Stony Brook University’s diverse profile in geology extends beyond the university’s grounds and into the community, largely due to the efforts of Professor Gilbert Hanson.
Apart from his research and teaching efforts, the energetic Hanson, 74, has headed the Long Island Geologists and revamped the Master’s of Arts in Teaching Earth Science education program. He also led a proposal for a program for secondary school students, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Geosciences, to increase diversity in geosciences. The commonality among these projects and others produced over his 44 years at the university is Hanson’s passion for geology and getting people involved in it.
“I think he’s done so much for the university,” said Marcia Lane, an Accompsett Middle School teacher and Hanson’s student, at a Geology Open Night. This monthly event created by Hanson, affords Stony Brook geology professors the opportunity to present their research to the public, after it was suggested that the Geology department have an Open Night like the Astronomy and Planetary Sciences department.
Naturally, this push for education is strong within the classroom as well.
“[Professor Hanson] challenges you. As a student, he pushes you,” said Erin O’Sullivan, one of Hanson’s Master’s of Arts in Teaching students. Hanson taught her in undergraduate and graduate courses, and O’Sullivan said he has high expectations at both levels. O’Sullivan is following the Master of Arts in Teaching curriculum as revolutionized by Hanson.
Hanson increased the program’s focus on math and its hands-on, scientific aspects, making sure students don’t just learn about geologic processes from books, said Professor Troy Rasbury, Hanson’s colleague and former Ph.D. student.
“[He’s] an idea factory,” said Rasbury. “He’s delightful.”
The bearded and bespectacled distinguished service professor, who studies geochronology and isotope and trace element geology, has taught at Stony Brook since 1966—Hanson’s tenure predates some of the university’s buildings, including the Earth and Space Sciences building, wherein his office is housed.
“When I first came here, there were about 3,000 students,” said Hanson, his voice low with a slight Minnesotan lilt, as he sat at his desk. Photos and topographic maps hang on the walls behind the desk. A red quilted hanging of Minnesota State hangs across from the desk.
Hanson grew up in Minnesota and attended the University of Minnesota for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees. Hanson didn’t go into college knowing he would study geology, the study of Earth’s materials and processes. He had interests in science, history and the outdoors and had taken aptitude tests to decide what he should pursue. It wasn’t until an undergraduate advisor suggested the science to the young Hanson that he began to look into the Earth’s make up.
“And she said, ‘You sound like you should be a geologist.’” Hanson said. “And that’s when I took geology.”
Over 50 years later, Hanson promotes the Earth Science Research Project, a program that offers prospective and practicing secondary school teachers opportunities to engage in geological research projects.
“I think that you don’t really understand a subject unless you do research in it,” Hanson said. He emphasized that doing research in a subject really allows a teacher to know the subject well and, therefore, teach students well.
“Would you hire a music teacher who couldn’t play an instrument, doesn’t sing, has gone to a concert or two, who has read a lot or taken a lot of classes about music?” Hanson asked. “No. But do we hire…that way for [science] teaching? Yea.”
As a faculty member of a state university, Hanson said he felt obligated to look into the local geology of Long Island. This belief in the importance of studying local geology, which was commonplace when Hanson was studying in Minnesota, spurred Hanson to form the Long Island Geologists, a group which holds an annual conference and visits Long Island’s places of geological interest.
Another permutation of Hanson’s local focus has been his investigation into Long Island’s groundwater, specifically its nitrate levels. The water Long Islanders drink is pumped from the ground, where it collects between sediments. When chemicals like fertilizers are applied to the ground, they can infiltrate and contaminate the water destined for drinking.
Caitlin Young, a graduate student who is studying nitrogen contamination, is advised by Hanson. She said Hanson is a very hands-on advisor but allowed her to take charge of her own project.
“My research focuses on nitrogen contamination in groundwater and natural nitrogen attenuation mechanisms,” Young explained via email. She said she hopes the work will lead to a better understanding of nitrogen attenuation, or loss, and what can be done to manage the nitrogenous pollution of Long Island’s coastal regions, which can result in the overgrowth of algae and the depletion of marine oxygen.
Among the many things she has learned from Hanson, said Young, is the importance of communicating science.
“One crucial thing I’ve learned is how to frame science as a story,” Young said. “Professor Hanson stresses the importance of effectively communicating science to a wider audience. He does this in many ways: simplifying the objectives of the study, only presenting useful graphs and creating illustrative models to describe our work.”
Hanson has not always focused on local geology. He studied geology in South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Greenland, India, the United States, Canada, Switzerland and Germany.
Looking forward, Hanson said there is a need for young geologists. In 2009, the Hanson-led proposal for a program to increase diversity in geosciences was funded $1.5 million for five years by the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Geosciences.
“So that’s an important part of my life,” said Hanson. The GeoPREP Track 2: Expanding the Geoscience Pathway program includes a residential summer camp at Stony Brook University for high school students who do research projects. Hanson personally worked with teachers from high-needs schools to help them develop curricula.
Hanson said he will continue to teach as long as he is highly functional and able to perform his duties as an instructor and a researcher. “If you’re only functional, you can walk into the door and that’s about it.”
Though 44 years may only be a blink of geological time, Hanson’s tenure has and continues to be exceptionally rich for and supportive of geology education.