CURRENT TITLE: Principal Geologist (environmental consultant)
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Mineralogy
Environmental: soil and groundwater investigation and cleanup
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 16
PhD, University of Notre Dame (2006 – crystal chemistry of U(VI))
MA, Washington University in St. Louis (2002 – thermal conductivity of garnet)
BA, Washington University in St. Louis (2001)
TWITTER NAME: @infamous_DrG
What’s your job like?: Over the years, I have spent time on two different career tracks: the research and teaching track in academia, and the environmental track where I have spent time as a state regulatory agency employee and as an independent consultant.
As a graduate student and a postdoc, I spent quite a bit of time in the laboratory. For my master’s thesis project, the lab work consisted of polishing samples and collecting infrared and Raman spectra. For my PhD, it was coming up with ideas for ways to synthesize new uranium compounds (in my case oxalates) and then mixing the ingedients up in a pressure vessel, cooking them, sorting the results for yellow crystals, mounting them, and collecting XRD data to solve their structures. For my first postdoc, I spent most of my time managing custom pieces of pressure apparatus to expose clay to high pressure carbon dioxide and collect more XRD data.
I’ve also spent quite a bit of time as a “data pirate.” So many people have done so much work in the lab, and it’s a shame to use it for just one study. As a grad student, the other part of my work was collecting every published crystal structure and infrared spectrum I could find of organic uranium(VI) complexes to try to look for patterns. My second postdoc’s main work centered around pulling together chemical information on chlorine in amphibole from every study I could find with relevant data, then statistically testing the relationships with other components like potassium and iron. That allowed me to create a model to interpret the composition of magmas that had crystallized tiny amphibole grains in Martian meteorites.
As a state regulator, in between my PhD and first postdoc, I reviewed reports from all sorts of sites ranging from gas stations and dry cleaners all the way up to Superfund sites across the state of Indiana. I was able to put my skills from grad school to good use, because so often you need to look at the whole file for a contaminated site in order to really see what’s going on and what further investigation needs to be done in order to really address the problems and protect people and the environment.
Currently I do soil and groundwater investigation and cleanup. I also have a podcast, That’s So Second Millennium, where I talk and interview people about geology, physics, and how science influences how we see the world religiously and vice versa.
What’s a typical day like?: Today I have my own one-man consulting firm. As such, I do everything:
I talk to the client about what the problem is. I pull publicly available records from state agencies and other sources to get a fuller picture. I particularly love the Sanborn fire insurance maps. Those are just fascinating. We use them frequently in environmental consulting because they give us snapshots of what industrial and commercial processes were going on at sites in the past, all the way back into the nineteenth century. That gives us important clues regarding what contaminants might be present.
I draw up a plan and a budget for an investigation. That is fairly hair-raising. A pretty sophisticated plan is needed to pull off even a simple investigation: all kinds of sampling equipment, record keeping, and coordination with the drillers. The laboratory needs to be consulted regarding the exact samples to be submitted and chemicals to analyze. The plan is no good if it doesn’t provide data that the relevant regulatory agency will accept, and that has changed significantly in many places in just decade I’ve been around.
The actual sampling day is both stressful and exciting: going out with the drillers to collect that smelly soil and groundwater. The reality of the site starts to hit you once you visit it, and then those columns of soil or rock come out of the ground, you find out how deep the water table is… along with that mad scramble to keep up with logging and screening and sampling. I prefer the groundwater sampling, since I’m out there by myself and mostly on my own schedule. I can stop to think if I need to, which is hard on drilling day.
After the samples are submitted, it’s a long wait for the lab to get back with the analytical data. Then it’s finally time to fit the pieces together into a final report. The final report has to collect the history, the physical data about the soil structure and groundwater, and all the chemical data from your screening instruments and the lab analyticals into a coherent picture of what the site is like, what’s wrong with it, whether the data shows complete delineation of the contamination or not, and what if anything ought to be done about it to protect people. Early on I tend to feel overwhelmed by the task, but it just takes patience. By the end, it’s extremely satisfying.
What’s fun?: I love many aspects of both lab work and field work. I like seeing the data come in with my own two eyes and knowing that no human being has ever seen exactly THIS evidence before.
Sometimes you can see very vividly the chemical and physical processes governing contamination at your site. I had the interesting distinction of being the guy to clean up Gilligan’s gas station. If you go on YouTube and pull up the intro to Gilligan’s Island, the camera pans across a small boat harbor, and you can see a little fueling station at the end of the jetty. Circa 1990 they pulled the underground storage tanks from the facility. Although they didn’t clean up much of the leaked gasoline or diesel fuel, it’s still a tropical jetty. Twice a day the tide (oxygenated ocean water rife with prokaryotic life) washes in and out. That took care of most of the contamination. But at one end of the old tank pit, there was still a lot of hydrocarbons. Turns out that was where the sewer line from the gents’ room was leaking. I could smell something amiss when I pulled water from that well, and see it in the dissolved oxygen and other parameters from my screening data. When we opened up the old excavation, it became obvious (picture): leaking sewage had overwhelmed the oxygen capacity at that end of the tank pit. The microbiota used up all the oxygen metabolizing feces, and the hydrocarbons were left unconsumed.
I enjoy working with machines, tinkering, and getting them to work. I was immoderately proud of learning how to program the temperature controller for our carbon dioxide pressure cell at the University of Illinois – Chicago (picture).
There are also many rewards to the desktop work of both research and consulting. I love finding out about the urban archaeology of a site. I’m fascinated by the many ways an old industrial site has been used to try to make a profit, the creativity that people have, and the massive ways in which economics and industry have shifted over the years. I absolutely love the process of piecing together a model like the one I described for amphibole: watching order appear out of a mass of data, brainstorming things to test and seeing some of them actually pan out.
What’s challenging?: The biggest challenge to being a consultant is constantly hustling for work. Everyone I know who runs a small firm like mine (not an enormous number of people) started out, and in fact hasn’t gotten very far beyond, having a few contacts that serve as some sort of client aggregator. For me it started with my uncle, who works in Honolulu and is in contact with developers and other commercial property owners. At such a small scale, you are tremendously subject to random processes of who needs what work done when. There are dry spells, and there can be occasions when you miss out on work because two prospective clients want something done at the same time.
I found academia to be tremendously difficult, psychologically. I could not face the prospect of trying to write grant proposals; it was too much of a hurdle to believe that I could ever convince someone to give me money to do research that *I* thought was important. In a way consulting is easier, because people come to me with problems they want solved, and I know that I’m working on something they value to at least some extent. I also came from a tiny rural community in Indiana and I was just completely lost in terms of my understanding how to ask the questions I needed to in order to realize what I needed to do to assemble an academic career.
What’s your advice to students?: I would recommend getting as clear as you can about the sort of things you hope for in life as early as possible. Sit down with yourself and write about what you want to accomplish with your life, what you enjoy, what you hope for deep down, and also get out into the open the negative things, too, the things you fear happening and the things you hate doing.
Above all, I can’t overemphasize the benefits of talking to people. It’s a process finding people you can trust, but no matter what you do with your life, having a variety of people to give you perspective is just enormously helpful. I’m still struggling with that at age 39. I definitely recommend starting in college, and being patient.
Paradoxically, it can feel like we’re supposed to have all the answers at 18 or 22. Trust me… almost everyone out there hiring and mentoring young adults knows that you do NOT have much of any of the answers yet. You’re not supposed to. Remind yourself of that frequently. Practice relaxing. Try to have fun exploring the world we live in.
Take your thoughts on what you want and don’t want out of life and talk to people about them: graduate students, younger professors, people in industry, anyone who has some perspective that’s liable to be valuable. Talk to several people and see the contrast between the advice that they give. By the way, all this applies to your friendships and romantic relationships just as much as it does to your career!
Get specific with your questions. Ask people in academia about the whole process of getting a tenure track job from graduate school applications, through qualifying exams, through the dissertation, postdocs, landing a tenure track job, and getting tenure. Does it sound like a life you want to live? Ask kind of nosy questions about the places where you are applying. Do you want to work in that environment, for any of those people?
Likewise, ask about the progression through industry jobs. How long should you expect to stay in what position? How often does the market turn south and start shaking people out? Where do those people go? How do the people who hang on manage it?
Get a picture in your head of where you’re going. At the same time, reassure yourself that you can change it. Life is long enough to do a bit of this and that, and your “false starts” are by no means fatal. Still, learn as much as you can from each one. It is definitely difficult to transition from one industry to another, and you probably don’t want to do it six or eight times in your life. The grass is not always greener on the other side.
Just take things one step at a time. If you have no idea who else to talk to, go to my website, find my email, and drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.