Preparing Students in the Geosciences for Professional Life

Elkanah A. “Ken” Babcock Ph.D. ’63 has been thinking a lot about the young geoscientists just pondering their career paths back at his alma mater.

Elkanah A. “Ken” Babcock Ph.D. ’63

Ken Babcock ’63

“My primary feeling was that I wanted to do something to support Union students in the early phases of their careers in the earth sciences–with an eye toward bolstering their ability to address modern environmental problems,” Ken explained.

Through his gift establishing an endowed fund for the Department of Geosciences, students will have much-needed assistance to cover the costs that come with conducting fieldwork. It will also enable them to attend and present at conferences, participate in professional training and gain access to important analytical equipment.

“I want Union students to go on to graduate study and careers where they make important contributions and offer solutions to global environmental challenges, most notably climate change,” he elaborated. “I also wanted to support the Geosciences Department, which is a much larger and more comprehensive earth science program, compared to when I was a student.”

Smaller though it was in the 1960s, Union still gave Ken a great start in every way. Two professors in the Geology Department, Philip Hewitt and Leo Hall, also turned out to be excellent mentors and teachers. “The training I received from them piqued my interest in the earth sciences and really got me started ,” he recalled.

“I was in a fraternity, Theta Delta Chi. It was mostly engineers and academic types at that time, and I felt very connected to the Union community and the social life because of that,” he said. “Union allowed me to grow up from kid to a young adult.”

“I started out in the five-year liberal arts engineering program, but I struggled with mathematics and took a lot of humanities courses,” he continued. “Those courses were very valuable to me because they gave me a larger perspective on things. I advocate for all students to get their shot at a liberal arts education.”

Ken spent the first part of his 35-year career teaching in the University of Alberta’s geology department. He earned tenure there, and then went on to a much lengthier career devoted to managing research organizations and programs for the province of Alberta and for Canada.

“First, I was head of the Alberta Geological Survey. The Province of Alberta was prime oil and gas land, and the industry drove Alberta’s economy,” he said. “When I moved from the survey to its parent organization, Alberta Research Council, my work expanded significantly. I then had responsibility for soil surveys, highways research, groundwater research and a program studying convective hail storms.”

Eventually, Ken was recruited by the Canadian government to head up the Geological Survey of Canada. Over his seven years in this role, he was responsible for more than 400 scientists in six offices, two summer arctic research stations and an annual research budget of $134 million. He led the Survey during its transition from primarily performing regional geologic studies to an emphasis on studying environmental issues in collaboration with provincial institutions, academia and the private sector.

It’s clear he knows what it takes to be a scientist.

“The more a student gets out on field trips to carry out field work, make observations, attend conferences and give papers, the more functional they will be as a professional,” he said. “You can’t be a good geologist just studying in the classroom and the library. It’s an observational science, so you need to get out there to do all the practical work.”

Ken earned his master’s degree in geology from Syracuse University and his Ph.D. in geology from the University of California, Riverside.

“I was fortunate to have strong academic training beginning at Union and my graduate schools and to go on to a career where I was able to teach young scientists and also make contributions to understanding the North American landmass, its resources and environmental issues. I will always be grateful for Union’s contribution to my success.”

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