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UC’s Carl Brett Presented Prestigious Medal in Norway

The International Commission on Stratigraphy presents its second Digby McLaren Medal ever to Professor of Geology Carl Brett for a Lifetime of Notable Contributions.

Date: 8/3/2008
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover, photojournalist
At the 33rd International Geological Congress in Oslo, Norway, August 6 –14, University of Cincinnati Professor of Geology Carlton Brett will be presented the medal by the International Commission on Stratigraphy at a special meeting of the ICS. Brett is a key part of UC's nationally ranked paleontology program in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences.

Carl Brett
Carl Brett's expertise in stratigraphy and paleoecology has helped to make UC's paleontology program very successful.

The Digby McLaren Award recognizes a significant body of internationally important contributions to stratigraphy. The medal celebrates Digby Johns McLaren, a Canadian paleontologist, biostratigrapher and former president of the Geological Society of America, who died in 2004. When the medal was awarded for the first time in 2004, McLaren was able to attend the conference, although in failing health at the time. Carl Brett is only the second recipient of the medal.

“He was a well-known stratigrapher and an advocate of impact theory as a cause of the big extinctions,” Brett recalls. “Very early on, I remember him arguing that some extinctions might have been caused by an asteroid impact and people didn’t believe him. He was vindicated, of course.”

It is completely fitting that Carl Brett should receive the award named after someone who was known for his passion and advocacy, for those are two things that Carl brings to his teaching and research. Even in an interview intended to focus on an award he is about to receive (ahem), he is thinking about his students and his studies. And what could be a better testimonial to his dedication?

Carl Brett
Brett's father designed and crafted this cabinet by hand as a metaphor for unlocking the mysteries of nature.

Carl Brett’s influence began early: His father, Wesley Brett, was a professor of design and art at the University of New Hampshire and later at the State University College at Buffalo.

“Dad was a wonderful teacher,” Brett exclaims. Clearly that teaching bug was passed from father to son. He was a wonderful craftsman, too, as evidenced by a beautiful cabinet that Carl proudly displays in his office. An intricate set of drawers opens every which way, until one gets to the bottom drawer, which seems to be the most perplexing — and opens straight out.

“The cabinet is his metaphor about unlocking the mysteries of nature. Notice how the numbering of the drawers seems chaotic until you open them, then the code becomes clear as 1, 2 and 3 swing left; 4, 5 and 6 stay put; and 7, 8 and 9 swing right," Brett explains.

"As for the bottom drawer," he adds with a laugh, "I think my father was saying not to overthink things, some things that look most complex are really simple."

Brett’s family moved from New Hampshire to Buffalo, N.Y., when he was about 10 years old so that his father could teach at Buffalo State College.

“I came from a granite state, so I had never seen fossils,” he says. “The only clams I had ever seen were live ones at the shore. I picked up that first slab in my back yard and saw an imprint of a clam shell — I was so excited!”

When he was a senior in high school, Brett competed in the New York State science fair with a trilobite project and won, going all the way to the top and winning the top prize in the state.

No clams, but the burrows of 430-million-year-old worms.
No clams, but the burrows of 430-million-year-old worms. These specimens were found on a student field trip in Niagara Gorge.

“I decided ‘This is what I will do — I want to work on fossils and I want to teach,’” Brett says.

And teach he does. Besides teaching in the classroom, Brett is well known for teaching on location.

“I especially like to take students out in the field,” he says. He teaches an introductory freshman course mostly using field trips. “There are not many like it in the country. We use an integrative discipline approach out in the field. We look at real rock outcrops and I ask them to think ‘What does this mean?’ to put each observation in terms of a broad picture of a bigger scheme relative to sea level, climate, things like that.”

In fact, after attending the conference in Norway, Brett will come home by way of Gotland, Sweden, where he will be doing some field studies with former doctoral student Pat McLaughlin. McLaughlin received his PhD from UC in 2006 and is now working for the Wisconsin Geological Survey and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. McLaughlin, Brett and fellow Geology faculty member Warren Huff have a grant from the National Science Foundation to identify cycles of ancient global sea-level and climatic change in the Silurian Period (440 to 417 million years ago).

Brett pursues — and receives — many grants. (In fact, he received a phone call during the interview from the National Science Foundation telling him he had just received a grant. Now, back to the medal….)

Here, Carl Brett holds a beautiful fossil ammonite, a relative of the modern chambered Nautilus.
Here, Carl Brett holds a beautiful fossil ammonite, a relative of the modern chambered Nautilus.

Brett frequently uses the grants to help give students experience in the field. 

“Students are learning how to do their own research,” he says. “Field study with students is most exciting. It’s teaching and research at the same time.”

It’s clear that Carl Brett loves what he’s doing. “Cincinnati is a wonderful place — it’s a classic playground of geology,” he says. “ I cannot tell you how much I like being here. It really is all UC.”

He laughs.

“And I’m not just saying that because you’re interviewing me.”

But then the interview is over — a student is waiting.

Citation Text
Text of the Digby McLaren Medal Citation