What comes to mind when you hear the word geology?
For many of us, our minds paint a picture of rugged rocks or sediment on shores. But according to Susan Swanson, Wisconsin state geologist and director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey (WGNHS), the field is more than that.
“Geology encompasses multiple branches of science and impacts everyone's daily lives,” Swanson said in an interview with The Daily Cardinal. “The key is finding that connection.”
For Swanson, the tie to geology started when she was young. She spent her days exploring her childhood farm, from touching water to wandering fields. These lived experiences led her to earn her bachelor’s degree in geology from Gustavus Adolphus College, followed by a master’s and doctorate focused on hydrogeology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
However, Swanson stresses that a rural upbringing and higher education is not necessary to connect with our natural resources or encounter their impact.
“Experiencing nature doesn’t have to be hiking in the woods, walking through a prairie or fishing in one of Wisconsin’s pristine trout streams,” Swanson said. “You can connect with your surroundings in the middle of the city in a variety of ways.”
A key link between Madison residents and geology comes in the form of water quality, one of Swanson’s focuses. Having an understanding of the distribution of materials in the subsurface, a main goal of WGNHS, aids organizations in solving issues of clean water access.
“The survey aims to conduct applied research for objective science,” Swanson said. “The idea is that our information gets used for informed decision making in education, planning, management and outreach.”
Besides water, these decisions can regard topics of emerging contaminants, critical minerals and climate change. These are among some of geology’s most pressing questions, and Swanson looks forward to helping answer them at a statewide scale.
Furthermore, she is excited to expand WGNHS’s engagement. The organization is bringing on a communications and outreach specialist focused on connecting with environmental consultants, well drillers and other geologists — but especially citizens.
“Geosciences have a lot to do in terms of reaching other communities as well as diversifying our workforce,” Swanson said. “My advice to folks who look at our field and don’t identify with someone is please reach out. There are people more than happy to talk about their experiences, share resources and have a conversation about your role in our field.”