Brandon Curry, a principal research scientist-Quaternary geology and head of the Quaternary and Engineering Geology section at the Illinois State Geological Survey, is the recipient of the Prairie Research Institute’s 2020 Research Scientist’s Career Achievement Award.
Curry has been with ISGS since 1985. His work has ranged from environmental and societal issues to novel research on Quaternary (glacial-interglacial) deposits, landforms, paleoecology, and paleoclimate. Among his notable research contributions are significant improvements in last glacial chronology estimations in the Midwest, based on tundra plant macrofossils in ice-walled lakes, most of which were previously not recognized. His work with Quaternary ostracodes in the Midwest has led to better estimates of paleoclimate and paleoenvironments over the past 150,000 years. He has an extensive list of peer-reviewed publications and has been involved in the development of many maps.
“Brandon's enthusiasm and energy in conducting Quaternary geological research are contagious,” wrote nominator David Grimley, a fellow ISGS Quaternary geologist. “His experienced insights and commentary for students and staff have been, and still are, vitally important.”
In addition to his ISGS role, Curry is an adjunct professor of geology at the University of Illinois, Northern Illinois University, and the University of Toledo (Ohio). He has trained and mentored many undergraduate and graduate students who have gone on to geological careers as consultants, in government, and in academia.
Curry recently answered a few questions about his work.
What do you enjoy most about your job at ISGS?
I am grateful for the collaborative work environment of the Prairie Research Institute that fosters investigation of the natural sciences. Our work informs other scientists and the public about the use of land and water, providing details of their history and function to enable smart stewardship of these resources.
Your career at ISGS has spanned four decades (the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s). How has your field changed and evolved in that time?
The biggest game changers that come to mind immediately are age-dating technology, and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). For dating techniques, accelerator mass spectrometry of radiocarbon became “mainstream” relatively early in my career. Fine-tuning calibration of radiocarbon to calendar years permits more precise geohistory from about 40,000 years ago to the present. New methods have developed during my tenure, and a continue to improve, such as optically stimulated luminescence.
LiDAR would involve a lecture to explain, but the upshot is that by letting a computer reconstruct the elevation of the earth’s surface using LiDAR data, we can examine in minute detail elevational changes to the point where you can see subtle features such as field furrows. With LiDAR, we see on our computer screens the Earth’s surface as we simply haven’t imagined it before, including things we thought we knew from previous landform analyses.
You are an adjunct professor and have mentored many students over the years. What would you say to anyone considering studying and pursuing a career in geology?
I would recommend that someone thinking about a career in geology take a field trip. If you find yourself wanting to learn more about the origin and architecture of landscapes and their evolution over time, you are on your way getting hooked! The challenge as you go further in the field is improving your ability to explain your ideas to friends in conversations, as well as on paper to a teacher. Also, you should be cool with and embrace math, physics, and chemistry, and learn how these help us understand the earth.
What things do you wish more people knew about your field, or what are the misconceptions that you think people may have about your area of expertise?
This is a tough question to answer during a pandemic. From the basic brand of being a “scientist”, I am affronted by large groups of people who don’t take scientists seriously. When we scientists come up with a theory or hypothesis, it's our best guess or assessment of what we can detect or surmise using sophisticated sensors, including our own eyes. Many topics that fall into a scientist’s wheelhouse should be everyone’s concern, such as climate change.
How do you feel about receiving the Career Achievement Award?
It’s humbling. There are many others who are as or more deserving, and I trust their time will come in the following years. I am thankful for the opportunities to travel and collaborate with colleagues at the Illinois State Geological Survey, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and elsewhere. To these friends, I thank you.