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Sarah Andrews

Published on: Sep 13, 2013

Meet Sarah Andrews, a geologist who also writes mystery novels about a geologist

Sarah Andrews

What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist?

I’m not sure “wanting” is the correct term, because I had been working as a geologist for about four years before I began to even think of myself as a scientist. My experience is more accurately that my talents, skills, education, and a group of Arab sheiks who ran the price of oil up funneled me into the work.

I grew up in a family of teachers, but being dyslexic, I was not a great student, and I squirmed around in my chair and stared out the window a lot. This drove my teachers wild. One wrote on a report card, “If Sarah would quit staring out the window she might learn more.” My mother read this aloud to me and said, “If you prevent Sarah from staring out the window she will climb out of it.”

Mom was Phi Beta Kappa out of Vassar in English Lit, but she was followed through that college by her sister Lysbeth, who majored in geology and went on for an MS at Columbia. I’ve since discovered that my great-grandmother studied geology at Mt. Holyoke, so the ability to think like a geologist was rattling around out there in the gene pool.

Anyway, when I came home from a grade school field trip to a mine dump chattering about the minerals I’d found my mother ran out and bought me a mineral hammer. That was in about 1960, and even though my aunt had done beautifully in geology and my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother and various aunts and women cousins all had college degrees and some had master’s and doctorates, I’d subliminally bought the cultural norm that girls weren’t any good at math and science, and therefore had no expectation that I could have such a career.

Then I started Colorado College and because I was frankly terrified of the science requirements I thought I’d better get that out of the way, so I signed up for Geology 101 first semester in the hope of more field trips to mine dumps.

 Imagine my surprise when I absolutely loved the class and pulled an A without breaking a sweat. When Professor John Lewis lectured it was like opening the door into an intellectual playground for people whose minds work the way mine does. I tumbled out the other end of college with a BA in geology and still no idea of doing anything with it, but then one of the other professors (William Fischer) made a connection for me at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), where I was lucky enough to work for Edwin D. McKee, who topped Tom Sawyer for getting people motivated.

He taught me how to work with the scientific method, how to write up my work, how to give talks, how to network, and how to simply love the work. He had his work cut out to help me get over my disbelief in myself, but he was extremely kind, persistent, and diligent. Eddie started his career as Chief Naturalist at Grand Canyon National Park in 1929, so he sure knew how to communicate science. Half the reason I have kept at it writing the stories is in homage to his example.

What has been the most exciting part of your scientific research?

Working on projects at the USGS with Eddie was great fun, but the research I was able to do in the oil business was like jumping from a biplane onto a rocket ship. I was able to take the rigor of scientific research into the sedimentology of sand dunes I had done with Eddie and others at the USGS and apply it to the practical problems of getting residual oil out of eolian sandstones. I adored being the liaison between research labs and field operations.

When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?

Sheer cussedness. Okay, that was a little glib. My father was an artist. As I was growing up I spent a lot of time watching him work, wrestling with his muse, and that taught me that anything worth chewing on was riddled with ambiguities.

Art is an indirect way of expressing great inspiration. I came across the same feelings working with the time-space problems of geology. I learned that the more anxious I felt, the more completely I had put my arms around the uncertainties of whatever problem I faced, and the closer I was to seeing the picture. I learned to relax and stare into space when I needed to. I caught a lot of flak for this, but in retrospect I was still being the kid who drove my grade school teachers crazy. In summary, science works best when I let myself into that playground I found in college. I can see things more clearly and feel less stressed and more awed by how little we actually know.

But back to the sheer cussedness angle, which I come by as part of my patrimony, which taught me a base-level pragmatism: My dad also liked to design, build, and sail multihull sailboats, and he published papers on his designs in a juried publication. In one paper he stated that one of his trimarans could make headway in a wind “barely strong enough to make cigarette smoke drift.” An MIT mathematician reviewed the paper, and citing a full page of mathematical calculations, moved to bar publication. Dad, who had flunked math in high school, responded to that criticism with a one-sentence reply, “Would you like to come for a sail?”

What’s the strangest place/situation you’ve been?

A number of contenders for that prize come to mind. Having to go to a bar on a seedy side of Bakersfield to find the field engineer I reported to pops up, as does driving a tracked vehicle across the ice in Antarctica. Or riding into a gold mine in an ore cart. Or swapping intelligence about sandstones with roughnecks on a drill rig in the back of Wyoming in the middle of the night. Such stories stick to me like lint; I have to write them down and weave them into fiction to get the electrostatic charge to let go.

The worlds of publishing and research science seem very different - are they?

Yes and no. What they have in common is the requirement that one be willing to champion a project and fight for an idea. The money behind both concerns operates in similar ways. The excitement and awe people find in the product are similar. The particulars of working your butt off to make the grade are identical. Beyond that…well, there are difficult personalities in both places. Yeah, I keep thinking of everything that is alike, and would have to dig for things that are different in truly meaningful ways. Read my abstract on transferrable skills that I wrote for the Fall 2013 AGU meeting.

What are the similarities between scientific research and plotting out a mystery novel?

Scientists are detectives.  Just like cops we use a combination of deductive logic and intuitive leaps. The mystery novel and scientific research are both shaped like a football, widening out from a point of inspiration, grinding through the possibilities, then narrowing down as we eliminate what doesn’t stick. I have a slide that makes this point if you need it.

How do your scientific colleagues react to your novel-writing?

Some respect it more than others, I suppose. Most are entertained, and a lot appreciate having light cast into the obscurity of lives spent in scientific pursuits. We all understand that science is a narrative, and it’s just as well to present the scientist as the hero of the story as to remain in the negative stereotypes of hopeless nerd or crazy person bent on world domination that we keep seeing in the movies.

What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

Don’t shy away from learning how to write and speak in public, and learn to stomach politics so you can help shape what science is done and how much and where and why. Consider doing an internship in Washington so you can see what the wizards behind the smoke screen are up to.