A new kind of rock star: CSE professor's new approach to studying the earth's crust is drawing international attention

Donna Whitney has been traveling to Turkey for about 20 years now, but she is no tourist. Typically, she drives and hikes in small groups of geologists wielding sledge hammers, chisels, self-sealing plastic bags, and in recent years, global positioning system devices. She comes home with suitcases full of rocks.

To Whitney, Turkey is the new world, an exposed landscape marked with young mountain ranges. By comparison, Minnesota’s crust is old—billions of years old. Its mountains have vanished.

Mountains, earthquakes, and volcanoes are the stars of the show in Whitney’s research, many of them in the far distant past. She specializes in tectonics, those forces and movements of huge structures and processes in the earth’s crust. The foundation of her training is metamorphic petrology, the processes that change rocks exposed to heat and pressure.

"I enjoy working on questions that are pieces of a puzzle,” says Whitney. “Understanding the earth is important for studying things like climate change, natural disasters, natural resources, energy, minerals.”

If Whitney sees the earth through a different lens than most of us, she’s also a visionary among her colleagues. Over the past decade, she has developed a vision of tectonic studies that uses quantitative analysis to uncover the relationship among thermal, mechanical, and chemical processes from the deep crust to the surface. Her new approach and integration of geophysics and geochemistry is attracting earth scientists from all over the world. The resulting collaboration has built one of the top three U.S. graduate programs in integrated tectonics and has made Minnesota one of the best places to conduct field-based hard-rock geology.

Whitney’s international renown and leadership led the University to name her a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in 2010. The award, targeted toward mid-career faculty, is providing seed money for big projects that she is organizing.

For one of those projects, Whitney has assembled an interdisciplinary team of about 20 researchers from the United States, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Switzerland seeking to study the recent tectonic evolution of Turkey’s Anatolian plate with support from the National Science Foundation. It builds on dedicated effort, including many years of learning the Turkish language to aid her field work. The new project holds promise for breakthroughs in understanding how continents change over large spans of space and time.

Donna Whitney - field photo-600

A colorful geological map of Turkey stretches across the wall above Whitney’s desk in Pillsbury Hall. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, she points with a laser light to the areas of her deepest interest. One is Cappadocia. The margins of tectonic plates and massifs get the most attention. But, she says, smiling, “I focus on the middle.” She looks at evidence of old pressure points, how those points shift, and what happens over the long run.

“To understand modern earthquakes,” she says, “we need to work through time and understand the old ones.”

All around the office are rocks. A mound of moss-colored chunks of eclogite, brought back from sites around the world, perches on the desk. An array of schists and gneiss ranges along the window sill and across nearly every other flat surface.

“As a kid, I spent a lot of time climbing around on the rocks near my home on the coast of Maine, so maybe I have always loved rocks but just didn’t realize that I could do that for a living,” Whitney says. “The two biggest surprises for me in my academic career have been that I became a geologist in the first place, and that I ended up as a professor at a major research university.”

In college, Whitney intended to major in classics. Then she took a freshman geology course, and from the very first day, she knew that geology was what she wanted to do.

“I've always been interested in many things,” she says, “but geology combined everything.”

In 2007, Whitney’s research drew popular interest when she and a colleague collaborated to document that a single meteorite’s impact caused the mass extinction of dinosaurs. The study relied on a method of geochemical analysis that Whitney routinely uses in her research but that had not been applied to mass-extinction studies.

Although the impact of Whitney’s work is wide-ranging and global, she believes her impact in Minnesota is most tangible through teaching. Former students are now working in environment-related jobs and teaching at places like Normandale Community College. She has coauthored textbooks. She teaches several courses, including introductory geology and a freshman seminar, Geology and Civilization. Her mission, she says, is to convince people they can learn science and to show the relevance of geological processes that may otherwise seem remote.

Whitney met her husband, Marc Hirschmann, while they were graduate students in Seattle before she took a faculty position in North Carolina. They both came to Minnesota in 1997 and are now colleagues in the department—“I work on the crust, he works on the mantle,” she says—and both received McKnight Land-Grant Professorships early in their careers.

So far, their daughter hasn’t accompanied Whitney for field work, but that day may be coming. The year ahead includes travel and field work in France, Australia, Japan, and possibly Norway and Turkey.

Whitney enjoys the balance between teaching and research at a comprehensive university, she says, including advising graduate and undergraduate students in research. The enjoyment is mutual, according to colleagues near and far. Whitney’s intellectual power combined with an unassuming style have made her a magnetic role model for the next generation. Three of her five most recent Ph.D. graduates are now in tenure-track positions and two are postdoctoral fellows supported by the National Science Foundation.

“Her work, whether at the continent or the grain scale, is being increasingly recognized as the future of the discipline,” says department chair David Kohlstedt. “She is a complete scholar.”