On November 11, 2009 I met with School of Earth Sciences Dean Pamela Matson. Dean Matson has a PhD in forest science and her expertise is in biogeochemistry. She studies how nutrient elements like nitrogen move from plants, to soil, to water, and to the atmosphere. She is also interested in what happens to nitrogen and carbon when forests are damaged or cut down, and what happens to nutrients in agriculture. Dean Matson worked as a research scientist for ten years at NASA Ames. During those ten years she worked in many locations including the Amazon Basin and Central America. In 1992 she moved to Berkeley as a professor and stayed there for five years after which she moved to Stanford. In 2002, Matson became Dean of the School of Earth Sciences when she was asked to by the Provost.
A little history about the School is that it was first officially started in the 1940s but its departments have been around for longer. The first PhD awarded by Stanford was in geology. The School is small compared to the School of Humanities and Science or Engineering. There are four departments and three interdisciplinary programs. The vision of the School is to carry out research to understand how the planet works and to use that knowledge to provide energy and resources that people need to make the planet safe and sustainable. Many of the School’s faculty works on energy and environmental issues.
In the early days the focus of the School was on mining but over time the focus has changed to fossil fuel and water resources. Today, many of the faculty and students in the School focus on topics like energy resources, water, earthquakes and volcanoes, and climate and resource sustainability. The area of Earth systems science, encompassing oceans, the atmosphere, land and climate, is growing.
Right now there is a growing student interest in the topics that the School of Earth Sciences studies, because the world is facing huge challenges in terms of meeting the needs of people for food and water. Another big challenge is protecting the climate and environmental systems. Dean Matson notes that the School is well positioned to tackle these problems, as are the students in the school.
As Dean, Matson works to connect the School with the broader university and helps School staff, faculty, and students accomplish their goals. She and the faculty have set some goals for the School and she works to see that they are accomplished. She also serves on the President’s cabinet and works with them to set the academic direction of the University. Dean Matson is teaching a class in winter on urban agriculture and she still does a little research. She spends lots of time working with the department chairs, interdisciplinary program directors, and associate deans on making decisions about academic programs, space issues, financial issues, and external relations with alumni.
When I briefed Dean Matson on the Spring Sustainability Symposium the ASSU Executive is planning, she made an extremely valuable comment, which was to not just focus on engineering inventions when talking about new developments that will change the world but to also remember developments that will come from other disciplines like economists developing a carbon credits system and the Natural Capital Project http://www.naturalcapitalproject.org.