Getting to know Prof. Marcia Bjornerud

Kayla Wilson

Professor Marcia Bjornerud is busy: She teaches classes in the “chronically understaffed” geology department, chairs said department and writes books. She travels to really cold places and then does research on them. To top it all off, she is the single mother of three boys, two of which are teenagers.
Bjornerud came to Lawrence in 1995 after teaching at Miami University of Ohio, where she had tenure.
She described the move as rather deliberate. “I grew up in Minnesota, so I missed the winter. And I felt disappointed with the caliber of grad students I was getting and I thought that I would rather work with smart, articulate undergraduates.”
A huge challenge she faces as a geology professor is that very few students enter college with the desire to become geologists — largely, Bjornerud thinks, because “geology is not represented in high schools.” She added that most geology students at Lawrence are culled from the introductory classes.
Professor Bjornerud’s interest in the field began in a similar way, when she developed an interest in the field after taking an introductory class in college. Despite not considering herself a “science person,” she chose geology, though not for particularly academic reasons.
“I found rocks beautiful,” she said, “and it presented the opportunity to be outside.” After making this decision while at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, she went on to get her master’s degree and doctorate at UW-Madison.
While working on her doctorate, she traveled to the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, located in the Arctic Ocean. This past summer she returned there with Lawrence alum Emily Thiem. Reaching their research site required an 18-hour boat ride on rough water.
“I got extremely ill,” Bjornerud said.
In addition to numerous polar bear visits, Bjornerud and Thiem did research to place the mountain range in Svalbard within a much larger range that extends into North America and Britain. Another aspect of this research is to determine the age of rocks in Svalbard and how these rocks fit into the global snowball earth.
Other current projects include examining a major fault line in northern Wisconsin, which caused major earthquakes in the distant past, and examining impact-crater ejecta in the Lake Superior region.
Professor Bjornerud has published a textbook, “The Blue Planet: An Introduction to Earth System Science” as well as the more accessible “Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth.”
This second book had become rather popular — it has been translated into French, Dutch, and Japanese, with a Chinese for Taiwan version pending — and the idea behind it is that humans, as residents of Earth, should know something about it.
Bjornerud sees herself as a “translator between scientists and nonscientists,” and this book was written with people who have no scientific background in mind. The philosophy of the book and her teaching is that “geology is not just about the past, but our present place on earth and our future as well.”
The popular interest seems to stem from the general population realizing this fact. “People are more aware that things can happen on a human-time scale.” Bjornerud added.
When she does have free time, Bjornerud enjoys traveling with her children to “remote and rocky places.”
“I wish I could watch TV,” she said, laughing. “I do like movies and I watch those sometimes.” In particular, she enjoys dark Ingmar Bergman films; her film viewing is facilitated by her ability to speak Swedish and Norwegian.
She does read, and when she doesn’t fall asleep doing so, she continues a developing theme by reading “brooding Scandinavian novels.” Bjornerud also swims every day and plays the piano.
As previously stated, she is a busy woman.