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Bryn Mawr College’s Geology Department Still Rocks


On the first day of Arlo Weil’s basic geology classes at Bryn Mawr College, he shows his students a skyline view of a major city. His point is simple: There’s nothing in that image that isn’t related to geology. In a world where Earth Day might be celebrated on a single day, earth science—and geology, in particular—is becoming an everyday interest.

And if the field has had a mainstay rock for the ages, it’s been Bryn Mawr’s geology department. Over 100 years old, it was once the nation’s smallest geology department to offer a Ph.D. Its mineral collection—more than 25,000 specimens, largely from two private local collections—is the country’s fifth largest. In a unique collaboration, students interested in geology at Haverford and Swarthmore colleges take the major at Bryn Mawr, so it’s always been coed. Florence Bascom, who in 1893 became the second woman in America to earn a Ph.D. in geology, founded the program in 1895. 

With rampant population gain, there’s increased demand for the thoughtful use of natural resources. There are practical questions only geologists can answer—like why are cities in the West sinking as the aquifer compacts? 

Suddenly, after Hurricane Sandy, folks on the New Jersey shoreline are also interested in geology. So are policymakers and politicians who have to protect and fund the restoration of infringed geography. “Maybe what those people have to learn is that they just have to move,” says Maria Luisa Crawford, professor emeritus of geology at Bryn Mawr and one of its most respected alums.

“Any geologist can tell you about what can’t be restored once it’s lost,” says Weil, Bryn Mawr’s tenured department chair. “Even the rate of water recharge—we’re not going to run out [of water], but we’re using it at a rate that’s faster than it can be recharged.”

Geologists rely on all sciences to study the Earth. A favorite T-shirt of Weil’s demonstrates how geologists are jacks-of-all-trades. The back features the Earth and all the other sciences—biology, chemistry, physics, etc.—wrapped around it. It reads: Geology—All the sciences rolled up into one. “It’s truly a multidisciplinary science,” he says.

Together with her husband, Bill, Crawford was an institution in the geology department. If you count her undergraduate years at Bryn Mawr, she was there for a half-century. Though retired and living at the Quadrangle in Haverford, the couple still maintains department mailboxes.

They met in graduate school at UC Berkeley. When Bill first proposed, she turned him down. In two years, there was going to be a geological society meeting in the Himalayas that she hoped to attend. Despite his interest in earth science, Bill wasn’t—and still isn’t—fond of camping. He went on to get his Ph.D. and continued to pursue Maria Luisa. She finally accepted but, as a native of Guatemala, still hasn’t made it to the Himalayas. With Bill’s diabetes, he doesn’t eat starch and worries about Asia’s reliance on rice. “That’s his latest excuse,” she jests.

In February, they went to the Philippines, but that was on a cruise. “We’re creeping up on Asia,” says Maria Luisa. “But he still won’t sleep in a tent.”

It was pure serendipity that they were both hired at Bryn Mawr in 1965. Bill was inquiring about a job at Temple University when it was suggested that Ed Watson, then the chair of geology at Bryn Mawr, was looking for a geochemist. In making arrangements with Watson, he mentioned his wife, who had graduated first in her class in 1960 and was a former student of Watson’s. Watson asked them both to interview. “I never applied,” she says now. “I just came along.”


Arlo Weil makes it a point to sleep on the ground four weeks a year. Arriving at Bryn Mawr in 2011, the Berwyn resident recently has been investigating the Andes in South America, though much of his work has been focused on northern Spain. His specific expertise is in paleomagnetism—the study of the ancient recorded magnetism inherent in most rocks. “By understanding it, we can backtrack out of the formation of all the continents and figure out how and why they’re oriented—how they buckle after starting out so flat and how large-scale mountain ranges started,” he says. “It’s why the Andes or the Alps look the way they do.” 

Each of the first three or four generations of Bryn Mawr geology professors has lasted roughly 40 years. Currently, other than Weil, there are four. Pedro Marenco is a paleontologist who does lots of outreach in Philadelphia schools. Don Barber, a sedimentologist, is an expert on sea-level change who is heavily involved with Haverford Reserve. Mineralogist Selby Cull specializes in the geology of Mars and the evolution of acid mine waste. Rounding out the staff is Lynne Elkins, a lecturer and expert in volcanic rock that erupts from mid-oceanic ridges. 

Perhaps in honor of the geology program’s founder, there’s always been at least one member of the Bryn Mawr geology faculty who’s female. At national conferences during the Crawfords’ years, 5-10 percent of the attendees were female. Today, nearly half are.

Despite Bascom’s pioneering work, females and geology still weren’t a common combination. “Women weren’t seen as geologists because they didn’t have enough muscle, or others thought they might go out into the field and get bitten by something,” says Maria Luisa. “I knew I liked the outdoors, so I wanted something to do outdoors, like climbing mountains. I enjoyed doing it—and I did it.”

Bryn Mawr’s program began in 1895, a decade after the college was founded. With Bascom at the helm, undergraduate and graduate courses came immediately. Beginning in 1896, she was also hired in the summers by the U.S. Geological Survey and spent the school recess mapping 22 quadrangles in Southeastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware and western New Jersey—all on horseback or in a horse-and-buggy. 

During the Crawfords’ first decade at the college, they followed in Bascom’s footsteps, verifying and reinterpreting her work. Her maps were “dead-on,” Bill Crawford says. 

Even so, Bascom’s footsteps weren’t easy to follow. In 1893, she delivered an ironclad Ph.D. thesis in geology at Johns Hopkins University. In that year’s class, 19 men earned doctorates—and one of them was named Florence Bascom. “But she had to sit behind a screen during courses, or the thought was that she’d distract the men,” says Maria Luisa, who remains the curator of Bryn Mawr’s minerals, which come largely from the collections of Theodore Rand of Radnor and Bryn Mawr’s Vaux family.

Over the years, the department has changed. The graduate-level courses and resulting degrees lasted until 2003. It became infeasible to keep up with institutions harboring 100 graduate geology students. Weil says there’s no chance of bringing back graduate geology programs. “Still, from our small department, we have a history of producing significant scholarship—our science departments as a whole do,” he says.

Early on, Bryn Mawr would have three or four geology majors a year. But the Crawfords remember 12 and 15 a year during the Jimmy Carter oil-crisis years. Otherwise, they averaged between six  and eight majors. Today, there’s upwards of 15 majors a year again, with more diversity in the department’s offerings and less specificity. 

Bryn Mawr’s total enrollment is about 1,200 students. “Very few come to any institution to study geology,” says Weil, who did his undergraduate work in graphic design at the University of Oregon. “Earth science is gaining a foothold just now. Many find [geology] by taking a class.”

The spike in earth-science interest comes in direct response to the problems the nation has with finding reliable, reasonable energy resources, concern over climate change, the debate between petroleum and natural gas (fracking), and related issues. Students are entering Bryn Mawr more educated and interested. Before the uptick, almost all geologists were hired in academia, the petroleum industry, or by a mining company or governmental survey.

The Geological Society of America celebrated its 125th anniversary a year ago. Bascom was its vice president in 1912, and the only woman officer in history until recently. Not surprisingly, the event’s promotional materials featured Bryn Mawr College and Bascom. Weil gave the party speech there. “[I basically] acknowledging the acknowledgment of Bryn Mawr College,” he says.

DOWN TO EARTH: Bryn Mawr College’s Arlo Weil with a few of the tools of the geology trade.

PHOTO BY tessa marie images

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