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Vicki Cowart: From rocks to reproductive rights

After serving as Colorado’s state geologist and director of the Colorado Geological Survey (CGS) for the past 10 years, Vicki Cowart is now heading Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM) as CEO and president. While the switch is a dramatic departure from her previous career, Cowart is pleased for the opportunity to pursue what, up until now, has been her second passion in life.

Cowart admits the change may seem like a “pretty radical departure on the face of it.” But her background shows otherwise. Indeed, it was her experience as a geologist that helped give Cowart an advantage over the other candidates for the position.

Vicki Cowart holds up a sample of bentonite in water during a Colorado Geological Survey (CGS) field trip for public officials. David Noe of CGS and Karen Berry, the Jefferson County geologist at the time, watch the soil sample swell in size. Photo by Jim Soule, CGS.

Cowart graduated from the Colorado School of Mines in 1977 with a master’s in geophysics, and then spent 16 years working in the oil and gas industry while volunteering her spare time on issues of reproductive freedom and women’s rights. In 1980 she helped establish the Denver chapter of the Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG), which was first based in San Francisco. From 1982 to 1983, she served as AWG’s first nationally elected president and later as a board member of the association’s foundation. “I cut my teeth at AWG,” she says. By running meetings, committees and dealing with groups of people with different agendas, Cowart learned leadership skills that she took with her as she moved on into management positions in the oil industry and later as state geologist.

Many of Cowart’s colleagues in the geologic community say they are sad to see her go, but wish her luck in her venture. “It’s a real tragedy for the survey that she’s leaving; she has provided tremendous leadership here and her contributions have been immeasurable,” says Vince Matthews of CGS. Under Cowart’s leadership, the survey rode out budget cuts during the 1990s by pushing to get a severance tax approved (a tax imposed upon nonrenewable natural resources, such as oil and gas, that are removed from the earth) and obtaining grants outside of state funding. Throughout that period, Cowart continuously strove to encourage geologists working in the survey to translate science for the public. She is particularly proud of the book for homeowners that David C. Noe and co-authors at the survey wrote about swelling soil, she says. The 1997 publication won the 2001 Edward B. Burwell Jr. Award from the Geological Society of America as well as the Association of American State Geologists’ John C. Frye Memorial Award in 1998. “Swelling soil is Denver’s biggest geologic hazard,” Matthews says. “The volcanic ash in the soil alters with water — swelling with tremendous force, as much as 15 tons per square foot.” Cowart often gave tours to government officials of sites with severe swelling soil damage and showed them through example just how menacing the problem was to the state.

Before her departure from the Survey, the Colorado Section of the American Institute of Professional Geologists (AIPG) honored Cowart with its first Citizens Leadership Excellence Award. Former state senator Sally Hopper presented Cowart the award, citing her “outstanding scientific leadership in providing critical geologic expertise and information to the citizens of Colorado and leadership by example to the nation.”

The award caught Cowart by surprise during AIPG’s Legislative Reception, she says. An annual event, the reception offers geologists and geological organizations a chance to exhibit their research and new applications to legislative officials and the public. Cowart was showcasing the survey’s work on groundwater when “all of a sudden I was called up to the front of the room and I was presented this wonderful award.”

Her career at the survey has given her many reasons to celebrate. “I love the CGS and I love the people there and the work that we do.” But last fall, Cowart saw her chance to shift gears after CEO and president of PPRM, Sylvia Clark, announced her retirement. “The survey was in a good spot and I wasn’t clear what my next step in the Survey was going to be, so I threw my hat in the ring to see if I could go on and do something else in another part of my world,” Cowart says.

The committee to appoint the president and CEO of PPMR chose Cowart after she and the other finalists were tested for writing and public speaking abilities. “What led us to Vicki was her longtime commitment to reproductive choices in her volunteer life and her obvious ability in areas of critical thinking,” says Diane Barrett of PPMR’s Board of Trustees. “We felt she’s been a pioneer among geologists and she has done a lot for women in her work on geophysics over the years.”

Cowart explains that her involvement in women’s rights stems from a desire to perpetuate the freedoms she is thankful to have had. “I came of age when all of these battles were already fought and won,” she says. “Women have a huge range of choices because somebody else already fought the battle to graduate in physics; somebody else already fought the battle to get admitted by the School of Mines and get hired to work in an oil field and I was able to go after the things that interested me.”

Christina Reed

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