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.
Stratigraphic Response to Deformation and Sea-Level Change in the Gulf of Suez, Egypt. – Applications are invited for a Ph.D. project involving physical stratigraphic and structural mapping, sedimentology and high-resolution Sr isotopic dating to investigate how patterns of sedimentation and erosion relate to the propagation of faults and folds and independently quantified sea-level change during the early Miocene. The research, to be conducted in collaboration with Dr Ahmed El-Barkooky at the University of Cairo, will shed light on an important general problem in stratigraphy at a uniquely well suited study site. Criteria for selecting the successful applicant will include: academic preparation and performance, relevant research experience, independence, drive, creativity and English communication skills. Preference will be given to those with a Masters in hand and to Egyptian nationals. Research funds are being sought from the U.S. National Science Foundation to begin the project as early as September, 2016 or 2017.
Testing the Extensional Detachment Paradigm: A Borehole Observatory in the Sevier Desert Basin. – I am lead proponent for an International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP) initiative to test the extensional detachment paradigm in the Sevier Desert basin, Utah. A priority for the 2015-16 academic year is to seek funds to acquire seismic reflection data around the proposed drill site. We continue to work at several other sites in the Basin and Range Province, from the Death Valley region to southern Nevada and southeastern Idaho.
U/Pb-40Ar/39Ar Coupling Approach for the Reconstruction of Paleo-River Systems: A Case Study of the Siluro-Devonian Old Red Sandstone of Scotland (PRF #54919-ND8, 2015-2017). – The project will involve a geochronological test of the idea that the Old Red Sandstone represents the deposits of a regional-scale river system draining the Caledonides of Greenland and Norway, comparable to the way in which the Indus and Ganges rivers drain the Himalaya today. We are interested also in the related issue of how basins developed through a combination of strike slip, extension and orogen-parallel crustal shortening. Applicants should be available for field work for six weeks in June-August, 2016.
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. Potential students are invited to place their email inquiries in the context of one or more general issues or hypotheses or questions of this kind, and the strategies that might be employed to tackle whatever they suggest.
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