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February 16, 2024

Growing up beneath the towering steel structures of Chicago, Ric Wilson was fascinated with how things worked.   

He enjoyed sketching their art-deco forms and contemplating how they came to be through blend of pragmatic art and engineering. So much so, that when he enrolled at Michigan Technical University in Houghton, Michigan, he was set on graduating as a civil engineer and go on to become an architect.  

Or so he thought.  

“It was orientation week, and there was a requirement to sit in on at least two other major’s orientations. I went to Forestry and Geology because I didn’t know what they were, and thought they sounded interesting,” said Wilson, who has a doctorate in geology and USGS research geologist at the Alaska Science Center in Anchorage, Alaska. “The first class as a Civil Engineering major was Principles of Geology. That was it for me. I changed majors right away and I’ve been on this path ever since.” 

According to Wilson, the curriculum was grueling, and the standards sometimes seemed impossible. With the addition of being one of about 10 Black students on a campus of over 4,000, he knew his work was cut out for him while he studied economic geology and the mining and oil industry.  

“My father a World War II veteran who trained at the Tuskegee Airfield. He set high standards for my siblings and me and taught us to never settle for where we were,” said Wilson. “I was up for the challenge.”  

Wilson graduated with Bachelor of Science in Geology after four years in 1971, but at the height of Vietnam War and with his low number still rotating through the draft lottery, he wasn’t sure he would ever work as a geologist.  

Fortunately, the call never came, and Wilson took a job at a major oil company in New Orleans, Louisiana.  

“I quickly realized I had no business in corporate America, or in that area,” he said. “It was not the right for me.”  

Wilson took an opportunity of educational leave to pursue his master’s at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Alaska; an opportunity that would cement his professional fate.    

 “I didn’t realize it then, but Alaska would become my home,” he said.   

 “The department wanted to hire every Black geologist in the country who was working on a master’s degree,” said Wilson. “There were eight of us at the time, and five of us joined.”  

Wilson said his expectation of the internship was to work for a year, and hopefully end up with a few publications. Impressed with his work, the USGS Alaska Branch hired him as an intermittent employee and offered to back Wilson’s Ph.D. studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, so long as he would continue his research in Alaska.  

Over the years that followed, Wilson would crisscross the nation between California, New Hampshire, Alaska, and Chicago to visit family. 

In 1980, with his doctorate in hand and now a permanent USGS employee, it was determined he would take move to Anchorage, Alaska to build a laboratory for Potassium-Argon dating; a radiometric dating method used to determine the age of rocks by measuring the radioactive decay product of potassium within the minerals of the rocks.  

Wilson and an assistant would literally build the Argon Extraction Lab themselves.  

“We had to consider in the design of the lab that whatever we built, we would have to be able to fix ourselves. We did all of our own framework, plumbing, electrical installation, and glass blowing,” he said. “Of course, we knew we would be in a technologically-isolated location, so we wouldn’t have the technical support the labs in California had. The lab was unique in some respects, but we were incredibly productive.”  

For the next several years, Wilson and his team would process samples sent in from around the state, and even samples from Turkey and Bolivia.  

Wilson was brought into several projects within the Alaska Mineral Resource Assessment Program (AMRAP).  

The USGS would send teams out to map the geology of the parts of the state and develop a mineral resource assessment. Wilson would join field parties to collect samples for dating and with time, ultimately led several of the AMRAP mapping projects.  

This would turn into a two decades-long project to map the entire state of Alaska’s geology that would become the first of its kind fully digital state map.  

The Geologic Map of Alaska, published in 2015, reflects more than a century of geologic mapping and illustrates context for the state’s mineral and energy resources.  

“This was an absolute passion project for me,” said Wilson. “Initially we thought it would take about ten years, but it took 20, and I’m proud to say I was there every step of the way.”  

The digital geologic map is not just a picture of geologic units around the state, Wilson said. It’s a database that serves as the foundation for generations of future scientists to begin their work and further understanding of how the planet works.  

Map of Alaska with multiple colors throughout the state representative areas of different geology.

The work completed in Alaska paved the way for Wilson to contribute to a geologic mapping project of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean Sea.  

“It still amazes me how often the Alaska database is utilized,” said Wilson, who noted the metrics indicate more than 200 downloads a month years after it original release.  

Remembering back to 1973, Wilson said he never imagined how his interest in the unknown would bring him to the Alaskan frontier. Nor how an initial two-year Master’s degree adventure would lead him to bridging generations of pioneers in earth sciences.  

“If I could speak to my younger self, I would say, ‘leave yourself open to whatever could happen. And go for the challenges; don’t doubt yourself.”  

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