Sigma Xi 125th Anniversary Interview

Gregory Pope (SX 1992) 
Interviewed by Danielle Prioleau (SX 2010)

What made you want to be a scientist or (engineer)?

Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, and Nikola Tesla were strong influences on my fascination with science.  I met Sagan twice, and Goodall once. Of course, my mom was a lifelong scientist, even if not officially so. She had constant encouragement. I’d like to thank numerous science fiction writers, as well as Star Trek, for imagination. Beyond the formative stuff, I had some great junior high and high school science teachers who inspired me: Mr. Friedrichs (Geology) and Mr. Barnhardt (Biology) at Irving Jr. High and Mr. Kenney (Physics) at Mitchell High School in Colorado Springs in particular. Notable college professors got me into a happy career track: Dr. Eve Gruntfest, Dr. Tom Huber, and Dr. Bob Larkin all at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. I should mention that Dr. Fowler (also at UCCS), bless his soul, was a hard-ass in the way that a crusty 1940s geologist can be, but he promptly corrected my errant cockiness when needed.
What has been your most fulfilling accomplishment as a scientist or (engineer) and (why)?

Traveling to interesting places.   I’ve been able to travel to China, Ireland, Portugal, Czech Republic, Canada, Mexico, and Hawaii for research, but that opens up to great experiences and social interactions. Secondarily, I enjoy finding new and curious things, I like to share these with whomever listens: students, friends, family.

What significant changes have you seen in your field during your career?

Probably the widespread application of geographic information systems and computer modeling. Seems to be everywhere now. Also, the broad and instantaneous availability of satellite images and maps, that use to cost of $5000 a pop 20 years ago, are now FREE. Google Earth is amazing.
What would you consider to be the most important advice you could offer a younger, upcoming scientist?

Learn how to write well and practice! Pay attention to math and chemistry. It’s always there. Don’t be afraid (or nonchalant) about taking more courses and expanding your limits. Don’t be afraid to talk to people in unfamiliar disciplines. I, a geographer, have benefited by talking to materials scientists, particle physicists, archaeologists, and medieval humanists. Live interdisciplinarily, though pay respect to your home discipline as well. Lastly, don’t be just a scientist. Take up something else for the other side of your brain; you’ll be better rounded and more attuned to society.

What do you think are the most pressing needs to be met in science in the coming years? What would you like to see scientific research accomplish?

To assure the general public that science is real, vital, necessary, and WILL affect their daily lives as well as those of their children and grandchildren. I can’t say what I’d like science to accomplish because it will change next month. I’ll say that I do want science to thrive and progress without hindrance.

As part of Sigma Xi’s 125th celebration, we are focusing on ethics and responsible research. Have you seen any changes in ethical conduct within your field during your career?

More awareness of human subjects research has been good. Greater public availability of data has been a two-edged sword: great that more people can see it, bad that it is misinterpreted by uneducated, and essential that errors (minor or major) should be carefully managed (impossible to avoid, important to correct with transparency).

One of Sigma Xi’s strengths is its interdisciplinary nature. How important do you think interdisciplinary collaboration will be for solving some of the challenges that lie ahead in science?

Vital! That said, it would be nice that every discipline or individual that suddenly discovers interdisciplinarity doesn’t think that they have to reinvent the wheel upon engaging. Interdisciplinary does not mean wipe the slate clean. Some of my colleagues do that.
What is your favorite part of American Scientist magazine?

I always learn something new! It covers the important advancements in the month. It also provides a decent overview of topics in the articles, weighty enough to be real, but suitable for students (or anyone else less educated in that specific topic, we’re all students ultimately).

Where would you like to see Sigma Xi in 125 years?

Still around and vital, in that I hope that the pitchforks and torches don’t scare off the smart people from becoming scientists.