure to university research projects, which I later came to understand as being an integral part of a career in the sciences.
I had a summer job at a coal mine when I was just out of high school. We have one large mine on the reservation, and others close by. Working with geoscientists, I was intrigued by their expertise in mapping coals and directing mining operations. I was very interested in their ability to predict where the coals were underground. When I learned that I could identify hidden deposits of oil and gas, even gold or silver or diamonds, I knew what I wanted to study.
Only a few of my peers went on to finish their college education. Coming from an Indian school system, we’re not always prepared for college, where being Native American, you are truly in the minority. Although racial discrimination was not unusual at border towns along the reservation, I determined within myself to keep an open mind, and made a commitment within myself to look for the best in people. I used my experience to learn about others, and recognized that we are all part of the human tribe. I found a new and unfamiliar culture at Montana State University. People interacted differently, and I was one of the few on campus who spoke Crow. Although there were other Native Americans there, the university population is so large, I hardly saw them during the course of the day. That shock alone prevents many from continuing an education. Often the struggle is not about how smart you are, but how well you can cope with that change, and having persistence.
In our culture, early marriage is a traditional custom. I thought I had a hard time, and then I saw Indian women with one or two kids, often single mothers, working and going to school, and successfully finishing! As I admired and respected them, it helped me to keep in mind that many times people are facing even larger obstacles than me and still get through school. It’s difficult, but people do make it.
I started college dreaming only of a bachelor’s degree in geology. But by senior year, I realized that if I started working, my salary would not be what I was hoping for. I decided to get a master’s degree at Colorado School of Mines. I didn’t even think about a Ph.D. That’s the way dreams are. I learned to take one step at a time—each step will lead to the next. Eventually I found myself saying, “Well, there are very few Natives with a Ph.D., why don’t you be the one who breaks the trail?”
My Ph.D. program at Colorado School of Mines required steel discipline. I worked full time in the oil industry and then came home to work on my dissertation. After staying up late, I woke up each morning to another long day. I also had two children by then. What kept me going was my ability to dream, and having enough passion, determination, and faith to chase my dreams.
In 2001 I was called home, as my father predicted. I developed Arrow Creek Resources, to provide geoscience expertise to the Crow and other tribes. During my time with Arrow Creek Resources, I helped tribes understand the value of their natural resources, and the steps for making informed decisions when dealing with outside companies.
Then I moved to Houston, far from the reservation, to rejoin the petroleum industry with a large company. I did get homesick, but that is the price to be successful as a geoscientist. From day one, my wife and I taught our children how to speak Crow, so we have always had our own tribal community at home. It was wonderful to live in a big city, learning about new groups of people and cultural practices. I just loved the rainbow of cultures in Houston.
In 2006 I accepted a position with another petroleum company that has allowed me to move back to Montana while continuing to work on projects throughout the U.S. I also serve part-time as an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Montana State University-Bozeman, where among other things I am also very involved in Native support services. We need more young people to break trails and become champions in their industry. Becoming a geoscientist positioned me to be able to contribute significantly to the tribes. Whether it’s the science, medical or computer industry, you’ll make the biggest impact by becoming a champion in your particular field, so you can answer the call of your people when it comes.
Growing up half-Crow Indian in northern Wyoming in the 1950s and 1960s wasn’t easy. I lived in a town that bordered a Native American reservation, and though I didn’t always understand things that people said or did, now I realize that it was a very unfriendly place and that there was a lot of discrimination. I spent a lot of time on horseback, which was the only real source of peace in my life. I found being outdoors very comforting, and later, when I went back to college, these early experiences inspired me to persevere so that someday I could work to preserve the land I grew up on and help other people learn how to be good caretakers of the planet.
I didn’t go to college until I was twenty-eight, after I had married a Navajo man, lived on the Navajo Nation for several years, and had three children. Life on the reservation was very difficult. I often felt like no one cared about what happened to my family and me, and the standard of living was very poor. But it was these circumstances that propelled me to change the direction of my life. For example, our water on the reservation was sometimes contaminated. I wanted to do something about it, so I entered the geology program at Northern Arizona University (NAU), with an emphasis in hydrogeology.
College was a challenge because my pre-college education had not prepared me very well. My math skills were so poor that I had to start at the very basic, lowest math class and work my way up through calculus. Another obstacle was that because I’m a Native American woman, some professors clearly thought that I wasn’t going to go very far. But I’m very stubborn, especially when someone treats me like a failure. Whenever a professor thought I couldn’t do something, I’d say to myself, “Oh yeah, you don’t think I can do this? Well, I’m going to prove you wrong!”
After I finished my degree at NAU, I received a scholarship from the National Science Foundation to study sedimentary discharges from volcanoes in the Earth Sciences program at Montana State University (MSU). I got my master’s at MSU, and then did research at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. While in Seattle, I met Dr. Anita Grunder, the woman who would eventually become my Ph.D. advisor at Oregon State University (OSU).
Dr. Grunder became a real source of inspiration for me. She’s hardworking and intelligent, and she raised kids and worked as a professor at the same time. This was important to me because I was also raising three kids on my own and trying to go to school. Being a single mom in school is difficult in many ways, but it taught me something—family is very important. Moving around so much for school was hard, and often we were poor, but my kids were always a huge source of inspiration. I probably would not have gone so far in school if it hadn’t been for them. I felt like I had to do something for their sake— that I had to do something to make the world better for them.
Fourteen years after I started college, I finished my Ph.D. at OSU.
I now work for the U.S. Geological Survey, studying climate change on the Navajo Nation, especially the movement of sand dunes and the levels of certain elements in the water. I want to investigate these problems using both the science I learned in graduate school and the Native knowledge that I have an interest in because of my cultural background. I talk with Navajo people about how the climate has changed over time and use that information to help answer questions about how and why it’s changing now. I hope that the Navajo people will use the information that I collect to inform the way they want to live in the future in a way that will allow them to keep their cultural traditions and ways of life. But, to maintain these traditions, they’re going to need scientists who want to live and work on the reservation. The future generation needs Indian people to be in the earth sciences, to be ecologists and geologists, so they can do these studies on Indian land across the country.
One of the most important things I learned over the course of my education is that who you are helps define how you look at the world and how you approach a problem. I believe that using traditional Native American knowledge is not just important from a scientific point of view but also from a cultural point of view. Traditional knowledge is what defines Indian people. It really depends on how you live on the land, what you do as a person, and how you treat the planet. We need people who approach problems from this perspective in the sciences so that we can learn—and hopefully teach others—how to be better stewards of the land.
As a kid, I didn’t really understand why my world was so isolated. One of my early memories from childhood was growing up in La Habra, the Los Angeles area of Southern California. We rented a house there and tried to settle into a community with very few other Latinos. I remember going with my mother to our new neighbor’s house to introduce ourselves once we had moved in. The first thing that came out of the neighbor’s mouth was, “Why are Mexicans so lazy?” Back then I don’t think I really realized why no one in our neighborhood really talked to us much, and at that age, I hadn’t learned to care yet.
One of the things that my parents instilled in my siblings and me was that we should work hard, go to school, and do the right thing. In this way, we avoided focusing on the negative, and we could contradict the stereotypes people like our neighbor imposed upon us. Despite our hard work, we still fought against a lot of ignorance and discrimination. I remember during high school my brother, who was lighter skinned then me, being asked, “Why is it that your brother looks white, and you look like a Spic?” That was the actual terminology that was used.
When I went to college, I thought I was going to be an aerospace engineer because as a child I was interested in being an astronaut. Then when I went to school, I realized an engineering degree wasn’t really what I wanted. I was good at math, and I loved being outside, so I figured I should stick to something more “earthly” although I still didn’t have a clue what it should be. It wasn’t until my fifth year as an undergraduate at University of California, Los Angeles that I took a geophysics class and realized I had an interest in the field. The people who I took geophysics courses from were actually seismologists. When they wrote me letters of recommendation for graduate schools, other seismologists at graduate schools recognized the other seismologists’ names and accepted me with the idea that I was interested in that field of study. Essentially I got into seismology by fortunate accident.
I was accepted to an East Coast university and the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), for graduate school, but after visiting the school back East, I decided against attending the college. I was very turned off by the school and faculty members who basically told me, “The only reason you’re getting funding to come is because of your last name.”
In my first few months at the UCSC, I was very intimidated. I didn’t have much exposure early on to seismology like some of the other students because I had only just begun pursuing any interest in the field. I felt like I was behind even though I was not. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I could relate to a lot of the students there whose parents were wealthy and had attended college themselves. It took me five years to earn my degree at UCSC, which is good, coming from an undergraduate degree to finishing with a Ph.D. The hard work and determination that my parents had instilled in me as a child paid off.
There were many times early on in school when I thought about leaving to get a job and help my family financially, but they would not let me. When I got out of school, I initially worked for a company in San Diego, not a school, so that I could insure job security and make more money then at a university.
Now I have the job security necessary to comfortably pursue other goals. One of my current hopes is that I will end up in a leadership position so I can affect policy change. Things that I’ve been pushing for lately have to do with exposing minorities to the geosciences. My position as a faculty member at a major university (University of Texas at El Paso) is a good one for promoting diversity. My job position helps me advocate for getting more minorities funding for research. I had always avoided this kind of work before because I wanted to be seen not as a minority but as a scientist first, who happens to be a minority.
I learned early on that if I worked hard I could achieve my most far-reaching goal. Some people will always view you negatively. That’s just the way it is. I believe to affect change, you really have to contribute to progression yourself. Serving as a mentor for students is one way I try to do that. I want students to know they can achieve their goals, whether they are earth bound or heading for the stars.
Growing up in Mexico City, I was surrounded by the enticing world of music, art, museums, and movies. But my family and I also explored the natural side of the city, discovering different parks, lakes, and rivers in and around the area.
My father worked in the electronics business and had to travel a lot, so we often went with him, including many wonderful trips to Acapulco. We’d always spend time at the seashore, looking at all the marine life, and enjoying the beauty of the land. At home, I had a chemistry set that included a microscope. I put everything I could under that lens—onions, bird wings, starfish I found at the beach.
I was insatiably curious—the kind of student who asks 50,000 questions. In high school I had a wonderful biology teacher who patiently put up with me and my questions about why this and why that. Finally, one day my teacher said, “If you really like biology and chemistry so much, why don’t I take you to one of the classes at the university?” I was so excited! I went with her to an animal physiology class at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, which was a completely different world from high school. That is the day when I decided to go to university. I chose UNAM because it was one of the only schools at the time in Mexico that offered biology.
The first semester of college was very challenging. I had to work to support myself through school, so I taught English classes to kindergartners. But I was extremely determined. I was the first one in my family to get a college degree and everyone was always supportive.
I grew up in a very close family, surrounded by parents, two younger brothers, and a large extended family. I lost my mother when I was only 14 years old and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through. Being with just my father and brothers felt lonely at times, but I had really close friends who helped me throughout. I had to grow up pretty fast, but I dealt with it by doing a lot of extracurricular classes, like studying the French language and Hawaiian dancing.
In addition to family support, my mentors encouraged me. Antonio Lazcano and Lynn Margulis transformed my life. Lynn used to tell me, “You have to apply for this course!” In doubt, I would respond, “I don’t know if I am going to be accepted.” Then she said something to me that I will never forget: “If you don’t apply, how will you ever get in?” My conversation with Lynn has now become my motto with my own students: “If you do not apply, you cannot get in!”
I stayed on at UNAM and got a master’s degree in biology. By then I was teaching college-level classes to support myself, but I also sold cheesecakes and chocolate cakes to make money on the side. So it really “took the cake” to get my master’s degree!
I knew that I wanted to expand my research for my PhD work and I was looking at interdisciplinary sciences, such as biogeochemistry, in which the study of biology, geology, and chemistry come together so the scientist can understand the interactions of different elemental cycles. I went to a lecture given by Ken Nealson, who was then at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I was so inspired by his talk on biogeochemistry and bioluminescence that I went up to him afterward, told him I wanted to work in his lab, and he told me to apply. Later, Dr. Nealson called to tell me that I could study with him, but he was moving to the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
Going to Wisconsin for my PhD was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I had to leave everything behind. I packed my suitcase and off I went. I arrived in Milwaukee on a very cold day in winter; it was pretty crazy and shocking. Everything was completely different to me—the weather, the language, the social structure, the way people ate, the way people related to each other. I spoke English, but I was not really fluent. That first year I almost quit, but I am not a quitter, so I pushed on (with the help of my advisor and my best friend, Cecilia). By the time I got my PhD, I had become very proficient in English, biogeochemistry, and American culture!
After obtaining my PhD working on the biogeochemistry of manganese in Oneida Lake, New York, I was a postdoctoral fellow in two different laboratories: the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., and the Institute of Marine Science(University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). The aim of the research was to study the effects of atmospheric deposition (rain) in the open ocean and I even had the opportunity to experience a hurricane while at sea!
Now I am an associate scientist at the Great Lakes WATER Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. I still work in the fields of biogeochemistry and microbiology, looking at the interaction of microbes and their environment. I currently work on the effects of invasive species, like zebra and quagga mussels, on the food web, particularly phytoplankton in Lake Michigan. I investigate how they are colonizing different areas and what effect it has on the local aquatic environments. Furthermore, we have been investigating the changes in Lake Michigan due to climate change, the impacts of which are felt at fisheries and primary production.
I love my job because I get to do so many different things. I have had the opportunity to work in the Sargasso Sea, Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California, Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming, and Lake Michigan. Some days I am in the laboratory analyzing samples or looking under the microscope, while other days I am out in the field. We often take our research vessel Neeskay (which means “pure, clean water” in Ho-Chunk language) out on Lake Michigan to collect water, animals, and sediment cores to take back to the lab. I am very passionate about my job, because I am getting to do all the things I loved to do while I was growing up, but now I get paid for it! The best thing is to study hard, learn your English and math, and don’t give up on your dreams!
As a kid I was fascinated by “critters.” I caught my share of Texas snakes, “horned toads” and tarantulas. But San Antonio is land-locked. I never met a live ocean creature until I snorkeled in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and was amazed by the sea life I saw. My Marine Corps enlistment was ending, so I asked myself “How can I make a good living doing work I enjoy?” A college degree would help, so I began studying biology at San Antonio Community College. At first, I worked all day and attended night classes. But I earned credits slowly, so I found work as a hotel night auditor, which let me take more classes during the day. I finally completed my associate’s degree and transferred to St. Mary’s University. My imagination was captured by other scientific fields, and I switched my major to chemistry, then mathematics and, finally, physics!
I had enjoyed studying atoms, magnetic fields and other physics topics, but now wanted to work on something I could see and feel. While investigating graduate programs, I discovered that oceanography is “multi-disciplinary,” including biology, chemistry, geology and physics. Physicists could be oceanographers, too! Physical oceanographers study the water itself, such as currents, waves and phenomena like El Niño. I applied to several physics graduate programs and several oceanography programs and received two offers: one for medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, the other for oceanography at the University of Hawaii. The decision was a no-brainer–it was oceanography in Hawaii for me! I received my B.S. in Physics in 1967, and immediately married my sweetheart, Yolanda Cano. We left three days later for Hawaii on what turned out to be a 10-year honeymoon!
Dr. Brent Gallagher was my Master”s thesis advisor and mentor, and remains a friend to this day. He suggested a terrific project: the first comprehensive study of the physical oceanography of Honolulu”s Ala Wai Canal, a small tropical estuary. Yolanda pitched in to help with the fieldwork. From a small boat, we measured currents, water temperature, salinity and nutrients, and collected bacteriological samples. I completed my M.S. in 1970 with the publication of this work. The report provided an important baseline for future studies, and is a useful reference for marine ecologists.
It was Dr. Rudy Preisendorfer, an applied mathematician who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and my love of mathematics that drew me to work on tsunamis. Tsunamis are waves generated when a violent geophysical event like an earthquake, landslide, or explosive volcano creates a bump (or cavity) on the ocean surface. In deep water, the bump may be only a few meters high but ten to hundreds of miles across, so the sea surface slope is extremely gentle and the waves pass under a ship completely unnoticed. The deeper the water, the faster the waves travel. In the deepest water the waves reach speeds of 500 miles per hour. As the coast is approached, waves in back are in deeper water and travel faster than those in front. The waves are squeezed into a smaller area, but the total energy of the waves is constant. To offset the smaller area, the height of the waves increases, sometimes to more than 30 meters! In my Ph.D. thesis I developed a new mathematical way to describe how a tsunami behaves when it attacks a coastline or harbor. I completed my doctoral studies in 1975, the same year that Yolanda graduated. During that ceremony, I received my Ph.D. in Physical Oceanography. Yolanda, not to be outdone, earned two degrees–a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Bachelor of Art History. It was one of the most emotionally satisfying days of our lives.
Dangerous waves, and the mathematics of these waves, had captured my imagination. I continued working with Rudy for two more years. In 1977, I joined NOAA”s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) in Seattle to work on the first oceanographic satellite, SEASAT, which took radar images of the ocean. This new type of wave data revealed many exciting discoveries, including snapshots of beautiful (but dangerous) wave patterns generated by hurricanes. After SEASAT, I led the PMEL Hazardous Waves Project. I currently lead the PMEL Tsunami Program. We use sophisticated computer models to simulate tsunami attacks on coastal communities; this helps identify areas that are at high risk, and provides valuable guidance to emergency managers. We have also built the first deep-ocean network of stations that track tsunamis and report them in real time, a project known as Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART). DART systems use a bottom pressure recorder to measure a tsunami. The measurements are sent acoustically to a surface buoy, which transmits data to a satellite, then to a Tsunami Warning Center. Research that focuses on saving lives and property is very satisfying, and I feel fortunate to have spent most of my career in this field.
I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska in a mixed heritage family. My father is Mexican-American, and my mother is German-American. I have three brothers and one sister, all younger than me. There were few Hispanic students in my elementary and high schools, so my exposure to Latino culture came primarily from my father and my grandmother.
Growing up, I did not feel as though I had any large obstacles to overcome. I did well in school and my family environment was always supportive. The difficulty I did experience was financial. My parents couldn’t afford my Catholic high school and college education, so I had to work to pay for my tuition. This experience taught me how to manage my time between working and going to school. I valued and appreciated my education even more because I had paid for it.
Originally I wanted to be a veterinarian; but it was my eighth grade science teacher, Ms. Bruckner, whose enthusiasm for science motivated me to pursue meteorology as my field. In Nebraska, severe storms occur frequently each year. I particularly remember a tornado that occurred on May 6, 1975 near our house in Omaha, Nebraska. That tornado, the costliest tornado in United States history, caused over one billion dollars of damage to our city. This display of the awesome power of nature also increased my interest in weather.
I knew that I wanted a Ph.D. even before I started college. One of the reasons I went to graduate school was to increase my opportunity to get a job doing exciting meteorological research. More importantly, I wanted to learn as much as possible to become a successful scientist. I did well in my undergraduate years of college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), and later at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, although working while I attended school in order to support my education was hard. I pursued my graduate degree at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The transition from a four-year college to a large research university was difficult for me. There were times that it was so tough I actually considered leaving school. However, the values I learned from both of my parents, and the continued support I received from my family and friends, carried me through the difficult times, enabling me to be persistent and complete my Ph.D. when I was 28 years old.
Currently I am a research meteorologist for the University of Oklahoma and the National Severe Storms Laboratory. My main responsibility is to study hazardous weather. More specifically, I study ice storms, storms during which falling rain freezes as it hits the ground causing a dangerous accumulation of ice. Some of you may have hit these patches of ice on the road and know how dangerous they can be.
I have compiled national statistics on where and when freezing rain occurs to help meteorologists predict these storms accurately. However, statistics won’t tell us why an ice storm occurred. From the results of a previous study, I found that freezing rain occurs less often along the western shores of the Great Lakes than at locations farther away from the lakes. Because of the complexity of weather, meteorologists create computer models to help understand the physical processes that occur during a particular phenomenon. However, due to the atmosphere’s complexity and limited computational resources, these computer models ignore certain aspects of the problem, and may over-emphasize other aspects. Nonetheless, the computer simulations provide us with key information. Using data from computer model simulations, coupled with a knowledge of how scientists believe the atmosphere behaves, I hope to explain why freezing rain does not always occur near the western shores of the Great Lakes. When I believe I understand why this occurs, I will publish my results in a scientific journal, such as Weather and Forecasting, making my results available to the scientific community and the general public. It is my hope that my research eventually helps to minimize the death toll and destruction of property from winter weather events.
In order to be a scientist a lot of time and money is invested in earning the necessary university degrees. It is important to truly love what you’re doing. Explore your options. If you are in high school or college, many opportunities exist that allow you to explore if a career in science is for you. For example, there are science camps for high school students and internships for college students. Take advantage of these opportunities if you can. Become better educated about your career choices, and don’t be afraid to rely on others to help you achieve your goals. Know that school and life can be difficult at different times. By being confident and persistent you can get through many things. Keep mindful of your goals and believe in yourself. These things will help you get through those tough times.
I am a child of two cultures. My father is from Quito, Ecuador, and my mother is Jewish from New York City. Although I was born in London, England, most of my childhood was spent in Latin America. Since both of my parents were economists with the United Nations, my brother and I had the opportunity to live in many different countries including Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile, and Guatemala. Even though I have lived in America from the time that I was twelve years old, Latin America still feels like home and for many years I planned on returning to live there permanently.
Moving to America wasn’t easy and I found it very difficult to adjust both socially and academically. Kids at school asked whether we lived in trees in Guatemala. My 7th grade P.E. teacher told me to go take off my stockings when I wasn’t wearing any – it was just the dark color of my skin! As far as academics were concerned, it was challenging to get into the right classes. My school said it wasn’t on the tracking system, but it was obvious that there were low, middle, and high classes. I had to fight to get into the high track math class where I knew I belonged. I had loved math and science ever since I received a book on astronomy from my grandfather when I was seven years old. Thanks to my parents, who valued me for being a girl and being intelligent, I was never faced with the notion that women could not be scientists or mathematicians.
I majored in physics with an emphasis in astronomy at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where I was the only woman in the department. However, in my senior year, I realized that it would be difficult to pursue astronomy in Latin America. I knew that I wanted to balance my love of science with my passion for political work, but I didn’t know how. One of my physics professors encouraged me to apply to graduate school in geophysics, emphasizing that such work could be beneficial in Latin America. I took my professor’s advice, and started my graduate work at Stanford University in geophysics.
After receiving my master’s degree, I was employed by the U.S. Geological Survey doing field research in Guatemala and Nicaragua where I was setting up portable seismographs in rural areas. As it turned out, there was an earthquake while I was there, and because I could speak Spanish, I was able to explain to villagers what we were doing. All of a sudden it felt like I could do science research in Latin America and help people at the same time. However, I realized that in order to do really interesting and beneficial scientific work, I needed to get a Ph.D., because that advanced degree would give me the independence and means to create my own projects.
I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in seismology at Columbia University in New York City where I became very interested in studying the Chilean Earthquake of 1960. At 9.5 on the Richter scale, it is the largest ever-recorded earthquake. It lasted for almost five minutes and created tidal waves as far away as Hawaii! The particularly interesting thing about this earthquake was that an unusual seismic event had been recorded at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena fifteen minutes before the earthquake struck. My question was whether these events were related or were simply coincidence. After years of research and studying seismographic records from all around the world, I was able to prove that the two events were connected. It was my hope that this work would contribute to the research being done on how to predict earthquakes.
While my research was very fulfilling and exciting, my experience at Columbia was challenging. It was extremely difficult to be the only woman, let alone Latin American in my program. Despite the hardship, I graduated in 1988 and was the first woman to ever earn a Ph.D. in seismology from Columbia!
Although I never made it back to Latin America to live, my life has come almost full circle because I am now working in the Washington D.C. area, including the district where I attended school. Similar to when I was in school, many children are being placed in classes based more on the color of their skin rather than their academic potential. Most of these classes have very poor science, math, and technology programs. In my work as the director for the Carnegie Academy for Science Education in Washington D.C., I teach science and mathematics to elementary school students and educators in the D.C. public schools to try and improve the programs and increase opportunity for the students.
Getting to where I am in life has not been easy, but I have learned to fight my battles and see where I can make a difference. Science has given me a special view of the world. It has taught me to think critically, ask questions, and persevere.
April 26, 1954 – December 16, 2013
Read Dr. Inés Cifuentes’ Obituary