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Political Scene

Petrology and Politics
Katie Donnelly

As I prepare this column, I am frantically packing my belongings in New York City and preparing for my upcoming work in Washington, D.C., as the 2004-2005 Congressional Science Fellow for the American Geological Institute. It seems fitting that my last moments in New York overlapped with the start of the Republican National Convention. As I straddle the divide between academia and policy, I have the opportunity both to reflect upon my career as a research scientist and to look forward to my future work as a science-policy adviser.

I am a geochemist and igneous petrologist. For the last eight years, I have been obsessed with studying volcanic rocks from the ocean floor. These “mid-ocean ridge basalts” are the most abundant volcanic rock on the planet, covering nearly two-thirds of Earth’s surface. They form at the boundary of two tectonic plates that are spreading apart from one another. To many people, they are just a bunch of boring black rocks, but to me, they are fascinating. Perhaps it is the glistening glassy rinds that entrance me, or perhaps it is the exhilaration felt on the ship when these rocks break the surface of the water dripping and wet, as we pull them up from 2.5 kilometers deep.

These volcanic rocks also provide the primary means of exploring the chemical composition and workings of Earth’s interior. The chemical compositions of the rocks are especially powerful because they record information not only about current physical conditions within Earth’s mantle but also about its history. Thus, my job is somewhat similar to that of an interpreter — reading and deciphering the chemical codes within volcanic rocks. Anyone who shares my aesthetic sensibilities and sense of adventure would enjoy life as an igneous petrologist.

My start as a geologist began in Texas at Trinity University in San Antonio, where I gained an appreciation for the beauty of the outdoors. Geology empowered me to understand why this mountain stood here and why that valley cut through there. After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I spent an amazing year in Dunedin, New Zealand, on a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Otago, earning my master’s degree. After enjoying scenery as breathtaking as that in The Lord of the Rings, meeting many fantastic people, I returned to the United States to complete a Ph.D. at Columbia University.

Since earning my Ph.D. degree, I have continued my research at Columbia and have looked to expand my role as a scientist — through both teaching and grant writing. Especially rewarding has been my work toward bringing 3-D seismic technology to the research community. Past explorations of the many hazardous faults near coastal areas and the gas hydrate deposits beneath the ocean floor have been limited because the academic community lacked a ship capable of utilizing the 3-D technology commonly used by industry. I climbed aboard what was ultimately a successful effort to upgrade the R/V Maurice Ewing at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University to a larger, more powerful seismic research vessel.

Now I move on to the Congressional Science Fellowship with anticipation and many unknowns. More than ever, science and technology is key in daily life, with serious issues like AIDS, global warming and fossil fuel market crises dominating headlines and policy. As discoveries in science and technology move forward at a rapid pace, the results are often complex. A thorough and technical understanding of these issues is required for making sound and responsible public policies. Thus, we must do more to strengthen the link between scientists and policy-makers.

Forging this link is one of the most important goals of the Congressional Science Fellowship program. I hope in the upcoming year to better understand where science and public policy intersect so that we as a society can build the longstanding collaboration between scientists and policy-makers necessary to ensure that public policy keeps pace with the cutting edge of science.

I look forward to keeping all of you up to date on my progress and work this upcoming year.


Donnelly, an igneous petrologist, was born and raised in St. Louis, Mo., and is moving from New York City to Washington, D.C., this fall, as the 2004-2005 American Geological Institute Congressional Fellow, one of about 30 fellows sponsored by science and engineering societies. Look for more columns by her over the next year, as she immerses herself in science policy on the Hill.

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