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Spring-Summer 2000
Vol. 62, No. 3

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Rochester Review--University of Rochester magazine

2000: Director, U.S. Geological Survey

No matter what part of the country Americans choose to call home, Mother Nature can change the course of their day--or their life. Whether the dire event is a drought or a flood, a hurricane or an earthquake, people facing the onslaught of a natural disaster feel helpless, and often are indeed so.

One of the most powerful defenses against the ferocity of nature is education, says Chip Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, known as "the nation's earth science agency."

His organization stands ready to provide the knowledge and other tools that give people a chance to survive impending disasters and to minimize the damage to their property.

Groat, who was sworn in as the 13th USGS director in November 1998, says that "when people see the words 'U.S. Geological Survey,' they think of a bunch of people who study rocks. And they don't understand how this relates to them. There's a lack of understanding of just how broad the impact of earth sciences is. And that lack of understanding is what we're trying to correct."

The way to do that, he says, is through education--whether in the schools or on the Web--to show how the work of the 120-year-old USGS relates to real-world needs.

One of those real-world needs that rates among his agency's greatest challenges, Groat believes, is the issue of the nation's water resources. He says that as our population grows, more and more people are introducing more and more contaminants into what is essentially a shrinking pool.

As a way of facilitating educated decisions about water use--and abuse--the USGS has begun monitoring the quality and quantity of both surface and ground water and informing the public of its findings. It has recently issued reports on the nutrients and pesticides in agricultural runoff and the additives and petroleum found in ground water.

Understanding the effects of contaminants such as these is an important step in improving the quality of our water supply, he emphasizes.

Population growth also has meant that more people have been moving into harm's way--into earthquake zones and coastal areas, for example--where natural hazards are a real and frequent threat. Alleviating the impact of natural disasters is an immense job, Groat admits. But the USGS does have some effective weapons in its arsenal. Among them are some 7,000 flood gauges placed in the nation's streams. When there is potential for a flood, data pieced together from thousands of those gauges can be found on the Web within half an hour. "It's a quick way of getting the information into people's hands so they can prepare," says Groat.

Groat worked his way up to the USGS by a process of natural progression. After earning his Ph.D. at the University of Texas, he embarked on a career in environmental and resources geology, subsequently heading up a number of agencies, among them the Louisiana Geological Survey, the American Geological Institute, and the Center for Environmental Resource Management at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Getting to know the agency employees who make all the USGS projects happen--and seeing their enthusiasm for the work they do--is his favorite part of his current job, he says. "It's also fulfilling for me to go out and make connections between the science we provide and the people who need it.

"Seeing what you do applied to real problems and helping people toward solutions is indeed rewarding," he affirms.

1962: Origins of a Dream

Groat readily acknowledges that being USGS director is a dream job, a dream that began to take shape at the University.

A native of Westfield, New York, on the shores of Lake Erie, Groat says that once he saw the campus, "I loved the look of it. It was the only place I wanted to go."

He arrived here thinking he would study biology. He says he was interested in the work that was being done in the field and in "dealing with life as it exists." But when his advanced courses seemed more geared toward molecular biology and medicine, he shifted his focus to geology.

"I didn't know about geology until I got to Rochester," he says. "My high school didn't teach it. But once I took a course in the subject, I realized that was what I wanted to do."

His dream took on an added dimension when as an undergrad he worked as a field assistant in Montana. "I thought I'd gone to heaven," he recalls.

Lawrence Lundgren, professor emeritus of earth and environmental sciences at Rochester, remembers Groat as one of the first students at the University to combine work in biology and geology.

"I think of him as a pioneer in taking a conventional state geological survey organization (the Louisiana Geological Survey) and making it into one of the early ones to develop environmental geology and make it important," Lundgren says.

"Chip was and is a very nice combination of a scientist with considerable range and expertise, and a warm and likable human being who works well with people."

Julie Welch

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