NAME: Elizabeth Catlos
CURRENT TITLE: Associate Professor
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Geology, Geosciences, Geochronology, Tectonics, Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 17
EDUCATION: Ph.D. 2000 University of California, Los Angeles, Geochemistry; B.Sc. 1994 University of California, San Diego, Chemistry w/ Specialization in Earth Science
What’s your job like?
I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. I conduct research in the geosciences, teach courses, and provide service to the geosciences community. Most people think that professors only teach, and that is part of my job, but other aspects are to pursue ideas in geology that interest me. I have students, at the undergraduate and graduate levels, who I mentor and I am required to perform service, like review papers and research proposals. I also oversee one of the research facilities in the department, our electron microbeam laboratory, in which other researchers or companies use to get chemical information from their rocks or other materials.
What’s a typical day like?
The focus of my day differs, depending on if UT Austin is in session. Nine months out of the year I focus on teaching and preparing for lectures while trying to maintain research on ideas that interest me. Most of my job during that time involves sitting at the computer and writing: I write about my research, ask for funding, review others research ideas, write test questions, lectures, exercises or homework questions, and respond to emails. During the summer, I conduct fieldwork and am really able to pursue my research agenda. Those few days that I am in the field (30 days this past summer), we wake up early, have breakfast, hike all day, and collect and document rocks. Lunch is usually whatever we happen to bring, or we get lucky and something is available to eat while we are in the field. We work until we are too tired, and then return the next day to do it all over again.
My happiest times are in the field. One positive aspect of this job is that every day is different, but the ability to include the outdoors in what I do is enjoyable. I get very excited about seeing certain rock types in the field or finding particular minerals and knowing that we can extract their information to tell us more about how the Earth works. As geologists, we see the Earth differently– I describe it as we wear particular glasses that have been created by experience and some understanding of how the Earth works. We recently have been conducting fieldwork underground, and although I don’t like being underground too much, the beauty of some of the rock formations can be incredible and really provide a perspective of the scale and nature of geological processes.
The field work can be physically challenging, and the research work can be mentally challenging. As scientists, we are required to be critical by the scientific method, and taking criticism can be difficult. I am continually evaluated through my research ideas, proposals, and papers. My students are evaluated in terms of how I mentor them and their successes. Without criticism, one cannot grow and change, but it can be difficult when the failures outnumber the successes.
What’s your advice to students?
If you are interested in geology, try to get involved in a research project that interests you early on– even your freshman year of college is not too soon, although you should take the introductory geology course and see what aspect of geology appeals to you first. Go to the field as much as you can, and see if you genuinely like that kind of work. Keep in mind, different researchers do field geology differently, so don’t get discouraged if you find it too challenging.