Geoscience for Everyone Day-Interview with Dr. Bernard Hubbard

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On Geosciences for Everyone Day, we wanted to introduce one of our leading remote sensing specialists, Dr. Bernard Hubbard. Dr. Hubbard analyzes rocks and minerals using sophisticated and high-tech equipment to look for important materials that we use in our everyday lives.

Earlier this week, we shared some of the work he’s currently involved in. In this piece, we’ll get to know a bit of Dr. Hubbard’s path to his current career and what advice he has, both for agencies seeking to encourage students in the Earth Sciences, and for those students themselves.

Let’s start with the beginning. What got you interested in the Earth Sciences?

My interest in the Earth Sciences actually began with my interest in other planets. When I was 5 years old, I used to watch a lot of public access television, and the one program that hit me the hardest was called Cosmos, featuring the late Carl Sagan. He got me thinking about what things were like on other worlds. I mean, I was very interested in knowing that there are volcanoes on Mars, even if they might or might not be active anymore. That got me thinking about comparing other planets to our own Earth, which in turn got me thinking about looking at Earth as a planet from space. From there, it made sense to get into remote sensing.

What was it like being a student in the Earth Sciences? Did you start in high school or college?

Well, it’s funny, my high school didn’t really offer Earth Sciences, but I was fortunate in that my high school was located on the campus of the City University of New York, so my senior year, I was able to take some geology and other Earth Sciences courses. After that, I was hooked, I definitely knew I was going to be a geologist or some other scientist.

After undergraduate, I went on to get a Master and PhD, and my PhD work was in volcano hazards, looking at both hydrothermal rock alteration on active and inactive volcanoes and the resulting downstream lahar hazards from these same volcanoes. It was that PhD project that led me to the USGS, where I entered as a post-doc. The post-doc was funded by NASA, which is funny, since it brought me full circle to studying volcanoes on a terrestrial planet using NASA data. In this case these are volcanoes on our own planet, not on Mars or Venus.

Did you have any heroes or mentors in school or at the USGS?

I did have some people I looked up to, like Carl Sagan still. I even had the opportunity to take a class with him during college, so I got to meet the man in person. It was really nice. At USGS, I’ve had a few mentors throughout the years, probably too many to mention all of them. One of them, the scientist who hired me into the USGS, was James Crowley. I met him at an NASA hosted conference on the AVIRIS airborne hyperspectral instrument. In fact, he was the one who first turned me on to what would ultimately become my PhD dissertation topic, mapping hydrothermally altered rocks on volcanoes. He corresponded with me throughout my PhD project and, once I got my PhD, he worked hard to bring me onboard with the USGS. I’ve also had very supportive center directors, who have given me the tools and resources I need to succeed, and I’ve been blessed with supportive colleagues. One of them, John Mars, he has also been a great mentor to me throughout the years.

Another mentor I’ve had is the now scientist-emeritus Harvey Belkin. He’s shared a lot of his own “institutional memories” of the USGS with me and helped me learn about the great scientists and trailblazers that have come before me. He’s really helped me come to understand how important that perspective is on where we’ve been so it can inform where we’re going.

A man with a laptop stands amongst lines of crops in a farm

USGS scientist Bernard Hubbard conducting spectral measurements of soils and cover crops to ground truth satellite imagery being used to map soil erosion and runoff potential into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. (Public domain.)

Your story with James Crowley is a good lead-in. How can the USGS and other Earth Science Institutions encourage and support students, especially minority and under-represented students?

At the USGS, we have some programs that are designed to bring students onboard, but it really takes key people reaching out and identifying talented students and encouraging and supporting them throughout their educational careers. If you want minority and underrepresented students to look at the USGS as a place to consider working, you first need to help those students even realize and embrace the Earth Science fields. And that takes representation. Students of color need to see people that look like themselves working in fields that maybe they never thought about or could give a second look at.

Another thing that I think the USGS in particular could consider is re-examining its focus on emphasizing hiring scientists with PhDs. Though I have a PhD, I do not believe that you need to have one to be able to do great science. Many of my colleagues at the USGS do not have PhDs, including the science and technical fields, but also the science support positions like communications and administration, and they all contribute greatly to the mission of the agency.

Even in the science fields that do benefit from having PhD scientists, one thing I think we could consider is bringing early career scientists on at entry levels and support them as they develop. Some scientists I know at the USGS who have PhDs entered the USGS before they had their PhD and their work is what inspired them to seek out the PhD.

And that also brings up that it’s important for the agency to support its scientists of color not just at the outset, but throughout their careers.

Speaking of visibility, what kinds of USGS scientist of color have been visible to you?

Oh there have been a great many trailblazers at the USGS. I’ve included some slides below for some scientists, but we have many others. There are African-American USGS scientists like Waverly Person, Roland Henderson (a mathematical geophysicist active in the 1970s), Earl Brooks, William J. Jones, Roxanne Lamb, Marilyn Suiter, Natalie S. Tyson, Floyd Gray, Frederic H. Wilson (yes there is a second one not to be confused with the one highlighted below) and Rufus Catchings have all set wonderful examples of what we can accomplish in the Earth Sciences and during their careers at the USGS. And there continue to be many more minority or under-represented scientists at the USGS whose stories and accomplishments need to be told and highlighted.

Finally, do you have any advice for students that may be interested in the Earth Sciences?

Earth Science is such a broad field that goes beyond just mapping rocks. For example, we have folks who do geology in the field, but also who look at the world from thousands of feet up via satellite, who map the planet’s features using sophisticated computer programs called GIS, who even create vast numerical models for how the world works. So just study what you like. If it interests you, there is a niche in the Earth Sciences where you’ll fit.

People tend to think geology and other Earth Sciences are only about going out in the field and poking at rocks. And while that’s true for some, I don’t do much field work at all, and when I do, it’s to ground-truth my remote sensing work. So find what you love, find what can motivate you, and you’ll be able to find a spot for yourself in the Earth Sciences. It’s one of the best places for solving the problems we face while living on a dynamic planet.

This interview has been edited for content and length.

Some highlights of USGS scientists of color throughout history.