Generosity, ingenuity characterized geoscientist’s 40-year career

Geosciences professor Michael Arthur stands at an outcrop showing the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary near Gubbio, Italy. Arthur got his start with geosciences research at this location in the 1970s. Credit: Michael ArthurAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Geoscientist Michael Arthur met more than one future protégé playing music on the back porch of a friend's house. Casual nighttime jam sessions — gatherings of musically inclined geoscientists — evolved into productive research partnerships. Those relationships were unconventional and highly collaborative, which also describe the more than four decades of work Arthur conducted during his career. He will retire on June 30, leaving behind a legacy as an innovative researcher, a champion for budding scientists and a zealous musician.

Michael Arthur playing a mandolin, which, along with playing guitar, is a lifelong passion for him. Credit: Michael ArthurAll Rights Reserved.

Carving out new avenues of research

Growing up in southern California, Arthur spent many days exploring the nearby desert and sleeping under the stars. As a student at San Bernardino Valley College, he thought he wanted to study meteorology or law until he had an "aha" moment in an entry-level geosciences course. His two geosciences professors took students out to the desert to study geology, which opened Arthur's eyes.

"These guys were so enthusiastic, and I realized I could do this as a career," said Arthur.

Once he focused his mind on geosciences, he quickly learned new skills that allowed him to make significant advances in the field. He obtained both bachelor's and master's degrees in geology from the University of California, Riverside, and attended Princeton University for his doctorate in geological sciences, with an emphasis in geochemistry.

At Princeton, he would make his first mark in the geosciences community by introducing, with his adviser, Alfred G. Fischer, a new way of researching the Earth's past. Stratigraphy is an approach some geoscientists use to understand how buried layers of sediment — for example, those that are exposed in road cuts — reflect something about Earth's past climate. Arthur and Fischer demonstrated, among other things, how different ratios of carbon isotopes in these layers could reliably be used to understand aspects of the Earth's climate and environment, such as the temperature and what organic life existed at the time.

"And later through Al Fischer, I met Peter Scholle, also one of his former students," Arthur said. "While at the U.S. Geological Survey together, he and I basically developed carbon isotope stratigraphy, which has become a mainstay for geochemists reconstructing Earth history today."

He expanded this research to other areas to investigate times ranging from 250 million years ago to 5 million years ago, as well as reaching back to the Precambrian in collaboration with other researchers. Along the way, his research took him to Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, Italy, Greece, France, England, Spain, Mexico, Haiti, Japan, Australia, China and New Guinea, and also underwater on the Pacific and Atlantic sea floor. He participated in a number of ocean drilling expeditions and was co-chief scientist of an expedition to the sub-Arctic region. He became an expert in the area of black shales, layers of organic materials and minerals deposited and then buried in the Earth's subsurface millions of years ago that are a source of hydrocarbons such as natural gas. Arthur also co-led oceanographic expeditions to the Black Sea, a modern anoxic basin, and the Peru margin, a region of high biologic productivity and low dissolved oxygen that enhances organic carbon preservation.

"Mike has attacked a series of fundamental problems of Earth history using sedimentologic and geochemical tools, many of which he pioneered," said Brad Sageman, who met Arthur while playing guitar, then became a postdoctoral researcher with Arthur for a year at Penn State. Sageman now serves as professor and chair of Northwestern University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. "In many cases, Mike was the first researcher who identified a particular research question and a novel method to address it, and his approaches were later adopted by scores of other investigators. For example, he helped lay the groundwork for our understanding of how carbon and sulfur isotopes, and other geochemical tools, can be used to reconstruct important geological processes during the Earth's past."

Leading a department

Arthur came to Penn State in 1991 to become head of the Department of Geosciences, and right away, he looked at ways to increase collaboration among the faculty. He and John Dutton, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at the time, rearranged office spaces for faculty and students to facilitate partnerships.

"I tried to mix and match so there weren't segregated floors, hoping there would be more interaction and appreciation for what each faculty member did, regardless of discipline. It's better for the students and better for the department," he said.

"Many of Mike's initiatives as department head created an espirit de corps that we didn't have before because we had been acting like research entrepreneurs. We started appreciating how productive and creative our colleagues were," said Rudy Slingerland, professor emeritus of geosciences, who succeeded Arthur as department head.

Arthur's methods of inducing collaboration rubbed off on at least one of his protégés.

"I spent a year as a postdoc at Penn State working with Mike, and I have maintained contact with him and other Penn State colleagues over the years. Thus, I have a fairly good idea of the things Mike did as a department chair to strengthen Penn State’s program, and of how critical the excellent faculty collaborations were to their success," said Sageman. "I have worked very hard to build the same kind of model here at Northwestern, and I credit a lot of our success to Mike’s mentorship."

Michael Arthur, left, plays guitar with Brad Sageman at a tribute for Erle Kauffman, a renowned geoscientist who died in 2016. Sageman and Arthur first met while playing guitar on Kauffman's back porch. Credit: Brad SagemanAll Rights Reserved.

Helping protégés launch their careers

Arthur recognized that he had many supporters throughout his career who helped him to grow. 

"Every step of the way, there seemed to be someone encouraging me, and I really appreciated being able to have that. I've been extremely fortunate," he said.

In turn, he devoted many hours to making sure that his mentorship could be a springboard for his protégés’ careers.

"Mike has authored more than 160 papers, and many of them are key, insightful papers on which he or his students are first author," said Slingerland.

Having his students as co-author or first author was intended to help them catapult their careers. As soon as he and his protégés explored a new area of geosciences, he would let them continue developing that line of research.

"Mike had the capacity to do pioneering work in a whole new field and pass off to his mentees and help launch their careers, which is a huge act of scientific generosity and a lesson I learned as well," said Sageman.

Arthur took a somewhat hands-off approach to mentoring his students, while always being available to answer questions, which provided them with experience needed to develop their scientific prowess.

"If it takes longer because they are floundering a bit, it's a good experience," Arthur said. "Making mistakes and maybe following some dead ends is useful for a scientist. It gives you resilience because things don't always work out as planned. And my students responded in a way that I'm now proud of what they've accomplished."

Applying shale expertise to Marcellus

When natural gas companies began drilling in the Marcellus Shale, Arthur saw an opportunity to share his expertise through outreach to the community. He put together a series of talks as part of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute’s (EESI) EarthTalks lecture series, encouraged by Susan Brantley, director of EESI, to get his message out to fellow scientists and the public.

"Out of that grew the idea that we needed a center that provided education and outreach around Marcellus Shale," he said. "We got an interdisciplinary group of people across the University together and talked about the structure of what this center would be."

The result was the establishment of the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. Arthur served as the first co-director alongside Thomas Murphy, extension educator with the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Arthur and Murphy gave talks around the Commonwealth on safety, economics and other questions community members voiced. In one year, Arthur said he gave about 115 talks.

"Without being advocates one way or the other, our goal was to help people understand the potential impacts to consider, as well as ways to remedy, avoid or modify these impacts," he said.

This work led to another project related to the oil and gas industry TOPCORP, led by James Ladlee, assistant director of energy, entrepreneurship, economic and community development programs, Penn State Extension. The project, a partnership with the University of Texas at Austin and the Colorado School of Mines, focused on best practices and continued education for oil and gas inspectors throughout the U.S., whose jobs entailed ensuring safety standards in the oil and gas industry.

"We received positive feedback from many community members and the industry, and the project is overseen by the U.S. Groundwater Protection Council, among other groups," said Arthur, who stepped down as co-director in 2016. Andrew Nyblade, professor of geosciences, took over as co-director.

Farming and Folk Rock

After retiring on June 30, Arthur plans to wrap up some of his research projects while also helping his wife maintain their sheep farm in Penns Valley, Pennsylvania. He also plans to continue improving his guitar and mandolin skills, playing a range of styles that include folk rock and bluegrass.

"I still have lots of research to publish and work on, so I'll keep doing that. But mostly I'm looking forward to playing more music and helping out with the farm, as well as volunteering with some environmental organizations," he said.

Last Updated May 19, 2017