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Rosemary Knight: Geophysicist, senate chair, hitchhiking advocate

Rosemary Knight, who joined the Stanford faculty in 2000 after teaching for a decade at the University of British Columbia, loved math, physics and chemistry in high school and was elated when she "discovered" geology, a field that combined all three.

L.A. Cicero Rosemary Knight portrait

'At Stanford we have amazing students who are going to go out in the world and do remarkable things. And we have the opportunity to provide an education that is going to clearly impact what they do, how they do it and what they care about,' said Faculty Senate Chair Rosemary Knight.

BY KATHLEEN J. SULLIVAN

Every summer, Rosemary Knight leaves the Farm and heads home to the Island.

Bowen Island, that is. A 20-square-mile island that lies 2 miles off the west coast of British Columbia in the waters of Howe Sound. Her 900-mile trip includes a ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay – north of Vancouver – into Snug Cove.

She lives on Bowen Island with her husband – and fellow Stanford PhD – Bob Turner, a geologist who recently completed two terms as mayor of the island.

Actually, it's a trip Knight, a professor of geophysics at Stanford, makes every other weekend and between quarters. It's her academic home base in the summer.

"Some people say to me, How do you manage to teach at Stanford and fly back and forth like that?" Knight said during a recent interview in her office on the third floor of the Mitchell Building on the west side of campus.

"I say, Bowen Island is just what I need to teach at Stanford. It's very peaceful. It's the perfect place to think."

Encouraging hitchhiking on the island

For Knight and her husband, the couple's home, which is located on 2.5 acres adjacent to an ecological reserve on Bowen Island, is a welcome haven.

"During the summer, I Skype my graduate students daily," she said. "I make some trips back to Stanford as needed. But summer is basically a time to write, think and get caught up."

In recent years, it also has been a time to promote hitchhiking through Bowen LIFT, an acronym for "Linking Islanders Through Friendly Transportation."

"All communities are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint," said Knight, who founded the group in 2010 with three other islanders who share her enthusiasm for hitchhiking on the island.

"If you live in an urban center you have public transit. If you live in a small rural community, public transit is just too expensive, because you have far more kilometers of road per person than any urban environment does. We have to encourage people to adopt ride sharing, and hitchhiking is the simplest form of ride sharing."

In early November, the island installed its first hitchhiking stops and created color-coded LIFT tags that drivers can hang on their rear-view mirror to show the neighborhood where they're headed.

"If you need a ride from the ferry, you can quickly see what neighborhood the cars are going to by looking at the tags," she said. "Then you can knock on the window and ask for a lift."

Knight said most of the island's 3,500 residents know each other – at least somewhat.

"To me, hitchhiking is the litmus test of a healthy community," she said. "Do you feel comfortable asking for a ride, and do you feel comfortable picking people up?"

Wears many hats at Stanford

At Stanford, Knight teaches undergraduates and graduate students; oversees the research of four graduate students, two postdoctoral scholars and a research assistant; and serves as a co-director of the Center for Groundwater Evaluation and Management.

For the last seven years, Knight also has been a member of the University Budget Group, which serves as an advisory group to Provost John Etchemendy on all university budget matters, with particular emphasis on the annual allocation of general funds among schools and administrative units.

She has served as chair of the Department of Geophysics, as a member of the Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) Governance Board and as chair of the Academic Council's Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy.

And this year, Knight is serving as the chair of the Faculty Senate, wielding the wooden gavel at its Thursday afternoon meetings. She said this is an exciting time to be senate chair because Stanford is evaluating its general education requirements, through a task force known as the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford.

The task force is expected to release its much-anticipated report in late January.

"One of the most important things we do as a university is to define our general education requirements," she said.

"It communicates not only to our students, but to the world, what we believe to be essential to education. It's an incredible responsibility and, at the same time, an incredible opportunity. At Stanford we have amazing students who are going to go out in the world and do remarkable things. And we have the opportunity to provide an education that is going to clearly impact what they do, how they do it and what they care about."

A childhood spent in three countries on two continents

Knight, who was born in Wales, immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 4 years old. The family – Knight has one sister – settled in Pittsburgh. They moved to Ontario, Canada, when Knight was 11.

"Every four years, my mother would pack up my sister and I and head back to Newport, in the southeastern corner of Wales for the whole summer, with my father joining us for three weeks," Knight said.

"We lived with my grandfather, who had a coal fire, no other heating, and no refrigerator, only a pantry. Until he died at 89, the routine was a walk down to the shops in the morning to buy food for the day. My grandfather kept pigeons. So I used to go down with him every morning to the pigeon coop to feed them. To do the laundry, we would put a big metal tub on top of the stove and stir the clothes. I think when I was about 16 years old, a laundromat finally arrived in the village; we all welcomed that change."

Discovering a love of math

In grammar school and high school in Fonthill in southern Ontario, Knight studied history, languages – Latin, German, French – and sciences. In high school, her math teacher was a woman; her physics teacher was a man. She said there was never any suggestion that being a girl interested in math and science was strange.

"And around the house, it was the most normal thing in the world to have an interest in math and science," she said. "My father, who had degrees in physics and metallurgy, was a research metallurgist. My mother, who graduated from high school at 15 because she did so well in her final exams, went straight to work in the engineer's department for the railway in Newport, Wales. I'm still impressed at how quickly she adds up long strings of numbers in her head."

Knight, who loved math, physics and chemistry in high school, was elated when she learned there was a field called geology that combined all three.

At Queen's University, in Kingston, Ontario, she earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in geological sciences. She continued her studies in Stanford, where she earned a PhD in geophysics in 1985. After getting her doctorate, Knight remained at Stanford for two more years, as an acting assistant professor in geophysics, while her husband, Bob Turner, completed his doctorate in geological sciences at Stanford.

In 1987, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada awarded Knight a yearlong fellowship at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. In 1988, she began teaching at the university as an assistant professor. Over the next 10 years, she rose through the ranks to professor of geophysics.

Knight returned to Stanford as a professor of geophysics in 2000.

"I just loved this university from my days as a graduate student," she said. "I always describe Stanford as having a 'generosity of spirit' that is compelling and addictive. I love what I do. I get to do what I love. Who could have a better job than that?"

Developing geophysical methods to study groundwater

The field of geophysics integrates geology, mathematics and physics in order to understand how the Earth works. Geophysicists study Earth processes through a combination of laboratory experiments, computational and theoretical modeling, remote imaging and direct observation.

"While some geophysicists use geophysical methods to explore for oil and gas, and to understand how to manage and produce our oil and gas resources, my interest is in developing the use of geophysical methods to better evaluate and manage our groundwater resources," Knight said.

"That's my real passion, figuring out how we can use geophysical methods to better understand the processes in the top 100 meters of Earth that impact the quantity and quality of our groundwater, and to better manage our freshwater resources."

Currently, Knight and her graduate students are using nuclear magnetic resonance methods to analyze how much water is in the vast Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies portions of eight states; using satellite images to analyze a groundwater aquifer in the San Luis Valley, an extensive alpine valley in Colorado and New Mexico; and using electrical methods to analyze where the water is going beneath a recharge pond managed by the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency in Watsonville, Calif.

Raising geo-literacy at Stanford – a personal quest

Every two years, Knight teaches The Water Course, a class for non-majors in which students study the quality and quantity of water in their hometown watershed.

"In the first class I always ask: When you turn on the tap at home, where does the water come from?" Knight said. "Most people don't know."

By the end of the quarter, students will have developed a simple model for analyzing the quantity of water in the watershed; played with scenarios affecting the watershed's supply of water – such as an extended drought; studied the natural systems and contaminants that can affect water quality; and considered the vast array of life – flora and fauna – that depend on that water for sustenance.

"The idea is to educate them about Earth systems, so that when they go on to work in whatever field they choose, we have geo-literate citizens of the planet who can be aware of the impact of what they do on our planet," she said.

Knight is the chair of the educational initiative Introduction to Planet Earth (I-Earth), whose goal is to offer a set of courses – in the IHUM mode – designed to explore how Earth works; to grapple with the complex interconnectedness of human systems and natural systems; and to think in new ways about practicing sustainability, managing resources and protecting the environment.

"Our long-term goal is to have Stanford recognize that knowledge in this area is essential to education and have all students to take at least one course in I-Earth," she said. "At the start of the 21st century, what can be more essential to education than an understanding of the planet on which we live?"