People, Profiles, Research, Science & environment

PBS special to feature Berkeley paleontologist

Lisa White with student

Paleontologist Lisa White, director of education and outreach at the UC Museum of Paleontology. (Photo by Diane Fenster)

How was North America formed? When did life first appear here? How did human activity transform our continent? In “Making North America,” a three-part PBS series that airs at 9 p.m. on Nov. 4, 11 and 18, UC Berkeley paleontologist Lisa White joins Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History director Kirk Johnson, the series’ host/narrator, on a few stops on his road trip through the past. In episodes 1 and 3, White shines as an expert on California geology.

Berkeley News recently talked with White, director of education and outreach at the UC Museum of Paleontology, about the California locations she introduces, what clues they hold to North America’s past and her mission to introduce youth, especially young women and minority students, to the study of scientific wonders.

Berkeley News: When did you first become interested in geology and paleontology?

Lisa White: I’ve lived in San Francisco off and on since age 5, and grew up near the California Academy of Sciences, where I’ve always enjoyed museum exhibits on rocks, minerals and fossils. As a junior at San Francisco State University, I enrolled in a geology class and was drawn to the subject matter. I received encouragement from the instructor to pursue geology as a major.

After that, on an internship at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, my love of and expertise in geology and paleontology grew stronger from the mentoring I received from professional geoscientists. In my third summer interning at the USGS, I began working on a project involving deep marine sediments and microfossils. I was hooked on fossils as a geological specialty, and in graduate school at UC Santa Cruz, I specialized in diatom microfossils and their applications to dating deep marine rock sequences around the Pacific Rim and interpreting ancient environments.

I’m also an alumna of San Francisco State, where my parents met in the 1950s, and I was a member of the geosciences department faculty from 1990 to 2012.


In the PBS series, White takes viewers to Tomales Bay and a Sierra gold mine. (UC Berkeley photos by Josephine Wu)

How did your participation in the Nova special come about?

Kirk Johnson from the Smithsonian recommended that I appear in the segments focused on California geology. I’ve done interviews before, been featured in local write-ups on science in the Bay Area, but I haven’t done much TV work. I was a “way cool scientist” on the “Bill Nye, the Science Guy” TV show in the early 1990s. The crew used a range of lighting tricks to make my micropaleontology lab at San Francisco State look hip and fun, like a nightclub. I welcome opportunities to share my enthusiasm for earth science and paleontology with the public, and think communicating the nature of science to the public is an important part of my job.

Johnson asked you to scope out two locations for “Making North America.” Which did you choose, and why?

The crew wanted to film along the San Andreas Fault in the Bay Area as part of the series’ emphasis on mountain building and active plate tectonic margin settings. I wanted to find a site where the landscape features provide evidence of the fault and also are pretty easy to shoot, so I chose Tomales Bay, a narrow inlet of the Pacific Ocean forming along a submerged section of the fault in rural west Marin County, and it was ideal.

I also am interviewed at the Gold Bug Mine, a historic gold mine in the Sierra foothills. The production crew selected it for its accessibility — it remains open to the public — and because gold veins and flakes of gold can be easily seen in the rocks. The formation of gold involves geological processes occurring deep within the earth and over millions of years. Because the discovery of gold in California is such an important part of the state’s history, bringing the public to an area where gold was first discovered helps people make a connection to natural resources.

The first time you saw your scenes, what was your reaction?

It’s always a surprise to see and hear oneself on film! My reaction was, “Do I really sound like that?” Sometimes my voice sounds higher-pitched than I realize, other times it sounds deeper. I have a pretty casual way of talking about science, and don’t always use many technical terms, so I sometimes worry about not sounding scientific enough. Sometimes we were reading from a basic script, but we ad-libbed, too.

Which of the sites was the most challenging to film, and why?

man and woman

At a Sierra foothills gold mine, White poses with Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and narrator of “Making North America.” (Photo courtesy of Lisa White)

Getting the right shoot in a confining space like Gold Bug Mine was tricky for the crew, and some of the rock features — the mineral veins and gold seams — can be subtle to the untrained eye, so trying to get the right shots of those features, and then speak about their significance for a lay audience, was tough. But we did fine. In addition, the sound and acoustics in the mine were trying, too. My voice sounded an octave or two lower than it typically is.

Explain a little about your motivation to come to UC Berkeley to do more outreach to young people.

At San Francisco State, I was professor of geosciences and associate dean of the College of Science and Engineering. I also was the principal investigator on a number of grants that seek to broaden diversity in geoscience and support the professional development of science teachers. I enjoyed being a professor who taught paleontology, historical geology and oceanography for majors and non-majors, and I valued the administrative experience I gained through six years as associate dean. My professional passions lie with engaging the broader communities in science and communicating science more effectively with the public. I feel I can do that more effectively from the platform that Berkeley and the UC Museum of Paleontology provide.

two women

White and UC Berkeley senior Armita Manafzadeh, one of the many students White mentors, examine California’s state fossil, the saber-tooth cat, or Smilodon fatalis.

What are you doing specifically to interest underrepresented minority students in science?

One example is my work since 2001 as principal investigator on Project METALS (Minority Education through Traveling and Learning in the Sciences), a collaboration between Berkeley, the University of New Orleans and the University of Texas at El Paso. It raises high school students’ awareness about geology and paleontology through their exposure to earth science at outdoor field sites where the rocks and fossils are found. I’m seeking to grow and expand high school programs like this as education and outreach director at the UC Museum of Paleontology.

I also enjoy mentoring Berkeley undergraduates who work on a range of collections-based projects and answering their questions about preparing for graduate school and career options related to paleontology. Nationally, I’m involved in professional organizations like the Geological Society of America, which has mentoring programs for women and minorities in the field of geoscience.

Women and minorities continue to be underrepresented in paleontology, but Berkeley is fortunate to have so many women staff and graduate students at the museum. Through ongoing efforts to expose students to science at an early age, I’m hoping we can change the national trend.

What do you hope we’ll gain from watching “Making North America”?

I hope viewers will be inspired to learn more about the geological history of North America. And I hope they’ll gain more appreciation for how scientists know what we know — what clues and evidence support the knowledge we have and the interpretations we make about earth history.

Geology is dynamic and often defined by big events that occurred in the deep past. “Making North America” brings the past to the present by showing some of the continent’s most dramatic landscapes. By explaining and illustrating their history and origin — piece by piece — viewers might gain an entirely different perspective on the earth.