My introduction to the world of geology began as little more than a passing fancy and a love of the great outdoors. When I showed up at the University of Cambridge in 1971 it was with every intention of studying physics. A spring field trip to the Scottish island of Arran soon led to a re-evaluation of priorities, but for largely visceral reasons rather than through any appreciation for the societal relevance of Earth science or whether I might be able to make a living as a geologist. A single job interview, with Consolidated Goldfields towards the end of 1973, and during my final year at Cambridge, went badly. I miscalculated how long it would take to ride “the tube” (subway) from the Chinese Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts to the company’s London office, and I do not think that I displayed much enthusiasm for moving to South Africa or for working underground. My decision a couple of months later to undertake a Ph.D. on Proterozoic glaciation was equally fateful – a byproduct of weekly “supervisions” (one on one discussions) with Brian Harland at Caius College, two conferences that I attended as an undergraduate, Dan McKenzie’s glowing endorsement of U.S. science over tea at Madingly Rise, an enthusiastic letter from John Crowell offering admission and a teaching assistantship at the University of California, Santa Barbara (my #1 choice), and the unexpected end of a personal relationship that might have provided a rationale for remaining in the U.K.
The Neoproterozoic Era proved to be a fertile research target – for its climatic extremes, as a threshold in the history of life, and for concomitant changes in sea level and the chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere. My research with students and collaborators over the years has touched on many aspects of this geology: its stratigraphy and sedimentology, paleobiology, paleomagnetics and isotope geochemistry, and in Australia, India and China as well as the western U.S., where I undertook my Ph.D. project. My broader interests in sedimentary geology and tectonics were stimulated by three years with Exxon in the early 1980s. Exxon was then at the center of a conceptual revolution, in which it was recognized that the best way to study sediments is with reference to their three-dimensional stratal geometry and the manner in which they accumulate layer by layer (sequence stratigraphy). This experience led to a second very fruitful research effort, in a range of geological settings, and with a focus on how sedimentation responds to a combination of sea-level change, deformation and other phenomena. A third area of research, in extensional tectonics, also has its roots in geological mapping in the Cordilleran orogen and Basin and Range Province undertaken as part of my Ph.D. study. However, I credit a late-night conversation with my colleague, Mark Anders in 1992 for an intellectual journey that we have taken together on the paradox of low-angle normal faulting.
Opportunities are available at Columbia for students to learn about and to undertake projects in these and other aspects of sedimentary geology and tectonics. Current research is aimed at such varied topics as how sedimentation responds to sea-level change, deformation and other phenomena; mechanisms of crustal extension, with particular reference to the low-angle normal fault paradox; and the geology of the Neoproterozoic Era. I am lead proponent for an International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP) initiative, Testing the Extensional Detachment Paradigm: A Borehole Observatory in the Sevier Desert Basin. Moving that initiative along is a priority for the 2012-13 academic year, beginning with a white paper and proposal to acquire seismic reflection data around the proposed drill site in the southern Sevier Desert basin. Another project that I hope to undertake soon, once the political situation in Egypt becomes sufficiently stable, is an investigation of tectonic versus eustatic controls on early Miocene sedimentation in the Gulf of Suez, Egypt. The research will involve high-resolution sequence stratigraphy and strontium isotope dating of shells and microfossils at one or more fault-related growth folds. I have learned over the years that a good way to frame any research is to challenge conventional thinking, and to focus upon topics on which there is lively disagreement, because the goal of any project is surely to discover something new and not merely to describe another example of an already well understood phenomenon.