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Forty-Two Years of Service to the USGS: Susan Russell-Robinson
Susan Russell-Robinson retired in July 2016 after 42 years with the USGS. At the time she retired, Susan was the Associate Coordinator for the Coastal and Marine Geology Program, the last in a series of varying roles in which she served the agency.
Susan’s earliest experience with the USGS was in 1974. As a 20-year old who had excelled at field camp, she was selected as the first female summer field assistant for the USGS Boston office through the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT; see “USGS / NAGT Cooperative Field Training Program”) program.
Susan returned to Bates College for her senior year and graduated with a B.S. in geology in 1975. After pondering different paths, she decided to work one more summer as an NAGT field assistant with the USGS. “That started a course I had not planned,” she said.
E-An Zen (a luminary in Appalachian geology) lined up seven interviews for Susan in fall 1975 at the recently opened National Center in Reston, Virginia. She did not take any of those positions, though all were offered to her. By a quirk of fate, when she first entered the National Center, she was introduced to Robert Leland Smith, a deaf USGS expert in ash-flow tuffs and obsidian hydration.
“My childhood friends included three deaf sisters who communicated by lip reading, as Bob did,” said Susan, and so “Bob and I clicked immediately.” He hired her even though her background was in metamorphic petrology and glaciology.
At that time, the USGS had a philosophy that it could provide the best graduate training anywhere through on-the-job experience and intentional mentoring. Bob set aside every Thursday afternoon to discuss a paper he had assigned the week before. Not only did Susan learn about exciting volcanic issues, but she also learned about the people who conducted the studies, including amusing stories about field experiences or happenings at scientific meetings.
In 1976 and ‘77, Bob and Susan developed a flexible work plan so she could attend a 1-year Master of Arts in Teaching program at George Washington University, designed for museum educators. Bob advised Susan to use the graduate program to fill gaps in her geology portfolio. She took his advice, and went on to work and publish in a wide range of areas, including geothermal energy assessment, geochemistry of silicic glasses, Cenozoic geology of the Cascade Range, heat capacity of minerals associated with potential nuclear waste-disposal sites, and hydrogen-gas monitoring of the Parkfield segment of the San Andreas fault.
In 1980, the impending eruption of Mount St. Helens drew Susan into a newly formed job as an information scientist who would arrange press conferences, provide background for newspaper reporters, appear in television and on radio, and address civic groups like Rotary and Lions Clubs. She recalled: “I was the USGS expert ‘face’ for nearly a decade for many hazards, including disasters in the Philippines [and] Cameroon, and the Retsof Mine collapse” in New York State.
In September 2007, Susan became the Associate Coordinator of the Coastal and Marine Geology Program. As her career evolved, she represented the USGS in many arenas—giving presentations at symposiums, colloquiums, regional meetings, and international conferences; providing briefings to Congress; and heading committees at the Department of the Interior, the National Academy of Sciences, and bi-national councils.
In 2017, after her retirement, Susan received the Department of the Interior’s Distinguished Service Award in recognition of her many contributions to the USGS as a research scientist, program staff scientist, and manager.
Regarding her wide-ranging accomplishments, Susan wrote: “I am most grateful for my mentor—Bob Smith—who saw my potential and took the time and interest to teach me and propel me into activities that challenged me to plan, observe, collect, evaluate, synthesize, and write for publication. Then again, Bob mentored as he was mentored. He seized the same opportunities afforded him to become an international expert in explosive volcanism…and only the second American geologist to be awarded a fellow with the British Royal Society.”
Like Bob, Susan mentored as she was mentored, inspiring younger scientists at the USGS.
“Susan’s support helped many Coastal and Marine Geology employees understand their contributions in a broader context,” said Nadine Golden, acting associate director of the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center. “Her encouragement motivated them to have confidence in their work and to forge ahead with innovative activities.”
The gratitude goes both ways. In one of her parting emails to employees in the Coastal and Marine Geology Program, Susan wrote: “I love working with all of you. You are smart, curious, dedicated, enthusiastic and sometimes downright geeky. You are excited about the work you do and eager to improve your ‘bag of tricks’ so the impact of your efforts truly benefit the American people and the Nation as a whole. Each time I interact with you, my commitment increases, my enthusiasm grows, and my day is made brighter. Thank you!”
Our thanks to you, Susan!
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