The Seattle Post-Intelligencer told its readers on September 22, 2008, that University of Washington professor David Montgomery was one day into his sabbatical, wondering how to cut expenses while writing a book, when he was contacted by the MacArthur Foundation. “Montgomery, 47,” the paper said, “is one of 25 people who have been chosen to receive a $500,000 fellowship to do as they please.”

In addition to Big Dirt, Montgomery has played with Flat Earth (Photo: Scott Eklund, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
In addition to Big Dirt, Montgomery has played with Flat Earth (Photo: Scott Eklund, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

At UDub, Montgomery teaches geomorphology.  His MacArthur selection comes from his groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of how landscapes (on Mars as well as Earth) are formed, and the ways he’s communicated this to the public.  Some of his communication is through popular books, including his most recent, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations , on the threat posed by our planets rapid loss of topsoil, and a predecessor, King of Fish, showing how current practices may cause devastating declines in Pacific Northwest salmon runs, as has happened in Europe and elsewhere.

Montgomery was an undergrad at Stanford, aiming at theoretical ecology, but, encountering “hypercompetitive pre-med types,” opted for geology, where everybody “just worked together on the science.”  He came to Berkeley for his Ph.D. (’91) in geology, learning about geomorphology from Professor William Dietrich, and met his wife, Ann Bikle (M.L.A. ’91), who is now west coast education director for the National Wildlife Federation.  She’s quite pleased about his MacArthur, but doesn’t “totally buy this whole genius thing…I mean, he still gets confused about the difference between garbage and what’s recyclable.”

(Bill Dietrich, by the way, is still at Berkeley, with appointments in two departments and a division of LBNL, and working with six graduate students.  His own Ph.D., just for complete circularity, is from the University of Washington.)

(Originally published in eGrad, October 2008)


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