Geologist and Author
2016 President's Medal
Presented to Sarah Andrews
Citation by Jonathan G. Price
Sarah Andrews is the award-winning author, licensed pilot, artist, teacher, and professional geologist who brings the excitement of geology to the public through her mystery stories. She adeptly engages geoscientist friends in her research, often rewarding them with veiled appearances in her books, sometimes with unfortunate outcomes. In her dozen books, she has murdered—among others—geologists, paleontologists, biologists, accountants, and graduate students. Her chief alter ego, petroleum geologist turned forensic geologist, Em Hansen, demonstrates that geological principles can be used not only to solve murders and scientific problems but also to address social concerns. She has painted positive pictures of petroleum, mining, environmental, engineering, and research geologists in industry, the U.S. Geological Survey, state geological surveys, and academia. Fascination with the Grand Canyon and dedication to her USGS mentor, Eddie McKee, allowed Em Hansen to deftly tackle creationism while rafting down the canyon (in the book Rock Bottom).
Sarah’s career has given her the background and contacts for research on her books. She earned her B.A. degree in geology at Colorado College. Her first geological job was with the U.S. Geological Survey, where she made contacts that later provided ideas for some of her books (including her biography of McKee). After earning her M.S. in Earth resources at Colorado State University, she became a petroleum geologist for both major and independent companies, which provided plots for Tensleep, A Fall in Denver, and Only Flesh and Bones.
Professional contacts also gave Sarah a long-lasting friendship with Lee Allison (later state geologist of Utah, Kansas, and Arizona), through whom other friendships developed with state geologists and employees of the state geological surveys of Utah (Bone Hunter—with intrigue about collecting vertebrate fossils for sale; Fault Line—with questions about revealing information on hazards to the public), Nevada (An Eye for Gold—touching on fraud and endangered species), Pennsylvania (Earth Colors—using elements in pigments as poisons), Florida (Killer Dust—effects of African dust), and Colorado (Dead Dry—drought and water resources). A downturn in the petroleum industry gave Sarah the opportunity to leave the oil patch for the environmental consulting business in California (background for her book Mother Nature) and lecturing at Sonoma State University.
Sarah’s engaging personality also drove academics and law-enforcement professionals to jump at the chance of helping her gather information for her books. Reading the acknowledgments in her books is a good way of discovering a network of helpful friends and colleagues. Sarah also acquired background for her books from her youth on the East Coast. She inherited some of her artistic talents from her grandmother and father, who were recognized oil painters. Her mother, an English and religion teacher, gave her confidence to tackle writing and topics for which geology and religion occasionally collide.
The National Science Foundation awarded Sarah an Artists and Writers Grant to conduct research at McMurdo Station and field stations in Antarctica for her book In Cold Pursuit, in which the protagonist is a female graduate student who proves that her professor isn’t guilty of murdering a journalist.
Sarah is frequently invited to lecture on a wide range of topics, including geology, mystery writing, communicating science to the public, women in geology, how geologists think, the controversy between science and religion, and the life of Eddie McKee, chief naturalist at Grand Canyon National Park from 1929 to 1940 and legendary USGS geologist. A Fellow of the Geological Society of America, Sarah has received several significant awards: the 2009 Louis T. Benezet Award from Colorado College, the 2006 Antarctic Service Medal, the 2003 Special Award of the Association of Engineering Geologists, the 2001 James T. Shea Award of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the 1999 Journalism Award of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, and the 1997 Journalism Award of the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists.
For her efforts in promoting our science and profession, congratulations to Sarah Andrews as the 2016 GSA President’s Medalist.
2016 President's Medal — Response by Sarah Andrews
I am deeply honored to receive the GSA President’s Medal, especially because it is nominated and presented by Jon Price. I could not have created the Em Hansen stories without extensive input and advisement from Jon and a long list of other geoscience colleagues, most of whom are members of GSA. GSA has been my go-to place for finding essential input for my work, and I am grateful to the society for fostering communication, collaboration, and mentorship among its members.
I write novels set in the geosciences because scientists in general and geologists in particular are under-represented in popular media, and when we do appear, we are often portrayed under ominous stereotypes with untrustworthy motivations and suspect findings. I wanted the public to know why and how the study of the Earth is significant and what we as geoscientists really do: We strive to understand natural systems and resources that are essential to life on this planet. I therefore write stories to build a bridge over which readers can cross into our rich and complex world of understanding, and thus appreciate our broad, detailed, and beautifully integrated perspective on what makes this planet tick. I want readers to appreciate the work we do, but as importantly, I aim to create informed consumers, because with each penny spent that consumes natural resources—and very little spending is not connected in some way to that—a vote is cast that influences our collective future.
The mystery story form has been a good choice for teaching the public about the geosciences because scientists are detectives. Behind our curiosity is a basic, elemental drive to know what is true; this leads us, project by project and throughout our lives, on the classic Hero’s Journey, a cycle of risk and learning, as we climb the path toward knowledge. The scientific method equips us for this path toward discovery most excellently, providing toolbox, field guide, and GPS. By following this path, we experience the power that rests in humbling ourselves to the pursuit of clarity.
My greatest joys in creating these works came through the mentorship of those who have walked the path of geoscience communication before me, and through collaboration with those who walk beside me. To present an entirely incomplete list of those who have helped, I must begin with Eddie McKee, known for his legendary work on the stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon. Eddie began his career as a park naturalist, interpreting science to the visiting public, and in so doing learned that a simple narrative clearly stated in plain English forms the most powerful communication. Lee Allison showed me that even the most jargon-riddled tomes are made more inviting to the public if jacketed by inviting illustrations and a short, pithy title. I am also indebted to Lee for ushering me into the fascinating and complex world of state geologists, in which science meets public policy, and for demonstrating the power of standing on his moral center while working at this critical nexus. Jon Price demonstrated the fine art of leading by building consensus. Jay Parrish, Gene Shinn, and a host of others generously took me on a series of Mr. Toad’s Wild Rides through the landscapes and issues they wanted to communicate to the public. Allyson Mathis most excellently presented the current status of interpretive work at the Grand Canyon. And I quite literally could not have written these novels without the enduring support and professional assistance of the geologist to whom I am married, Damon Brown.
I observe that it is essential that the intellectual talents, knowledge, and experience that we have gained in our pursuit of scientific knowledge be utilized fully in the service of humankind, and that scientists be centrally involved in creating public policy. Here at GSA we gather a brilliant spectrum of talent, including those who perform research in its many forms and applications, those who teach the coming generations, and our state geologists, who work every day at this critically important intersection between science and policymaking. Thanks again, all of you; it is a privilege to work with you.