Geology professor Gastaldo reflects on his work and travels
“The more geology you see, the better geologist you become,” Whipple-Coddington Professor of Geology Robert Gastaldo said. In addition to teaching classes on Mayflower Hill, Gastaldo travels domestically and abroad multiple times each year to conduct fieldwork. According to Gastaldo, “No two places on earth have the same geology. If they did, Earth would be a boring place.”
Gastaldo grew up in New Jersey and attended Gettysburg College, where he received a degree in biology, and Southern Illinois University, where he earned his advanced degrees in geology.
“As a biology major, I studied plant fossils, but it was the interface between biology and geology and looking at ecosystems over time that brought me from the biological sciences to the geological sciences to understand the context of those fossils,” Gastaldo said.
Upon the completion of his graduate studies, Gastaldo moved to Alabama, where he taught at Auburn University for 21 years. He moved to Waterville in 1999 and has been teaching in the Geology Department on the Hill ever since. This year, Gastaldo’s classes include Extinction: Earth’s Lessons, The Record of Life on Earth, Sedimentation and Stratigraphy and Extinct South Africa, a JanPlan independent study in South Africa.
Gastaldo has been working in South Africa since 2003, when, along with a group from the Smithsonian, he began studying mass extinction along the Permo-Triassic boundary. He has returned there each year with geology students from the College. “I didn’t get to start travelling until I was an assistant professor. There is a big world out there, and it is very different than what we think about what the world should be,” Gastaldo said.
According to Gastaldo, travelling is important for academic purposes, but it is also crucial to providing a “completely different perspective on cultures and civilizations,” he said.
He recalled an unbelievable incident from when he was working in South Africa years ago. “A colleague of mine, who had been to the town where we were working before, knew of a tailor that made custom shirts,” Gastaldo said. “After we saw the shirts, we tried to order some but the tailor refused, saying that the government wanted to build a new road and was going to bulldoze his house without giving him compensation.”
Though such incidents are rare in the United States, “that’s the way the world works,” Gastaldo said. Therefore, opportunities for students to travel, such as with the Extinct South Africa class, give invaluable insight into cultural differences. According to Gastaldo, “Travelling provides students with a broader perspective on how the world is as opposed to how we think it is. It is a very important part of the liberal arts education.”