Professor of Geology
Dr. Michael Gibson, professor of geology at the University of Tennessee at Martin, developed an early passion for geology while growing up near the coast in Williamsburg, Va.
“I grew up near the coast; and when the sea level was higher, that area was flooded. In my backyard I could find seashells, whalebones, sharks’ teeth,” Gibson said. “Nobody had ever seen this stuff. I found it ... that was pretty much enough to hook me.”
Despite majoring in geology in college, it was a passion he never thought would lead to a career, having already established a solid job within the thriving tourism business of Williamsburg.
“After I graduated though, I found myself for about six months still reading textbooks, still doing college academic stuff … so I decided to see if I could handle graduate school,” Gibson said.
Gibson would find that an uncertain car ride to Auburn University was the best career decision he had ever made, as he eventually obtained his Ph.D at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and while doing fieldwork in West Tennessee landed his position at UT Martin.
It would seem that the stars aligned as the area surrounding the campus is prime for geologists.
“West Tennessee has a lot of ground area that spans 250-450 million years of time, so I have projects that are as recent as Reelfoot Lake, a few hundred years; and some of the oldest things I work on are about 450 million years old,” Gibson said. “It’s all here in West Tennessee. Nobody else has looked at it really seriously … not to the depth that we are.”
Because of the superior landscape, Gibson is able to continue his fieldwork in the area of paleontology and provide his geology students with experiential learning opportunities, fostering the same ideal that he learned later in life … a passion for geology can be a career.
“I try to make it real, show them real world situations, real fossils, real applications, and involve them in it. I could talk about it until it’s blue, but it’s better if I take them on a field trip,” Gibson said.
The professor organized one of these field trips through a university partnership with the new museum and educational complex, Discovery Park of America, currently being constructed in Union City. Last summer the museum covered costs for eleven geology students to travel to a Kansas excavation site where they found and excavated two Cetaceous period fish fossils and a prehistoric mosasaur remain. Later in March of 2012 several students journeyed to a facility in Colorado to prep the fossils for display.
“The mosasaur … we found evidence that he had been chewed on by a shark,” Gibson said of the fossil during the students’ prep work. “We didn’t know that until they uncovered it during this prep work in the lab.”
But that wasn’t the most significant realization of the experience.
“One of the two fish we found … we think we found a record size fish,” Gibson said. “And forever the students will be a part of the process of having discovered and gotten this thing ready.”
In addition to Discovery Park, the school is also working with Coon Creek Science Center, north of Adamsville.
“It’s got hundreds of species that are not altered, and we’ll have our own field camp,” Gibson said. “There really isn’t anything like that in the southeast.”
Gibson went on to describe the zeal some of his students have shown for the field of geology and paleontology, one going to intern in the summer at a dinosaur facility in Wyoming and will likely attend an ivy league graduate school in the fall.
“Even the students that were on the Kansas trip that graduated, they were constantly texting and calling saying, ‘What’s next?’” Gibson said, referring to the Colorado prep trip. “I give them an opportunity to see what this can do for them; and then if they’re interested, I teach them what I know, what I’ve learned and kind of point them in a direction.”
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