Earth and Environmental Science Professor Bob Giegengack has fulfilled a boyhood dream of visiting exotic locales from the Sahara to the Antarctic and has earned the admiration and affection of a generation of students. He cautions today’s young academics not to follow in his footsteps.
By John Prendergast | Photography by Bill Cramer
The crowd milling around the first floor of Hayden Hall paused from its continental-breakfast eating and turned toward the balding man who had climbed onto a wooden chair by the doorway.
“HEY!!!” he shouted again. “This way!”
He pointed emphatically, thrusting both arms outward, across Smith Walk toward the Towne Building, where the opening session of the celebration marking the 25th anniversary of Penn’s environmental studies undergraduate major was supposed to be starting. Held last April 30, the event attracted more than 100 faculty members, alumni and current students to share their research and career histories and to pay tribute to the man directing traffic: Dr. Robert F. Giegengack, chair of the department of earth and environmental science (formerly geology) and director of the environmental studies program since its founding—a “Gieg fest or Gieg roast,” was the way Dr. Richard Beeman, professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, put it. (Most everyone calls Giegengack “Gieg,” and especially students; he answers the phone with a clipped “Gieg here.”)
“For the people who didn’t recognize me,” Giegengack said, when the crowd had filed into the lecture hall, a few still munching croissants and drinking coffee, “I traded my hair for eyeglasses.”
Dr. Samuel Preston, the Frederick J. Warren Professor of Demography and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, who presented Giegengack with a certificate congratulating him for founding the environmental studies program and a National Geographic Atlas of the World, called him the “force of nature” behind the program. Beeman, who has known Giegengack for 30 years, described him somewhat more vividly as “a total pain in the ass” to him and previous deans, always “clamoring for more, more, more for his department and program.”
Which he meant in a good way—for the most part.
“I’ve watched Gieg in action for all those years—and he’s been a highly visible force to observe—and I think he’s been watching me,” says Beeman, in an interview in his Logan Hall office. “He’s been making fun of me, and I’ve been making fun of him.”
Giegengack is prominent among a relative handful of faculty members—”the usual suspects,” Beeman calls them —who can be counted on “to serve selflessly and creatively in almost any project aimed at improving undergraduate education,” he says. “Whether it’s been his involvement with the general honors program, the development of the environmental studies major or just being there all the time for students. He’s the kind of guy who at graduation time will come up to a student’s parents and give them a hug and say nice things. This is a nurturer par excellence.” Beeman’s daughter, who minored in environmental studies at Penn, “is one of the hundreds of devoted Bob Giegengack fan-club members,” he adds.
University administrators wishing to join the club are advised to have thick skins, however. “This is an area in which Bob’s and my relationship has been interesting because we are, I think, genuinely dear friends and mutual admirers—but for much of the past 10 years, I have been the administration,” Beeman says. “Part of Bob’s career has been being a gadfly, but it’s more than [that]. I think he really has felt that much of what he has accomplished has been in spite of administrators—and, indeed, he personally and the programs he has created have not always been as well and enthusiastically supported as they deserved to be. So what he has achieved—which is substantial—has often been achieved by dedication well above the call of duty.”
At the same time, Giegengack “almost revels, or wallows, in a sense of aggrievement about the administration.” Beeman traces this back to an incident from the mid-1980s, “one of the formative events of Bob’s life,” when then-Provost Thomas Ehrlich decided to “give a big chunk” of Hayden Hall, the geology department’s home, to the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Bob fought this tooth and nail and was defeated. He has never forgotten it,” Beeman says.
To this day, when Giegengack sees him wearing a bowtie (which Beeman almost always does), he accuses him of trying to look like Ehrlich, who also wore bowties. “This has become a standing joke, so at some level he’s conscious of it,” Beeman says, but it’s an indication that “There are some rivers that run deep” there. (Corroborating evidence: When, interviewing Giegengack in his office this fall, I remind him of Beeman’s “pain in the ass” comment from the anniversary celebration he gets up from his desk and returns a moment later with some yellowing copies of Almanac, the University’s journal of record, detailing the space controversy.)
“In that sense,” Beeman continues, “I wouldn’t say he’s his own worst enemy because there’s so much obvious good there, but there are some occasions when he makes it more difficult for himself than he needs to.” He laughs. “Not every administrator responds as genially as I do to this kind of anti-administration bent.”
“The Earth is Not Known”
Beeman and Giegengack were nearly brand-new assistant professors at Penn when the first Earth Day in 1970 launched the modern environmental movement and helped spark development of an environmental studies undergraduate major at Penn (the 25th anniversary marked the graduation of the first crop of majors in 1974 rather than the program’s founding). Giegengack arrived at the University in 1968, after having earned his doctorate at Yale University, where he’d also gone as an undergraduate. In between, he picked up a master’s degree from the University of Colorado. Though born in Brooklyn, he grew up mostly in New Haven, and entered Yale planning on majoring in civil engineering. Fairly quickly, though, he found himself impatient with the field’s heavy emphasis on “hard-nosed” calculations—”I wanted to build things,” he says—and that dissatisfaction showed in his grades.
Giegengack describes his discovery of his chosen field in epiphanic terms. Taking him aside for a stern chat about his poor academic performance, the dean of engineering told him, “Take geology!” and Giegengack dutifully signed up at the beginning of his sophomore year. (“Those were the days, if a dean told you to do something, you did it.”)
“I used to read all this literature of first-person exploration sagas—the people who first discovered islands in the South Pacific and Humboldt’s travels in South America and Marco Polo—and I always figured I was born a couple of hundred years too late, because the whole world had been discovered,” Giegengack recalls. “So I walked into this beginning geology course, and the guy said, ‘The earth is not known.’ He said, ‘There are vast problems awaiting discovery: Yeah, we know a little bit about the geography, but we have no idea what makes it work. We have no idea what’s under the ocean—there are vast continents that have never been explored. It’s been explored by the geographers, but the earth scientists are just beginning to explore it.’ So, I was hooked.”
As a scholarship student at Yale, Giegengack was able to borrow class textbooks from the library. Not this time, though. “It was the first book I bought, because I didn’t want to give it back. I went home that night and read it, and in the morning I went to the dean’s office and got out of civil engineering and decided I would do geology,” he says.
While studying for his doctorate, Giegengack worked in the Sahara with a group “undertaking to salvage the monuments of Nubia” in an area soon to be flooded by construction of the Aswan Dam; they needed a geologist to “help them reconstruct the environments in which these people lived and assign ages to the rocks from which the artifacts came,” he says. “A big piece of my work has continued to be a study of climatic change in the Sahara.”
But after the 1967 war in the Middle East, there was a long period when he couldn’t get permits to work in the Sahara. He then began doing work in the Andes mountains in South America, “studying the relationship of climate change to the uplift of the mountain range.” With Dr. Gomaa Omar, research assistant professor of earth and environmental science, Giegengack has also worked to refine tools to determine the age of rocks by measuring radiation damage since the minerals were first formed. “They contain uranium, and as the uranium undergoes decay it does damage to the rocks,” he explains. By relating the damage to the temperature history of the rock, it is possible to reconstruct the age of events and the temperatures that prevailed. “Since the Earth gets hotter as you go down, we can reconstruct the rate of uplift of mountain ranges.”
The two are also using the technique to date meteorite-impact structures. About 175 of these craters have been identified, mostly in North America, Europe and Australia, “where [there are] people with the leisure to look for these things, because the rest of the world thinks it’s pretty foolish,” he says, but it’s estimated that there are about 2,000 craters over the whole earth, including the ocean, the oldest of which is about 1.8 billion years old. “That comes out to a crater every million years, and those impact events are civilization-ending events,” he says. “So if an object big enough to make one of those craters hit the ocean today, the resulting tidal wave would probably eliminate a fifth of the world’s population.”
He acknowledges that, for most people, “If you say there’s one event every million years that’s sufficiently remote that they ignore it, but it could be tomorrow—so it does behoove us to know a little bit more about it,” he says. For instance, while the placement of the craters appears to be random, it’s not known whether the impacts were spread randomly over time. “When one of these meteors strikes the Earth’s surface, it produces a shock wave that heats the rock instantaneously to very high temperatures”; this “heals” the radiation damage sustained by the rocks since they were deposited. “If we find that the age of these rocks is younger than what we know was the age in which they formed, it’s fairly easy to conclude that the clock has been reset by the meteor’s impact.”
Progress has been slow so far due to lack of funding. “Even NSF [the National Science Foundation] thinks it’s a little bit flaky,” Giegengack admits. Characterizing the frequency of the impacts to date would help calculate the risk of the next one—which is not merely an academic exercise, he adds. “There does seem to be some potential that the world could muster enough international cooperation to possibly deflect one of these objects a couple of orbits before they hit if we do the work to identify their orbits,” he says. (He hasn’t see the killer-asteroid movies of a few years back. “I saw one a long time ago,” he adds politely.)
Aside from an abiding concern with the history of climate change “I haven’t really had a crisp focus of the things I’m interested in, so I haven’t clawed my way to the top of a heap of people who all play the same game and ask the same kinds of questions,” Giegengack says. “One of the reasons I became a geologist is because it was endlessly interesting and there were all these different things to do. So people who look at my list of publications say, ‘What the hell are you doing? Where’s your focus?’ and I have to say there isn’t one; it’s just whatever at the moment turns out to be interesting,” he says.
This is not a career approach he would recommend to any current assistant professor. “I wouldn’t, because they’d get screwed,” he says.
“It sounded like fun”
The same thing goes for doing something like, say, heading an environmental studies program. “It’s an enormous energy sink” that would keep anyone away from the work that typically leads to tenure, Giegengack says. “Because Penn gives you no credit for being effective in the classroom. They’re trying to change that, but it’s not happening very rapidly.”
As Giegengack tells the story, his involvement with the program came about in large part by happenstance. Environmental studies programs were being established at other schools in a variety of departments—civil engineering, ecology, geography and others. At Penn, then-Dean of the College William Stevens seized on the growing student demand as a way of revitalizing the geology department, which Giegengack describes as “moribund” at the time. As the faculty member whose interests were most related to environmental studies, the young assistant professor was approached by the department chairman to convene a committee to develop the major. Thinking that “it sounded like fun,” he agreed.
One stipulation in designing a curriculum was that no new resources would be available; required courses and faculty to teach them had to come from established departments. As a result, environmental studies at Penn became a pioneer interdisciplinary program. The major the committee came up with required 15 course units: five core courses in environmental studies, offered through the geology department, and the rest in a concentration in another field. A senior thesis would show the connection between the environmental perspective and the concentration.
The program debuted in 1972, and more than 300 majors have graduated overall. With minor fluctuations over the years, enrollment has grown steadily and is now in the neighborhood of 30-35 students, which puts it in the upper half of all departments in the School of Arts and Sciences. (On the other hand, Giegengack notes, earth and environmental science is among the smallest SAS departments, with only seven faculty members.)
New courses have been added over time, but the basic configuration of the major hasn’t changed since Giegengack taught Introduction to Environmental Analysis for the first time 27 years ago. In that course, originally ENVS 300, now ENVS 200, “We talk about how the world worked before we started to muck around with it,” Giegengack says—though, for someone whose program was founded in the wake of Earth Day, he has a fairly jaundiced view of environmental activism. The students “all want to know about where they can carry their picket signs and those bad guys in the military-industrial complex,” he says. “But I want them to understand that these questions are enormously complex before I turn them loose to become activists. I think Environmental Studies 200 disabuses a lot of them of the notion that these are simply issues of good guys vs. bad guys.”
After ENVS 200, “everybody who is still interested” takes a case-studies course, in which a variety of environmental problems are reviewed and each student gives an oral presentation on a case study of his or her choice. Majors must also take a senior seminar, which shows how “a whole bunch of different specialties” approach a particular environmental problem—”which is really the only effective way to get at these things now because there’s so much to know about the different specialties,” Giegengack says. One such seminar has looked at the impact of lead poisoning on pediatric health; students worked with children at Shaw and Turner middle schools in West Philadelphia to evaluate lead exposure in the surrounding neighborhoods. A similar course focusing on the health and environmental impacts of smoking is planned for the spring 2000 semester.
While there was initially some thought about restricting the concentrations that could be combined with environmental studies, “even then I thought I knew enough to insist that we shouldn’t do that,” says Giegengack. This view was confirmed “way early in the program” by a senior thesis on environmental studies and religion that compared the views toward the environment espoused by the Judeo-Christian ethic and the Koran. “The [Bible] says multiply and subdue the Earth, but the Koran—which was the book of wisdom of a desert religion which had to survive under desperate straits—had a different attitude and said, ‘Allah made the world the way he wants it to be, and we shouldn’t muck around with it,’” Giegengack recalls. “When I read this young man’s senior thesis I saw things about my career of working in the Middle East I hadn’t appreciated before—so the students have persuaded me that there’s no narrow range of disciplines that ought to be considered environmental studies, to the exclusion of others. Virtually every major in the College by now has served as a concentration for somebody who has graduated in environmental studies.”
Peggy Hanefors, a senior in the program with a concentration in communications, is working on a thesis that examines the impact of grassroots campaigns and local and national opinion on the process by which national recreation areas and national parks are designated, concentrating on four areas in different regions of the country. She says she was drawn to environmental studies by the diversity of students in the major. “Because only five of my 15 classes in the major are actually in the environmental studies department, I learn a lot from my fellow classmates,” she says. “We all bring very different perspectives and concerns to the table. I’m the only student with a communications concentration this year, so my expertise is very different from that of most other students who have concentrations in the sciences.”
Hanefors, who says her “dream job” after graduation would be to work on an environmental emergency-response team for large disasters but has “no clue” what her ultimate career will be, credits Giegengack with making “students aware of what is out there. He may not teach you about all the specifics, but when the day is over your mind is opened. He gets his students to at least try, even though a task may seem especially daunting.”
In the classroom, “He always has a new story to tell. It might be about driving Land Rovers across the Sahara—several times—or about his latest dig for fossils in Wyoming,” she says. “I think that when most Penn students hear about the word environment, they think about people who sit in trees for two years. Gieg makes sure that he teaches people to be environmental analysts first, and activism, if the interest is there, comes second. We always have to know how we can apply what we just have learned to the real world.”
Besides their coursework, majors are encouraged to gain practical experience, through internships with environmental consultants, regulatory agencies and law firms, or through several off-campus field programs that operate around the world. Giegengack is a great believer in the broadening effect of experiencing other cultures; over the years a number of students in the program have joined the Peace Corps, for example, with his encouragement and guidance.
“Having spent a number of years in Egypt as a very young person and learning to make my way around the desert in the company of people who only spoke Arabic, I realized later what an enormously important period of my growth that experience represented,” he says. “The Peace Corps offers that opportunity to people graduating from college—to go to exciting places and do extremely useful work and sort of find their feet.” Not incidentally, students may also “come to some understanding of how privileged they’ve been growing up [compared to] the folks they work with,” learning, for instance, that “half the world practices the profession of subsistence hoeing,” says Giegengack. “You don’t learn that any other way than by going to those places and seeing them.”
“These silly little stories”
On a day in early November, Giegengack stands before a nearly full house in Heilmeier Hall in the Towne Building—as it happens, the same room in which the 25th anniversary celebration was held last spring. A few minutes past the nominal starting time of 10:30, a girl rushes in and, surprised the class hasn’t begun yet, says, to no one in particular. “Guess who’s early to this class? I’m never early.”
“You guys are getting more and more straggly,” Giegengack warns, while photocopies of a map of the Earth are passed from hand to hand. Today’s lecture focuses on earthquakes and volcanoes, but focus is a loose term in a Giegengack presentation. (Beeman describes his colleague’s lecture style variously as “brilliant,” “outrageous” and “all over the goddamned map.”) While tracing fault lines and mountain ranges and explaining how to read a seismograph, he also weaves in the story of a Princeton University geology professor and World War II destroyer-captain named Harry Hess; the fact that geologists love to stick their hammers into the slow-flowing lava of a volcano in Hawaii; and a passing reference to his experience “taking ticks off camels” for the Office of Naval Research, which he promises to explain “later in the term.”
A few students barely look up from their copies of the DP, but most follow along with apparent attention, scratching at their handout as Giegengack draws on the overhead version of the map with a series of colored markers: blue for shallow earthquakes, red for deep earthquakes, green for oceanic lavas, black for continental lavas. “These patterns are trying to tell us something about what makes the Earth work—on a giant scale,” he says.
Like his own first geology teacher, Giegengack makes a point of emphasizing how recent our knowledge of the Earth is. For example, before sonar was developed during World War II, the only way to investigate the depth of the ocean was to drop a weighted line off a ship; it was assumed that the ocean floor was an “abyssal plain.” Not until the 1950s was the “biggest feature on Earth” recognized—a mountain range mostly under water that circles the planet “like the seams on a baseball,” Giegengack tells the students.
“There are 170 people in [that] class, and 70 of them are interested and 100 just want to get the science requirement behind them,” Giegengack says later, in his cluttered office. “Now, some of those  surprise themselves and decide it’s interesting; some of the 70 who are interested decide they don’t want it anymore.
“I’m really talking to the people who are going to have a long-term interest in this kind of thing. I don’t know if I still have the energy to rise to the challenge of forcing someone to be interested in something,” Giegengack says—though, judging from his performance, he certainly seems up to it. He hopes that everyone, at least, will “recognize that there is something of interest and something of importance and maybe they’ll remember some small part of it. And one of the things I’ve learned that they are most likely to remember are these silly little stories.”
(Speaking of which, Harry Hess made major discoveries about the varied topography of the ocean floor while nominally using his destroyer’s sonar equipment to patrol for German submarines off the Atlantic Coast—then made some more when he convinced his military superiors to send him to the Pacific. In 1960, in Giegengack’s telling, Hess wrote a paper that “revolutionized the way we look at earth science”; the editors of the American Journal of Science at Yale thought it was “crap,” but published it anyway, with a disclaimer, because Hess was so prominent in the field.)
Besides the 200 course, Giegengack generally teaches the two-semester senior-thesis course, which meets once a week in his office. “I work on both ends of the alimentary canal: I like to catch them when they come in, and I like to launch them when they go out,” he says.
Besides discussing students’ progress on their theses, the class time is also used to talk about post-graduation plans. “By the time the senior year is over, anyone who cares about their post-graduate placement is placed,” Giegengack says. “We get them into grad school by March or April, and they have jobs by the summertime.”
After graduation, about half of the environmental studies majors immediately go on to graduate school—the largest single group to programs in ecology—and half of the rest eventually do, too, Giegengack says. Among the alumni speakers at the 25th anniversary were several who had gone on to careers in academe. One, Dr. Andrew J. Friedland C’81 Gr’85, now a professor of environmental science at Dartmouth College, who helped found a program there partly modeled on Penn’s, credited taking ENVS 300 as one of the “turning points” in his choice of career, along with helping to clean up a swamp when he was in the fifth grade. Other speakers included an EPA administrator, a lawyer who specialized in litigation against insurance companies seeking coverage for environmental damage, a financial analyst who works on models for siting power plants, the head of a state office of environmental affairs and an attorney for a mining company.
“No Heir Apparent”
A few years back, the environmental studies program undertook a self-study in which the word “overextended” crops up several times. A panel of three faculty members reviewed the study and concluded that the program was “very successful, but also administratively very fragile. As far as we can determine, Bob Giegengack does everything.”
“That’s an exaggeration,” Giegengack says. “I’ve been the director of it since it was implemented in 1971, and I’ve known all the people who went through it, but we’re enormously dependent on faculty from other departments to provide coursework that [the students] get in their concentration. And other faculty in this department teach the other environmental studies courses.”
But, Giegengack adds, “What we don’t have on the premises is an heir apparent.” He points to a posterboard with snapshots—pictures from his 60th birthday party given by the department last year. “I’ll be 61 in a couple of weeks, and I’m not going to be here forever. At the moment there’s not a person here ready to say, ‘All right, Gieg, thanks. Now, I’ll do it,’ and that’s a sore point between us and the administration.”
Recently the department hired a new assistant professor, Dr. Eric Steig. “He’s very interested in this. He’s great, he’s feisty, he’s gung-ho, he’s energetic, he’s going to take on the world. We need more like that. But it would not be in his best interest for me to unload this thing on him. He has to get tenure, and probably if I’d known what I was doing in 1971, I would have said the same thing: ‘Leave me alone. I’ve got to get tenure.’” Fortunately, he adds, “It was a different era. I got tenure anyway.”
Giegengack would prefer to see the department hire a “middle-aged, senior person to take this on.” Another faculty search is under way, but it’s unclear “whether or not the administration will let us hire other than a brand-new—cheap—assistant professor, who will bring in more money than he costs.”
The administration—that is, Dean Beeman—describes himself as “very worried” about the issue of succession. “In terms of entrepreneurial energy, for the 25 years there has been an environmental studies program, Bob has carried this on his back—and all the while doing all these other ‘usual suspect’ volunteer things,” he says. “We must find additional faculty support for the environmental studies initiatives which Bob has brought into being, and we must find additional standing faculty support.”
Giegengack, he adds, would “regard that as a totally vague and insufficient response. He would say, ‘I’ll believe you when you start authorizing faculty appointments in the same number as in physics, in chemistry, in biology. I mean, come on, I’ve got eight faculty members and these guys have 36 and I’ve got 450 students and they’ve got nine, so give me a break.’”
However, given the University’s overall needs and priorities, a fundamental shift of resources toward the department of earth and environmental science “is not in the cards,” Beeman says. With obvious reluctance, he points out that, along with political science, the department ranks lowest nationally among SAS’s 25 graduate programs. “I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of the liveliness and vigor of the faculty in that department, but it’s not something you turn around overnight,” he adds. “The real challenge is to find a way to build an earth and environmental science department that is genuinely excellent in the areas in which it chooses to specialize, but which will probably remain a department smaller than many of its counterparts across the country.”
In this era of interdisciplinary study, Beeman calls the environmental studies major a model program in every respect but one. “The only thing about it not to emulate is the fact that it’s run entirely on his shoulders,” he says. “One thing we would need to do to sustain such a program after Bob left would be to find similar energy in other departments.”
“Travel, Travel and Travel”
For the moment, though, Giegengack shows no signs of slowing down. This winter and spring, he will be juggling the senior seminar on smoking and the environment, the second half of the senior-thesis class, and a research trip to the Sahara, where his current project is “the history of climate change in the oases of southwestern Egypt,” he says. By dating stone tools and other artifacts deposited in the sediment of spring beds, he and a doctoral candidate, Jennifer Smith, hope to reconstruct periods of spring flow vs. dry periods. Last year, he and Smith, “were at this one location, a big area 20 miles square, of an old spring deposit. It looks like Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone—except it’s bone dry. We’ve found places where, realistically speaking, there’s a million artifacts just everywhere, every place you go in the desert there’s artifacts,” he recalls.
“The beauty of being a geologist is that anyplace you go you can say you worked there,” Giegengack says. “This famous old person, who’s widely acknowledged to be the most important geologist in North America, was this guy named G.K. Gilbert, who was active the latter part of the last century up till about 1915. He was a very cantankerous, antisocial kind of guy, and on one occasion someone asked him ‘What would you recommend in the training of a geologist?’ And he said, ‘There are three thing that are important in the training of a geologist: Travel, travel and travel.’”
According to Giegengack, “a very substantial percentage” of geologists are attracted to the field “because you get to go places like the Rift Valley of Africa or the Himalayas or deep into the Sahara or the Antarctic—all the kinds of places where I’ve gone pretending to be working in order to see what the Earth looks like there. And the more you see, the easier it is to understand what’s going on in each new place that you visit.”
The value of accumulated experience sets geology apart from other sciences, like physics or chemistry or mathematics, “where they like to say if you haven’t made a major contribution by your 30th birthday, you’re not going to be worth a damn,” Giegengack adds. While computer modeling has made earth science much more analytical, “still, more than many professions, it’s a game at which you keep getting better, and a lot of these people just keep doing it and doing it until someone carries them out of their office on a plank.”
Asked if that is his ambition, “Hell, yes!” Giegengack responds. “When I was about 17—before I ever heard of geology—I sort of made this mental list of places I had to get to, and I’ve hit most of them just by accident. The places that are missing from my life at the moment are Alaska and Australia, but I’ll pick ’em up—at least, I hope.”