A renowned geologist traces his career path back to summer programs in Cullowhee

Jeffrey Ryan ’83 first came to WCU when he was in elementary school and lived in Raleigh. For several summers, Ryan attended The Cullowhee Experience, a summer enrichment program for academically gifted youngsters. Years later, his experience with “the Experience” helped him make an important decision.

“When the time came to go to college, WCU was a campus I already knew. It was far enough away from home to make me feel like I was getting out into the world,” he said. “I decided to come back.”

Jeffrey Ryan ’83 conducts geological
field research at Mount Hood, Ore.

As a freshman, Ryan’s interests leaned toward science and creative writing. He wrote short stories and became editor of the student literary magazine. But in the classroom, it was geology that won him over.

Led by professor Steve Yurkovich, Ryan and his classmates went on field excursions out and about in the mountains. Sometimes it seemed they also were going inside, around and under them. It was a geological journey to the center of the earth, of sorts, by way of the Southern Appalachians. “We went to quarries and old copper mines. There were all kinds of resources to investigate in the region. We were always rooting around for rocks,” he said.

The rock-hounding of his college days was a stepping-stone to his life’s work. He graduated from WCU with high honors, earned a doctorate from Columbia University, and landed a post-doctoral fellowship at the prestigious Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Afterwards, he was quickly hired by the University of South Florida and has been there since. One of the USF’s top researchers, he also chairs the geology department.

“Jeff is an extraordinary person,” said Yurkovich.  “As a student, he was self-motivated and always exceptional.”

Ryan has won many accolades for his excellent teaching, including Florida Professor of the Year. He brings his undergraduate and graduate students together to work as teams in the lab, and promotes science and science education at every opportunity. His long-standing association with Yurkovich and other WCU geology professors has benefited many WCU students invited to Tampa to experience the tools, equipment and technologies of a major research lab.

Geologists seek to understand Earth’s internal forces that create earthquakes, build mountains or produce volcanoes. Ryan’s work focuses on what happens miles below the surface to trigger volcanic eruptions, the geochemistry of mantle rocks and what happens at subduction zones, those areas where tectonic plates converge. He also studies the formation of lead, gold, silver, copper and zinc. His research has received more than $2.2 million in grants, most of it from the National Science Foundation.

Today, the recipient of the WCU Alumni Association’s 2009 Academic Achievement Award who once clambered around the local mountainsides is being called much farther afield. In the past year alone, his research has taken him to Montana, Utah, Oregon, Switzerland, Romania, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand.