Citation by Daniel M. Deocampo, Past Limnogeology Division Chair (2010-2012)
It is my distinct honor and pleasure to provide the Citation for awarding the 2020 Israel C. Russell Award from the Limnogeology Division of the Geological Society of America to Gail Mowry Ashley. Gail has woven a beautiful and unique tapestry of research, teaching, and service contributions over the past 50 years that have made her legendary not only in the field of limnogeology, but in many of the adjacent interdisciplinary areas of inquiry. With about 160 refereed publications and many thousands of citations in the literature, Gail’s quantitative impact is easy to recognize. Consistently in each of the past five decades, Gail has made fundamental contributions, turned ideas on their heads, suggested new approaches to old problems, and consistently helped to push the frontiers of knowledge. She published landmark studies that opened whole new research directions, including her landmark papers on varved glacial lakes that enabled decades of work unravelling details of the deglaciation of North America. She built much of the framework of our basic understanding of the genesis of bedforms and sedimentary structures in clastic deposits. She became adept at integrating modern process studies with paleoenvironmental interpretation, applying this approach to numerous glacio-lacustrine, fluvio-lacustrine, crater and rift basin lakes and paleolakes. She broke new ground in East Africa, recognizing the sedimentological and stratigraphic representations of groundwater discharge zones in lacustrine settings. This has had a big impact on understanding the habitats of early hominins and other vertebrates, as well as recognizing the complex effects of tectonics and climate on lacustrine sedimentary records, especially in low-gradient playas. She has carried out challenging field work in some of the most remote field areas on Earth, including in Alaska, Antarctica, and East Africa, patiently and cheerfully training generations of students and inspiring even more. Gail’s service to GSA is epic – she has served in pretty much every way possible including as President, and she was instrumental in helping to establish the Limnogeology Division. The place to find Gail at GSA is always mingling with students at the poster sessions (especially those of the Limnogeology Division!) learning about their work and offering ideas. She has been an international leader in inspiring a generation of female scientists around the world, including her contributions through the National Research Council to study challenges and solutions to broadening participation in the geosciences. Gail is both selfless and relentless in her promotion of the science, and her Israel C. Russell Award is well deserved!
Response by Gail Ashley
I am very flattered and grateful to receive the Israel C. Russell Award from the Limnogeology Division of GSA and my heartfelt thanks go to Andrea Shilling for the nomination and those who wrote letters and Dan Deocampo for his kind words. I was watching my life (my career) flash before my eyes as Dan read the citation. Fifty years is hard to fathom. I had more in common with Israel Cook Russell Israel than I realized. He was President of GSA (1906), a glacial geologist and he worked in Alaska, exploring the Malaspina Glacier………where I worked in the 1970s.
Listening to Dan’s summary of my career, it sounded like a well-planned trajectory. It was anything but that. My career was a series of 5-year plans that zigzagged across the sedimentological landscape from the Alaska to Africa, changing topics along the way….but, always centered on water bodies of some type. At the time I started, there were essentially no senior women scientists for me to take cues from; how to juggle kids, family and field work. I was fortunate to have many male colleagues who gave me encouragement, built my confidence and opened doors for me. Marshall Schalk (Smith College) my next door neighbor gave me my first book on geology and told me it was something girls could do. George Magill admitted me into grad school with a less-than-stellar academic record and, incidentally, with 2 small children. This instilled in me the desperately needed self-confidence. My supervisors Joe Hartshorn and Bill Mathews encouraged research independence. Jon Boothroyd and Norm Smith were great role models for field-based research. John Southard was an inspirational guide on how to try to answer sedimentological questions with experimental studies. Richard Hay, who wrote the book on Olduvai Gorge, graciously encouraged me to take on the geoarchaeological research at the Gorge and shared his vast knowledge with me.
In the last five decades I have seen the gender gap in geology narrow and most programs now have ~50% women students. There remains a long way to go for parity in Earth Science faculties. Universities need to be “family friendly”, to recognize that academics are people first (not just a commodity) and have the right to a full life that includes relationships.
My career had a steep learning curve and is getting steeper. Yet, I feel I have received more from my colleagues (Robin Renaut, Bernie Owen, Michelle Goman and Doris Barboni) and the 39 grad students and hundreds of undergrads, than I have contributed. Lacustrine and groundwater research has always been fun for me. Varves, springs, wetlands, playas, clay mineralogy and more recently, the Critical Zone have all been grist to my mill. I have been lucky to have had the backing of my two children (Kim and Tod) during a sometimes very chaotic life. I want to particularly thank my husband Jerry; he is my reality check, my chief critic and my best friend. I would not be where I am without my family.