USC Creates Generation of Geobiologists

An emerging field in the sciences grows out of a summer course begun six years ago by the USC Wrigley Institute.
By Richard Hoops
“There is a slow but steady increase in the number of jobs in geobiology,” said USC College professor Will Berelson.

The International Geobiology Course offered by the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies reached something of a threshold this summer.

A participant in the first course six years ago returned this year as a tenure-track professor at a major university and as a guest lecturer to this year’s group of students.

“We’ve created a generation of geobiologists in just six years that’s incredible,” said Will Berelson, USC College professor of earth sciences and co-director of the summer course.

More than 100 people have participated in the summer program, and Berelson said several of them have found faculty positions at other institutions. In the very near future, he expects to see the former students-turned-professors send their own students to the summer class at USC.

Geobiology is considered an “emerging field” in the sciences, and Berelson credited another USC faculty member microbiologist Ken Nealson with enabling that transformation.

Nealson initiated the first of these summer programs in 2002 with financial support from the Agouron Institute in Pasadena. Berelson said Nealson’s concept went beyond lectures for students. It involved bringing them together for class work, lab work and fieldwork and a special effort for everyone to learn from each other.

“The idea,” Berelson said, “was to get geologists and biologists together, both students and faculty, to start talking together, learning each other’s vocabulary, hearing the biological perspective on geological questions and the geological perspective on biological questions and to make these two topics merge as we walk through Earth history.”

The 2008 summer course began June 10 when the students arrived in Los Angeles. On June 12, they flew to Denver for fieldwork in Montana and Wyoming, followed by a week at the Colorado School of Mines. They returned to California June 24 and traveled to the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. They will continue their work at the Catalina labs until the course ends July 10.

The students will participate in a July 1 symposium featuring six speakers, including Alison Olcott, a participant in the first geobiology class in 2002.

Olcott earned a Ph.D. from the USC Department of Geology in 2006 and is now an assistant professor in the geology department at the University of Kansas. She enjoyed her first geobiology course so much that she worked as a teaching assistant for the USC course for the next three years. What she remembers about it was “the air of 24-hour-a-day science camp.”

“We would have lectures and labs all day long,” she said, “and then after dinner we’d work in the lab or just sit around and argue about science theories and ideas long into the night. Seldom do you get to immerse yourself in something to that degree!”

Olcott said the USC course gave her a strong start in what has become her profession.

“It gave me a fantastic overview of ways that people think about and approach problems in the field,” she said. “It also showed me the strength of a multi-discipline approach, which certainly affects how I look at my research now and how I try to solve problems.”

Berelson said the geobiology course at USC has prompted other academic institutions to create or reconfigure positions to incorporate geobiology into their operations.

“There is a slow but steady increase in the number of jobs in geobiology,” he said. “There are job advertisements that directly spell out ‘geobiology,’ and there are others that talk about geobiology without using that word specifically.”

Olcott said the University of Kansas Department of Geology is clearly spelling out geobiology as part of its mission.

“Our program consists of four faculty members, all of whom were trained as geobiologists as graduate students,” she said.

The success of the USC course has created some more work for Berelson and the other instructors, but he said it’s the sort of work they do willingly.

“Because we get to know these students so well, many of them ask me to write letters of reference for them,” Berelson said. “The course looks good on their resumes. Graduates of this course and former instructors are getting tenure-track jobs that’s the ultimate in academics and that’s the payoff for all the hard work.”

The summer geobiology course is labeled as “an international training course,” and Berelson said about half of this year’s 20 students are from outside the United States.

On July 1, six speakers including Alison Olcott will present a mini-symposium titled “New Approaches to Deep Time” as part of the International Geobioloogy Course for 2008.