The Many Presidents of Geology
Successful alumni hail from the same era at the U of I.
Maybe there was something in the groundwater at the U of I back in the late 1960s and 1970s to help explain this story. This is about geology, after all.
What’s known is this: This year, three alumni from the Department of Geology whose time on campus overlapped some 40-plus years ago have become president or president-elect of three separate, major earth science organizations with tens of thousands of members, all at the same time.
Namely, the American Geosciences Institute (AGI), American Geophysical Union (AGU), and Geological Society of America (GSA), are headed or will soon be led by Sharon Mosher (BS ’73, PhD ’78, geology), Margaret Leinen (BS ’69, geology), and Suzanne Mahlburg Kay (BS ’69, MS ’72, geology), respectively.
In short, the AGI is active in government affairs, earth science education, public policy, and workforce issues, while the GSA and the AGU advance the geosciences through major conferences and influential journals. The GSA is the principal organization for geologists in North America, and the AGU represents geophysicists, atmospheric scientists, oceanographers, and space scientists (see box).
“In terms of leadership in the geoscience community these are three of the most important leadership positions that there are in the country,” says Stephen Marshak, U of I professor of geology and director of the School of Earth, Society, and Environment.
All of the women knew each other from their college days; in fact, Mosher and Mahlburg Kay were later roommates during graduate studies at Brown University. But their careers have run independent of each other, and in different subfields of geology. They weren’t the only widely successful geology alumni whose roots originate during the same era at the U of I, either.
“I’m trying to figure out why, because it is odd,” says Mosher, dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas-Austin, when asked if she could explain how it is that they have all emerged as presidents at the same time. “I don’t think this happens very often.”
“If you talk to the department, they still talk about that era,” says Mahlburg Kay, the William and Katherine Snee Professor of Geological Sciences at Cornell University, of the time they were at the U of I. “It’s amazing how many successful people came out of [the Department of Geology] in that five-year period.”
Adds Leinen, associate provost and executive director of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University, with a laugh: “Was it something in the water?”
The real reasons are many, starting of course with the alumni themselves. Tom Johnson, head of the Department of Geology, says the three all studied different aspects of geology while at the U of I. They’ve all earned respect in their fields—each earning the departmental alumni achievement award, with Leinen also winning the LAS Alumni Achievement Award in 2010—and they studied when it was uncommon to see a woman in the sciences.
“Nowadays we’re pretty close to gender parity in geoscience,” Johnson says. “However, at that time it was much more male dominated. It adds to their achievement.”
While the women acknowledge that fact, however, none of them recall facing any sort of discrimination based on their gender. They went on field study trips with their classmates, and today they have good things to say about their former professors, with names such as Dan Blake, Fred Donath, Thomas Anderson, Don Henderson, Dennis Wood, and David Anderson, among others.
“Illinois was and still is a very major player in geoscience,” Leinen says. “The faculty were leaders in their fields, and it’s only natural that students who came out of that environment would come to understand how important leadership is.”
Mahlburg Kay recalls it being a time of dramatic change, too. Protests over the Vietnam War were erupting on campus, and women were gaining rights. For example, when she and Leinen arrived on campus, women were still required to be in their room by 10:30 p.m. on weeknights. By the time they earned their bachelor’s degrees, that requirement had been lifted.
It wasn’t only the professors who pushed them to succeed, she adds. The students pushed themselves.
“It was so exciting,” she recalls. “It isn’t just the three of us out of those years [who were] successful. There [were] a lot of very successful people who came out of that time, and the synergy was just amazing.”
Ten out of the 14 in her graduating class, she adds, went on to earn their doctoral degree in geology. Another classmate from that era, John Winter, wrote a popular textbook, and another, Jack Sharp, is a former president of the GSA.
Mosher, who works with two U of I graduates on faculty at the University of Texas-Austin, says the U of I geology alumni she knows feel very strongly about improving geoscience education in colleges and high schools, and also the importance of advocating for geosciences in public policy. It’s no surprise to her that they emerged from the same program at U of I.
“I just got a really good education,” she says. “It was a great education in geosciences that really prepared me for a good geoscience career.”
The Big Three
Illinois alumni are president or president-elect of three of the most important earth science organizations in the country. The organizations are:
American Geosciences Institute: An umbrella organization of some 50 geoscience societies representing 250,000 members, playing an active role in government affairs, earth science education, public policy, and workforce issues.
Geological Society of America: Established in 1888, this is the principal organization of geologists in North America, with some 20,000 members around the world. Organizes major conferences and publishes high-profile journals advancing science.
American Geophysical Union: With some 61,000 members around the world, this organization represents a broad spectrum of geophysicists, atmospheric scientists, oceanographers, and space scientists. It runs the largest geoscience conference in the world and publishes many key journals.
By Dave Evensen