J. Fred Read, professor of geology at Virginia Tech University and a recipient of this year’s AAPG Grover E. Murray Distinguished Educator Award, has an admission to make.
An apology of sorts.
“Looking back, I realize I tended to underestimate just how good my graduate students really were.”
One hopes his former students are reading, those men and women who have gone on to professions in academia and industry, for Read holds them in higher esteem than he might have told them.
Further, these are students who have remained cherished friends and colleagues, Read says, and of whom “I value above all else.
“The nice thing for me about teaching is that it is a two-way street,” said Read, who talks of accepting the Murray award as a tribute to all those great graduate students he’s had.
“Students have taught me probably a lot more than I have given them.”
Every geology professor has such sentiments; Read says, for him, he knows why. And it has to do with the excitement and interest that students bring to the work, and how their approach renews his passion.
“Once started on their research projects, the students dig into the literature and provide me with a crash course in the topics at hand, along with a first look at new developments that they uncover as the projects evolve,” he said.
He is talking specifically about his proximity the last 35 years to the students’ work in sequence stratigraphy, cyclostratigraphy, modeling, geochemistry, diagenesis of carbonate cements and dolomites, and carbonate reservoirs in units ranging from the Early Proterozoic to the Miocene, and as far afield as Arctic Canada, the Appalachians, the Great Basin to Hungary, Croatia and Saudi Arabia.
Read believes he learns something every time he’s a part of the process, no matter where he is in the academic landscape.
“I have also enjoyed teaching at the undergraduate level, especially the Evolution of the Earth and Life (a course designed for freshmen) and sedimentology-stratigraphy,” he said. “For many students, the fossil record is a real eye opener and it greatly broadens their understanding of evolution – even for those who come into the course with preconceived notions.”
Debunking their preconceived notions, he said, is tempting, but he shies away from leveling his students so soon in the process.
“I have never tried to be confrontational on this, but let the fossil record speak for itself,” he said, “which it does eloquently.”
Read has been teaching, researching and working in the geosciences long enough to know that the changes in the industry, while seemingly spectacular, are similar to those in any field.
“Although the oil industry has a reputation of being cyclic, the same is true for academia,” he said, bemoaning budget cuts as one example where life inside the university can be as difficult as life in the field.
Further, he has had to change his methods through the years, because students, like the profession and like the university, haven’t stayed static in his three-and-a-half decades.
“My approach to teaching has changed over the years from blackboard to overheads to PowerPoints, but now I tend to use a mix of all three, along with readings and discussions of critical papers, and an emphasis on lab and field work to hammer home the points,” he said. “I am a great believer in having the students get out into the field and measure detailed sections, or have them tackle real data sets in the lab to come up with a coherent story.”
Since Read teaches at Virginia Tech, a state institution, he is expected to devote roughly equal time to teaching and research during the academic year – along with a service component.
Students, then, aren’t the only ones in the classroom looking forward to summers and the free time that comes with it.
“I have always kept summers open for research and field work.”
And part of that work involves a project that studies the use of carbonate platforms through time to better constrain the Phanerozoic record of global climate change.
“Antun Husinec and I have a project funded by NSF on the Croatian carbonate platform of Mesozoic age, which provides a superb cyclic record of sea level changes, tectonics – and climate,” he said. “We are also working with Aramco, through Aus Al-Tawil and Duffy Russell and many others on refining the sequence stratigraphic framework of the Mesozoic reservoirs in Saudi Arabia – our lab at Virginia Tech has been renamed Al-Carbonate Lab by my Arab students.
“Both of these Mesozoic projects have been real learning experiences,” he added, “given that much of our work has been on Cambrian to Triassic carbonates, and Cenozoic age units.”
Like many geologists, especially those who both teach and do the work in the field, Read talks about the intangibles and mysteries of the profession.
“Geology has been and continues to be great fun, much like a detective story, with bits and pieces that need pulling together to make a coherent story,” he said.
“I have been lucky to have stumbled on a life-long job that has always been fun, even when we have been covered with mosquitoes, or baking in the heat.”
There is something else, too, and it came upon him when he was studying geology as an elective while majoring in chemistry at the University of Western Australia.
It was after his first geology field trip that he thought:
“They will actually pay people to do this. What a great job.”