One of the many highlights of last summer’s road trip was a chance to visit someone who was a key influence on my career and life in a powerful, indirect way. On International Women’s Day, I want to recognize Sue Kieffer, who was my PhD advisor at Arizona State University. The picture above was at her new home on Whidbey Island in Washington, and appropriately, and like her, she lives on a street with the same name as a Geologic era.
I dinished my MS at Arizona State University in the summer of 1989, and had some wonder about what I would do next. Graduate school at ASU was a lot fo fun, there was travel, camping, and why would I want to go out and look for a J-O-B? I decided to stay and enter the PhD program, more or less, out of an avoidance route, but knew I wanted to work for a different advisor. I had two options, one was someone who was doing ground breaking work on research on Mars, and if I had taken then Carl Sandburg path, I might be working now at a NASA research facility or …. well who knows. That actually would ave been a good choice.
But that Spring I had taken a course (egads, I forget the course! Was it in geological fluid dynamics?) with a new prof in the department. Sue was a top researcher in the field, coming from the US Geological Survey, more or less a Geology Rock Star (bad pun intended). Her teaching method was one that was practical and challenging; she brought a ton of enthusiasm, but also just made it interesting and relevant. Most of all, she was very approachable (The Geology department was small and familial in a big university, we played softball and drank beers with our profs).
Sue brought a creative, unique approach to her science– he had done pioneering work using the same fluid dynamics processes to explain Yellowstone geysers, the rapids in the Colorado River, and a volcano eruption on a satellite of Jupiter (learn more about her work at her AGU interview).
In my fledgling research there, I ended up taking an aerodynamics class in engineering, visiting Mount St Helens, doing field and simulation research at the USGS in Flagstaff, doing computer modeling at a remote Cray computer at Los Alamos. We spent a year working on a 4 page printed research paper in the leading Geology journal. She also arranged for us to go on a special access trip to the bottom of Meteor Crater (which is closed to the public)
I learned much more than Geology working with Sue. She was passionate about the role and responsibility of being a scientist and an educator, and she really influenced me in her pursuit of meaningful writing. She was was open about the challenges in her life, especially about the inequities of being a woman in a field dominated by men. Looking back, I may have learned more about life than science.
The big thing for me was that after two years of PhD work, I had come to realize that I was lacking the passion for a career in research in what was feeling like a small field (dynamics of pyroclastic flows, hold your breath sucking “Wow’s”). I can recall the day i went into her office, dreading having to say I was going to leave the program, that I had found my calling to be in education (I was aiming to become a high school science teacher, another fork in the road not taken). I feared walking away from the commitment she had placed in me.
But she listened to my concerns, and not only did she not question or rant at me, she gave me her 100% support as a person. I have had a few people in my life who showed me that kind of unconditional support, and I can never forget it.
So for that, and more, I give thanks and appreciation to your influence in my life, Sue.
She is (almost) retired now, but I am proud that she keeps a cool blog Geology in Motion “This blog follows interesting geological events, with emphasis on those events that involve fluids, and that are energetic, explosive. A small blurb of science is attached to each news item.”
Those small blurbs are precious.