Alexander E. Gates

Alexander E. Gates
Rutgers University–Newark

2017 Public Service Award

Presented to Alexander E. Gates

Citation by David W. Valentino 

It gives me great pleasure to provide this citation for Dr. Alexander Gates for being honored by the Geological Society of America with the Public Service Award. Alec has demonstrated untiring effort and enthusiasm in spreading information and appreciation of Earth and Environmental issues to the public. These efforts have included numerous venues, from museum displays and media and public appearances to raising significant funding to devise and institute programs to extend the educational resources to the public and especially underrepresented minority youth. His impact on the public has been exceptional, and he is deserving of this award.
Alec has played a major role as a scientific content consultant and advisor in several major museum displays. His first effort was with the E-Quest: Exploring Earth’s Energy display at Liberty Science Center in 1993. In addition to other consulting roles, he personally designed an oil game display as part of the exhibit. This display taught people about stratigraphy, structural geology, and seismic reflection in a fun activity. Even though the exhibit is long gone, the oil game is still in use 23 years and millions of visitors later and is still enjoyed. Alec later adapted the game for use in K–12 classrooms with great success.

Alec’s second major effort was with the Palisades Interstate (New Jersey–New York) Park Commission where he helped to design the Geology Building displays at the Bear Mountain Trailside Museum (200,000 visitors per year) and the Geology and Iron Mining displays at the Senator Frank Lautenberg Visitor’s Center in Sterling Forest. These displays illustrate geologic mapping, the plate tectonic development of the region and the accumulation of the vast iron deposits in the area. He also obtained substantial funding and designed an Iron Mine Trail where hikers, school groups and recreational groups learn how iron is mined, processed and smelted by visiting actual examples on a short hike around an abandoned mining-smelter complex. He was awarded the Palisades Award for these efforts, the highest award given to non-Park employees.

Perhaps the greatest museum display contribution was serving as chief scientific advisor for the award-winning Dynamic Earth: Revealing Nature’s Secrets display in the Victoria Hall of Science at the Newark Museum, which opened in 2002. Alec gave the inaugural address for the opening of this multi-million-dollar exhibit to a large audience of dignitaries. The exhibit still helps to educate tens of thousands of residents of Newark, New Jersey, each year about plate tectonics, New Jersey geology, and the importance of geosciences in society.

Alec Gates developed and instituted a cradle-to-career project to engage underrepresented, inner-city minority youth in applied geosciences beginning in 2006. He obtained a grant from the National Science Foundation for $1.7 million and supplemented it with several other grants, including one from the ExxonMobil Foundation for $185,000, other foundations, and numerous in-kind contributions. He developed several exciting hands-on, applied geoscience exercises that he personally took to schools in Newark, impacting more than 7,500 students. He worked with the Newark Museum to develop and institute the Dinosaur Day science festival which has run for eight consecutive years with as many as 8,500 attendees per day, by far the most attended one-day event ever in the history of the museum. He developed a four-week, modular Geoscience Summer Scholars Institute for 70–90 interested high school students per year from the Newark area. This program has run for eight years and is so successful that the Newark Public Schools and Donald M. Payne Foundation committed to supporting it after National Science Foundation support was exhausted. There were additional exercises for especially interested summer students using ground penetrating radar to locate lost graves in an African American cemetery in Bergen County and the graves of fallen Revolutionary War soldiers on a battlefield in New York that drew exceptional media attention, including numerous television interviews and the front-page, lead story in the Star Ledger, the largest circulation newspaper in New Jersey. Recently, Gates teamed with the Glassroots glassworks studio to develop a volcano experience for Newark students using molten glass, which has had exceptional results. This program has been hailed as a breakthrough in educating underrepresented minority students in the geosciences and was highlighted in the National Science Foundation online magazine, Discover, as well as the Advisory Committee for Geoscience Education at the National Science Foundation.

Alec proposed, raised funding for, and established the Highlands Environmental Research Institute (HEnRI) and served as its executive director for seven years. HEnRI served as a clearinghouse for scientific earth and environmental information for the critical Highlands region for residents, as well as local legislators. This joint Rutgers University–Palisades Interstate Park Commission-sponsored effort figured prominently in instituting the National Highlands Preservation Act and the New Jersey Highlands Act by providing critical geological and environmental information, the acquisition and protection of the $86 million Sterling Forest track through federal and interstate sources, and other important regional issues. He raised operational funding from several foundations and oversaw the drafting of the memorandum of understanding between the organizations. HEnRI was recognized with several awards from both New York and New Jersey. As a result, Alec served on the Environmental Committee for the transition teams both for Mayor Cory Booker and Mayor Raz Baraka of Newark. He has served on advisory committees for several groups such as the New Jersey–New York Train Conference.

Alec has made numerous media appearances to explain natural disasters, environmental issues, geoscience education, and general geology to residents of New Jersey and the nation. His area of expertise is faulting, so he has become a local expert on earthquakes and was called for his opinion whenever there was an earthquake in New Jersey. He has appeared in 54 newspaper articles primarily in New Jersey and New York but as far away as Vienna, Austria, and Rome, Italy. He had two front-page, full-color articles in the New York Times on his work and a full-color, lead story in the Star Ledger. He has appeared in 19 radio interviews, including with top news radio stations WCBS and WINS. He appeared in 27 television interviews. Perhaps the most impressive of his media appearances were in documentaries that explain the geology of the region. He was the chief scientific expert in two Discovery Channel documentaries entitled Sci Trek: New York Earthquake and Prehistoric: New York (the first of a series on the geology of the major cities across the United States). He was also a chief scientific expert in the award winning WNJN documentary The Highlands Rediscovered which was nationally released on public television. He also appeared on an MSNBC documentary on the 2011 earthquake in Japan.

In addition to numerous academic presentations, Alec has given 19 lectures to the general public on geoscience issues and testified on numerous topics from siting of pipelines to environmental issues and nuclear power-plant safety. He also wrote several books that bridge scholarly geoscience with public dissemination including a top selling Encyclopedia of Earthquakes and Volcanoes (four editions), a multiple award winning Encyclopedia of Pollution and a book of short biographies of famous geoscientists.

Alec Gates performed these and other acts of service to the public that have touched the lives of millions of people, and his efforts in attracting underrepresented minority students to the geosciences set the standard for the nation. It is for these reasons that he has received recognition from the Geological Society of America with the Public Service Award.

top2017 Public Service Award — Response by Alexander E. Gates

I am greatly honored to receive the 2017 Public Service Award from GSA and want to thank the Awards Committee for choosing me. I also want to thank David Valentino for nominating me for this honor and all of the people who wrote letters on my behalf. It is interesting how careers can evolve into unintended directions. When I began my career, I had no training in disseminating geoscience to the public nor any interest. I was only interested in scientific research. But opportunities arose that would allow me to engage the public in the wonders of geoscience, and I took them. Working next door to the Newark Museum and Science Director Ismael Calderon made collaborations convenient and allowed me to see the influence I could have on the public. Jeff Kidder introduced me to running large projects and to helping the youth of Newark, New Jersey. With time, my scientific research waned and my public service soared. Helping the public, the residents of New Jersey, and especially inner-city youth in geosciences has grown into my passion. Receiving an award for this rewarding work is just icing on the cake. Thank you for this honor.