Geoscience Prof. Richard Alley’s Career is Rock Solid
“I’m not Johnny Cash, but I’ve been in a ring of fire,” growls the bespectacled researcher, his voice suddenly not so nasally, before he bursts out in laughter at himself.
Alley impersonates Cash and other rock stars to review lessons for the popular online course GEOSC 010, Geology of the National Parks — if you recognize his name, that’s probably how.
But Alley has just a bit more on his résumé than sounding like Cash. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the cool stuff he’s done:
- Been to Greenland with 10 senators and to Antarctica three times.
- Hosted PBS’ “Earth: The Operators’ Manual.”
- Been part of a Nobel Prize-winning team (a distinction he’s adamant about: “I only contributed to a Nobel Prize-winning committee!”).
- Was one of the “Faces of Penn State” that hung from flags on Beaver Avenue during that marketing campaign.
- Wrote “The Two-Mile Time Machine,” a thorough explanation of climate change.
Back in his Deike Building office, the well-liked Alley strokes his scraggly beard as he ponders how he got into geology in the first place. Growing up outside of Columbus, he took an interest in spelunking and collecting rocks in Kentucky and Indiana with mineral societies in middle school. So he majored in geology at Ohio State, got his master’s there, obtained a Ph.D. at Wisconsin, and starting working at Penn State, where he’s now been for 25 years. Don’t worry, he roots for Penn State sports teams.
He’s not shy about his love of geology.
“The coast is this vibrant, living, glorious place,” Alley says of Antarctica. “These mountains that go right up to 10,000 feet out of the sea and it’s just insanely diverse and wonderful.”
He’s far from a recluse of a researcher, as he still plays soccer when gets the chance and has a stationary bike that sits behind a laptop (which he hopped on after the interview, by the way). He laughs often and offers descriptive animations. He raises his voice whenever he gets excited about what he’s saying.
“We have to get off of fossil fuels, because we’re burning them one million times faster than nature saved them,” Alley says. “Nature is not making enough to be useful to us. It’s a bank account we can withdraw from, but there’s no deposits.
“…If we burn before we learn, our grandchildren will pay the price.”
He took a scientific stance on the issue rather than a political one, but noted he’s spoken with politicians from both sides of the aisle about it. He said there’s two ways to slow the depletion of fossil fuels: ease into a process, or do it all at once out of necessity. He prefers the former.
His proudest accomplishment of his many has nothing to do with his excursions with politicians. He was one of the first people recruited by now-Florida State President, then-PSU Earth System Science Center Director Eric Barron to work at Penn State. He considers what’s been built here since then his career capstone.
Alley lives in the east side of State College with his wife Cindy, and has two daughters, one of whom is a Colorado University graduate student studying Antarctic glaciation.
He’s researching Greenland ice flows and glacial earthquakes at the moment, but Alley doesn’t like to think of himself too smartly.
“I got a pretty good processor and I got a big hard drive,” Alley says of his brain. “And I’ve got whole lots of little bits of software so that I know a little bit about a whole bunch of things.”
He scoffs at stopping his research anytime soon. When will he stop?
“Long time,” he says before bursting into another bout of laughter.
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“I knew my mom did it and I knew I was going to finish, but having her there pushing me, talking to me, and keeping me occupied definitely took my mind off the pain.”
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