April 2002
Patenting Human Genes

Putting it All Together

Measuring Cosmic X-ray Fireworks

Understanding Gene Functions Through Mutation

New Fellowships Integrate Teaching and Research

Pursuing Answers to Big Questions

Commentary: The Mentoring Mindset

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Al Dorof, Editor

© 2003


Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

Pursuing Answers to Big Questions
by Dorothy Wright

Arlo Weil

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 Mawr’s 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 master’s 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.

Valuing 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 don’t know many other institutions that do that as evenly and consciously as Bryn Mawr."

Maria Luisa Crawford '60

Geology Professor Maria Luisa Crawford ’60 says Weil met a number of the search committee’s 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 Arlo’s 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. It’s challenging but also more rewarding."

Ancient Magnetic Field

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 earth’s 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 Europe’s Variscan Belt, which comprises other curvatures extending from the Cantabria-Asturias arc.

Weil’s professional 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," Weil recalls.

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 I’ve done research — North Africa, northern Spain, the American Southwest — that I like to go where things are big," he says.

Reconstructing Rodinia’s Evolution

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.

"It’s 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 multidisciplinary approach."

Weil says researchers have tended to avoid the team approach. "You don’t get the credit as an individual," he explains. "But I’m 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 Now.

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