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A Winding Path to the Energy Hill
Allyson K. Anderson

Sometimes life can catch you completely off guard and throw something unexpected in your path. Nearly every two years for the past 10 years of my professional life, a major life change has occurred that has placed me in an entirely new environment or new career that I would have never dreamed for myself. I am now writing from my new office on Capitol Hill, where I will be working for the next year on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources — what an unexpected path it has been!

When I started out in my undergraduate education, I was (as most everyone is) full of big dreams of changing the world, helping the environment and under no certain circumstances was I going to work in the energy sector. At that time, I was working primarily outside of school as a professional string bass player and was completing coursework for a B.A. in music. It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that while my heart will always be in music, my mind was deeply rooted in science.

While completing my geology degree, I had the tremendous fortune to work for a quintessential absent-minded professor in the geography department. It only took one month of soils geomorphology fieldwork in the Wind River Range, Wyo., to realize my passion for geology. While on that trip, I met the professor who would later become my master’s thesis advisor at Indiana University in Indianapolis.

After completing my geology and music degrees, I headed east to Indiana for that master’s degree in geology. I was able to travel to classic geologic locales, such as the Palouse Loess and Channeled Scablands in Washington, to study loess deposits and related soil development. During these trips, I met phenomenal geologists, aerosols experts and geographers who opened many doors to opportunities for research and collaboration.

At that time, I wasn’t sure what I could possibly do with a soils geomorphology background, except perhaps work for the Natural Resource Conservation Survey or for an environmental geology firm. But after working with people from both, I decided that I was not ready to leave the sanctuary that academics offered. I once again packed my bags (and shovel) and moved to Kansas to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Kansas.

As life would have it, once at Kansas I found myself studying completely new research topics and eventually ended up at the Kansas Geological Survey. I happened upon a fantastic opportunity to study geologic hazards that had a major impact on local citizens.

As diligent readers of Geotimes know, a tragic event in Hutchinson, Kan., resulted in the catastrophic release of natural gas and brine from a local gas storage facility located outside of town (see Geotimes, October 2001). I spent a great amount of time traveling to Hutchinson with my advisor to help with seismic surveys, collecting spectral remote sensing data, field reconnaissance and more. It was a fast-paced, exciting project that made me realize that I was actually quite fascinated with energy-sector-driven geologic studies.

As any great advisor would do, my advisor insisted that I interview with the oil companies when they made their annual recruiting trips to our campus. What he and I didn’t count on was that I would get an internship and eventually be lured away from completing my Ph.D. at Kansas to take a permanent position at ExxonMobil.

During my three or so years with ExxonMobil in Houston, I worked with world-class datasets from many different basins around the world. The geologists and engineers that I worked with continuously amazed me with their comprehensive, integrated systems approach to tackling geologic problems. My work there expanded my knowledge of not only science, but of other cultures, as I have traveled to West Africa and worked extensively with people from Nigeria, Angola, Malaysia and South America, among other locations. I have no doubt that working in the energy sector is right where I want to be.

Now that I am on the Hill working on energy issues, my interests have only intensified. When I first came to Washington, D.C., I thought I would try to work on energy/environmental issues with a member of Congress. To my surprise and good fortune, the Senate energy committee was looking for a fellow to step in and begin working on policy related to biofuels, gas flaring and many other energy-related issues. Thus far, in my short tenure with the committee, I’ve attended hearings on land management issues, briefings on biofuel and alternative resources, and put many years of geology experience to use on land management issues that fall under the jurisdiction of the energy committee.

As the 109th Congress winds down and the members of Congress head back to their constituents in their home states, the rest of the Hill is busy trying to prepare themselves for the next round of legislation that is certain to be addressed when the lame duck Congress meets again this month. While energy issues are the subject of continued debate on and off the Hill, they won’t necessarily be addressed with legislation at the end of the 109th Congress. Instead, a recently proposed bipartisan bill, titled the National Competitiveness Investment (NCI) Act, is expected to hit the Senate floor when the Congress returns from recess this month.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), proposed NCI in late September to authorize $73 billion in federal funding for science and technology over five years, $20 billion of which is new funding. This proposed legislation is great first step toward keeping the United States on the cutting edge of science and technology.

As Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) stated aptly: “If America is to continue to lead the world in the 21st century, it must sustain its vibrant science and technology sector.” Only then will more students go on to pursue their scientific interests along their own straight or circuitous path, as I did.

Anderson is the William L. Fisher 2006-2007 American Geological Institute Congressional Fellow, one of about 30 fellows sponsored by science and engineering societies, and will work in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources this year. Look for more columns by her over the next year.

"Hutchinson, Kansas: A Geologic Detective Story," Geotimes, October 2001

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