Answers to Big Questions
by Dorothy Wright
Arlo Weil is fascinated by
big questions: how and why do rocks deform, and
in what did that deformation occur? Since joining
the faculty of Bryn Mawrs Geology Department
as an assistant professor last fall, he has continued
to pursue the answers and share his observations
with his students.
"What interests me is
the vast scale of the questions one asks in geology:
how does a mountain belt form?" Weil muses.
"To me, that is an awesome question, and
the fact that I can contribute to answering this
question is exciting. Ultimately, that is why
I chose to focus on structural geology and tectonics."
A graduate of the University
of Oregon, Weil earned his masters and doctoral
degrees in geology from the University of Michigan.
Previously he worked with Columbia University
and the University of Oregon on the Colorado Seismic
Array, and served as a research scientist and
field geologist studying surface-water hydrology
in Alaska for the U.S. Geologic Survey. His interests
include the tectonics of fold-and-thrust mountain
belts, the formation of curved mountain belts,
Precambrian paleogeography and tectonics, and
the evolution and life cycle of supercontinents.
Teaching and Research
Weil was attracted to Bryn
Mawr by its dual emphasis on teaching and research.
"Bryn Mawr afforded me the opportunity to
do both teaching and research, and put a high
value on both," he says. "I dont
know many other institutions that do that as evenly
and consciously as Bryn Mawr."
Geology Professor Maria Luisa
Crawford 60 says Weil met a number of the
search committees criteria. "We always
try to hire people who have a good breadth of
expertise and are interested in teaching a wide
range of courses," she recalls. "In
this case we were looking for someone in the general
category of structural geology, in particular,
someone who could also do geophysics."
Weil possessed another important
quality. "When we spoke to some of Arlos
colleagues, they told us of his enormous enthusiasm,"
Crawford says. "When he came to Bryn Mawr,
we saw that quality. The students liked him, and
we liked him. We said, This is the guy!"
This year Weil taught
courses on structural geology and geophysics and
tectonics. "The caliber of the students is
very high, which is both a blessing and a curse,"
he laughs. "It is a blessing because you
can really inspire them and teach at a high level,
and a curse because you have to stay not one step,
but several steps ahead of them the entire time.
Its challenging but also more rewarding."
This summer Weil plans to
take at least three students into the field as
research assistants. He will work on a continuation
of his doctoral dissertation on the Cantabria-Asturias
Arc, a highly curved mountain belt in northern
Spain. Weil has used paleomagnetism the
analysis of the earths ancient magnetic
field as recorded in rock to refute earlier
theories that the arc originally formed as a curve.
He is continuing to pursue this avenue of research
into the formation of southwestern Europes
Variscan Belt, which comprises other curvatures
extending from the Cantabria-Asturias arc.
development was anything but linear. He went to
the University of Oregon to study graphic arts
and advertising, but it was too narrow a field
to hold his interest. Then he felt the pull of
astrophysics and the stars, but discovered much
of that work revolves around computer modeling,
not star-gazing through a telescope. He also toyed
with the culinary arts.
"Then I took an honors
geology class, and I never looked back,"
A large part of the attraction
was the opportunity for direct experience of the
products of billions of years of movement, both
subtle and explosive. "You can probably see
from the places Ive done research
North Africa, northern Spain, the American Southwest
that I like to go where things are big,"
This summer Weil will also
travel to Utah to continue reconstructing the
evolution of the supercontinent Rodinia, which
is believed to have existed approximately 1 billion
years ago. In collaboration with a multidisciplinary
group of geoscientists, he will look at unique
sequences of sedimentary rocks of this age, which
are exposed in the southwestern United States.
"Its been a very
interesting and unique experience," Weil
reflects. "More often than not, research
is very narrowly focused and specialized, which
I believe hinders the ability to understand the
larger picture. The potential to answer first-order
questions, such as the formation and breakup of
supercontinents, is so much greater through a
Weil says researchers
have tended to avoid the team approach. "You
dont get the credit as an individual,"
he explains. "But Im not doing this
work for the credit, to be a famous geologist.
Who is a famous geologist does my mother
know him? No."
So why is he doing this
work? With characteristic enthusiasm, he answers,
"Because I love it."
About the Author
Dorothy Wright contributes
news and feature articles on science, technology,
engineering and general interest topics to a variety
of publications, including Civil Engineering,
Engineering News Record and Bryn Mawr