Get to Know a Scientist Emeritus—William Cannon

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This is the eighth in a series of Get to Know posts highlighting and celebrating the contributions of exemplary Scientists Emeriti.  Their work, experience, and contributions are essential to the mission of the USGS. 

Bill Cannon has always been an amazingly productive and engaged USGS scientist, and his transition to emeritus eight years ago has not changed that one bit. Bill is most respected for his profound understanding of the geology of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the Midcontinent Rift. His knowledge of this region continues to be an invaluable resource that cannot be matched. This has been well demonstrated recently by his work on interpreting the geology revealed by the new aeromagnetic data from northeastern Iowa and the central Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This research has resulted in several co-authored publications, as well as a better understanding of the continental rifting that relates ~2.1 Ga rocks in Michigan to terranes in Wyoming.  

Even now during this trying time of the pandemic, Bill continues to look at thin sections of rock, preparing for future field work and research when those activities become possible again. His continued willingness to pursue science is invaluable to those younger scientists who are following along with him in his research.  

Tina Roberts-Ashby, PhD 
Center Director - Geology, Energy, and Minerals Science Center

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William Cannon Geologist Emeritus Hiking the back country of Isle Royale, MI

Hiking the back country of Isle Royale, Michigan. We were sampling soils on long, multiday treks through the wilderness area of the park. We tried to eat food as fast as we collected soils so that backpacks were not impossibly heavy.

What attracted or brought you to work for USGS in the first place? 

When I was finishing my dissertation in geology in 1967, I started looking for a job. Most people considered the USGS the number one place to work if you were a geologist, so I applied and when I got the offer I was both pleasantly surprised and honored, especially since hiring at the Survey was very restricted at that time. My first job was doing geophysical surveys and bedrock mapping in a field office in northern Michigan. I was one of three field geologists there doing field work  year round, including on snowshoes during the long winter months. I was only there for a year before they closed that field office and I moved to the D.C. area. I had never heard of a place called Reston back then.  

How long did you work at USGS before you retired and how long have you been an Emeritus? 

I worked at the USGS from 1967 until 2012. I have been an Emeritus since then, about 8 years. 

What was your last title/position at USGS before you retired and became an Emeritus? 

Geologist. 

What Science Center do you answer to as an Emeritus? 

Geology, Energy, and Minerals Science Center in Reston, Virginia. 

What are you most proud of during your career with the USGS?  

Most of my career has been centered on studying Precambrian rocks in the Lake Superior region. With the assistance of a large group of colleagues, we have made continuing refinements of understanding the geologic history and mineral resource potential of that region. I also have had the opportunity to branch out into quite different fields of research. In that regard, I am also proud of my research with Eric Force on the origins of sedimentary manganese deposits—our publication of this research got both national and international attention at the time and is still widely referenced—and I am proud that I was one of three people who oversaw a recent nationwide survey of soil geochemistry and mineralogy—The North American Soil Geochemical Landscapes Project. These products include  Geochemical and Mineralogical Maps, with Interpretation, for Soils of the Conterminous United States, and Geochemical and mineralogical data for soils of the conterminous United States. We sampled 5,813 sites across the country and generated maps and data for that report. With Federico Solano and Tiffani Schell, we determined the quantitative mineralogy of about 10,000 samples by x-ray diffraction. This was the first time that soil geochemistry was accompanied by quantitative mineralogic data on a national scale. 

This project was important to our stakeholders such as human health researchers who are concerned with potentially harmful contaminants in soils. We wanted to establish a new baseline for soil geochemistry across the country. It replaced an older 1970s survey that was outdated and had fewer test sites. 

William Cannon Geologist Emeritus sampling soil with Laurel Woodruff

With Laurel Woodruff, collecting soils at the last of 5,813 sample sites of the North American Geochemical Landscapes Project. This project mapped variations in soil chemistry in and mineralogy in three different soil horizons across the conterminous U.S.

What led you to decide to become an Emeritus? 

By the time I decided to retire, I had been at the Survey for 45 years, but my work still wasn’t done! I guess the more you do and the more things you contribute to the more you see that still needs doing. I decided to retire, in large part to care for an ailing family member that required frequent trips out of town. Being an Emeritus gave me the flexibility to continue work at the Survey and have the needed time to look after family matters. Before our current shutdown, I was going into the office almost every day for six to seven hours for my first seven years as an Emeritus. Now during the pandemic, I’m working from home a few hours a day. I’m still collaborating with other colleagues in Reston and Denver, doing online meetings to keep things going. Just a few weeks ago, I got permission to go into the office for four hours every Friday. TGIF has a whole new meaning now! “It’s Friday afternoon—I can go to work!” 

What exciting research or service activities are you currently working on, and what are you planning for the near future? 

I am currently focusing on completing manuscripts based on a new large geophysical survey of Precambrian rocks on the northern peninsula of Michigan, near to where I started my career. I have been collaborating with scientists in Denver to interpret the geology using these geophysical tools. I feel lucky that I was able to go back to my initial work area after so many years. I’m hoping not to prove too much of my earlier work wrong. The new aeromagnetic surveys are so much more detailed than our older data—new radiometric data is a big step forward that has helped us see and understand better the bedrock geology and its history. Still, there is lots of work to do. 

What do you enjoy and appreciate the most about being an Emeritus? 

The ability to have more flexibility and to work on the research I started 53 years ago now! The opportunity to continue that in my own schedule. I’m also grateful for the continued support from management that allows me to maintain an office and to have funds for travel to the field and meetings. I’m also grateful that my younger colleagues still seem to value my contributions and skill for their current projects. 

William Cannon Geologist Emeritus in the Brooks Range, Alaska

Sampling soils in the Brooks Range, Alaska. We completed a N-S transect across the state along the route of the Trans Alaska Pipeline as a pilot study for a broader study of soil geochemistry statewide. But, that still hasn’t happened.

What is your best advice for early and mid-career scientists?  

Be flexible. Over the years I’ve seen many new employees who thought that joining the Survey was a license to continue their PhD research for most of or all of their careers. It wasn’t true then and is even less true now. So, being flexible and eager to take on new roles and research will be important. Thinking back on my own career, I think I would have become deadly bored without the numerous twists and turns of my varied research opportunities. Embrace the possibility to work in a different field. It is fascinating, challenging, and stimulating to learn something new and to branch out in ways the organization needs. This can be taken too far, of course, and I see some young people today being stretched thin and working on too many different projects.  

If you could travel on a time machine to any era in time, what would it be and why? 

Based on my research, I would go back 2.1 billion years ago to the upper peninsula of Michigan and watch what is now part of Wyoming drift away. That’s my geologic answer, to go back and witness that process firsthand. 

Where did you travel last, domestically or internationally? 

My last trip was to California for Christmas in 2019 to get together with family. Before that, we did field work in northern Michigan. My wife and I also did a river cruise in France in the summer of 2019. We had a trip to Iceland cancelled this past summer as well as numerous family visits and professional field work and meetings. 

How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization? 

I have frequent discussions with a group of colleagues with like interests, including nearly daily coffee and lunch. We commonly discuss aspects of mutual research interest, new developments, and try out new ideas on each other. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by many creative thinkers so stimulating creativity is a very easy task.  

What is one characteristic that you believe every good research scientist should possess? 

Curiosity! Endurance! Patience—particularly these days.  

What resources or advice would you give someone going into a research position for the first time?   

I have a favorite quotation about research that I have passed on to younger audiences numerous times. It is by Isaac Asimov who stated: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ (I’ve found it!), but ‘That’s funny…’”.  So, look for the funny things. I’m sure they are still all over the place, and many probably in plain sight. Recognizing one could be the start of something outstanding. 

William Cannon Geologist Emeritus in the upper peninsula of Michigan

Explaining structures in a mylonite zone in Precambrian rocks in the upper peninsula of Michigan. “They went thataway”.

What advice would you give someone who is contemplating retirement and the life that follows? 

Stay busy with whatever you decide to do, whether being an Emeritus or through other activities and hobbies. Be aware that there’s a lot of hours in the day and you don’t want to spend too much time on your new hobby of staring blankly into space, so have something to retire into. 

How are you spending your time during the pandemic? 

I am working about three hours a day on geology stuff, background reading, writing papers, and keeping communication going with colleagues. I have been exercising a whole lot more, walking about three to four miles every day and I also do some indoor exercises. I am in the best physical shape that I have been in for many years. My wife and I have been taking a lot of online courses. I also spend time reading, relaxing, seeing local family in a responsible socially distanced mode.