BY GREG BREINING
PHOTO BY JEFF THOLE

13 ways of looking at a legacy: Geology professor Ray Rogers has trained a growing nationwide network of colleagues.

You wouldn’t have pegged Ray Rogers as a potential scholar—one who would leave behind a trail of PhDs and professors.

He went to school as an accounting major, dropped out after a year, took a year off, traveled around Europe, and then decided to study geology— for no other reason than his favorite cousin was a geologist. “I never had a class—nothing. So I just went west,” he says. “I didn’t know if I’d like it or not.”

Here he is more than three decades later. He has taught geology at Macalester since 1997 and chaired the department for nine years, beginning in fall 2002. He studies sedimentary formations and dinosaur bone beds in Montana, Madagascar, and elsewhere, learning how fossils from massive dinosaurs to delicate remnants of early mammals are fossilized and what they say about the environment in which these creatures lived and died.

GeologistShaper246.jpgIn addition to the hundreds of Macalester students who have passed through his classes, 26 have studied with him and produced senior honors theses. Twenty have gone to graduate school. Five are working on PhDs right now. Nine have already earned doctorates; of those, seven are professors of geology or paleontology at some of the best programs in the country.

Four have earned (or will soon receive) doctorates, having worked with Rogers’s former advisor, Susan Kidwell, a renowned professor of geology at the University of Chicago. “Those four students are really quite an extraordinary legacy,” says Kidwell. That four budding scientists should arrive from a small liberal arts school 400 miles away has set Chicago’s geology department to thinking. Says Kidwell, “My colleagues wonder what it is that Ray feeds them up there at Macalester.”

What indeed? How has Ray Rogers created his legacy?

1. Making a First Impression

Rogers has the instinct of a football D-back for making interceptions. “At Macalester we have to attract our students,” says Rogers. “They come here to be biology majors and doctors. They come here to study economics and political science. They don’t come here to study rocks. As soon as they intersect a rock or a fossil, for many students the deal is sealed. Because it’s amazing stuff.”

“I was going to be a theater major—until I took my first geology class,” says Madeline Marshall ’12. “I had my first class with Ray my freshman year and then did research with him every summer.” Marshall is now a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, studying sedimentation and fossilization in 275-million-year-old marine rocks.

Emma Locatelli ’11 came to Macalester to study international policy and law. She planned to attend law school. During her second year she became interested in environmental studies. She took a geology class taught by Kelly MacGregor and then Rogers’s class History and Evolution of the Earth. “In the first hour of class with Ray, I was already thinking of switching out of environmental studies and just doing geology. Within the first hour!” Locatelli is now a PhD candidate in paleontology at Yale.

“Geology across the nation is not a field that people plan to go into,” says Josh Miller ’00, another Rogers student who is an assistant professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati. “You get turned on by geology. You get turned on by the history of the planet. I think Ray is really good at finding those people who geology really matches up well for.”

2. Selling a Program

Rogers isn’t shy about extolling his field of study—to students, or whoever asks.

Magaly_246.jpg“It’s a great major,” he says. “You learn how to be a critical thinker. You learn how to write. You learn how to explore literature. But more than that, with geology, you explore the natural world. The thing that I love is that when the class ends, when you head home or go on a road trip—you’re going to see it! It’s not invisible. It’s not too small to see with your naked eye. Once your eyes are opened, it’s right there. If you go down to the river, you’ll find fossils. Look at the layering in a roadcut— you’ll see history. You’ll see time. Once you realize everything that’s involved—time and space and evolution and chemistry and physics—geology brings all that together.”

3. Finding a Source of Inspiration

Rogers’s leap of faith in geology paid off. “I got lucky,” he says. He graduated with a BS from Northern Arizona University. He chose the University of Montana for his master’s, but the paleontologist he planned to study with had retired. Before he left, he told Rogers to talk to one of his former students, Jack Horner at Montana State, a world-famous dinosaur paleontologist (and the prototype for the character Alan Grant in Jurassic Park).

“So I drove down to Bozeman, met Jack,” says Rogers. “He told me I could have some dinosaur bone beds to work on. Do whatever I wanted with them. That’s Horner—‘Do whatever the hell you want!’”

Rogers found himself in northwestern Montana near the Canadian border, digging fossils of Cretaceous giants from the Two Medicine Formation, and living in a teepee. “That’s how I got into taphonomy. It’s detective work with fossils. Why would you have 100 dead dinosaurs in this place? There’s got to be a backstory,” he says. “There’s got to be something ecological, some type of crisis in the ecosystem that brought them together in life and put them there in death.

“It’s where I kind of met Montana,” says Rogers. Of all the places he does fieldwork, it’s Montana he returns to year after year—with students or his wife (paleontologist Kristi Curry Rogers, also a professor at Macalester). He and Kristi even bought a little house there, to spend more time among their rocks and fossils.

“All of the teaching I do is informed by the research I do,” says Rogers. “I get to bring discovery into my classroom.”

4. Collaborating with Your Advisor

“When Ray arrived I don’t know how he had such a good idea of what he wanted to do, but it sounded like a good idea to me, and he got down to work with it,” says Kidwell, his former advisor. Rogers was back at familiar sites in Montana, studying sediments from the days of dinosaurs.

Joshinfieldwithbone246.jpg“Advisors are advisors,” says Kidwell. “We’re not directors of research. We’re not close supervisors. We’re more like older and more experienced colleagues.” Yet something said her relationship with Rogers would be different. When Kidwell traveled to Montana for a site visit at the end of Rogers’s first field season, he began listing all the reasons they should collaborate on a field project. “This will be great!” he insisted. “This will just be great!”

“I didn’t think I could help him much because I had never worked on those kinds of rocks,” she says. “Well, as soon as I landed and he picked me up at the airport . . . ”

Within a couple days she was worn down, persuaded to collaborate. “Ray was the first of my students to really convince me that I needed to work with him,” says Kidwell. “He showed me how it was possible to collaborate with students without getting in the students’ way or the students getting in my way.”

Even now, Kidwell and Rogers have a 60-plus-page paper in press and the intention of doing more fieldwork together.

“‘It’ll be my treat,’ he tells me. I love the way he thinks that it would be a treat for me to go out in the field for two weeks of camping in the middle of Montana digging ditches,” Kidwell says. “But he’s right. It would be an incredible treat to go out with Ray digging trenches. We always have a great time.”

5. Counting Blessings

“I had access to amazing things and I was trained by amazing people,” says Rogers. “Jack Horner. Susan Kidwell. I guess I was just around people who could teach. And like them, I get to teach the things that I love.”

6. Making Fieldwork Count

“When students go out in the field with Ray, who is a real field hound— they go out with Ray!” says Kidwell. “They’re out there for weeks and they’re out there for long days and they’re doing the heavy physical and mental work that field research requires. So when they arrive here, even though they are arriving with only an undergraduate degree, they have a very mature sense of what is involved in fieldwork.”

Madeline-marshall-and-ray-rogers246.jpgThat message of the value and rewards of field research is echoed by Rogers’s students. “There’s just no substitute for getting your boots on the rocks and actually finding things yourself—to learn how to ask questions,” says Madeline Marshall. She traveled to Madagascar with Rogers after her sophomore year, studying, of all things, fossilized lungfish burrows. “Once you get out in the field it’s like a candy shop of opportunities,” she says. “It was a great project for an undergrad because it was small enough in scope that I could get it done in a year or two, and then Ray and I wrote a paper together.”

“There’s nothing greater than discovery,” says Rogers. “Students can be handed fossils in the lab, and they’re cool. But when you go see it for yourself and you actually recognize it in a rock and you know what it is and you know what it means, that’s powerful.”

7. Making Research Count for Students

A lot of undergraduate research is an afterthought—“just moving beakers around,” says Mara Brady ’05, one of Rogers’s former students and now an assistant professor of earth sciences at California State University, Fresno. But the research she did at Macalester was different, says Brady. “Ray finds the right balance between providing enough guidance so that students can be successful and giving them ownership.”

Brady-Bones246.jpgBrady Foreman ’04, an assistant professor at Western Washington University, is another example. As a Macalester student, he worked at Rogers’s Montana field sites, burrowing down through layers of rock with pick and shovel to characterize the “chemical fingerprints” of volcanic eruptions during the age of dinosaurs. The distinctive layers of volcanic ash allow scientists to date sediments and fossils across broad swaths of the American West.

“He encouraged me to publish my senior honors thesis,” Foreman says. Foreman took a year off after graduating from Macalester, but Rogers kept at him, offering advice on preparing the paper and successfully finding him a publisher. “I’ve thanked him a few times,” says Foreman. “Just the amount of time he spent helping me be a better writer has been particularly valuable. I’m incredibly grateful for that.”

8. Building a Pipeline

Of Rogers’s four students who have gone on to study with Kidwell at the University of Chicago, three have become professors; the fourth is entering the fourth year of the doctoral program. Kidwell and students refer to a Macalester–Chicago “pipeline.”

Says Kidwell, “It’s just funny that they’re coming here to work with ‘Granny.’ Keep on sending them, Ray! At some point I’ll retire, but until then it makes my life easy.”

9. Working with Well-Rounded Students

Macalester students are nothing if not eclectic in their interests.

The University of Cincinnati’s Josh Miller ’00 came to Mac to explore both science and music. He played piano and trumpet, studied violin, took bagpipe lessons, and performed in the bagpipe band. “I had a total blast,” Miller says. He took a geology class in his second year, “and was quickly sucked into Ray’s world.”

Marshall-jansen-sorenson-mclaughlin246.jpgLooking at the results of a Macalester education as an outsider, Kidwell says, “There seems to be very little boundary between the departments. That also speaks well for Macalester. Their teaching is not Balkanized.”

10. Building a Network

The web of Rogers’s students has spread in many directions.

At Macalester, Brady Foreman ’04 teamed up with Eric Roberts—one of Rogers’s students from his first teaching position at Iowa’s Cornell College—to study the significance of insect burrows in fossilized dinosaur bones and to try to replicate the burrows with modern-day dermestid beetles. Foreman continues to collaborate with Roberts, now a lecturer at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia.

As Foreman pursued his PhD at the University of Wyoming, several Macalester students recommended by Rogers came out to Foreman’s field site in Colorado. There they helped him to unearth dinosaur fossils from a mass death site circa 104 million years ago, when the long-necked sauropods were dying out and the Rockies were beginning their uplift.

Now Foreman is also collaborating with Elizabeth Hajek ’02, another Rogers protégé, an assistant professor at Penn State University. They study the evolution of river systems during climate change 56 million years ago, after mammals had replaced dinosaurs as the big dogs of the food chain.

“Ray has got a broad geological network,” says Foreman. “He is really good at linking up people with folks they can collaborate with.”

11. Making it Fun

Emma Locatelli ’11 remembers her first course with Rogers, an introductory one for nonmajors. “He had taught it probably a million times, and some of the material is really basic,” she says. “But he is very good at expressing sort of the immenseness of the earth. By asking what can seem like insignificant questions, he can actually start teasing apart the history of the earth. He imparts an innate sense of curiosity and awe; it’s infectious. He really enjoys talking about science. He passed on to me a great gift and I want to share that with as many people as possible.”

“He really enjoys geology and wants to share his excitement,” says Josh Miller ’00. “That’s why college teaching is so good for him. He can get people amped up for something they never thought they’d get excited about.”

12. Being a Mentor

Rebecca Terry ’01, who traveled with both Rogers and Curry Rogers to Madagascar to dig fossils from the waning days of the dinosaurs, remembers talking to both professors— not just about science but also personal and career decisions. “I asked them a lot about what academic careers were like and how you balance home life and work life. They do a great job at it. They definitely were an inspiration for making it a career path,” she says.

TRebeccalemur-246.jpgerry is now an assistant professor at Oregon State University, where she teaches paleontology. But the university’s fledgling program has few fossils and other specimens. So Terry came to Minnesota last fall to travel with Rogers and several of his paleobiology students to an abandoned quarry in Rockford, Iowa, where Rogers has long led field trips. There they dug up Devonian brachiopods, which, after studying for a class project, they sent on to Oregon.

“So he’s still helping me, even at this stage,” says Terry, describing the scene of Rogers supervising students in the quarry. “It was really interesting to see Ray operate. He was explaining everything he was doing. It was great. It was the mentorship continuing.”

13. Carrying It Forward

“It certainly makes you feel good as a professor to see your students go off and be happy and successful,” says Rogers. “There’s no question. It’s fun to see them at meetings. It’s fun to collaborate with them. It’s wonderful to be able to send your current students to them. So as a professor, I would guess that’s the legacy you would like to have—to see your students take to the field, have their own interests, and succeed in their own careers. That’s fantastic.”

GREG BREINING is a St. Paul writer who specializes in science and outdoors topics.

January 21 2016

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