Forty-Two Years of Service to the USGS: Susan Russell-Robinson

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Associate Coordinator for the Coastal and Marine Geology Program, Susan Russell-Robinsonn retires after 42 years with the USGS.

This article is part of the January 2018 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

Susan Russell-Robinson retired in July 2016 after 42 years with the USGS. At the time she retired, Susan was the Associate Coordinator for the Coastal and Marine Geology Program, the last in a series of varying roles in which she served the agency.

Susan’s earliest experience with the USGS was in 1974. As a 20-year old who had excelled at field camp, she was selected as the first female summer field assistant for the USGS Boston office through the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT; see “USGS / NAGT Cooperative Field Training Program”) program. 

A woman crouches near rocks and is holding a rock hammer while smiling for the camera.

Susan Russell-Robinson doing field work at a devitrified silicic dome known as Mann Butte, Washington, in 1981. Photo credit: Jack Murata, USGS

A man and woman stand together having a discussion in 1979.

Susan Russell-Robinson with USGS Deputy Director Joe Cragwall at a National Archives exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of the USGS in 1979.

Susan returned to Bates College for her senior year and graduated with a B.S. in geology in 1975. After pondering different paths, she decided to work one more summer as an NAGT field assistant with the USGS. “That started a course I had not planned,” she said.

E-An Zen (a luminary in Appalachian geology) lined up seven interviews for Susan in fall 1975 at the recently opened National Center in Reston, Virginia. She did not take any of those positions, though all were offered to her. By a quirk of fate, when she first entered the National Center, she was introduced to Robert Leland Smith, a deaf USGS expert in ash-flow tuffs and obsidian hydration. 

“My childhood friends included three deaf sisters who communicated by lip reading, as Bob did,” said Susan, and so “Bob and I clicked immediately.” He hired her even though her background was in metamorphic petrology and glaciology.

At that time, the USGS had a philosophy that it could provide the best graduate training anywhere through on-the-job experience and intentional mentoring. Bob set aside every Thursday afternoon to discuss a paper he had assigned the week before. Not only did Susan learn about exciting volcanic issues, but she also learned about the people who conducted the studies, including amusing stories about field experiences or happenings at scientific meetings.

A man and a woman smile for the camera and they each have an arm around the other.

Susan Russell-Robinson with her mentor Robert (Bob) Leland Smith at a celebration of his Department of the Interior Distinguished Service Award in 1992.

Newspaper clipping showing a photo of a woman pointing at a photo to explain it.

Susan Russell-Robinson speaks to the media in April 1981 about USGS field activities on Mount St. Helens nearly a year after its catastrophic eruption of May 18, 1980. The clipping from the Oregon Journal is dated April 16, 1981.

In 1976 and ‘77, Bob and Susan developed a flexible work plan so she could attend a 1-year Master of Arts in Teaching program at George Washington University, designed for museum educators. Bob advised Susan to use the graduate program to fill gaps in her geology portfolio. She took his advice, and went on to work and publish in a wide range of areas, including geothermal energy assessment, geochemistry of silicic glasses, Cenozoic geology of the Cascade Range, heat capacity of minerals associated with potential nuclear waste-disposal sites, and hydrogen-gas monitoring of the Parkfield segment of the San Andreas fault. 

In 1980, the impending eruption of Mount St. Helens drew Susan into a newly formed job as an information scientist who would arrange press conferences, provide background for newspaper reporters, appear in television and on radio, and address civic groups like Rotary and Lions Clubs. She recalled: “I was the USGS expert ‘face’ for nearly a decade for many hazards, including disasters in the Philippines [and] Cameroon, and the Retsof Mine collapse” in New York State. 

In September 2007, Susan became the Associate Coordinator of the Coastal and Marine Geology Program. As her career evolved, she represented the USGS in many arenas—giving presentations at symposiums, colloquiums, regional meetings, and international conferences; providing briefings to Congress; and heading committees at the Department of the Interior, the National Academy of Sciences, and bi-national councils.

In 2017, after her retirement, Susan received the Department of the Interior’s Distinguished Service Award in recognition of her many contributions to the USGS as a research scientist, program staff scientist, and manager.

A smiling woman crouching down on a tile floor points to a fossil that is embedded within one of the tiles.

Susan Russell-Robinson points out a fossil ammonite in the limestone floor tiles of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. She was there for a tour and ceremony in which she and other members of DOI’s Ocean, Coasts and Great Lakes Activities team received the 2011 Secretary’s Partners in Conservation Award.

A woman and man stand together laughing and holding a certificate and a metal award in a fancy box

Susan receives a DOI Distinguished Service Award from John Haines, Acting Associate Director of the USGS Natural Hazards Mission Area, on October 3, 2017. John and Susan worked closely together as coordinator and associate coordinator, respectively, of the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program.


Seven men and women stand together, in front of flags on a stage, smiling for the camera and holding awards.

In May 2016, Susan Russell-Robinson (Associate Coordinator of the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program, third from right) and Dave Applegate (USGS Associate Director for Natural Hazards, left) celebrated with the team whose website “USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program” received the USGS 2016 Shoemaker Award for Communication Excellence in the internet product category: (from right to left) Laura Torresan, Greg Miller, Susan, Jolene Gittens, Ann Tihansky, Andrea Toran, and Dave.

Regarding her wide-ranging accomplishments, Susan wrote: “I am most grateful for my mentor—Bob Smith—who saw my potential and took the time and interest to teach me and propel me into activities that challenged me to plan, observe, collect, evaluate, synthesize, and write for publication. Then again, Bob mentored as he was mentored. He seized the same opportunities afforded him to become an international expert in explosive volcanism…and only the second American geologist to be awarded a fellow with the British Royal Society.”

Like Bob, Susan mentored as she was mentored, inspiring younger scientists at the USGS.

“Susan’s support helped many Coastal and Marine Geology employees understand their contributions in a broader context,” said Nadine Golden, acting associate director of the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center. “Her encouragement motivated them to have confidence in their work and to forge ahead with innovative activities.”

The gratitude goes both ways. In one of her parting emails to employees in the Coastal and Marine Geology Program, Susan wrote: “I love working with all of you. You are smart, curious, dedicated, enthusiastic and sometimes downright geeky. You are excited about the work you do and eager to improve your ‘bag of tricks’ so the impact of your efforts truly benefit the American people and the Nation as a whole. Each time I interact with you, my commitment increases, my enthusiasm grows, and my day is made brighter. Thank you!”

Our thanks to you, Susan!


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Date published: January 31, 2018

DOI’s Highest Award Given to Susan Russell-Robinson, Former Associate Program Coordinator for Coastal and Marine Geology

On October 3, 2017, Susan L. Russell-Robinson was presented with the Department of the Interior’s Distinguished Service Award.