It’s changing, now, but most geologists are still in it for the rocks. There are hand samples, chunks of granite or tonalite you can carry in a backpack and examine with a magnifying glass. There are the shelves of fossils, minerals, ooids and microstructures we all have somewhere in our houses, or boxed up waiting for a permanent residence. And then there are the Big Rocks. The ones Out West: the sandstones of Utah, the granodiorites of the Sierra Nevada Batholith, the gabbronorites of Montana’s 2.7-billion-year-old Stillwater Complex. They are the rocks you go to see.
Why do we go to the rocks? Because they’re there and they’re beautiful and they bear on their faces a narrative meant to be translated. Because they invite long, arm-waving treatises that begin with the phrase, “Let me tell you what happened here.” There is the violence of a thrust fault, of rocks ground so hot and so ﬁne they glaze into thick, wavy mylonite layers, unrecognizable. Hold a piece of pyroclastic breccia; that is the roar of a ﬂood of ash and heat, spitting molten glass, scouring the surface of a mountain, immolating anything that lived there. Brush the lithiﬁed mud from the skeleton of some organism so old we can’t call it an “animal” or a “plant.” Trace the wind patterns on a sand dune so long-buried it has turned to stone.
We are geologists so we can go to the rocks. We are geologists so we can tell their stories. We are geologists so we can drink good beer and terrible cocktails and go to sleep in tents and wake up smelling like campﬁre smoke with a layer of rock dust on our skin so ﬁne and brown it looks like a tan.
Why am I telling you this? It is an apology. It is a reminder that we are geologists for the rocks. For their stories. For the open land and sky. We are not geologists for the oil. But that is, almost inevitably, the other half of our narrative.
This summer, I will move to Houston for an internship with a multinational oil company that also happens to be paying my tuition and stipend this year. I am grateful. And I’m not just saying that in case they Google me. Geology grad school is even better than I thought it would be, and the chance to apply what I love in a career that also pays well is not a chance most people get. And yet. It is oil.
It’s hard to spend that much time outside in the open air without having or developing an appreciation for nature and for the environment and what it means. And I’ve been an environmentalist since I was a little kid. Anyone remember Hexxus from “Fern Gully”? That was my bogeyman. Now there’s some part of me that wonders if I’m working for him.
So here I am, facing down what my friends did last year, when they were applying for Life After Duke, and what I thought I’d avoided when I chose to go into science: How many of my principles am I willing to betray for a stable career in something I enjoy doing? I guess the answer to that is obvious. I’m moving to Houston this summer.
A lot of us make this choice. Is it entitlement? Is it the underlying idea that we have spent so much time, money, work, on our college degree (or degrees), that we deserve to continue to live in the manner to which we have become accustomed? For every Duke student who takes a job on Wall Street, does some ﬁrm dedicated to the improvement of the human condition lose another mind? For every geologist who takes an oil job, does some environmental group lose an ally?
Can we do both? Can I work in petroleum for a summer, for two summers, for two years, for a decade, and still also work for the preservation of the open spaces and the climate of the planet I hold so dear? I have this picture in my head of Big Bad Oil. What if it’s wrong? Maybe I’m not betraying as much as I think.
I don’t have any answers here. Only sympathy for my friends who made this choice last year, and for the current seniors who are doing so this year. The people I’ve met from the company I’ll be working for have all been the kind of people I would like to get to know, would like to be. “Working for Industry,” as they say, has the potential for so many personally fulﬁlling things: for travel and for future education, for the application of what I’ve learned and what I know. So, employers who have Googled me and are concerned with what they read, fear not; I will do my best work and I will do so with alacrity. I am truly thankful for the opportunity to take a job doing what I love. I only hope that what I love can forgive me.
Mia Lehrer, Trinity ‘12, is currently a graduate student in geology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her column runs every other Wednesday.