A conversation with Dean Stephan Graham
“I’ve always been interested in what’s over the next hill.”
The Stanford Earth Insider sat down with Steve Graham, who became dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences on November 2, 2017, to see what is on his mind as he settles into his new role. An expert on the origins, evolution, and energy resources of sedimentary basins, he has taught and mentored hundreds of aspiring geologists and engineers over his 37-year career at Stanford. Graham earned his MS and PhD degrees from the school; as dean, he oversees 65 faculty and 550 students who are focused on a far broader array of Earth-related challenges—from climate change and food security to disaster risks and energy systems analysis—than when he first arrived.
How are you approaching the first year of your deanship?
I’ve had to hit the ground in full stride, partly because my start date coincided exactly with the beginning of the university’s long range planning process. As a member of the executive cabinet, I find myself right in the middle of it, so that has taken a lot of my time so far. Beyond that, I haven't come to this position with a particularly set agenda. I'm taking my time getting up to speed and trying to assess the directions I want to go.
I've been attending faculty meetings in each of the departments and programs to learn more about their concerns and aspirations. I’m also planning to reinstate something that [former dean] Lynn Orr started years ago: one on one conversations with each faculty member. He called them Fireside Chats. The goal is for me to understand what they're doing and open up communication channels. I also want to hear from students, so I am meeting with the Graduate Student Advisory Council as a start.
What are you hearing from alumni?
I have received a tremendous outpouring of support from alumni—both via email and at events like our reception at the meeting of the Geological Society of America in Seattle. I really look forward to talking in more depth with alumni and learning more about their perceptions of the school, something I hope to accomplish by attending as many of the high-profile professional society meetings as I can and also by arranging meetings or events when I travel to areas where many of our alumni live.
How have your many positions within the school—as a grad student, alumnus, faculty member, department chair, and associate dean—prepared you for this role?
I don't want to carry prejudice from my time as a graduate student into this role because it was a long time ago and it may not be relevant. But time in residence obviously counts for something. If nothing else, it speaks to how much I love the school. I want to do well for it and by it. That's the most important thing.
More specifically, my time as associate dean was hugely valuable because I served on various university committees and saw how the school fit into the broader university. And as a department chair, I got a sense of the tensions and synergies between departments and the school. All of that experience is valuable in some respect.
How has the school changed since you were a student here?
Aside from new technologies, the biggest change is that people are thinking more in terms of complex systems. This is true for the sciences in general. Everything used to be much more disciplinary, which limits opportunities for greater understanding, insight, and collaboration. Now we're looking at Earth-related problems in a much more inclusive, holistic way. If you're an energy geoscientist, for instance, you recognize that you have to think about environmental impact.
When I was a grad student, this was a small place. And, even though it was small, it was pretty siloed. For example, [geophysics professor] Mark Zoback and I overlapped considerably as grad students, but I don't think we knew each other. Obviously, the school is way bigger now and we cover more disciplines, but it is much easier for students to move laterally within the school. People who are working on, say, aspects of fluid flow in porous media, have people to talk to in all four departments [Earth system science, energy resources engineering, geological sciences, and geophysics].
With the school’s expansion into new areas of expertise and fewer barriers to collaboration, our faculty and students also have incredible new opportunities for interdisciplinary discovery and problem solving. As dean, I will be working hard to ensure that we remain strong across this expanded range of inquiry while continuing to nurture our traditional strengths and the depth of disciplinary expertise we have always been known for.
Things have also changed in a couple of important ways that are specific to the undergraduate experience. For one thing, students broadly interested in Earth have many more options. They can still specialize in a very focused way in one of our departmental majors or they can major in Earth Systems, which opens the door to all kinds of different things. Our Earth Systems program is 25 years old now, but remains an important and popular innovation. The other important change is that the university provides undergraduates with many, many more research opportunities than it used to.
What can you tell us about the university’s long range plan and your role in it?
The university sent out a call last year for faculty, students, staff, and alumni to submit ideas on any subject regarding the future of the university. More than 2,800 proposals came in on every subject you can imagine.
Committees composed of faculty, students, and staff—including from our school—analyzed and grouped the proposals. On November 1, they handed all this over to the executive cabinet, which includes the deans among others, to analyze and craft a plan for the university for the next decade or two—ideally, by sometime this spring. Sustainability—in just about every sense of the word—came up in many of the proposals. This is right in our wheelhouse, and I'm excited to be involved in the ongoing deliberations.
Place-based learning has also come up a lot, and some of our programs have been held up as examples, particularly the Wrigley Field Program in Hawaii. Field programs—and hands-on learning in general—have always been our strong suit, and I think our aspiration to do more of that coincides with a growing emphasis on experiential learning at Stanford.
We are in the process of expanding the school’s field opportunities to make them even more available to non-majors in the context of our “80x20” goal: By 2020, we hope to be touching 80 percent of Stanford undergraduates in some way. It's an ambitious but not unreasonable goal and it's very important. Society needs citizens who understand issues like sustainability, resources, and pollution—people who have literacy about our planet.
What are you most excited about in this new role?
Honestly, I am excited about the idea of enhancing the sense of community here in the school, including through some of the efforts I have mentioned. That might be viewed as rather pedestrian, but I think it's exciting and important.
The long range planning process is also going to be very exciting; it’s something of a new start, with a new university president and provost. Once that is completed, I am hoping to turn again to the school’s need for a new building. Our need for a modern building, one that has the capacity to deal with modern labs and so forth, hasn't gone away. It is increasingly becoming an issue, especially with regard to further expansion, and it's an important priority for me.
How did you become interested in geology?
As a young child, I was very close to my great-uncle, who was a petroleum geologist in Indiana. As I understand it, he drilled six dry holes and was on the verge of losing his house when he hit oil with the seventh well. He built a successful company from there.
In the early days of his business, when I was around eight years old, my mom let me go out on the drilling rig with him. I still remember the excitement. It's like a detective story: You posit there's something there, then test to see if your idea's been successful.
I'd end up sleeping in the back of his car the night before he would test a new well. The suspense of that moment was very exciting for a little kid and I caught the fever for the discovery process. He started giving me crystals and fossils, too, and I have never wanted to be anything other than a geologist since that age. It has always been the excitement of seeing something new and unknown, which is why I tend to work in frontier areas like Alaska, Mongolia, and Patagonia, and why I’ve worked in 20 different provinces in China. I've always been interested in what's over the next hill.
What might people be surprised to learn about you?
Perhaps my most surprising claim to fame is that, in 1995, I discovered the oldest dinosaur fossil ever found to that point in Mongolia—the first from the Jurassic age. I was on a geology study—not looking for dinosaurs—and I happened upon bones belonging to the right foot of a type of a sauropod, similar to a diplodocus or apatosaurus. That was the first and only time I have ever been first author on a dinosaur paper.
How about something personal? Don’t you have a miniature donkey?
Oh yeah. He’s Trouble. That’s his name—Trouble. We used to have horses, but we’re down to one now, so he keeps her company. He’s got quite a personality—if he could talk, he would sound like the donkey in Shrek.