The department of geological sciences is nestled on the second floor of Live Oak Hall. It is perhaps one of the smallest departments in the College of Science and Mathematics. Dr. Ali Tabidian, the chair of the department, would like to raise awareness of geology, its practical uses and geologists’ contributions to society.
According to Tabidian, along with the core courses, the department offers applied courses in earthquake studies, environmental geology and hydrogeology, among others. He counts the department and faculty as being successful in providing outstanding education. He said the proof lies in the numbers output by the department.
“About 70 percent of our graduates get hired by local private firms, and (in the recent past), CSUN was listed next to Berkeley as having one of the highest rates of geologists to pass the California state exam for professional geologists,” he said.
He said those numbers suggest the quality of the CSUN geology department’s alumni, and credits that high ranking to the fact that local firms now tend to come to CSUN first when looking for new hires. Such firms include private environmental, geology, engineering and oil companies.
This is all good news for the department, but outsiders to the department or the College of Math and Science itself may wonder what it is exactly that geologists do. Tabidian recognizes the department’s obscurity and the fact that there is such little information about the uses for acquiring an education in the field, let alone the practical use of geology in the real world.
Tabidian said geology is more than the study of rocks. By definition, it is the study of the earth and its materials. As he placed his palms on the wood table before him, Tabidian explained that geology is concerned with natural resources, which inhabit the materials all around us. He said the chairs we sit in, the tables we set our books on and the plastics we use for various things from helmets to containers which store foods all require a fundamental knowledge of geology to procure and produce.
Tabidian noted that in California, geologists are always a necessity. There is still so much vacant land to build on. Government agencies require developers to produce an environmental assessment of the land they are plotting, before they can acquire a permit to begin building. That is where geologists come in. A developer hires a geologist to draw up an Environmental Impact Report. This lists the findings of a geologist’s assessment of the land in and around the area that will be used for building. They measure a number of factors, such as the quality of the earth, sources of pollution or contamination in the area, whether the area lies on or near any fault lines, the impact of past earthquakes, and the potential for future earthquakes. Tabidian said even the history of the land use is taken into account. Geologists study various documents that reveal the past use of the land, such as whether it was an oil refinery, an industrial site, or what types of ground fertilizers have been used there.
“They make sure the land is safe, clean and appropriate to build on,” he said.
He added that many of the department’s graduates are involved in super-fund sites, or badly contaminated areas.
“Super-fund sites are the worst of the worst,” he said.
He said geologists’ goals in working with these sites are to understand the extent of contamination by characterizing how many chemicals are present and to what extent the chemicals have spread in terms of depth and strength. He said they are able to determine these things by studying the chemical concentrations in the soil and water nearby. Next, a geologist develops a remediation plan, or steps to take to clean the area.
As an example, he listed a local site around North Hollywood and Burbank, which is currently being surveyed for contaminants and spills, which can occur at any nearby gas station. He said geologists do their best, but in many cases, only 70 to 80 percent of chemicals can be eliminated.
Tabidian noted that oil companies are always in need of geologists, because they provide the manpower necessary for the exploration and estimation of oil reservoirs.
Researching earthquakes is another route a geologist can take. Dr. Gerald Simila is a professor and the only seismologist in the department. He opened the Center for Earthquake Studies in the mid-1980s. He said the center was used to call attention to geology students and earthquake studies and to help raise money for both. With funding from various agencies he studied earthquakes, such as the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Simila also made trips to Costa Rica, where there is an earthquake lab and he can put seismographs in the field and conduct research. Simila said funding the center was difficult. Grants would funnel in through CSUN, but they would not go through the center. Although the center eventually closed, Simila said graduate students continue to work with him doing research in the field and studying local earthquakes. He said he will return to Costa Rica in January with some graduate students.
Tabidian said field studies are a large part of the department’s curriculum and geology students start very early in their academic career.
“Field trips are a component for all of the classes, even the GE classes,” he said.
He added that there are frequent trips to the Edward Air Force Base, local waste and water treatment plants, and sometimes landfills and super-fund sites.
He said Simila’s work is a perfect example of the way in which students in the department are taught by faculty who remain very active in the field and in doing research.