As is true for many people, my career has been charted partly through serendipity. Growing up in Ontario, Canada, I was especially interested in nature and the outdoors. By the time I was in high school I was convinced that I wanted to be an ornithologist – a friend had introduced me to the panorama of bird life that annually flows through southern Ontario. But at the University of Toronto a first year course in geology, with slides from exotic locales around the world, coupled with the sometimes unpleasant dissections we had to perform in a biology class (we were required to cut up everything from earthworms to frogs and fetal pigs), turned my focus to the earth sciences. Then, partway through that first year, I was introduced to a young geologist from the Canadian Geological Survey who was visiting family friends in my hometown. He offered me a summer job as a student assistant in his field party and I jumped at the chance. Shortly after classes finished that spring I found myself boarding an old DC-3 at Montreal airport, bound for Resolute Bay in the high Canadian Arctic. From there our small party – there were just seven of us, including a bush pilot and a cook – took a much smaller plane to Bathurst Island, one of many islands that make up the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and at that time the location of the north magnetic pole (the position of the magnetic pole drifts over time; it’s no longer located on Bathurst Island). We set up our field camp and for the next three months worked in continuous arctic daylight and among caribou, muskoxen, and the occasional polar bear – and no other humans. I was hooked.
As a result I graduated from the University of Toronto not as a biologist aiming for a career in ornithology, but as a geologist. A Master’s degree at McMaster University followed, once again involving work in the high arctic. This time, though, the research wasn’t restricted to the land; we took cores of the sediments from the bottom of the inter-island straits by using a helicopter to search for seals basking on the sea ice, landing beside their holes, and setting up a coring rig to retrieve the sediment cores. It worked like a charm – and it meant we didn’t have to drill holes through the ice to do our coring.
That foray into work on marine sediments led me to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, for work on a PhD. Quite a shift – from the high arctic to southern California. Once again serendipity played its part, because the Apollo program to send men to the moon was just getting under way, as was a large international effort called the Deep Sea Drilling Project, which had been set up to sample the deep ocean floor in a systematic way. The serendipitous timing meant that these two programs featured in my thesis research, which entailed work on samples from both the moon and the ocean bottom.
With a newly minted PhD I went off to the University of California at Berkeley for a few years as a postdoctoral researcher, then returned to Scripps as a member of the faculty for a career of research and teaching. It was an amazing experience: a bucolic setting on the Pacific Ocean, brilliant and fascinating colleagues, superb graduate students, and opportunities to pursue research in geology across the globe, on land and at sea. Then, in 2005, I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland – another juncture that owed much to serendipity. I had spent several years in this marvelous city as director of the University of California’s Edinburgh Study Centre, one of many around the world operated by the University’s Education Abroad Program – a wonderful program that immerses California students in different cultures internationally – and during that time Edinburgh worked its charms. It is now home.