2020 Laurence L. Sloss Award

Presented to Carlton Brett

Carlton Brett

Carlton Brett
University of Cincinnati


Citation by Thomas Algeo, University of Cincinnati

Carl Brett is an outstanding Earth scientist who has made numerous impactful and lasting contributions to the fields of stratigraphy, sedimentology, and paleoecology, mentored many generations of graduate students, and served the mission of the Geological Society of America. Over the course of his career, his research has led to many important new discoveries and concepts in sedimentary geology. Carl is the doyen of Paleozoic sequence and event stratigraphy―his field studies of successions in the Northeast and Midwest have demonstrated the correlatability of various types of event beds over great distances, resulting in development of “Neo-Ulrichian” stratigraphic models. In the field of evolutionary paleoecology, Carl proposed the concept of “coordinated stasis”, i.e., that ecosystems persist virtually unchanged in their ecological associations for millions of years, followed by intervals of rapid change, a theory that has fundamentally reshaped our view of how marine ecosystems operate at geological timescales. In the field of taphonomy, Carl has worked to understand relationships between depositional processes, time-averaging of fossil assemblages, and physical processes controlling their preservation, developing such concepts as “comparative taphonomy” and “taphofacies”. This brief survey of his research accomplishments is inadequate to convey the breadth and depth of his professional oeuvre, which includes >300 papers in international science journals as well as edited volumes on event bed stratigraphy, seismites, trilobites, and crinoids.

Carl has played an incomparable role in mentoring younger generations of geoscience professionals, having served as the primary advisor for ~55 Master’s and Ph.D. students, and assisted >500 baccalaureate students on undergraduate research projects. Carl is widely revered by his current and former student advisees for the effort he has put into their professional development, and he is exceedingly highly regarded by his current and former scientific collaborators for his intellectual insights and his gentlemanly manner. The Larry L. Sloss Award is given to “a sedimentary geologist whose lifetime achievements best exemplify those of Larry Sloss”, and no one is better suited to be honored with this award than Carl.


Response by Carlton Brett

I am delighted to receive this award as Larry Sloss, has long been a hero of mine. Life is contingent and I feel very fortunate that the twists of fate led me to an extraordinarily interesting career. Almost as far back as I can remember I wanted to be a naturalist. Growing up, with six siblings, on a small family farm in southeastern New Hampshire, I was fascinated by animals of all sorts from clams to cows. I collected, identified, and made drawings of shells and skeletons and eventually made my own little museum.

Both of my parents were teachers and encouraged me to follow my own interests. My father, Wesley Brett, was a skilled designer-craftsman, a farmer, and a much-revered professor of design and art; he was a terrific role model as an educator. Dad transferred from the University of New Hampshire to SUNY College at Buffalo when I was 10 and we moved from the “Granite State” to the fossil-rich “Niagara Frontier” of western New York. This was a defining event. I vividly recall seeing sedimentary rocks and fossils for the first time: I was hooked.

My childhood haunts included the spectacular venues of the great Amadeus Grabau, who as a youth himself, had described the successions of strata and faunas in the Silurian of Niagara Gorge and the great cliffs of Devonian strata on Lake Erie south of Buffalo; I fancied myself following in his footsteps. By the time I graduated from Grand Island High School, in the “Woodstock year” of 1969, I was determined to become a paleontologist/stratigrapher and set a life goal of being a professor in one of the “meccas” for Paleozoic fossils and strata: western New York State or the Cincinnati region. Amazingly, I was able to do both.

As an undergraduate at the University of Buffalo, in the turbulent early 1970s, I pursued geology and biology and benefitted from the encouragement and advise of my mentor Ed Buehler, a humble, nurturing, and rather eccentric character; who, above all, left me to do my own things. I first encountered the name Sloss digging through a now classic text in Earth history; the figure from the famous 1963 sequence paper was already being cited as an important framework.

The year 1973 was pivotal: I graduated from UB and, the UB Geology Department urged me to get an MS based on my undergraduate projects. In October of that year fellow biology student Betty Lou Hilton and I became engaged, and in the same month, I met the incomparable Gordon Baird, then a PhD student at the University of Rochester, where I would later teach. Both associations would prove to be wonderful and productive in quite different ways! Gordon and I had overlapping interests and even were working independently on the same geologic projects: we cooperated from that day onward.

At the University of Michigan, I had an interesting group of mentors, including fellow graduate students, Ed Landing, Dave Liddell, and George McIntosh, among others, who cooperated on several projects. My PhD advisor, Brad Macurda, furthered my interests in crinoids, but also, incidentally, introduced me to the notion of sequence stratigraphy as he prepared to leave and take a job in industry, teaching the principles a newly-developing paradigm, spun off from the work of Sloss’s student, Peter Vail.

In 1978, I was thrilled to receive an instructorship at the University of Rochester, as I was still finishing my dissertation on Silurian echinoderms and stratigraphy of the Rochester Shale. I knew the local sections, including one of North America’s first formal type sections, in the Genesee Gorge. I benefited from colleagues including Bob Sutton and Pete DeCelles, who stimulated my interest in stratigraphy and foreland basins. Above all, the legendary Curt Teichert, retired but productive as ever, was an inspiring role model.

Western New York is a classic testing ground for ideas in geology and paleontology. Together with students, Gordon Baird and I fed off each other’s enthusiasm for stratigraphy and paleoecology, as we scrambled up and measured hundreds of stream cuts in Upstate New York. We developed our own notions of allostratigraphy, just as classic papers of the Exxon school were flowing out and we could see how our views fit with these ideas. We began to explore the connections between sequence stratigraphy, fossil preservation-taphofacies, and biofacies. Subsequently we related large scale patterns of faunal tracking, stability and extinction and proposed the controversial notion of “coordinated stasis”.

In 1998, I joined the University of Cincinnati’s Geology Department, a uniquely stimulating, collegial and nurturing place. The Cincinnatian rocks, so well exposed in the Tristate area, provide an unparalleled natural laboratory to pursue questions of Paleozoic sedimentary geology, paleoecology, and evolution. I must acknowledge the support and inspiration of my colleagues, including Dave Meyer, Arnie Miller, and the iconic Paul Potter, as well as Brenda Hunda and Glenn Storrs of the Cincinnati Museum, and the Cincinnati Dry Dredgers, one of the oldest amateur groups in the country. My interests in sequence and event stratigraphy were fostered by Tom Algeo; he enlisted me, in my first term, to help run an SEPM trip on the Cincinnatian. Thus, began a new stratigraphic research program. Together with colleagues Ben Dattilo, Kyle Hartshorn, and many outstanding graduate students, I have worked extensively on cycle and event stratigraphy of the Cincinnatian, formulated new ideas about the origin of shell beds and cycles, and attempted to transform the “Eo-ulrichian “extreme layer cake stratigraphy of Edward Oscar Ulrich, into a “Neo-ulrichian” view of events and sequences.

In the past decades, my involvement in the International subcommissions on Ordovician, Silurian, and Devonian stratigraphy, receipt of a NATO Grant with Peter Allison in England and a Humboldt Prize to work with colleagues from Senckenberg Insitute in Frankfurt, Germany enabled me to examine patterns of sequence and event stratigraphy in many venues around the world. This broader view has led to my fascination with global patterns and in linking biological events and stasis to patterns changing volatility of sea level, climate, and chemostratigraphy.

I owe much to my students. As junior colleagues, they inspire me and keep me on my toes and I try to reciprocate. The possibility of direct involvement of students at all levels in research keeps even routine activities vibrant and some of my most important lines of research evolved from “simple” student questions. There is nothing so gratifying as seeing students develop sparks of interest and then go on to pursue their own investigations and careers in Earth sciences. I have been fortunate to work with outstanding students, many of them now excellent scientists and educators in their own right.

Finally, I must again thank my wife, Dr. Betty Lou Brett, who has patiently encouraged and helped me for over 46 years-and my children Kenton and Leanne and now their children, who keep me grounded, and put up with an eccentric father/grandfather who travels the world to study of rocks and fossils and what they can tell us about the history of this planet. It’s a wonderful life!! Thank you all.