Earth & Environmental Sciences Dept. Celebrates Historic Achievement

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Alexander Gates led one hundred people to revel in a moment of glory for the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences. At the first alumni reunion held on May 31, 2014, the group celebrated the department’s historical achievement of ranking 49th in Earth Sciences by U.S. News & World Report for its graduate program.

“My goal was always to become nationally ranked, and so after 27 years of being here, this is the first time we’re nationally ranked. This is a big deal for me,” says Alexander Gates, professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences and undergraduate advisor.

For Gates, this newfound departmental acclaim provides validation for a career at the university characterized by passion and pioneering that brought the department from the verge of collapse to its newfound status.

Gates joined RU–N at a time when the former geology department consisted of only five members and soon four who were focused primarily on teaching rather than research.

Despite his successful efforts to bolster research and procure grants, the understaffed department faced a shutdown only 15 years ago when the university decided to redirect support and funding from geology to the physics department. Ignoring early temptation to resign, Gates convinced administration officials to approve an external review, while presenting his vision for its future. His ideas were endorsed and the department’s reinvention began, marked by expansion, research, and community outreach.

Changes snowballed and the former Department of Geology became the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, spurred by Gates’s desire to distinguish the unit from its collegiate counterpart in New Brunswick.

He began hiring faculty with relevant environmental backgrounds and says that it “shifted the whole face of the department from this classical thing with people studying rocks and such, to one that studies the environment.”

The expansion allowed the department to offer broader career options, a far cry from graduates’ previously predetermined careers as geologists finding oil or gold.

“We do things that are beyond the ‘ivory tower,’ we do things that have application to real life,” Gates says, underlining RU–N’s longstanding commitment to community engagement.

For the past seven years, Gates has engineered a project called Highlands to Piedmont that educates Newark area residents about geoscience and its relevance in  everyday life. Funded by a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation, he visited hundreds of students each year to provide demonstrations and activities, including recreating miniature tsunamis, playing games to locate oil, and using ground penetrating radar to find graves. He also serves as the project director for the Garden State Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a federally funded program designed to expose minority students to careers in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

The programs have not only generated interest in the geosciences, but left lasting impressions on many of the students who subsequently enroll in the RU–N department.

“I took a class in high school called Planet Earth and it was through Gates,” says sophomore Lucianny Lantigua. She credits Gates with her decision to study environmental science and success as a student because of his advocacy and support, citing his recommendations on her behalf when she applied to the Honors College.

“Gates is just awesome,” Lantigua says. “Once you have that relationship, he just brings you up with him.”

Lantigua attended the alumni reunion as one of several current RU–N students who completed the Highlands to Piedmont program. At the reunion, Lantigua met two alumni, one asking her to submit her résumé for an internship, and the other promising to notify her of future opportunities, giving her hope for life after graduation.

Gates balances his devotion to outreach and engagement with trailblazing discoveries in his own research efforts. Through his studies of geological faults along the United States East Coast, Gates successfully matched rock that he found in Harriman State Park in New York with rock in Brazil, supporting the theory of the existence of Rodinia, a supercontinent that separated into the seven present-day continents.

His expertise on faults led to his current status as a resident authority on earthquakes and tsunamis, evidenced by appearances on the Discovery Channel and a string of radio, newspaper, magazine, and television interviews. He has also made contributions to numerous publications, including research journals, encyclopedias, books, and field guides.

Although Gates is basking in the department’s latest achievement, he says that he intends to continue faculty recruitment, increase outreach efforts, and help students in community colleges continue their education at four-year universities.

“I was all excited that we came up number 49 in the United States, which is great. I mean, before we weren’t even on the list! So I went around bragging to all of the faculty and they said, ‘Is that all?’” Gates chuckles. “One woman said, ‘Only 48 spots to go.’ So I guess the future for the department is to keep moving forward.”