Earth scientist uncovers mineral mysteries and promotes academic equity
Hundreds of millions of years ago, beneath the ocean’s crust, a beautiful green stone forms. Rocks rich in iron and magnesium, altered by heat, water and pressure, turn the color of jade. Time passes, the planet’s plates shift, and ridges of the material push up along fault lines, making it accessible to humans — and their ingenuity.
Ancient Artic indigenous tribes carved bowls out of it, into which they poured seal fat to create oil lamps. It earned the name “serpentinite” for its slippery similarity to snakeskin. Modern architects, admiring its color and resemblance to marble, cut columns of the stone and installed them on the USC campus, at the USC Admission Center, where visitors can still view them today.
The columns help USC feel just a bit more like home for new faculty member Emily Cooperdock, assistant professor of Earth sciences at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Serpentinite happens to be at the center of her research. “I’ve kind of made my name on studying serpentinites,” she says.
As a Ph.D. student, she studied the metamorphic rock around the world, from ancient ocean basins high up in the Swiss Alps to the Arabian Peninsula. “Oman is really famous for having the largest slice of what was once oceanic crust that was thrust up onto the continent and is now just totally exposed,” she explains. “You can walk through miles of these mantle rocks.”
At the USC Dornsife Colleges of Letters, Arts and Sciences, her new USC Helium Lab focuses on innovative ways to date minerals, using the decay of uranium and thorium to measure the age of rocks, which produce helium during that decay (hence the lab’s name).
“In my Ph.D., I worked on figuring out new methods for dating minerals and rocks to ask questions that weren’t accessible before because we didn’t have a method to figure it out. Now, I’m setting up my lab to use these techniques to date rocks and measure chemistry, to ask big picture questions about plate tectonics: how things have moved in the past and how they change over time,” says Cooperdock.
Her work could help us better understand our planet’s geological history, unlock information about earthquakes and volcanoes and, in the future, enable us to understand the plate tectonics of planets across the solar system.
Ancient serpentinite rock graces the exterior of the USC Admission Center.
A family affair
Cooperdock spent her childhood split between an army base in Germany, where her mother worked, and New York, where her father is a professor of Earth sciences at Columbia University.
She enrolled as an undergraduate at Columbia with the intention of focusing on environmental advocacy. “I thought I wanted to be an environmental scientist and work on conservation issues.”
As she moved towards graduation, her interest in minerals grew. This burgeoning passion was first sparked by an earlier experience with AmeriCorps. She took a gap year between high school and college, clearing trails and restoring natural habitat with the Nevada Conservation Corps.
“What I found was that I was really, really enthralled by geology and being able to read the rocks. We’d go out to national parks a lot, we’d see these arches and all these really cool features, and they were super mysterious and beautiful. Now I go and I see geological processes. I can decode it all.”
In 2017, she received her Ph.D. in geological sciences from The University of Texas at Austin, then headed to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for postdoctoral work. Shortly after, she accepted her current position at USC Dornsife, moving once again. As an Army brat, she wasn’t particularly phased by this. “I’ve moved maybe every five years of my life,” she says, laughing.
By her side for this entire journey has been her husband. They met at age 17, on a summer job building hiking trails in Virginia. The two convinced their parents to allow them to take that gap year with AmeriCorps together, and they maintained a relationship while undergraduates at different universities (he at the University of Maine).
Their love of trails has remained consistent over the years. “We finally got to be in the same place after graduating from college and we hiked the Appalachian Trail together,” recounts Cooperdock. “We had to wait out flooding in Pennsylvania because of tropical storm Lee, and we got trapped in New York City because there was a tropical storm. We got ambushed by ice and snow unexpectedly and had a night where we woke up to everything being frozen.” Despite the tumultuous weather, the 2,200-mile journey was the adventure of a life time for the two.
As her career grew, so did the Cooperdock family. “I defended my Ph.D. while pregnant, moved, started a postdoc and then had my daughter a month and a half into postdoctoral research.”
The trail blazer
Cooperdock says her rock and mineral research, while fascinating, can seem disconnected from real-world problems. “If I’m being completely honest, my work is not directly relevant to everyday life. That’s always bothered me. I happen to be very passionate about this science, but I don’t want to spend my life decoupled from making the world a better place. That tripped me up for a long time and then, finally, I realized I can just do it anyway.”
Cooperdock and her husband hiking the Appalachian trail.
She’s determined to promote equity, inclusion and diversity in the Earth sciences. She helped friend and fellow Earth scientist Rachel Bernard, whom she met while a Ph.D. student, write a paper published in Nature Geosciences in 2018. It highlights the persistent lack of diversity in earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences.
“Only in the past decade have we started to approach some sort of gender parity in the fields of Earth and oceanic science, where about the same number of women as men are earning Ph.D.s. But if we look at racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, we’ve seen effectively no change in the past forty years,” Cooperdock says.
Their paper has kicked up conversation across the field. “Since writing this, I now have these discussions with a lot of people as I travel around, from graduate students, to department chairs at different universities to deans.”
As she builds her lab at USC, she’s working on ways to create a space that embraces those values. “When I send out my ads for students, I list that we’re looking for someone who’s interested in these topics scientifically. Also, that we support working on issues surrounding diversity, inclusion and equity. What I’ve found is that almost all the postdocs and Ph.D. students who contact me reference that part of the ad.
“My level of power, influence and responsibility has changed dramatically in the past two and a half years,” she said. “I’m figuring out how I can use my position to affect the most positive change.”
Her time on the Appalachian Trail taught her important lessons about perseverance, no matter what project she tackled. She encourages her students with this philosophy as they work towards their own academic goals.
“Sometimes you’re wet, you’re cold, you’re tired, you’re bored, you have that feeling of ‘I just want to sit here and I don’t want to do it anymore.’ Well, if you just sit there, then you’re going to be in the same situation in an hour and two hours and 12 hours,” she says.
“The only thing that’s worth doing when you’re feeling like that is to put one foot in front of the other and keep on going. Even if it doesn’t look great in this short view that you have, you’re moving toward this larger goal. Once you hit a hard spot, you’ve just got to keep on walking forward at whatever pace you can manage and you will get to a better place.”