2020 Distinguished Geologic Career Award (MGPV Division)

Presented to Cathy J. Busby

Cathy J. Busby

Cathy J. Busby
University of California Davis


Citation by Keith Putirka

The MGPV Distinguished Career Awards are important not just for honoring great science but to aid the scientific enterprise: they are a marker of the science we must know to make contributions that are both immediate and lasting. It is my honor to introduce Dr. Cathy Busby as the 2020 recipient of the Distinguished career award. Cathy approaches the Renaissance ideal and it is not in my power to do justice to her breadth of accomplishments, which include Field Geology, Stratigraphy, Paleogeography, Structural Geology, Sedimentology, and Volcanology. I will touch on the former, but focus on the latter. A key lesson gleaned from Cathy, and useful to nascent field geologists, is that success comes not just from knowing how to map, but where to map. Cathy’s success stems in part from her selection of strategic field areas whose “datable stratigraphy”, as she puts it, yield particularly high scientific value. Her work yields essential insights about the evolution of large-volume volcanic systems, while her studies in the Sierra Nevada demonstrate the “birth of a plate boundary”. Of particular import is her demonstration of how a shift in tectonic stress regime provides the applied force to shift volcanism from Cascade-like to a Basin-and-Range-like (Walker Lane Belt) style of activity, and at the same time re-shapes the Sierran landscape. As to large-volume silicic systems, Cathy documents how many such eruptions almost uniquely arise within transtensional basins, and these basins appear especially well equipped to accumulate and store very large batches of magma over a short span of time. Cathy thus solves the so-called ‘room problem’ for at least some silicic systems. And if these transtensional stresses penetrates into the middle crust, then yet another apparent problem, i.e., where to store the large volume basaltic magmas, so as to supply the heat needed to keep these silicic systems alive, is also addressed. Cathy is also the first to clearly document how the transtensional faults of the Walker Lane represent the northward propagating tip of the Gulf of California extensional system, and how this migrating system will eventually calve off much of California from North America. The large silicic systems form either at the tip of this system, or in its wake. Aside from science, Cathy is also a terrific and terrifically interesting and caring person, with a great many interests, and a passion for spending time with her daughters. She is the best possible colleague and has served as a role model for my daughters; no young scientist today could find a better person to emulate.


Response by Cathy J. Busby

First, I want to thank Keith Putirka for nominating me. He has been my close collaborator and a wonderful friend for 20 years. Then I want to go back through time and thank my mentors and collaborators and mentees. I was raised in a suburb of Ohio, where there are no rocks, but we had gravel driveways, and I spent many happy hours picking through them to find beautiful pieces of quartz and feldspar. The leader of my Girl Scouts troop taught us how to go camping, and I remember wondering what I could do to have a career outdoors, concluding that farming was the only way. It never occurred to me that a girl could be a scientist. Then my family moved to California, and my first boyfriend taught me how to backpack. I was turned on to geology by my LA Pierce Community College teachers Ruth LeBow and Barry Haskell, at the height of the plate tectonics revolution. Their field trips taught me a love of rocks and geologic time. When I transferred to Berkeley, Garniss Curtis, Clyde Warhaftig and Chuck Myer took a very active role in supporting me. I got started on a research project in the Sierra Nevada with the inspiring Jason Saleeby who was then at Berkeley (and also started out at Pierce). At Princeton I was given the freedom to pursue a PhD that was entirely my own design, under the brilliant supervision of John Suppe. I was extremely fortunate to win a faculty position at UC Santa Barbara straight out of graduate school, which made it possible for me to get tenure in the bag in time to give birth to three daughters within two years (numbers 2 and 3 were twins). I want to thank my mother (now in heaven) for coming to conferences and going in the field with me when they were young. She was fearless, being left in camp for the day in remote areas of Mexico with my babies; Claire, Sophia and Marion later grew up hiking cross-country on my fieldwork. At UCSB, Richard Fisher was my biggest advocate, in a large department that had only one other female faculty member. Women were sparse on the ground in those days, but I am thrilled to say that two of my three active NSF-funded projects have women as Co-PIs: Susan DeBari and Tina Niemi. Five years ago, I moved to UC Davis, seeking a department that is supportive of women. It’s amazing what a difference it makes when nearly half the faculty are women – strong women! I feel very fortunate to have come of age at a time when field geology was valued, and becoming open to women. I am a dirty boots, rocks in the box geologist to the core. But I could not have covered all that “real estate” (as John Crowell used to put it) without the dedication of my students and postdoctoral researchers over the past 37 years, and I thank them as well.