Making Intellectual Connections: An education steeped in liberal arts forms excellent preparation for an environmental career

April 26th, 2019

Dr. Wilson suggested I contribute to the blog following my February 2019 presentation on Environmental Challenges Facing the Department of Defense.  So I have worked up the following missive.  If the audience, especially students and recent graduates, find it of value then I may develop further contributions.

William K. Burris, P.G.
Environmental Restoration Program Manager
U.S. Air Force Civil Engineer Center


Geology consists of a unique synthesis of the other sciences.  This curious blending of chemistry, physics, and biology forms one of the many reasons why Geology makes such an interesting topic of study.  Environmental Science, especially as it impacts and involves humanity, exhibits similar traits to geology is this respect.  However environmental science not only consists of a synthesis of the sciences (including geology) but also incorporates a hefty dose of history, economics, psychology, and other numerous disciplines that swim in the somewhat undefinable pool of topics often labeled as “liberal arts.”  As I have looked back on the many types of environmental projects I have completed in my admittedly checkered career I find it surprising how often I needed to pull from my liberal arts tool box to get the job done rather than from the tool box labeled with “science.”

I currently serve as an Environmental Restoration Program Manager for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.  I clean up old Department of Defense messes, contamination in groundwater, old landfills and dumps, munitions, and old spills.  My supposed years of experience and education in hydrogeology, contaminant chemistry, and technical expertise in drilling methods, well construction, and groundwater sampling ostensibly play a primary role in this effort.  Alas this is not the case as I spend the majority of my time addressing the bureaucracy, establishing budgets, developing correspondence, and negotiating with regulators.  In this heavily bureaucratic context, a reliance on the liberal arts over hard science is understandable.  Yet, looking back over to the times when I served as an environmental regulator and a private sector consultant, roles that should ostensibly be more technical in nature than my current role as middle management Mugwump in a bloated federal bureaucracy, success there also depended on the disciplines commonly considered as liberal arts.

First off, and hopefully obvious to any Wooster geologist, the importance of effective writing cannot be overstated.  Report writing, correspondence, white papers, bullet point briefs, regulatory guidance, and regulatory rule making are just some of the forms of text based communication that form the lexicon of environmental literature to which I have contributed over the years.  Yet there is one type of document I wish to call out in particular that requires writing skills that pull from disciplines beyond science.  In all likelihood any environmental professional must, at some time, prepare that ultimate blend of science and art, a proposal.  I argue that no other document forces the author to not merely express their technical and scientific acumen, but actually sell it.  The technically precise but often dry text of academic prose will not withstand the needs of a winning proposal.  The narrative tools of the novelist, the marketer, maybe even the poet will often provide the textual punch needed to power a wining proposal.

Bear with me as I digress a little and relate a conversation I had with a Principal Engineer of environmental consulting company I was working for part time while in graduate school.  He told me that to succeed as an environmental consultant you had to excel at three things, at the technical aspect of the work, at managing the projects/business, and at salesmanship.  Failure at anyone of these aspects results in failure as a consultant.  A great manager and salesman that cannot get the technical work done fails.  Technical success cannot offset failure to manage a project or business and you lose money.  Fantastic technical work and brilliance at getting it done on time and within budget is all pointless if you can’t get someone to hire you.  Now think about how much an education outside of the sciences would serve you in these diverse but interconnected roles.

Fear not if you find yourself falling short in some of these skills.  Ideally you will fit in as part of a team that together successfully addresses the need for all of them.  However, think about all three aspects as you look to proceed in your own future professional development.  The “typical” career arc in environmental consulting flows from technical work to project management to business development (aka sales).  Let’s take a look at my super simple, super stylized, super useful diagram below.

A. Represents Technical/ Science Effort
B. Represents Project/Business Management
C. Represents Business Development/ Sales

When you first start work (near the origin of the time scale) most of your effort will be expended as a field grunt or scientist.  Your work will focus more on technical functions and report writing (A).  As your career progresses (near the middle of the time scale) you should find yourself spending the majority of your effort managing projects and working with project budgets (B).  The senior (near the end of the time scale) members of a consulting company are managing operations but mostly chasing more work (C).  Notice however in the diagram you never really get away from all three types of effort.  Even the most junior scientist should be focusing some effort on business development and marketing.  As you steer your own professional education and development, whether through or outside traditional academics you will want to keep ahead of these curves.  First work on developing your technical skills, then work on your project and business management, and finally work on understanding your market and how to sell your services to that market.

Now let us focus on a more specific example of how the other “liberal arts” and their role in the life and career on an environmental scientist or environmental geologist.  Let us look at the baseline work, the basic bread and butter of the environmental consultant trying to forge a career in this marketplace.  Let us examine the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment and all of the “liberal arts” that are required to complete this most fundamental of environmental products.

What is a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (often referred to as just a “Phase I”)?  Ah yes… the long-winded but otherwise correct answer to that question reaches back to dark days of 1970s, and Love Canal, and the Valley of The Drums.  It involves legal principles such as “innocent landowner defense” and “all appropriate inquiries.”  It essentially forms the topic of another completely separate blog post, one that I may write in the future for the interested, but not here and now.  A simpler but far less correct answer consists of the following; a Phase I is prepared for a prospective landowner to ensure they are not about to unknowingly purchase a Superfund site.

So how does one determine if a property is potentially a Superfund site?  A Phase I consists of a site visit, interviews of those with knowledge of the property, reviews of regulatory records, and historical research.  The site visit is the one portion of the project where technical knowledge plays a major role.  Examining the property for evidence of buried waste, old vent pipes from long forgotten underground storage tanks, stains from spills, inspection of hazardous materials or waste storage areas, review of on-site records, a cursory look at what the neighbors are doing, all very straight forward and simple.  For the rest of the work you need to set aside the science and put on some other hats.  You need to conduct interviews with occupants and others familiar with the property.  So play the role as a speech communications/ public relations/ psychologist now.  You may need to go through deeds and records at the courthouse as well as regulatory records so put on that lawyer hat.  Finally you must start digging into site history, old maps and directories, aerial photographs, other records if and where you can find them.  So you are a historian as well.  The final product is synthesis of all these sources of information.  Science plays a role in the production, but so do many other disciplines.

Soil staining and underground storage tank vent pipe at the Brandywine DRMO site, one of the many observable signs at the site that led to its being designated a National Priority List (aka Superfund) site.

Now let’s step back and take a broader view of the environmental challenges we face as a society, climate change being an outstanding example.  I ask you, is the failure of numerous policy initiatives to address climate change at a national level a result of some failure in climate science?  Of course not, there is no failure in the science.  The failure stems from politics, from an inability to persuade or influence minds, from entrenched business interests, from legal and legislative inaction, from manipulation of the media and numerous other factors.  These cannot be overcome by science alone.  Change will come from an understanding of psychology and economics, history and political science, and most importantly persuasive communication in all its forms.  You will need to be more than a scientist to effective in this sphere, you will need to well steeped in the many and varied disciplines that are considered “liberal arts.”

Birthplace of the Sandusky River

April 6th, 2019

I’ve long appreciated river confluences where two flows join to make a third, “new” river. The most impressive confluence I’ve visited is where the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda Rivers meet to produce the iconic Ganges at Devprayag, India. (The second image in the Wikipedia article is mine.) Of course, such places are only changes in our human geographical classifications. It is a subjective decision to determine which confluence merits naming a new river or stream, essentially marking its “birthplace”.

Today Nick Wiesenberg, his father David, and I had a delightful hike through Lowe-Volk Park in Crawford County, Ohio — about an hour’s drive west of Wooster. Within this small park Paramour Creek and the smaller Allen Run join to make the Sandusky River, as shown above. The Sandusky River then flows about 130 miles north into Lake Erie. The Sandusky has played a critical role in 18th and early 19th century Ohio history, so it was a privilege to visit its origin. The weather was perfect for a short hike in the woods.

Lowe-Volk Park was established around this confluence and three 19th century quarries in the Berea Sandstone, a massive Upper Devonian unit used throughout northeastern Ohio as a building stone. The quarries are now eroded walls of bedrock slowly being covered by vegetation.

As always on trips like this, Nick and David teach me many new things. For example, I knew honeylocust trees are festooned with nasty, long thorns, as you can see on this trunk. What I didn’t know was that these defensive structures evolved in response to animals no longer around — mastodons!The thorns on the honeylocust trunks go as high as a mastodon could reach, and no more. This was apparently part of a coevolutionary relationship in which the trees had no interest in being pushed over by these pachyderms for their delicious seedpods while they were still ripening on their branches. After the seedpods matured and fell to the ground it was to the benefit of the trees for the mastodons to eat them and pass the seeds through their guts for planting elsewhere, hence their sweetness. Now the thorns mount a defense against lumbering ghosts.

Speaking of ghosts, this area was a bloody battleground numerous times, most notably in 1782 at the end of the Revolutionary War. The painting above hangs in the park visitor center. It shows Colonel William Crawford leading an American military expedition against Indian tribes living along the Sandusky River. The Indians, and their British allies, were well informed about this attempted surprise attack and beat it back decisively, giving the name to the fight “The Battle of Sandusky” or “Crawford’s Defeat”. Crawford himself was captured very near the present park. He had a gruesome end in captivity, which was a response to previous atrocities on the part of earlier American raiders who did not, ironically, include poor Colonel Crawford.

Wooster Geologists in Southwestern Utah (March 2019)

March 21st, 2019

During our 2019 Spring Break, Dr. Shelley Judge, our ace technician Nick Wiesenberg, and I took two students (Anna Cooke ’20 and Evan Shadbolt ’20) to southwestern Utah for Independent Study (IS) research and geologic exploration. We had a great time, and as always we’re planning the next expedition. Anna and Evan collected nearly a hundred pounds of rocks from the Middle Jurassic Carmel Formation for their IS projects. Here are links to our daily blog posts in classic superpositional order (youngest on top):

March 20: Local culture on our last day in Utah
March 19: A free day spent geologically in southwestern Utah
March 18: Wooster Geologists return to Zion National Park
March 17: Last day of fieldwork for Team Jurassic Utah 2019
March 16: East of Zion
March 15: Fieldwork continues for Team Jurassic Utah, plus a museum visit
March 14: A much more pleasant day in southwestern Utah
March 13: Team Jurassic Utah endures polar conditions
March 12: A productive first day for Wooster Geologists in Utah
March 11: Team Jurassic Utah 2019 begins its adventure

(You can also search the tag “Utah2019”.)

This is the local stratigraphic column (modified from that on the Zion National Park website). The area is dominated by the magnificent Navajo Sandstone. The Carmel Formation (red dot) is one of the few carbonate units.

This expedition builds on the work of last year’s Team Jurassic Utah, Galen Schwartzberg ’19 and Ethan Killian ’19, along with a past generation of Wooster students in the 1990s. We thank them for their contributions to this continuing geological adventure. Thank you also to Patrice Reeder, our Administrative Coordinator, for all her help. Our colleague lab technician Nick Wiesenberg was a superb trip organizer, driver and field geologist. We are also grateful to the very generous landowners Hyrum & Gail Smith and Jay & Judy Leavitt.

Updates on our progress with these projects will be in future blog entries.

For our records, here are our collecting and measuring localities —

N Latitude Longitude Wooster Locality
Location name
37.25407499 -113.60516 C/W-751 WT Water tank
37.308755 -113.73653 C/W-142 EMR Eagle Mtn Ranch cliff
37.25500 -113.60436 C/W-756 WTR Water Tank Road
37.27629 -113.63712 C/W-757 DV Dammeron Valley
37.27747 -113.64420 C/W-758 DVN Dammeron Valley N
37.30882 -113.73883 C/W-759 Strom-mat Eagle Mtn Ranch
37.21548 -112.68215 C/W-760 CC Carmel Cove
37.22521 -112.68095 C/W-761 MCJ Encrinite at MCJ
37.12206 -113.39977 Air BnB Hurricane Air BnB
37.27629 -113.63712 C/W-762 DVN@DV DVN unit below DV

Local culture on our last day in Utah

March 20th, 2019

Hurricane, Utah — On our last day in Utah, we packed up and shipped our samples back to Wooster by FedEx (almost 100 pounds of rock) and then visited the St. George Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). I find Mormon history and theology fascinating, and the visitor center at the never disappoints.

You can see from the background sky that it was a cool, overcast day. Perfect for packing up and getting our equipment and notes together.

A free day spent geologically in southwestern Utah

March 19th, 2019

Hurricane, Utah — Team Jurassic Utah finished its fieldwork two days ahead of schedule because I hadn’t calculated just how efficient it is to have Dr. Shelley Judge as a member. Twice as fast, twice as good. We thus were able to have yesterday in Zion National Park and today in the St. George area. With the perfect weather this was the place to be an exploratory geologist.

We first drove down a long dirt road to a site in Warner Valley which has exposed Lower Jurassic dinosaur tracks.

Here I’m photographing the best theropod dinosaur track with Anna’s help. (Image by Nick Wiesenberg.)

Here’s the nice footprint. Notice how the mud was squeezed up between the toes as the theropod sloshed its way across a floodplain. This shape of dinosaur track is given the trace fossil name Eubrontes.

The footprint layer in Warner Valley is in the lower part of the Kayenta Formation (Lower Jurassic).

We next visited a beautiful neighborhood in Bloomington which has in its midst an excellent set of Indian petroglyphs. The Bloomington Petroglyph Park is tiny, but well worth the drive.

Anna is here photographing the largest surface of petroglyphs.

Most of the petroglyphs were made by carefully scraping away a layer of desert varnish on light-colored sandstone blocks. Humans and animals are easily recognizable; other symbols are mysterious.

After lunch we went to the Dino Cliffs site in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. We had a nice hike through exposures of the Kayenta Formation. (The top image of this post is also from this area.) We found the dinosaur tracks, but their poor preservation did not merit a photo.

Finally we went to the old 19th century mining town of Silver Reef. The museum was closed, but we were able to walk around the old buildings still preserved, along with antique mining equipment on display.

Most of the old town is long gone, leaving some evocative ruins.

The wildflowers today were uncommon. They included the classic Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja angustifolia) …

… and significant numbers of Spectacle Pod (Dimorphocarpa wislizeni). Thank you to my Mother Corinne Wilson for the identification!


Wooster Geologists return to Zion National Park

March 18th, 2019

Hurricane, Utah — With our fieldwork done, Team Jurassic Utah 2019 visited Zion National Park today. The weather could not have been better. The students and Nick climbed Angels Landing (a rite of passage!) and entered The Narrows, so they saw the park from top to bottom. Above are Anna and Evan with our flag and surrounded by the iconic Navajo Sandstone. Nick took this photo.

Last day of fieldwork for Team Jurassic Utah 2019

March 17th, 2019

Hurricane, Utah — Our expedition had its final official fieldwork today, which we marked with a group photo overlooking the magnificent Snow Canyon. See the end of this post for alternative flag group images!

Tomorrow the group visits Zion National Park. The next day will be spent exploring the local geology and culture, and then it is packing up our samples for shipment to Wooster. Today, though, The Carmel Formation calls one last time!

We returned to the extensive Carmel outcrops in Dammeron Valley, looking at the northernmost extension of the ooid shoal facies. Here is our short shoal section at Dammeron Valley North (DVN), which consists entirely of cross-bedded limestones placed in four subunits (A-D).

This exposure weathered into many loose slabs from the upper subunit D. The trace fossils are well preserved, including this Planolites with rare branching. It is convex hyporelief.

The traces here include a sinuous bilobed Gyrochorte and a thick trace in the left foreground I can’t yet identify. Anna found this rippled slab.

This big trace Evan found is almost certainly Rhizocorallium.

We originally thought that our section today (DVN) was an extension 638 meters to the west of the DV shoal unit. Nick and Shelley did excellent stratigraphic detective work to show that DVN is about 15 meters below the DV measured unit. We thus found the eastern equivalent of DVN at the DV location, measured and sampled it. For now we call it “DVN at DV”. More detail than anyone wants to know, but these blog entries are also a kind of field notes!

The traditional Wooster flag group photo as taken by Shelley.

The flag group photo taken by Nick.

East of Zion

March 16th, 2019

Hurricane, Utah — Today Team Jurassic Utah traveled to Mt. Carmel Junction, east of Zion National Park, to examine the extensive outcrops of the Carmel Formation in the region. The most famous location is in Mt. Carmel Junction itself (MCJ: N 37.22521°, W 112.68095°). It is this crinoid-rich limestone that is reported to be the youngest encrinite in the geological record.

Anna and I measured a two-meter column in this unit to collect samples for thin-section analysis. Four subunits (A-D) start at the bottom of the ruler here.

This is the base of subunit D. It is full of the star-shaped columnals of the crinoid Isocrinus nicoleti. It is one of only three Jurassic crinoid species in North America.

Fieldwork! Love it. Photo by Nick.

Shelley again measured cross-beds to determine current directions here. This was a complicated task because at least three joint sets intersect in these rocks.

Lunch along the Virgin River. Photo by Nick.

After lunch we went just a bit south of Mt. Carmel Junction to examine a Carmel Formation outcrop that looked superficially like it would be identical to the previous unit. We call the place Carmel Cove (CC: N 37.21548°, W 112.68215°). Turns out the limestone here is very different: no crinoids, no ooids, and relatively abundant bivalves. Amazing variability in sections within sight of each other.


Fieldwork continues for Team Jurassic Utah, plus a museum visit

March 15th, 2019

Hurricane, Utah — Every day is a little warmer. Today the team worked on a long section of the Carmel Formation in Dammeron Valley (locality DV: N 37.27629°, W 113.63712°). It is a complete section oof the Co-Op Creek Limestone Member, from its lower contact with the Temple Cap Formation to its upper contact with the Crystal Creek Member.

Our objective was to find the same oolitic unit we measured and sampled at the Water Tank Road (WTR) locality yesterday. We want to see what facies differences are evident within an ooid shoal over some distance. We found the unit with the help of “Nick’s Sandstone” present as a marker bed about five meters above. The unit is shown above. It still has four parts (A-D), but the A unit at the base has a significant siliciclastic component. This Dammeron Valley (DV) unit is also about half as thick as that at WTR. The DV section is 3.74 km north of the one at WTR.

Shelley explored the unit and found very faint bedding structures, a mix of wave and current ripples. She and Anna again collected data to ascertain current and wave directions.

Shelley and Anna are here measuring current and wave directions. Photo by Nick.

Here is Evan in his field mode. My photo of him yesterday was faceless.

This is the top of the Temple Cap Formation in Dammeron Valley. The Carmel is immediately above. Here you can see the distinctive red siltstones and an interval of gypsum beds at the very top.

It was our pleasure to briefly visit the St. George Dinosaur Discovery site today. This is a fantastic museum and laboratory built over bedding planes of the Moenave Formation (Lower Jurassic) covered with dinosaur tracks and sedimentary structures.

The sediments formed along a shoreline of ancient Lake Dixie, so there is a diverse mix of terretrial and aquatic features.

We mainly wanted to visit with Andrew Milner (on the left), the site paleontologist and curator. He always has good paleontological stories and advice. Today he showed us a tiny but significant ammonite found in the Carmel at the Eagle Mountain Ranch locality. We also looked at various vertebrate fossils being prepared in his lab.

Finally, we need to show our beautiful headquarters for this trip — an Air BnB in Hurricane. Since camping is not possible for us, this turned out to be a surprisingly affordable housing option. The garage alone is a bonus for organizing samples and equipment. We are plenty comfortable here!

A much more pleasant day in southwestern Utah

March 14th, 2019

Hurricane, Utah — This is our morning view to the north from our Team Utah headquarters in Hurricane. The snowy Pine Valley Mountains were especially beautiful as the clouds lifted overnight. Such colors. A much warmer day was ahead of us after our freeze-fest yesterday.

Today we returned to the Water Tank location we briefly visited yesterday. This time we concentrated on this meter-thick set of cross-bedded oolites. We described this little column, took four samples, and named the location WTR (for “water tank road”). The coordinates are: N 37.25500°, W 113.60436°.

Anna is here examining the top of the sequence, which appears to represent an ooid shoal.

A very covered Evan does the same. Today he is not protecting himself from the cold as much as the sun.

Dr. Judge, with Anna’s help, collected measurements of the cross-beds to eventually calculate current flow direction, which will be very interesting.

While on a scouting trip for the team, Nick found this mysterious quartzose sandstone unit 5.4 meters above the WRT oolite. It is very much an oddity in an otherwise carbonate sequence. In some parts the sand is loose enough to later run through the Ro-Tap sieves.

For lunch we went to a favorite Wooster restaurant — Veyo Pies! Very appropriate (and crowded) on Pi Day. Photo by Shelley.

Every time I visit this region I make a pilgrimage to the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre site north of Central, Utah, on Highway 18. Today it was snow-covered, which made the place seem even lonelier. Please read the historical account of what happened here.

The rock cairn over the mass grave. Lest we forget.

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