Not many professors can claim to be as adept with a pitchfork as they are with PowerPoint. But not many professors are Ron Amundson. The new chair and resident soil expert of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM, in the College of Natural Resources), Amundson tilled the plains of South Dakota as a farmer long before he entered the world of lecture halls and committee meetings. He even looks like the landscape he comes from—floppy straw-colored hair and a long, wiry physique that gallops across campus. His research interests are many—the geology of lifeless environments, human deg- radation of ecosystems, the geological (and perhaps biological?) history of life on Marsbut his reachis much broader, incorporating music, art, and other forms of culture into his teaching and writing. So it should come as no surprise that his vision for ESPM and CNR is big, with an emphasis on bringing labs and people together to collaborate and maybe even have a little fun in the process.
BB: You’ve made a career out of studying dirt, or should I say, soil. What is so spe- cial about soil?
RA: Soil is the skin of the planet. The chemical compounds and stable isotopes found in soil provide a chemical history of the Earth’s climate and biological processes. So, for example, we can use the ratio of oxygen isotopes found in certain soil compounds to approximate weather patterns that occurred hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago. Plus, soil harbors an enormous diversity of microorganisms which are poorly under- stood. There is a saying that “the soil is the poor man’s rainforest,” and I think it’s true.
BB: Apparently you got bored with Earth, because now you have Mars as a field site. How did that come about?
RA: I started working in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile several years ago because it is virtually lifeless, and I was interested in the geochemical properties of environments without life. It turns out that rates of erosion and chemical changes in rock are much slower thanelsewhere on Earth. We were also surprised to find that the soils there have rich accumulations of sulfate and chloride salts, much like those we have recently found on Mars. Also, isotopes of calcium, sulfur, and oxygen change composition in the Atacama, indicative of the slow, downward flow of water. This similarity is important for reconstructing the historical presence of water on Mars, which is currently a hotly debated topic.
BB: Do you think there was ever life on Mars?
RA: I would bet that there was life on Mars. And there may still be life on Mars underground. There are very peculiar and constant methane emissions on Mars that are at least suggestive of subsurface microbial life. And all the water that was on Mars early in its history and all the landscapes there that look so similar to Earth suggest that there was life at some point.
BB: You’re interested in finding out what Earth would look like without life.
BB: But don’t you already know that? You did grow up in Canton, South Dakota, didn’t you?
RA: Laughs. Well, Canton, South Dakota has lots of life. Lots of grass, before the corn was planted. And Canton is also the home to Berkeley’s first Nobel Laureate, Ernest Lawrence. So it’s quite an important place in Berkeley history.
BB: You’re always looking for a way to innovate in your teaching. A perfect example is when you brought Roger McGuinn [of the classic rock band The Byrds] into your ESPM 10 [Environmental Issues] class as a guest lecturer. What does McGuinn have to do with environmental issues?
RA: I’ve always been inspired by things in my field in very unusual ways, and the arts and entertainment industries have been inspirational to me a well. As a grad student, the first Indiana Jones movie showed me that a career in earth science could be fun and creative. I feel that McGuinn in his music provided a broad context to the way the Earth works. The song Turn, Turn, Turn! is based on a biblical story about changes in the land over long time scales; it makes what could be a mundane or unappealing foray into geology more appealing.
BB: Is it true that during his acoustic guitar performance in the class that you were waving a lighter?
RA: Laughs. I was a bit nervous. The gravity of having a member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame visit my classroom became clear to me as the lecture approached, and by that time, I was pretty nervous.
BB: Despite the potential for doom and gloom when talking about our environmental future, you always keep a sunny outlook. What and who give you hope?
RA: What has made the future important to me and what gives me a positive view about it is that I have a 13-year old son. I want to provide and inspire a future that is as good for him as it was for me. Also, when I walk in front of a class of 150 young stu- dents, all bright, talented, and enthusiastic, I realize that there’s promise in the future with all the talents they offer. I feel an obligation not to just pass off a completely negative set of problems to them, and I want to pose it as an opportunity rather than as a disaster. Governor Schwarzenegger has also been something of a surprise. I certainly didn’t vote for him the first time he ran for governor. What’s been surprising to me is his forward-looking view and the fact that he puts such a positive personal spin on it. I think he makes these problems seem tractable, and he’s great at viewing these things not only as challenges but as opportunities.
BB: You are the new chair of ESPM. Congratulations. How much did you spend on the campaign?
RA: Laughs. These are jobs that people would spend money NOT to have.
BB: What are your major goals as chair?
RA: We’re launching a major campaign to renovate Hilgard Hall and some of the other buildings in the college. We envision a world-class laboratory space with plenty of seating and an espresso lounge and high- tech video capability. The vision we have is to do modern science differently than the way we do it in our current structure, in which individual labs work in isolation from each other. I think we are committed to the idea that science has to be a little more collaborative and interactive, and we need a building to facilitate that. Most importantly, I think Berkeley is the ideal place for this new approach to science, and I look forward to seeing this happen.