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Julie Jackson: The quiet public geologist

Julie Jackson’s résumé is several pages long, and her publications add up to thousands and thousands of pages. Her impact, however, on the geologic community — and on the public — is more than just paper.

Last fall, the Geological Society of America awarded Julie Jackson their 2003 public service award for her work in communicating geoscience to the public. Photo by Naomi Lubick.

In her quiet and persistent way, Jackson, editor of the Glossary of Geology and a former editor of this magazine, has ramped up the communication of geology to the public — through her creativity, production of a variety of publications and her connection to the community. For her work, the Geological Society of America (GSA) gave Jackson the 2003 Public Service Award last November at its annual meeting. Established to honor Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker, its awardees are people “who have advanced the earth sciences in public interest.”

Jackson started her geological career as a child in Michigan. Her mother’s family was composed of Cornish miners, and her father’s of Danish farmers. “My dad was a lumberjack and he’s really the one who helped me see, to observe nature without disrupting it,” she says. Her family, Jackson says, combined with books, a chemistry set, a microscope and a seventh-grade science teacher who took her class on fieldtrips, helped her develop a passion for geology and natural history.

She followed her passion at Wayne State University, where she was the only female geology major — at a time when her female peers generally went into teaching and nursing. Geology, she says, “is a good foundation for life.” Although not a field she necessarily considered as a career, geology, she says, was something she could “use and enjoy anywhere,” Jackson says.

After graduating, Jackson mixed a secretarial position at Wayne State with summer field work, where she met and married a fellow geologist. Her husband David, a mathematician-turned-geologist, took a job with Chevron. At the time, it was a small geophysical company within Standard of California, which sent the couple to Texas, Canada, Louisiana and California. After several years of traveling, they settled in Washington, D.C., in 1966.

Jackson took advantage of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where she became a docent for the minerals and geology halls. She organized and trained other docents — mostly women volunteered — and she started subscribing to Geotimes, something an undergraduate professor had suggested to her years before.

In the pages of the magazine, Jackson saw an advertisement for a position with the American Geological Institute (AGI), and she applied. “They were quite impressed because she was the first subscriber they’d met,” says Sharon Tahirkheli, who is now head of AGI’s information services. Tahirkheli came to AGI six months after Jackson and has seen her weather a multitude of changes with the organization. “She is probably the only person who has the distinction of working in all the departments AGI has ever had, except for government affairs,” she says.

After a little more than a year of working at Georef, AGI’s geological citation index, Jackson took on revision of the Glossary, at that time around 35,000 terms, and what current Geotimes editor-in-chief Sam Adams called “the Rosetta Stone” of geology in his citation at the GSA awards ceremony. Jackson networked with an extraordinary number of geologists, organizing the work of many to create the tome.

Carol Ruthven, president of the Association of Earth Science Editors (AESE), says that the glossary was certainly part of the reason the organization nominated Jackson for the GSA award. “But also, she was really critical in initiating the national Earth Science Week and also the Environmental Awareness Series. Both of those initiatives I think have been absolutely incredible,” Ruthven says. The Environmental Awareness series, she says, “exemplifies the very best in communicating earth science to the public.”

Rex Buchanan of the Kansas Geological Survey has known Jackson through AESE and other publications work for a long time. In the past, he has asked for Jackson’s presence on committees because of her ability to persuade and inspire. Jackson has “a way of getting things done that I admire — things like that glossary,” Buchanan says. Many people would be overwhelmed, he says, “but Julie brings a lot of people along with her, and that’s how she gets things done.”

Jackson’s confidence, sincerity and kindness are part of her success, Buchanan says, and she always speaks her mind. “There’s no sense of pretense about Julie,” he says. “She does a lot of good things and doesn’t do it out of any sense of self or aggrandizement.”

Last month, Jackson and her husband were on the move once more, relocating to a small town in Washington state. She says she is already looking forward to working at the town’s natural history museum, which has its own mastodon (found nearby) and a grass-roots effort to educate about natural history. “It’s coming from the community, which is the way things have to be to work,” she says. “I feel like I’m home.”

Naomi Lubick

Jackson will continue helping with the preparation of the fifth edition of the Glossary of Geology and publications in the Environmental Awareness Series. You can contact her at

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