Alumni Profile: Ellen Kappel, Phd '85

Ellen Kappel, Phd '85

With unaffected modesty, Ellen Kappel, president and founder of Geo Prose (Geosciences Professional Services, Inc.), refers to herself as an “accidental entrepreneur.” “I never could have envisioned the career path I’ve taken,” confides Kappel, who went on a staggering nine cruises during her 5 years as a student at Lamont-Doherty. As her company approaches its 10th anniversary, Kappel reflects on an alternative career in science that has brought her considerable fulfillment.

Growing up in New York City, Kappel had little contact with the rocks that later consumed her studies. But several undergraduate fieldtrips triggered a fascination with geology. After receiving her BA from Cornell, Kappel enrolled as a PhD student at Columbia University. When marine geophysicist Bill Ryan offered the young graduate student a berth on his research cruise to the Northeast Pacific, Kappel immediately accepted. Ryan, whom Kappel describes as “a very creative scientist and an excellent mentor,” never once assumed that his female student wouldn’t want to plunge into every aspect of their fieldwork.

Kappel became interested in mid-ocean ridge tectonics, eventually writing her thesis with Ryan on volcanic episodicity at the Juan de Fuca Ridge. “More than 20 years after the publication of her thesis, Kappel’s interpretation that volcanic
construction of the ocean’s crust along mid-ocean ridge spreading centers occurs in episodic pulses is still widely cited,” asserts Ryan.

Graduating with her PhD from Columbia in 1985, Kappel remained at Lamont as a postdoc for the next year. Not convinced she wanted to weather the vicissitudes of a research career, a short departure from academia held some appeal. A job advertisement in the American Geophysical Union publication Eos caught her eye. In a matter of weeks, she had accepted the position of assistant program manager for the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) at Joint Oceanographic Institutions (JOI) (now the Consortium for Ocean Leadership) in Washington DC.

At JOI, Kappel also served as director of the U.S. Science Support Program, which allocated funding to U.S. participants in ODP and supported its U.S. activities. Kappel speaks warmly about her role as a science facilitator, “I really liked feeling that I was helping the community accomplish its research . . . I was enabling good science to happen.” Two years into her appointment, Kappel felt the need to re-evaluate when she was offered a competitive research position. “I had told myself that I would stay at JOI for two years and then return to academia,” she says. But after a fair bit of deliberation, Kappel declined the offer concluding that her work was too important—and she enjoyed it far too much—to walk away. She remained at JOI for an additional 10 years.

Those were happy years for Kappel; she led a productive group of committed staff, which included Mary Reagan (now deputy director of operations for Lamont’s Borehole Research Group). When asked to describe what it was like to work for Kappel, Mary is effusive: “Ellen is the kind of boss you say you work with, rather than for. Even while she ran several successful concurrent multimillion-dollar projects, Ellen made mentoring a top priority.”

During a sabbatical in 1997, Kappel found herself with plenty of freelance work. Clearly there was a need for people who could package and communicate scientific material—such as large proposals for multimillion-dollar programs or long-range science plans—to agency managers and others in the scientific community. Two years later, she established her own company, Geo Prose, where she functions primarily as a scientific editor, working directly with clients to generate scientific reports and brochures.

When the editor of Oceanography stepped down five years ago, the council of the Oceanography Society asked Kappel to replace him. Today, in her job as head editor, Kappel wields complete control over the magazine’s content. She is part fundraiser (each issue is “special” and supported by some outside source), part cajoler (she seeks people to write specific articles for the magazine, or to peer review the manuscripts), and primarily its editor.

Kappel speaks candidly about her struggle to accept a career that, as a bright and ambitious graduate student, she had not imagined for herself. “It took me at least three years to feel comfortable with my career choice,” Kappel admits. “My biggest challenge was convincing myself that I wasn’t a failure and that I wasn’t letting down the mentors who prepared me to be a chief scientist.” Now she appreciates the way in which her path has diverged. “I found my calling in science program management. More by accident than by design, I’ve come up with a way to participate in cutting-edge science and live a well-rounded, wonderful life.”

Accident indeed! Kappel’s history reveals a woman willing to strike out on her own, whose successes reflect her ability to approach science creatively and convey its relevancy to a larger audience. Bill Ryan concurs. “Ellen’s subsequent contributions to the effective communication of ocean science to our nation’s leadership and public will most certainly have a long-lasting influence.”

View Kappel’s work at www.geo-prose.com.