Geology Professor Tekla Harms has found the earth fascinating since ninth grade. Growing up in upstate New York, she took earth science that year, and from that moment she knew she wanted to pursue a career in geology. She spent her childhood outdoors, the highlight being a long road trip with her family to the Rocky Mountains, which is now the area of focus in her research. “We went out west and I saw the Rocky Mountains and I thought that is just spectacular. So even back then I'm the kind of oddball that knew [what I wanted to do] at a very young age, but I thought [the mountains] were cool and I wanted to know more about them and be in them… from age 11 on, it’s been all about mountains.”
Harms studies the plate tectonic processes which cause continents to collide, and the consequences of those collisions. In her own works, Harms’ research asks the following basic questions of mountains: “How did you come to be? What are you made out of? What underlies you? Why is this part up in that part down?” For the last twenty years, she has focused on the mountains in southwest Montana. “When I stand on top of a mountain and look around me the more I know geologically, the closer I feel to those mountains, the more I feel like they're part of me and I'm part of them.”
Harms focuses on Montana because “those mountains today are up because of geologically very young processes which started about a hundred million years ago and are still going on today... By coming up and being eroded they've exposed what used to be deeper parts of the crust that hold a much older hi
story. So I'm looking at that upthrown part where this older history is revealed, and that history is anywhere from 2.5 billion to 1.6 billion years old.” Harms studies not today’s mountains, but the mountains of 1.5 billion years ago.
Which brings us to the question we were all wondering about: How does geology impact today’s world?
Harms’ answer: “It doesn't. Except it does.” Ah, the glories of science.
“I'm one of those people who feels that the rising tide floats all boats, that all knowledge is good knowledge of all knowledge helps humanity in one way or another. It may be a very indirect route by which that helps, but I feel like I'm engaged in something that's significant for society and human beings, even though most human beings don't understand what I'm doing and don't see any direct connection. Probably the most direct connection would be that the right people can use what I'm figuring out about the mountains to be more strategic about looking for resources, but that's not why I do it. I do it because we need to know more about the Earth. We live on it. It's our planet and I can't think of any knowledge about the Earth that isn't significant to know.
“I do put myself in the same category as people who continue to study Shakespeare's plays. We have studied and studied and studied them, but I think they're worth studying perpetually. New insights come. If you think that studying Shakespeare again or Emily Dickinson again is of value, and I do, then I put myself in that same category.”
Harms wants more people to be exposed to geology. “Most people aren't exposed to geology most students aren’t exposed to geology in high school… so they have to be motivated to take a course and find out more about it.” Every semester, Professor Harms teaches Intro to Geology. And every semester, she sees people take it and fall in love with geology. Statistically, 1 in 10 students who take the intro class decide to pursue geology. “You don't know whether or not you want a career in geology until you take it.”
Once you are a geology major? “Have fun! If knowledge is important and significant, we will uncover the most important new heretofore not recognized knowledge by someone who's throwing themselves into what they're doing with passion and pleasure…Throw yourself into it. I had a professor a long time ago said, you know, if you're not enjoying what you do and you might as well be selling shoes. It's always in the back of my mind. ‘You might as well be selling shoes if you are doing [something you aren’t passionate about].'"
Geology is Harms’ hobby. She likes to travel, hike, and be outdoors. But for her, wondering about how a mountain was formed doesn’t interrupt the ability to appreciate the natural beauty of the earth, it deepens it. “There isn't anything about knowing about the Earth that separates me from the earth; it more deeply engages me with the earth.”
Overall, Harms encourages everyone to try out geology. “If you even have an inkling that you like planet Earth, give geology a try. One of the things that I've always enjoyed about geology is that the topic is big. It’s the Earth. Geology is very collaborative, and it brings in physics and chemistry and biology and mathematics. You really need all of those tools. So if you like science in a broad sense, you're going to bring it all together.”
Take Geology 111 next semester and deepen your understanding of the earth. Most importantly, in the words of Tekla Harms, “Believe that any field of science is open to any person. You just have to want to do it.”