Stop 4 – University of Connecticut

Best college logo of the tour so far? Probably. Much fun in New England with a pack of Huskies…

A rather fraught journey from Roanoke to Hartford, involving a delayed departure and a Usain Bolt-esque sprint though Charlotte airport, only involving a heavy roller-case and lots of sweating and swearing, deposited me in Connecticut, New England. Despite being the son of West Indian immigrants I guess, in some way, this is my US spiritual home.

I was met by my host Julie Fosdick, an all-round basin analysis ninja, specialising in the application of geo-thermochronology to understanding mountain building and related sediment erosion and dispersal. Having only known her because of her excellent, prize-winning(!) work on the Magallanes foreland basin (Chile and Argentina), I first met Julie at a pre-AAPG party in Calgary last year; I’d evidently not put here off, thus she was receptive to my offer to visit when I contacted her about my GSA tour. We drove to her house in the Glastonbury woods, where I met her husband Ken, a professor at Yale specialising in climate economics. We took a stroll through the woods to a pub (yes, an almost real, British-style pub!) for dinner and deep, deep politic chat, before heading to bed.

I woke early the next morning for a short run. I didn’t feel like it and I didn’t have much time, but the sun was shining and I’d foolishly committed to running at every tour stop. Running without a large roller-case was very nice. A quick breakfast, and Julie and I headed into University of Connecticut’s stunning campus. Set amongst rolling green hills, the architecture felt distinctly British, with the clear blue skies and sunshine adding to the ambience. So began a whirlwind morning of meetings with faculty, including Andrew Bush, Michael Hren, and Lisa Park Boush (the program head and all-round cat-herder; see also @LisaBoush). We laughed and discussed too many things to mention, with Andrew showing and allowing me to photograph some of his cool dino-bits…which sounds weird now I read it back to myself. I also finally met Anjali Fernandes (@climbing_ripple), a sedimentologist-stratigrapher and Twitter connection; turns out people on Twitter can be super-cool in real life!


Running behind schedule (full disclosure: I likely talked to much), I had a pizza-lunch with some of the grad students, before diving back into my schedule with a meeting with Patrick Getty. Finally it was time for my seminar, which today was to be on normal fault geometry and kinematics. A mixed group of undergrads, grad students and faculty patiently watched me leap around the room whilst impersonating normal faults, before firing in numerous testing questions. In fact, some of them halted my performance with in-talk questions, which I always think is a good sign and, to be honest, much more interactive and fun.

Staggering from the lecture room, I completed the afternoon with meetings with Jean Crespi, Robert Thorson (a geoscientist and author, who queried me on the use of the word “evolution” to describe the growth of normal faults…), Tim Byrne (who regaled me with tails of Taiwanese fieldwork – spoiler: it can be frustrating, emotional, but ultimately quite awesome) and an undegrad student Connor Mitchel (who will be undertaking his semester abroad placement in London). It was then time for a short walk across campus to the village(?)/town(?) of Storrs, where Julie, Anjali, Tim, Lisa and I had a few drinks and food, and a lot of laughs at the world- UConn-famous Geno’s Grille. Julie then kindly drove me back to my airport hotel in preparation for my horribly early (0535) flight to NYC (via Washington DC!) this morning…

I’d like to finish by saying a huge ‘thanks!’ to Julie; she was an A-Grade host and I look forward to spending time with her in the future. Not only did she allow me to stay at her beautiful home, but she also arranged an action-packed schedule. Absolutely everyone I met at UConn was great fun and very welcoming, and I left with the feeling this would be a great place to work! Thanks you Huskies and see y’all soon!

British by birth. Hokie by association.

A busy day of something vaguely resembling science was followed by a day of relaxation, fun and new friends in Blackburg, VA.

As I warned you in my last post, drinking a combination of caipirinhas and 8.2% IPAs is a short way to a long hangover. So did my day begin in an overcast, rainy Blacksburg and, having abandoned my plan for a run, I made my way into downtown to find Idego, a coffeehouse tip provided by Brian Romans. Some coffee, a croissant and a blog post later, and I was still feeling crappy, so having met Brian and his wife Hannah for a short walk around the farmers’ market (FYI London, these were real farmers from the surrounding area, selling stuff they’d actually grown), Brian and I repaired to BB Cup for a spicy Korean lunch. It was exactly what my hangover needed. The rain continue to pour and we were somewhat trapped in the restaurant, but all was not lost as we took the time to shoot-the-shit. A key outcome of this exchange was that, in academia, it was more important to be nice and polite than to be smart and aggressive.



Brian and I the did a bit of shopping ahead of a party to celebrate him achieving tenure and Cody Mason (@cosynomad), one of his grad students, passing his PhD. We bought beer and cake, which personally all I thought was needed, before buying some salad stuff. Booooooh. The rain continued to beat down, but we braved a very short walk around Pandapas Pond in the Jefferson National Forest, before taking a mini roadtrip around bango country.

Returning to Brian’s house, the party began. Good company, good food and good booze made for a awesome evening; I honestly can’t remember laughing so hard, so much. Cody’s cosmogenic nuclide-inspired congratulation cake was a huge hit with young and old and it was a shame when the evening came to an end. However, in the interest of my liver and other bodily functions, it was probably for the best.

I’d just like to close out by saying a huge “thanks” to my host Brian Romans. It’s always nice to meet and spend time with people who, in the past, you have only seen fleetingly across the conference room, or you only know via (signed) journal reviews. Contrary to popular advice, meet your heroes.

Stop 3 – Virginia Tech

Week 1 of Leg 2 comes to a end with a visit to the college with the hands-down best logo, Virginia Tech. Oh, and some dude by the name of Brian Romans, a.k.a. @clasticdetritus, calls this place home…

This news just in: getting to Blacksburg, VA, the home of Virginia Tech, from Eugene, OR, ain’t easy. At. All. A 16 hour journey, involving transfers at Seattle and Atlanta, deposited me in Roanoke, VA, home to the airport serving the college town of Blacksburg. Compounded by 3.5 hour layovers on both stops, the only plus side to this journey was that I managed to finish reviewing two papers that were waaaaaay overdue, as well as catch-up on emails and Skype home. “Are you having fun Daddy?”, asked Hazel (4) on my transfer in Seattle. “No. No I’m not”, came my reply.

Landing in Roanoke around 2300 I was met at the airport by Brian Romans, who was playing host for my time at VT. I have known Brian, a sedimentologist-stratigrapher-oceanographer, for a few years, partly by (excellent) reputation, partly by reciprocal paper review, and partly by social media presence. In that order. When time allows, he writes the excellent ‘Clastic Detritus‘ blog and Tweets from the handle @clasticdetritus. We briefly caught up on the drive back to my hotel, where I promptly crashed ahead of my busy day at VT.

Now, I’d mentioned to Brian that a slightly late start would be appreciated given my long day and late bedtime. He came up with this:

Dr Roman’s vision of a “relaxed schedule”.

Catheter fitted, the day kicked-off with breakfast at Gillie’s, a vegetarian cafe on the edge of campus and Blacksburg institution. We were met by several of Brian’s colleagues, including Rick Law (and his wife Clare), Ben Gill, and John Hole. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the US, the breakfasts were huge and, filled to the brim, we walked across the picturesque, sun-drenched campus to the Department of Geosciences. The morning whizzed by in a blaze of laughter-filled meetings that, only very occasionally, strayed into anything resembling science. Esteban and I talked about the perils of lecture tours, the challenges of getting from Manhattan to Lamont Doherty, and the fluid inclusion/petrologcial record of mantle processes and melt migration, whereas Rick and I focused on issues related to open access publishing and journal impact factors (we both serve on the Geological Society of London Publications Committee). I then headed to meet Ben, a geochemist and sedimentologist (“the periodic table is my playground”). We discussed issues related to tenure (a process that is still a little alien to me given that we don’t have this process in the UK) and the ethics of selecting and approaching referees. My view: it’s OK and, in fact, probably wise to approach referees before hand to ensure they are willing to provide a reference. Also, choose people who are, on paper and by reputation at least, ‘better’ than you, such that their opinion carries weight with the committee, be it for tenure or promotion applications.

A hokie. Obvs.

1100 came so I took a piss and grabbed an iced mocha before taking a short tour around campus with Brian. He told me about the origin of the word ‘Hokie‘ (spoiler: it’s a made-up word and not, as some may presume, another name for a turkey) and explained to me about the US land grant universities system, as well as showing my some of the famous ‘Hokie Stone‘. I even got a quick glimpse at the Museum of Geosciences , which sated my craving for theropods and fossil plants.

For some reason, it never fails to amaze me how old plants look just like modern plants. Seriously.

I then met Bod Bodnar and his students in the VT Fluids Research Lab before heading for another laughter-filled lunch meeting with some of the department grad students. Over lunch not only did I learn about the exciting research being undertaken by these students (ranging from tectonics to paleobiology, and seismology to hydrology), but I also got an insight into their fears about the current state of the US. Sometimes the latter issues are more important that science.

Immediately after lunch I spent some time with Michelle, a vertebrate paleontologist working on a range of paleobiology problems, and John, a seismologist currently working on crustal deformation in the western US. I then moved down to the Sedimentary Systems Research Group to spend some time with Brian and Sebastian, a PhD student working on deep-marine deposits in Chile as part of the super-cool, super-productive, Chile Slope Systems project. We looked at some recently collected drone data and scratched our collective heads over some complex structural-stratigraphic relationships exposed in on the absolutely stunning outcrops characterising this visually spectacular region.

Chilean deep-water outcrops; proper lovely. Image from:
Me. Doing Science.

It was then time for my talk, which today was on 3D seismic reflection imaging of sedimentary basin structure and stratigraphy. I was a bit rusty and tired, but the talk went well enough, or at least well enough that Brian, Esteban, Ben, Rick and Clare took me out for food and drinks. Related to this last point, a word of warning; caipirinha/IPA-fuelled hangovers are not to fucked with.

Stop 2 – University of Oregon

The delayed jet-lag hit hard on my first full day in Eugene, OR, so I rose early and went for a run along the banks of  the mighty Willamette River. It was early, gloomy and overcast, with the south bank being very industrial and slightly Gothem-esque. However, the north bank, which took in the goose-infested Alton Baker Park, was wooded and far more picturesque. The run was an excellent way to continue my recovery from a pre-trip chest infection.

Refreshed, I headed back to my hotel for a hearty and healthy breakfast (the hotel only served farm-to-market produce grown/reared in the local area) and then into UoO with Becky, who had planned a breathless schedule before my 1600 talk. My first date was with Gene Humphreys, a geophysicist with research interests in the broad area of geodynamics and tectonics. Having discussed political high-jinks in our respective home nations, we moved on to talk about Gene’s past and ongoing super-cool research related to plate-scale deformation and magmatism in Oregon and the surrounding states.


Next up was Marli Miller, a member of faculty who is perhaps best described as a structural geologist. Marli has, however, many, many of other talents, being a professional photographer and an author, having relatively recently completed roadside geology books for both Oregon and Washington. I strongly encourage you to visit Marli’s webpage, which features an incredibly extensive library of free-to-download geological photos, ranging from fossils to minerals, and from structural geology to sedimentary rocks. It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, and much to Marl’s surprise, the second slide in my talk featured an image from her website! Thank God I’d included a reference…

Marli then dropped me off with Greg Retallack. Greg specialises in sedimentology and paleobotony, with particular interest and expertise in the recognition and utility of paleosols. We had much fun discussing controversies related to the depositional environment of the Ediacaran fauna, with Greg being a staunch advocate of a model envisaging these famous soft-bodied fauna were in fact lichens rather than critters and that, rather than dwelling in the deep-sea, were in fact deposited and preserved in terrestrial conditions. This is the sort of stuff that gets textbooks rewritten.

Deep-sea depositional environment for the Ediacaran fauna; basically, Greg thinks this is bullshit

Just before lunch I met Josh Roering, a geomorphologists who was very helpful in terms of organising my trip to UoO. Josh and I talked about some of our recent work related to the mapping and utility of ancient landscapes imaged in seismic reflection volumes, as well as some of the controversies related to the extraction of tectonic (or other) signals from river long profiles. We also discussed some of Josh’s work on the controls on erosion and sedimentation rates.

A a lovely thai lunch with Becky, and a quick trip to the UoO shop to buy some swag, and it was time to head back to the department for a couple of short meetings before my talk. I first met with Ben Heath, a PhD student working on magma storage beneath Santorini. It turns out that some of the volcanic and related deformation features observed in and around Santorini may share genetic parallels with features we at IC have studied in seismic reflection data. A rather animated hour flew by, before Ben delivered me to Alan Rempel, an incredibly numerate and thus scary geoscientist, with an interest in applying math (largely his words, not mine) to a range of geological problems.

It was then time for my talk, which was to be on normal fault growth. A large audience and an incredibly protracted and enthusiastic Q&A, which Becky did well to draw to a close, made for a very fun hour. Drinks (mainly IPAs, of course, it’s the Pacific North-West), dinner and great company followed at a dark, woody bar called McMenamins, before I headed home to pack and to prepare for my epic journey to Virginian Tech, Blacksberg, VA.

I’d just like to finish by saying a huge ‘thanks’ to all the folk at University of Oregon who made my visit so awesome. I had a ball. An extra-special thanks goes to Becky, who accepted my invitation to visit, and who organised accommodation, my schedule and some associated logistics. I look forward to catching-up with you all again in the near-future!

Eugene, OR. Nice town. I’ll take it.

This post has no photos, as my phone and laptop have decided they don’t wanna play nice no more. And besides, I wasn’t going to post today anyway, so y’all lucky there’s anything. I’ll be fully back on the GSA blogging horse tomorrow though…

After a night of white wine and company of various colours, today saw a criminally early start in El Paso, Texas for my journey to the Eugene, Oregon. The pre-0500 alarm was lightened by a lift to the airport by Nila, Kate’s indefatigable project administrator and all-round fixer. A smooth ride through El Paso’s pocket-sized airport and a decent layover in DIA (well, as decent as a layover could ever be in DIA’s, seemingly never-ending concourses of beige and shit food) allowed me to catch-up on emails and work, as did the 2.5 hour trans-Rockies flight to Eugene, Oregon. Actually, having chosen a window seat, I was rather hoping to get no work done whatsoever, instead spending my time indulging in some geology-from-the-air. However, heavy cloud cover meant I only got fleeting glimpses of the Rockies, the flat, dusty wilds of Idaho and eastern Oregon. I was however rewarded during the descent into the Willamette Valley. This valley, which houses the major population centres of Oregon such as Eugene, Salem and, of course, Portlandia, is a sea of green and spectacularly located, being pinned between the mighty Cascades to the east and the no-less impressive coastal range to the west. It’s really hard not to like the geographical setting of Eugene.

I was picked-up at Eugene airport by Charlie, the husband of my host Becky Dorsey. On the short drive into town we covered a lot of ground, including the circumstances leading to the occurrence of casinos on Native American land, and the ‘legalisation’ of pot in Oregon. I didn’t know pot was legal in Oregon. In addition to killer scenery, ace booze and lovely food, it seems Oregon has a lot going for it.

After a somewhat chaotic check-in to my swanky hotel, The Excelsior, I headed into downtown Eugene to get my bearings, stretch my legs, and to find an iced coffee. I succeeded, and instantly fell in love with the relaxed and clean air of Eugene. Intending to return to my hotel for a quick catnap before dinner, I stumbled on 16 Tons, a ‘bottle and tap shop’ (i.e. bar-come-off licence) located just up the street from my hotel. Promising 700 bottled and draft beers, it would have been rude and thus incredibly un-British of me not to pop in and sample some of the selection. I sampled hard, mainly the heavy, heavy IPAs, swaying back to the Excelsior to meet Becky and Charlie for dinner, before heading to bed for, I think, a well-deserved early night.

Stop 1 – University of Texas at El Paso

The c. 20 hour journey from London to El Paso via Atlanta was never going to be fun, with copious amounts of IPAs making the 9.5 hour transatlantic portion of the flight a little more than bearable. However, navigating Atlanta airport, which should quite frankly come with a health warning, was less-than-enjoyable, what with its non-existent queuing system, its two immigration desks (for two, simultaneously landing 737s), and its laughably shit terminal transfer train. Having ran through the airport I *just* about made my connection for the 2.5 hour flight down to the Mexican border and the city of El Paso, which was to be the first stop of Leg 2 of my tour.

I was kindly picked up at the airport by my friend Kate Giles, the Lloyd A. Nelson Professor in Geology at University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). A short drive across the Franklin Mountains, a relatively recent (<10 Ma) normal fault-driven uplift associated with the Cenozoic Rio Grande rift, a large glass of Sauvignon Blanc, two sleeping tablets, and it was time for bed.

9 hours of sleep later and with not a hint of jet-lag, I woke and went for a short run to clear the mind and wake the legs. Kate and I then headed into UTEP, where I spent the morning chatting to some of the faculty, including Gail Arnold, Marianne Karplus and Libby Anthony. Gail gave me a tour around the Butanese-inspired campus (I shit you not), whilst Marianne and I headed to the coffee shop for me to buy an iced mocha. It was nice to be outside walking in the 30 degree heat, having spent yesterday cramped-up on fiercely air-conditioned planes.

The Department of Geological Sciences, University of Texas at El Paso, backed by a bewilderingly blue sky.

The day was not to be all campus tours and iced coffees, however, as I had been asked to give not one but TWO talks! The first was on intrasalt structure and composition, which I gave to a relatively small group comprising halophiles working with Kate, plus some other folks, students and faculty, who were presumably lured in by the offer of free pizza. The talk was followed by a Q&A and more pizza, before I chatted to a group of MSc students about salt tectonics and the American love of firearms. I then had the luxury of a one hour break before I headed down to one of the main lecture theatres to give my second, GSA-supported talk, which this time was on seismic imaging of igneous geology. The talk went well and was followed by an incredibly lengthy and engaged Q&A, with questions flying in from faculty and students. They eventually showed mercy and let me head back to Kate’s, where she and I and a group of students and faculty had dinner and lots and lots of white wine. It was the perfect end to a stellar start to Leg 2. Next stop? University of Oregon, Eugene, OR. After a solid day of travelling…

Some exquisite igneous intrusions imaged in 3D seismic reflection data from the Canterbury Basin, offshore South Island New Zealand (courtesy of Dr Craig Magee)

Just to recap for those at the back…

I’m on a National Express coach from Bristol to Heathrow Airport. I’ve not been on a National Express coach for >15 years. It’s actually fairly civilised. Maybe because its Easter Sunday and this coach is largely empty.

Anyway, given that you it’s been a few months since Leg 1, and since some folk might be coming to this new, I thought I’d provide a very brief recap of the lecture tour story so far. The embedded links will spin you out to earlier blog posts. Do give them a try.

The official title of the award underpinning the tour is the “Thompson Distinguished Lecturer Award”. The award is made by the Geological Society of America (GSA) and is named in recognition of James Burleigh Thompson, Jr, a metamorphic petrologists and geochemist of considerable stature. He even has a mineral named after him.

How I feel.

Finding out about this award in early-2016 made me (and especially my Mum) very happy. So it should; these things don’t happen often, or at least not to me. The tour logistical planning in the latter half of 2016 was pretty intense, with GSA pretty much leaving me to my own devices in terms of contacting potential host institutions and arranging the overall itinerary. This was fun, but challenging, and after several months of transatlantic emailing I finally managed to put together a schedule that the travel agent deemed vaguely achievable. I then took on the task of preparing four talks to offer to these institutions; variety is, after all, the spice of life.

Leg 2. Spicy, yes?

Leg 1, which took place in early-February 2017, covered c. 18,000 miles and took in Ohio State University, Rutgers, University of Oklahoma, University of Hawaii, and Colorado School of Mines. I had too much fun and learnt a lot. The first stop on Leg 2 is El Paso, Texas down near the Mexico border. That’s long, long way away from just west of London. Blog soon y’all!


GSA James B. Thompson Distinguished Lecture Tour Redux

Wow. Doesn’t time fly? It seems only days ago I returned from Leg 1 of my GSA James B. Thompson Distinguished Lecture Tour and yet, here I am, about to head off on Leg 2! Leg 1 was a whirlwind of super-awesome stuff; five institutions, thousands of kilometres of air travel, and several thousand calories, not to mention some spectacular (and massively unspectacular) runs. I met some lovely people, and saw and did some awesome things. I ate tacos on a Hawaiian beach, just before watching humpbacks from the edge of an extinct volcano. I took some photos. I rode a moped.

Leg 1 therefore set a very, very high bar, thus I have high expectations of Leg 2, which seems me taking in six institutions: (i) UT El Paso; (ii) University of Oregon; (iii) Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (to give it its full name…); (iv) University of Connecticut; (v) Columbia and (vi) University of Arkansas. The schedule looks, quite frankly, ‘challenging’, involving one more institution than Leg 1, and involving some rather ‘zig-zaggy’ flights back-and-forth across the continent. I think I’m good for it and, amazingly, I have factored in some time for some fun and frolics with some of the Geo-Twitterati. But more, much, much more on that later.

Behind the scenes, in preparation for Leg 2, there has been lots of logistical hop-jumping involving lots of people; pick-ups and drop-offs at airports, accommodation, abstract tweaking and sending, etc. Thank God my four talks are already done and in the bag; I don’t think my nerves could handle it if they weren’t. As a reminder, I’ll be talking about normal faults, salt tectonics, application of 3D seismic reflection data to basin analysis, and seismic reflection imaging of igneous geology. But, as I found out during Leg 1, this tour isn’t simply about talking to people about science I find interesting; it’s also about meeting bright, passionate people and discussing their work. It’s about running. It’s about trying to keep on top of a blog that, at times, you resent. It’s largely about eating. Bring. It. On.

The End…

Saturday. The last morning of the 1st leg of my GSA lecture tour, and man, I felt as rough as a roofer’s glove. The IPA, the whisky and the late night contrived to make me feel a little ‘fragile’; there was to be no running up South Table Mountain this morning. However, there was no rest for the wicked, as I’d made plans to meet GSA Executive Director, Vicki McConnell, for breakfast. We headed onto Washington Avenue, the main street through Golden, and settled into Windy Saddle, where strong coffee, water and a breakfast burrito helped settle my wayward stomach. Vicki was very engaging and easy to talk too, and we discussed lots and lots and lots of things, including the professional and social role of professional societies such as GSA, equality and diversity in the geosciences, and the future of the GSA Distinguished Lecturer program. We had a blast; it’s nice to meet people behind an email address.

Vicki headed back north to Boulder, the headquarters of GSA, and feeling a little more stable I went back to my B&B to pack. Before the shuttle arrived, I nipped to a local pharmacy to buy sleeping tablets; I struggle to sleep on planes, and with a 5 year old’s birthday party to attend straight after arriving back in London, I was keen to get at least some rest on the flight back. In my experience, sleeping tablets, washed down with red wine, make an excellent sedative.

So, here I am on the flight back to London. I have thoroughly enjoyed the 1st leg of my tour; I’d go as far as to say it is the best professional experience of my life. I have met old friends and made some new friends, I have learned a lot of new science, and I have been to some truly stunning places. I’ll be eternally grateful for all of this, and I again thank the GSA for making this happen.

For both you and I, the best news might well be that I can now take a break from blogging until the 2nd leg of my tour in mid-April. DING-DING, bring on Round 2…