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Get to Know a Scientist Emeritus—John Keith

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

John Keith has been an integral member of the Florence Bascom Geoscience Center since his retirement in 2008. John's invaluable and extensive institutional knowledge has helped me navigate the higher workings of the USGS as a newer science center director. He has also shared his broad scientific knowledge with our younger research scientists and has been able to mentor them in order to further the USGS mission. Thank you for all your work!

Christopher Bernhardt
Director, Florence Bascom Geoscience Center


John Keith
John Keith - Photo by Marianne Guffanti

What attracted or brought you to work for USGS in the first place?
During the summers of 1961 and 1963, I was hired as a field assistant by Hans Shacklette in the USGS Branch of Regional Geochemistry in Denver, CO. In 1966, I joined that branch full-time, and I worked there from 1966 to 1975, when I moved to Reston. Our projects were baseline geochemistry studies of large areas, focusing on the trace element content of rocks, soils, plants, and waters. For example, the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming was one of our major projects. We established the background landscape chemistry before coal mining occurred to provide a base of information for reclamation after strip mining was completed. During my ten years in that branch, we also did ecological studies of nuclear test sites for the Department of Defense—an especially interesting site was on Amchitka Island in the Aleutians.

How long did you work at USGS before you retired and how long have you been an Emeritus?
I was with USGS for 42 years and have been an Emeritus for 12 years.

What was your last title/position at USGS before you retired and became an Emeritus?
In the last 10 years before retiring, I was chief of the Branch of Geologic Publications for the Eastern Region, a unit which later became part of the Science Publishing Network (SPN). That assignment was very enjoyable because, in addition to working with great staff in my branch, I had the opportunity to learn about all the different types of research being done in the Survey. That job also included doing bureau approval (then called director’s approval) of all abstracts, USGS brand publications, and journal publications. I also coordinated responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for all three regions of the Geologic Division.

What science center do you answer to as an Emeritus?
I am an Emeritus with the Florence Bascom Geoscience Center in Reston, but I work with people in several different mission areas because of my previous association with their programs. As an Emeritus, I have done writing and editing for the Energy, Minerals, Geologic Mapping, and Geologic Hazards Programs, for the SPN, and for the Director’s Office.

What are you most proud of during your career with the USGS? OR describe a highlight of your career.
Before I was chief of Publications, I spent 10 years as the chief of the Visual Information Services Branch. We worked with scientists in all divisions to design and produce science exhibits, educational publications for schools, and special briefing exhibits for the annual budget hearing before Congress. This activity gave me a chance to learn a lot about principles of outreach to all types of audiences, especially to Congress.

Another really interesting assignment over a ten-year period was that of a speechwriter for Director Dallas Peck. This was, of course, a part-time job in addition to other duties. As Dallas was always concerned to fairly represent all three divisions, I had to work with various staff of all three in order to obtain the necessary information for the talks. He and I became good friends during this time, and I learned a lot about the politics of science from him. In addition, he was an accomplished gardener and taught me how to make great compost for my own garden.

A third highlight was the opportunity in 2007 to serve on the committee that planned and developed the USGS Fundamental Sciences Practices. When we started our work, the divisions all had different interpretations of research guidelines and rules. Our challenge was to coordinate and revise these concepts into a unified system for all programs.

What led you to decide to become an Emeritus?
It was a natural transition. I wanted to continue contributing to the Survey, and I wanted to spend time with my friends who were also serving as emeritus staff on a part-time basis. The joke among my lunch group is that now that I’m retired, I only come in five days a week. It’s still a great place to work, and I get a steady stream of requests for writing, editing, and reviewing of publications and other documents.

What exciting research or service activities are you currently working on, and what are you planning for the near future?
I am currently working mainly on service activities, although I’ve published papers too, mostly about Survey history and science policy. My main efforts are for the Geologic Division Retirees Association. Twice a year, we publish The Geologic Division Retirees Newsletter, for which I am the compiler and editor. Our goal is to record a lot of history that would otherwise be lost. The magazine features career histories, anecdotes, memorials, and recent publications of our members, many of whom are still doing research and publishing papers, some into their nineties.

I also help the SPN with writing chores and policy issues, such as contributing to the next edition of Suggestions to Authors in the publications style manual.

What do you enjoy and appreciate the most about being an Emeritus?
I like to keep up with current Survey science and the progress being made in many areas. In particular, I enjoy learning about the work of our climate researchers, and it is gratifying to see the excellent progress being made on that topic.

John Keith in superman costume
John Keith dressed for management challenges - Photo by Dave Usher

What type of mentoring or outreach activities do you currently undertake as an Emeritus?
I help young scientists with writing and editing papers. Also, as new people come in, they get instructed about administrative responsibilities, but we don’t tell them much about the history of accomplishments of the Survey. I’ve been able to pass on some of that history by making newcomers aware of USGS Circular 1274 – Celebrating 125 years of the U.S. Geological Survey.

One example of a major contribution from USGS of which many are unaware of is our work on the Alaska oil pipeline. USGS staff surveyed the entire pipeline route, taking into account permafrost, seismic, and other hazards and established design standards. These standards have allowed the pipeline to function for almost 50 years without damage. Another example is the work that USGS did to ensure that all the US nuclear power plants can resist earthquake shaking.

Have you had any great career mentors, and if so, what made them great?
Mentors have been really important to me because they gave me assignments that made me learn new skills and expand my knowledge. When Hans Shacklette originally hired me, he taught me about the ethics of research and the importance of clear writing and good communication. Bob Tilling, a retired volcanologist, who was my supervisor when I started as a staff scientist in Reston, had a great sense of humor, and despite the challenging eruptions of Mount Saint Helens we had a lot of fun. Dallas Peck helped me make the transition from research to staff and management roles, and he taught me an enormous amount about Survey operations.

Where did you travel last, domestically, or internationally?
There are a lot of good birders in the USGS, and I’ve been lucky to have those experts encourage me and help me to learn the US birds and those of other countries. The last birding trip I took was to the Borneo for three weeks last August. This was a spectacular trip for birds and botany. I’ve also been to Madagascar, Japan, several countries in South America, and Oman. Though these have been birding trips, I also try to learn about the geology and the plants of the countries I visit. I was supposed to travel to Bhutan recently, but that trip was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

What was the last (or favorite) book you read?
There are three favorites that I really recommend highly: A detective fiction series set in ancient Rome in 70 CE, called the Falco Series, by Lindsey Davis; How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill, the story of Irish monks who preserved classical history during the Dark Ages; and Gods, Graves, and Scholars by C. W. Ceram, about the history and archaeology of all major civilizations.

What is one characteristic that you believe every good research scientist should possess?
In the USGS, the ability to work as a member of a team is essential. While independent, creative thinking is fundamental to research, it is crucial that individuals work together to address significant scientific issues. The major contributions of the USGS came from people working in collaboration with others. The current climate research program is a prime example of successful teamwork, and long-term professional relationships of trust are the foundation of this collaborative science.

How are you spending your time during the pandemic?
I have spent over 30 years building an extensive collection of garden plants. There is an active group of experienced Survey gardeners here, and we enjoy trading plants and information. This spring my garden looks especially good since I am spending so much time at home during the pandemic.

Pansies and snapdragons in garden bed
Pansies and snapdragons in garden bed - Photo by John Keith

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