Journey to Earth

Susan S. Richards, Hydrogeologist, The Mannik & Smith Group, Inc., Maumee, Ohio

I am a 62-year-old female geologist. This fact is important in order to understand my journey.

I work as an environmental geologist, involved every day in helping to redevelop formerly contaminated industrial and commercial sites (Brownfields). I am proud that the work I do has the possibility to result in the creation of new jobs in places where they disappeared long ago.   My journey to being a geologist is long, with many detours along the way.

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Figure 1 If you hike the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, you too can travel in time from The Kaibab Limestone (white rock at the peak) formed 270 million years ago to the Vishnu Schist (rocks at the lower left with the white vertical rock showing) formed more than a billion years ago. ©Susan Richards

We will start at the beginning. I really do not know what sparked my interest in geology, but I strongly suspect it was taking hikes with my dad through the ravines in my hometown of Waukegan, Illinois. I loved being outside with my dad, climbing hills, and crossing streams on stepping-stones.

As I grew older, I found other interesting ways to learn about geology. There was the show on local Chicago TV called “Journey to the Beginning of Time.” In this show, two boys in a rowboat travel down a stream. As they travel, they go further and further back in time, through many geologic time periods. They, of course, had many exciting adventures, and as a little girl, I thought the boys were very good looking.

Other things which inspired me included the monthly National Geographic magazine, especially the ones with maps. I would pretend that I was traveling all over the world using those maps. We also had a book at home called “National Parks”, also published by National Geographic. I spent hours looking at those pictures, wishing I could see those places for myself. I found other ways to learn about Geology. When our parents visited, my friend Smokey Joe and I would get away from our sisters and read encyclopedias (Back in the days before the internet, people used encyclopedias to learn about things). We would sit and read about volcanos, and rock types. I know that does not sound very exciting, but it was better than dealing with our older sisters who did not want us bothering them. I also started a rock collection, which my parents let me keep in the basement.

When I was about 10 years old, I told my parents that I wanted to become a geologist. They laughed at me and told, “Girls do not become geologists.” At that time (back in the early 1960’s) not many women became scientists. Women became nurses, or teachers, or worked in offices. So, I grew up, went to college, and earned my degree in Elementary Education just as my parents wanted.

Now for a little detour on my journey….. When I was a junior in high school, the environmental movement in this country was just getting started. President Nixon had just created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). We finally, as a nation, had recognized that our industrial past had left a large mess to clean up. A group of friends and I organized the first Earth Day (1970) at our high school. In order to do that, we learned about environmental issues. We make quite a stir in town, and I was interviewed by the local radio station. My interest, in environmental science, therefore, dates back to high school.

We will now go forward in my journey, through college at the University of Illinois. In my senior year of college, I took Geology for fun. My love of Geology was renewed. However, I earned my degree in Elementary Education, married, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. I could not find a job as a teacher. My husband asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him, “I want to become a geologist.” He said, “Then do it!” So, I did. I applied at Cleveland State, and worked downtown while I went to school. I had to take courses like chemistry and physics, which I had never taken before. Although always a good student, studying those subjects takes a little different skill set. However, one can learn to learn science, and I became good at it.

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Figure 2: Wizard Island in Crater Lake, Oregon, formed in a volcanic caldera about 8,000 years ago – Part of the Cascade Range.     Crater lake is almost 2,000 feet deep. © Susan Richards

The more Geology I took, the more I loved it. After graduating with my second college degree, I went to graduate school at Kent State and earned a master’s degree in Geology. In the following years, I worked as a ground water geologist and became a mother to 4 kids. Having children was another detour, but a good one. When my children were in pre-school, I attempted to complete a PhD. I almost did it, but not quite. I do not regret trying to earn a PhD, however; I learned so much that has helped me in my job.   In the years since completing my formal schooling, I kept learning new skills. I learned human health risk assessment and how to model ground water and vapor. These are currently the tools of my trade. Even though I am at the end of my career, I continue to learn new things about geology. I also try to teach the things I have learned to new geologists.

Now that my children are grown, I am finally seeing some of those places I read about in National Geographic and in books when I was a child. I have developed a love of photography, and can capture some of those great moments I experience when hiking through those wonderful places.


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